“That all those who knew him should write about him,” Borges wrote of the protagonist Ireneo Funes in his story Funes the Memorious, “seems to me a felicitous idea.” Certainly those who knew Borges, even in passing, thought it was a felicitous idea to write about him. Fifty years ago, it seemed that a trip to Buenos Aires wasn’t complete without a stopover at his sixth-floor Calle Maipú apartment, which he shared with his mother. Both Alberto Manguel and Paul Theroux have written about reading to the blind genius in his living room. VS Naipaul, in The Return of Eva Peron, found Borges to be “curiously colonial”, insulated from the violence and disorder in his country. When Mario Vargas Llosa visited in 1981, he noticed that Borges had kept his mother’s bedroom intact, with a lilac dress ready on the bed, even though she had died six years before.
Jay Parini’s “encounter” happened far from Argentina.
Does the world need another history of the Watergate scandal? If it’s this good, yes. Michael Dobbs’s tense facto-thriller covers the first hundred days of Richard Nixon’s second administration, from the triumph of re-election to the moment when things ‘fell apart’ in mid-1973. Dobbs stalks the president around the White House, watching and listening – much like the taping system Nixon installed to protect his reputation but that, in the end, destroyed it. We hear him make bigoted comments and plot to conceal the truth, as well as lie to the faces of men he professes to love – and to himself as well.
Tricky Dick probably didn’t order the burglary at the Democratic headquarters at the Watergate Hotel on 17 June 1972: responsibility lay with the Committee for the Re-election of the President, which was separate from the White House.
A discussion with Maya Adereth, Stephanie Mudge, Adam Przeworski, and Wolfgang Streeck as part of the launch of the volume Market Economy, Market Society: Interviews and Essays on the Decline of European Social Democracy, which asks the questions: what motivated left-leaning social democratic governments to pursue neoliberal restructuring, and was there an alternative?
The extent of the break with neoliberalism initiated by the Biden administration will depend upon both the unfolding of Washingtonian politics and the impact of mobilizations from below. Yet in the background, impersonal forces will continue to affect the metamorphosis of capitalism through its successive stages. It is from these structural constraints and opportunities that the fabric of the current conjuncture is woven. What can contemporary political economy tell us about them? Beyond the sphere of mainstream liberal thought, an array of recent theoretical contributions have tried to diagnose the current moment by situating it in the long-term rhythms of capitalist development. They offer a fresh light, if not a magic key, for understanding the systemic shift represented by Bidenomics.
Such forces of change are routinely ignored by liberal economists. Market exchange is viewed as a sphere of activity that depends solely on itself; conscious collective intervention must not interfere with the invisible hand or spontaneous order. However, it is increasingly clear that this faith in self-equilibrating market adjustment cannot provide a general theory of rapid socioeconomic change, nor a specific explanation of our present political turbulence. Recognizing this limitation, The Economist recently rejected neoclassical equilibrium modelling and Friedmanite instrumentalism in favour of evolutionary economics, which ‘seeks to explain real-world phenomena as the outcome of a process of continuous change’. ‘The past informs the present’, it declared. ‘Economic choices are made within and informed by historical, cultural and institutional contexts’.
This intervention signals the weakened grip of neoclassical economics on the profession as a whole. Yet the evolutionary schema nonetheless retains a deep loyalty to bourgeois ideology, premised on the belief that Natura non facit saltum, ‘nature does not make jumps’. For this school of thought, evolution is always incremental.
In the summer of 2021 the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) is marking its centenary. It has much to celebrate. The most powerful communist party and by far the most powerful political organisation in the world, it has presided over the largest surge of economic growth ever witnessed. For both the West and China’s immediate neighbours, this unsettling and unexpected fact defines the early 21st century.
China’s rise has undone any assumption that social and economic progress naturally leads to liberalism. Hundreds of millions of people have been lifted out of poverty in 40 years by an authoritarian one-party regime, dedicated to what it calls “Marxism for the 21st century”.
Against the backdrop of this triumph, the CCP is planning its second century. In Europe, the US and Asia, the political classes are scrambling to keep up. American strategists have designated a newly minted world region, the Indo-Pacific, as the arena for a battle royal between democracy and authoritarianism.
Some influential voices on both sides of the Atlantic relish this confrontation. Others are suffering from a sense of shock. They hanker after the 1990s or early 2000s, when coexistence seemed assured – an era that contemporary hawks dismiss as a period of naivety when the China challenge was underestimated.
Held at the proper angle, a lens will rip the sun’s flames from the sky. Cast them down upon sidewalks, cremate full colonies of ants, turn brown leaves to smoke and ash, and send mothers screaming in shame for giving birth to a pyromaniac.
A Queen of Diamonds pulled from a fresh deck when clipped to a Schwinn with a wooden clothespin will run its fingers the bike’s spokes like a Hells Angel with a harp and roar like a Harley.
Casseroles are leftovers mixed in the same bowl with Campbell’s Mushroom Soup to drown the truth. Corn kernels covered with mashed potatoes disappear. Peas go orbital upon a plate’s brown-gravy sky.
Mud slow dances with little boys’ soles, holds and hugs tight the way thirteen-year-olds cuddle to the final tune at the first school dance. The dirt has a mind of its own, prefers to disembark to the carpet, spread itself around.
Snow is hard water, pasted to hills. Cardboard boxes are the sleds of the poor. Oak trees at the bottom of hills are acorns come of age, ready to do battle, stand at attention, singing “We Shall Not Be Moved.”
The child who snuggles without prayers feels guilty, climbs from bed to kneel, and places hands together, reciting “Now I lay me….” then, absolved of omission, returns to sleep. The day will come; he will fail to kneel. The world will be much the same. No one cares; no one knows.
At about the age of 18 months babies start to get sneaky. They hide food they don’t like and go in for bouts of fake crying. In other words, they have learned that reality, far from being set in stone, is something that can be performed, tinkered with or even made to disappear completely. This, suggests Aja Raden, is the great foundational moment of life, indeed of all our lives. From now on we spend our time tiptoeing along the boundary between true and false, with a dizzying sense of how little there is to choose between them.
From here Raden takes us on a whistle-stop tour of hoaxes and cons. She’s not talking here about little fibs, the grownup version of hiding your spinach under your plate, but rather the swaggery whoppers that are capable of bringing down a whole peer group. Something like the Bernie Madoff scandal, a long con that lasted three decades and involved a lot of very rich people believing a criminal when he promised to make them even richer, without explaining how. In effect, and on Madoff’s own eventual admission, he was running a $65bn pyramid scheme, which used the money from new investors to pay off the marks who had been in the game for longer. All fine and dandy until the day came when he ran out of fresh meat and the whole wonky structure came tumbling down.
Why on earth would anyone – especially smart, rich anyones – fall for such obvious nonsense? Raden explains that it’s because, in the grand scheme of things, it benefits us to take information on trust. If we felt obliged to test knowledge before believing it, most us would have to spend at least a decade of our adult lives satisfying ourselves that the Earth is indeed round (assuming our maths was even up to it). Raden isn’t suggesting for a moment that the Earth is actually flat, simply that we have learned to rely on collective intelligence and majority decisions as a way of shortcutting a lot of tedious grunt work. In the case of Madoff, investors believed that his scheme must be a Good Thing simply because so many other people, including CEOs and Hollywood stars, already thought it so.
Jinny: How do the topics of language and writing in the novel reinforce and strengthen Dagestani identity?
AG: You know, when I was writing the novel I thought that maybe the readership would be confined to people interested in the Caucasus specifically—people who lived there, or people who work in the field as linguists, or maybe journalists—but it turned out that the topics raised there are quite universal. The concepts of walls being built around us, of isolation and alienation between people and races, and of nationalism started to thrive right after this novel came out in Russian. There was Brexit; there was Trump’s election. There were so many things. The immigration crisis in Europe. Real walls started to be built. That was so bizarre to witness, especially when the so-called Islamic State was created. In my novel, I was just thinking about this virtual state being erected and the Caucasus being a part of it. It’s interesting to me how local things turn out to be universal, and language barriers turn out to not be as insurmountable as they seem.
What makes Twitter so axiomatically hellish? It’s a place where even the most well-intentioned attempts at intellectually honest conversation inevitably devolve into misunderstanding and mutual contempt, like the fruit that crumbles into ash in the devils’ mouths in book 10 of Paradise Lost. It amplifies our simultaneous interdependency and alienation, the overtaking of meaningful political life by the triviality of the social. It is other people. But mostly Twitter is Hell because we—a “we” that, in Twitter’s universalizing idiom, outstretches optimistically or threateningly as if to envelop even those blessed souls who have never once logged on—make it so. It’s our own personal Hell, algorithmically articulated and given back to us, customized enough that I can complain to another very online friend about something that’s “all over Twitter” and he can reply, in confusion, “hmm, not my Twitter,” but shared enough that another friend can affirm, “on my Twitter too.” Pathetic fallacy subtends the most viral memes, either on the individual level (“it me”) or from the perspective of the willed collective of Twitter itself.
Walter Freeman was itching for a shortcut. Since the 1930s, the Washington, D.C. neurologist had been drilling through the skulls of psychiatric patients to scoop out brain chunks in the hopes of calming their mental torment. But Freeman decided he wanted something simpler than a bone drill — he wanted a rod-like implement that could pass directly through the eye socket to penetrate the brain. He’d then swirl the rod around to scramble the patient’s frontal lobes, the brain regions that control higher-level thinking and judgment.
Rummaging in his kitchen drawer, Freeman found the perfect tool: a sharp pick of the sort used to shear ice from large blocks. He knew his close colleague, surgeon James Watts, wouldn’t sanction his new approach, so he closed the office door and did his “ice-pick lobotomies” — more formally, transorbital lobotomies — without Watts’ knowledge.
Part of the problem is that English spelling looks deceptively similar to other languages that use the same alphabet but in a much more consistent way. You can spend an afternoon familiarising yourself with the pronunciation rules of Italian, Spanish, German, Swedish, Hungarian, Lithuanian, Polish and many others, and credibly read out a text in that language, even if you don’t understand it. Your pronunciation might be terrible, and the pace, stress and rhythm would be completely off, and no one would mistake you for a native speaker – but you could do it. Even French, notorious for the spelling challenges it presents learners, is consistent enough to meet the bar. There are lots of silent letters, but they’re in predictable places. French has plenty of rules, and exceptions to those rules, but they can all be listed on a reasonable number of pages.
Next month, after a yearlong delay because of the pandemic, the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) will begin to release its first major assessment of human-caused global warming since 2013. The report, the first part of which will appear on 9 August, will drop on a world that has starkly changed in 8 years, warming by more than 0.3°C to nearly 1.3°C above preindustrial levels. Weather has grown more severe, seas are measurably higher, and mountain glaciers and polar ice have shrunk sharply. And after years of limited action, many countries, pushed by a concerned public and corporations, seem willing to curb their carbon emissions.
But as climate scientists face this alarming reality, the climate models that help them project the future have grown a little too alarmist. Many of the world’s leading models are now projecting warming rates that most scientists, including the modelmakers themselves, believe are implausibly fast. In advance of the U.N. report, scientists have scrambled to understand what went wrong and how to turn the models, which in other respects are more powerful and trustworthy than their predecessors, into useful guidance for policymakers. “It’s become clear over the last year or so that we can’t avoid this,” says Gavin Schmidt, director of NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies.
In hindsight, it was only fitting that a story about surveillance and spyware in India should have begun with more than a touch of cloak and dagger.
Sometime in the middle of March, Sandhya Ravishankar, a reporter who had done a series of stories for The Wire on the sand mining mafia in Tamil Nadu, and who I knew and trusted, called me with a single question: “Do you have an iPhone?”
When I said yes, she said she wanted to fly up from Chennai right away to meet me and my fellow founding editor at The Wire, M.K. Venu. She said she couldn’t say anything about the purpose of the meeting but I guessed from her reticence that it was about something important.
On the appointed day, she came home and promptly asked that we switch off our telephones and place them in another room. Then, via a secure video link, she connected me to Sandrine Rigaud and Phineas Rueckert, two editors from the French media non-profit, Forbidden Stories, who explained that based on records they had accessed, they had good reason to believe our smartphones might be infected with the deadly spyware, Pegasus.
In a 1959 letter to her friend Mary McCarthy, Hannah Arendt paused to commiserate on a harrowing experience they had in common: having their writing fact-checked by The New Yorker. In her previous correspondence, McCarthy had mused that the magazine’s checking department was “invented by some personal Prosecutor of mine to shatter the morale,” and Arendt shared her frustration. Fact-checking, she replied, was a “kind of torture,” a “rigmarole,” and “one of the many forms in which the would-be writers persecute the writer.” Arendt’s opposition to the practice of fact-checking ran deeper than personal irritation. Throughout her work, she was critical of the infiltration of scientific terminology and methods into all aspects of human life. Couching an argument in language that sounded scientific, she thought, was a way of claiming the ability to know or predict things that could never be predicted or known. Fact-checking was a part of that larger trend: the practice, she wrote to McCarthy, was a form of “phony scientificality.”
This Arendt—snide, melodramatic, disdainful of the concept of factual verification—is not quite the picture that emerged after the election of Donald Trump, when she was rebranded as something of a patron saint of facts. “Welcome to the post-truth presidency,” the Washington Post opinion editor Ruth Marcus wrote, crediting Arendt as the thinker who had “presciently explained the basis for this phenomenon.” Michiko Kakutani, in an article titled the death of truth: how we gave up on facts and ended up with trump, likewise cast Arendt as a prophet whose “words increasingly sound less like a dispatch from another century than a chilling description of the political and cultural landscape we inhabit today.” how hannah arendt’s classic work on totalitarianism illuminates today’s america, ran a headline in the Washington Post. In Arendt’s work, the scholar Richard Bernstein declared in the New York Times, “we can hear not only a critique of the horrors of 20th-century totalitarianism, but also a warning about forces pervading the politics of the United States and Europe today.” The think pieces proliferated, reciting the same handful of Arendt quotations from her 1967 New Yorker essay “Truth and Politics” and her 1951 opus The Origins of Totalitarianism. Soon enough, Amazon sold out of Origins. “How could such a book speak so powerfully to our present moment?” asks a blurb at the top of its product page.
Arendt was deemed relevant when Trump was elected, relevant when he refused to wear a mask, relevant even in his defeat—with each successive crisis cast as confirmation of the predictions extrapolated from her prose.
Are you enjoying the pingdemic? Huge numbers of people are being told to self-isolate by the NHS Covid-19 app, which issues the instruction even if you have been sitting on the other side of a solid wall from an infected person. But what exactly is a “ping”? From the early 19th century, “ping” was used onomatopoeically for a high-pitched metallic sound, and also for the sound of bullets flying overhead or ricocheting, perhaps borrowing some of the older sense of “ping”, to prick or stab (from the Latin pungere). From 1983, it could also mean a message sent from one computer to another to establish a connection, and so our modern use combines both.
It might be annoying, meanwhile, when someone says they will “ping” you (to mean email or text, since 1990), but it is at least better than being shot with a gun, as a Utah newspaper reported in 1892: “When Gib Welsh, the Deputy Sheriff, tried to nab him Jake pinged him.”