The Founders Flounder

by Michael Liss

John Adams,  National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution

There was a time when we had no political parties.

It was brief, like the glow of a firefly on a warm late summer evening, but it occurred. There were no political parties at the time of the American Revolution, or when the newly freed colonies joined in the Articles of Confederation. None at the time they went to Philadelphia to hammer out the Constitution, and none when it was ratified (although the supporters of it were called Federalists and Alexander Hamilton eventually organized them as a party). For the first three years of the new government, until May of 1792, when Thomas Jefferson and James Madison founded the Democratic-Republican Party, the Federalists were the only political party in the land.

When we 21st Century Americans, out of desperation, look to the Constitution for a way out of intractable and pernicious partisanship, we often look in vain for the answers because they really aren’t there. The Constitution was not intentionally designed to compensate for party-based partisanship. Rather, it was a balancing act between regional forces, between economic interests, between small and big states, between slave and free, and between political philosophies. The Framers needed to find enough compromises to get the states to agree to the new framework. No interest got everything, but all got something, because they had to. Why join otherwise?

Obviously, the Framers were aware of political parties (England’s Parliament had its Whigs and Tories). They were also aware of the dangers of partisanship (most notably, Madison in Federalist No. 10). But they hadn’t yet made the leap to only negotiating governance through the synthetic framework of a multiparty system, nor to the idea of candidates for Chief Executive differentiating themselves by party identification. The model for a President was in front of everyone—George Washington. Read more »

Monday Poem

God gave names to all the animals,
in the beginning, in the beginning

…………………………—Bob Dylan

Cut to the Chaste

to be called anything,
to be called, Jim, for instance,
is to be tagged for life
unless you choose otherwise
and pull a new name from a hat—
a new you, say, Ed— which would amount
to a tangle of official undoing
as bureaucrats mined reams of documents
to remake an identity with digital white-out
in a shitstorm of confusion to fashion a new you
when it would be more direct,
though sweatingly more difficult
(wrenching perhaps, perhaps impossible)
to turn your heart and head

inside out, scour what’s feckless within,
cramped, sour, stained, into gleaming radiance
as when you slid new into the world
so that a new name would be uncalled for
and need never to be said

—or, cut to the chaste,
start young

Jim Culleny

Other People’s Children: The Struggle for Moral Clarity At The Border/Hijos De Otras Personas: La Lucha Por La Claridad Moral En La Frontera

by Eric J. Weiner

Border culture is a project of ‘redefinition’ that conceives of the border not only as the limits of two countries, but also as a cardinal intersection of many realities. In this sense, the border is not an abyss that will have to save us from threatening otherness, but a place where the so-called otherness yields, becomes us, and therefore comprehensible–Guillermo Gomez-Peña, 1986

La cultura fronteriza es un proyecto de “redefinición” que concibe la frontera no sólo como los límites de dos países, sino también como una intersección cardinal de muchas realidades. En este sentido, la frontera no es un abismo que deba salvarnos de la otredad amenazante, sino un lugar en el que la llamada otredad cede, se convierte en nosotros y, por tanto, es comprensible–Guillermo Gómez-Peña, 1986

Nelson Mandela, in a speech inaugurating the Nelson Mandela Children’s Fund, said, “There can be no keener revelation of a society’s soul than the way in which it treats its children.” Echoing his words, the authors of UNICEF’s Child Poverty Report write, “The true measure of a nation’s standing is how well it attends to its children – their health and safety, their material security, their education and socialization, and their sense of being loved, valued, and included in the families and societies into which they are born.” As people in the U.S. and throughout the world bear witness to other people’s children languishing in overcrowded facilities along the southern border of the United States, I think a more keener revelation of a nation’s soul and a measure of its standing is how well it treats other people’s children—their health and safety, their material security, their education and socialization, and their sense of being loved and valued.

Nelson Mandela, en un discurso de inauguración del Fondo Nelson Mandela para la Infancia dijo: “No puede haber una revelación más aguda del alma de una sociedad que la forma en que trata a sus niños”. Haciéndose eco de sus palabras, los autores del Informe sobre la Pobreza Infantil de UNICEF escriben: “La verdadera medida del prestigio de una nación es lo bien que atiende a sus niños: su salud y seguridad, su seguridad material, su educación y socialización, y su sensación de ser amados, valorados e incluidos en las familias y sociedades en las que nacen”. Mientras la gente en Estados Unidos y en todo el mundo es testigo de cómo los niños de otras personas languidecen en instalaciones superpobladas a lo largo de la frontera sur de Estados Unidos, creo que una revelación más aguda del alma de una nación y una medida de su posición es lo bien que trata a los niños de otras personas: su salud y seguridad, su seguridad material, su educación y socialización, y su sentido de ser amados y valorados. Read more »


by Akim Reinhardt

Traditional Carved Red Wood with Flow Lines

I say carve.

You imagine a chisel flaking or chipping or gouging wood or stone.

I say line.

Now you see the chisel slicing and curving redoubled trenches through the surface.

I say straight.

You stir uneasily in your chair, or readjust your stance if you’re standing, perhaps mildly shrugging one shoulder. The chisel, for reasons you can’t imagine, carves a straight line. It is not rotating, turning, angling, or otherwise expressing itself creatively. It is simply working

This is not art, you murmur to yourself. This is just a straight line.

So odd, the word murmur. What a strange assortment of letters. A row of three, repeating itself once. rum rum backwards. Not red rum, such as murder backwards. Just rum rum. Why even one rum, much less two of them, cleaved together for reasons that are beyond us?

There is no rum here, light or dark, no molasses, no slaves. No triangular trade, carved through the Atlantic Ocean by large, wooden sailing ships, from Britain or Portugal or the Netherlands or Spain to Africa, usually West but occasionally Central, to the Caribbean islands, or perhaps to Brazil, and once in a while northward to the North American mainland, before returning back to Britain or Portugal or the Netherlands or Spain. Read more »

Angry Atheists

by Jeroen Bouterse

“Why, during the seventeenth century, did people who knew all the arguments that there is a God stop finding God’s reality intuitively obvious?” This, says Alec Ryrie in his Unbelievers: An Emotional History of Doubt (2019), is the heart of the question of early modern unbelief (136).

Ryrie’s point is that arguments pro or contra theism, and the influence of philosophical and scientific developments upon these arguments, are not actually crucial to the possibility of unbelief. The currents that run underneath these arguments are instinctive, emotional, and these are what we should look at if we want to understand doubt and denial of Christian theism historically. The history of unbelief is not primarily the history of eighteenth-century Enlightenment radicals and nineteenth-century science warriors, but of premodern anger and anxiety.

This also means that it is a history internal to Christendom: atheism, to Ryrie (himself a lay minister in the Church of England), is not essentially alien to Christianity; especially post-Reformation, it is a bug in the system itself, one that at times almost looks like a feature. The very self-criticism and soul-searching that come to define a faithful believer can lead her to recognize that she believes in her heart that there is no God. Read more »

L’Amour à Mort!

by Rafaël Newman

Love is as strong as death, but no stronger.
The NewMen, “Uncle Leo”

On Saturday, April 10, 2021, in Fribourg in the west of Switzerland, Besuch der Lieder, the troupe of musicians with whom I serve as a dramaturge, staged its first performance after a hiatus of more than a year: for once, however, not, as our concept dictates, an in-house song recital in the fashion of the nineteenth century, but rather, COVID oblige, a live stream via YouTube. Annina Haug, mezzo-soprano, and Edward Rushton, piano, performed Lieder by Schumann and Strauss and lodies by Fauré and Saint-Saëns; I commented on our choice of songs. What follows is our programme, with links to the texts sung in their original languages, interspersed with an adapted version of my remarks (given on the occasion, in honor of the bilingual character of the host canton, in German and French, as well as in English; translations of poems below are mine). The recital itself can still be “attended” here. Read more »

The future of not working

by Sarah Firisen

I recently had a conversation with someone I know who is around 50 and has been out of work since the COVID-19 pandemic started. He’s had a challenging life over the last 20 years or so dealing with addiction. While he once had a successful career, since rehab, he’s been working pretty low-level jobs in catering, an industry that died during lockdown. I asked him what he’s going to do as lockdown eases, and he confessed that this last year or so has been the best year of his life. With his stimulus and unemployment money, he’s had the time to paint and write, and he’s loved it. 

I’ve written before around the question, “Does work have to be such….work?” I wrote,  “As automation creeps into more and more back and front office work, there’s a lot of understandable fear about loss of jobs. But in reality, a lot of automation will be…taking out a lot of the drudgery that most of us inevitably have in our daily work. ” The pandemic has allowed, in some cases, forced many people to reevaluate their lives and careers and consider what really makes them happy. We’ve all had reason to appreciate better the small joys in life: family, friends, being able to go out to restaurants and travel to see those we love. But, for many people, it’s also changed their relationship with work. Working from home has given many people a new freedom and flexibility that most don’t seem willing to give up as restrictions ease. 

There’s an interesting video from a few years ago called “Humans need not apply.” It raises the specter of automation decimating all sorts of industries, from transportation to the medical field. It challenges analogies to the industrial revolution. These analogies paint the rosy picture that the jobs destroyed were horrible, dangerous, low-paid jobs anyway. The video claims that such analogies don’t consider the sheer scale of the job replacement that this new automation will bring. The video questions the possible future where people can now spend their time doing more human endeavors, like writing poetry. The video posits that it’s hard to imagine a poetry-based economy that will help support all the theoretically now-unemployed and unemployable people. But what if this view of what a future without “work” for many people looks like is too narrow? Perhaps, we need a paradigm shift in thinking.  Read more »

On the Road: Pandemic Scorecard

by Bill Murray

They call it the Sargasso, this grass. It is the bane of Belize, an invasive floating weed that keeps pitchforks flailing along the waterfront. The Sargasso Sea, we know where that is. But this grass is from Brazil, Réné says. It’s a new challenge from a new place. It isn’t challenge enough just to weather a pandemic, he says. Now there’s this, too.

The hotel receptionist tries to convince a lady on the phone the grass isn’t so bad here. It’s worse other places, he suggests carefully, not to cast aspersions. Réné, a  snorkel boat pilot, might wonder where as he tends his Honda outboards like a Mekong longtail runner clearing water hyacinth.

Réné has a less sales brochure-oriented assessment: we’ve done this to ourselves. This nasty bit of seaweed is from Brazil, human caused, product of fertilizer, effluent from the Amazon. Look at this, he scoops a random handful into the boat. These are seeds, it breeds right here just floating on the water.

Welcome to other people’s problems.

We just returned from our first trip abroad in 14 months. Belize is feeling the strain of the lack-of-tourism, as I sense they do most things, gently. The smiles are there. No people could be looser, more easy-going, nicer, and it’s just as pretty as you hoped; Belize, and its gracious people, are lovely. Read more »

Born to Groove: Up from Mud and Back to Our Roots

by Bill Benzon

I don’t remember exactly what I was saying – this conversation took place over a half century ago – but perhaps I was explaining why I choose to become a scholar rather than a musician. What I remember is Gren’s reply: You ARE a musician. After awhile he convinced me.

That is, we had to talk about it. I thought of a musician as someone who made a living performing music. I didn’t do that. To be sure, I made some money playing around town in a rock band and I’d spent years learning the trumpet. I’d marched in parades and at football games; I’d played concerts with various groups. But I wasn’t a full-time, you know, a professional musician, a real musician. Gren insisted that I was a musician because I played music, a lot, and was committed to it. That’s all that’s necessary.

He was right of course. I was a musician then and I’m one know. Three decades after that conversation I published a book, Beethoven’s Anvil: Music in Mind and Culture, in which I argued that music is what transformed groups of very clever apes into human beings. In THAT sense we’re all musicians. It’s our heritage.

Alas, too many of us have been robbed of that heritage and have been bamboozled into thinking that only special talented people should be making music. Nope. It’s time to flip the script. We’re born to groove. Read more »

Eilean records

by Dave Maier

Podcast time! Eilean is one of my very favorite ambient labels, so I felt a retrospective would be in order. The project is finished, alas, but you can still pick up the entire series of 100 releases for a shockingly low price. Don’t be put off by unfamiliar names here, this is some great stuff. More to come!

Since many of these names were unfamiliar to me as well, I don’t have a whole lot to add, so I’ll be quoting quite a bit from the relevant webpages. Follow the links for more!

Widget below. Here’s the direct link if you can’t wait (or if the widget is cranky):

Read more »

Activist, Professor, Politician, Aesthete — the many contradictions of Edward Said

Jackson Arn in Forward:

Edward W. Said, Salman Rushdie, and S. Abbas Raza at Columbia University in 1994. (Photo by Azra Raza.)

You could read any of Edward Said’s books, but you couldn’t take them home with you. Looking back, this was obviously a metaphor for something or other. At the time it seemed like a simple-enough fact—but then, I was only a freshman.

The Edward Said Reading Room opened in the spring of 2011, eight years after Said died of leukemia and a few months before I started college at Columbia. I liked it because it was small enough to pace through without losing sight of my laptop, and because the late professor had had fantastic taste in books. There were about 2,000 of them on the shelves, all from his personal collection and spanning most of his favorite subjects: Arabic modernism, classical music, the Frankfurt School, the two-state solution, the 19th-century realist novel. If book collections are always self-portraits, this was the grandest self-portrait I’d ever seen. So, no: students weren’t allowed to check these books out of Butler Library — that would have chipped the paint.

Said taught literature at Columbia for 40 years. During my four as an undergrad, he came up so often it felt like he still did.

More here.

DNA of Giant ‘Corpse Flower’ Parasite Surprises Biologists

Christie Wilcox in Quanta:

They are invisible at first. In their Southeast Asian forest homes, they grow as thin strands of cells, foreign fibers sometimes more than 10 meters long that weave through the vital tissues of their vine hosts, siphoning nourishment from them. Even under a microscope, the single-file lines of cells are nearly indistinguishable from the vine’s own. They seem more like a fungus than a plant.

But when the drive to breed awakens them, the members of the Rafflesiaceae family erupt as immense, stemless, rubbery red “corpse flowers” covered in polka dots, with a putrid smell like rotting meat designed to draw pollinating carrion flies. The blooms of one species, Rafflesia arnoldii, are the largest flowers in the world — each one can be more than a meter across and weigh a whopping 10 kilograms, roughly the heft of a toddler.

More than a decade ago, Rafflesiaceae parasites caught the eye of Jeanmaire Molina, an evolutionary plant biologist at Long Island University in Brooklyn, who wondered if their genomes were as bizarre as their outward forms.

More here.

Redesigning AI

Daron Acemoglu in the Boston Review:

Artificial Intelligence (AI) is not likely to make humans redundant. Nor will it create superintelligence anytime soon. But like it or not, AI technologies and intelligent systems will make huge advances in the next two decades—revolutionizing medicine, entertainment, and transport; transforming jobs and markets; enabling many new products and tools; and vastly increasing the amount of information that governments and companies have about individuals. Should we cherish and look forward to these developments, or fear them?

There are reasons to be concerned. Current AI research is too narrowly focused on making advances in a limited set of domains and pays insufficient attention to its disruptive effects on the very fabric of society. If AI technology continues to develop along its current path, it is likely to create social upheaval for at least two reasons. For one, AI will affect the future of jobs. Our current trajectory automates work to an excessive degree while refusing to invest in human productivity; further advances will displace workers and fail to create new opportunities (and, in the process, miss out on AI’s full potential to enhance productivity). For another, AI may undermine democracy and individual freedoms.

More here.

The Best Postcolonial Literature, recommended by Anjuli Fatima Raza Kolb

Cal Flyn in Five Books:

Postcolonial literature brings together writings from formerly colonised territories, allowing commonalities across disparate cultures to be identified and examined. Here, the University of Toronto academic Anjuli Fatima Raza Kolb recommends five key works that explore philosophical and political questions through allegory, personal reflection and powerful polemic.

What is postcolonial literature and why should we read it?

There are two separate but connected fields that I’m drawing these postcolonial books from.

First, there’s the intuitive definition of postcolonial literature, which is basically just literary work produced in formerly colonised nations by the people who live there. Already you can tell that this is a complicated category – is Albert Camus a postcolonial writer because he was an Algerian Pied-Noir? His siting in Algeria is as important as his identification with the French canon. So ‘postcolonial writing’ crumbles at the slightest touch when we use geography and history in order to define it.

What’s more useful to me is thinking about postcolonialism not as a historical definition or geographic category, but as a method—an approach that is explicitly about the liberatory politics of oppressed peoples. So I’m going to talk today about books that I would put in both camps at once.

More here.

Sunday Poem


The moonlight shining through the high branches
All the poets say is more
Than the moonlight shining through the high branches.

But to me, not knowing what I think,
What the moonlight shining through the high branches
Is, apart from being
The moonlight shining through the high branches,
Is just that,
The moonlight shining through the high branches.

by Fernando Pessoa
from The Complete Works of Alberto Caeiro
New Directions Paperbooks, 2020
translation from the Portuguese by Margaret Jull Costa & Patricio Ferrari

Harpies, sirens, and other ‘nasty’ women: Going beneath misogyny

Barbara Spindel in The Christian Science Monitor:

In high school, one of author Jess Zimmerman’s Internet usernames was Medusa. A self-described mythology nerd, her childhood copy of “D’Aulaires’ Book of Greek Myths” was well-worn. But as she recalls in her scorching collection of essays, “Women and Other Monsters: Building a New Mythology,” she particularly identified with the snake-haired creature whose power originated in ugliness: The mere sight of Medusa could turn a man to stone. As a teenager who was profoundly insecure about her looks, Zimmerman writes that calling herself Medusa was “an attempt to recuse myself from the game of human attraction before anyone pointed out that I’d already lost.”

Mythology is rife with hideous female creatures. Many of them, like Medusa, have the face of a woman but other grotesque, unnatural body parts. The Sirens are half bird, half woman; Scylla’s lower half is a mass of snarling dogs; the Sphinx has the body of a lion and the wings of a bird. All of them pose grave dangers to male heroes.

That’s not the only thing they have in common. “All the stories about monstrous women, about creatures who are too gross, too angry, too devious, too grasping, too smart for their own good, are stories told by men,” Zimmerman notes, citing Ovid, Homer, Virgil, and Sophocles. They were intended to be cautionary tales, warning women not to overreach, but the author wonders what would happen if women were to stop reading them as warnings and instead embrace them as aspirations.

More here.

India’s massive COVID surge puzzles scientists

Smriti Mallapaty in Nature:

The pandemic is sweeping through India at a pace that has staggered scientists. Daily case numbers have exploded since early March: the government reported 273,810 new infections nationally on 18 April. High numbers in India have also helped drive global cases to a daily high of 854,855 in the past week, almost breaking a record set in January. Just months earlier, antibody data had suggested that many people in cities such as Delhi and Chennai had already been infected, leading some researchers to conclude that the worst of the pandemic was over in the country.

Researchers in India are now trying to pinpoint what is behind the unprecedented surge, which could be due to an unfortunate confluence of factors, including the emergence of particularly infectious variants, a rise in unrestricted social interactions, and low vaccine coverage. Untangling the causes could be helpful to governments trying to suppress or prevent similar surges around the world. European countries such as France and Germany are also currently experiencing large outbreaks relative to their size, and nations including Brazil and the United States are reporting high infection rates at around 70,000 a day. But India’s daily totals are now some of the highest ever recorded for any country, and are not far off a peak of 300,000 cases seen in the United States on 2 January.

More here.