Walt Whitman’s Boys

Jeremy Lybarger in the Boston Review:

“Whitman demonstrates part of his Americanness by placing cocksucking at the center of Leaves of Grass.” Gay liberationist Charles Shively—not one to mince words—wrote this in Calamus Lovers: Walt Whitman’s Working Class Camerados (1987), his revelatory, if sometimes risible, account of the poet’s queer egalitarianism. Whether cocksucking is central to Whitman’s book, or even uniquely American, is debatable; more pertinent is the implied connection between Whitman’s homosexuality and his patriotic fervor.

That connection has been a bitter pill for some readers. Whitman’s contemporaries condemned what they saw as the unwholesome carnality of his work. Reviewing the original 1855 edition of Leaves of Grass, a critic at the New York Herald objected to Whitman’s “disgusting Priapism.” A review that same year in the New York Criterion rebuked the book as “a mass of stupid filth.” More colorfully, a New York Times critic accused Whitman of rooting “like a pig among a rotten garbage of licentious thoughts.” Even Emily Dickinson—herself no stranger to radical self-expression—weighed in, confiding in an 1862 letter to Thomas Higginson that she hadn’t read Leaves of Grass but had heard Whitman was “disgraceful.” Decades later, Willa Cather referred to Whitman as “that dirty old man.”

More here.

Capitalism is good for you

Sabine Hossenfelder in Back Reaction:

The emergence of market economies in human society is almost a universal. Because markets are non-centralized, they can, and will, spontaneously arise. As of today, capitalism is the best mechanism we know to optimize the distribution of resources. We use it for one simple reason: It works.

A physicist cannot not see how similar the problem of distributing resources is to optimization problems in many-body systems, to equilibrium processes, to self-organized criticality. I know a lot of people loathe the idea that humans are just nodes in a network, tasked to exchange bits of information. But to first approximation that’s what we are.

I am not a free market enthusiast. Free markets work properly only if both consumers and producers rationally evaluate all available information, for example about the societal and environmental impacts of purchasing a product. This is a cognitive task we simply cannot, in practice, perform.

More here.

What Polarization Does to Us

Robert B. Talisse in Open for Debate:

Commentators from across the political spectrum warn us that extreme partisan polarization is dissolving all bases for political cooperation, thereby undermining our democracy.  The near total consensus on this point is suspicious.  A recent Pew study finds that although citizens want politicians to compromise more, they tend to blame only their political opponents for the deadlock.  In calling for conciliation, they seek capitulation from the other side.  The warnings about polarization might themselves be displays of polarization.

Discussions of polarization tend to fix on what polarization does to our politics — policy stalemates, negative campaigns, partisan hostility, and so on.  Were polarization simply a matter of its political manifestations, the solution would be simply that everyone should take a moment to recognize that, despite partisan divides, we’re all ultimately on the same team.  The trouble is that polarization runs deeper than this.  It affects us on the inside.

To see this, it helps to distinguish political polarization from belief polarization.  The former is the name for the condition of political intransigence that is now familiar.  The latter refers to a phenomenon by which interactions with likeminded others transform us into more extreme versions of ourselves.

More here.

Friday Poem


It’s good that you’re not here. You’d be surprised
how things have gone. How we have coped despite
the difficult conditions—after all, the river
freezes in winter, in summer runs dry. We’re trying

each of the variations on ourselves,
tasting each plant that sprouts up in the yard—
we should be dead already. But this jealousy
is a thorn in the side—despite the fact that you’re

not here, we’ve made a lot of progress in the art
of fashioning your phantom, and we’re good at it,
through power failures and the animals
who come to howl at the planet. In a certain way

it’s good that you’re not here. Your singularity
would grow immense—since each of us still carries
a hole for you inside our hearts, so we just multiply
and gaze at the sky, at the void above the high-rise.

by Tomasz Różycki
Poetry Center San José
translated by Mira Rosenthal

Quentin Tarantino On Spaghetti Westerns

Quentin Tarantino at The Spectator:

The movie that made me consider filmmaking, the movie that showed me how a director does what he does, how a director can control a movie through his camera, is Once Upon a Time in the West. It was almost like a film school in a movie. It really illustrated how to make an impact as a filmmaker. How to give your work a signature. I found myself completely fascinated, thinking: ‘That’s how you do it.’ It ended up creating an aesthetic in my mind.

There have only been a few filmmakers who have gone into an old genre and created a new universe out of it. I really like the idea of creating something new out of an old genre. To some degree, Jean-Pierre Melville did it with the French gangster films. But those Italian guys — Sergio Leone, Sergio Corbucci, Duccio Tessari and Franco Giraldi — did it best. They mostly started off as critics and worked their way up to screenwriters.

more here.

Masked and Anonymous

Luc Sante at The Paris Review:

The press photographer’s task is to obtain a likeness of the person who is at the center of the news. This proves difficult when the subject, who is either accused of crimes or tied, however flimsily, to someone who is, wants to avoid being photographed at all costs. Hounded at every step, unable to escape, even in shackles, the subject resorts to makeshift concealments—hat, sleeve, lapel, handkerchief, newspaper—in order to prevent facial capture. The photographer can only pursue, shadow, perhaps verbally goad the subject, waiting for a slip or a stumble that will cause the mask to drop. When that fails to happen, the photographer’s sole option is to photograph the mask. The public, inflamed by press coverage of the case, wants a face it can charge with blame (and, often enough, spread the blame to faces that bear it a superficial resemblance), but is instead offered a metonym: hat, handkerchief, newspaper. The photographer, in quest of a portrait, has delivered in its place an event: the defeat of portraiture by the subject.

more here.

Centrists Are Sleepwalking Into The Fire

John Gray at The New Statesman:

There is intense debate as to what the outcome tells us about voter support for Brexit, with both Leavers and Remainers claiming vindication. The most striking feature of the results, however, is the polarisation they reveal. The result of a botched Brexit has been the Europeanisation of British politics, with the old centre ground falling away.

The big winner is the nationalist right. The future of Emmanuel Macron, whose centrist alliance came second to Marine Le Pen’s National Rally, is more clouded than before. Positioning himself as the last best hope of the European project rebounded against Macron, while Matteo Salvini and Viktor Orbán both made major gains. “Liberal Europe” has been shown to be a nostalgic dream. The reality is that European politics has been balkanised, with the far right continuing its advance.

more here.

‘Stony the Road’ lays bare the failure of Reconstruction

Danny Heitman in The Christian Science Monitor:

As a literary scholar and authority on African American history, Henry Louis Gates Jr. has written or co-written 24 books and serves on the faculty of Harvard University. But he didn’t achieve broad public attention until he began hosting “Finding Your Roots,” a popular PBS series in which celebrities explore their ancestry, often with surprising results. During an episode of a related program, “African American Lives 2,” comedian Chris Rock discovers that his great-great-grandfather, Julius Caesar Tingman, had fought for the Union with the United States Colored Troops during the Civil War, then served in the South Carolina legislature under its Reconstruction government. The revelation brought the typically glib Rock to tears. “How in the world could I not know this?” Rock asked Gates.

…Reconstruction, the federal policy through which the defeated Confederacy would be stitched back into the Union, began to a large degree as an act of deconstruction – the dismantling of a system of racial oppression. “The process of Reconstruction,” Gates tells readers, “involved nothing less than the monumental effort to create a biracial democracy out of the wreckage of the rebellion.” For a while, that radical reinvention of Southern society created dramatic results. Within a short time, Gates notes, “an estimated two thousand black men served in office at every level of government, including two U.S. senators and twenty congressmen.” But that glimmer of equality, a kind of Prague Spring for former slaves, wouldn’t last. The federal military occupation that enforced Reconstruction policies was costly. A war-weary nation, also worried by the Panic of 1873 and a subsequent economic depression, decided to declare victory and leave the South to its old habits.

The defeat of Reconstruction was also driven by racist attitudes in the North, Gates points out. Although Union leaders had fought against slavery, being an abolitionist “was not the same thing as being a proponent of the fundamental equality of black and white people, or the unity of the human species . . . to say nothing of equal citizenship rights and equal protection under the law.” Even Abraham Lincoln, the Great Emancipator, was at best ambivalent on the question of racial equality, Gates adds.

More here.

This Famous Aging Researcher Doesn’t Want Us to Live Forever

Brian Gallaghar in Nautilus:

In the Netflix anime series Knights of Sidonia, humankind is marooned in a spaceship 500,000-strong, refugees constantly on the run from shapeshifting aliens who destroyed Earth over 1,000 years ago. Both the patriarchy and poverty have been smashed. Advances in genetic engineering have allowed androgynous individuals to proliferate and asexual reproduction to become commonplace. Everybody (except the protagonist, a clone of his grandfather) can photosynthesize, drastically reducing the need to eat. A plot twist near the end of the first season, released in 2014, revealed the existence of a shadow government called the Immortal Ship Committee which, in the last several centuries, had grown in number, from less than 10 members to just under 30, becoming more and more corrupt and self-serving. One of them, a 600-year-old woman named Kobayashi, captains the ship behind a mask, concealing her unaging, youthful complexion. She helps orchestrate fake news of alien encounters to justify the emergency powers of the committee’s undemocratic puppet government front.

The potential for undying tyrants or tyrannical bodies is one reason Leonard Hayflick, one of the world’s preeminent experts on aging (he was a founder of the Council of the National Institute on Aging), is against slowing down or eliminating the aging process. He has other reasons, too, like avoiding the father-daughter situation in Interstellar, where, due to the time-dilation effects of traveling in different gravitational fields, the daughter caught up to her father in years, and eventually died of old age first. “To slow, or even arrest, the aging process in humans is fraught with serious problems in the relationships of humans to each other and to all of our institutions,” he told Jordana Cepelewicz, a former editorial intern at Nautilus. “By allowing antisocial people—tyrants, dictators, mass murderers, and people who cause wars—to have their longevity increased should be undesirable…I would rather experience the aging process as it occurs, and death when it occurs, in order to avoid allowing the people who I just described to live longer.”

Despite his reservations about radical life-extension, Hayflick is a big proponent of studying aging at a more fundamental level, he said. “Most studies are either descriptive, studies on longevity determinants, or studies on age-associated diseases. None of this research will reveal information about the fundamental biology of aging. Less than 3 percent of the budget of the National Institute on Aging in the past decade or more has been spent on research on the fundamental biology of aging.” He’s a bit annoyed, for instance, that about a half of the National Institute on Aging’s budget goes toward researching Alzheimer’s disease.

More here.

Why I (Usually) Hate Writing for the Media

Justin Erik Halldór Smith in his own blog:

Trying to get a point across in public writing, whether established or clickbait media (a distinction of vanishing significance), with just the nuance, force, and connotations you intend, is like trying to perform a violin solo underwater. You can be as virtuosic as you like, but the medium you’re playing in is going to distort the signal to the point that your effort becomes a vain expenditure, and the result of it comes across as a dull, warped, and muted sound wave to which silence would have been preferable.

Most people who have not written for the media do not know that contributors are prevented from choosing the title of their own ‘piece’, and often see it for the first time only when it is already in ‘print’ (i.e., usually, already circulating on social media). At the low end of journalism, where I try not to go, this droit d’éditeur of framing the article by choice of title and subheading can result in true offenses against the intention and person of the author. But the title is only the first of many denaturing changes imposed in the course of editing, a process by which the author’s own voice is removed as if it were a weed, and replaced with a monocultured word-lawn spreading imperiously out from the rules about semi-colons and double quotation marks that are justified in the name of ‘house style’. Style is an expansible and contractible notion, and typically is interpreted to mean, in the current media landscape, not just the conventions of punctuation, but absolutely everything touched upon in old Strunk and White.

More here.

Critics today seem incapable of separating art from politics

Andrew Doyle in Spiked:

Critics are often maligned. Kenneth Williams memorably compared them to eunuchs in a harem: ‘They’re there every night. They see it done every night. But they can’t do it themselves.’ It’s difficult not to enjoy the barbed wit of Williams, even when he’s indulging in this kind of unfair generalisation. Criticism, if done well, is an art form in and of itself – but now that clickbait is prioritised over insight the standards have undeniably dropped.

It would appear that the infection of identity politics has spread from the creatives to the critics. Praise for Christopher Nolan’s film Dunkirk was offset by those who complained that he had not included a sufficiently diverse cast, in spite of the historical fact that the overwhelming majority of those evacuated were young white men. It seems to me that if your initial reaction to a work as arresting as Dunkirk is to appraise the degree to which its auteur has fulfilled diversity quotas, then you are not well equipped to judge his artistry.

That is not to say that total objectivity is either possible or desirable when it comes to criticism. But the best critics are able to appreciate a piece of work on its own terms, whereas the worst seem to believe that success should be measured on the basis of how closely the artist reflects their own ideological perspective.

More here.

Once local and irregular, time-keeping became universal and linear in 311 BCE

Paul J Kosmin in Aeon:

What year is it? It’s 2019, obviously. An easy question. Last year was 2018. Next year will be 2020. We are confident that a century ago it was 1919, and in 1,000 years it will be 3019, if there is anyone left to name it. All of us are fluent with these years; we, and most of the world, use them without thinking. They are ubiquitous. As a child I used to line up my pennies by year of minting, and now I carefully note dates of publication in my scholarly articles.

Now, imagine inhabiting a world without such a numbered timeline for ordering current events, memories and future hopes. For from earliest recorded history right up to the years after Alexander the Great’s conquests in the late 4th century BCE, historical time – the public and annual marking of the passage of years – could be measured only in three ways: by unique events, by annual offices, or by royal lifecycles.

In ancient Mesopotamia, years could be designated by an outstanding event of the preceding 12 months: something could be said to happen, for instance, in the year when king Naram-Sin reached the sources of the Tigris and Euphrates river, or when king Enlil-bani made for the god Ninurta three very large copper statues.

More here.

Solidarity in Silicon Valley

Brishen Rogers in the Boston Review:

The tech giants are facing a moment of reckoning. Google, Facebook, Amazon, and Uber all grew explosively over the last decade, in part by delivering real convenience and benefits to consumers. For this we forgave their more venial sins, such as unfair competition, copyright infringement, data hoarding, and price discrimination. But recent years have brought one revelation after another around privacy issues—including Facebook’s sharing of data with the dark arts firm Cambridge Analytica—and ever-growing worries about the tech giants’ monopoly powers.

As a result, Mark Zuckerberg was hauled into Congress last year, and Senator Mark Warner has sketched an agenda to combat misinformation on social media platforms, and to better protect user privacy. More recently, Senator Elizabeth Warren has promised that her presidential administration would enact “big, structural changes to the tech sector to promote more competition — including breaking up Amazon, Facebook, and Google.” The approaches are complementary, but distinct: Warner seeks to regulate the tech giants’ activities in order to promote public values, while Warren seeks to limit and alter their fundamental powers.

There is also a third option, which would be just as momentous: workplace democracy.

More here.

The sitcom that spawned a president

Ian Bateson in 1843 Magazine:

The president of Ukraine sits in his office, a glum look on his face. He has just been trounced in the election by a political outsider, and isn’t taking it well. When his successor, Vasyl Holoborodko, tries to move into his office, the outgoing president shoots at him through the door with a shotgun, just missing his target. He’s refusing to leave until his demands are met, says an aide: he wants a litre of vodka, several packs of cigarettes and political asylum in Yugoslavia. “But Yugoslavia doesn’t even exist anymore,” says Holoborodko. “He knows, that’s why he asked for the vodka,” the aide replies.

The mix of slapstick and satire is typical of “Servant of the People”, a television show that has gripped Ukrainian audiences since 2015. In an astonishing example of life imitating art, Volodymyr Zelensky, the actor and comedian who plays Holoborodko, was elected this month as Ukraine’s president. Despite having no political experience whatsoever, he managed to defeat Petro Poroshenko, the incumbent of five years, with a whopping 73% of the vote. Poroshenko graciously accepted defeat and congratulated Zelensky. Aleksey Kiryushchenko, the actor who plays Zelensky’s on-screen opponent, is also the showrunner of “Servant of the People”, responsible for developing the storyline and producing and directing the show. But now that his star is too busy having meetings with foreign dignitaries and members of parliament, Kiryushchenko is saying goodbye. “We can’t have the show without its hero,” he tells me matter of factly. We are sitting in the canteen of Kvartal 95, Zelensky’s production company, which is housed in a converted Soviet apartment block in Kiev. “There were three seasons, and the fourth is happening now before our eyes,” Kiryushchenko tells me. “It has become reality.”

More here.

Gene Therapy Effective for Severe Combined Immunodeficiency

Shawna Williams in The Scientist:

Treating infants with X-linked severe combined immunodeficiency with low-dose chemotherapy followed by gene therapy gave the children the ability to make the cells needed to mount a normal immune response, researchers report today (April 17) in the New England Journal of MedicineThe finding marks a milestone in the long effort to use gene therapy for the devastating condition, also known as bubble boy disease, which requires untreated patients to be isolated in order to protect them from life-threatening infections. Experts caution that longer follow-up is needed to determine whether the gene therapy–treated patients are truly cured.

“We were able to remove the protective isolation within three to four months post gene therapy and send the babies home to their families,” said Ewelina Mamcarz, a pediatric hematologist-oncologist at St. Jude’s Children’s Research Hospital in Tennessee, in a telephone press conference about the study. “They are all toddlers now, exploring life, attending daycares, and this part has been extremely rewarding.”

People with severe combined immunodeficiency (SCID) have mutations in genes needed for immune cell function, leaving them vulnerable to infection. In the most common form of the disease, X-linked SCID (SCID-X1), the gene at fault is IL2RG, which codes for a piece of the cytokine receptors needed for the normal development of several different kinds of immune cells, including T cells, B cells, and natural killer cells.

More here.

Is ‘Quillette’ an island of sanity — or reactionary conservatism for the Ph.D. set?

Tom Bartlett in the Chronicle of Higher Education:

The portrait of university life offered by the online journal Quillette is not a flattering one. Free speech stifled at every turn. Scholars with divergent views relentlessly mobbed. Entire disciplines ruined by left-wing activism. A leafy dystopia populated by irrationally furious undergraduates, pathetically craven administrators, and professors who peddle mindless ideology at the expense of scientific inquiry. It’s enough to make anyone question the mental health of the academy, if not run screaming through the quad.

That vision seems to resonate with a sizable readership. Quillette attracts more eyeballs than plenty of venerable publications with lengthier histories (according to the analytics service Alexa, the site gets more page views than Washington Monthly, Commentary, or Harper’s). It’s been praised by the likes of Sam Harris, Cass Sunstein, and Christina Hoff Sommers, who celebrated it as “an island of sanity in a sea of madness.”

More here.

Why Advanced Nuclear Reactors May Be Here Sooner Than Many Imagine

Ted Nordhaus and Jessica Lovering in GreenTech Media:

As the prospects for a nuclear renaissance in the U.S. based on conventional nuclear technology have dimmed, many nuclear advocates have pinned their hopes on advanced reactors that are smaller and utilize different technologies.

Yet many remain skeptical. Edwin Lyman of the Union of Concerned Scientists told the Washington Post earlier this year that developers of advanced reactors, like Bill Gates, are “misleading the public on how fast and effective” they could be commercialized or widely deployed.

Doubts about the timely commercialization of advanced nuclear reactors are not limited to longstanding nuclear opponents like Lyman. In a damning review of the Department of Energy’s nuclear innovation programs, David Victor, Granger Morgan, Ahmed Abdullah and Michael Ford conclude that DOE has “neither the funding levels nor the programmatic focus that it needs to deliver on its mission of developing and demonstrating one or two advanced reactor designs by mid-century.”

More here.

How Progressivism Enabled the Rise of the Populist Right

Eric Kaufman in Quillette:

Right-wing populists have won an unprecedented 57 seats in elections to the European Union’s Parliament, up from 30 in 2014. In Hungary, Viktor Orban’s Fidesz won a majority of 52 percent. In Italy, Matteo Salvini’s Lega topped the poll at 30 percent, in Britain, Nigel Farage’s Brexit Party won, while in France, Marine Le Pen pipped Emmanuel Macron 23 percent to 22 percent. While not quite the populist surge some feared, right-populist momentum continues. Meanwhile, the mainstream Social Democrats and Christian Democrats saw their combined total drop below a majority for the first time, from 56 percent in 2014 to 44 percent as Green and Liberal alternatives gained. 

What few have noticed is that these results, especially in Western Europe, reflect a continuing blowback against the excesses of the post-1960s liberal-left. They also reveal how the mainstream has adapted to the populist challenge by tightening immigration, which has reduced the appeal of national populism in many northern and western European countries since its 2015-16 peak. This adjustment by the main parties has alienated some left-liberals, whose shift to Green or liberal alternatives hints at a new polarization that may be moving Europe in an American direction.

More here.