It’s summertime. Things are heating up. A comet trips across the night sky; I make out its vast and blurry tail, then watch a sharp bright shooting star fall through the heavens. I drag a mattress out onto the deck and lie under a massive blanket of stars, a very milky way. I’m alone, and because I’m at the moment far from the terrible violence of the current American system, I’m able to experience this space as voluptuous and luxurious. I sleep and eat whenever I want. Rain comes early in the morning and I drag the mattress back inside. I eat peaches and cream, have an extra cup of coffee. Listen to Monk and The Gossip and Beethoven and various obscure djs and some old Tribe Called Quest. I can be random and feral (which a friend said would be a good name for a law firm). I am aware of how rare and, to use a term now obligatory and perhaps too much bandied about, how privileged this is. I am not living in poverty. My child is grown and on his own. I have space and time and no worries in this remote place of being shot by the police. The land and few people I encounter here have a deep quietness.
Meanwhile in the news, virulently anti-feminist lawyer Roy Den Hollander murders the son of a female judge he wasn’t happy with. In front of reporters, Representative Ted Yoho shakes his finger in Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s face and calls her a “fucking bitch.” Many of us are pretty sure that if we had elected Hillary instead of Trump, thousands more Americans would be alive today. There have been many reports of how much better countries run by women have done during this plague, and yet, as Peter Beinart writes in the New York Times, Hillary was perceived more unfavorably than Trump, and far more unfavorably than Biden. Bernie Sanders is perceived as more trustworthy than Elizabeth Warren even though there is no basis for this. I’ve seen horrendous attacks by both men and women of the left on female candidates, as well as on anyone who has dared support them in any way. Read more »
In one sense, the stories of the collection Almost No Memory, originally published in 1997 and reprinted in The Collected Stories of Lydia Davis in 2009, can be read as a psychological portrait of a middle-aged woman coming to terms with all the usual things life has to offer after a certain age: the convolutions of domestic discord, shrinking horizons, the sobering insight that very little can change us anymore. The voices are both many and one, converging in a polyphony of percipient anxiety and resignation: we hear “wife one,” an “often raging though now quiet woman” eating dinner alone after talking on the phone to “wife two”; a professor who fantasizes about marrying a cowboy, although she is “so used to the companionship of [her] husband by now that if I were to marry a cowboy I would want to take him with me”; and a woman who “fell in love with a man who had been dead a number of years.” There is also a woman who “comes running out of the house with her face white and her overcoat flapping wildly,” crying “emergency, emergency”; a woman who wishes she had a second chance to learn from her mistakes; and one who has “no choice but to continue to proceed as if I know altogether what I am, though I may also try to guess, from time to time, just what it is that others know that I do not know.” The list continues, from a woman wondering why she can become so vicious with her children to another whose mind wanders to sex at the sight of “anything pounding, anything stroking; anything bolt upright, anything horizontal and gaping” and one who is filled with “ill will toward one I think I should love, ill will toward myself, and discouragement over the work I think I should be doing.”
Almost No Memory strikes a different set of chords than the collection preceding it, Break It Down. While there is a dry hilarity to some of the stories, others take on a surreal aura. “Liminal” describes “the moment when a limit is reached, when there is nothing ahead but darkness: some thing comes in to help that is not real.” When the innocent cruelty inherent in the relationship between predator and prey stands for truths that lie just beyond our ability to comprehend them, animals take on the weight and magnitude of totems. Read more »
Undoubtedly many insights and lessons can be drawn and will be drawn for a long time to come from the current worldwide covid19 epidemic; insights, for example, about the responsibility of politicians in the managing of health crises, about the importance of human cooperation both locally and internationally, about the vulnerability of the global economy to disturbances in the regular flow of people and commodities, about the crucial yet contentious role of the various media in the dissemination of information, etc. But here I am interested in focusing briefly on related issues regarding the problematic relationship of science and the general public. Specifically, I want to offer some reflections on why I think science in trying times can be hard to live with.
What I have in mind is this. During times of normalcy (whether on the individual or collective level) our engagement or concern with the institutions and practices of science is rather limited. Of course, we constantly rely on the technological applications of science, but these almost magical apparatuses which pervade our lives do not for the most part raise any questions for us about the role of science in their emergence, as these technologies are typically taken for granted as the natural medium in which we exist. Specifically, we remain oblivious of the long and arduous process that made them possible in the first place: the years of research, the fits and starts, the difficult births, the contingent nature of discovery, etc. – all these remain for us far behind the scenes, deep under the hood. The various devices that we enjoy seem to descend unheeded from the sky – as if bestowed upon us by some benevolent god – and we embrace them (or not) depending on our desires or whims.
Almost the exact opposite is the case in moments of crisis and distress. Here there is a reversal: we, the public, are no longer the passive recipients of technological dispensations, but actively demand that science provide answers and solutions to our urgent, life-and-death, needs. Science is called to account from the bottom up. Additionally, as part of this transformation, we become, to various degrees, more interested in and concerned about the practice of science itself. Read more »
Materialism is the view that everything that exists is made of matter. What’s matter? It’s hard to say with both precision and completeness, but it can’t be far off to think of matter as whatever can engage causally with the known forces of nature: gravity, electromagnetism, and atomic forces (strong and weak). If a thing responds to any of those forces, that thing is material. Of course, maybe there are some unknown forces of nature, and we’ll have to revise as they become known, but right now, this seems to be an adequate criterion for judging what counts as matter.
But I don’t think materialism is true, and it’s not because I believe in spirits or love or imagination or magic. It’s because of math. Math is a science of form: it explores the possible forms or properties or systems that are possible. Some of these possible structures, of course, describe the real systems we come across in our world, which is neat, and makes physics possible. But there are many, many more possibilities than are actual. It doesn’t take many beers before a gang of interested mathematicians will start describing all sorts of things that could never come to exist in our puny world because they are too big or complicated.
As the gang of mathematicians start describing these otherworldly possibilities, they are not just making stuff up. They can get things right, and get them wrong. It’s really hard to do math, because it’s all about proofs, which slide easily from validity into invalidity, or from coherence into incoherence, with a move as subtle as the fall of an eyelash. But communities of mathematicians keep one another in check, and what they do is as rigorous as any human endeavor can be.
So what about all these non-actual possibilities? If they are not just make-believe, what makes them genuine as possibilities? The best answer, I think, is that there are truths about structure, truths about form, which outrun all of the truths about matter. Our material world is the real-life version of a relatively small set of possible structures, but there is a much bigger world in existence, which is the one that math describes.Read more »
Our classes in the British university where I was teaching Pre-sessional students (mainly Chinese) were cancelled for a Special Event. Instead of their normal lessons on academic English, our students were shepherded off to witness a series of presentations on ‘learning.’ Learning, they were told, was ‘Collaborative,’ ‘Creative,’ and ‘Self-directed,’ and depended upon ‘Taking Responsibility for one’s own learning,’ ‘Thinking Critically,’ ‘Problem-solving’ and ‘Taking the Initiative.’
While no one would dispute that these approaches are valuable in themselves, and relevant in some learning situations, they clearly exemplify stereotypical Western liberal values. I looked in vain in the prospectus that had drawn my students to attend our university for evidence that the syllabus included the imparting of these ideals. No, what they had paid for was instruction in the English language; specifically, training in academic writing.
To me this looked like a failure on our part to supply our customers with the goods they had paid for. More seriously, it looked like a neo-colonialist attempt to impose British cultural values upon a captive audience of rather vulnerable foreigners. I do not think that our lecturers, if they attended a conference in Beijing, would appreciate being obliged to attend a plenary session on Chinese Communism. I observed as much to a senior lecturer, in the politest possible manner.
His response was robust. Apparently, learning can take place only with the sort of educational approaches that have developed in our culture over the past generation or so. My suggestion that Chinese people seemed to be very good at learning things – better in some areas than Westerners – was met with a direct contradiction. Chinese people could not really learn at all. Nor, it turned out, as the conversation developed, could Indians, Arabs or Africans. They were not even able to think properly. In fact, only Western people could think, or learn anything worthwhile, the qualification being softened to include people of colour who were entirely Westernised, like, say, Barack Obama. To be fair, the bit about Obama was an inference on my part. Read more »
I began taking piano lessons when I was 8 years old, along with Lynn, my older and Mark, one of my brothers. Every Wednesday we’d walk together from school to a small storefront on Milwaukee Avenue about a half mile away. The store windows were covered in drapes, with a little sign indicating the teacher’s name and PIANO LESSONS. My sister gave her the $3 for three lessons, and we entered the small studio, which had a grand piano and a sofa, bookshelves, and a heavy, dusty drape separating the studio from the living quarters. We’d each wait patiently, doing our homework on the sofa while the other one had his or her lesson.
We enjoyed learning the piano, but didn’t enjoy Mrs. K. She was creepy. We thought she might have been a Roma fortune teller or a magician, as she wore strange jewelry and shawls, and had Persian carpets and draperies around her studio. To us kids she looked about 90 years old (probably more like 40). She was actually a rather unsuccessful concert pianist, and memorabilia was scattered around the studio such as notices of performances and autographed pictures of famous conductors. She didn’t talk about it much her past life at all, as she was reduced to teaching piano lessons to the blue-collar neighborhood kids like ourselves. We persisted with lessons because we always did as we were told. We went home and put in our half-hour of practice on the second-hand but well-tuned piano that dad bought for us, and little by little we began to learn how to play. Read more »
Before the Modi regime annexed Kashmir on August 5th last, Jawaharlal Nehru, India’s first prime minster, in fact annexed Kashmir in 1947 just months after India partitioned herself to create the new state of Pakistan.
Delhi flew in a regiment of troops to Srinagar as soon as the Maharajah of Kashmir signed an Instrument of Accession. Even the great Mahatma Gandhi approved of Nehru’s action.
Modi’s so-called annexation last year was religiously motivated. Kashmir penetrates the core of Hindu nationalist idea of Akhand Bharat, united, undivided Hindu India from Afghanistan to Pakistan to Myanmar to Thailand, Cambodia and Laos.
That’s the map draped in orange the color of choice of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, RSS, founded in 1924, a volunteer army of the young, world’s largest fascist organization, based in Nagpur. It’s the parent organization of the Bharatiya Janata Party, BJP, the present xenophobic regime in Delhi.
Modi’s functionaries told their Hindu goons that Kashmir’s Muslim majority population was now truly an integral part of India and that Hindus should at once apply for Domicile Certificates to buy property in Kashmir. and marry fair-skinned Kashmiri girls.
But Nehru loved Kashmir. It was his ancestral home. His family were Kashmiri pandits. There are 250,000 pandits in Kashmir, 3% of Kashmir’s 8 million Muslims. Pandits are 0.1% of India’s 1.2 billion, but Modi’s regime has weaponized the 0.1 % pandits to rouse India’s Hindus. Modi will dump the pandits after doing his feats, and the pandits know it. Read more »
Over the past two years a striking change has taken place in the boardrooms of greenhouse-gas producers: a growing number of large companies have announced commitments to achieve “net zero” emissions by 2050. These include the oil majors BP, Shell, and Total, the mining giant Rio Tinto, and the electricity supplier Southern Company. While such commitments are often described as “voluntary”—not mandated by government regulation—they were often adopted begrudgingly by executives and boards acquiescing to demands made by a coordinated group of their largest shareholders.
This group, Climate Action 100+, is an association of many of the world’s largest institutional investors. With over 450 members, it manages a staggering $40 trillion in assets—roughly 46 percent of global GDP. Founded in 2017, the coalition initially was made up mostly of pension funds and European asset managers, but its ranks have grown rapidly, and last winter both J.P. Morgan and BlackRock (the world’s largest asset manager) became signatories to the association’s pledge to pressure portfolio companies to reduce emissions and disclose financial risks related to climate change.
At the heart of every white dwarf star—the dense stellar object that remains after a star has burned away its fuel reserve of gases as it nears the end of its life cycle—lies a quantum conundrum: as white dwarfs add mass, they shrink in size, until they become so small and tightly compacted that they cannot sustain themselves, collapsing into a neutron star.
This puzzling relationship between a white dwarf’s mass and size, called the mass-radius relation, was first theorized by Nobel Prize-winning astrophysicist Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar in the 1930s. Now, a team of Johns Hopkins astrophysicists has developed a method to observe the phenomenon itself using astronomical data collected by the Sloan Digital Sky Survey and a recent dataset released by the Gaia Space Observatory. The combined datasets provided more than 3,000 white dwarfs for the team to study.
Am I being reductive? All of narrative fiction, I’ve suggested, can be sorted into four grand categories. Each presents a rich world of feeling in which any number of stories can be told and positions established, but always in relation to, or rather, driven by, a distinct cluster of values and consequent emotions. My claim is that it really is worth being aware which of these worlds we are being drawn into. We read better. We know where we are. And what the dangers are.
Where did I get this idea? The novelist and critic Raymond Williams, whose lectures I attended years ago, used to speak with fascination of the identical “structures of feeling” that he came across in quite different books. “It was a structure in the sense that you could perceive it operating in one work after another which weren’t otherwise connected—people weren’t learning it from each other; yet it was one of feeling much more than of thought—a pattern of impulses, restraints, tones.”
The discipline of systemic psychology, which owed a great deal to the work of the anthropologist Gregory Bateson, elaborated similar ideas: families, communities, individuals could be understood in relation to distinct value systems. In her influential work Permitted and Forbidden Stories, the Italian psychologist Valeria Ugazio identifies four: the first three correspond more or less to the three kinds of fiction I’ve explored: stories focused on the characters’ relations to the community (belonging), around conflicts between indulgence and renunciation (goodness), around a tension between the craving to be free and a need to feel protected (liberty). And the fourth?
As we head into a tumultuous US election season, it is worth remembering that political parties can get trapped in partisan frameworks that cater to the loudest sections of their base, but which prevent them from appealing to a wider range of voters. Ideological litmus tests not only narrow appeal, but they cause politicians to pander, to disregard evidence, and to reject compromise in favor of rhetorical stridency. Social conservatives’ endlessly sputtering crusade over pornography is unusual in that it brings them into alliance with many radical feminists on the Left. Nevertheless, of the two main parties, it is the moral majoritarians in the Republican Party who have most frequently attempted to generate political capital by inveighing against pornography. This movement’s foundational moment was President Reagan’s Meese commission established to investigate the potential harms caused by pornography. The Meese Report, however, badly over-reached—even those who worry about the effects of pornography acknowledge it made unsubstantiated claims about its effects. Recent US presidential election years have seen promises to strengthen anti-pornography laws included as part of the Republican national platform. Sixteen US states, mostly conservative leaning, have now declared pornography to be a public health crisis
This ideological obsession with pornography is bad for conservatives for several reasons. First, evidence linking pornography to negative outcomes is weak. Second, it’s an easy issue to lampoon because, notwithstanding conservatives’ expressed outrage about pornography, it is actually more popular in conservative enclaves. And third, producers of pornography involving consenting adults are protected by the First Amendment, so there’s little hope of satisfying constituents’ desire for its suppression.
THE LATE, GREAT COMEDIAN Bill Hicks liked to tell a story about how audiences responded to his brand of scathing, gleefully subversive comedy, which he once referred to as “Chomsky with dick jokes.” Hicks’s relentless skewering of American materialism, jingoism, and religious hypocrisy didn’t exactly endear him to the mainstream. An appearance on the Letterman show was infamously cut—it was taped, but not aired—for containing jokes about pro-lifers, who were among the show’s sponsors. After a set in Tennessee, the story goes, a couple of locals confronted the Texas-born comic and declared that they were Christians and they didn’t like his act. Without missing a beat, Hicks responded with “well then, forgive me.” Instead, they broke his arm.
You might think reacting in such a spirit of vengeance is pretty much the exact opposite of how any self-professed Christian is supposed to behave. Yet there were deeper and more distinctly American pathologies at work: the guys who supposedly beat up Hicks were responding politically, not theologically. It wasn’t an attempt to defend Jesus’ honor or the tenets of whatever church they might have belonged to—it was to show that little punk who was really boss. They probably didn’t even notice the irony; and why would they? They may have grown up in an evangelical culture, but that culture glorifies what we now refer to as toxic masculinity. This “muscular Christianity” encourages both aggression and victimhood, emboldening believers, especially men, to impose their collective will on the rest of the public whenever they suddenly feel empowered or aggrieved.
In Jesus & John Wayne: How White Evangelicals Corrupted A Faith and Fractured a Nation the historian Kristin Kobes Du Mez explores this moral schizophrenia. We know there are legions of people on the religious right who talk a good game about following Christ but end up voting overwhelmingly for venal, crass, blustering wannabe tough guys like the current president and his enablers in Congress. But much of the evangelical leadership is this way, too. It often consists of self-appointed alpha male types who write bestselling books with imposing titles like Dare to Discipline, and Never Surrender, and You: The Warrior Leader, and Why We [meaning Muslims, of course] Want to Kill You. A writer for the Christian Broadcasting Network even teamed up with a Baptist minister a couple of years ago to produce The Faith of Donald J. Trump: A Spiritual Biography. While trying to mimic the terse, stoic cowboy ideal of manhood nicked from old Western movies, these opportunistic showboats often end up sounding and acting a lot more like Tom Cruise’s Frank T.J. Mackie in Magnolia, the brash misogynist who gives conferences about how to seduce and destroy women and who turns out to be a basket case of Oedipal rage and self-loathing.
The use of John Wayne as an evangelical role model implicitly suggests how some people’s religious beliefs are akin to identifying with their favorite movie stars.
Tolstoy was drawn to seekers, to characters perpetually in the throes of spiritual crisis; George Orwell described them as figures “struggling to make their souls.” Indeed, Tolstoy saw emergencies, personal and social, as necessary ruptures that could spark a deeper questioning of society and the beliefs that supported it. Of his own spiritual reawakening, captured in his memoir “A Confession” (1882), he described feeling as though the ground beneath him had collapsed. It is no wonder, then, that readers are finding new urgency in his work at a time when the racial and economic inequities revealed by Covid-19 and police killings have inspired unprecedented numbers of people to begin questioning some of this country’s foundational myths. With calls to defund the police, many are asking, for the first time in their lives, not just how our institutions function but whether they should exist at all.
One of Tolstoy’s seekers who found himself on such a path is Ivan Vassilievich, the protagonist of his 1903 short story “After the Ball.” Ivan is a young society man who falls in love with the daughter of a colonel, and plans to enlist himself until a fateful early-morning walk. He has spent the previous night at a ball in town, dancing with the daughter, a “bony” young beauty named Varenka: “Though I was a fancier of champagne,” he reflects, “I did not drink, because, without any wine, I was drunk with love.” However, Ivan falls as much in love with Varenka’s father, a kind and gentle-seeming man, who, Ivan tenderly notes, wears plain boots to the ball because he prefers to spend all his extra money on his daughter. After the ball, Ivan returns home, but is still so full of enchantment that he cannot sleep.
Instead, he takes a walk across the snowy streets in the direction of Varenka’s home, but when he arrives, he encounters a confounding scene: “Soldiers in black uniforms were standing in two rows facing each other, holding their guns at their sides and not moving. Behind them stood the drummer and fifer, ceaselessly repeating the same unpleasant, shrill melody.” It is a military gantlet and the accused, a young Tatar officer (Tatars were an ethnic minority in Russia), is being punished for desertion. Ivan looks on, frozen, as the young man’s body becomes bloodied: “His whole body jerking, his feet splashing through the melting snow, the punished man moved toward me under a shower of blows.” Ivan sees that the colonel leading the procession is none other than Varenka’s father, the man he thought of only hours before as loving and warm.
Katrina Forrester’s In the Shadow of Justice approaches Rawls’s work from the perspective of an intellectual historian. Her central thesis is that Rawls should be seen not as a philosopher of the 1960s—the era of Vietnam and of Lyndon Johnson’s ‘Great Society’—but rather as a thinker of the America of the 1940s and 50s. In those years, liberals sceptical of the interventionism of the administrative state saw their task as that of ‘securing the values of freedom and equality without the state intervention and political control that decades of state expansion had made a new norm’. On his return to Princeton in 1946 after three years’ combat in the Pacific War, the young Rawls embraced a ‘barebones’ anti-statism, close to that of Hayek or Walter Lippmann. In particular, Forrester demonstrates the importance for him of Frank Knight’s Ethics of Competition (1935): Rawls underlined his personal copy in three different pens and drew from the work of Knight and others the key idea of the game and its consensual rules as a social model. From Lippmann’s The Good Society (1937) he borrowed the analogy of the highway code—consensual regulation of the flow of traffic benefited all drivers, regardless of where they were going—widely used by early ordo- and neo-liberals. The heuristic device of the discussion between ‘reasonable men’—‘average, rational, right-thinking and fair’ heads of households—was already present in his 1949 doctoral thesis on ethical knowledge.
In her introduction, Mary-Kay Wilmers, editor of the LRB, writes: “One of the pleasures of reading Jenny Diski, especially the essays, is that pleasure is such a large part of it.” Diski was worth hiring on any subject: feed her base metal, she turned it into gold. When not writing about herself, she is at her best considering the nasty and/or nondescript. Her subjects include Jeffrey Dahmer, Howard Hughes and Richard Branson, and she does not let Christine Keeler get away with a stuffy, faux-respectable take on her past. It is only because she has forced her way through “every damn word” of Keith Richards’s coarsely self-serving autobiography (in which he reveals Mick Jagger has a “tiny todger”) that she is determined to go ahead with her review. She is the most undeceived of writers – and surprising. Who else would combine reviewing a biography of Denis Thatcher with a reading of Melville’s Moby-Dick?