Trump’s Thoroughly Modern Masculinity

Susan Faludi in The New York Times:

Remarkably, in these fractious times, President Trump has managed to forge a singular area of consensus among liberals and conservatives, Republicans and Democrats: Nearly everyone seems to agree that he represents a throwback to a vintage version of manhood. After Mr. Trump proclaimed his “domination” over coronavirus, saluting Marine One and ripping off his mask, the Fox News host Greg Gutfeld cast the president in cinematic World War II terms — a tough-as-nails platoon leader who “put himself on the line” rather than abandon the troops. “He didn’t hide from the virus,” Mr. Gutfeld said. “He was going to walk out there on that battlefield with you.” Senator Kelly Loeffler of Georgia tweeted an altered WrestleMania video in which the president was portrayed as pummeling senseless an opponent with a spiked coronavirus head. “President Trump won’t have to recover from Covid,” Representative Matt Gaetz of Florida gloated. “Covid will have to recover from President Trump.”

Meanwhile, the putatively liberal news media was conjuring its own version of the boxing ring: with Mr. Trump in one corner as atavistic chest-beater and Joe Biden in the other as evolved exemplar of feminist-sensitized manhood. Mr. Trump and Mr. Biden “evoke different brands of manliness,” a Washington Post article argued: Mr. Trump channels “old-fashioned machismo” — “aggressive, physically tough, physically strong, never back down” (in the words of a gender-equity educator, Jackson Katz) — while Mr. Biden models what Mr. Katz calls “a more complex 21st-century version of masculinity,” defined by “compassion and empathy and care and a personal narrative of loss.”

But what if the one thing people agree on, they’re wrong about? What if Mr. Trump’s style of bullying and bombast aren’t relics of the old manhood, but emblems of a masculinity very much au courant? If that’s so, we may be fooling ourselves in declaring that his noxious model is heading for a natural extinction.

More here.

In a remarkably short time, digital technology has gone from being democracy’s handmaiden to its scourge. Such a dramatic turnaround should give us pause

Richard Hughes Gibson in The Hedgehog Review:

American society is prone, political theorist Langdon Winner wrote in 2005, to “technological euphoria,” each bout of which is inevitably followed by a period of letdown and reassessment. Perhaps in part for this reason, reviewing the history of digital democracy feels like watching the same movie over and over again. Even Winner’s point has that quality: He first made it in the mid-eighties and has repeated it in every decade since. In the same vein, Warren Yoder, longtime director of the Public Policy Center of Mississippi, responded to the Pew survey by arguing that we have reached the inevitable “low point” with digital technology—as “has happened many times in the past with pamphleteers, muckraking newspapers, radio, deregulated television.” (“Things will get better,” Yoder cheekily adds, “just in time for a new generational crisis beginning soon after 2030.”)

So one threat the present techlash poses is to obscure the ways that digital technology in fact serves many of the functions the visionaries imagined. We now take for granted the vast array of “Gov Tech”—meaning internal government digital upgrades—that makes our democracy go. We have become accustomed to the numerous government services that citizens can avail themselves of with a few clicks, a process spearheaded by the Clinton-Gore administration. We forget how revolutionary the “Internet campaign” of Howard Dean was at the 2004 Democratic primaries, establishing the Internet-based model of campaigning that all presidential candidates use to coordinate volunteer efforts and conduct fundraising, in both cases pulling new participants into the democratic process.

An honest assessment of the current state of digital democracy would acknowledge that the good jostles with the bad and the ugly.

More here.

Covid-19 deaths aren’t rising as fast in Europe and US, despite soaring new infections. That doesn’t mean the virus is less deadly

Ivana Kottasová at CNN:

Recent case and fatality figures from the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC) show that while recorded Covid-19 cases are spiking in the United Kingdom, France, Spain, Germany and other European countries, deaths are not rising at the same rate.

“The fatality rate has declined, in the UK, we can see it going down from around June to a low point in August,” said Jason Oke, a senior statistician at the Nuffield Department of Primary Care Health Sciences. “Our current estimate is that the infection fatality rate is going up a little bit, but it hasn’t come up to anywhere near where we were and that’s unlikely to change dramatically unless we see a really surprising increase in the numbers of deaths.”

Oke has been tracking Covid-19 fatality rates along with his colleague Carl Heneghan of the Centre for Evidence-Based Medicine and health economist Daniel Howdon. Their research shows that, at the end of June, the fatality rate was just below 3% in the UK. By August, it had dropped as low as about 0.5%. It now stands at roughly 0.75%.

“We think it’s probably driven a lot by age, but also other factors, like treatment,” Oke said.The lower death rate isn’t unique to Europe.

More here.

The Heart of the Matter: Translating the Heart Sutra

Leanne Ogasawara, and artwork by Morgan Fisher, in Kyoto Journal (republished here):


Back in the Tang dynasty, it was the heart that mattered. Thinking too much, philosophers warned, will only give you a headache. This fact was supported by the finest investigations of Chinese physicians and theologians who urged people to “still their hearts” and “empty their minds” in order to achieve liberation from suffering.

But Chinese Buddhists of the 7th century had a big problem to solve. One that would require some heavy-duty thinking.

How to translate abstract philosophical terms from Sanskrit –a language with an extraordinarily rich epistemological and ontological lexicon– into Chinese, a language poor in abstract vocabulary.

Words had to be invented. And it wouldn’t be easy, for how can a translator know if a translation is correct if they don’t have access to the original text?

It was to this task that Xuanzang, the Buddhist monk and translator extraordinaire devoted his life. Read more »

Thursday Poem

Domestic Violence


It was winter, lunar, wet. At dusk
Pewter seedlings became moonlight orphans.
Pleased to meet you meat to please you
said the butcher’s sign in the window in the village.

Everything changed the year that we got married.
And after that we moved out to the suburbs.
How young we were, how ignorant, how ready
to think the only history was our own.

And there was a couple who quarreled into the night,
Their voices high, sharp:
nothing is ever entirely
right in the lives of those who love each other.


In that season suddenly our island
Broke out its old sores for all to see.
We saw them too.
We stood there wondering how

the salt horizons and the Dublin hills,
the rivers, table mountains, Viking marshes
we thought we knew
had been made to shiver

into our ancient twelve by fifteen television
which gave them back as gray and grayer tears
and killings, killings, killings,
then moonlight-colored funerals:

nothing we said
not then, not later,
fathomed what it is
is wrong in the lives of those who hate each other.


And if the provenance of memory is
only that—remember, not atone—
and if I can be safe in
the weak spring light in that kitchen, then

why is there another kitchen, spring light
always darkening in it and
a woman whispering to a man
over and over what else could we have done?


We failed our moment or our moment failed us.
The times were grand in size and we were small.
Why do I write that
when I don’t believe it?

We lived our lives, were happy, stayed as one.
Children were born and raised here
and are gone,
including ours.

As for that couple did we ever
find out who they were
and did we want to?
I think we know. I think we always knew.

by Eavan Boland 
from Domestic Violence
W. W. Norton, 2007

These bizarre ancient species are rewriting animal evolution

Traci Watson in Nature:

The revolutionary animal lived and died in the muck. In its final hours, it inched across the sea floor, leaving a track like a tyre print, and finally went still. Then geology set to work. Over the next half a billion years, sediment turned to stone, preserving the deathbed scene. The fossilized creature looks like a piece of frayed rope measuring just a few centimetres wide. But it was a trailblazer among living things. This was the earliest-known animal to show unequivocal evidence of two momentous innovations packaged together: the ability to roam the ocean floor, and a body built from segments. It was also among the oldest known to have clear front and back ends, and a left side that mirrored its right. Those same features are found today in animals from flies to flying foxes, from lobsters to lions.

Palaeontologist Shuhai Xiao marvels at the tracks left by this creature, Yilingia spiciformis, and how they captured evidence of its movement. In his cluttered office at Virginia Tech in Blacksburg, he shows off a slab of beige resin — a reproduction of the fossil, which was found in China’s Yangtze Gorges region and is now kept in a Chinese research institute. The replica captures a snapshot of a moment from 550 million years ago. Xiao, whose team formally described Yilingia last year1, traces the bumpy tracks it made immediately before its death. “It was just moving around, and it died suddenly,” he says.

More here.

Misremembering the British Empire

Maya Jasanoff in The New Yorker:

On a cloud-spackled Sunday last June, protesters in Bristol, England, gathered at a statue of Edward Colston, a seventeenth-century slave trader on whose watch more than eighty thousand Africans were trafficked across the Atlantic. “Pull it down!” the crowd chanted, as people yanked on a rope around the statue’s neck. A few tugs, and the figure clanged off its pedestal. A panel of its coat skirt cracked off to expose a hollow buttock as the demonstrators rolled the statue toward the harbor, a few hundred yards away, and then tipped it headlong into the water.

The Black Lives Matter movement has accelerated a reckoning across Europe about the legacies of slavery and imperialism, nowhere more urgently than in Britain, which presided over the largest empire in world history. The Colston statue stood on Colston Avenue, in the shadow of Colston Tower, on Colston Street, around the corner from Colston Hall. Scratch almost any institution with roots in Britain’s era of global dominance and you’ll draw imperial blood—from the Rhodes Trust, established by the fervent expansionist and white supremacist Cecil Rhodes, to the British Museum, whose founding collection was funded by profits from Jamaican plantations worked by slaves, and the Booker Prize, launched by a food company once notorious for its exploitative practices in the cane fields of British Guiana. Every year, the Queen honors hundreds of citizens with the Order of the British Empire. (A 2004 parliamentary committee recommended changing the name to the Order of British Excellence, to no avail.)

Public discussion in Britain about the imperial past has pivoted on a reductive question: Was the empire good or bad? The Labour Party has pledged to “ensure the historical injustices of colonialism, and the role of the British Empire” are “properly integrated into the National Curriculum,” while Boris Johnson, the Prime Minister, decries a “cringing embarrassment about our history.” A March, 2020, poll found that a third of Britons believed that their empire had done more good than harm for colonies—a higher percentage than in other former imperial powers, including France and Japan. More than a quarter of Britons want the empire back.

Asking, today, whether empire was good or bad is, as a historical matter, about as useful as asking whether the Atlantic Ocean is good or bad.

More here.

After George Steiner

Martin Jay at Salmagundi:

And yet, despite his shifting placement in the dynamic force field of cultural politics, Steiner resisted turning into a curmudgeonly apologist for a world on the wane or allowing his Kulturpessimismus to sanction a resentful withdrawal from the public arena. In fact, one of the hallmarks of his career was a willingness to remain suspended within paradoxes, never forcing a simple choice between unpalatable options. This attitude was already evident in Language and Silence, which both celebrates humanistic high culture and acknowledges that the Holocaust has disabused us of the naïve illusion that it humanizes those who uphold it. Or as he put it in what is perhaps his most frequently cited sentences: “We come after. We know now that a man can read Goethe or Rilke in the evening, that he can play Bach or Schubert, and go to his day’s work at Auschwitz in the morning.”17 And yet, Steiner somehow never really faltered in his faith that great art remains the last refuge of meaningfulness in a world from which religious faith has fled.

more here.

Thomas De Quincey’s Revelatory Writing

Jane Darcy at the TLS:

Thomas de Quincey by Sir John Watson-Gordon, c.1845

But to dismiss De Quincey as either a charming or a duplicitous figure on the margins of Romanticism is to ignore some of his most astonishing writing. He created a new kind of autobiography, constructed through resonant fragments grounded in dreams and reveries. Burwick describes him as “the first conscientious autobiographer of the interaction between conscious and subconscious experience”. He wrote eloquently on everything from political economy, psychology and Kantian philosophy to issues of literary style, but he could also sustain a highly inventive comic voice, notably in his satirical essays on violence. Robert Morrison, in this edition of Thomas De Quincey for the 21st-Century Oxford Authors series, presents an excellent selection for a new reader: Confessions and its sequel, Suspiria de Profundis, substantial extracts from his pleasingly waspish biographical essays from Recollections of the Lakes and Lake Poets and the great essays, including “On the Knocking at the Gate in Macbeth” and “On Murder Considered as One of the Fine Arts”. Morrison is an experienced De Quincey scholar, contributing to the The Works of Thomas De Quincey edited by Grevel Lindop (twenty-one volumes, 2000–3), editing the Oxford World’s Classics Confessions of an English Opium-Eater and Other Writings (2013) and writing a biography of De Quincey, The English Opium-Eater (2009). Because most of De Quincey’s writing appeared in journals, the task of sourcing his work has always posed editorial challenges. Added to this, De Quincey obsessively revised and rewrote his work, and his recovered manuscripts are often damaged and difficult to read. Morrison is a fine textual scholar, and in this edition includes interesting selections of manuscript material offering textual variants. Morrison’s extensive notes carefully explain matters such as De Quincey’s numerous Latin quotations (he was an exceptional, if somewhat tiresome, classicist), arcane vocabulary and new coinages.

more here.

The Agatha Christie Centennial: 100 Years Of “The Mysterious Affair At Styles”

J. Kingston Pierce in Crime Reads:

Agatha Christie was in her mid-20s when, in 1916, she took up what seemed the improbable endeavor of penning her first detective novel. It was so unlikely, in fact, that her elder sister, Madge, with whom she had always competed, dared Agatha to accomplish the feat, certain of her sibling’s eventual failure.

At the time, Christie was married to an officer in Britain’s Royal Flying Corps and working at a hospital in Torquay, England, first as a nurse and subsequently in the dispensary, preparing and providing medicines. It was in the latter job that she developed a fascination with poisons that would endure over the next six decades, supplying murderous means in many of her best-known books, including that very first one, The Mysterious Affair at Styles, which was published 100 years ago this month.

Styles was an early and influential contribution to what’s now called the Golden Age of detective fiction, a period that stretched arguably from the 1920s through the 1940s.

More here.

What Victorian-era seaweed pressings reveal about our changing seas

Laura Trethewey in The Guardian:

On his first day as the new science director for the Monterey Bay Aquarium in California in 2016, a giant blue storage locker caught Kyle Van Houtan’s eye. The locker was obscured by a dead ficus plant and looked as if no one had opened it for years. But the label on it intrigued him: Herbarium.

He opened it and inside found hundreds of stacked manila envelopes. Each one contained a single piece of seaweed, pressed and preserved on white paper.

The collection demonstrated a curator’s attention to detail, with neat labels in tidy handwriting that documented every seaweed’s origin and collector. And it gave Van Houtan and his colleague Emily Miller an idea.

More here.

The Party of Lincoln had a good run. Then came Mr. Trump.

The Editorial Board of the New York Times:

Senator John Cornyn of Texas, locked in his own tight re-election race, recently told the local media that he, too, has disagreed with Mr. Trump on numerous issues, including deficit spending, trade policy and his raiding of the defense budget. Mr. Cornyn said he opted to keep his opposition private rather than get into a public tiff with Mr. Trump “because, as I’ve observed, those usually don’t end too well.”

Profiles in courage these are not.

Mr. Trump’s corrosive influence on his party would fill a book. It hasin factfilled several, as well as a slew of articles, social media posts and op-eds, written by conservatives both heartbroken and incensed over what has become of their party.

But many of these disillusioned Republicans also acknowledge that their team has been descending into white grievance, revanchism and know-nothing populism for decades. Mr. Trump just greased the slide. “He is the logical conclusion of what the Republican Party has become in the last 50 or so years,” the longtime party strategist Stuart Stevens asserts in his new book, “It Was All a Lie.

More here.

Wednesday Poem

When the World Disappears

Driving through a flat-out prairie
blizzard is a classic struggle between
terror and faith. Between Paynton and
the Battlefords the world disappears
horizon, buildings, trees, traffic,
the road itself, all gone. Snow,
blasted by a fierce south-easter,
obliterates equally land and sky.

On this two-way stretch of highway
we drive into the snow cloud.
As vehicles behind and in front
vanish from my sight, so too have I
from them, my hands iron vises
clinging to the steering wheel,
clinging to frail threads of reason,
clinging to little more than blind hope
as the white-out erodes confidence
and panic probes below
the thin skin of logic.

We hurtle through nothingness,
my silent prayer willing that whatever
lies on the other side of this void,
whatever other drivers are steering
the margins of their own misery,
their paths do not intersect mine.
We are, all of us, blind pilgrims
groping for some distant shrine
lost from our view, alive only
in the minds that will them.

Glen Sorestad
Canadian Poetry Online

Can lab-grown brains become conscious?

Sara Reardon in Nature:

In Alysson Muotri’s laboratory, hundreds of miniature human brains, the size of sesame seeds, float in Petri dishes, sparking with electrical activity. These tiny structures, known as brain organoids, are grown from human stem cells and have become a familiar fixture in many labs that study the properties of the brain. Muotri, a neuroscientist at the University of California, San Diego (UCSD), has found some unusual ways to deploy his. He has connected organoids to walking robots, modified their genomes with Neanderthal genes, launched them into orbit aboard the International Space Station, and used them as models to develop more human-like artificial-intelligence systems. Like many scientists, Muotri has temporarily pivoted to studying COVID-19, using brain organoids to test how drugs perform against the SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus.

But one experiment has drawn more scrutiny than the others. In August 2019, Muotri’s group published a paper in Cell Stem Cell reporting the creation of human brain organoids that produced coordinated waves of activity, resembling those seen in premature babies1. The waves continued for months before the team shut the experiment down. This type of brain-wide, coordinated electrical activity is one of the properties of a conscious brain. The team’s finding led ethicists and scientists to raise a host of moral and philosophical questions about whether organoids should be allowed to reach this level of advanced development, whether ‘conscious’ organoids might be entitled to special treatment and rights not afforded to other clumps of cells and the possibility that consciousness could be created from scratch.

More here.

Bruce Nauman at The Tate Modern

Waldemar Januszczak at Waldemar Januszczak:

Back on planet Earth, in the show itself there is no limitless space-time, just a succession of powerful slabs of Nauman in which he swaps techniques, changes methods, explores materials, alternates moments of peace with bouts of heavy slapping, and never lets up in a madcap journey of artistic exploration usually set in darkness.

“My work comes out of being frustrated about the human condition,” he explained in 1988. “And about how people refuse to understand other people.” Fretful minimalism for the midnight hour?

What is immediately tangible is how influential he has been. It’s most obvious in the neon pieces that stud the show. Nauman started working with neon in 1965, using it to make a slippery word-art that keeps switching meanings. EAT, says a green neon sign, before changing to blue and saying DEATH.

more here.

Yeast study yields insights into longstanding evolution debate

From Phys.Org:

In the past two decades, researchers have shown that biological traits in both species and individual cells can be shaped by the environment and inherited even without gene mutations, an outcome that contradicts one of the classical interpretations of Darwinian theory. But exactly how these epigenetic, or non-genetic, traits are inherited has been unclear. Now, in a study published Oct. 27 in the journal Cell Reports, Yale scientists show how  contribute in real time to the evolution of a gene network in yeast. Specifically, through multiple generations yeast cells were found to pass on changes in gene activity induced by researchers. The finding helps shed light on a longstanding question in ; scientists have long debated whether organisms can pass on traits acquired during a lifetime.

“Do  have to be the sole facilitator of gene network evolution or can epigenetic mechanisms also lead to stable and heritable gene expression states maintained generation after generation?” asked Yale’s Murat Acar, associate professor of molecular, cellular & , a faculty member at the Yale Systems Biology Institute, and senior author of the paper. During much of the last half of the 20th century, biology students were taught that mutations of  that helped species adapt to the environment were passed on through generations, eventually leading to tremendous diversity of life. However, this theory had a problem: advantageous mutations are rare, and it would take many generations for physiological changes caused by the mutation to take root in a population of any given species.

More here.

In Search of the Soul

Bernard G. Prusak at Commonweal:

In Search of the Soul presupposes less sympathy for religion on the part of its readers than Why Believe? and How to Believe do. Nonetheless, at just about the middle of the text, Cottingham proposes that “something like a traditional theistic worldview offer[s] a more hospitable framework” for the problems under consideration than does the “materialist consensus” among many philosophers and growing numbers of “nones.” Cottingham’s work consistently exhibits great respect for the findings of the sciences. As he bluntly writes in How to Believe, “there is no future for a religious or any other outlook that tries to contradict or set aside the findings of science.” “We must start from the nature of the universe as we find it,” he states in Why Believe?—and part of what we have found from the “spectacular success” of modern science is that there is “no possibility of a return to an animistic or mythological framework for understanding the world.” There are, however, limits to scientific explanation: most fundamentally, science cannot explain why the laws of nature are what they are. In David Hume’s words, modern science does not inquire into nature’s “ultimate springs and principles.” In Search of the Soul focuses on two problems that resist scientific explanation. First, the fact that “the conscious lifeworld of the individual subject,” though realized in and through the material properties of the human body, isn’t captured by an account of those properties (the “problem of consciousness”). And second, “the fact that moral values and obligations exert an authoritative demand on us, whether we like it or not” (what philosophers call the problem of “strong normativity”). For Cottingham, theism is an interpretive framework—a favorite phrase of his—that can accommodate those problems.

more here.