An America without Conservatives

by David Oates

Benjamin Disraeli

A missing tradition is haunting us, though we may not even realize it’s missing. It was called “conservatism,” and in the Anglo-American political tradition it has a record of partnering with liberals to create some of our greatest moments of democratic progress.

Our new president did once publicly hope to govern under a new and restored regime of that legendary chimera “bipartisanship,” liberals and conservatives hammering out compromise bills that advance the public interest. But that fantasy has quickly faded. Even after the departure of the former president and his hateful ways, what’s left of the Republican party seems to be a beast of unqualified partisanship, angry, ravenous, utterly uncompromising.

This became obvious when the “Covid Relief Bill” had to be passed in the Senate with only Democratic votes. Yet it was almost self-evidently needed as a response to an unprecedented public crisis. It was beneficial enough for some Republicans to take credit for it in public . . . despite having voted against it.

Where is the GOP that is heir to, for instance, the conservatives who helped pass civil rights legislation and who founded the Environmental Protection Agency? Or heir to the British conservatives (Tories) who expanded the electorate and made the entire system broader, less class-based, more democratic? Plaintively we ask, where are the conservatives of old? Ay, where are they?

Replaced by reactionaries, every one. And this is not name-calling. It’s sober truth. The United States, as of this writing, has no conservative party. Probably hasn’t for a decade or more.

The grand Anglo-American tradition of careful conservatives offering measured reform and real progress has vanished from America. An apocalyptic trio has replaced them: resentment, revanchism, and reaction. With three “R’s,” alliterative, as if for a tidy little sermon. And I can’t help wondering: what is the sickness of soul that leads to such angry irrationality? Read more »

Hal Holbrook and Mark Twain’s Daughter

by Thomas Larson

Hal Holbrook As Samuel Clemens As Mark Twain

Samuel Langhorne Clemens, among the greatest and most widely read authors in history, is known everywhere by his pen name, Mark Twain. This was the nom de plume Clemens adopted in 1863 as a frontier columnist for The Virginian, a Nevada newspaper. There, he wrote satires and caricatures, bald hoaxes (fake news) and ironic stories of the wild pioneers he met and whose tales he embellished even further. His writerly persona came alive when he began lecturing and yarn spinning from a podium. Over time, his lowkey delivery, his deft timing, coupled with the wizened bumptiousness of a country orator in a white linen suit, captivated audiences in America and Europe, and on world tours. No one has embodied America, in its feral enthusiasms and its institutional hypocrisies, better than Clemens. Dying at 74 in 1910, he played Twain—rather, he became him—for 47 years.

In the early 1950s, a young actor from Cleveland, Ohio, Hal Holbrook, adopted the Twain persona for a stage act, aping the man’s appearance and cornpone speech and dipping into the goldmine of material—raucous tales to tell and witty saws to quip. Examples of the latter: “Dying man couldn’t make up his mind which place to go to—both had their advantages: Heaven for climate, Hell for company.” “Faith is believin’ what you know ain’t so.”

Holbrook developed the act before psychiatric patients, school kids, and Rotarians in the Midwest, then launched a polished performance in 1954 as “Mark Twain Tonight!” The stage: Lock Haven State Teachers College in Pennsylvania. Within a few years, he was on “The Ed Sullivan Show” and “The Tonight Show.” He debuted Off-Broadway in 1959, the show hitting Broadway in 1966 when Holbrook won a Tony. He went on to play Clemens’s Twain more than 2000 times from 1954 to 2017 when he retired the act. A record, no doubt, for a single role: 63 years, a decade and a half longer than Clemens himself played Twain. Read more »

Shame, Blame and the Aurat March

by Sabyn Javeri Jillani

Eve was thrown out of heaven because she was a temptress, Sita had a trial by fire because she crossed a line, Lot’s wife (who doesn’t even get a mention by her own name) was turned into a pillar of salt because she was disobedient, but Mary was a saint for giving birth as a virgin. Collectively, the one thing that binds these narratives is a sense of shame. But what if these stories about women were told to us from a different perspective? What if we were told that Eve was a pioneer and a risk-taker for indulging her curiosity about the forbidden fruit? Or that Sita was charitable and fearless for wanting to help an old man in need, Lot’s wife was a patriot and a freethinker for looking back at the land that had raised her, and that Mary was a courageous single mother. How would women see themselves if they grew up thinking of themselves as survivors and not as victims blamed for their choices and penalized for their actions or praised for their purity and silence? What if we saw women for who they are instead of who we want them to be? What if didn’t shame women?

Aib, sharam, haya, izzat, laaj, dishonour — almost every language has a word for shame. And the burden of that shame lies on the shoulders of the female. Because when we grow up in a culture which penalizes women for the consequences of their choices, we internalize a culture of shame — a culture of victim blaming that shames women for asserting their sexuality and agency,  shaming them for raising their voices and scrutinizing their bodies. Women learn to curb their curiosity, to stifle desire, and to take ‘submissive and compliant’ as compliments.

As I saw the backlash against Pakistan’s Aurat (Women’s) March unfold this year, I was reminded of the politics of shame that so many women all over the world internalize. I found myself questioning… what does it mean to grow up knowing you are being watched? What does it mean to live in a voyeuristic bell jar where the collective weight of society determines the choices you make? When the length of your skirt can be responsible for your rape, when loving someone your family does not approve of can get you killed, when violence against you is tolerated and even justified because it is your fault that you could not understand the code of honor? From body shaming to slut shaming, the shame is all yours. Read more »

What if there’s Life on Mars?

by Tim Sommers

Perseverance, the fifth NASA/JPL rover to land successfully on Mars, is currently looking for life there. What if it finds it?

The discovery of life on Mars would provide evidence that life is ubiquitous and likely to arise spontaneously under moderately favorable circumstances. It would be evidence that life everywhere is very similar – or, alternatively, very different – and give us more reason to suspect that there is life elsewhere in our own solar system. It could even suggest that we – you and I – are Martians. What evidence of life on Mars will not do, despite what some have argued, is make it more probable that human beings will go extinct. That last suggestion, proffered by Nick Bostrom and echoed by others, is (to use a technical, philosophical term) bonkers. So, I will leave it for last.

Perseverance is not just looking for life. It’s exploring the potential habitability of Mars for future missions, collecting samples that may be returned to Earth later, collecting instrument data, and taking spectacular photographs. I am excited about it as I have been excited about every mission since Viking 1 in 1976. (Excited, that is, once I recovered from my initial disappointment that there didn’t seem to be any dinosaurs on Mars. Don’t judge me. I was eleven years old.) But occasionally when I share my excitement with others, usually in the form of photographs, I get a dispiriting response. “It’s just a bunch of rocks,” more than one person has said to be. Either way, it’s still fascinating to me. But, well, maybe, it’s not just rocks. Maybe there is life on Mars.

For the purposes of this discussion, I am not going to distinguish between definitive evidence of past life and current, you know, actual life. Of course, it’s more exciting if there is actual respirating and metabolizing going on there right now. Fossils of extinct life are, well, still just rocks. But we are much more likely to find evidence of past life than anything living. To see why consider the question, why can’t we just see that there is or isn’t life on Mars? It looks pretty dead. Whereas a probe to Earth would detect life from orbit. Read more »

Making Medical History: The Doctors Blackwell

by Adele A. Wilby

Over recent times, many books have been published with the aim of writing women into history and crediting them for the achievements they have made to the benefit of humanity more broadly. Janice P. Nimura’s The Doctors Blackwell is in that genre of women’s history and she effectively narrates the biographies of the first two remarkable women to study and practice medicine in the United States: Elizabeth Blackwell and her younger sister, Emily.

In this modern world where the sky is literally the limit for women should they have the ambition, determination and the opportunity, it is sometimes difficult to think of them being stifled in such a way as to constrain their potential, yet that has been the plight of women throughout history, and indeed remains the situation for many women across the globe. Gender has been a crucial factor in defining the lives of women, probably exacting a terrible toll of lifelong intellectual frustration and stifling ambition for many of them. As Nimura’s book reveals, Elizabeth Blackwell, a ‘solitary, bookish, uncompromising high-minded’ young woman was one such woman, until she found her way into medicine. Read more »

A Sacred Vision of the World—and of the Word

Maxim D. Shrayer talks to Cynthia L. Haven about her new book, The Man Who Brought Brodsky into English: Conversations with George L. Kline

Cynthia, let me begin by asking you to describe your path to the book—a double path that led you to Joseph Brodsky and to George L. Kline.

I studied with Joseph Brodsky at the University of Michigan—his first port of call in the U.S. It was psychological and aesthetic jolt, like sticking your finger into a light socket. And yes, we memorized hundreds of lines of poetry in his classes.

For many of us, Brodsky’s Selected Poems in 1973 was a radical reorganization of what poetry can be and mean in our times. However, I didn’t connect with the book’s translator, George Kline, until after I published Joseph Brodsky: Conversations in 2002. George and I stayed connected with Christmas cards and occasional phone calls. But we’d never actually met face to face—so I had no real sense of his age, until in late 2012, when he mentioned that he was almost 92.

Brodsky teaching at the University of Michigan, spring 1973. Photo by Terrence McCarthy

George was a champion for Joseph Brodsky and his poetry—many people know that, but many don’t know that he was also a wise and kindly supporter of poets, Slavic scholars, and translators everywhere. He had never given a full account of his collaboration with the Russian-born Nobel poet, however, and I realized time was running out. So we began recording conversations.

His health was failing, and our talks became shorter and more infrequent. Towards the end, he urged me to augment our interviews with his articles, correspondence, and papers, reconstructing a portrait of his collaboration with Brodsky. George died in 2014. Read more »

Philip Roth drew and smudged and drew again the line between life and art, and with every book it became harder to distinguish between them

Michael Gorra in the New York Review of Books:

Philip Roth; illustration by Johnalynn Holland

Let’s begin with the body, the corpus to which this six-foot-two lefty was bound. Start with his back. In 1955 he pulled a shift of KP on his last day of basic training and met an industrial-size kettle of potatoes. Hefting it was a two-man job, but the other soldier dropped his end and left him to support its weight alone. Something popped, and the next morning he could barely walk. Try a heating pad, they told him, and an army doctor accused him of malingering. It was never really treated, and the pain never went entirely away. He used a steel back brace for a while, and in the 1970s he sometimes needed a foam neck collar; from middle age on he had to work at a standing desk, spelling himself with long periods of lying on the floor. Only in 2002 did he accept the need for surgery, but by then one disk after another had so fully degenerated that there wasn’t much left to save.

More here.

Humans evolved to run on less water than our closest primate relatives

Robin A. Smith in Duke Today:

When you think about what separates humans from chimpanzees and other apes, you might think of our big brains, or the fact that we get around on two legs rather than four. But we have another distinguishing feature: water efficiency.

That’s the take-home of a new study that, for the first time, measures precisely how much water humans lose and replace each day compared with our closest living animal relatives.

Our bodies are constantly losing water: when we sweat, go to the bathroom, even when we breathe. That water needs to be replenished to keep blood volume and other body fluids within normal ranges.

And yet, research published March 5 in the journal Current Biology shows that the human body uses 30% to 50% less water per day than our closest animal cousins. In other words, among primates, humans evolved to be the low-flow model.

More here.

The Anarchist Abstractionist — Who was Alexander Grothendieck?

Jørgen Veisdal in Cantor’s Paradise:

Mathematician Alexander Grothendieck was born in 1928 to anarchist parents who left him to spend the majority of his formative years with foster parents. His father was murdered in Auschwitz. As his mother was detained, he grew up stateless, hiding from the Gestapo in occupied France. All the while, he taught himself mathematics from books and before his twentieth birthday had re-discovered for himself a proof of the Lebesgue measure, a staple of integration theory. Later a rising star in the hot-shot French mathematical milieu of 1950s and 60s, Grothendieck would in his “golden years” from 1955–1970 move from subject to subject, introducing revolutionary new ideas as he went along:

“This just kept happening over and over again, where he would come upon some problem that people had thought about for, in some cases, a hundred years […] and just completely transformed what people thought the subject was about” — Nick Katz, Princeton University

In 1966 he was awarded the Field’s Medal, mathematics’ highest honour for his contributions to algebraic geometry, homological algebra, and K-theory. Four years later, he famously abandoned his professorship at the “French Institute for Advanced Study” for political reasons. Indeed, he left mathematics altogether in 1991 to instead live in seclusion in a remote village at the foot of the Pyrenees Mountains. Rarely ever seen or heard from since, he spent the last twenty-three years of his life in isolation, refusing to communicate with anyone, at times attempting to sustain himself on “a diet of dandelion soup” while writing thousands upon thousands of pages of text on spirituality and a “coming day of reckoning”.

This is the story of Alexander Grothendieck, perhaps the most technically gifted mathematician of the twentieth century.

More here.

A Big Fiscal Push is Urgent, The Risk of Overheating Is Small

Claudia Sahm over at INET:

The $1.9 trillion relief package is on track to pass in March but not without a struggle and with some important details still uncertain. The price tag is big, coming on the heels of the nearly $4 trillion Congress appropriated last year. That’s six times the fiscal relief in the first two years of the Great Recession. Even without the new package, the U.S. federal debt is more than GDP, according to the Congressional Budget Office, a level not seen since World War II.

With the stakes so high, disagreement among economists, even those who normally agree with each other, is heated. The question is whether spending at this level is necessary for full recovery or will instead overheat the economy. It appears that the inflation hawks have lost this skirmish, but the war is only getting started.

In the ranks of the inflation hawks are many revered macroeconomists. Most vocal are Larry Summers, a former Secretary of the Treasury, and Olivier Blanchard, a former Chief Economist at the International Monetary Fund. John TaylorGreg Mankiw, and Bill Dudley have raised similar concerns. On the other side are Janet Yellen, current Secretary of the Treasury, Jay Powell, current Chair of the Federal Reserve, Paul Krugman, a past Nobel Prize winner, and Gita Gopinath, the current Chief Economist at the International Monetary Fund, among others.

More here.

Sunday Poem

I asked myself about the present: how wide it was,
how deep it was, how much was mine to keep.

……………………………… -Kurt Vonnegut

Hiking in the Anthropocene

I read the forest’s memoirs leaf by leaf,
trace each tree’s veins branch by branch,

my skin parched for its poetry. I want
nothing but to reside here in the quiet,

the dappled light of a hidden cove,
the sweet, secret sound of solitude

on the side of a mountain. Far above
the fray, the floodwaters, the rushing

cold calamity in the callous void of
conservation, the total lack of self-

preservation or empathy for earth.
Swaddlings losing our wrappings, we

swirl in eddies spawned by our chaotic,
collective flailing. The flood’s fingerprint

etched in judgement, in memoriam, on
the mountain’s moss-cloaked cheek.

by V.C. McCabe
The Echotheo Review

The Making of Edward Said’s ‘Orientalism’

Timothy Brennan in The Chronicle of Higher Education:

Now an academic classic, Orientalism was at first an unlikely best seller. Begun just as the Watergate hearings were nearing their end and published in 1978, it opens with a stark cameo of the gutted buildings of civil-war Beirut. Then, in a few paragraphs, readers are whisked off to the history of an obscure academic discipline from the Romantic era. Chapters jump from 19th-century fiction to the opéra bouffe of the American news cycle and the sordid doings of Henry Kissinger. Unless one had already been reading Edward Said or was familiar with the writings of the historian William Appleman Williams on empire “as a way of life” or the poetry of Lamartine, the choice of source materials might seem confusing or overwhelming. And so it did to the linguists and historians who fumed over the book’s success. For half of its readers, the book was a triumph, for the other half a scandal, but no one could ignore it.

As an indictment of English and French scholarship on the Arab and Islamic worlds, Orientalism made its overall case clearly enough. The field of Oriental studies had managed to create a fantastical projection about Arabs and Islam that fit the biases of its Western audience. At times, these images were exuberant and intoxicating, at times infantilizing or hateful, but at no time did they describe Arabs and Muslims accurately. Over centuries, these images and attitudes formed a network of mutually reinforcing clichés mirrored in the policies of the media, the church, and the university. With the authority of seemingly objective science, new prejudices joined those already in circulation. This grand edifice of learning deprived Arabs of anything but a textual reality, usually based on a handful of medieval religious documents. As such, the Arab world was arrested within the classics of its own past. This much about Orientalism, it seems, was uncontroversial, although readers agreed on little else.

More here.

How to End a Conversation Without Making Up an Excuse

Joe Pinsker in The Atlantic:

A vintage French postcard illustration featuring a sophisticated, stylishly-attired mature couple seated on opposite sides of a banquette, in Paris, circa June, 1909. (Photo by Paul Popper/Popperfoto via Getty Images)

Later this year, if all goes well, Americans will be awash in social interactions again. At offices and schools, on sidewalks and in coffee shops, we’ll be bumping into one another like it’s 2019. The resulting flood of conversations will be extremely welcome. But less front of mind, at this still socially stifled moment, are the awkwardness and discomfort that will return along with day-to-day interactions. The co-worker who yammers on, the chatty subway seatmate who keeps you from reading your book, the friend of a friend who bores you at parties—they are all very excited to see you again, and have lots to catch you up on.

Perhaps this period before social life fully resumes is an occasion to revisit what we want from conversations and, more to the point, how we end them. In this regard, people generally have a poor sense of timing. “Conversations almost never ended when both conversants wanted them to,” concluded the authors of a study published earlier this month that asked people about recent interactions with loved ones, friends, and strangers. About two-thirds of them said they wanted the conversation to end sooner; on average, that group wanted the conversation to be about 25 percent shorter, Adam Mastroianni, a psychology doctoral student at Harvard and a co-author of the study, told me.

More here.

COVID-19 is here to stay. Now we must redesign our economies around it.

James Meadway in OpenDemocracy:

The demand for zero COVID rightly sets a high bar for the current lockdown conditions, insisting on working towards the virtual elimination of COVID in Britain. It is critical that, unlike the experience last year, lockdown is not ended too soon. Aiming not only to “protect the NHS”, as is still the aim of government, but to reduce infections to near-zero would place this country (like any other) in a far better place, post-lockdown, than it was in following the first or second lockdown. It is also undeniable that the countries that went in hard against the virus early on, have been reaping the benefits – from Vietnam and Taiwan to New Zealand and Australia.

But it would be a major error to think that zero COVID is a permanent solution to the crisis we are now in. The Left and progressives absolutely must not become enthusiasts for lockdown: it is a terrible necessity, not some desirable point to get to. We should no more be cheering for this than we would cheer for war – a war may well be necessary at some point, but it’s hardly something to be called for gladly. The fact is that we have a terrible disease to deal with, and have to do so in a way that minimises death and illness from the disease – but also, importantly, from how we deal with the disease.

The cost of lockdowns is high: not because Gross Domestic Product takes a knock, or because the government has to borrow money, but because of the strains on mental health, on children’s education, or in the sharp rise in reported domestic violence cases. We should aim to minimise the costs of COVID, but we then need to also minimise the costs of lockdown. This means looking to leave this lockdown at an appropriate point, and acting now to never return to lockdown again.

More here.

Thanks for all the fish

Thomas Moynihan in Aeon:

The year is 1961. As Cold War tensions crescendo, an American neuroscientist named John C Lilly makes a bold claim. He announces that he has made contact with the first ‘alien’ intelligence. But Lilly wasn’t talking about little green men from Tau Ceti, he was talking of minds much closer to home: bottlenose dolphins.

Lilly had spent the previous decade hammering electrodes through animals’ craniums, attempting to map the reward systems of the brain. Having started probing the grey matter of macaques, he was shocked when he acquired some dolphins to test upon. Swiftly, he became convinced of their smarts. Upon hearing dolphins seemingly mimic human vocalisations – in their ‘high-pitched, Donald Duck, quacking-like way’ – he became certain that they also spoke to each other in ‘dolphinese’.

Lilly was the first to really demonstrate how socially intelligent these beings are. Of course, others had long made similar claims. Ancient Greek authors celebrated the nobility and philanthropy of the cetacean, recounting tales of human-dolphin companionship. But, in the modern era, the aquatic mammal fell into disrepute. One 19th-century captain referred to them as ‘warlike and voracious’. In 1836, the French zoologist Frédéric Cuvier remarked on this fall from benevolent angel to carnivorous brute, deeming the wild dolphin a ‘stupid glutton’. But, given their prodigious brains, he was certain of the potential for intelligence. They have no natural competition, thus they have no need to cultivate their intellect. Venturing that humans raised in the same state would also be feral, Cuvier suggested that we civilise dolphins – thereby unleashing their potential for rationality.

More here.

A Proudhon for Postmoderns?

Alexander Zevin in New Left Review:

The arrival of Piketty’s latest work, Capital and Ideology, prompts a comparison with another French thinker, who also won widespread fame for a generic attack on inequality published at a time of profound economic crisis. In 1840, Pierre-Joseph Proudhon’s What Is Property? rebutted claims that the answer ‘It is theft!’ was the signal for another 1793. The proposition should be ‘recognized as a lightning rod to shield us from the coming thunderbolt’, he wrote, just as Piketty hoped his warnings that rising levels of inequality in the 21st century could be incompatible with democratic values would produce tax reforms to fend off violent upheavals comparable to those that put an end to the Belle Époque.

Mutatis mutandis, of course. For the journeyman printer, born into a family of Besançon peasants and small-traders, going barefoot to school, read: the son of ex-Trotskyist soixante-huitards, growing up in the leafy Parisian suburb of Clichy Hauts-de-Seine. For La Voix du Peuple, the World Incomes Database; for imprisonment at the Conciergerie, chairs at the lse, Berkeley and ehess; for the people’s bank, the global tax on capital. Proudhon’s pamphlet was also a slower burn than Capital in the Twenty-First Century. It took two years before scandal, prosecution and counter-polemic elevated What Is Property? to international notoriety, hailed as a ‘penetrating work’ in Marx’s paper, the Neue Rheinische Zeitung. When they met in Paris, the young German radicals did their best to educate Proudhon in political economy and the dialectic. In response, six years later, he produced the two fat volumes of his System of Economic Contradictions, or Philosophy of Poverty—drawing from Marx the stinging Poverty of Philosophy. Later, Marx would laughingly chastise himself for having infected Proudhon with Hegelianism—‘for his “sophistication”, as the English call the adulteration of commercial goods.’

More here.