Friends – how important are your pals?

Rachel Cooke in The Guardian:

You may not have heard of Robin Dunbar. But you will, perhaps, know of his work. Dunbar, now emeritus professor of evolutionary psychology at Oxford University, is the man who first suggested that there may be a cognitive limit to the number of people with whom you can comfortably maintain stable social relationships – or, as Stephen Fry put it on the TV show QI, the number of people “you would not hesitate to go and sit with if you happened to see them at 3am in the departure lounge at Hong Kong airport”. Human beings, Dunbar found when he conducted his research in the 1990s, typically have 150 friends in general (people who know us on sight, and with whom we have a history), of whom just five can usually be described as intimate.

In his new book, Dunbar revisits and unpicks this number, by which he stands; and he brings together several decades of other research in the area of friendship, some of it his own, some that of anthropologists, geneticists and neuroscientists with whom he has worked. It can’t be definitive: the possibilities in this field are surely limitless. But for the reader, it sometimes feels like it is. Why do most women have a best friend? Why do many men struggle to share confidences? Why is it so painful when we fall out with our friends? Above all, what effect do friends (or a lack of them) have on our mental and physical health? Think of any question you might have and you’ll find some kind of an answer to it here. What you may feel in your gut, it will back with science. Its central message, however, may be summed up in a sentence. In essence, the number and quality of our friendships may have a bigger influence on our happiness, health and mortality risk than anything else in life save for giving up smoking.

More here.

Knowing the Past Opens the Door to the Future: The Continuing Importance of Black History Month


No one has played a greater role in helping all Americans know the black past than Carter G. Woodson, the individual who created Negro History Week in Washington, D.C., in February 1926. Woodson was the second black American to receive a PhD in history from Harvard—following W.E.B. Du Bois by a few years. To Woodson, the black experience was too important simply to be left to a small group of academics. Woodson believed that his role was to use black history and culture as a weapon in the struggle for racial uplift. By 1916, Woodson had moved to DC and established the “Association for the Study of Negro Life and Culture,” an organization whose goal was to make black history accessible to a wider audience. Woodson was a strange and driven man whose only passion was history, and he expected everyone to share his passion.

This impatience led Woodson to create Negro History Week in 1926, to ensure that school children be exposed to black history. Woodson chose the second week of February in order to celebrate the birthday of Lincoln and Frederick Douglass. It is important to realize that Negro History Week was not born in a vacuum. The 1920s saw the rise in interest in African American culture that was represented by the Harlem Renaissance where writers like Langston Hughes, Georgia Douglass Johnson, Claude McKay—wrote about the joys and sorrows of blackness, and musicians like Louie Armstrong, Duke Ellington, and Jimmy Lunceford captured the new rhythms of the cities created in part by the thousands of southern blacks who migrated to urban centers like Chicago. And artists like Aaron Douglass, Richard Barthe, and Lois Jones created images that celebrated blackness and provided more positive images of the African American experience.

Woodson hoped to build upon this creativity and further stimulate interest through Negro History Week. Woodson had two goals. One was to use history to prove to white America that blacks had played important roles in the creation of America and thereby deserve to be treated equally as citizens. In essence, Woodson—by celebrating heroic black figures—be they inventors, entertainers, or soldiers—hoped to prove our worth, and by proving our worth—he believed that equality would soon follow. His other goal was to increase the visibility of black life and history, at a time when few newspapers, books, and universities took notice of the black community, except to dwell upon the negative. Ultimately Woodson believed Negro History Week—which became Black History Month in 1976—would be a vehicle for racial transformation forever.

More here. (Throughout February, at least one post will be dedicated to honoring Black History Month. The theme this year is: The Family)

Labor’s Capital: Why and How to Put Public Capital at the Service of Labor

Robert Hockett over at the New Labor Forum:

Here in the United States, we have an economic system in which public capital—the publicly issued national money supply—is almost entirely consigned to private management in the interest of private sector capital investors, more or less irrespective of its effects on working people. It is generated and allocated with little, if any, public control and flows in ways that harm working people—both by widening wealth inequalities and by stimulating asset price bubbles that inevitably burst, leaving millions of working people indebted and out of work.

Although this system has been entrenched for over a century and a half, it is possible to repair it and end the harms it does to workers by managing public capital—what I’ll call “Labor’s Capital”—publicly and private capital privately. Existing law provides us with most of the structure required to do this. All that is needed is a re-appreciation of the original purposes of our institutions and an associated re-appropriation of those institutions’ original mandates.

Without acknowledging it, we have already begun this process in the form of financial support programs established by the Federal Reserve System (the Fed) in response to the present pandemic. These programs have grown the Fed balance sheet to $9 trillion in only six months. In what follows, I show how we can accelerate economic reform to benefit working people. But first, it is necessary to review some fundamental economic principles as well as the history that has brought us to the current juncture.

More here.

Brand India

Ravinder Kaur in Aeon:

The early 1990s was a moment of fragile hope and anxiety in India. The nation had just ‘opened up’ its economy to join the world of free markets, a post-Cold War ‘end of history’ global world. The seductive formula held out the promise of foreign investments, high economic growth, and of unleashing the caged spirit of Indian enterprise. It also promised more consumer choices to Indian citizens, dreams of a better life and, most of all, a chance to set the nation’s course to resplendent 21st-century futures. The forward march to market liberalisation also entailed breaking away from India’s legacy of economic nationalism: the anticolonial economics of swadeshi (literally, ‘of one’s own nation’) or self-reliance. Swadeshi had dominated Indian economic policy and thinking since national independence, and it prioritised autonomy over the nation’s resources. The boycott of foreign-made goods was the most popular expression of swadeshi politics.

New Indian economic policy in the 1990s threw open the consumer market to foreign goods. Swadeshi-school economic thinkers termed it the ‘coca-colonisation of India’. In this dramatic transition to free-market capitalism, Coca-Cola became both a sign of the worldly pleasures now available to Indian consumers, and of the treachery of ‘selling out’ to foreign corporations. In 1977, Coca-Cola had been banned by the Indian state. The company was subsequently turned into a nationalist venture that sold an Indian brand of soft drinks called Thums Up. By the 1990s, Coca-Cola was not only back in the newly liberalised India, it bought the Indian brand to expand its operations in the market. The corporate sale of Thums Up to Coca-Cola illustrated how liberalisation and globalisation had displaced the principles of swadeshi economic nationalism. The free-market lobby, it was ruefully remarked, had ‘sold out to big business’ and turned its back on India’s anticolonial dream of economic Independence.

More here.

A Forgotten Black Founding Father

Danielle Allen in The Atlantic:

Massachusetts abolished enslavement before the Treaty of Paris brought an end to the American Revolution, in 1783. The state constitution, adopted in 1780 and drafted by John Adams, follows the Declaration of Independence in proclaiming that all “men are born free and equal.” In this statement Adams followed not only the Declaration but also a 1764 pamphlet by the Boston lawyer James Otis, who theorized about and popularized the familiar idea of “no taxation without representation” and also unequivocally asserted human equality. “The Colonists,” he wrote, “are by the law of nature free born, as indeed all men are, white or black.” In 1783, on the basis of the “free and equal” clause in the 1780 Massachusetts Constitution, the state’s chief justice, William Cushing, ruled enslavement unconstitutional in a case that one Quock Walker had brought against his enslaver, Nathaniel Jennison.

Many of us who live in Massachusetts know the basic outlines of this story and the early role the state played in standing against enslavement. But told in this traditional way, the story leaves out another transformative figure: Prince Hall, a free African American and a contemporary of John Adams. From his formal acquisition of freedom, in 1770, until his death, in 1807, Hall helped forge an activist Black community in Boston while elevating the cause of abolition to new prominence. Hall was the first American to publicly use the language of the Declaration of Independence for a political purpose other than justifying war against Britain.

More here.

Biden Executive Actions Make Unity Possible for Millions of Marginalized Americans

(Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

Laleh Ispahani in Just Security:

President Joe Biden wasted no time after his inauguration before starting to overturn many of the most odious actions of the Trump administration, issuing sweeping executive orders on everything from racial equity and immigration to climate change and a more just foreign policy.

Critics, including the editorial board of the New York Times, have expressed discomfort with this display of executive power, and some have specifically labeled the orders divisive. But to whom? For millions of Americans, the new president’s executive actions are the much-needed first steps to helping a nation heal from the deep wounds of the Trump era, with policy that again reflects public will. Indeed, in a Feb. 7 survey analyzing 29 actions, the vast majority of the decisions enjoy broad support. Mandating mask use, reinstating COVID-19 travel restrictions, extending the moratoriums on eviction, extending the freeze on student loan payments, and increasing food stamp benefit, among others, enjoy more than two-thirds support.

So, rather than divide Americans, as conventional wisdom might have it, these actions are a powerful and necessary precondition for unifying Americans. Unity to me is not defined by whether senators in Washington, D.C. are getting along. Unity to me is whether my daughter and I are welcome in the United States, and are once again included in the American story.

More here.

Bessie Smith

Kitty Empire at The Guardian:

This timely republication of Bessie Smith, with a new introduction extolling hercontinued relevance, charts some of the distance travelled both by the publishing industry and by Kay herself, now Scotland’s makar, or poet laureate. Time hasn’t dimmed the book’s restlessly creative scholarship. Mixing academic rigour, authorial autobiography and poetic licence, this slim text’s selected bibliography runs to 22 titles. Throughout, Kay traces the heyday of the blueswomen, from the voodoo queens to the era of wax and “race records”, where copyright was still in the future and royalties optional.

In an echo of Chuck D’s famous dictum that hip-hop was “black people’s CNN”, the blues recorded an alternative history of racist acts, of poverty and injustice, but also of obvious sexual innuendo – all those jelly rolls – and high times.

more here.

Helen Frankethaler and 1950s New York

Jessica Ferri at the LA Times:

“Fierce Poise” focuses on the artist in an unconventional way: It covers the years 1950-60 in 11 chapters, each jumping off a specific date during one of those years. The resulting book is lively but short, skimming the surface of Frankenthaler’s work. Nemerov calls this choice “true to Helen” in that “the singularity of a day offers me an unscientific precision — a fluid glimpse into a moment — like Helen’s own.” The conceit is that the early days capture the essence of her work, but the constraint only shortchanges her contested legacy by eliding the rest of her long career.

Frankenthaler always seemed to know she would be a painter. “She started painting seriously at Dalton,” the tony private school, though her mother hoped she would eventually fall in line like her sisters, get married and produce children. Helen, possessed of an eerie “poise” from the start, apparently made up her mind that none of that was for her.

more here.

The Essential Toni Morrison

Veronica Chambers at the NYT:

February 18, 2021 would have been Toni Morrison’s 90th birthday. As we approach the anniversary of a global pandemic that has changed our lives in every way, it seems a fine time to dive back into the world of Toni Morrison. The questions she asked in a 2002 lecture seem wholly relevant now, almost 20 years later: “To what do we pay greatest allegiance? Family, language group, culture, country, gender? Religion, race? And if none of these matter, are we urbane, cosmopolitan, or simply lonely? In other words, how do we decide where we belong? What convinces us that we do?”

In everything Morrison wrote, she offered narratives that revealed the journeys of characters, specific but universal, flawed and imperfect, with a deeply American desire for freedom and adventure. One might say that because her characters were almost exclusively African-American, the quest to be free — in mind, body and spirit — was the consistent adventure.

more here.

Kazuo Ishiguro: ‘AI, gene-editing, big data … I worry we are not in control of these things any more’

Lisa Allardice in The Guardian:

For the Ishiguro household, 5 October 2017 was a big day. After weeks of discussion, the author’s wife, Lorna, had finally decided to change her hair colour. She was sitting in a Hampstead salon, not far from Golders Green in London, where they have lived for many years, all gowned up, and glanced at her phone. There was a news flash. “I’m sorry, I’m going to have to stop this,” she said to the waiting hairdresser. “My husband has just won the Nobel prize for literature. I might have to help him out.”

Back home, Kazuo Ishiguro was having a late breakfast when his agent called. “It’s the opposite to the Booker prize, where there’s a longlist and then a shortlist. You hear the rumbling thunder coming towards you, often not striking. With the Nobel it is freak lightning out of the blue – wham!” Within half an hour there was a queue of journalists outside the front door. He called his mother, Shizuko. “I said: ‘I’ve won the Nobel, Shon.’ Oddly, she didn’t seem very surprised,” he recalls. “She said: ‘I thought you’d win it sooner or later.’” She died, aged 92, two years ago. His latest novel Klara and the Sun, in part about maternal devotion and his first since winning the Nobel, is dedicated to her. “My mother had a huge amount to do with my becoming a writer,” he says now.

We are talking on Zoom; he is holed up in the spare bedroom, his daughter Naomi’s undergraduate books on the shelves. His own study is tiny, he says, just big enough for two desks: one for his computer, the other with a writing slope – no one goes in there. Encouragingly, he compares the interview process to interrogation, borrowing from a scene in John le Carré’s Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy that explains how agents are trained to withstand torture by having layers of plausible backstories, “until they are just a shrieking head”. Yet he submits to questioning with good humour; in fact talking for several hours with the exacting thoughtfulness you’d expect from his fiction.

More here.

In ‘Liner Notes for the Revolution,’ a History of American Music With Black Women at Its Center

Jennifer Szalai in The New York Times:

For a critic, there’s maybe nothing so central but also confounding as the question of taste — why we like what we like, and whether it’s something we decide for ourselves, based purely on our own freedom and idiosyncracies; or if our tastes can be shaped and even scripted, influenced by earnest argument, entrenched biases or cynical manipulation.

With “Liner Notes for the Revolution: The Intellectual Life of Black Feminist Sound,” Daphne A. Brooks blurs and eventually explodes this binary. She argues that “taste-making” has often served to enshrine a musical canon that skews white and male; at the same time, she emphasizes the importance of canon-building and does some taste-making of her own. The old guard might have deigned to make room for “Satchmo, Monk, Miles and Trane,” she writes, but it still seems hesitant to “imagine a pop (culture) life with Black women at its full-stop center rather than as the opening act, the accompanying act or the afterthought.”

There are a number of recent and forthcoming books by Black women — among them Maureen MahonDanyel Smith and Clover Hope — that elucidate the central role that Black women artists have played in American music. Brooks, who teaches at Yale, is explicit about wanting to connect two worlds that would seem to be distinct: those of intellectual theory and commercial appeal. One doesn’t have to exclude the other, she says, even if traditional rock criticism has supposed that market success must come at the expense of that vague and vaunted quality known as “authenticity.”

More here. (Throughout February, at least one post will be dedicated to honoring Black History Month. The theme this year is: The Family)

Saturday Poem

The Couple

They switch off the light and its white shade
glimmers for a moment before dissolving
like a tablet in a glass of darkness. Then up.
The hotel walls rise into the black sky.
The movements of love have settled, and they sleep
but their most secret thoughts meet as when
two colors meet and flow into each other
on the wet paper of a schoolboy’s painting.
It is dark and silent. But the town has pulled closer
tonight. With quenched windows. The houses have approached.
They stand close up in a throng, waiting,
a crowd whose faces have no expressions.

by Tomas Tranströmer

A Breakup Letter to My Writing Career

Francesco Pacifico in n + 1:


Sorry for doing this by letter. But I want you to be able to come back to this after the spite has worn off. Eventually you’ll understand that this was the best outcome for both of us.

The truth is that you’re not doing it for me anymore. There, I ripped off the Band-Aid. You’ve been there for me during this very bad year, I know that. You gave me room, consoled me, encouraged me to experiment with kinks and roleplay. You let me be casual with the new novel, tease it and play with it without any real plan, and you let me write some new stuff that was neither my bread and butter nor my brand—you let me do it for the hell of it. It’s fair to say that every time I’ve been bitter, every time I’ve felt us going around in circles, you’ve tried to make our relationship evolve.

But I fear that you’re not acting out of love, that you’re doing all this only to enhance your reputation. I still love writing, you see, but I don’t think I love you anymore.

I’ve been seeing other careers.

More here.

How To Write About Iran: A Guide For Journalists, Analysts, And Policymakers

Ladane Nasseri in McSweeney’s:

1. Always refer to Iran as the “Islamic Republic” and its government as “the regime” or, better yet, “the Mullahs.”

2. Never refer to Iran’s foreign policy. The correct terminology is its “behavior.” When U.S. officials say Iran “must change its behavior” and “behave like a normal country,” write those quotes down word for word. Everyone knows that Iran is a delinquent kid that always instigates trouble and must be disciplined.

3. Omit that Iran has a population of 80 million with half a dozen ethnicities, languages, and religions. Why complicate when you can do simple? Just write “Iranians” or “the Iranians.” They are all the same and consequently think alike – when they get to think, that is.

More here.

To get ahead of variants, Covid-19 drug makers use evolutionary biology as a guide

Eric Boodman in Stat News:

Before becoming a Covid-19 drug, each candidate was just a tiny fragment of someone’s immune system, part of a swarm of Y-shaped proteins unleashed to try to keep the coronavirus from invading more cells. If the person recovered, these antibodies might end up in a blood sample in a lab. Some proved more effective than others. Yet even as researchers pinpointed the best of the bunch as possible medications, they knew their power could wane: What worked against the coronavirus as it was last year could falter as the pathogen evolved.

That’s starting to play out, in that some monoclonal antibodies now used to treat patients in the U.S. aren’t great at gumming up the machinery of some new SARS-2 variants. But scientists are betting that those same Darwinian patterns that nudged the virus to become less susceptible to certain treatments can be used to our advantage as well, guiding ongoing development efforts.

More here.

The Way Out of America’s Zero-Sum Thinking on Race and Wealth

Heather C. McGhee in the New York Times:

The anti-government stinginess of traditional conservatism, along with the fear of losing social status held by many white people, now broadly associated with Trumpism, have long been connected. Both have sapped American society’s strength for generations, causing a majority of white Americans to rally behind the draining of public resources and investments. Those very investments would provide white Americans — the largest group of the impoverished and uninsured — greater security, too: A new Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco study calculated that in 2019, the country’s output would have been $2.6 trillion greater if the gap between white men and everyone else were closed. And a 2020 report from analysts at Citigroup calculated that if America had adopted policies to close the Black-white economic gap 20 years ago, U.S. G.D.P would be an estimated $16 trillion higher.

To understand what stops us from uniting for our mutual benefit, I’ve spent the past three years traveling the country from California to Mississippi to Maine, visiting churches and worker centers and city halls, in search of on-the-ground answers.

More here.

Palestinian Children’s Literature

N.A. Mansour at Marginalia Review:

I grew up in one of those small Palestinian villages where some of Nimr’s readership likely stems from, quite close to where Nimr teaches. I read plenty of kid-lit on my way to school (and at school when I was supposed to be paying attention); I went on adventures with dragons and later, I traveled into deep space. I could have used a heroine like Qamar when I was younger to encourage me to step outside of my own reality. Not only does she look like me, Qamar feels written for me. I see much of my upbringing in Qamar, in how I approach rest, play, work, and curiosity, even perhaps how I approach being a woman.  Qamar moves at her own pace, and while she is concerned with survival, she also understands how to adapt, when to let something bizarre and even unjust become normalized, and when that is no longer acceptable.

Nimr is not concerned with coherent ideologies when writing Qamar.  Ideologies are flat, idealistic things and Nimr is more interested in the reality of what it is to exist amongst multiple forces, including different thought-worlds, and what happens to a personality like Qamar’s when placed in the midst of them.

more here.

Najwan Darwish’s Poetry of the Unspeakable

Raúl Zurita at The Paris Review:

We realize then that from the fantastic opening image of the sea whom the poet would like to invite in, like a good neighbor, to have a coffee, to the powerful ending of “All of It,” each line of Exhausted on the Cross is the scene of a physical fight, to the death, between words and what we can no longer say. We cannot express the tension of that centimeter that separates us from the woman from Shatila. There are no words to name the absolute horror, to account for the exact moment in which the body of a living child becomes the body of a slaughtered child, we lack images to fix that infinitesimal second in which someone becomes those lumps of flesh and bone thrown into the sea by Latin American dictators, or the heaps of scattered limbs of Palestinians crushed by Israeli bombs in Gaza, or those massacred in the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps. We have no concepts to imagine what questions, what memories assail someone in that monstrous extreme, someone being killed by other men. And yet, for that very reason, precisely because those words do not exist, they must be shouted, to bring to this side of the world the terrible and ruthless porosity of each of those moments.

more here.