Visual Histories: Trade

by Timothy Don

The Syndics of the Wine Traders Guild of Amsterdam, by Ferdinand Bol, c. 1660.

In my capacity as art editor at Lapham’s Quarterly, I’ve spent the last six weeks researching images for our upcoming issue on TRADE. It was not a thematic that excited me when I started, I have to admit—I’m a curator and a writer, not a businessman or an economist, dammit! But after looking at more than 10,000 paintings, sculptures, and photographs that limn the human urge to exchange goods, a faint thrill and a growing sense of despair have both begun to take root.I’ve peered into the faces of Ferdinand Bol’s Syndics of the Wine Traders Guild of Amsterdam from 1660, looking for signs of avarice, prudence, and rectitude.

Terracotta figurine of a camel carrying transport amphorae, 3rd century, Roman. Courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

I’ve turned in my hands a 3rd century terracotta figurine of a camel carrying transport amphora (a secular, material expression of the nativity scene I just disassembled with my daughter). I’ve flipped through Alex Majoli’s 1999 series of photographs of the Roque Santeiro in Angola, the largest open-air market in Africa. According to Alex, the Roque attracts roughly one million people per day, and its vendors sell anything and everything: food, weapons, drugs, even people. It hosts church services and marriages. It shelters war cripples, homeless refugees, police, prostitutes, and the insane. Babies are born and the dead are interred within and beneath its stalls. At this “market of the damned,” Hieronymus Bosch’s 15th century visions of hell have been fully realized by the predations of 20th century capitalism.

The Roque Santeiro market, Angola, 1999. Photograph by Alex Majoli.

A line and a theme have emerged through the iconography I’ve been following: to trade is human. We buy and we sell; we exchange, barter, haggle, negotiate, promise, vouchsafe, con, steal, acquire, and unload. It’s what we do; it’s what we’ve always done. The allure of trade lies not so much in the goods amassed as in the frisson of exchange: the contact with another human being that occurs in the act of trade. The slipping-ness from one to another. The handshake, the greased palm, the unctuous smile. The flow, the liquidity. The intimate bond that is established between two people when they make a deal. To trade is human. It’s dirty and oily and sexy.

And yet, underneath trade, there is something else going on. Something very faint, something very fragile, something that only adds to the excitement and the value of the goods on the table, is put at risk each time a trade is made. This something is trust. Read more »

The vast and mysterious real numbers

by Jonathan Kujawa

What is a number? Everyone who takes high school math learns about the real numbers. These are our old friends on the number line. You can hardly do classical algebra or geometry without them. We use the real numbers so often we find them comfortable and familiar. After all, they are just numbers you write as a (possibly infinite) decimal. They may be long to write, but numbers like


don’t worry us.

5/5 of a goat.

Let’s back up a step or two. The integers (that is, the counting numbers and their negatives: 0,1,-1,2,-2,3,-3,,…) aren’t very controversial [1]. We can all agree what it means to have 7 goats, no goats, or that I have -3 goats when I owe my neighbor 3 goats. The rational numbers aren’t too bad, either. After all, to have 7/5 of a hamburger is to slice two burgers into 5 equal pieces each and to take seven of the pieces. And, again, to have -8/3 of a burger is to owe someone two burgers plus 2/3 of a third [2].

The integers and rationals are down to earth, as numbers go. However, it doesn’t take very long before you realize you need more numbers. One day in geometry class you draw a one-by-one square, notice you can draw a straight line which connects the opposite corners, and that line self-evidently has a length. Whatever that length is, it is an honest-to-goodness number (call it D) which exists in nature. At some point, you notice two one-by-one squares can be cut along the diagonal and reassembled into a single, larger square with side length D. On the one hand, the area of this new square is D². On the other hand, it is the area of the two smaller squares taken together. That is, D²=2. The Pythagoreans already knew 2600 years ago there is no rational number whose square equals two. The apocryphal story is the existence of non-rational numbers was a closely held secret for the Pythagoreans, worthy of murder. Nowadays we tell it to school children. So much for the innocence of youth. Read more »

Divulging Nature

by Brooks Riley

Roman Vishniac’s thumb.

Sometime in the late Fifties, Roman Vishniac, a pioneer of photomicrography, picked up a knife, cut a thick horizontal slice of skin from his own thumb and photographed it under a microscope using polarized light. The resulting image succeeded on two levels: the scientific parsing of human skin’s rich textural terrain; and the chromatic revelation of natural beauty at a visual scale heretofore inaccessible. By subjecting himself to that brief ouch, he was able to expose the intricacies of the body’s largest organ and dramatize a new frontier of optical exploration that would grow exponentially as the technology became more sophisticated. Since then, the dual roles of photomicrography—contributing to scientific investigation, and unveiling eye-popping, artistic devils in the details–has expanded, yielding hidden treasures of a microcosmic universe so populous and dense that the planetary universe of outer space seems paltry by comparison. In some ways this universe of the tiny is more forthcoming than outer space with its endless stretches of nothingness between the orbs.

It is almost impossible to contemplate infinity without feeling infinitesimal. The paradoxical effect of trying to wrap our brains around something as vast as the universe is the realization that we will always be tinier than the tiniest subatomic particle. Compare it to a single cell inside our own bodies trying to fathom the infinity of its host. Infinity makes us giddy.

Mite on the back of a honeybee by Antoine Franck.

The reach for infinity usually moves toward outer space and all those unimaginable yonders out there. But what of the other direction, the ‘infinitesimals’ around and under us, so much smaller than our own miniscule selves? What to make of the recently estimated 23 billion tons of microscopic life at ground level and below our feet, packed together like canned sardines in neighborly proximity to us? This macrograph of a mite on a honey bee isn’t a spectacular image, but it does suggest reverse infinity: Is there a mite on the mite? If so, is there a mite on that mite? And so on. Read more »

You Can’t Possibly Believe That

by Tim Sommers

Old joke. A Calvinist preacher, a firm believer in predestination, is moving his family further west. Seeing him packing his wagon, a neighbor stops to say goodbye. The preacher brings one last item out of his house, a shotgun, and the neighbor asks, “What good is that going to do you? If you get attacked by a bear, and it’s your time to go, that won’t help.” The preacher responds, “What if I get attacked by a bear and it’s the bear’s time to go?”

Predestination is not the same thing as lack of free will (according to Calvinists at least), but, maybe, close enough. On a recent episode of This American Life (episode 662) producer David Kestenbaum made his case against free will like this. “[T]here are only four basic forces in the world – gravity, electromagnetism, and two others, the strong force and the weak force…Our understanding of these forces has been tested and explored again and again…These four forces explain how atoms stick together, how every bit of matter moves, and yes, even the bits of matter that make up us and our brains. We are just collections of atoms. I don’t see how those atoms can truly have any will. When you think you’re deciding, I’m going to wear this shirt today, you can’t really have decided otherwise. We are subject to the forces of nature, not one of them.”

Very convincing all on its own. (I especially like that last line. “We are subject to the forces of nature, not one of them.”) But later on in the show Kestenbaum got some back-up from neuroscientist, and official Genius (Grant Recipient), Robert Sapolsky. Here he is talking about the movement of an eyebrow. “So, let’s simplify it. A muscle did something. Meaning a neuron in your motor cortex commanded your muscle to do that. That neuron fired only because it got inputs from umpteen other neurons milliseconds before. And those neurons only fired because they got inputs milliseconds before and back and back and back. Show me one neuron anywhere in this pathway that, from out of nowhere, decided to say something that activated in ways that are not explained by the laws of the physical universe, and ions, and channels, and all that sort of stuff. Show me one neuron that has some cellular semblance of free will. And there is no such neuron.”

Something has gone wrong here. Did you catch it? I’ll come back to it in a bit, but first I want to talk, not about a reason to believe in free will, but about why you can’t possibly believe that free will (in some form or other) doesn’t exist. Read more »

The Locked Doors of Delhi

by Shadab Zeest Hashmi

“I’m on a roadside perch,” writes Ghalib in a letter, “lounging on a takht, enjoying the sunshine, writing this letter. The weather is cold…,” he continues, as he does in most letters, with a ticklish observation or a humble admission ending on a philosophical note, a comment tinged with great sadness or a remark of wild irreverence fastened to a mystic moment. These are fragments recognized in Urdu as literary gems because they were penned by a genius, but to those of us hungry for the short-lived world that shaped classical Urdu, those distanced from that world in time and place, Ghalib’s letters chronicle what is arguably the height of Urdu’s efflorescence as well as its most critical transitions as an elite culture that found itself wedged between empires (the Mughal and the British), and eventually, many decades after Ghalib’s death, between two countries (Pakistan and India).

I write this on a winter day in California. It is Mirza’s two hundred and twenty first birth anniversary. There is a nip in the air and the sunlight is filtered through my carob tree; my notes, scribbled in Nastaliq, are dappled and illuminated by sudden flashes as the branches sway. Isn’t Ghalib’s Delhi a labyrinth of dappled alleys, a dream leaping from rooftop to rooftop, getting a stealthy taste of the saffron-cream dessert known to be prepared here under a full moon and left overnight to set in winter dew— a heady mix of in-the moment-sensations that vivify memory— rising with the city’s nimble frangipani, its famed red sandstone and marble minarets, returning reliably like its homing pigeons. Read more »

Now What (or, Scenes from the Black Hills Turned White)

by Lexi Lerner

I call on the evening of the winter solstice. Two mornings later, I find myself boarding a plane to the Black Hills of South Dakota, soon to turn white from a Christmas blizzard. I have never experienced these mountains or this state before. But I have experienced many blizzards, the first of which occurred the night I was born.

Well, it’s been building up inside of me
For – oh, I don’t know how long

“I’m disappointed,” I explain in a SoHo café two weeks prior. “I thought I could find what I was looking for – maybe not in Jersey, but at least in New York. The people, the questions. But we are constantly out of phase. The people I seek don’t want to be sought by me, and vice versa. There’s nothing I can do. It just isn’t here.”

The boy listening to me looks startled, and a bit sad. Or worried? I glance down at the table and realize my tea had jumped from my clenched fists. The one-table radius around us has no audible conversation.

“Sorry,” I say.

The waitress comes over. “Would you like anything else?”

The first billboard that greets you as you leave the eight-gate airport has a cartoon diplodocus on it, featuring a generous view of its behind. A speech bubble says: “Welcome to Rapid City! Now what?”

I don’t know why, but I keep thinking
Something’s bound to go wrong

In his book Sonic Alchemy, David Howard writes that “Don’t Worry Baby” – unlike its Beach Boys A-side “I Get Around” and other emblematic California Sound hits – “suggested something entirely more pensive and even slightly dark underneath its pristine façade.”

We exit the airport on Terminal Road. The cabin itself, a good hour away, is on Last Chance Trail. Read more »

Political Agendas in the Anti-Vaccination Discourse

by Jalees Rehman

Vaccines exemplify the success of modern medicine: Scientific insights into the inner workings of the immune system were leveraged to develop vaccines which have been administered to billions of humans world-wide and resulted in the eradication or near-eradication of many life-threatening diseases. Most vaccinations have minimal side effects, are cost-effective and there is a strong consensus among healthcare providers all over the world about the importance of routine vaccination against diseases such as polio, measles and diphtheria. Despite these extraordinary successes of global vaccination policies, there is a still a strong anti-vaccination movement which has gained more traction in recent years by using online platforms. To scientists and physicians, the resilience of the anti-vaccination movement often comes as a surprise because their claims are routinely debunked by research. The infamous study which attempted to link the administration of the measles, mumps, and rubella (MMR) vaccine to autism was retracted by the medical journal Lancet in 2010. The claim that healthcare providers promote administration of vaccines as a means of generating profits for their clinical practices have also been disproven because the reimbursements for vaccinations by health insurances are lower than the actual costs of administering the vaccines, i.e. healthcare providers in the United States may be losing money on vaccinations.

If the efficacy and safety data on vaccinations are so robust and if many of the anti-vaccination claims have been disproven by research, why do so many people continue to oppose it? One approach to analyze and interpret the beliefs of the anti-vaccination movement is to place it into the context of social and political movements because the opposition to vaccination may not be primarily based on an analysis of scientific data but instead represents an ideological stance. Read more »

An Obituary

by Nickolas Calabrese

Robert Morris died last month on November 28th at the ripe old age of 87. Very ripe indeed. If he was a fig he’d have been all jammy inside, dribbling the honeyed sugars of maturation. But he’s dead, and I’m glad he’s dead. Let me step back before explaining why – this isn’t an exposition, this is an obituary; I’m grieving; this is diffused ramblings at a podium. I went to Hunter College for undergraduate philosophy and flirted with the art department quite a bit. Morris’ legacy loomed large and hard over the department as he had both attended grad school and taught there. Any course in the art department was bound to encounter his work or his writings. I must have been assigned “Notes on Sculpture” a dozen times. Morris was, and still is, a great artist. His was a scholarly brand of art; neither annoying like Joseph Kosuth, nor dehydrated like Hans Haacke. No, Morris was a genuine student of art and thought. He studied its history, wrote about it emphatically, and contributed to its heritage. It is not difficult to view him as one of the several pillars that contemporary art stands upon today, and feel indebted to his legacy. One of his first well regarded artworks was Box for Standing, which was a handmade wooden box roughly the size of a coffin that fit Morris neatly. How fitting then, that his exit from this life should perhaps be in a box bespoke for his corpse, roughly the same size as his original Box? His expiration has a funny effect on that work, Box for Standing, where his actual death gives the work one last veneer of meaning to stack upon all the other layers. One might have seen similarity between the Box for Standing and funerary vessels before Morris died, but afterward it would be reckless not to see it. The work goes from being a sparse theatrical gesture contained in minimal sculpture, to something like a pragmatic Quaker coffin, verging on bleak humor. Read more »

Renewed Labour

Barnaby Raine at n+1:

JOHN MCDONNELL IS CAGEY when an interviewer asks, “Capitalisminherently wrong? Or are you just the man to fix it?” It says something that the question is even posed. Just a decade ago McDonnell was the parliamentary spokesperson for picket lines and antiwar meetings, the champion of antique causes in Blair’s Britain. He was the Labour MP who welcomed the financial crash with the words, “I’m a Marxist.... I’ve been waiting for this for a generation.” In Who’s Who he listed his hobby as “fomenting the overthrow of capitalism.” Elsewhere he named Lenin and Trotsky among his heroes.

Now he is shadow chancellor of the Exchequer, the Labour Party’s candidate to control Britain’s money, andeven more than his old friend Jeremy Corbyna symbol of Labour’s leftward shift. He won exhilarated applause from many long-suffering party members when he described his economic vision to their annual conference in 2016: “You no longer have to whisper its name; it’s called socialism.”

more here.

Mantegna and Bellini

T.J. Clark at the LRB:

Bellini was probably even younger than Mantegna when he first saw his new relative’s Presentation of Christ in the Temple – art historians will never stop worrying about his exact birthdate. (He may have been Jacopo Bellini’s illegitimate son. Records are scarce. Mantegna was the child of a carpenter, from a very ordinary village. His birthdate is also unknown.) When Bellini turned back to The Presentation of Christ in the Temple twenty years later he was the master of a new style, and dialogue with Mantegna had established itself as an aspect of that mastery – his great Agony in the Garden, done in response to a panel by his brother-in-law, lay behind him. It is hard, therefore, not to see the redoing of The Presentation of Christ in the Temple as some kind of contest as well as homage. But I found myself as I looked convinced that for Bellini what counted most was the opportunity, within the confines of someone else’s invention, to reflect on – to discover – what his own art most deeply consisted of. Oil paint versus tempera made many things clear. And, further, coming to terms with the true nature of one’s art – one’s necessary medium – meant coming closer to the mysteries enounced in Luke’s text.

more here.

Amos Oz, a giant of Israeli literature and politics

Dominic Green in Spectator:

In Western democracies, literature no longer matters to politics. Once, literature and politics could co-exist on the same typewriter or in the same person: George Orwell in Britain, André Malraux in France. But that was a long time ago. Still, the powers of politics remain linguistic, whether bureaucratic or rhetorical: the war criminal at his desk, the elected representative on her Twitter. Amos Oz, the Israeli novelist who died today aged 79, was living proof of the political powers of literature. In Israel, which is a Western democracy most of the time, Oz is seen as a great writer but a failed politician. In the West, he is seen as the still-living conscience of a political failure. Nothing shows us both sides of a story so well as a novel. And nothing occludes the quality of literature like politics.

Oz was the Everyman of Israel’s founding elite. There were elements of necessary imposture in this persona, but that is what fiction needs. As he eventually described in his autobiography, A Tale of Love and Darkness (2002), Oz, the global face of kibbutz socialism and Peace Now, was born into a prominent Revisionist family. The Revisionists were followers of Ze’ev Jabotinsky, who mixed liberal politics with the ‘Iron Wall’ approach to the Arabs. In the one-party state-in-the-making of Mandate Palestine, Labour Zionists already held the balance. In 1949, when the new state of Israel held its first presidential election, Amos Klausner’s great-uncle Joseph Klausner, a historian and literature professor, ran and lost as the candidate of Menachem Begin’s Herut party. In 1951, Amos’s mother committed suicide; in his telling, she was a delayed victim of the Shoah. Two years later, aged 14, he turned left, moved to a kibbutz, and extracted a new surname from the heart of his old one. ‘Oz’ means ‘strength’.

More here.

Across the world, things are better than we think

Alex Standish in Sp!ked:

Hans Rosling, who died last year, was a remarkable man. As a doctor, he practised and lectured in his home country of Sweden, and also worked in Mozambique, Tanzania, the Congo, Mexico, Cuba and India. His commitment to the medical cause was such that, in 2014, when the ebola epidemic broke out in West Africa, he headed to Liberia to help contain it. At the same time, Rosling was also engaged in another long-term project, aimed at reducing the gap between how people in the West perceive the rest of the world and its reality. Factfulness, written with his son Ola Rosling and daughter-in-law Anna Rönnlund, is part of this project (alongside the online resource Gapminder). Its aim is to enlighten those with a ‘completely outdated idea about the rest of the world’.

Factfulness makes for a refreshingly positive take on change and modernisation. And alongside the stats and data, Rosling also uses personal anecdotes to make his case for the importance of development. He recalls the day his family brought their first washing machine in 1960s Sweden: his grandmother so mesmerised by it that she pulled up a chair to watch the entire wash cycle. His mother told him, ‘The machine will do the work. So now we can go to the library.’ This book takes issue with those who think developing nations should not aspire to Western levels of consumption because of fears about global warming. Rosling once stood up to environmentalist and former US vice president Al Gore about this, when they met backstage at a TED conference in Los Angeles: Gore urged Rosling to use his statistical models to show a worst-case global-warming scenario, ‘to create fear’. But Rosling refused, saying that spreading fear tends to generate reactionary and ill-considered responses, and erodes trust in those who spread such fear.

He never dismissed the idea of global warming. Indeed, he identified it as one of five potential global problems we all should be worried about (the others being poverty, war, financial collapse and a global pandemic). But where environmentalists argue that the answer to climate change is to slow development, he said the opposite: ‘We must put our efforts into inventing new technologies that will enable 11 billion people to live the life that we should expect all of them to strive for.’

More here.

What Matters in Old Age: Rereading, Reconsidering and Reassessing

John Sutherland in The New York Times:

My parents’ generation, lucky enough to pass the biblical three score and 10, would describe themselves as living on “borrowed time.” Susan Gubar has been granted a longer credit line than most. In 2008, in her mid-60s, she learned she had ovarian cancer. It spread. After the cruelties of chemo, she was subjected to “debulking” — surgical evisceration. Gubar described the procedure unflinchingly in her 2012 book,“Memoir of a Debulked Woman.” It’s not easy to read unflinchingly. The postoperative prognosis was bleak, but a then-experimental drug therapy has lent her time. It’s the kind of chess-game stay of execution Ingmar Bergman dramatizes in “The Seventh Seal.”

Gubar is a literary critic and one of the few who can claim to have made a lasting difference. In 1979, in “The Madwoman in the Attic,”she and Sandra M. Gilbert redirected the reader’s central focus from the Jane Eyres to the Bertha Masons of literature (to take the title’s allusion). Chained Bertha, the first Mrs. Rochester, isn’t deranged; rather, she’s the oppressed part of Jane herself and a representative of 19th-century women in general. For those of my generation, it was as if scales had dropped from our eyes and we were able to see afresh a range of works we had fondly presumed we already knew. Living on Sarcoma Penitentiary’s death row surely concentrates the mind, in Samuel Johnson’s dry phrase. There’s no reprieve; merely, with luck, indefinite delay. In her borrowed time, Gubar thinks about life, love and literature from where she is now — existing between hospital appointments, any one of which could be, literally, terminal.

More here.

Party tricks and naked writing: the eccentric life of Victor Hugo

Marianna Hunt in The Guardian:

Victor Hugo is rightly remembered for his amazing literary output, and for his philanthropic work as a member of France’s National Assembly, campaigning for an end to poverty, free education for all children and the abolition of the death penalty. But he was also incredibly eccentric and libidinous, with a penchant for writing while starkers, and armed with a party trick – swallowing oranges whole. The BBC remake of Les Misérables seeks to upturn what we think we know about the story, looking beyond the musical to the pages of the novel it came from. But what if we take a step further, looking beyond the pages to the man behind them? The stripped back (in more ways than one) Hugo is far more interesting than he’s given credit for.

On France’s Mont Donon, you can enjoy spectacular vistas across the borders of France, Germany and Switzerland. But in May 1801, Major Hugo and his wife were not paying much attention to the view – and in the 1960s, a museum curator decided to mark the spot where Hugo was conceived with an engraved sandstone block. Hugo (always the storyteller) added his own embellishments: the Celtic sanctuary on the summit became a Roman temple of love and the obscure mountain was transformed into the much more glamorous (and 3,000 ft taller) Mont Blanc. He also claimed that his mother was a half-wild Amazonian (she was born in Nantes).

Hugo’s insistent retellings of the story of his own conception might be explained by the fact that the guy was obsessed with sex. He claimed that on their wedding night he and his wife Adèle Foucher had sex nine times. Foucher reportedly lost interest in intercourse altogether – but 19th-century Paris had enough brothels to keep Hugo entertained morning, evening and night. Venerated as a saint (albeit only in the Vietnamese religion of Cao Dai), when Hugo died the brothels of Paris closed down for a day of mourning, allowing all the city’s sex workers to pay their last respects to a loyal client. Literary critic Edmond de Goncourt claimed a police officer told him that sex workers even draped their genitals in black crepe as a mark of respect.

More here.

Could Expanding Employee Ownership Be The Next Big Economic Policy?

Rachel M. Cohen in The Intercept:

ASIDE FROM BEING a way to address inequality, the impending “silver tsunami” — the wave of baby boomer retirements expected over the next decade — is another reason ESOPs are gaining traction. According to a 2017 study by the worker ownership group Project Equity, 2.3 million businesses are owned by baby boomers who are approaching retirement, and these companies employ almost 25 million Americans.

While many of these business owners will fold quietly and sell their companies to competitors or private equity firms, ESOPs offer owners another alternative: selling the company to its workers. Advocates say this can help to better ensure that jobs remain in the local community, while still allowing the retiring owner to cash out. According to Project Equity, one-third of business owners over age 50 report having a hard time finding a buyer for their company. As a result, many just quietly close up shop, often without even considering selling their company to the staff.

But if ESOPs really can yield such positive results — for workers, owners, and local economies — why do they remain so obscure?

More here.

The Death of Global Order Was Caused by Clinton, Bush, and Obama

 (Photo by Alex Brandon – Pool/Getty Images)

Stephen Walt in Foreign Policy:

America’s leaders may have had the best of intentions, but the strategy they pursued was mostly a failure. Relations with Russia and China today are worse than at any time since the Cold War, and the two Asian giants are once again colluding against us. Hopes for a two-state solution between Israel and the Palestinians have been dashed, and the rest of the Middle East is as divided as it has ever been. North Korea, India, and Pakistan have all tested nuclear weapons and expanded their nuclear stockpiles, while Iran has gone from zero enrichment capacity in 1993 to being nearly a nuclear weapons state today. Democracy is in retreat worldwide, violent extremists are active in more places, the European Union is wobbling, and the uneven benefits of globalization have produced a powerful backlash against the liberal economic order that the United States had actively promoted.

All of these trends were well underway long before Trump became president. But many of them would have been less likely or less pronounced had the United States chosen a different path.

In Europe, the United States could have resisted the siren song of NATO expansion and stuck with the original “Partnership for Peace,” a set of security arrangements that included Russia. Over time, it could have gradually drawn down its military presence and turned European security back over to the Europeans. Russia’s leaders would not have felt as threatened, would not have fought Georgia or seized Crimea, and would have had little or no reason to interfere in the U.S. election in 2016. As the European Union took on a greater security role, states like Poland and Hungary might have been less inclined to flirt with authoritarianism under the safety blanket of U.S. security guarantees.

A wiser United States would have let Iraq and Iran check each other instead of attempting “dual containment” in the Persian Gulf, eliminating the need to keep thousands of U.S. troops in Saudi Arabia after the first Gulf War. Had Washington also made its support for Israel and the Palestinian Authority conditional on both sides making steady progress toward “two states for two peoples,” the two principal sources of Osama bin Laden’s murderous antipathy toward America would have been removed, making the 9/11 attacks much less likely. And with no 9/11, we almost surely would not have had invaded and occupied Iraq or Afghanistan, thereby saving several trillion dollars and thousands of U.S. and foreign lives.

More here.

Beyond GDP

Joseph Stiglitz in Project Syndicate:

Spurred on by Scotland, a small group of countries has now formed the Wellbeing Economy Alliance. The hope is that governments putting wellbeing at the center of their agenda will redirect their budgets accordingly. For example, a New Zealand government focused on wellbeing would direct more of its attention and resources to childhood poverty.

Better metrics would also become an important diagnostic tool, helping countries both identify problems before matters spiral out of control and select the right tools to address them. Had the US, for example, focused more on health, rather than just on GDP, the decline in life expectancy among those without a college education, and especially among those in America’s deindustrialized regions, would have been apparent years ago.

Likewise, metrics of equality of opportunity have only recently exposed the hypocrisy of America’s claim to be a land of opportunity: Yes, anyone can get ahead, so long as they are born of rich, white parents. The data reveal that the US is riddled with so-called inequality traps: Those born at the bottom are likely to remain there. If we are to eliminate these inequality traps, we first have to know that they exist, and then ascertain what creates and sustains them.

More here.

Resurrecting the Soul in a Secular Age

Samuel Loncar at the LARB:

Edmundson’s project is a religious (or spiritual) attempt to discover alternatives to the everyday world of late-modern capitalism. No dogma is involved, save the premise of the book itself: namely, that ideals matter profoundly, and we can discover and use them through reading great literature. This is, one might say, the religion of ideals, a holding space between pure secularity and traditional religion. Its sole purpose is to say that somethingmatters more than our petty concerns with self-advancement, and through openness to that something we might encounter ways of life worth living.

Edmundson’s argument suffers when summarized, because its real power comes through the close analysis of a series of books and figures that embody the ideals he traces. Beginning with Homer and the warrior ideal, he moves through the ideal of compassion embodied in Jesus, Confucius, and the Buddha, toward the predecessor of our soulless age, William Shakespeare, while also dealing with poetry and eros. His penultimate chapter covers the archenemy of ideals, of religion and the transcendent, Sigmund Freud.

more here.

‘Armenia!’ at the Met

Robert Rubsam at Commonweal:

The Met’s permanent collection can tell you much about the Greeks and Romans, the Babylonians and the Assyrians, medieval Japan and the many dynasties of China, but it does not have as much to say about more marginal peoples. History, here, gathers at the center. If one wants to see peripheries, one must look for them. Wandering the galleries, one rarely get a sense of the vast mosaic of peoples who lived within and often long past those great empires of stone, paper, and capital. The presence of so many Armenian works, directly beside sculpture from Pergamon and Rome, offers an alternative view of history, one in which time eventually pulls down the mighty from their thrones and sometimes lifts up the lowly. The margins come into focus.

A massive 4’x12’ paper map, commissioned in 1691 for the Venetian ambassador to Constantinople, attempts to chart the Armenian world in tempera and ink. Rather than focusing on the limits of the Ottoman Empire, the Tabula Choreographica Armenica maps churches, overlaying geography with religion and history, including, in this ostensibly modern depiction, a mad St. Gregory smashing demonic idols in the fourth century.

more here.

Bach the Recycler

George B. Stauffer at the NYRB:

Around 1730 Johann Sebastian Bach began to recycle his earlier works in a major way. He was in his mid-forties at the time, and he had composed hundreds of masterful keyboard, instrumental, and vocal pieces, including at least three annual cycles of approximately sixty cantatas each for worship services in Leipzig, where he was serving as St. Thomas Cantor and town music director. Bach was at the peak of his creative powers. Yet for some reason, instead of sitting down and writing original music, he turned increasingly to old compositions, pulling them off the shelf and using their contents as the basis for new works.

The roots of this change can be traced, perhaps, to the summer of 1726, when Bach decided to incorporate instrumental music written earlier in Cöthen into his third Leipzig cantata cycle, refashioning concerto movements for violin or oboe into a series of inventive sinfonias (orchestral introductions), choruses, and arias featuring solo organ. Here the recycled material remained brilliant filler amid newly composed music.

more here.