Saturday, December 31, 2011

Monday, December 19, 2011

Cela, Vous Ne Pouvez Pas Dire.

French parliamentarians need to get a fucking grip and stop proposing bans on ideas that they find ugly. Agreed: burkas are contemptible. Armenian Genocide denialism? Also contemptible. But a fine for demonstrating one's own historical ignorance? Ridiculous.
Mustafa Ozer/AFP/Getty Images

By banning unsavory expression and speech, the French habitually put themselves in the terrible company of the censorious rightward thugs they fail to oppose. It's short-cut cowardice. From The Guardian:
Turkey has threatened to denounce France's colonial past at international meetings in retaliation for French plans to prosecute people who deny that the mass killings of Armenians by Ottoman Turks was genocide. 
Turkey rejects the term genocide to describe the killings of Armenians more than 90 years ago. Historians estimate that up to 1.5 million Armenians were killed and experts say it was the first genocide of the 20th century. 
France considers the killings a genocide. The lower house of the French parliament is to debate a proposal that would punish anyone denying that the slaughter was genocide with one year in prison and a €45,000 (£37,700) fine.
Why do Erdogan's work for him?

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Wednesday, December 14, 2011


I'm Running for President, and I'll Do Whatever You Say.

Friedman on the prostrations of an American party unconditionally beholden to a government of seven million:
I have a simple motto when it comes to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. I love both Israelis and Palestinians, but God save me from some of their American friends — those who want to love them to death, literally.
That thought came to mind last week when Newt Gingrich took the Republican competition to grovel for Jewish votes — by outloving Israel — to a new low by suggesting that the Palestinians are an “invented” people and not a real nation entitled to a state.
This was supposed to show that Newt loves Israel more than Mitt Romney, who only told the Israeli newspaper Israel Hayom that he would move the U.S. embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem because “I don’t seek to take actions independent of what our allies think is best, and if Israel’s leaders thought that a move of that nature would be helpful to their efforts, then that’s something I’ll be inclined to do. ... I don’t think America should play the role of the leader of the peace process. Instead, we should stand by our ally.”
That’s right. America’s role is to just applaud whatever Israel does, serve as its A.T.M. and shut up. We have no interests of our own. And this guy’s running for president?
As for Newt, well, let’s see: If the 2.5 million West Bank Palestinians are not a real people entitled to their own state, that must mean Israel is entitled to permanently occupy the West Bank and that must mean — as far as Newt is concerned — that Israel’s choices are: 1) to permanently deprive the West Bank Palestinians of Israeli citizenship and put Israel on the road to apartheid; 2) to evict the West Bank Palestinians through ethnic cleansing and put Israel on the road to the International Criminal Court in the Hague; or 3) to treat the Palestinians in the West Bank as citizens, just like Israeli Arabs, and lay the foundation for Israel to become a binational state. And this is called being “pro-Israel”?

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Rushdie and Manji @ 92 Street Y

Martin Amis

When we say that we love a writer’s work, we are always stretching the truth: what we really mean is that we love about half of it. Sometimes rather more than half, sometimes rather less. The vast presence of Joyce relies pretty well entirely on “Ulysses,” with a little help from “Dubliners.” You could jettison Kafka’s three attempts at full-length fiction (unfinished by him, and unfinished by us) without muffling the impact of his seismic originality. George Eliot gave us one readable book, which turned out to be the central Anglophone novel. Every page of Dickens contains a paragraph to warm to and a paragraph to veer back from. Coleridge wrote a total of two major poems (and collaborated on a third). Milton consists of “Paradise Lost.” Even my favorite writer, William Shakespeare, who usually eludes all mortal limitations, succumbs to this law. Run your eye down the contents page and feel the slackness of your urge to reread the comedies (“As You Like It” is not as we like it); and who would voluntarily curl up with “King John” or “Henry VI, Part III”?
Proustians will claim that “In Search of Lost Time” is unimprovable throughout, despite all the agonizing longueurs. And Janeites will never admit that three of the six novels are comparative weaklings (I mean “Sense and Sensibility,” “Mansfield Park,” and “Persuasion”). Perhaps the only true exceptions to the fifty-fifty model are Homer and Harper Lee. Our subject, here, is literary evaluation, so of course everything I say is mere opinion, unverifiable and also unfalsifiable, which makes the ground shakier still. But I stubbornly suspect that only the cultist, or the academic, is capable of swallowing an author whole. Writers are peculiar, readers are particular: it is just the way we are. One helplessly reaches for Kant’s dictum about the crooked timber of humanity, or for John Updike’s suggestion to the effect that we are all of us “mixed blessings.” Unlike the heroes and heroines of “Northanger Abbey,” “Pride and Prejudice,” and “Emma,” readers and writers are not expressly designed to be perfect for each other...
Novelists can be likened to omnicompetent tour guides—as they gloss and vivify the wonders of unfamiliar terrains, the marketplaces, the museums, the tearooms and wine cellars, the gardens, the houses of worship. Then, without warning, the suave cicerone becomes a garrulous rogue cabdriver, bearing you off on a series of sinister detours (out by the airport, and in the dead of night). The great writers can take us anywhere; but half the time they’re taking us where we don’t want to go.

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Saturday, November 5, 2011

Libya and the Left

The left can be a lonely place for those of us who do not immediately hiss at the mention of deploying military force abroad. Libya was a case in point. Michael Berube brilliantly culls most of the hysterical criticisms hurled in the weeks leading up to the intervention, and in doing so reveals the few legitimate criticisms that could have been leveled as having gone largely unmade by an habituated left. Article here. To close with the challenge:
Ten years ago, surveying the post-9/11 landscape in the pages of Dissent, Michael Walzer famously asked if there could be a “decent left” in a superpower. It was the wrong question—or perhaps just the wrong term—and it has since been mocked with a mighty mockery: after all, for the hard left, who take as much pride in hardness and firmness as did any of George Bush’s most ardent admirers, “decency” is a prissy value, to be gauged and monitored by a Decency League made up of schoolmarms and busybodies. The question, rather, should have been whether there can be a rigorously internationalist left in the U.S., a left that will promote and support the freedom of speech, the freedom to worship, the freedom from want, and the freedom from fear—even on those rare and valuable occasions when doing so puts one in the position of supporting U.S. policies. That, I think, is the question that confronts the American left after Benghazi, in the years following the Arab Spring.

Friday, October 28, 2011

Just wait for it...

(via TRG Vision at

Monday, October 17, 2011


"It seems that we can add, to sausages and laws, churches as a phenomenon that is not pleasant to watch at the manufacturing stage." - C. Hitchens on the founding of the Church of Latter Day Saints.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

The Sectarian Fall

After hesitation, Hussein Ibish worries publicly:
Across the Arab world, terrifying sectarian dynamics are starting to emerge, essentially pitting Arab Sunnis versus all religious minorities. The elements of this have been obvious for quite a while, but the pattern has become so pronounced and almost pervasive that it demands to be recognized no matter how frightening the prospects.
Throughout the region, political forces are lining up time and again along this extremely dangerous binary divide. For instance, the ecumenism of the Egyptian revolution has given way to the most gruesome sectarian violence between the military and Islamist mobs on the one hand and Coptic protesters on the other hand. This was particularly evident over the weekend, with deadly clashes and sectarian incitement raging throughout Cairo.
The Syrian regime has done its best to cast the uprising in that country in a sectarian light, with a disturbing degree of success. Regional support for Bashar al-Assad’s Alawite-minority rule is now almost entirely restricted to non-Sunni Arabs (as well as Iran), including Lebanon’s Hezbollah, the Shia-led Iraqi government, Shia parliamentarians and activists in Kuwait and other Gulf States, and a significant number of Christians in Lebanon and Syria.
By contrast, Assad’s alliance with Hamas, the Palestinian branch of the Muslim Brotherhood, has collapsed largely along sectarian lines. Support for Assad among Arab Sunnis has dropped to virtually zero, including all Sunni-dominated governments. Support for his rule has also further exacerbated the already deeply-damaged reputation of Hezbollah among Arab Sunnis.
The Sunni Arab world, meanwhile, has been largely silent about the campaign of relentless persecution and repression against the Shia majority in Bahrain, implicitly backing the oppressive rule of the Sunni-minority royal family.
Sectarian tensions simmer in Kuwait but are held at bay by the country’s wealth and small population. In Saudi Arabia, however, they have been bubbling away for months, particularly in the country’s oil-rich eastern provinces. Last week they boiled over in Al-Awamiyah, as Shia rioters were fired on by security forces. Saudi spokespersons dismissed the incident as “nonsectarian” and merely criminal in nature, but immediately undermined their arguments by blaming Iran for the unrest...
The emerging sectarian narrative threatens to rip apart many Arab societies, and indeed the Arab world in general. More than military dictatorships or violent organizations that may seek to exploit these tensions, the illusions that Sunni Arabs across the region are seeking to impose a new and repressive order on non-Sunni Arabs, or that non-Sunni Arabs are subversive elements or disloyal agents of Iran or other foreign powers, pose the gravest threat to a better future in the Middle East.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Mind-Reading, Approximately

From Medicalxpress
While volunteers watched movie clips, a scanner watched their brains. And from their brain activity, a computer made rough reconstructions of what they viewed. Scientists reported that result Thursday, Sept. 22, 2011 and speculated such an approach might be able to reveal dreams and hallucinations someday. In the future, it might help stroke victims or others who have no other way to communicate, said Jack Gallant, a neuroscientist at the University of California, Berkeley, and co-author of the paper. (University of California, Berkeley, Shinji Nishimoto) 
Imagine tapping into the mind of a coma patient, or watching one's own dream on YouTube. With a cutting-edge blend of brain imaging and computer simulation, scientists at the University of California, Berkeley, are bringing these futuristic scenarios within reach.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011


"I’m not shocked by much any more, but I am shocked by this: the leaders of one of the great parties in Congress calling on the Federal Reserve to tighten money in the throes of the most prolonged downturn since the Great Depression." - David Frum

Monday, September 19, 2011

Friday, September 16, 2011

"The past and the future are equally real."

Three of the ten things you should know about time, from Sean Carroll.
2. The past and future are equally real. This isn’t completely accepted, but it should be. Intuitively we think that the “now” is real, while the past is fixed and in the books, and the future hasn’t yet occurred. But physics teaches us something remarkable: every event in the past and future is implicit in the current moment. This is hard to see in our everyday lives, since we’re nowhere close to knowing everything about the universe at any moment, nor will we ever be — but the equations don’t lie. As Einstein put it, “It appears therefore more natural to think of physical reality as a four dimensional existence, instead of, as hitherto, the evolution of a three dimensional existence.”
4. You live in the past. About 80 milliseconds in the past, to be precise. Use one hand to touch your nose, and the other to touch one of your feet, at exactly the same time. You will experience them as simultaneous acts. But that’s mysterious — clearly it takes more time for the signal to travel up your nerves from your feet to your brain than from your nose. The reconciliation is simple: our conscious experience takes time to assemble, and your brain waits for all the relevant input before it experiences the “now.” Experiments have shown that the lag between things happening and us experiencing them is about 80 milliseconds. (Via conference participant David Eagleman.)
10. A lifespan is a billion heartbeats. Complex organisms die. Sad though it is in individual cases, it’s a necessary part of the bigger picture; life pushes out the old to make way for the new. Remarkably, there exist simple scaling laws relating animal metabolism to body mass. Larger animals live longer; but they also metabolize slower, as manifested in slower heart rates. These effects cancel out, so that animals from shrews to blue whales have lifespans with just about equal number of heartbeats — about one and a half billion, if you simply must be precise. In that very real sense, all animal species experience “the same amount of time.” At least, until we master #9 and become immortal. (Amazing talk by Geoffrey West.)

Grinding his teeth,

the Fareed way: 
If Rick Perry does emerge as the front-runner, it is not just the story of one guy doing well; it is the story of a very different Republican Party than the one we have been familiar with for the last 30 or 40 years.
It would result in a Republican Party with greater energy, enthusiasm and street cred, but also one that is more extreme, uncompromising and much less concerned with being dismissed by the mainstream media or characterized as irresponsible by people like me. It will make for a more difficult political system because these are the forces that have been very reluctant to compromise.  We may find that the debt showdown was just the beginning.

via clusterflock

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Saturday, September 3, 2011

Thursday, September 1, 2011

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Bloom: Essentialism Rules Pleasure and Value

The Ravages of Chinese "Medicine"

Image Credit: Rodger Bosch / AFP - Getty Images
I have been to Aquila and met these individual rhinos. Two of the three mutilated were so hacked-up that they didn't survive. And this was done for a substance the ingestion of which has the curative value of biting your fingernails.
Poachers attacked three of the six rhino on the Aquila Game Reserve, killing one outright and injuring this one badly. This rhino bull was tranquilised by poachers, who then sawed off his primary horn, and began cutting the smaller one, but were apparently disturbed and left. The critically injured male is one of the latest victims in South Africa's rhino bloodbath, which is surging on privately owned reserves as criminal syndicates target easier prey for the Asian black market.
Rhino horn is used in traditional Asian medicine to cure a range of ailments from fever to cancer, and sells for more than cocaine despite having no scientific medicinal value.
And from Aquila:
After finding the second rhino, we sent all rangers and security staff in game vehicles, on quad bikes and horseback to search for the one rhino that had not been accounted for. Knowing that the poachers had used drugs that would kill the rhino instead of bullets that could be heard by anti poaching teams, time was of the essence and no expense was spared… two helicopters and a light aircraft from Cape Town were brought in to search Aquila’s 7500 hectare conservancy. The rhino was spotted from the air by the owner Searl Derman, from his friend, Enzo Kuun’s helicopter of Cape Town Helicopters. On landing they discovered a blood bath and a rhino with his face literally hatched off with pangas and machetes proving that there were two active teams attacking the Aquila rhinos, one using a chain saw, the other using pangas and machetes to dehorn the rhino.

Dying without ever having experienced great music...

Amidst the entertaining spanking of Gov. Rick Perry, Richard Dawkins describes the power of the universal acid:
What any theory of life needs to explain is functional complexity. Complexity can be measured as statistical improbability, and living things are statistically improbable in a very particular direction: the direction of functional efficiency. The body of a bird is not just a prodigiously complicated machine, with its trillions of cells - each one in itself a marvel of miniaturized complexity - all conspiring together to make muscle or bone, kidney or brain. Its interlocking parts also conspire to make it good for something - in the case of most birds, good for flying. An aero-engineer is struck dumb with admiration for the bird as flying machine: its feathered flight-surfaces and ailerons sensitively adjusted in real time by the on-board computer which is the brain; the breast muscles, which are the engines, the ligaments, tendons and lightweight bony struts all exactly suited to the task. And the whole machine is immensely improbable in the sense that, if you randomly shook up the parts over and over again, never in a million years would they fall into the right shape to fly like a swallow, soar like a vulture, or ride the oceanic up-draughts like a wandering albatross. Any theory of life has to explain how the laws of physics can give rise to a complex flying machine like a bird or a bat or a pterosaur, a complex swimming machine like a tarpon or a dolphin, a complex burrowing machine like a mole, a complex climbing machine like a monkey, or a complex thinking machine like a person.
Darwin explained all of this with one brilliantly simple idea - natural selection, driving gradual evolution over immensities of geological time. His is a good theory because of the huge ratio of what it explains (all the complexity of life) divided by what it needs to assume (simply the nonrandom survival of hereditary information through many generations). The rival theory to explain the functional complexity of life - creationism - is about as bad a theory as has ever been proposed. What it postulates (an intelligent designer) is even more complex, even more statistically improbable than what it explains. In fact it is such a bad theory it doesn’t deserve to be called a theory at all, and it certainly doesn’t deserve to be taught alongside evolution in science classes.
The simplicity of Darwin’s idea, then, is a virtue for three reasons. First, and most important, it is the signature of its immense power as a theory, when compared with the mass of disparate facts that it explains - everything about life including our own existence. Second, it makes it easy for children to understand (in addition to the obvious virtue of being true!), which means that it could be taught in the early years of school. And finally, it makes it extremely beautiful, one of the most beautiful ideas anyone ever had as well as arguably the most powerful. To die in ignorance of its elegance, and power to explain our own existence, is a tragic loss, comparable to dying without ever having experienced great music, great literature, or a beautiful sunset.

Thursday, August 18, 2011


"But [Assange] also unsettles her, telling her without fear she can become a “megalomaniac” like him. She says in her book “I couldn’t have felt less comfortable alone in that room with him”, and most strikingly, reveals that he asked her to be his Mary Magdalene and 'bathe his feet at the cross'." - Dina Rickman, interviewing Heather Brooke for the Huffington Post.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Postmodernism is Dead?

I wish. But, despite its title, the way this article is written suggests not. Still, there is some descriptive sense here:
Unlike, say, the Enlightenment or Romanticism, postmodernism (even as a word) summons up the movement it intends to overturn. In this way, postmodernism might be seen as the delayed germination of an older seed, planted by artists like Marcel Duchamp, during modernism’s high noon of the 1920s and 1930s. (Seen in this light, the start-date that the V&A offers for postmodernism—1970—is quite late.) 
Thus, if modernists like Picasso and Cézanne focused on design, hierarchy, mastery, the one-off, then postmodernists, such as Andy Warhol and Willem de Kooning, were concerned with collage, chance, anarchy, repetition. If modernists such as Virginia Woolf relished depth and metaphysics, then postmodernists such as Martin Amis favoured surface and irony. As for composers, modernists like Béla Bartók were hieratic and formalist, and postmodernists, like John Adams, were playful and interested in deconstructing. In other words, modernism preferred connoisseurship, tended to be European and dealt in universals. Postmodernism preferred commodity and America, and embraced as many circumstances as the world contained. 
In the beginning, postmodernism was not merely ironical, merely gesture, some kind of clever sham, a hotchpotch for the sake of it. It became these things later in lesser works by lesser artists: Michael Nyman, Takashi Murakami, Tracey Emin and Jonathan Safran Foer. Rather, in the beginning artists, philosophers, linguists, writers and musicians were bound up in a movement of great force that sought to break with the past, and which did so with great energy. A new and radical permissiveness was the result. Postmodernism was a high-energy revolt, an attack, a strategy for destruction. It was a set of critical and rhetorical practices that sought to destabilise the modernist touchstones of identity, historical progress and epistemic certainty. 
Above all, it was a way of thinking and making that sought to strip privilege from any one ethos and to deny the consensus of taste. Like all the big ideas, it was an artistic tendency that grew to take on social and political significance. As Ihab Hassan, the Egyptian-American philosopher, has said, there moved through this (our) period “a vast will to un-making, affecting the body politic, the body cognitive, the erotic body, the individual psyche, the entire realm of discourse in the west.”
The pendulum swings. Enter the postmodern Tea-Party.

Robots and the Illusion of Free Will

Judea Pearl, director of the Cognitive Systems Laboratory at UCLA, talks with Roger Bingham. Pearl is, incidentally, the father of slain journalist Daniel Pearl.

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

"Is Bibi Anti-Israel?"

Whatever happened to the "indefensibility" of the 1967 borders with mutually agreed swaps? Isn't this the first rational question to ask Netanyahu in response to this news? Adam Serwer wonders, too.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Censorship Tells the Wrong Story

A fantastic campaign, more of which is cataloged at My Modern Met.


"America is the only country in the world that that has the luxury of creating an economic crisis when there isn’t one. Ours is the only democracy with a debt ceiling, with the exception of Denmark, which raises its ceiling well in advance of when it would be reached. Economists say that our “debt crisis” is an unforced error, because people are more than willing to lend us money, at pretty good rates. This is the benefit of having a really good credit score.

And yet there are some who wish to call the credit card company to voluntarily reduce our credit limit after they just maxed it out. This tells us that politics triumphs economics in this country. That we ended up with so much debt is a result of politics, anyway. For all the talk of budgetary restraint coming from Congress, the fact is it was Congress that authorized all the spending that has brought us to where we are. Yes, every single dime." - Elvin Lim

Monday, July 18, 2011

Kiryas Joel: Trending Towards Theocracy in N.Y.

Americans United for the Separation of Church and State on the existence of what is essentially a de facto mini-theocracy in the Empire State.
Kiryas Joel is an enclave of ultra-orthodox Jews who belong to the Satmar Hasidic sect. Members of this group believe in separating themselves from others – they’d rather not be around non-sect members. Thirty-four years ago, they won the right to create their own village from the surrounding community of Monroe. 
The village’s founders might have envisioned an idyllic community where people of a shared faith lived in harmony. It hasn’t worked out that way. As often happens when people live in insular communities, factions emerge. Dissidents in Kiryas Joel don’t like the way the town of about 20,000 is being run. The dissidents, who by some accounts now make up 40 percent of the community, say religious discrimination is rampant. They say if you don’t belong to the right synagogue, you’re a second-class citizen. 
A local newspaper, the Times Herald-Record in Middletown, N.Y., reported, “The case alleges discrimination against dissidents…in various facets of public life, from tax exemptions for synagogues to election improprieties to selective enforcement of village noise ordinances. Among the most serious allegations is that Kiryas Joel’s Public Safety Department, a quasi-police agency, has acted as enforcers for the main congregation and tolerated acts of violence and intimidation against dissidents by unruly crowds of young supporters of Satmar Grand Rebbe Aron Teitelbaum, the leader of Kiryas Joel’s majority faction.” 
...visitors to Kiryas Joel might be forgiven for believing they have stepped into a mini-theocracy. A sign at the village entrance admonishes visitors to dress modestly. Cleavage-revealing tops for women are verboten, and both sexes are told to cover arms and legs. Couples are advised to “maintain gender separation in public places.” 
The sign was erected by the town’s largest synagogue. Its wording is tough, but in fact the village can’t legally enforce rules like this. Still, women who dare to visit the community while wearing skimpy summer outfits have reported scowls and glares. (Imagine the reaction from the Religious Right if this were a town of fundamentalist Muslims and they erected a sign reading, “Women are welcome to visit if accompanied by a male relative. Please respect our values by wearing a burqa.”)

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

For the Annals of Megalomania

Watch Assange arrogate himself credit for the Egyptian revolution.

Monday, July 11, 2011

Drugs and the Meaning of Life

Sam Harris separates psychedelics, and the right to them, from the non-discriminate modern category of "drugs."
The “war on drugs” has been well lost, and should never have been waged. While it isn’t explicitly protected by the U.S. Constitution, I can think of no political right more fundamental than the right to peacefully steward the contents of one’s own consciousness. The fact that we pointlessly ruin the lives of nonviolent drug users by incarcerating them, at enormous expense, constitutes one of the great moral failures of our time. (And the fact that we make room for them in our prisons by paroling murderers and rapists makes one wonder whether civilization isn’t simply doomed.)
I have a daughter who will one day take drugs. Of course, I will do everything in my power to see that she chooses her drugs wisely, but a life without drugs is neither foreseeable, nor, I think, desirable. Someday, I hope she enjoys a morning cup of tea or coffee as much as I do. If my daughter drinks alcohol as an adult, as she probably will, I will encourage her to do it safely. If she chooses to smoke marijuana, I will urge moderation.[2]  Tobacco should be shunned, of course, and I will do everything within the bounds of decent parenting to steer her away from it. Needless to say, if I knew my daughter would eventually develop a fondness for methamphetamine or crack cocaine, I might never sleep again. But if she does not try a psychedelic like psilocybin or LSD at least once in her adult life, I will worry that she may have missed one of the most important rites of passage a human being can experience...
I have visited both extremes on the psychedelic continuum. The positive experiences were more sublime than I could have ever imagined or than I can now faithfully recall. These chemicals disclose layers of beauty that art is powerless to capture and for which the beauty of Nature herself is a mere simulacrum. It is one thing to be awestruck by the sight of a giant redwood and to be amazed at the details of its history and underlying biology. It is quite another to spend an apparent eternity in egoless communion with it. Positive psychedelic experiences often reveal how wondrously at ease in the universe a human being can be—and for most of us, normal waking consciousness does not offer so much as a glimmer of these deeper possibilities.
Image Credit: Alex Grey

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

In Defense of Fucking

Kathryn Schulz, in New York Magazine:
For as long as some people have fretted about expletives in literature, others have seen fit to laugh at them. Here is Cole Porter, mock-lamenting the profanity of writers back in 1934: “Good authors, too, who once knew better words / Now only use four-letter words writing prose / Anything goes!” That was sometime after James Joyce and D. H. Lawrence, and sometime before Allen Ginsberg, Norman Mailer, and Erica Jong. Yet the idea persists that the use of swear words by writers is fundamentally uncreative and indolent—that the lazy man’s “Every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way” is “Fuck this shit.”
This idea rests on the assumption that “bad” words really are bad—and ditto writers who use them without exceptional justification. In crime fiction, foul language is justified on the ground that it is lifelike. (Art just imitates that shit.) In Go the Fuck to Sleep, foul language is not simply justified but justification: The whole book is about the taboo status of the word fuck. By contrast, outside of books like Jesse Sheidlower’s The F-Word or Harry G. Frankfurt’s On Bullshit, it’s difficult to justify profanity in serious nonfiction.
But do we need such a justification, beyond the one a writer might mount for any word—i.e., that it works? There is, after all, no such thing as an intrinsically bad, boring, or lazy word. There is only how it is deployed, and one of the pleasures of profanity is how diversely you can deploy it. In The Mother Tongue,Bill Bryson argues that okay is “the quintessential Americanism” and “the most grammatically versatile of words.” Okay. But surely it has a rival—or a compatriot—in fuck. Wherever it originated (the jury is out), the F-word has flourished in our adolescent American soil. And pace Bryson, its grammatical versatility cannot be topped: You can use it as noun, verb, adverb, adjective, or interjection, not to mention in any mood whatsoever, from exultation to rage.
I know of no better rebuttal to the “bad words are bad writing” equation than film critic Anthony Lane’s brutal 2005 takedown of Star Wars in The New Yorker. Listen to Yoda for a moment: “Mourn them do not. Miss them do not. The shadow of greed that is.” Now listen to Lane demolish—with awesome precision, as one demolishes a single building in a city block—that mangled syntax and ersatz wisdom: “Break me a fucking give.”
Bad? Boring? Please. Pulitzer him a fucking give. Writers don’t use expletives out of laziness or the puerile desire to shock or because we mislaid the thesaurus. We use them because, sometimes, the four-letter word is the better word—indeed, the best one. In The Debt to ­Pleasure, John Lanchester provides an astute breakdown of three words that, at first, might seem interchangeable. “Compare,” he writes, “the implication of mismanagement, of organization going wrong, in the Gallic debacle with the candidly chaotic, intimate quality of the Italian fiasco, or the blokishly masculine and pragmatic (and I would suggest implicitly reversible and therefore, in its deep assumptions, optimistic) American fuck-up.”
The rest. And,

(h/t lauralauralaura)

Monday, June 6, 2011

False Gods and Politics

The above is an ad that will run against Rep. Paul Ryan in Wisconsin's 1st district. It's the lowest of the low. I won't defend Ryan's insincere budget, nor Rand's nutbag individualism, but unfortunately this piece implicitly smears Ryan and other conservatives for worshiping Ayn Rand the atheist, and the message is certainly not one alleging hypocrisy. It is almost impossible to imagine a political ad smearing its target by association with a writer of Christian or Jewish faith. Though different, this guilt by association with a hated minority is reminiscent of the bigoted insinuations of this ad, which I posted last year:

Friday, June 3, 2011



"He who warned, uh, the… the British that they weren’t gonna be takin’ away our arms, uh, by ringin’ those bells and um by makin’ sure that as he’s ridin’ his horse through town to send those warnin’ shots and bells that, uh, we were gonna be secure and we were gonna be free… and we were gonna be armed.”
 Sarah Palin's understanding of Paul Revere.

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Regional Consequences of Syrian Unrest

As protest movements sweep through the Middle East, few countries exemplify the opportunities and potential pitfalls of political change as well as Syria. Beginning on March 15, Syrians took to the streets in large numbers, demanding a more responsive and democratic government. After an initial promise of reform, the government of President Bashar al-Assad has cracked down on protestors with increasingly brutal force. The continued unrest in Syria has serious implications for Iran’s role in the region, the Israeli-Arab conflict, the stability of Lebanon, and organizations such as Hamas and Hezbollah.
Carnegie and the Brookings Institution co-hosted a panel of experts to discuss the prospects for democratic change in Syria and the implications for the region. Speakers included Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Tamara Wittes, National Defense University Professor Murhaf Jouejati, Syrian human rights activist Ammar Abdulhamid, former Israeli ambassador Itamar Rabinovich, and Paul Salem of the Carnegie Middle East Center. Carnegie’s Marwan Muasher moderated.
As Syrians face al-Khatibian style brutality, Moisés Naím explains why undertaking intervention to facilitate overthrow in Syria is vastly more complex than doing the same in Libya, though moral justifications obviously exist for both. Unfortunately, Assad seems to be somewhat protected, at least from international force, by circumstance. Also from CEIP:  
First: Syria's military is far stronger than Libya's. Syria has one of the largest, best equipped, and trained armed forces in the Middle East. It also has chemical and biological weapons and its paramilitary forces are among the largest in the world. In contrast, Gaddafi kept the Libyan military fragmented, ill equipped, and poorly trained.
Second: War fatigue. Libya exhausted the little appetite left in the United States to engage in wars that are not justified by clear threats to its vital interests. Syrian dissidents are suffering the consequences of the long and costly wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and the recent raid on Libya. U.S. military support for remote causes will henceforth be more limited and selective. And, as far as wars are concerned, Europe won't act without Washington. This leaves the heroic Syrian dissidents all on their own.
Third: Thorny neighbors. Libya has Egypt on one side and Tunisa on the other--the jewels of the Arab Spring. Syria borders with one of the world's most volatile mixture of countries: Lebanon, Israel, Iraq, Jordan, and Turkey.
Fourth: No allies. Gaddafi has no friends and even his own children wanted to marginalize him. In an unprecedented move, the Arab League supported the establishment of a strictly enforced no-fly zone in Libya. In contrast, Bashar al-Assad has powerful allies inside and outside the region--starting with Iran (and, therefore, Hezbollah and Hamas). It is not even clear if Benjamin Netanyahu and the Israeli government would welcome a chaotic transition of power in Syria. Even Vogue magazine was smitten with this family and wrote a sycophantic article about Asma Assad, "the freshest and most magnetic of first ladies" endowed with "dark-brown eyes, wavy chin-length brown hair, long neck, an energetic grace." It's hard to bomb someone like that.
Fifth: Who to Support? Recently, two senior White House officials told the New York Times that the government's weak response to the events in Syria is in part due to the lack of interlocutors among the opposition. They just don't know who to contact. And another senior U.S. official--who requested anonymity--told me that in his estimate the chaos and carnage following the demise of the Assad regime would be far worse than what it has been so far in any of the other Arab countries undergoing a political transition.
(h/t Josh Lockman)

Saturday, May 28, 2011

Metaphor Gone Mad

(h/t A. Sullivan) Rama thinks that synesthesia results from the neurological wiring for metaphor in overdrive/overconnectivity. About this fascinating prospect, here's a talk:

Parts 2 and 3. And here's a lecture.

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Blow the Mind (Up)

Figure 1: (left) termite castle; (right) Gaudi's La Sagrada Famiglia.
This is one of the coolest examples of cognition-free-competency in contrast with top-down (cognitively directed) competency around. The two vastly different modes of execution can sometimes come to stunning convergence. The salient difference between these two structures lies in the representational ability of their creators: the structure on the right had a conscious purpose for being built, and was dependent on verbal communication, while the structure on the left was built by clueless organisms with no organizational plan. That "mind" is not requisite for the construction of highly functional complexity is both hard and wonderful to comprehend. Dennett:
Only in one species, Homo sapiens, has transmission by replication of nongenetic information taken off. In us, culture accumulates recursively, explosively, leaping thousands of miles and dozens of centuries in single steps. This hyperpotent variety of cultural evolution depends, I will argue, on language and more specifically on features of words, a category of cultural replicant found only in human beings (and, marginally, degenerately, in some of their domesticated animals and pets, such as parrots). It is words, I will argue, that make possible a novel system of design control never before instantiated on the planet, the difference dramatized by the comparison between the termite castle and Antonio Gaudí’s La Sagrada Famiglia church in Barcelona (Fig. 1). These two animal artifacts, so outwardly similar in shape, are produced by fundamentally different processes. In the case of the termite castle, “local rules generate global order,” as the slogan has it: Individual termites follow rigid rules for moving and depositing building material by detecting local pheromone signals, and no organism has, or needs, a vision or blueprint of the whole structure. In the case of La Sagrada Famiglia, there was an “intelligent designer,” an individual, Antonio Gaudí, who did have a guiding vision and did draw up plans; the control of the building flowed from the top down, through verbal representations to subordinates and thence to their subordinates. The design and construction could not have proceeded without elaborate systems of symbolic communication.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Frank Zappa - Muffin Man

Bibi, Cry Baby

"A sailor throws a drowning man a life preserver. How dare you, screams the man. Because of you, people are going to think I can’t swim."
That is how Beinart hears Netanyahu's paroxysm over the "1967 borders with mutually-agreed swaps" reasonableness. The claim of indefensibility is, at the least, bizarre, and it's a claim which virtually all media outlets have repeated without investigating whether such is the case. Nobody has asked Netanyahu to give evidence for the assertion-come-talking-point, a position which has gone mysteriously unspoken by serious parties over the past decade.

What's obvious is that large, out-posted settlements in the West Bank make the defense of Israeli citizens more difficult under any conception of a contiguous Palestinian state. Oh, wait...

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Coyne Contra Brooks

Jerry Coyne lucidly schools the NYT columnist and author of The Social Animal on the problems inherent in the group selection hypothesis (read Coyne's full article here):
In yesterday’s New York Times, Brooks writes about recent scientific “advances” in the understanding of human altruism.  And he signs on to the idea that altruism evolved by group selection.
I disagree, and see Brooks as ignorant about the true scientific issues.  If true altruism (which I define here) is indeed a trait that’s deleterious to an individual’s reproductive fitness, then it could, as Brooks envisions, evolve only by the differential survival and reproduction of groups.
That form of evolution would work like this: although genes for altruistic behavior would be constantly weeded out of populations (for altruists, by definition, sacrifice their own genetic heritage for others), those genes might survive if groups that contained higher proportions of altruists were the groups that persisted, giving rise to descendant groups more often than groups lacking altruists.  (The idea here is that groups without altruists wouldn’t flourish very well.)  That’s group selection, and it’s how Brooks sees altruism as evolving:
In his book, “The Righteous Mind,” to be published early next year, Jonathan Haidt joins Edward O. Wilson, David Sloan Wilson, and others who argue that natural selection takes place not only when individuals compete with other individuals, but also when groups compete with other groups. Both competitions are examples of the survival of the fittest, but when groups compete, it’s the cohesive, cooperative, internally altruistic groups that win and pass on their genes. The idea of “group selection” was heresy a few years ago, but there is momentum behind it now.
Let’s be clear about what biologists really know about group selection and altruism.  If true human altruism has a genetic basis, it is individually disadvantageous and could have evolved only by differential propagation of groups. That’s very unlikely, since it requires that the rate at which altruist-containing groups reproduce themselves must be high enough to counteract the substantial rate at which altruism genes disappear within groups.  It’s unlikely because groups reproduce much less often than do individuals!  Further, once a group consists entirely of altruists, any non-altruistic genes would rapidly invade it, as their carriers reap the benefits of altruism without sacrificing their reproduction.
Now if we’re talking about apparent altruism, in which individuals appear to sacrifice their reproductive interests but actually reap hidden genetic benefits, then we don’t need group selection to explain it.  As I’ve written in a longer post on this topic, kin selection (“inclusive fitness”) can do it, as can simple individual selection based on reciprocity or, simply. selection for the advantages of cooperation, as in hunting lions.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Free Speech Must Include License to Offend

Despite one of the weakest opposition panels I've ever seen argue for IQ2US (managing to be both hysterical and boring), the debate is worth watching in full, if only because it is important to be able to spot poor arguments for the curtailment of free-speech that function by sneakily blurring its meaning (such as by raising copyright law and classified information as examples of speech which is not protected). The eternally insurmountable task for those opposed to the primacy of this right over all others is to answer the question of who will decide what is eligible for censorship. Whose responsible ears will decide what is right to impoverish from our own?

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Fight of the Intellectuals

Out from all the whinging surrounding the ethics of the Bin Laden raid and the American response to it, Paul Berman's is a voice of clarity. Contrary to those who claim the event as insignificant, the slaying of so infamous and effective a monster is a symbolic triumph of the secular, liberal-democratic vision over its detestable opposite. We can be glad that Bin Laden is dead, and we can be so guiltlessly.
Berman, on why it matters, in TNR:
“Relentlessness is good. Relentlessness has a philosophical resonance, which everyone intuitively understands. The war between Al Qaeda and the United States has always rested on a dispute over the meaning of history. Al Qaeda has always believed that God wishes the resurrection of the ancient Islamic caliphate. And Al Qaeda has always regarded America, with its Christian origins, as the ultimate obstacle to the resurrection of the caliphate. Al Qaeda’s militants have always believed that, as the representative of God’s will, they will ultimately win. Al Qaeda has therefore called for a stubborn and even eternal struggle—the kind of struggle that might lead earnest and idealistic people to agree to commit suicide on Al Qaeda’s behalf.

America, however, has also been stubborn. Ten years, compared to eternity, is nothing. Still, relative to the lifetime of a human being, ten years is not, in fact, nothing. For ten years the United States has been relentless. And now that America can boast of its achievement, the American relentlessness has suddenly become eloquent, and this is more than good. It is crucial.
The United States adheres, after all, to its own theory of history, even if most of us do not like to acknowledge anything of the sort. In our own liberal and democratic theory of history, doctrines like Al Qaeda’s are doomed to defeat. In our estimation, the mad and fantastical doctrine about resurrecting an ancient caliphate is comparable to other doctrines that we have encountered over the last century—the doctrine about resurrecting the Roman Reich in an Aryan version or the doctrine about resurrecting the ancient Russian peasant communes in the form of a proletarian Soviet civilization. We liberals and democrats look on doctrines of that sort as reactionary protests against the authentic march of progress, and as nothing more than reactionary protests. And we believe that, if we struggle sufficiently, if we are relentless enough, the reactionary protests will go down to defeat.”
Which brings to mind this reflection from another fight-not-flight intellectual, who, upon the towers' fall, thought:
“Here we are then, I was thinking, in a war to the finish between everything I love and everything I hate. Fine. We will win and they will lose. A pity that we let them pick the time and place of the challenge, but we can and we will make up for that."

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

The Goblin's Final Moments

Click to Enlarge.
"Osama bin Laden died on Walpurgisnacht, the night of black sabbaths and bonfires. Not an inappropriate night for the Chief Witch to fall off his broomstick and perish in a fierce firefight. One of the most common status updates on Facebook after the news broke was “Ding, Dong, the witch is dead,” and that spirit of Munchkin celebration was apparent in the faces of the crowds chanting “U-S-A!” last night outside the White House and at ground zero and elsewhere. Almost a decade after the horror of 9/11, the long manhunt had found its quarry, and Americans will be feeling less helpless this morning, and pleased at the message that his death sends: “Attack us and we will hunt you down, and you will not escape.” - Salman Rushdie