Stuck, Ch. 8. The Other America: The Domino Kings, “Walk Away if You Want to”

Stuck is a weekly serial appearing at 3QD every Monday through early April. The Prologue is here. The table of contents with links to previous chapters is here.

by Akim Reinhardt

Image result for us highway mapThis song got caught in my head as I circled the country in my 1998 Honda. Leaving New York City, I drove west into the heart of America, up to the Dakotas, out to California, down the Golden State, and then back along the Southern route before angling northward to Baltimore. I saw nearly all the America you can see. But of course there’s not just one America. There are many.

The environment shifts dramatically along the way. So too do the people. From densely packed cities to sparsely populated rural areas. From little towns dotting the countryside to sprawling suburbs that fade into forest or desert or grasslands. It is a vast expanse, the world’s third largest nation in both square mileage (behind Russia and Canada) and population (behind China and India). When I was a kid there were 200,000,000 people. Or so a Burger King commercial told us. Now we’re closing in on 350,000,000.

It takes all types. But of course some types get more attention than others. Mass media consistently highlight white people, the major exception being black entertainers (mostly athletes and singers) and criminals. Men continue to dominate positions of power and prestige. The coasts boast most of the population, and sneeringly refer to the middle as “fly over country.” And the cities and suburbs, home to the vast majority of Americans, largely ignore the small towns and rural areas that actually makeup most of the physical landscape.

My own life illustrates many of America’s different faces. Read more »

Quine: Beginning in the middle of things

Gary Kemp at the TLS:

Willard Van Orman Quine is well known to the average analytic philosopher. True, he disdained much of the Pandora’s box of conceptual playthings often thought necessary for serious work in analytic philosophy nowadays, and his doctrines are thought to have been largely superseded. But he is treated by many – along with the earlier thinkers Gottlob Frege and Bertrand Russell – as an important intellectual ancestor, who developed many of the puzzles, paradoxes and paradigms that have dominated hardcore analytic philosophy for decades from the 1950s and 1960s.

Certain Quinean doctrines do continue to come up frequently:  the untenability of the traditional “Analytic–Synthetic” distinction (a distinction between statements the truth or falsity of which depends only on its words, as in “No bachelor is married”, and those that depend also on particular facts, as in “the cat is hungry” – a distinction that was thought by many to be the key to various problems in the theory of knowledge); the “web of belief” metaphor (non-metaphorically: that no statement, not even apparent certainties such as 2+2=4, is in principle immune to revision); the unavoidability of the assumption that in addition to tables and trees there really are abstract objects such as numbers (on pain of hamstringing science); the Indeterminacy of Translation (that in principle one correct translation of a sentence – any sentence, say one of Czech – might conflict with another correct translation of that same sentence, and they might even say the opposite of the other); that there is “no entity without identity” (that a scientific use of a term for a kind of thing requires a means of settling whether one of them is the same as another); that science has no serious need of modal logic (the logic of necessity and possibility); that “to be is to be the value of a bound variable” (which is rather too complicated to go into here).

More here.

Humans Are Driving the Evolution of Urban Rats

Jonathan Richardson in Undark:

It took only a few seconds to spot one. Then another. As I walked into the small park around noon, dozens of rats could be seen scurrying in every direction. They dashed in and out of burrows scattered around the planting beds. They scampered between the safety of shrub cover and the trash bins containing a smorgasbord for them to feed on. They leaped on and off the unoccupied benches encircling the park. The rats of Churchill Square had returned.

I study urban rats, but this tiny park in New York City — at the intersection of Bleecker Street and 6th Avenue in the Greenwich Village section of lower Manhattan — has been a side curiosity of mine. The first time I visited the square, I was just looking for a place to sit for a few minutes during a family excursion.

But an urban ecologist is never really off the clock in the city. I had never seen so many rats in such a small area. Rats are generally nocturnal, so the high activity during daylight probably meant the infestation was severe, which increases the risk of disease transmission to peopledamages urban infrastructure, and even takes a toll on the mental health of residents. The health, economic, and social impacts of rat infestation can be significant.

More here.

Edward Said: Remembering a Palestinian Patriot

César Chelala in The Times of Israel:

Edward W. Said

The 2019 Memorial Lecture at Columbia University in New York honoring Edward W. Said, “Out of Place: Refugees, Immigrants, and Storytelling” couldn’t have come at a more appropriate moment. And the main speaker for that event, Viet Thanh Nguyen, was the right person for the job. Viet Thanh Nguyen, the author of the novel The Sympathizer, shares with Said two qualities: his political concerns, and the widespread recognition for his work. He also shares with Said a feeling of displacement; him as a refugee, Said as an immigrant.

Edward Said was perhaps one of the most profound analysts of the Palestinian situation, and one of the most vocal critics of the Israeli government policies towards them. To his credit, he is equally critical of both.

Following the Six-Day War (5-10 June 1967,) Said worked hard to dispel the stereotyped misrepresentations of Arabs in the U.S. media, which had no bases in the political and historical realities of the Middle East. In that war, the combined armies of Egypt (known at the time as the United Arab Republic,) Jordan and Syria were crippled by Israel, which had in the United States a most powerful ally.

More here.

Empathy Is Tearing Us Apart

Robert Wright in Wired:

There are people who believe that the political polarization now afflicting the United States might finally start to subside if Americans of both parties could somehow become more empathetic. If you’re one of these people, the American Political Science Review has sobering news for you.

Last week APSR—one of the alpha journals in political science—published a study which found that “empathic concern does not reduce partisan animosity in the electorate and in some respects even exacerbates it.”

The study had two parts. In the first part, Americans who scored high on an empathy scale showed higher levels of “affective polarization”—defined as the difference between the favorability rating they gave their political party and the rating they gave the opposing party. In the second part, undergraduates were shown a news story about a controversial speaker from the opposing party visiting a college campus. Students who had scored higher on the empathy scale were more likely to applaud efforts to deny the speaker a platform.

It gets worse.

More here.

Meeting a prodigious memory

Stafan Zweig (writing in 1929, Vienna) in Lapham’s Quarterly:

I reiterated my object in consulting him: to get a list of all the early works on animal magnetism, and of contemporary and subsequent books and pamphlets for and against Mesmer. When I had said my say, Mendel closed his left eye for an instant, as if excluding a grain of dust. This was, with him, a sign of concentrated attention. Then, as though reading from an invisible catalogue, he reeled out the names of two or three dozen titles, giving in each case place and date of publication and approximate price. I was amazed, though Schmidt had warned me what to expect. His vanity was tickled by my surprise, for he went on to strum the keyboard of his marvelous memory, and to produce the most astounding bibliographic marginal notes. Did I want to know about sleepwalkers, Perkins’ metallic tractors, early experiments in hypnotism, Braid, Gassner, attempts to conjure up the devil, Christian Science, theosophy, Madame Blavatsky? In connection with each item, there was a hailstorm of book names, dates, and appropriate details. I was beginning to understand that Jacob Mendel was a living lexicon, something like the general catalogue of the British Museum Reading Room, but able to walk about on two legs.

…True, this memory owed its infallibility to the man’s limitations, to his extraordinary power of concentration. Apart from books, he knew nothing of the world. The phenomena of existence did not begin to become real for him until they had been set in type, arranged upon a composing stick, collected, and, so to say, sterilized in a book. Nor did he read books for their meaning, to extract their spiritual or narrative substance. What aroused his passionate interest, what fixed his attention, was the name, the price, the format, the title page. Though in the last analysis unproductive and uncreative, this specifically antiquarian memory of Jacob Mendel, since it was not a printed book catalogue but was stamped upon the gray matter of a mammalian brain, was, in its unique perfection, no less remarkable a phenomenon than Napoleon’s gift for physiognomy, Mezzofanti’s talent for languages, Lasker’s skill at chess openings, Busoni’s musical genius. When someday there arises a great psychologist who shall classify the types of that magical power we term memory as effectively as Buffon classified the genera and species of animals, a man competent to give a detailed description of all the varieties, he will have to find a pigeonhole for Jacob Mendel, forgotten master of the lore of book prices and book titles, the ambulatory catalogue alike of incunabula and the modern commonplace.

More here.

London Falling: The dying empire state of mind

Rafia Zakaria in The Baffler:

IT IS A TRUTH universally accepted that any columnist who travels to a foreign country to write will be, eventually, in search of a cab. If the entire Middle East has been made intelligible to New York Times readers by the inveterate interviewer of taxi drivers Thomas Friedman, then so too with the fate of Near-Brexit Britain. It follows that when I got to London on Election Day (December 12) I immediately got into the taxi line at Heathrow airport. Soon, I figured, an insightful and expert cab driver who I would dub Niles or Julian in my ensuing column, would deliver me the gems that make for good punditry. It was, predictably, a rainy and blustery day in London, and I scurried to the cab to which I had been pointed as fast as I could. The driver, however, was not so inclined; not, in fact, inclined at all. A white man, he sat in his black cab and looked straight ahead. I kept banging at the door until finally the attendant sidled over and said “Take the next one.” I did and as I did, I saw from the corner of my eye a white woman who had stood behind me in line get into the cab that had been unavailable to me. The cab driver so immoveable to my entreaties readily got out and loaded her suitcases for her.

I did get into the next cab, whose driver, thankfully, was an elderly Jamaican-British man. Then it sunk in: I was a brown person in London on a day when there was a reckoning, in some significant part, on the acceptability of brown and black others. My new cab-driver expert affirmed this. “It’s all about the immigrants,” he said as the cab sped past surly London suburbs, rain soaked and wan. “All the jobs here are done by the immigrants but the British don’t want us,” he expounded. “Get rid of the immigrants they say,” he went on as we slipped under a graffiti-sprayed bridge; in the whorls and words I could read an angrily scrawled “Out.” When we got to my budget hotel my cab driver sent me off with “Boris Johnson is going to win.”

Boris Johnson did win and the results were as anti-climactic as election results can be.

More here.

Sunday Poem

An iPoem

You must hold your quiet center,
where you do what only you can do.
If others call you a maniac or a fool,
just let them wag their tongues.
If some praise your perseverance,
don’t feel too happy about it—
only solitude is your lasting friend.

You must hold your distant center.
Don’t move even if earth and heaven quake.
If others think you are insignificant,
that’s because you haven’t held on long enough.
As long as you stay put year after year,
someday you will find a world
beginning to revolve around you.

by by Ha Jin
from The Distant Center
Copper Canyon Press, 2018

The Fight Over the 1619 Project Is Not About the Facts

1861: A slave auction in Virginia, USA. A black family are being auctioned. A newspaper, The New York Herald, lies on the floor. (Photo by Rischgitz/Getty Images)

Adam Serwer in The Atlantic:

U.S. history is often taught and popularly understood through the eyes of its great men, who are seen as either heroic or tragic figures in a global struggle for human freedom. The 1619 Project, named for the date of the first arrival of Africans on American soil, sought to place “the consequences of slavery and the contributions of black Americans at the very center of our national narrative.” Viewed from the perspective of those historically denied the rights enumerated in America’s founding documents, the story of the country’s great men necessarily looks very different.

The reaction to the project was not universally enthusiastic. Several weeks ago, the Princeton historian Sean Wilentz, who had criticized the 1619 Project’s “cynicism” in a lecture in November, began quietly circulating a letter objecting to the project, and some of Hannah-Jones’s work in particular. The letter acquired four signatories—James McPherson, Gordon Wood, Victoria Bynum, and James Oakes, all leading scholars in their field. They sent their letter to three top Times editors and the publisher, A. G. Sulzberger, on December 4. A version of that letter was published on Friday, along with a detailed rebuttal from Jake Silverstein, the editor of the Times Magazine.

More here.

The Democratic People’s Republic of U.S. Monetary Policy

<> on May 20, 2013 in Washington, DC.

Leah Downey in Foreign Policy:

In a post-Great Recession world, monetary policy just looks different. For one thing, central bank independence is dead—but the U.S. Congress doesn’t know it yet. We could argue for hours, or days, about whether it ever really existed or when exactly it died, but suffice to say that the moment quantitative easing started, the Federal Reserve stepped out of its well-defined monetary box, and independence was no more. Central bankers know it: In a recent survey, 61 percent of former central bankers surveyed from around the world predicted that central banks would be less independent in the future.

The U.S. Congress has not acknowledged this reality. Members of Congress depend on the doctrine of central bank independence to keep the dirty business of monetary policy off their hands. The question is whether Congress will continue to ignore reality and let the Fed take on more power—and increasingly fiscal rather than just monetary—over the economy or whether it will choose to step in, reassert its political power, and get more involved. Most important of all is a question no one seems willing to ask: What might the answer to this question say about the state of U.S. democracy?

More here.

The Radical James Baldwin

Laura Tanenbaum in Jacobin:

Living in Fire, Bill Mullen’s new biography of James Baldwin is many things: a short, accessible introduction to Baldwin’s life and work drawing on his letters and unpublished writings; an argument for his place among left artists and writers; and an overview of his less well-known writings on queer identity and anti-imperialism, including their relation to Palestine. It’s also a great advertisement for the New York City public schools.

Baldwin grew up as the oldest of nine children. His father was a storefront preacher who worked at a soda bottling plant, making $27.50 a week. His childhood took place largely during the Great Depression, when black unemployment reached 50 percent, but Baldwin’s teacher, Orilla Miller, nonetheless called the poverty of Baldwin’s house among the worst she had seen. Taking a liking to Baldwin, Miller brought him along to the movies, an experience he would recount many years later in The Devil Finds Work, his book-length essay about American films; her husband took Baldwin to the May Day parade, where he got his first taste of what he later described as “the universal and inevitable ferment which explodes into what is called a revolution.”

More here.

We Are Witnessing a Rediscovery of India’s Republic

Rohit De and Surabhi Ranganathan in NYT:

As India’s new citizenship law seeks to create a stratified citizenship based on religion, a large number of Indians opposing it are emerging as a people of one book, the country’s Constitution, which came into force on Jan. 26, 1950.

In the past two weeks, diverse crowds across the country have responded to the discriminatory Citizenship Amendment Act, referred to as the C.A.A., passed by Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Hindu nationalist government by chanting the preamble to the Constitution of India, with its promises of social, political and economic justice, freedom of thought, expression and belief, equality and fraternity.

Student protesters being herded into police vans, opposition leaders standing outside the Indian Parliament and ebullient crowds of tens of thousands in Hyderabad, Delhi, Kolkata, Mumbai and Chennai have read aloud the preamble and held aloft copies of the Constitution and portraits of B.R. Ambedkar, its chief draftsman.

The C.A.A. offers an accelerated pathway to citizenship for Hindu, Sikh, Zoroastrian, Buddhist and Christian migrants from Pakistan, Bangladesh and Afghanistan but excludes Muslims. It effectively creates a hierarchical system of citizenship determined by an individual’s religion, reminiscent of Myanmar’s 1982 Citizenship Law, which privileged citizenship for “indigenous races,” excluded the Rohingya and paved the ground for the genocidal violence against them.

More here.

What It Would Take for Evangelicals to Turn on President Trump

Michael Luo in The New Yorker:

One night in 1953, the Reverend Billy Graham awoke at two in the morning, went to his study, and started writing down ideas for the creation of a new religious journal. Graham, then in his mid-thirties, was an internationally renowned evangelist who held revival meetings that were attended by tens of thousands, in stadiums around the world. He had also become the leader of a cohort of pastors, theologians, and other Protestant luminaries who aspired to create a new Christian movement in the United States that avoided the cultural separatism of fundamentalism and the theological liberalism of mainline Protestantism. Harold Ockenga, a prominent minister and another key figure in the movement, called this more culturally engaged vision of conservative Christianity “new evangelicalism.” Graham believed a serious periodical could serve as the flagship for the movement. The idea for the publication, as he later wrote, was to “plant the Evangelical flag in the middle of the road, taking a conservative theological position but a definite liberal approach to social problems.” The magazine would be called Christianity Today.

During the next several decades, Graham’s movement became the dominant force in American religious life, and perhaps the country’s most influential political faction. From the late nineteen-seventies through the mid-eighties, evangelicals became increasingly aligned with the Republican Party, progressively shifting its priorities to culture-war issues like abortion. Today, evangelical Protestants account for approximately a quarter of the U.S. population and represent the political base of the G.O.P. Despite President Trump’s much publicized moral shortcomings, more than eighty per cent of evangelicals supported him in the 2016 election. Last week, however, Mark Galli, the ninth editor to lead Christianity Today since its founding, in 1956, published an editorial calling for President Trump’s impeachment and removal from office. “The president of the United States attempted to use his political power to coerce a foreign leader to harass and discredit one of the president’s political opponents,” Galli writes. “That is not only a violation of the Constitution; more importantly, it is profoundly immoral.” Galli, who will retire from his post early in the new year, implores evangelicals who continue to stand by Trump to “remember who you are and whom you serve. Consider how your justification of Mr. Trump influences your witness to your Lord and Savior.”

Galli and other contributors to the magazine have been critical of Trump in the past, but the forcefulness of the editorial took many by surprise. The piece became a sensation, trending online and receiving widespread media coverage.

More here.

Ralph Ellison’s Letters Reveal a Complex Philosopher of Black Expression

Saidiya Hartman in The New York Times:

“Complexity” was the term that Ralph Ellison deployed most often to describe black life and culture. And it is the term best suited to convey the character of this brilliant, often disapproving and unsparing man. Decades before Toni Morrison’s “Beloved” and “Song of Solomon,” “Invisible Man” (1952) singularly defined the meaning of literary achievement. As a critic, Ellison was no less significant a thinker and stylist. Always, he was a philosopher of black expressive form and an astute cultural analyst.

I first encountered Ellison through the scrim of Larry Neal’s 1970 essay “Ellison’s Zoot Suit,” so I knew what I needed to read for — the invaluable critical propositions about African-American culture, the dazzling enactment of blues vernacular in modernist prose, artistic achievement steeped in reference to the music and an eye capable of discerning what Zora Neale Hurston described as the distinctive asymmetry and angularity that were the most striking manifestations of black style and the will to adorn. I also knew what I had to read past — the cult of the masculine hero and an aesthetic project that “restores to man his full complexity” and to the native son truth and revelation, while abandoning the daughter to the chaos of the underworld.

More here.

Saturday Poem


The animals are dying.
All the beautiful women are dying too.

Elizabeth Kolbert writes you can see the sixth
mass extinction unraveling in your own backyard.
Out the fourteenth-story windows of the hotel
I watch as an unraveling of women
pull themselves from a small blue rectangle
to dry their skin. This must be the most
beautiful thing. First, women, and second, women
as a diorama of themselves. In a 1969 lecture available
online, physicist Albert Bartlett tells us, The greatest
shortcoming of the human race is our inability to understand
the exponential function. Jenifer Wightman quotes this in
her paper
on bacterial pointillism, a type of painting technique whereby mud
is colonized by pigmented bacteria to produce an evolving color-
field of living pigment
s, a Rothko-like landscape whose subject is
generations of sequential doublings. Always there is what
scientists call
the background rate of extinction, that little death hum of
one to five
species per year, and today it’s
a thousand to ten thousand times that. They’re dying
before we know they exist. Can you see that? The hotel room rises
fourteen stories, 196 stories, 2,744 stories, and the women in
the pool
are multiplying into a Rothko painting. On the news, I watch
Syrian women haul bundled children through Aleppo’s
smoldering fossil. They are dying, as are their children.
Syrian mothers write appeals followed by farewells
on social media. Final message, one reads. I am very sad
no one is helping us in this world, no one is evacuating me &
my daughter,
goodbye. Blue is the opposite of red, oxygen molecules
binding to hemoglobin as a blue thing exposed
reddens. On the day after Christmas in 2015 the New York Times
a video of a twenty-seven-year-old Muslim woman in Kabul
accused of burning
the Quran. A male mob swells. The policemen stand back as
poles &
bricks are held above her. Then, at a certain velocity, lowered
to break her. It is hundreds of men crying Allahu Akbar
as she whimpers Allahu Akbar from the ground. I watch this video
stitched from cellphone footage on a tablet held
between my father’s hands. They kill her. They run
her over. They burn her against a stone wall on a riverbank.
She was never burning a Quran, anyone could’ve seen that.
A year later, I recall the video and in order to find it,
the specificities blurred by now, I type into the search bar
Muslim woman red scarf burning Quran.
Only midway through the video do I realize
her face is so blood-drenched I have in my memory replaced it
with a red scarf. In fact, by the time the men get to burning her,
her body is so blood-drenched they must use their own scarves
to light her. But those halving miracles
derived from her marrow, exponentially
going extinct against the stone wall on the riverbank—
I couldn’t. I didn’t. When the men burned her,
the policemen said, Be careful of the fire.
by Hannah Perrin King

from Narrative Magazine 

Ila Kumar, 16-year-old, on what she would want her future self to know, after throwing up in her father’s Honda

Ila Kumar, deserving winner of a national writing contest for this, in The Lily:

Dear imagined future self,

On Halloween, my best friend’s older brother sold us each one Poland Spring water bottle filled with watered-down vodka. There are now 15 dollars less to my name. We drank this vodka with a great deal of teenage bravado — trying not wince at the clear liquid’s resemblance to rubbing alcohol. My friend’s father made a crudité platter for us. The night ended with me throwing up baby carrots and mini peppers in my dad’s Honda, at the first hard left out of my friend’s driveway. Never have I felt more like a 16-year-old.

Future self, I hope you are more sophisticated now. Not a “blousy” adult who wears long necklaces — but the kind of adult who seems like they drink salads, wear camel coats and know the definition to words like “palaver.”

My dad didn’t say anything. I knew he understood what had happened, and why. Maybe the same thing had happened to him when he was 16. Silence hung between us like fog; I felt embarrassed to be alive.

More here.

Can an AI Fact-Checker Solve India’s Fake News Problem?

Puja Changoiwala in Undark:

False words, phony videos, doctored photos, and violent content are regular features on the online ecosystem worldwide. India is no exception, where such content, which often attracts millions of views, has led to grave crimes and even communal and political unrest.

With more than half a billion Indians online, the Indian government and social media platforms like Facebook, Twitter, and WhatsApp now struggle to contain the misinformation and disinformation epidemics. MetaFact, a local startup, says it has found solutions in a type of artificial intelligence called natural language processing, which combines linguistics and computer science. The goal of the technology is to teach computers how to understand how human, or natural, language works by showing it many examples.

MetaFact’s fact-checking tool, the company says, uses natural language processing, sometimes called NLP, to help detect, monitor, and counter phony stories. The tool is meant to extend to newsrooms “the power to detect and monitor fake news in real time, sifting through all the data cacophony that is generated online,” Sagar Kaul, MetaFact’s founder, wrote in an email to Undark.

More here.

Researchers asked 2,500 Jewish and Muslim people what they find offensive – here’s what they said

Julian Hargreaves in The Conversation:

Accusations of antisemitism have been swirling around the Labour Party since Jeremy Corbyn’s election as leader in 2015. He has been accused of harbouring antisemitic views and offering public support to party colleagues labelled as antisemitic. Meanwhile, the Conservative Party have faced accusations of “endemic” Islamophobia.

In the run-up to the 2019 general election, the main political parties have repeatedly accused each other of antisemitism and Islamophobia. Away from politics, there are widespread concerns about prejudice targeting Jews and Muslims. But the narratives are often simplistic and without supporting data. We hear much from politicians, community leaders and experts. We hear far less from “everyday” people and know relatively little about what Jewish and Muslim members of the public are likely to find offensive.

recent study, published in Ethnic and Racial Studies, is the first known study to compare antisemitism and Islamophobia using statistics and found varying levels of sensitivity towards antisemitism and Islamophobia among British Jewish and Muslim communities. The study offers a rare insight into the sensitivities of “everyday” people within both communities.

More here.