Monday Poem

A Question of Necessity

Can you tell me a certain thing
that is a moral fact?
is a
specious question because
the fact of the thing
exists as something essential
to the survival of homo sapiens
in creating civilization, though civilization
does not always believe in the necessity
of its essential thing: the root
of what it means to be civilized—
and the fact
of chaos, or natural inclination,
becomes the default mode
simply because morality,
being thought subjective,
and hard taskmaster, cannot be
sufficiently defined, and we all become
hawks or vultures feeding on carrion doves

It’s a question, whose answer itself is not an easy act
but is nevertheless, even if undefined, called love,
which is foremost not a thing we feel, but do:
a moral act made fact

Jim Culleny

So, you “Stand by #FarmerProtests”

by Raji Jayaraman

It’s official: Lilly Singh, the YouTube phenomenon, stands with Indian farmers. So do Greta Thunberg and Susan Sarandon. How could they not? Thousands of farmers—men and women, young and old—have been protesting non-violently but determinedly in the smoggy Delhi winter, for months.  If having seen their images in the news you feel no sympathy, then you may want to consider going on the same quest as the Tin Man. Rihanna thinks we should talk about #FarmerProtests. The Indian government disagrees, but let’s take Lilly Singh up on her challenge and “run with it.”

In September, 2020, the Government of India passed three farm bills, which arguably constitute the most dramatic agricultural reforms since independence. Everyone in the know will tell you that the agricultural sector, which employs roughly forty per cent of the Indian labour force, is in desperate need of reform. But why now, with little consultation and much haste, in the middle of a pandemic? The suspicions aroused are grounds enough for peaceful protest, but let’s press on. Read more »

Control and COVID-19, Revisited: Agency and the Problem of Induction

by Robyn Repko Waller

Image by Miguel Á. Padriñán from Pixabay

Last spring we stumbled through the frighteningly new COVID landscape, facing unknowns. This spring we steer the course for a COVID exit, armed with vaccines. But how has our experience as agents changed?

This March we found ourselves in a starkly different pandemic reality from last. Gone are the early days of ubiquitous question marks — are masks effective? Will there be a vaccine? When will we see our extended family again?

Granted, grimly, the COVID case and death counts continue to rise. And one still fears for the health of loved ones. Nonetheless we have hit our stride in the vaccine rollout (here in the US, that is). Just this weekend, 4 million Americans received the vaccine in one day. Institutions and industries — from universities to Broadway — are making plans to reopen like the golden days of pre-COVID. Those agonizing months of dread and isolation seem, comparatively, in the rear view mirror. 

Moreover, for many of us, the selves we were in March 2020 are no longer. We’ve lived through a transformative experience — honing new values and skillsets that we could not have imagined we’d acquire. Like my newfound role of hairdresser, kids’ crafts director, and work-from-home extraordinaire. 

In some ways, though, we haven’t changed. We still long for normalcy. We still value much of our pre-COVID ways. How will we square those old values and behavior patterns with this brave new world? Here, I contend, the work of eighteenth-century philosopher David Hume can offer illuminating insight. But, first, a story. Read more »

The Science of Empire

by N. Gabriel Martin

1870 Index of Great Trigonometrical Survey of India

Henry Ward Beecher was one of the most prominent and influential abolitionists in the US prior to and during the Civil War. He campaigned against the “Compromise of 1850” in which the new state of California, annexed in the Mexican-American war, was agreed to be made a state without slavery in exchange for tougher laws against aiding fugitive slaves in the non-slavery states. In his argument against the Compromise of 1850, “Shall we compromise,” Beecher argued, according to his biographer Debby Applegate: “No lasting compromise was possible between Liberty and Slavery, Henry argued, for democracy and aristocracy entailed such entirely different social and economic conditions that ‘One or the other must die.’”[1]

In her Voice From the South, African-American author Anna Julia Cooper writes about hearing Beecher say “Were Africa and the Africans to sink to-morrow, how much poorer would the world be? A little less gold and ivory, a little less coffee, a considerable ripple, perhaps, where the Atlantic and Indian Oceans would come together—that is all; not a poem, not an invention, not a piece of art would be missed from the world.”[2]

Opposed to the enslavement of Africans on the one hand, utterly dismissive of their value on the other, for Beecher the problem of slavery would be just as well resolved if Thanos snapped his fingers and disappeared all Africans, as it would if slavery were abolished. Perhaps better. Beecher’s position isn’t atypical of human rights advocates, even today (although the way he puts it would certainly be impolitic today). When charities from Oxfam to Save The Children feature starving African children in their ads, the message isn’t that the impoverishment of those children inhibits their potential as the inheritors of a rich cultural endowment that goes back to the birth of civilisation, mathematics, and monotheism in Ancient Egypt. The message these humanitarian ads send is that the children are suffering and that you have the power to save them. As Didier Fassin writes: “Humanitarian reason pays more attention to the biological life of the destitute and unfortunate, the life in the name of which they are given aid, than to their biographical life, the life through which they could, independently, give a meaning to their own existence.”[3] Read more »

Patriotism in the UK

by Martin Butler

Patriotism is a contested ideal in the culture war which bubbles away in the UK.  It’s worth examining not only as an idea in itself but also with regards to how it is understood and expressed in the present cultural context of the UK. It seems to me that the debate is dominated by two ends of a spectrum, both misguided. At one end there are those who find the word itself too problematic to be worth salvaging. It is, they would argue, despite claims to the contrary, unavoidably linked to its ugly cousin, nationalism, with its xenophobic and jingoist associations.[1]  On the other end of the spectrum there is a strong pushback against this squeamishness, although this side of the argument, which I call politicised patriotism, tends to associate the sentiment with a narrow set of political views and promotes the cartoonish idea of patriotism focused on flags.

But what is patriotism? Whereas nationalism is the aggressive pushing of your own nation as somehow better than others, patriotism, understood in its benign sense at least, is just love of country.[2] But what exactly does this mean? We need to acknowledge here that, as Benedict Anderson points out, nations are to a large extent ‘imagined communities’.[3] They are constructed entities based on a particular narrative handed down through history and culture. Anderson makes the amusing point that “The Barons who imposed Magna Carta on John Plantagenet did not speak English and had no conception of themselves as “Englishmen”, but they were firmly defined as early patriots in classrooms of the United Kingdom 700 years later.”[4] Anderson, I think, would want to contrast an imagined community with communities of individuals who in some way have direct social interaction. Anthropologist Robin Dunbar famously identified the magic number of 150 as the maximum number of meaningful relationships a human being can maintain.[5] Evidence suggests that hunter-gatherer groups that exceeded this number tended to split.  But we use the term ‘community’ in a far broader sense than this, so most communities are indeed ‘imagined’ in Anderson’s sense, and we have no trouble understanding this sense as real community; although we can acknowledge that the word ‘community’ is perhaps often used too loosely.[6] Read more »

Not Even Wrong #10: They Hired Me As A Go-Between

by Jackson Arn

They hired me as a go-between. The interview was quick.
Jazz on the bar. Fake palms. Pantomimed
whirls everywhere. The handshake lingered
for a week. By then I’d been promoted and had no
time for protégés. Smoke hid me from
the noise. The billboard stared back.
Cars whispered through their hurry. It was a week.

A week later we buried the final shard. It was
a modest ceremony and we tried to hide our
mirth from dogs. They’d get the wrong idea. One
by one we reentered and I was last of course.
I had almost forgotten what it was to want a shadow.
If you join will you remind me sometimes? Will you
forget also? Will you tap my shoulderbone?

An Existential Void: Liminality As Transition Between Rule-Spaces

by Jochen Szangolies

Figure 1: A chess board, depicting the scholar’s mate.

Even if you’ve never played chess in your life, the image in Fig. 1 is probably readily identifiable to you. The regular grid of the chessboard, white and black standing in opposition, perhaps even the individual pieces—knights, pawns, bishops, and so on—are a cultural staple.

If you have some familiarity with the rules of chess, however, you will see more than that: rather than a mere configuration of items, you’ll see moves—options, dangers, strategies. For instance, the white queen is threatened by the knight on f6: a knight always moves in a specific way, one step diagonally, one step straight, allowing it to move to the white queen’s spot to capture. To evade, the white queen could capture the black pawn on e5—but then, would be captured by the knight on c6. A much better option—the move this particular configuration of pieces seems to scream out to you, if you’re a chess player with some experience—is for the white queen to move to f7, capturing the pawn, for check and mate: the so-called ‘Scholar’s Mate’.

Familiarity with the rules of chess adds a semantic dimension to the chessboard. The pieces acquire a particular, individual character: the knight is that particular piece that moves one straight and one diagonal; the bishop is the piece that moves diagonally; and so on. Rules transform the chess pieces from inert physical objects to something with a particular identity, something almost agent-like, capable of acting towards a certain goal. However, removed from the chessboard, they loose this character: a bishop and a rook, connected at their bases, make for a passable model rocket ship, for example.

Indeed, in a pinch, you could easily take a chess pawn to replace one of the tokens in a game of Ludo, or Halma—there, despite its somewhat odd looks, it will nevertheless fit right in, given a new identity by a new set of rules.

The chess-, Ludo-, and Halma-boards are examples of rule spaces. Read more »

Can Morality Make Demands on Our Attention?

by Joseph Shieber

Georg Schultz. Newspaper Carriers (Work Disgraces). 1921. Art Institute of Chicago.

Imagine, in a solitary clearing, a ballet dancer practicing a piece of choreography. The dancer, who is listening to music on earbuds, is so engrossed in their performance that they don’t notice the world around them. Anyone who happened upon the dancer would hesitate to disturb them, afraid that any interruption would break the transcendently beautiful spell they cast with their graceful and intricate movements.

At that moment, there is a commotion in the lake beyond the clearing from the dancer. A young child has fallen into the water and can’t swim. Nobody else is within earshot, and the child screams for someone to help.

The dancer, caught up in their solitary performance, closed off from the sounds of the outside world by their earbuds, never hears the child. The child drowns.

Let’s suppose that the dancer could easily have reached the lake and rescued the child, if the dancer had been aware of the child’s existence at all. But the dancer thought themselves to be alone in the clearing, far away from anyone else. There can be no question that the dancer bears no responsibility for not having saved the child. The dancer never heard the child’s screams, never saw the child splashing about in the lake.

Of course, were the dancer ever to learn of the child’s death, they might blame themselves for not having done more. Such self-blame, however, is clearly not rational. They knew nothing of the child’s existence!

But now, let’s vary the case a bit. To keep the two cases apart, let’s call the first case “Earbuds”. The second case, like “Earbuds” has a similar setup. Again, a solitary clearing. Again, a ballet dancer at the pinnacle of their art. Again, a drowning child.

Unlike “Earbuds”, however, let’s now imagine that the dancer is accompanied by music played on a boombox. Let’s call this second case “Boombox”. Read more »

A Voyage to Vancouver, Part Five

In memory of Joe Blades, Broken Jaw Press embodied

by Eric Miller

Copse and cosmos

Do you find that, even while garden-seated—garden-stirring—, you yearn after gardens? Or that, once you have gotten in, you dapple the place with other spots and then, like a mirage, abide in the very measure in which you cease to be? This is more than solitude’s swing, or Fragonard’s for that matter. Then, across the clearing—the clustering scuff, blur and spin of amenities, where even boulders flock, ruffle and (foliaceous) flutter—, planes in view dovish a work over which I bent a shadow, juvenile. I did not know any of the story of the story, I only tried looking. It said “The Book of Thel,” and weighed less than a sandal might. My saltatory eyes spanned phrases and figures, a treehopper, painless impingement, clicks, thorn-shaped, as it springs. That kind (Family Membracidae) is all there once it gets there but most it leaves out, with integrity jumping to inconclusions. Nature does make leaps. I mean, in no time. The author? William Blake, whom plenty consider out of date because he was born some while since which is reckoned a fatal shortcoming in many respects and whom others still enjoy and these latter extenuate their suspect pleasure as resourcefully as they can.

I don’t care what the opinion is, opinion is blather, a sort of breeze fitfully brisk and smoggy, I don’t care except about how the book lives in me not otherwise than I live, sometimes living in gardens for a time. In this sense I am Blake’s ideal reader because I am not reading Blake, he doesn’t matter, here are certain verses and truths of ultimately unknown make and these are like dreams in part recalled. In Van Dusen Gardens, as in all gardens, there are intimate places, more intimate than I am to myself, experiences more than memories I never had that I can occupy and vacate like a nest box, and in those places today I see Thel passing, her high-waisted dress. Read more »

Film Review: ‘Brewmance’ Is a Crisp, Bubbly Take on Microbreweries

by Alexander C. Kafka

“My first experience home-brewing was before it was legal,” says Jim Koch, cofounder and chairman of Boston Beer Company, maker of Sam Adams. “I did it with my dad. He brought home some yeast … then he brought home some hops, and we made a beer. And I thought it was so cool when the yeast brought the beer to life, and it started to bubble and you got that foam on the top of it, and it had that wonderful bready, ester-y smell, and I was in love.”

Koch kicks off producer and director Christo Brock’s crisp, fizzy new documentary, Brewmance, as one of the elders in the high church of American independent brewing. They provide historical context for the current, competitive scene of some 7,000 craft breweries. The grandfather of the group is Fritz Maytag, who, in the mid-1960s, turned a closing San Francisco brewery into today’s Anchor Brewing, an exotic  alternative to the bland corporate six-packs. Also chiming in are Vinnie Cilurzo of Russian River, Sam Calagione of Dogfish Head, and Charlie Papazian, the pied piper of the group, who founded the Great American Beer Festival, an annual three-day 60,000-attendee extravaganza.   

The festival started four decades ago with 20 breweries and 40 beers, Papazian explains. Two of the 2,300 microbreweries represented at a recent festival are startups in Brock’s hometown of Long Beach, Calif., and the bulk of his film explores the inspiration behind the grueling births of those businesses. Read more »

Wine and Music Pairing: A Next-Level Aesthetic Experience

by Dwight Furrow

The evidence that pairing music with wine can enhance one’s tasting experience continues to mount since I last visited this topic in 2017. A research team headed by Q.J. Wang showed that, in a winery tasting room, wines tasted with a soundtrack chosen to enhance oak-derived flavors were rated as significantly fruitier and smoother than the same wines tasted in silence. Master of Wine, Susan Lin wrote her thesis on the effects of music on the taste and mouthfeel of Brut Non-Vintage Champagne. And Jo Burzynska’s published research includes a paper entitled “Tasting the Bass,” which investigates the effects of lower frequency sound on the perceived weight and body of a New Zealand Pinot Noir and a Spanish Garnacha. The study also measured the influence of pitch on aromatic intensity and the perception of acidity.

This recent research is on top of the earlier studies in which test subjects show statistically significant agreement about which wine goes best with music samples presented to them (cross-modal correspondence); and that the right music can influence specific aspects of the tasting experience, such as perception of sweetness, flavor notes, perceived acidity, and level of astringency (cross-modal influence).

For instance, in one study by British music psychologist Adrian North, subjects were offered a Cabernet Sauvignon or a Chardonnay. After rating the wines along four dimensions—powerful and heavy, subtle and refined, zingy and refreshing, and mellow and soft—they tasted the wines while listening to music chosen to highlight each dimension. Both wines were scored significantly higher on the powerful/heavy metric by those who listened to the powerful/heavy music (Orff’s Carmina Burana) and the same effect was found with the other dimensions tested. The music had similar effects on both red and white wines and was independent of whether the subjects liked the wine. There is now almost 30 years of research leading to the same conclusion. Music can enhance our appreciation of wine. This is not surprising given the evidence that all variety of environmental and contextual factors from weather to the sound of popping a cork influence the taste of a wine. Read more »

Would the Pandemic Stop Paul Theroux From Traveling? No

Gal Beckerman in the New York Times:

Theroux turns 80 in April. For a generation of backpackers now gone gray, the tattered paperback accounts of his treks through China, Africa and South America were a prod to adventure, bibles of inspiration under many a mosquito net. He has a new novel out from Houghton Mifflin Harcourt in April, “Under the Wave at Waimea,” and his best-known book (and his own favorite among them), “The Mosquito Coast,” has been adapted into a television series starring his nephew, Justin Theroux, also set to premiere next month.

If this seems like a moment to take stock of an intrepid life and an almost extreme output of writing, Theroux does not see himself as anywhere near done. Before Covid-19 struck, he had plans to go to central Africa. He is deep into another novel and finishing up a new story collection. He himself can’t seem to keep track of the number of books he has written: “Fifty-something maybe?” (It’s actually 56.)

More here.

Sunday Poem

The Where in My Belly

Scientists say my brain and heart
are 73 percent water—
they underestimate me.

A small island—minis, I emerged
among Minnesota’s northern lakes,
the where of maanomin—wild rice in my belly.

I am from boats and canoes and kayaks,
from tribal ghosts who rise at dawn
dance like wisps of fog on water.

My where is White Earth Nation
and white pine forests,
knees summer stained with blueberries,
pink lady slippers open and wild as my feet.

I grew up where math was Canasta,
where we recited times tables
while ice fishing at twenty below,
spent nights whistling to Northern Lights.

I am from old: medicines barks and teas;
from early—the air damp with cedar
the crack of amik, beaver tails on water.

Their echo now a warning to where—
to where fish become a percentage of mercury,
become a poison statistic;
to where copper mines back against
a million blue acres of sacred.

I am from nibi and ogichidaakweg
women warriors and water protectors, from seed
gatherers and song makers.

The wet where pulse in my belly whispers and repeats
like the endless chant of waves on ledgerock
waves on ledgerock on ledgerock on waves
on water. . .nibi

by Kimberly Blaeser
From Split This Rock

Listen as Kimberly Blaeser reads “The Where in My Belly”.


A Black Army Rises to Fight the Racist Right

Graeme Wood in The Atlantic:

John F. Johnson aka Grand Master Jay leading the march of NFAC (Not Fucking Around Coalition) through Louisville, Kentucky to Churchill Downs on Derby Day, on September 5, 2020. Not Fucking Around Coalition is back in Louisville five weeks later, on Derby day, urging police to use force from across the fence, but their plans at the track abruptly ended before the race.

When grandmaster jay walked into Million’s Crab, a seafood joint in suburban Cincinnati, the waitstaff looked alarmed. Million’s Crab is a family restaurant, and on that placid November evening, Jay—the supreme commander of the Not Fucking Around Coalition—was wearing body armor rated to take a pistol round directly to the chest. Dressed from mask to shoes in black, he was four hours late to our meeting, and remorseless. “My time is scarce,” he said, making aggressive eye contact. Indeed, of the two of us, I was the one who felt sheepish, not because I was wasting his time but because it occurred to me that while I waited, I could have warned the servers that my dining companion was often armed and that he might look as if he had just stepped out of The Matrix. He sat across from me, in front of a platter of scallops and shrimp that had been hot when I’d ordered it for him an hour before, when the kitchen was closing. I offered him a plastic bib, which he declined. He wouldn’t eat any food, but he requested a San Pellegrino or, in its absence, filtered tap water.

Grandmaster Jay’s group, the NFAC, is a Black militia whose goals, other than to abjure Fucking Around, are obscure. It has a militarylike structure, fields an army of hundreds of heavily armed men and women, subscribes to esoteric racist doctrines, opposes Black Lives Matter, and follows a leader who thinks we live in a period of apocalyptic tribulation signaled by the movements of celestial bodies. Its modus operandi is to deploy a more fearsome Black militia wherever white militias dare to appear. Eventually, it intends to establish a racially pure country called the United Black Kemetic Nation. (“Kemet,” Jay explained, “is the original name of Egypt, which means ‘land of the Blacks.’”) A patch on Grandmaster Jay’s body armor bore the new nation’s initials, UBKN.

More here.