On Mrs. Kennedy’s Detail

IT was with great trepidation that I approached 3704 N Street in Washington on Nov. 10, 1960. I had just been given the assignment of providing protection for the wife of the newly elected president of the United States, and I was about to meet her for the first time.

I soon realized I had little to worry about. Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy, just 31 years old at the time, was a gracious woman who put me immediately at ease. She was the first lady, but she was also a caring mother; her daughter, Caroline, was nearly 3 years old, and she was pregnant with her second child. Three weeks later, she went into early labor with John Jr., and I followed her through the entire process. It would be the first of many experiences we would have together.

Being on the first lady’s detail was a lot different from being on the president’s. It was just the two of us, traveling the world together. Mrs. Kennedy was active and energetic — she loved to play tennis, water-ski and ride horses. She had a great sense of humor, and we grew to trust and confide in each other, as close friends do.

In early 1963, Mrs. Kennedy shared with me the happy news that she was pregnant again. She had curtailed her physical activities and had settled into a routine at the Kennedy compound in Hyannis Port, Mass., for the last few months of her pregnancy. I was on a rare day off when I got the call that she had gone into early labor. I raced to the hospital at Otis Air Force Base, arriving shortly after she did.

The president, who had been in Washington, arrived soon after she delivered their new baby boy, whom they named Patrick Bouvier Kennedy.

When Patrick died two days later, Mrs. Kennedy was devastated. I felt as if my own son had died, and we grieved together.

The following weeks were difficult as I watched her fall into a deep depression. Eventually, it was suggested that she needed to get away. In October 1963 I traveled with her to the Mediterranean, where we stayed aboard Aristotle Onassis’ yacht, the Christina. The trip to Greece, Turkey and Yugoslavia, along with a short stop in Morocco, seemed to be good therapy, and by the time we returned to Washington the light had returned to her eyes.

I was surprised, however, when not long after our return Mrs. Kennedy decided to join her husband on his trip to Texas. It was so soon after the loss of her son, and she hadn’t accompanied the president on any domestic political trips since his election.

Nevertheless, when we left the White House on Thursday, Nov. 21, I could tell that Mrs. Kennedy was truly excited. I remember thinking this would be a real test of her recovery, and that if she enjoyed the campaigning it would probably be a regular occurrence as soon as the 1964 race got into full swing.

The first day of the trip was exhausting. We had motorcades in San Antonio, Houston and finally Fort Worth, where we arrived around midnight. It had been a long day for everyone, and Mrs. Kennedy was drained.

On the morning of Nov. 22, I went to her room at the Hotel Texas to bring her down to the breakfast where President John F. Kennedy was speaking. She was refreshed and eager to head to Dallas. She had chosen a pink suit with a matching hat to wear at their many appearances that day, and she looked exquisite.

The motorcade began like any of the many that I had been a part of as an agent — with the adrenaline flowing, the members of the detail on alert. I was riding on the running board of the car just behind the president’s.

We were traveling through Dallas en route to the Trade Mart, where the president was to give a lunchtime speech, when I heard an explosive noise from my right rear. As I turned toward the sound, I scanned the presidential limousine and saw the president grab at his throat and lurch to the left.

I jumped off the running board and ran toward his car. I was so focused on getting to the president and Mrs. Kennedy to provide them cover that I didn’t hear the second shot.

I was just feet away when I heard and felt the effects of a third shot. It hit the president in the upper right rear of his head, and blood was everywhere. Once in the back seat, I threw myself on top of the president and first lady so that if another shot came, it would hit me instead.

The detail went into action. We didn’t stop to think about what happened; our every move and thought went into rushing the president and Mrs. Kennedy to the nearest hospital.

I stayed by Mrs. Kennedy’s side for the next four days. The woman who just a few days before had been so happy and exuberant about this trip to Texas was in deep shock. Her eyes reflected the sorrow of the nation and the world — a sorrow we still feel today.

Clint Hill, a former assistant director of the Secret Service, served under five presidents.

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Full article and photo: http://www.nytimes.com/2010/11/22/opinion/22hill.html

Who Cares About Haiti?

Extortionists drain the country’s economic lifeblood while the U.N. stands by idly.

Ten months after a magnitude 8.0 earthquake killed more than 200,000 Haitians and destroyed an already decrepit infrastructure, some 1.3 million impoverished souls are still barely surviving in tent cities around the country. Living conditions are deplorable and after nearly a year, optimism about a way out of what were once dubbed “temporary” camps has dimmed.

Now more than 1,100 people have died in a cholera epidemic, and riots that began in the northern city of Cap-Haitien spread to the capital of Port au Prince last week. Protestors allege that the United Nations peace-keeping mission brought the disease to Haiti. The jury is still out on the source of the cholera, but the unrest has taken a further toll.

And so it goes. Just when you think things can’t get any worse, more poverty, violence and sorrow conspire to increase the sense of helplessness in what is the ultimate economic basket case in the Western Hemisphere. Millions of people the world over watch from afar and wonder why something can’t be done.

Here’s the $64 million question: Is Haiti’s seemingly intractable misery the result of a society and culture that is incapable of organizing itself to create civil order and a viable economy? Or is it the consequence of ruling kleptocrats—abetted or at least tolerated by influential foreigners—treating every economic transaction in the country as an opportunity for personal enrichment?

Evidence abounds that it is the latter. So why have the U.S. and the U.N. refused to take even small steps toward shutting down an official corruption racket that pushes millions of helpless people into lives of desperation? Instead they’ve put Bill Clinton—whose political family famously went into business with the notoriously corrupt former President Jean Bertrand Aristide—in charge of rebuilding the country with billions in foreign aid.

A cholera victim in a Doctors Without Borders treatment center near the slum neighborhood of Cite Soleil, Nov. 19.

Development takes generations, and nation building by outsiders is a fool’s game. But often there is a simple change that can yield fast returns. One no-brainer target in Haiti is the port at Port-au-Prince, where the bulk of imports must enter the country, but where Haiti’s legendary mafia will only release containers after sizable bribes are collected.

A report this year by the Rand Corporation describes the port’s importance this way: “The costs of shipping through Haiti’s ports have imposed a major burden on Haitian consumers and businesses. Because imports play such an important role in consumption, investment, and business operations, the cost of imports is a key determinant of living standards and economic growth.” And yet, Rand says, “importing a container of goods is 35 percent more expensive in Haiti than the average for developed OECD countries.”

Haitian officials like to blame inefficiency at the capital’s port on a lack of modern infrastructure. But Haitians know that’s only part of the story. Writing for the online magazine The Root in October, Haitian-born business consultant Yves Savain explained that pulling a container out of the port in the capital “takes walking the documents from office to office to secure an unspecified number of signatures.” The full cost, which he said includes “legitimate and illicit duties,” constitutes “a substantial and arbitrary financial drain on all sectors of the national economy.”

Mr. Savain was being diplomatic. On a visit to the Journal offices last week, former Haitian ambassador to the U.S., Raymond Joseph—who resigned in August—was more direct. “The corruption situation in the ports was one of the major reasons I decided I could no longer defend this government,” he says.

In the aftermath of the earthquake, Mr. Joseph says, “I had so many [nongovernmental organizations] calling me and saying ‘ambassador, could you help me get our things out of the port?’ They kept telling me [port officials] want so many thousands of dollars to get the things out.” Mr. Joseph says that by calling the minister of finance he could sometimes get the goods out but that he wasn’t always successful.

Another example: A Nov. 14 CBS “60 Minutes” report featured the case of six containers destined for an NGO housing project that had been “stuck” in the port for months. No one could figure out why the goods couldn’t be released, but the NGO was still forced to pay $6,000 to the Haitian government for an “imposed storage fee.”

Haiti holds elections on Nov. 28 for parliament and president, and enemies of representative government want to disrupt that process. This partly explains the recent violence. Yet it would be foolish to write it off as solely the work of the nefarious underworld.

Haitians are fed up with the squalor that seems to promise an end only in death. They are angry not only with their own crooked politicians but with the way in which outsiders turn a blind eye to their tormentors. The fact that Washington and the U.N. have refused to rein in the extortionists running the port demonstrates the lack of international political will to alter the status quo.

Mary Anastasia O’Grady, Wall Street Journal

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Full article and photo: http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052748704496104575627061101867870.html

The Uproar Over Pat-Downs

Americans understand the need for security screenings at airports and are remarkably patient. So there is no excuse for the bumbling, arrogant way the Transportation Security Administration has handled questions and complaints about its new body-scanning machines and more aggressive pat-downs.

The Times reported on Friday that civil liberties groups have collected more than 400 complaints since the new pat-downs began three weeks ago. That is a minuscule number compared with all the people who flew. But there are far too many reports of T.S.A. agents groping passengers, using male agents to search female passengers, mocking passengers and disdaining complaints.

Lawsuits have been filed asserting that new, more powerful body-scanning machines violate the Fourth Amendment’s protections against unreasonable searches. In general, it seems to us that the scanners are not unconstitutional, but the lawsuits are a healthy process that will require the government to prove that the scanners are reliable and more effective than other devices.

The Fourth Amendment would certainly protect Americans from unnecessary, overly intimate security checks. And nothing in the Constitution permits power-happy or just downright creepy people from abusing their uniforms and the real need for security. The government could start by making their screening guidelines clear. And they should respond to the concerns of people like the woman who told The Times that she is patted down every time because of an insulin pump.

Some passenger groups are planning demonstrations during the Thanksgiving rush. That’s their right, although if they interfere with air travel, or with security measures, they have to assume the risk that applies to any civil disobedience: they might be arrested.

The federal authorities need to take customers’ complaints seriously. And while they’re at it, they should be hard at work filling in the really huge hole in the security of air travel: the inadequate screening of cargo.

Editorial, New York Times

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Full article: http://www.nytimes.com/2010/11/20/opinion/20sat3.html

Ireland’s Paradise Lost

For an American tourist weaned on Gaelic kitsch and screenings of “The Quiet Man,” the landscape of contemporary Ireland comes as something of a shock. Drive from Dublin to the western coast and back, as I did two months ago, and you’ll still find all the thatched-roof farmhouses, winding stone walls and placid sheep that the postcards would lead you to expect. But round every green hill, there’s a swath of miniature McMansions. Past every tumble-down castle, a cascade of condominiums. In sleepy fishing villages that date to the days of Grace O’Malley, Ireland’s Pirate Queen (she was the Sarah Palin of the 16th century), half the houses look the part — but the rest could have been thrown up by the Toll brothers.

It’s as if there were only two eras in Irish history: the Middle Ages and the housing bubble.

This actually isn’t a bad way of thinking about Ireland’s 20th century. The island spent decade after decade isolated, premodern and rural — and then in just a few short years, boom, modernity! The Irish sometimes say that their 1960s didn’t happen until the 1990s, when secularization and the sexual revolution finally began in earnest in what had been one of the most conservative and Catholic countries in the world. But Ireland caught up fast: the kind of social and economic change that took 50 years or more in many places was compressed into a single revolutionary burst.

There was a time, not so very long ago, when everyone wanted to take credit for this transformation. Free-market conservatives hailed Ireland’s rapid growth as an example of the miracles that free trade, tax cuts and deregulation can accomplish. (In 1990, Ireland ranked near the bottom of European Union nations in G.D.P. per capita. In 2005, it ranked second.)

Progressives and secularists suggested that Ireland was thriving because it had finally escaped the Catholic Church’s repressive grip, which kept horizons narrow and families large, and limited female economic opportunity. (An academic paper on this theme, “Contraception and the Celtic Tiger,” earned the Malcolm Gladwell treatment in the pages of The New Yorker.) The European elite regarded Ireland as a case study in the benefits of E.U. integration, since the more tightly the Irish bound themselves to Continental institutions, the faster their gross domestic product rose.

Nobody tells those kinds of stories anymore. The Celtic housing bubble was more inflated than America’s (a lot of those McMansions are half-finished and abandoned), the Celtic banking industry was more reckless in its bets, and Ireland’s debts, private and public, make our budget woes look manageable by comparison. The Irish economy is on everybody’s mind again these days, but that’s because the government has just been forced to apply for a bailout from the E.U., lest Ireland become the green thread that unravels the European quilt.

If the bailout does its work and the Irish situation stabilizes, the world’s attention will move on to the next E.U. country on the brink, whether it’s Portugal, Spain or Greece (again). But when the story of the Great Recession is remembered, Ireland will offer the most potent cautionary tale. Nowhere did the imaginations of utopians run so rampant, and nowhere did they receive a more stinging rebuke.

To the utopians of capitalism, the Irish experience should be a reminder that the biggest booms can produce the biggest busts, and that debt and ruin always shadow prosperity and growth. To the utopians of secularism, the Irish experience should be a reminder that the waning of a powerful religious tradition can breed decadence as well as liberation. (“Ireland found riches a good substitute for its traditional culture,” Christopher Caldwell noted, but now “we may be about to discover what happens when a traditionally poor country returns to poverty without its culture.”)

But it’s the utopians of European integration who should learn the hardest lessons from the Irish story. The continent-wide ripples from Ireland’s banking crisis have vindicated the Euroskeptics who argued that the E.U. was expanded too hastily, and that a single currency couldn’t accommodate such a wide diversity of nations. And the Irish government’s hat-in-hand pilgrimages to Brussels have vindicated every nationalist who feared that economic union would eventually mean political subjugation. The yoke of the European Union is lighter than the yoke of the British Empire, but Ireland has returned to a kind of vassal status all the same.

As for the Irish themselves, their idyllic initiation into global capitalism is over, and now they probably understand the nature of modernity a little better. At times, it can seem to deliver everything you ever wanted, and wealth beyond your dreams. But you always have to pay for it.

Ross Douthat, New York Times

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Full article: http://www.nytimes.com/2010/11/22/opinion/22douthat.html

Vatican Rushes to Clarify Pope’s Comments in Book

The Vatican on Sunday rushed to clarify a recent interview by Pope Benedict XVI, in which the pontiff states for the first time that there may be some cases in which the Roman Catholic Church’s ban on condoms isn’t absolute.

The pope made the comments in a book-length interview over the summer with the German writer Peter Seewald that will be officially released this week. Mr. Seewald asked the pope about criticism of the Vatican’s perceived opposition to condom use to fight the spread of HIV-AIDS in Africa.

The pope’s response, while carefully couched, has ricocheted around the globe, reigniting one of the most tensely debated issues facing the Roman Catholic Church. To some, the interview signaled a radical shift in the Church’s approach to combating the spread of AIDS as well as an unprecedented departure from the Church’s long-time practice of condemning any form of condom use.

“This is a significant and positive step forward taken by the Vatican,” said Michel Sidibé, executive director executive director of UNAIDS, the United Nations’ AIDS relief agency based in Geneva. “This move recognizes that responsible sexual behavior and the use of condoms have important roles in HIV prevention.”

The Vatican, however, played down the potential impact the remarks might have on church teaching. “The pope’s thinking certainly can’t be defined as a revolutionary shift,” said Vatican spokesman Rev. Federico Lombardi said in a lengthy statement issued on Sunday.

In the interview, the pope said condom use had become a “fixation” for some people, according to the English-language edition of the book viewed by The Wall Street Journal.

The pope then added: “There may be a basis in the case of some individuals, as perhaps when a male prostitute uses a condom, where this can be a first step in the direction of a moralization, a first assumption of responsibility, on the way toward recovering an awareness that not everything is allowed and that one cannot do whatever one wants.”

In the interview, the pope noted that even in extreme scenarios such as male prostitution, condom use “is not really the way to deal with the evil of HIV infection. That can really lie only in a humanization of sexuality.” The pope added that the church remained opposed to any widespread use of condoms that “implies a banalization of sexuality.”

“The pope wasn’t taking a position on condoms in general,” Father Lombardi said. Instead, the pope “wanted to forcefully affirm that the problem of AIDS can’t be resolved merely through the distribution of condoms,” Father Lombardi said.

Father Lombardi acknowledged, however, that the pope had to “consider exceptional situations where the exercise of sexuality represents a real risk to someone’s life.” Having “disordered” sex isn’t morally justified, Father Lombardi added, but the use of condoms in such situations can “reduce the danger of infection.”

For decades, the Vatican’s ban on condom’s appeared iron-clad, because church teaching rejects contraception. The rise of HIV in developing countries, however, has prompted many humanitarian aid agencies to press the Vatican to modify its opposition to condoms. The Catholic Church is one of the biggest providers of humanitarian aid in Africa, and some Catholic aid workers there have begun to simply ignore the Vatican’s rule.

Over the years, a handful of cardinals and one Vatican official in charge of health care have suggested that condom use could be condoned in extreme situations, such as when a woman asks her HIV-infected husband to wear a condom, because she cannot stop his advances.

“Benedict XVI has courageously given us an important contribution, clarifying and deepening a long-debated question. It’s an original contribution,” Father Lombardi said.

The pope himself stirred controversy in 2009 when he told reporters aboard a papal flight to Africa that condom use could “increase the problem” of HIV’s spread—a comment that many interpreted to mean that the pope considered condoms ineffective.

In the interview with Mr. Seewald, the pope says he felt “provoked” by the line of questioning aboard the papal flight, suggesting that his response was misinterpreted. He then reflects at length on the use of condoms to fight HIV, which he says is not the “moral solution, but … in the intention of reducing the risk of infection, a first step in a movement toward a different way, a more human way, of living sexuality.”

Mr. Seewald’s book, culled from a week of interviews at the papal summer residence in July, is a rare example of pope expressing candid views on some of the most challenging points in his pontificate. He likens the sex-abuse crisis to “the crater of a volcano, out of which suddenly a tremendous cloud of filth came, darkening and soiling everything.”

When asked whether he ever thought of resigning in the wake of the crisis, the pontiff responds that “now is certainly not the time to resign,” saying he must “stand fast and endure the difficult situation.”

A moment later, however, the pontiff makes an unusual assertion: that popes aren’t bound under church law to serve until they die, as many canon lawyers have said. “One can resign at a peaceful moment or when one simply cannot go on. But one must not run away from danger and say that someone else should do it,” the pope says.

Excerpts of the interview first appeared in the Vatican’s official newspaper, L’Osservatore Romano, which sent advanced copies of its Sunday edition to reporters on Saturday.

Gianmaria Vian, L’Osservatore’s editor-in-chief, described the book as a “bomb,” adding that the pope had spoken with “great frankness” on a range of issues.

Stacy Meichtry, Wall Street Journal

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Full article: http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052748704444304575628611227070080.html

Drama in Milledgeville

Nov. 16 – 22, 1860

With ardent secessionist activity in South Carolina having a week ago reached a heated peak, a pregnant pause has followed. Until the secession convention comes to order in December, the focus of the disunion crisis last week shifted elsewhere.

In Georgia, men of probity and wisdom tried to decide what to do about secession.

In Washington, men of probity and wisdom tried to decide what to do about secession.

And in Springfield, Ill., a man of probity and wisdom reached a firm decision. By all accounts, the beard is coming in nicely.

Lodged between the deep South’s slave-rich Atlantic coast states and the just-developing Mississippi Valley states, rich, large Georgia is key to most of the secessionists’ plans. But with two regions that are relatively slave-free — the pine barrens in the southeast and the mountains in the north near Tennessee — Georgia’s appetite for secession is not everywhere so keen.

Knowing that it can’t treat this issue like South Carolina has, Georgia’s state legislature decided that before it deliberates on the question of secession, it wanted to hear the views of its brightest minds, or at least the brightest minds that don’t happen to belong to state legislators. And so last week, two dozen men traveled to the state capital in Milledgeville to offer their views.

Almost immediately two main schools of thought emerged, the Separatist and the Cooperationist. The Separatists support the idea that Georgia can and should leave the union on its own, regardless of what any other state does. The Cooperationists have mixed views about secession, but are united in their opposition to unilateral action; whatever Georgia does, they say, Georgia should do in concert with the other Southern states.

Some cooperationists favor secession, while others support secession as a last resort, pending the outcome of negotiations with the North, and still others support secession if and only if the North offers a military response to the South’s demands or to a southern state’s departure. The Separatists, too, have internal divisions. Most are urging the departing states to combine into a new nation, but some support secession as a mere tactic. They believe the South should rejoin the union once the North offers concessions on slavery, as they are confident it will.

The presentations took place over five evenings, and the flickering candelabras heightened the feelings of drama in the chamber. Right at the outset, the separatists boldly seized the rhetorical heights of the debate and in truth, never relinquished them. Disunion or dishonor — that’s how their first speaker, the legal scholar Thomas R.R. Cobb, starkly defined the legislature’s choice.

Momentarily modulating his emotions, Cobb argued that wisdom, not passion, should guide the legislators’ decisions, but then called upon them to think — wisely, mind you, not passionately — of their families. Remember the parting moment when you left your firesides to come to the capital. Remember the trembling hand of your beloved wife as she whispered her fears from the incendiary and the assassin. Recall the look of indefinable dread from your little daughter. “My friends, I have no fear of servile insurrection . . . Our slaves are the most happy and contented of workers.” But the “unscrupulous emissaries of Northern Abolitionists’” may turn the disgruntled few. “You cannot say whether your home or your family may be the first to greet your returning footsteps in ashes or in death.”

Robert Toombs

This sanguineous theme connected the comments of other Separatist speakers. Senator Robert Toombs noted that the slave population has quintupled from 800,000 in 1790 to four million at present, a rate that would result in 11 million slaves by 1900. What would we do with them? he asked. If we can’t expand our borders, extermination will be required.

The lawyer Henry Benning also had population growth on his mind. He pointed to the North and to rates of immigration, and argued that free states would soon outnumber slave states and abolitionist forces would dominate Congress. And what will happen then? Soon there will be a constitutional amendment that would require southerners “to emancipate your slaves, and to hang you if you resist.” This will be followed by a war in which emancipated slaves will “exterminate or expel” all southern white men. “As for the women, they will call upon the mountains to fall upon them.”

Alexander Stephens

In opposition to these dire visions were a few voices of skeptical calm, most notably that of Alexander Stephens, the 48-year-old former Whig congressman, whose corpus consists of a mere 98 pounds of ashen flesh that rheumatoid arthritis, colitis, cervical disc disease, bladder stones, angina, migraines, pruritis and chronic melancholy disease had not wasted away.

Wrapped in scarves and shawls, the cadaverous, mummified Stephens accepted the thankless task of trying to staunch the hyperbole. Lincoln is no dictator, Stephens argued. Constitutional checks hobble him. Democrats have majorities in both the House and the Senate. Lincoln cannot appoint any federal officers without the consent of the Senate. There are but two Republicans on the Supreme Court. “The president has been constitutionally chosen. If he violates the Constitution, then will come our time to act. Do not let us break the Constitution because he may.”

Of course, Stephens agreed, slaveholders have genuine grievances, and the North has to acknowledge them. Yes, there is a federal fugitive slave law, but too many northern states have personal liberty laws that prohibit state officials from apprehending runaway slaves. A slave can just walk off the farm in Virginia or Maryland or Kentucky, and no sheriff or constable in Pennsylvania or Ohio will lift a finger to apprehend him. Stephens argued that as a condition for remaining in the Union, northern states had to repeal those laws.

It was a canny and reasonable argument, the basis of a compromise many northerners might well accept. But with separatists conjuring the image of that Black Republican Abraham Lincoln unleashing troops of militant Wide Awakes to invade the South and liberate hordes of slaves who will rampage throughout the cotton belt like Mongol barbarians, poor Stephens might as well have brought watering can to quench an inferno. As sturdy a rope as Stephens’s proposal may be, it stands little chance of restraining the headstrong Separatists; it may, however, be the line they will try to grasp to save themselves if later they realize they have plunged into disaster.

James Buchanan

In Washington, meanwhile, the lame-duck Buchanan administration is responding to the threat of crisis with a combination of weariness and irresolution. Never a particularly dynamic leader — with more insight than he perhaps intended, Buchanan once referred to himself as an “old public functionary” — the president has always preferred to make policy by reaching consensus with a cabinet he balanced so carefully by region that he seemed like teamster packing a mule.

But the Solons of his cabinet are failing him. Interior Secretary Jacob Thompson of Mississippi and Treasury Secretary Howell Cobb of Georgia (yes, brother of the wise, dispassionate Thomas cited above) believe secession is a fait accompli and are eyeing opportunities with the new government. Secretary of War John Floyd of Virginia is torn between his southern sympathies and pro-union convictions. Michigan’s Lewis Cass, the 78-year-old secretary of state, is showing signs of mental feebleness; Connecticut’s Isaac Toucey, the secretary of the Navy, has never demonstrated much mental capacity to enfeeble.

Buchanan proposed to respond to secessionists with an ingenious proposal: to call a convention of the states, as permitted under Article V of the Constitution, to discuss an amendment that would permit secession. It was a shrewd idea: the hotspurs in South Carolina have already dispensed with talking, but the serious men of the South would have looked unreasonable if they refused an open-handed invitation to discuss their problems. And yet a national convention might well provide a place where pro-unionists of every stripe could come together and exhibit their considerable strength.

The Cabinet offered Buchanan scant support. Thompson and Cobb, participating in a government they no longer believed in, inveighed against the idea as too little, too late. Floyd, as is his custom, was non-committal. The others, unable to plan ahead to coffee until they’ve had their pie, objected to the scheme because it might offer legitimacy to the possibility of secession.

Faced with these nattering advisers, a stronger leader might have sacked the lot and pressed on with his proposal. But Buchanan is spent. Exhausted and fearful, he settled for a watered-down version of a statement against secession written by Attorney General Jeremiah Black. Black had argued in Cabinet meetings in favor of the government’s duty to defend itself against disunionists — “meet,” “repel” and “subdue” were the words Black used — but the timorous Buchanan scrapped Black’s vigorous language and issued a mild condemnation of secession that declined to so much as wag a disapproving finger at the ultras of the South. In two weeks the president is scheduled to present his annual message to Congress; perhaps that will still be enough time for him to look in the White House attic to see if Andy Jackson left behind some backbone he could use.

With the outgoing president marking time, many are looking for the incoming chief executive to show some leadership. Apparently they will have to wait until Mr. Lincoln is actually on the federal payroll and starts collecting the $25,000 a year he earns for the job.

Lincoln has made no comment about slavery or disunion since before the election, maintaining that his positions are already crystal clear — he’s against expansion, and regardless of his personal opinion, he is Constitutionally incapable of affecting slavery where it already exists. Repeating these positions could only give fodder to those who would twist his views, and he’s powerless to do anything for another three months anyway. As the editor of The Chicago Tribune, Joseph Medill, put it, “He must keep his feet out of all such wolf traps,” and Lincoln surely agrees.

Still, insiders paid particular attention last week to the address delivered in Springfield by Senator Lyman Trumbull at the Great Republican Jubilee celebrating Lincoln’s election. Despite the fact that Trumbull snatched his senate seat from Lincoln’s grasp five years ago, an act that earned both Trumbull and his wife the eternal enmity of Mary Lincoln, the two men are great friends.

Indeed, they are such great friends that it sometimes seems that they speak with one voice. Thus, when Trumbull told the crowd that under Lincoln, all the states will be left in complete control of their own affairs, including the protection of property, those in the know believed they were hearing the words of the president-elect. And when Trumbull said that secession is not only impractical, it is a constitutional impossibility, it was like hearing from Lincoln himself. What good it will do is another matter. The New York Herald cheerfully predicted that “The speech will go a great ways in clearing the Southern sky of the clouds of disunion.” But whoever wrote that probably hadn’t heard any of the speeches in Milledgeville this week.

Meanwhile, the president-elect continues to prepare for his presidency. Springfield has proven to be a magnet for eager office-seekers, most of whom depart in disappointment. Perhaps the saddest of those who have departed Springfield is not an office-seeker but an artist, Jesse Atwood of Philadelphia, who painted Lincoln just before the election. The portrait, described as “perfect in feature and delineation,” was generously praised when exhibited in the capitol in Springfield.

Unfortunately for Atwood, Lincoln decided that he would look more presidential with a beard, and after a day or two, Atwood’s portrait was out of date. Atwood, who had left Springfield, raced back and filled in some whiskers, but he wasn’t working from life, and he surmised the wrong style, and now has a picture that resembles Lincoln neither then nor now. But apart from Atwood, most people like the beard.

To read more about this period, see “The Road to Disunion Volume II: Secessionists Triumphant,” by William W. Freehling, Oxford University Press, 2007; “Days of Defiance,” by Maury Klein, Alfred A. Knopf, 1997; “Lincoln: President-Elect,: by Harold Holzer, Simon & Schuster, 2008.

Jamie Malanowski has been an editor at Time, Esquire and Spy, and is the author of the novel “The Coup.”

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Full article and photos: http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2010/11/21/drama-in-milledgeville

Making It New

How the Greek and Latin classics have been imitated, adulated and misunderstood over the centuries.

For the ancient Romans, the word “classicus” originally designated somebody belonging to the highest tax bracket. To be “classical” was to be in the upper crust. By the fifth century A.D., the term had taken on wider meanings; the classical was distinguished not only by its excellence but by belonging to the past, and the past was by definition superior to the present. Today it’s now almost axiomatic that the older and more venerable the classic, the younger and fresher it may seem. The French poet Charles Péguy wrote that “Homer is new this morning and perhaps nothing is as old as today’s newspaper.” Even Chanel’s “little black dress” is a classic because, like Homer’s “Iliad,” it never goes out of date. The classical in all its forms continues to exhibit an astonishing resilience.

“The Classical Tradition” is a guidebook of great erudition that is notably well written and unexpectedly compelling. It definitely is not another of those solemn introductions to “the glory that was Greece and the grandeur that was Rome.” Instead it is a lively compendium of the manifold ways in which the enduring creations of the classical tradition, and the Greek and Latin classics, have been imitated, adulated, denounced and misunderstood—or understood all too well—over the past two millennia.

In their introduction, the editors—a triumvirate, as is only fitting (Anthony Grafton, Glenn W. Most and Salvatore Settis)—state that they aim to strike a balance between “an unwavering commitment” to the truth and “an undogmatic appreciation of the endless resourcefulness and inventiveness of human error.” Accordingly, the tradition in question isn’t simply the preserved legacy of Greece and Rome in art and literature, philosophy and statecraft; it comprises the centuries of commentary and interpretation that have elaborated and embellished that legacy.

The Classical Tradition,” boasting some 563 articles (as well as 150 beautiful color plates), has an extraordinarily wide range. There are the topics you expect to find, such as classical architecture or education or philosophy, all clearly and expertly presented. The many biographical entries are especially rich, presenting figures from the classical period and the many others who drew on the classical inheritance for their own achievements over the centuries: architects and painters and sculptors, poets and philosophers and scholars, as well as gods and heroes.

Here we find Picasso—for whom the myth of the Minotaur was so important—rubbing shoulders with Plutarch, whose famous “Lives” of classical figures, among much else, served as a source for Shakespeare. Here Galileo, who drew on Seneca and other classical authors for his “most speculative arguments,” appears not far from Ganymede, the beautiful mortal boy whom the gods transported to heaven. We are told that Ganymede’s story—in various forms and with various moral purposes—appears in Homer and Plato, in a painting by Michelangelo, and on a column capital at the 12th-century cathedral in Vézelay, France, “which shows the boy terrified, upside-down in the beak of an eagle, and menaced by a hellish demon.”

There are superb shorter articles on the persistence of classical themes in comic books (“Asterix,” “Wonder Woman”) and cinema (think only of “Last Days of Pompeii” and “Ben-Hur,” among dozens of other films). The physical permutations of the tradition are traced not only in urban design but in such structures as catacombs and sewers. Each article brings some unexpected insight or little known fact into the discussion, to illuminating effect. In the article on Julius Caesar, the author cites Karl Marx’s enthusiastic praise of Caesar’s military prowess, while in the article on Achilles we are reminded of how savagely Shakespeare portrays that ancient hero, in “Troilus and Cressida,” as a cowardly egomaniac.

In the classical tradition as presented here nobody stands still; and sometimes the posthumous tribulations of ancient figures seem worse than what they experienced while alive. In the article on “Cicero and Ciceronianism” we learn that the reputation of that ancient orator and statesman was badly damaged by the great historian Theodor Mommsen (1817-1903), who denounced the hapless Cicero as a “bombastic” public speaker and a “sleazy politician.”

One has the impression that the editors of “The Classical Tradition” asked their contributors to write in as entertaining a way as they could. The scholarship is impeccable, but there is a donnish drollery in many of the articles. Thus in the entry on “Pronunciation of Greek and Latin,” not a subject normally rich in laughs, we learn that ancient Greek sheep said “bay bay,” not “baa baa,” and that in the 19th century “educated English people knew that the answer to the question ‘Why were Roman sailors wicked?’ was ‘Because they were nautae.’ ” The contributors, all 339 of them, seem to have had some fun in carrying out their assignments, and this communicates itself to the reader.

The Roman poet Ovid, who died in exile around 17 A.D., described “The Metamorphoses,” his masterpiece, as “a continuous song.” As the author of the article on Ovid notes, the poet was describing the seamless way in which his tales of transformation flowed one into the other, but the phrase also describes the long afterlife that his poem has enjoyed. It has been translated and imitated repeatedly, inspiring poems, novels, plays, films and operas, as well as sculptures and paintings.

The classical tradition of which the “Metamorphoses” forms so central a part might also be described as just such a “continuous song,” with all the variations that so fabulous a melody inspires. Ovid sang of “bodies changed into new forms.” That is what the classical tradition itself has been doing for centuries. It is a maze of transformations. At last, in this marvelous guide, it has found its Ariadne, whose thread (we are prompted to remember) helped to guide her lover out of a labyrinth.

Mr. Ormsby is a writer in London

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Full article and photo: http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052748703326204575617651875578066.html

Beyond Understanding

I ought to have known better than to have lunch with a psychologist.

“Take you, for example,” he said. “You are definitely autistic.”

“What!?”

“I rest my case,” he shot back. “Q.E.D.”

His ironic point seemed to be that if I didn’t instantly grasp his point — which clearly I didn’t — then, at some level, I was exhibiting autistic tendencies.

Autism is often the subject of contentious and emotional debate, certainly because it manifests in the most vulnerable of humans — children. It is also hard to pin down; as a “spectrum disorder” it can take extreme and disheartening forms and incur a devastating toll on families. It is the “milder” or “high functioning” form and the two main agreed-upon symptoms of sub-optimal social and communication skills that I confine myself to here.

Simon Baron-Cohen, for example, in his book “Mindblindness,” argues that the whole raison d’être of consciousness is to be able to read other people’s minds; autism, in this context, can be defined as an inability to “get” other people, hence “mindblind.” 

A less recent but possibly related conversation took place during the viva voce exam Ludwig Wittgenstein was given by Bertrand Russell and G. E. Moore in Cambridge in 1929. Wittgenstein was formally presenting his “Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus,” an already well-known work he had written in 1921, as his doctoral thesis. Russell and Moore were respectfully suggesting that they didn’t quite understand proposition 5.4541 when they were abruptly cut off by the irritable Wittgenstein. “I don’t expect you to understand!” (I am relying on local legend here; Ray Monk’s biography of Wittgenstein has him, in a more clubbable way, slapping them on the back and bringing proceedings cheerfully to a close with the words, “Don’t worry, I know you’ll never understand it.”)

I have always thought of Wittgenstein’s line as (a) admittedly, a little tetchy (or in the Monk version condescending) but (b) expressing enviable self-confidence and (c) impressively devoid of deference (I’ve even tried to emulate it once or twice, but it never comes out quite right). But if autism can be defined, at one level, by a lack of understanding (verbal or otherwise), it is at least plausible that Wittgenstein is making (or at least implying) a broadly philosophical proposition here, rather than commenting, acerbically, on the limitations of these particular interlocutors. He could be read as saying:

Thank you, gentlemen, for raising the issue of understanding here. The fact is, I don’t expect people in general to understand what I have written. And it is not just because I have written something, in places, particularly cryptic and elliptical and therefore hard to understand, or even because it is largely a meta-discourse and therefore senseless, but rather because, in my view, it is not given to us to achieve full understanding of what another person says. Therefore I don’t expect you to understand this problem of misunderstanding either.

If Wittgenstein was making a statement along these lines, then it would provide an illuminating perspective in which to read the “Tractatus.” The persistent theme within it of “propositions which say nothing,” which we tend to package up under the heading of “the mystical,” would have to be rethought. Rather than clinging to a clear-cut divide between all these propositions ─ over here, the well-formed and intelligible (scientific) and over there, the hazy, dubious and mystical (aesthetic or ethical) ─ we might have to concede that, given the way humans interact with one another, there is always a potential mystery concealed within the most elementary statement. And it is harder than you think it is going to be to eliminate, entirely, the residue of obscurity, the possibility of misunderstanding lurking at the core of every sentence. Sometimes Wittgenstein thinks he has solved the problem, at others not (“The solution of the problem of life is seen in the vanishing of the problem,” he writes in “Tractatus.”) What do we make of those dense, elegiac and perhaps incomprehensible final lines, sometimes translated as “Whereof one cannot speak thereof one must remain silent”? Positioned as it is right at the end of the book (like “the rest is silence” at the end of “Hamlet”), proposition number 7 is apt to be associated with death or the afterlife. But translating it yet again into the sort of terms a psychologist would readily grasp, perhaps Wittgenstein is also hinting: “I am autistic” or “I am mindblind.” Or, to put it another way, autism is not some exotic anomaly but rather a constant.

I am probably misreading the text here — if I have understood it correctly, I must be misreading it. But Wittgenstein has frequently been categorized, in recent retrospective diagnoses, as autistic. Sula Wolff, for example, in “Loners, The Life Path of Unusual Children” (1995), analyzes Wittgenstein as a classic case of Asperger’s syndrome, so-called “high-functioning autism” ─ that is, being articulate, numerate and not visibly dysfunctional, but nevertheless awkward and unskilled in social intercourse. He is apt to get hold of the wrong end of the stick (not to mention the poker that he once waved aggressively at Karl Popper). An illustrative true story: he is dying of cancer; it is his birthday; his cheerful landlady comes in and wishes him “Many happy returns, Mr. Wittgenstein”; he snaps back, “There will be no returns.”

Wittgenstein, not unlike someone with Asperger’s, admits to having difficulty working out what people are really going on about. In “Culture and Value” (1914) he writes: “We tend to take the speech of a Chinese for inarticulate gurgling. Someone who understands Chinese will recognize language in what he hears. Similarly I often cannot recognize the humanity of another human being.” Which might also go some way towards explaining his remark (in the later “Philosophical Investigations”) that even if a lion could speak English, we would still be unable to understand him.

Wittgenstein is not alone among philosophers in being included in this category of mindblindness. Russell, for one, has also been labeled autistic. Taking this into account, it is conceivable that Wittgenstein is saying to Russell, when he tells him that he doesn’t expect him to understand, “You are autistic!” Or (assuming a handy intellectual time machine), “If I am to believe Wolff and others, we are autistic. Perhaps all philosophers are. It is why we end up studying philosophy.”

I don’t want to maintain that all philosophers are autistic in this sense. Perhaps not even that “You don’t have to be autistic, but it helps.” And yet there are certainly episodes and sentences associated with philosophers quite distinct from Wittgenstein and Russell, that might lead us to think in that way. 

Consider, for example, Sartre’s classic one-liner, “Hell is other people.” Wouldn’t autism, with its inherent poverty of affective contact, go some way towards accounting for that? The fear of faces and the “gaze of the other” that Sartre analyzes are classic symptoms. Sartre recognized this in himself and in others as well: he explicitly describes Flaubert as “autistic” in his great, sprawling study of the writer, “The Family Idiot,” and also asserts that “Flaubert c’est moi.” Sartre’s theory that Flaubert starts off autistic and everything he writes afterwards — trying to work out what is in Madame Bovary’s mind, for example — is a form of compensation or rectification, could easily apply to his own work.

One implication of what a psychologist might say about autism goes something like this: you, a philosopher, are mindblind and liable to take up philosophy precisely because you don’t “get” what other people are saying to you. You, like Wittgenstein, have a habit of hearing and seeing propositions, but feeling that they say nothing (as if they were rendered in Chinese). In other words, philosophy would be a tendency to interpret what people say as a puzzle of some kind, a machine that may or may not work.

I think this helps to explain Wittgenstein’s otherwise slightly mysterious advice, to the effect that if you want to be a good philosopher, you should become a car mechanic (a job Wittgenstein actually held during part of the Great War). It was not just some notion of getting away from the study of previous philosophers, but also the idea that working on machines would be a good way of thinking about language. Wittgenstein, we know, came up with his preliminary model of language while studying court reports of a car accident in Paris during the war. The roots of picture theory (the model used in court to portray the event) and ostensive definition (all those little arrows and labels) are all here. But at the core of the episode are two machines and a collision. Perhaps language can be seen as a car, a vehicle of some kind, designed to get you from A to B, carrying a certain amount of information, but apt to get stuck in jams or break down or crash; and which will therefore need fixing. Wittgenstein and the art of car maintenance. This car mechanic conception of language is just the sort of thing high-functioning autistic types would come up with, my psychologist friend might say, because they understand “systems” better than they understand people. They are “(hyper-)systemizers” not “empathizers.” The point I am not exactly “driving” at but rather skidding into, and cannot seem to avoid, is this: indisputably, most car mechanics are men. 

My psychologist friend assured me that I was not alone. “Men tend to be autistic on average. More so than women.” The accepted male-to-female ratio for autism is roughly 4-to-1; for Asperger’s the ratio jumps even higher, by some accounts 10-to-1 (other statistics give higher or lower figures but retain the male prevalence). Asperger himself wrote that the autistic mind is “an extreme variant of male intelligence”; Baron-Cohen argues that “the extreme male brain” (not exclusive to men) is the product of an overdose of fetal testosterone.

If Wittgenstein in his conversation with Russell is suggesting that philosophers are typically autistic in a broad sense, this view might explain (in part) the preponderance of male philosophers. I went back over several sources to get an idea of the philosophical ratio: Russell’s “History of Western Philosophy” (about 100-to-1), Critchley’s “Book of Dead Philosophers” (30-to-1), while, in the realm of the living, the list of contributors to The Stone, for example, the ratio narrows to more like 4-to-1.

A psychologist might say something like: “Q.E.D., philosophy is all about systemizing (therefore male) and cold, hard logic, whereas the empathizers (largely female) seek out more humane, less mechanistic havens.” I would like to offer a slightly different take on the evidence. Plato took the view (in Book V of “The Republic”) that women were just as philosophical as men and would qualify to become the philosopher “guardians” of the ideal Greek state of the future (in return they would have to learn to run around naked at the gym). It seems likely that women were among the pre-Socratic archi-philosophers. But they were largely oracular. They tended to speak in riddles. The point of philosophy from Aristotle onwards was to resolve and abolish the riddle.

But perhaps the riddle is making a comeback. Understanding can be coercive and suffocating. Do I really have to be quite so “understanding”? Isn’t that the same as being masochistically subservient? And isn’t it just another aspect of your hegemony to claim to understand me quite so well? Simone de Beauvoir was exercising her right to what I would like to call autismo when she wrote that, “one is not born a woman but becomes one.” Similarly, when she emblazons her first novel, “She Came To Stay,” with an epigraph derived from Hegel ─ “every consciousness seeks the death of the other” ─ and her philosophical avatar takes it upon herself to bump off the provincial young woman she has invited to stay in Paris: I refuse to understand, to be a mind-reader. Conversely, when Luce Irigaray, the feminist theorist and philosopher, speaks — again paradoxically — of “this sex which is not one,” she is asking us to think twice about our premature understanding of gender — what Wittgenstein might call a case of “bewitchment.”

The study of our psychopathology, via cognitive neuroscience, suggests a hypothetical history. Why does language arise? It arises because of the scope for misunderstanding. Body language, gestures, looks, winks, are not quite enough. I am not a mind-reader. I don’t understand. We need noises and written signs, speech-acts, the Word, logos. If you tell me what you want, I will tell you what I want. Language is a system that arises to compensate for an empathy deficit. But with or without language, I can still exhibit traits of autism. I can misread the signs. Perhaps it would be more exact to say that autism only arises, is only identified, at the same time as there is an expectation of understanding. But if autism is a problem, from certain points of view, autismo is also a solution: it is an assertion that understanding itself can be overvalued.

It is a point that Wittgenstein makes memorably in the introduction to the “Tractatus,” in which he writes:

I therefore believe myself to have found, on all essential points, the final solution of the problems [of philosophy]. And if I am not mistaken in this belief … it shows how little is achieved when these problems are solved.

Which is why he also suggests, at the end of the book, that anyone who has climbed up his philosophical ladder should throw it away.

Andy Martin is currently completing “Philosophy Fight Club: Sartre vs. Camus,” to be published by Simon and Schuster. He was a 2009-10 fellow at the Cullman Center for Scholars and Writers in New York, and teaches at Cambridge University.

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Full article and photo: http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2010/11/21/beyond-understanding

Doctors Mystified by Case of World’s Thinnest Woman

8,000 Calories a Day

Lizzie Velasquez is a mystery to doctors.

Texas native Lizzie Velasquez, 21, is thinner than anyone thought possible. She spends her days wolfing down burgers, fries and cake, consuming more than three times the normal calorie requirements. Doctors can’t explain how she can be so underweight and still alive.

She starts the day with corn flakes or a burrito. An hour later, 21-year-old Lizzie Velasquez is already snacking on potato chips or cookies. Soon afterwards, she eats fried chicken with French fries or a pizza. By lunchtime, Velasquez has already consumed about 4,000 calories, as much as the average road worker or miner burns in an entire day.

What 8,000 calories means

The same pattern continues throughout the rest of the day. Velasquez likes it when whatever she has on her plate is covered with plenty of melted cheese. By the time the native Texan goes to bed, the caloric value of the food she has eaten that day corresponds to about 8,000 calories.

The same procedure has repeated itself day after day for years. With that kind of diet, one would image the young woman would be so obese that she could barely leave her home. But the opposite is true. Lizzie Velasquez is so thin that strangers sometimes knock on the door of the family home to angrily inform her parents that they should feed their daughter properly.

Of course, these people have no way of knowing that Velasquez has probably already consumed as much food in her young life as her mother, who is twice her age.

Zero Body Fat

Nevertheless, Velasquez has no fat at all on many parts of her body — which, in her case, literally means zero fat. That is in contrast to, say, bodybuilders who claim to not have a single gram of fat on their body when they still have about 6 to 8 percent body fat.

But because Velasquez, unlike bodybuilders, has hardly any muscle mass either, she looks as if her skin were stretched directly across her skeleton. She walks on stilt-like legs and her handshake is as light as can be. But apart from her extremely low body weight — about 62 pounds (28 kilograms) at a height of 5 foot 2 inches (157 centimeters) — Lizzie Velasquez is doing well. Her condition will not deteriorate as long as she continues to eat enough.

Her metabolism is a mystery. What happens to all the energy from the fast food Lizzie consumes? Doctors don’t know the answer. All they know is that Velasquez is part of a tiny minority on the planet, probably only a handful of people, who can eat as much of whatever they want without gaining weight.

Is the mysterious anomaly a disease, a syndrome, a genetic defect — or even a gift, as Velasquez calls it? Some have already speculated that the body of this young woman from Texas could hold some sort of magical formula — a “thinness gene,” if you will — that many an overweight person would love to have.

Cheeseburgers without Regret

Human metabolism has in fact been thoroughly studied, and nutrition science yields new revelations week after week. They fill the pages of glossy women’s magazines in the form of diet tips, some of which are controversial. Nevertheless, experts still cannot offer a satisfactory explanation of why some gluttons stay thin while less fortunate people gain weight even if they are relatively modest eaters.

Velasquez has girlfriends who envy her for her ability to eat several cheeseburgers in a row without regret. But this form of recognition is relatively new. For most of her life, Velasquez was either ridiculed or pitied because of the way she looks.

Faced with such adversity, she developed a defiant sense of pride. She insists that she wouldn’t want to change anything about her condition, even if there were the prospect of a cure. “The syndrome is worth every negative experience,” she says. “I don’t want to look like everyone else.”

The mysterious ailment has never occurred in her family before. Velasquez’s younger siblings — her brother Chris and her sister Marina — have developed normally. Her parents Lupe and Rita, who are religious, allowed Lizzie to grow up with the knowledge that fate had dealt her a special hand.

This outlook is reflected in the title of a book Velasquez has written: “Lizzie Beautiful.” Not surprisingly, the book’s publication triggered media interest in the emaciated woman.

Too Strong to Die

As a young girl, Velasquez appeared as a guest on several television programs. Some audience members reacted to the hyper-thin child, with her thick glasses, the way visitors to a fair in Victorian London once must have gawked at Joseph Merrick, the severely deformed man known as the Elephant Man. Unable to bear the horrifying otherness they were witnessing, many visitors, then and now, tried to compensate for their discomfort by making absurdly vulgar remarks.

Velasquez already attracted attention at her birth. She weighed 2 pounds, 10 ounces (1,190 grams) and was only 16 inches (40 centimeters) long. “I fit into a small shoebox,” she says. Far more disconcerting was the fact that the newborn had no fatty tissue at all. Her arteries were clearly visible under her skin, and her head resembled that of a crudely carved wooden doll.

Doctors did not think that the little girl would survive. But then, to everyone’s surprise, it turned out that all of her internal organs — lungs, heart, liver and intestines — were fully functional. Apparently Velasquez was too strong to die.

Surprising the Doctors

A detective-like search for the essence of her mysterious ailment began. But the effort was in vain. Doctors couldn’t figure out what the girl lacked.

They told the parents that their daughter would never be able to walk or talk. When Velasquez was four, doctors discovered that she was blind in her right eye. Her vision was also significantly restricted in her left eye.

But Lizzie could walk — and talk. And she did grow. The only problem was that she was unable to gain any weight. The taller she became, the more emaciated she looked.

Lacking answers, the doctors had only one piece of advice for the parents: “Keep an eye on your daughter, and get in touch with us if anything seems strange.”

But everything about her was already strange.

Too Thin to Be Alive

When Lizzie was 13, her mother wrote an account of her daughter’s condition in a medical newsletter, which attracted the attention of Abhimanyu Garg at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas, who contacted the Velasquez family. Garg, an internist, specializes in the study of diseases relating to human metabolism. Since then, he has paid regular visits to the Velasquez home, keeping track of Lizzie Velasquez’s progress from a medical perspective. 

Garg examined the then-adolescent more extensively than any other doctor before him. Velasquez’s bone density was measured using a scanning method called dual-energy x-ray absorptiometry. Garg performed a biochemical analysis of her metabolism and examined her entire body using magnetic resonance tomography. The results showed that Lizzie Velasquez is surprisingly healthy for a young woman who in theory is too thin to be alive.

A body mass index (BMI) value of 20 to 25 is considered normal. Someone with a BMI of less than 16 is considered critically underweight. Velasquez has a BMI of 10.9.

Normal Development

Garg was the first to come up with a name for the strange disorder, calling it neonatal progeroid syndrome (NPS). It is an extremely rare condition that was first described in the mid-1970s by Thomas Rautenstrauch, a German pediatrician.

Rautenstrauch had reported on babies that were severely underweight and with prematurely aged faces, beak-like noses, thin hair and growth disorders. Longer-term observation of the small, horribly disfigured patients was often impossible, because most died in infancy. The few that did grow older soon exhibited a pronounced mental deficiency.

Even though the external symptoms of NPS apply to Velasquez, her brain has developed normally. And at 5 foot 2 inches, she isn’t even particularly short for a woman of Mexican descent.

Taste for Junk Food

The number of NPS cases worldwide ranges from 30 to 60. Velasquez is even unusual within this small group. There are only two other known cases of females in whom the condition has taken a similarly atypical course. Coincidentally, one of them lives in Austin, like Velasquez, and is about 14 years old. The second is a woman in her 30s who lives in Great Britain. Unlike Velasquez, these two women have decided to avoid the public eye.

Probably no other scientist has illuminated the rare syndrome as thoroughly as Abhimanyu Garg. He believes that the disease is genetically determined, although he is unable to name a specific gene that’s involved. Garg also has no hopes for a cure. He doesn’t even know what advice to give a patient like Velasquez to keep herself reasonably healthy.

Meanwhile, her only option is to keep on feasting. “I’m extremely picky when it comes to food,” Velasquez confesses. She never eats salad and doesn’t touch fruit, either. Her eating behavior corresponds to the clichéd image of the US teenager who eats nothing but junk food.

“Thank God I can get away with it,” she says, neglecting to mention the fact that her body, like anyone else’s, also suffers from the effects of unhealthy eating. For example, she recently had to stop drinking soft drinks because her blood sugar levels had become so high.

‘Make Sure She Eats’

Velasquez also largely dismisses the notion that it must be a burden to have to eat three to four times as much as a normal person throughout the day. But sometimes she can’t hide the fact that her high-calorie diet can be tiresome.

“She’s a typical 21-year-old who doesn’t always do what she should,” says Joe Caruso, who helps her with media inquiries. When the two travel together, he has a special responsibility. “This morning Lizzie’s mother said to me: ‘Make sure she eats,'” he says.

Caruso occasionally disappears for a minute, only to return with a piece of cake, which he hands to Lizzie as if it were medicine. She chews without pleasure — as if it really were her medication.

No one can say what actually happens to all the nutrients in Velasquez’s body. In healthy individuals, some of the nutrients would be converted into fat deposits. But the energy in the food she eats apparently does have some effect. When she doesn’t eat, she becomes tired quickly and her immune resistance declines rapidly.

Hunger Pangs

A reporter once wrote that she has to eat a meal every 15 minutes. Nonsense, says Lizzie. It is true, however, that she feels hungry far more often than normal people do. If she ignores the impulse, her energy level soon plummets. Because she has no reserves at all, a lack of food becomes quickly and seriously noticeable.

As a child she often suffered from ear infections — possibly because she wasn’t able to make people understand the importance of her frequent hunger pangs. She often spent weeks at a time in bed, worn out by an ordinary cold.

Hasn’t she ever dreamed of being strong and powerful? “I never really saw a need for that,” she claims. Her mother once sent her to a gym, hoping that Lizzie could lift weights to strengthen her muscles. Garg intervened. His patient perspires heavily during physical exercise and can easily become dehydrated.

Garg is about to repeat all the tests he has already performed on her once before. They are the helpless attempts of a man who faces a mystery he is unable to solve.

‘A Huge Gift’

Lizzie is amused by the idea that she will go down in medical history as a living miracle. She is also aware that she could become a curiosity handed from one doctor to the next. Or she could become a sort of trophy case that brings fame to a particular doctor.

But none of this troubles her. After spending many years in and out of various laboratories and doctors’ offices, she no longer has much faith in anyone solving the mystery. And she repeatedly insists that she isn’t interested in a cure. “This is a gift, a huge gift, an honor,” she says, referring to her disease.

Then it’s time for her to go. She’s tired, and she feels cold.

It’s noon in her native Austin, and the temperature is 40 degrees Celsius (104 degrees Fahrenheit) in the shade.

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Full article and photos: http://www.spiegel.de/international/zeitgeist/0,1518,729805,00.html

Phonograph, CD, MP3—What’s Next?

The Beatles finally make it to iTunes.

‘I am particularly glad to no longer be asked when the Beatles are coming to iTunes,” said Ringo Starr last week as the Fab Four’s record company finally agreed to have their music sold through digital downloads by Apple. This agreement could mark the beginning of the end of the digital dislocation of the music industry— the first industry to be completely disrupted by information-age technology.

Apple CEO Steve Jobs said, “It has been a long and winding road to get here,” understating the case. Members of the band and other rights-holders had long objected to Apple’s practice of selling songs separately from albums, disagreed with its pricing, and feared illegal file-sharing of the songs if they were ever available online.

All 17 of the Beatles’ albums were among the top 50 sellers on iTunes the day they were made available. Apple is even selling a virtual “box set” of the Beatles. The top single was “Here Comes the Sun,” appropriately enough, since the lyrics “it’s been a long cold lonely winter” summarize a music industry just emerging from the destruction element of creative destruction.

Music has been a test case for technology transitions before. In the 19th century, the sheet-music publishers of Tin Pan Alley dominated the industry but were disrupted by recorded sound when Thomas Edison invented the phonograph. This was in turn replaced by newer physical forms of recordings, from eight-track tapes to cassettes and CDs. In the Internet era, sales of albums—bundles of music—broke down as consumers downloaded just the songs they wanted, usually illegally.

The iTunes store, launched in 2003, popularized legal downloads. Streaming music online has also become popular. Today one quarter of recorded-music revenue comes from digital channels. This tells us that technology can reward both creators and consumers, even as traditional middlemen such as record companies get squeezed.

A Beatles song plays on an iPod.

The Beatles have been accused of being digitally backward, but last year the group targeted younger listeners by cooperating with a videogame maker on “The Beatles: Rock Band” that lets people play along.

“We’ve made the Beatles music,” Paul McCartney told London’s Observer last year. “It’s a body of work. That’s it for us—it’s done. But then what happens is that somebody will come up with a suggestion,” like a video game.

Consumers get more choice through digital products and seem happy to pay for the convenience of downloads through iTunes, despite the availability of free music. Apple can charge more for a Beatles download than Amazon can charge for a CD, even though CDs are usually higher-quality and the songs can be transferred to devices such as iPods.

Several years ago the big legal battle featured music industry companies suing some 35,000 people who illegally downloaded songs. Piracy continues, but now the industry is instead looking for new revenue streams. Sean Parker, founder of the original downloading service, Napster, has advice for music companies. “The war on piracy is a failure,” he says. “Labels must offer services that consumers are willing to pay for, focusing on convenience and accessibility.”

Some musicians still hold out against digital downloads. Country star Kid Rock explained to Billboard magazine recently why he stays off iTunes. “I have trouble with the way iTunes says everybody’s music is worth the same price. I don’t think that’s right. There’s music out there that’s not a penny. They should be giving it away, or they should be making the artist pay people to listen to it.”

Still, there are encouraging signs that creators and distributors are coming together. Artists often skip the music industry altogether by using new technology to make songs cheaply, then market them on the Web. For many musicians, the real money comes from concerts and merchandising. For bands that appeal to older audiences, such as the Beatles, CD sales remain brisk.

For music and many content-based industries, the shift to the Information Age from the Industrial Age is a shift to digital versions from older analog versions. The older forms don’t disappear altogether. Instead, traditional products find a more limited role alongside newer versions that take advantage of new technology to deliver different experiences to consumers. Sellers may lose scarcity value for their goods as digital tools make copying easy, but as iTunes has shown, convenience is also a service worth buying.

If the music industry can learn new tricks, there’s hope for all the other industries that are being transformed as technology continues to give consumers more choices. The best alternative for smart industries is to take the advice of the Beatles song “Let It Be”—make the most of technological progress, and recognize that certain things are beyond anyone’s control.

L. Gordon Crovitz, Wall Street Journal

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Full article and photo: http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052748704496104575627282994471928.html

All the president’s books

In my two years working in the president’s office at Harvard, before I was laid off in spring, I gave myself the job of steward of her books. Gift books would arrive in the mail, or from campus visitors, or from her hosts when she traveled; books by Harvard professors were kept on display in reception or in storage at our Massachusetts Hall office; books flowed in from publishers, or authors seeking blurbs, or self-published authors of no reputation or achievement, who sometimes sent no more than loosely bound manuscripts.

I took charge of the president’s books because it was my assigned job to write thank-you letters for them. I would send her the books and the unsigned draft replies on presidential letterhead; for each one, she sent me back the signed letter and, most of the time, the book, meaning she had no further use for it. Some books she would keep, but seldom for very long, which meant those came back to me too, in one of the smaller offices on the third floor of Mass Hall where there was no room to put them. Furthermore they weren’t so easily disposed of. Often they bore inscriptions, to president Drew Faust or to her and her husband from people they knew; and even if the volume was something rather less exalted — a professor from India sending his management tome or a book of Hindi poems addressed, mysteriously, to “Sir” or to the “vice-chancellor of Harvard University” — these books obviously couldn’t end up in a secondhand bookshop or charity bin or anywhere they could cause embarrassment. All were soon moved to an overflow space at the very end of the hall, coincidentally looking out at a donation bin for books at a church across the street.

One might feel depressed sitting amid so many unwanted books — so much unread knowledge and overlooked experience — but tending president Faust’s books became my favorite part of the job. No one noticed or interfered in what I did, which in a president’s office like Harvard, where everything is scrutinized, is uncommon. Even a thank-you note can say too much. I developed my own phrase for these notes — “I look forward to spending some time with it” — as a substitute for saying “I look forward to reading it,” because the president can’t possibly read all the books she receives, and there was always the chance she would run into the author somewhere, who might ask if she’d read his book yet.

Any Harvard president attracts books from supplicants, and this particular president attracted her own subcategory. Many books came from publishers or authors not at all shy about requesting a presidential blurb. These were easy to decline, and became easy to decline even when they came from the president’s friends, colleagues, acquaintances, neighbors, and others met over a distinguished career as a Civil War historian. This was the subcategory: Thanks to her specialty, we were building up a large collection of Civil War books, galleys and unpublished manuscripts — not just professional monographs, but amateurish family or local histories. These soon filled the overflow space in Massachusetts Hall, where water leaking from the roof during the unusual March rainstorms resulted in our having to discard several.

For everyone who sent us a book, the signed note back from the president mattered more than the book itself; both sides presumably understood that the president could buy or obtain any book she actually needed. The replies were signed by her — no auto-pen — which meant that even if she didn’t quite read your book the president still held it in her hands even for a moment, perhaps scribbling something at the bottom of her note with a fine black pen, or crossing out the “Ms” or “Professor” heading and substituting the author’s first name.

I had all kinds of plans for these books. The inscribed books we had to keep, of course, no matter how dire or dreadful. (The archives would want its pick of them anyway, deciding which books would become keepsakes of this particular era at Harvard.) But the many good titles that remained could go to struggling small foreign universities or schools, to our soldiers and Marines overseas, or to local libraries as an act of goodwill from a powerful and oft-maligned neighbor. They could go to the Allston branch of the Boston Public Library, for instance, perhaps to be dubbed “the president’s collection,” with its own shelving but freely available to Allstonians to read or borrow.

None of these ideas came to fruition. All of them would have required me to rise to a realm where I was no longer in charge — indeed, where I didn’t have a foothold. I would have to call meetings, bring bigger players to the table. Harvard’s top bureaucracy is actually quite small, and most of it was, literally, in my immediate presence: Two doors to the left was one vice president, two doors to the right, around a tight corner, was another. But these were big-gesture folks alongside a resolutely small-gesture one (me), and without an intermediary to help build support for my ideas my books weren’t going anywhere except, once, into a cardboard box outside my office just before Christmas, where I encouraged staff to help themselves and perhaps two dozen books, or half what I started the box with, went out that way.

In all this, the important thing was that books were objects to be honored, not treated as tiresome throwaways, and that everyone in the building knew this. Books are how, traditionally, universities are built: John Harvard was not the founder of Harvard University but a clergyman who, two years after its founding, bequeathed it his library. I used to joke that the most boring book in our collection was the volume called the “Prince Takamado Trophy All Japan Inter-Middle School English Oratorical Contest,” but if I hear it isn’t still on a shelf somewhere in Mass Hall 20 years from now, I won’t be the only one who’s disappointed.

Eric Weinberger has reviewed books in the Globe since 2000, and taught writing at Harvard for 10 years.

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Full article: http://www.boston.com/bostonglobe/ideas/articles/2010/11/21/all_the_presidents_books

Thanks for asking

Questions that led surprising places

“Where do you get your ideas?” people often ask. And for years, I’ve answered, truthfully, “Mostly from readers.” It’s great to have that constant feedback. But here’s the best part: The most routine-looking questions, on the most familiar usage issues, can lead us down the rabbit hole to a land of language surprises.

Take (speaking of rabbit holes) a recent question from Gil. “Am I the only one who associates the Tea Party with ‘Alice in Wonderland’ and not the Sons of Liberty disguised as Indians?” he asked. He’s not, a quick search revealed: A handful of columnists and bloggers have included the Mad Hatter’s soiree in their discussions of Tea Party politics.

That wasn’t hard to check, but along the way I encountered a new and murkier language question: When did the original Boston Tea Party get its name? Not till decades after the 1773 raid, sources agree. Several of them — including Jill Lepore’s brand-new book about both political Tea Parties, “The Whites of Their Eyes” — credit an 1834 retrospective by George R.T. Hewes with the earliest Boston “Tea Party” citation.

Google Books goes them one better, though: It offers an 1805 issue of the Boston Weekly that reprints toasts reportedly given at an Independence Day celebration a year earlier. One is offered to “The Tea Party: — Thirty-one years since, our fathers’ patriotism deprived our mothers of the use of tea — may our mothers’ tea never deprive us of our fathers’ patriotism.” Such casual use suggests the Tea Party label was already in circulation, and if there are earlier citations, surely Bostonians should be the ones to unearth them. Sons and daughters of Liberty — to the archives!

Another word steeped in American history is buncombe, “nonsense,” named for Buncombe County, N.C. The story goes (more or less) that Felix Walker, the district’s representative, orating irrelevantly on the House floor in 1820, resisted his fellows’ pleas to stop. He wasn’t speaking to them, he said, but “for Buncombe” — that is, for the newspaper accounts that his constituents would see.

In a recent column, I spelled the word bunkum, quoting an 1848 slang dictionary and shocking reader Jay Gold: “I always thought the proper spelling was buncombe,” he said, citing H.L. Mencken for support. So I went back for another look. Yes, Mencken used buncombe, but he gave both spellings as equal variants, like ketchup and catsup. He really had no choice: Bunkum had made its move early — the Oxford English Dictionary dates it to 1828 — and was well established when Mencken published “The American Language” in 1921.

It was in Britain, curiously, that the bunkum version took off. In 1926, H.W. Fowler advised using that spelling, “decidedly the prevalent one,” and his countrymen listened: In today’s British papers, bunkum beats buncombe by about 400 to 1. Americans, naturally, were more attached to the spelling with the colorful local history; usage writer Bryan Garner still prefers buncombe “because it recalls the interesting origin of the word.” So though bunkum also predominates here, its lead is far smaller: 3 to 1 in The New York Times, for example, and 3 to 2 in the Globe. So take your pick, or skip the debate and go for the short form: bunk.

Perhaps most often, the surprise in store for me and my questioning reader is that we’ve both succumbed (once again!) to the Recency Illusion — the mistaken impression that a usage new to us is new to the world. When Maria Sachs wrote to ask about the increasing use of culminate as a transitive verb — as in “The win culminated a World Series between two unlikely participants” — I agreed that it was odd. In my dialect, things “culminate in” a climax. But it turns out that transitive culminate, though its popularity waxes and wanes, has been here since the verb arrived in English in the mid-17th century. If sportswriters want to use it, history is on their side.

. . .

SHELLACKED: The moment President Obama conceded that the midterm elections were a “shellacking” for Democrats, the word sleuths were on the case. Why would shellacked — literally, coated with varnish made from the resinous secretion of the lac insect — mean “trounced”?

Well, Americans were using shellacked for both “drunk” and “beaten” by 1920, and it’s hard to say which came first (though Mark Liberman at Language Log notes that the transfer of senses usually goes from violence to drunkenness, as in bombed, wrecked, and clobbered). But shellacked may have a more concrete origin: During Prohibition, it’s said, some drinkers were desperate enough to try extracting the alcohol from shellac varnish.

Ben Zimmer, in a post at the American Dialect Society’s listserv, quotes a 1922 newspaper on the process: “This consists of dipping the blotter in the shellac, withdrawing it and squeezing the blotter into another receptacle. The blotter will absorb the alcohol.” This evidence “establishes the connection as well as we can ever expect for a slang term nearly a century old,” says Michael Quinion of World Wide Words, reminding us that even the most tantalizing theory is not the same as proof.

Jan Freeman, Boston Globe

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Full article: http://www.boston.com/bostonglobe/ideas/articles/2010/11/21/thanks_for_asking/

Uncommon knowledge

Hug to win!

Normally, touching co-workers is a big no-no. Unless you want your team to win. That’s the implication of a recent analysis of all NBA basketball teams during the 2008-2009 regular season. Researchers recorded all non-game-play touching (e.g., fist bumps, head slaps, high fives, hugs) among players in a game during the early part of the season. The amount of touching in this one game predicted both player and team performance the rest of the season, even when controlling for preseason expectations and early season performance. The relationship also held when controlling for player salary, which was highly correlated with touching. The overall effect of touching on performance appears to operate by increasing cooperation and trust among teammates.

Kraus, M. et al., “Tactile Communication, Cooperation, and Performance: An Ethological Study of the NBA,” Emotion (October 2010).

Protesting too much

It might seem odd that political partisans argue their ideology so fervently, even when faced with reasonable counter-arguments. Yet, recent research seems to confirm what many psychologists have long suspected — that self-doubt tends to increase the energy people put into persuading others. In one experiment, when people were asked to defend their opinion on the use of animals in laboratory testing, they wrote a longer defense if they wrote it with their nondominant hand (which is supposed to undermine confidence). In other experiments, people expended more effort to persuade others of their dietary or computer preferences if they had been asked to think about uncertain situations. Interestingly, the effect of doubt was attenuated if the person’s sense of self had also been affirmed.

Gal, D. & Rucker, D., “When in Doubt, Shout! Paradoxical Influences of Doubt on Proselytizing,” Psychological Science (November 2010).

Hard to read, easy to learn

Most economists will tell you that education is a key driver of economic competitiveness — for individuals and nations alike. So, when innovations come along that boost learning at little or no cost, we should pay close attention. And that’s exactly the secret behind one innovation suggested by a new study. Researchers gave people 90 seconds to memorize fictitious biology data and then distracted them for another 15 minutes. People who had been given the data in a somewhat-hard-to-read font recalled 87 percent of the data correctly vs. 73 percent for an easy-to-read font. To see if this could be repeated in real classrooms, the researchers asked teachers in a public high school in Ohio to hand out worksheets in somewhat-hard-to-read fonts to one of their sections, while worksheets in easy-to-read fonts were handed out to another section. Students in the sections with the harder-to-read fonts performed better on tests.

Diemand-Yauman, C. et al., “Fortune Favors the Bold (and the Italicized): Effects of Disfluency on Educational Outcomes,” Cognition (forthcoming).

Kindler, gentler roughnecks

The Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico is undoubtedly one of the defining events of 2010. Among the factors that may have contributed to the accident was the safety culture aboard the rig. In a recent case study, professors at Harvard and Stanford spent time aboard two other rigs whose culture underwent a profound change. Although the initial motivation for the change was safety, the new operational culture also reformed the macho culture that normally prevails in the male-dominated industry. In the old days, as one rig manager put it: “They decided who the driller was by fighting. If the job came open, the one that was left standing was the driller. It was that rowdy.” After the changes, the workers discussed things more openly, were more supportive of each other, and didn’t try to show how tough they were all the time.

Ely, R. & Meyerson, D., “An Organizational Approach to Undoing Gender: The Unlikely Case of Offshore Oil Platforms,” Research in Organizational Behavior (forthcoming).

Can bad things make you happier?

To quote Friedrich Nietzsche: “That which does not kill us makes us stronger.” But is this really the case? Sure, it’s reasonable to expect that we can all adapt to suffering up to a point, but could it be that the “slings and arrows of outrageous fortune” are the key to happiness? Researchers surveyed a representative sample of Americans over the course of several years and found that well-being is related to the amount of prior adversity (e.g., sickness, violence, bereavement, family hardship, disaster), and that it follows a particular pattern: Experiencing some adversity in the past seemed to contribute to a sense of well-being, but too much trouble in the past — or too little — and the sense of well-being dropped.

Seery, M. et al., “Whatever Does Not Kill Us: Cumulative Lifetime Adversity, Vulnerability, and Resilience,” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology (forthcoming).

Kevin Lewis is an Ideas columnist

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Full article: http://www.boston.com/bostonglobe/ideas/articles/2010/11/21/hug_to_win/

Russia’s Dictatorship of Law

Russia’s newly outrageous legal treatment of Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the former owner of the country’s largest oil company, is a reminder that Russia has yet to grasp the idea of equal justice under law — especially when the Kremlin decides someone is in the way.

Mr. Khodorkovsky was convicted in 2005 on trumped-up charges of fraud and disobeying a court order and lost his company to Kremlin loyalists. Russians call his sort of case “telephone law,” imposed by the politically powerful through a call to the courthouse. With his sentence almost up, he was just tried again on suspect charges of embezzling and money-laundering. The judge is expected to reach a decision in December.

Two decades ago, the United States State Department urged the new Russia to resurrect the jury system, as The Times described this week, to put the law in the hands of the Russian people. Juries had been abolished after the Soviet revolution, along with anything recognizable as courts and lawyers. They were reborn in 1993.

Defendants have a right to a jury trial in a small fraction of crimes like murder and kidnapping. Compared with non-jury trials in the Soviet era, when the acquittal rate was likely less than 1 percent, the rate with juries has climbed to between 15 and 20 percent. Because of this apparent success, it is tempting to look for the growth of a familiar sense of justice. That search ends in disillusionment.

The Soviet system relied on prosecutors to find what passed for the truth in criminal cases, so the foundation for reform is at odds with the new system that juries are part of, with truth supposedly emerging from the competing accounts of the prosecution and the defense.

More to the point, the old system is not dead. Russia, the scholar Jeffrey Kahn said, has “a lot of bad legal habits.” One is the prosecutor’s “case file,” which sealed the guilt of countless Soviet citizens and retains its terrifying force. Of the 791,802 criminal cases disposed of this year through September, only 465 were decided by a jury. Mr. Khodorkovsky wasn’t allowed a jury in either of his trials. Deliberately, the prosecution charged him only with crimes that didn’t give that right. A jury couldn’t be trusted, apparently, to look out for the state’s interests.

When Vladimir Putin heralded the start of the era of law and democracy, he repeatedly described it as “the dictatorship of law.” As the Khodorkovsky case dramatizes, that is a chillingly accurate description.

Editorial, New York Times

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Full article: http://www.nytimes.com/2010/11/21/opinion/21sun2.html

Could She Reach the Top in 2012? You Betcha

“THE perception I had, anyway, was that we were on top of the world,” Sarah Palin said at the climax of last Sunday’s premiere of her new television series, “Sarah Palin’s Alaska.” At that point our fearless heroine had just completed a perilous rock climb, and if she looked as if she’d just stepped out of a spa instead, don’t expect her fans to question the reality. For them, Palin’s perception is the only reality that counts.

Palin is on the top of her worlds — both the Republican Party and the media universe. “Sarah Palin’s Alaska” set a ratings record for a premiere on TLC, attracting nearly five million viewers — twice the audience of last month’s season finale of the blue-state cable favorite, “Mad Men.” The next night Palin and her husband Todd were enshrined as proud parents in touchy-feely interviews on “Dancing With the Stars,” the network sensation (21 million viewers) where their daughter Bristol has miraculously escaped elimination all season despite being neither a star nor a dancer. This week Sarah Palin will most likely vanquish George W. Bush and Keith Richards on the best-seller list with her new book.

If logic applied to Palin’s career trajectory, this month might have been judged dreadful for her. In an otherwise great year for Republicans she endorsed a “Star Wars” bar gaggle of anomalous and wacky losers — the former witch, Christine O’Donnell; the raging nativist, Tom Tancredo; and at least two candidates who called for armed insurrection against the government, Sharron Angle and a would-be Texas congressman, Stephen Broden, who lost by over 50 percentage points. Last week voters in Palin’s home state humiliatingly “refudiated” her protégé, Joe Miller, overturning his victory in the G.O.P. Senate primary with a write-in campaign.

But logic doesn’t apply to Palin. What might bring down other politicians only seems to make her stronger: the malapropisms and gaffes, the cut-and-run half-term governorship, family scandals, shameless lying and rapacious self-merchandising. In an angry time when America’s experts and elites all seem to have failed, her amateurism and liabilities are badges of honor. She has turned fallibility into a formula for success.

Republican leaders who want to stop her, and they are legion, are utterly baffled about how to do so. Democrats, who gloat that she’s the Republicans’ problem, may be humoring themselves. When Palin told Barbara Walters last week that she believed she could beat Barack Obama in 2012, it wasn’t an idle boast. Should Michael Bloomberg decide to spend billions on a quixotic run as a third-party spoiler, all bets on Obama are off.

Of course Palin hasn’t decided to run yet. Why rush? In the post-midterms Gallup poll she hit her all-time high unfavorable rating (52 percent), but in the G.O.P. her favorable rating is an awesome 80 percent, virtually unchanged from her standing at the end of 2008 (83 percent). She can keep floating above the pack indefinitely as the celebrity star of a full-time reality show where she gets to call all the shots. The Perils of Palin maintains its soap-operatic drive not just because of the tabloid antics of Bristol, Levi, et al., but because you are kept guessing about where the pop culture ends and the politics begins.

The producer of “Sarah Palin’s Alaska,” Mark Burnett (whose past hits appropriately include both “Survivor” and “The Apprentice”), has declared that the series is “completely nonpolitical.” It is in fact completely political — an eight-week infomercial that, miraculously enough, is paying the personality it promotes (a reported $250,000 a week) rather than charging her. The show’s sole political mission is to maintain the fervor and loyalty of the G.O.P. base, not to win over Palin’s detractors. In the debut episode, the breathtaking Alaskan landscapes were cannily intermixed with vignettes showcasing the star’s ostensibly model kids and husband, her charming dad, the villainous lamestream media (represented by Palin’s unwanted neighbor, the journalist Joe McGinniss), and the heroic Rupert Murdoch media (represented by an off-screen Bill O’Reilly).

Palin fires a couple of Annie Oakley-style shots before we’re even out of the opening credits. The whole package is a calculated paean to her down-home, self-reliant frontiersiness — an extravagant high-def remake of Bush’s photo ops clearing brush at his “ranch” in Crawford, which in turn were an homage to Ronald Reagan’s old horseback photo ops in his lush cowpoke digs in Santa Barbara. With a showbiz-fueled net worth widely estimated in the double-digit millions, Palin is as Hollywood in her way as Reagan was, but you won’t see any bling or factotums in “Sarah Palin’s Alaska.” She tells the audience that she doesn’t have “much of a staff” to tend to her sprawling family and career. “We do most everything ourselves,” she says, and not with a wink.

Thanks to the in-kind contribution of this “nonpolitical” series, Palin needn’t join standard-issue rivals like Mitt Romney, Newt Gingrich, Haley Barbour and Tim Pawlenty in groveling before donors and primary-state operatives to dutifully check all the boxes of a traditional Republican campaign. Palin not only has TLC in her camp but, better still, Murdoch. Other potential 2012 candidates are also on the Fox News payroll, but Palin is the only one, as Alessandra Stanley wrote in The Times, whose every appearance is “announced with the kind of advance teasing and clip montages that talk shows use to introduce major movie stars.” Pity poor Mike Huckabee, relegated to a graveyard time slot, with the ratings to match.

The Fox spotlight is only part of Murdoch’s largess. As her publisher, he will foot the bill for the coming “book tour” whose itinerary disproportionately dotes on the primary states of Iowa and South Carolina. The editorial page of Murdoch’s Wall Street Journal is also on board, recently praising Palin for her transparently ghost-written critique of the Federal Reserve’s use of quantitative easing. “Mrs. Palin is way ahead of her potential presidential competitors on this policy point,” The Journal wrote, and “shows a talent for putting a technical subject in language that average Americans can understand.”

With Murdoch, Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck and Sean Hannity on her side, Palin hardly needs the grandees of the so-called Republican establishment. They know it and flail at her constantly. Politico reported just before Election Day that unnamed “party elders” were nearly united in wanting to stop her, out of fear that she’d win the nomination and then be crushed by Obama. Their complaints are seconded daily by Bush White House alumni like Karl Rove, Michael Gerson, and Mark McKinnon, who said recently that Palin’s “stock is falling and pretty rapidly now” and that “if she’s smart, she does not run.”

This is either denial or wishful thinking. The same criticisms that the Bushies fling at Palin were those once aimed at Bush: a slender résumé, a lack of intellectual curiosity and foreign travel, a lazy inclination to favor from-the-gut improvisation over cracking the briefing books. These spitballs are no more likely to derail Palin within the G.O.P. than they did him.

As Palin has refused to heed these patrician Republicans, some of them have gotten so testy they sound like Democrats. Peggy Noonan called her a “nincompoop” last month, and Susan Collins, the senator from Maine, dismissed her as a “celebrity commentator.” Rove tut-tutted Palin’s TLC show for undermining her aspirations to “gravitas.” These insults just play into Palin’s hands, burnishing her image as an exemplar of the “real America” battling the snooty powers-that-be. To serve as an Andrew Jackson or perhaps George Wallace for the 21st century, the last thing she wants or needs is gravitas.

It’s anti-elitism that most defines angry populism in this moment, and, as David Frum, another Bush alumnus (and Palin critic), has pointed out, populist rage on the right is aimed at the educated, not the wealthy. The Bushies and Noonans and dwindling retro-moderate Republicans are no less loathed by Palinistas and their Tea Party fellow travelers than is Obama’s Ivy League White House. When Palin mocks her G.O.P. establishment critics as tortured, paranoid, sleazy and a “good-old-boys club,” she pays no penalty for doing so. The more condescending the attacks on her, the more she thrives. This same dynamic is also working for her daughter Bristol, who week after week has received low scores and patronizing dismissals from the professional judges on “Dancing with the Stars” only to be rescued by populist masses voting at home.

Revealingly, Sarah Palin’s potential rivals for the 2012 nomination have not joined the party establishment in publicly criticizing her. They are afraid of crossing Palin and the 80 percent of the party that admires her. So how do they stop her? Not by feeding their contempt in blind quotes to the press — as a Romney aide did by telling Time’s Mark Halperin she isn’t “a serious human being.” Not by hoping against hope that Murdoch might turn off the media oxygen that feeds both Palin’s viability and News Corporation’s bottom line. Sooner or later Palin’s opponents will instead have to man up — as Palin might say — and actually summon the courage to take her on mano-a-maverick in broad daylight.

Short of that, there’s little reason to believe now that she cannot dance to the top of the Republican ticket when and if she wants to.

Frank Rich, New York Times

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Full article and photo: http://www.nytimes.com/2010/11/21/opinion/21rich.html

Ten of the best angels in literature

Il Paradiso by Dante Guided by Beatrice, Dante ascends to the Primum Mobile, where the angels dwell. Beatrice explains the nine orders of angels, hierarchically arranged: Seraphim (the closest to God), Cherubim, Thrones, Dominions, Virtues, Powers, Principalities, Archangels, and Angels.

“Aire and Angels” by John Donne In amorous enthusiasm, Donne takes literally the notion that his beloved is an “angel”. She is as pure as a heavenly being, but has had to take bodily form, “For, nor in nothing, nor in things / Extreme, and scatt’ring bright, can love inhere.” When an angel appears it takes “face, and wings / Of aire”.

Dr Faustus by Christopher Marlowe Good and Evil Angels appear in the play as a double act. “O, Faustus, lay that damned book aside, / And gaze not on it, lest it tempt thy soul,” says the Good Angel. But the Evil Angel’s counsel – “Go forward Faustus in the famous art” – is more welcome. Finally the Good Angel exits and the Evil Angel gleefully invites Faustus to the “vast perpetual torture-house” that is hell.

Paradise Lost by John Milton Milton’s angels don’t just fly around doing good (or ill), they eat, drink (fruit juice only) and chat. Adam asks the visiting angel Raphael whether angels have sex, “To whom the Angel, with a smile that glowed / Celestial rosy red, Love’s proper hue, / Answered, ‘Let it suffice thee that thou knowest / Us happy, and without love no happiness’.” Yes they do.

“The Angel” by William Blake The poet dreams of hiding his “heart’s delight” from his guardian angel, who flees from him. The poet resentfully arms himself against his angel’s kindness. “Soon my Angel came again: / I was arm’d, he came in vain; / For the time of youth was fled, / And grey hairs were on my head.”

Tess of the d’Urbervilles by Thomas Hardy “I don’t believe in anything supernatural,” says Tess, but she gets an angel for a suitor. Angel Clare even plays a harp. This human angel (“more spiritual than animal”) wants a “pure” woman and is too high-minded to be able to understand Tess’s corporeal nature.

The Gate of Angels by Penelope Fitzgerald Fred Fairly is a scientist, an academic at St Angelicus (“Angel’s”) College, who can’t help thinking of angels. “Fairly perhaps sees a bird flying over the fens, and he looks attentively at a young woman, and he combines the two of them, and imagines an angel. That is how the imagination works.” He falls in love with Daisy, who is a kind of angel (a nurse, anyway).

The Satanic Verses by Salman Rushdie Bollywood film star Gibreel Farishta has an angelic screen name (Farishta means “angel” in Urdu) and after his plane is blown up over the English Channel he is magically transformed into the very angel Gibreel. He alights in England and we find he has acquired a halo. But is he a force for good, or a deluded soul?

His Dark Materials by Philip Pullman Pullman has derived more than his title from Milton’s Paradise Lost, though his interpretation is Blakean: we find out that there was indeed a war in heaven once, but the rebel angels fought for freedom against “those who want us to obey and be humble and submit”. Will and Lyra enter the world of angelic conflict and acquire their own guardian angel called Balthamos.

Skellig by David Almond Another Blakean children’s tale, in which Michael finds a mysterious winged man called Skellig living in the garage of his parents’ dilapidated new house. He looks like a tramp and eats spiders. Michael and his new hippy friend Mina care for this being who has fallen to earth, who becomes more and more angelic and finally helps save the life of Michael’s baby sister.

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Full article: http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2010/nov/13/ten-best-angels-literature-mullan

Should This Be the Last Generation?

Have you ever thought about whether to have a child? If so, what factors entered into your decision? Was it whether having children would be good for you, your partner and others close to the possible child, such as children you may already have, or perhaps your parents? For most people contemplating reproduction, those are the dominant questions. Some may also think about the desirability of adding to the strain that the nearly seven billion people already here are putting on our planet’s environment. But very few ask whether coming into existence is a good thing for the child itself. Most of those who consider that question probably do so because they have some reason to fear that the child’s life would be especially difficult — for example, if they have a family history of a devastating illness, physical or mental, that cannot yet be detected prenatally.

All this suggests that we think it is wrong to bring into the world a child whose prospects for a happy, healthy life are poor, but we don’t usually think the fact that a child is likely to have a happy, healthy life is a reason for bringing the child into existence. This has come to be known among philosophers as “the asymmetry” and it is not easy to justify. But rather than go into the explanations usually proffered — and why they fail — I want to raise a related problem. How good does life have to be, to make it reasonable to bring a child into the world? Is the standard of life experienced by most people in developed nations today good enough to make this decision unproblematic, in the absence of specific knowledge that the child will have a severe genetic disease or other problem? 

The 19th-century German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer held that even the best life possible for humans is one in which we strive for ends that, once achieved, bring only fleeting satisfaction. New desires then lead us on to further futile struggle and the cycle repeats itself.

Schopenhauer’s pessimism has had few defenders over the past two centuries, but one has recently emerged, in the South African philosopher David Benatar, author of a fine book with an arresting title: “Better Never to Have Been: The Harm of Coming into Existence.” One of Benatar’s arguments trades on something like the asymmetry noted earlier. To bring into existence someone who will suffer is, Benatar argues, to harm that person, but to bring into existence someone who will have a good life is not to benefit him or her. Few of us would think it right to inflict severe suffering on an innocent child, even if that were the only way in which we could bring many other children into the world. Yet everyone will suffer to some extent, and if our species continues to reproduce, we can be sure that some future children will suffer severely. Hence continued reproduction will harm some children severely, and benefit none.

Benatar also argues that human lives are, in general, much less good than we think they are. We spend most of our lives with unfulfilled desires, and the occasional satisfactions that are all most of us can achieve are insufficient to outweigh these prolonged negative states. If we think that this is a tolerable state of affairs it is because we are, in Benatar’s view, victims of the illusion of pollyannaism. This illusion may have evolved because it helped our ancestors survive, but it is an illusion nonetheless. If we could see our lives objectively, we would see that they are not something we should inflict on anyone.

Here is a thought experiment to test our attitudes to this view. Most thoughtful people are extremely concerned about climate change. Some stop eating meat, or flying abroad on vacation, in order to reduce their carbon footprint. But the people who will be most severely harmed by climate change have not yet been conceived. If there were to be no future generations, there would be much less for us to feel to guilty about.

So why don’t we make ourselves the last generation on earth? If we would all agree to have ourselves sterilized then no sacrifices would be required — we could party our way into extinction!

Of course, it would be impossible to get agreement on universal sterilization, but just imagine that we could. Then is there anything wrong with this scenario? Even if we take a less pessimistic view of human existence than Benatar, we could still defend it, because it makes us better off — for one thing, we can get rid of all that guilt about what we are doing to future generations — and it doesn’t make anyone worse off, because there won’t be anyone else to be worse off.

Is a world with people in it better than one without? Put aside what we do to other species — that’s a different issue. Let’s assume that the choice is between a world like ours and one with no sentient beings in it at all. And assume, too — here we have to get fictitious, as philosophers often do — that if we choose to bring about the world with no sentient beings at all, everyone will agree to do that. No one’s rights will be violated — at least, not the rights of any existing people. Can non-existent people have a right to come into existence?

I do think it would be wrong to choose the non-sentient universe. In my judgment, for most people, life is worth living. Even if that is not yet the case, I am enough of an optimist to believe that, should humans survive for another century or two, we will learn from our past mistakes and bring about a world in which there is far less suffering than there is now. But justifying that choice forces us to reconsider the deep issues with which I began. Is life worth living? Are the interests of a future child a reason for bringing that child into existence? And is the continuance of our species justifiable in the face of our knowledge that it will certainly bring suffering to innocent future human beings?

What do you think?

Readers are invited to respond to the following questions in the comment section below:

If a child is likely to have a life full of pain and suffering is that a reason against bringing the child into existence?

If a child is likely to have a happy, healthy life, is that a reason for bringing the child into existence?

Is life worth living, for most people in developed nations today?

Is a world with people in it better than a world with no sentient beings at all?

Would it be wrong for us all to agree not to have children, so that we would be the last generation on Earth?

 

Peter Singer is Professor of Bioethics at Princeton University and Laureate Professor at the University of Melbourne. His most recent book is “The Life You Can Save.”

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Full article and photo: http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2010/06/06/should-this-be-the-last-generation/

The Workout Enigma

Recently, researchers in Finland made the discovery that some people’s bodies do not respond as expected to weight training, others don’t respond to endurance exercise and, in some lamentable cases, some don’t respond to either. In other words, there are those who just do not become fitter or stronger, no matter what exercise they undertake. To reach this conclusion, the researchers enrolled 175 sedentary adults in a 21-week exercise program. Some lifted weights twice a week. Others jogged or walked. Some did both. Before and after the program, the volunteers’ fitness and muscular strength were assessed. At the end of the 21 weeks, the results, published earlier this year in Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise, were mixed. In the combined strength-and-endurance-exercise program, the volunteers’ physiological improvement ranged from a negative 8 percent (meaning they became 8 percent less fit) to a positive 42 percent. The results were similar in the groups that undertook only strength or only endurance training. Some improved their strength enormously, some not at all. Others became aerobically fitter but not stronger, while still others showed no improvements in either area. Only a fortunate few became both fitter and more buff. As the researchers from the University of Jyvaskyla wrote with some understatement, “large individual differences” exist “in the responses to both endurance and strength training.”

Hidden away in the results of almost any study of exercise programs is the fact that some people do not respond at all, while others respond at an unusually high rate. Averaged, the results may suggest that a certain exercise program reliably will produce certain results — that jogging, say, three times a week for a month will improve VO2max (maximal oxygen capacity) or reduce blood pressure; and for almost any given group of exercisers, those results are likely to hold true. But for outliers, the impacts can be quite different. Their VO2max won’t budge, or it will fall, or it will soar.

The implications of such wide variety in response are huge. In looking at the population as a whole, writes Jamie Timmons, a professor of systems biology at the Royal Veterinary College in London, in a review article published last month in The Journal of Applied Physiology, the findings suggest that “there will be millions of humans that cannot improve their aerobic capacity or their insulin sensitivity, nor reduce their blood pressure” through standard exercise.

But what is it about one person’s body that allows it to react so vigorously to exercise, while for others the reaction is puny at best? One answer, to no one’s surprise, would seem to be genetics, although the actual mechanisms involved are complex, as a recent study by Dr. Timmons and others underscored. In that work, researchers accurately predicted who would respond most to endurance exercise training based on the expression levels of 29 different genes in their muscles before the start of the training. Those 29 genes are not necessarily directly associated with exercise response. They seem to have more to do with the development of new blood vessels in muscles; they may or may not have initiated the response to exercise. Scientists just don’t know yet.

In other words, this issue is as intricate as the body itself. There is a collection of compelling data that indicate that about half of our aerobic capacity “is genetic,” Dr. Timmons wrote in an e-mail. “The rest may be diet,” or it could be a result of epigenetics, a complicated process in which the environment (including where you live and what you eat) affects how and when genes are activated. “Or it could be other factors,” he said. Although fewer studies have examined why people respond so variously to strength training, “we have no reason to doubt,” he said, that genetics play a similar role.

But none of this means that if you once took up jogging or weight lifting and didn’t respond, you should take to the couch. It may be that a different exercise regimen would prompt beneficial reactions from your particular genome and physiology, Dr. Timmons said. (Although scientists still have a long way to go before they can say, definitively, who needs what exercise, based on genetic and other differences.) In the meantime, Dr. Timmons stressed, even low responders should continue to sweat. Just as scientists don’t yet understand the complicated underpinnings of the body’s response to exercise, they also don’t necessarily understand the full range of exercise’s impacts. Even if you do not increase your VO2max, Dr. Timmons said, you are likely to be deriving other benefits, both big and small, from working out. Exercise does still remain, “on average,” he said, “one of the best ‘health’ treatments we have.”

Gretchen Reynolds, New York Times

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Full article and photo: http://well.blogs.nytimes.com/2010/11/17/phys-ed-the-workout-enigma/

‘Resonate’

Allan Curry writes: “What’s to account for the ubiquity of the word resonate, once largely confined to the concert hall, now more (and more) often used to suggest receptivity (to an idea, a political message, etc)?”

Twenty years ago in this space, William Safire pegged resonate as a “vogue word” that had “gone out of control” in the 1980s. He said he would gladly join the crusade of a longtime correspondent, the linguist Louis Jay Herman, against resonate and other words that suffered from “pretentious overuse,” like frisson.

A quick check of the Corpus of Historical American English, an endlessly useful resource made available by Mark Davies at Brigham Young University, finds that the vogue for frisson seems have peaked in the 1990s. Resonate, on the other hand, shows no sign of abatement. Among the sources collected by Davies, the frequency of resonate has risen steadily, from about two appearances per million words during its supposed heyday in the 1980s, to more than five per million in the past decade.

For most of its history in English, resonate led a peaceful life. Its Latin root, resonare, meaning “to make a prolonged or echoing sound,” had already entered the language by Chaucer’s time in the form resound. It was reborrowed with a more classical air as resonate in the 17th century. The word took on a more technical meaning in the science of acoustics, where resonance is understood as “the reinforcement or prolongation of sound by reflection or by the synchronous vibration of a surrounding space or a neighboring object,” to quote the Oxford English Dictionary.

The noun resonance and the adjective resonant first made the semantic trip from sonorous acoustic qualities to more metaphorical vibrations, suggesting a person’s sympathetic response to something — “striking a chord,” to use another musical figure of speech. In 1607, for instance, an English translation of Henri Estienne’s “World of Wonders” included the line, “So ought our hearts … to have no other resonance but of good thoughts.”

By the early 20th century, the verb resonate began to shimmer with sympathetic vibes. The O.E.D. credits H.G. Wells with the first known figurative use in 1903: “The men and women of wisdom, insight and creation, as distinguished from those who merely resonate to the note of the popular mind.” Wells wrote “resonate to,” but as the metaphorical meaning took off in later decades, the word more typically took the preposition with. Other acoustical metaphors have followed suit: if someone else’s ideas resonate with you, you could also say that the two of you are “on the same wavelength” or “in sync” (two idioms that haven’t aged particularly well, either).

There’s nothing wrong with transferring sonic lingo to the realm of personal sympathies, but if Safire and Herman found resonate hackneyed in 1990, the increased usage in the intervening years has done it no favors. These days we can blame management types in particular for overuse, as the term frequently gets hauled out to convey how “resonant leaders” connect emotionally with a team or audience. No matter what your line of work is, it’s best to use resonate sparingly if you want your words to fall on receptive ears.

Ben Zimmer will answer one reader question every other week.

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Full article: http://www.nytimes.com/2010/11/21/magazine/21FOB-onlanguage-t.html

God-loving Linguists

Christian missionaries have become strangely vital to conserving endangered languages

In 1963 Barbara and Joseph Grimes sat down with their Huichol neighbours to discuss what to do about the bandits terrorising their remote community. It was clear to everyone that the Grimes themselves were the problem. Seeing Americans living there, at the southern tip of the Rocky Mountains, the bandits assumed the community was rich. The Grimes recognised that it would be best for everyone if they left.
 
So ended a productive decade for the couple. As young newlyweds in 1952, they had gone to live among the Huichol in the Mexican state of Nayarit, far from shops, roads, electricity and comforts of modern civilisation. Joseph had produced a dictionary of the Huichol language and started work on a translation of the New Testament, and Barbara had brought three children into the world.
 
But the Grimes soon found a new outlet for their energy. Back in America, Richard Pittman of the Summer Institute of Linguistics (SIL), the Protestant missionary organisation that had sent the couple to Mexico, recruited them to his pet project. The mission of SIL, now SIL International, is to research and document languages in order to translate the Bible into as many of them as possible. In 1951 Pittman had started interviewing missionaries and linguists about the languages that were spoken in the parts of the world where they worked. The result was a language catalogue called Ethnologue, the first mimeographed edition of which ran to ten pages. The Grimes threw themselves into the project, and Ethnologue grew and grew. By the time Barbara took over as editor in 1974, the next step seemed logical, if daunting. “I made the decision to try to include all the countries and languages of the world,” she told me over the phone from Hawaii, where she and Joseph live now that they are retired.
 
As is often the case, the true value of Pittman’s idea, and Barbara Grimes’s contribution to it, only became clear much later. In 1951 nobody anticipated the death of languages, explains Paul Lewis, Ethnologue’s current editor. Like old sailors, languages were just thought to live on and on. Now we know that’s not true. Optimistic estimates suggest that by 2100 at least half of the roughly 6,000 extant languages will be either dead or moribund, meaning that children will not be speaking them. Approximately two-thirds of those 6,000 languages have never been written down.
 
These days a global army of linguists (some missionaries, some not) feed Ethnologue and keep it up-to-date. Lewis coordinates their efforts with the help of a small editorial team based at SIL’s headquarters in Dallas, Texas. Academic linguists who contribute to the database aren’t paid for their efforts, though an Ethnologue citation embellishes their publication record. The catalogue includes roughly 7,000 languages and is updated roughly every five years, both in print and online; the latter version is freely accessible to anyone.
 
Many linguists are uncomfortable with Ethnologue’s missionary roots. Indeed, missionaries have long been blamed for linguicide for the way they impose “killer” languages such as English and Spanish on speakers of minority languages, says Tove Skutnabb-Kangas, a linguist who is now retired from the University of Roskilde in Denmark. In his 2009 book, “Dying Words”, Nicholas Evans, an Australian linguist, tells the tale of the Aboriginal language Kayardild, once spoken by inhabitants of Bentinck Island, Queensland. In the 1940s, missionaries evacuated Bentinck Islanders to the mission on Mornington Island, about 50 kilometres to the north-west, where children were not taught Kayardild. Today the language, which Ethnologue classifies as “nearly extinct”, has only six speakers left.
 
Yet Evans says there are also plenty of examples of missionaries helping to preserve minority languages. For example, the Spanish priests who followed the conquistadors into South America documented indigenous languages as they went. Evans describes his attitude to Ethnologue as pragmatic. “It is clearly biased by its missionary agenda,” he says, citing its information about Bible translations as an example. “On the other hand, they are the only people who have put the resources into assembling a worldwide database, and that counts for a lot in my eyes.”
 
Though academic linguists are suspicious of SIL’s religious goals, many concede that the Ethnologue is the best tool of its kind. This despite the fact that much of the information is dated, meaning that some languages classified as spoken are actually extinct, according to Lyle Campbell, a linguist at the University of Hawaii at Manoa. Atsugewi, Clallam and Coos are just three of many examples of extinct languages he cites. A more serious problem, Campbell says, is how Ethnologue defines a language. “In most parts of the world, Ethnologue has a much higher number of languages than most linguists working there would recognise,” he says. This has led some to suspect that SIL International is attempting to justify having more missionaries in the field than the language work strictly warrants.
 
Lewis, the editor of Ethnologue, acknowledges these complaints. “People write to us saying, you say there are two varieties of our language, well we’re all one people,” he says. However, the criteria his team uses are the ones that Barbara and Joseph Grimes painstakingly developed half a century ago, which boil down to whether two speakers can understand each other or not. Defining a language is notoriously difficult. At which point in the divergence of two dialects does one  decide that they have become different languages? The Ethnologue definition isn’t perfect, says Lewis, but it’s one of the embarrassments of linguistics that the entire field of study hasn’t come up with a better one.
 
But if Ethnologue’s working method hasn’t changed in the last half-century, the image it projects to the outside world has. The Grimes had no objection to calling themselves missionaries, but Lewis’s generation is squeamish about the label. “The stereotype is not one we want to own,” he says. “We describe ourselves as linguists, translators, development workers, and we do it as a faith-based organisation and out of a Christian motivation.”
 
Modern missionaries are anthropologically aware, he says. They understand the importance of minority languages, not just for communication but also for a people’s identity, and they are generally more deferential than missionaries in centuries past. Moreover, in declaring their ideology at the outset, he believes that SIL International linguists are more intellectually honest than academic linguists who claim to have no ideological bias at all.
 
Would SIL International ever consider ceding Ethnologue, so that it could become a linguistic enterprise without a religious agenda? This has been discussed, says Lewis, but mostly outside the organisation. The problem is, Ethnologue was built and is maintained with the help of a large number of volunteers and with money provided by Christian organisations. “As I look at the academic world, I don’t see any other institution that could support something of this magnitude over this period of time,” he says. Languages evolve and die, but over long stretches of time, making the monitoring process a protracted one. Ethnologue is valuable because it has created a sort of surveillance network for languages that ensures continuity.
 
Since 1986 the Grimes have lived and worked in Hawaii. In 2000, aged 71, Joseph Grimes published a translation of the New Testament in Hawaii Creole English, called “Da Jesus Book”. The following is an extract: “God wen get so plenny love an aloha fo da peopo inside da world, dat he wen send me, his one an ony Boy, so dat everybody dat trus me no get cut off from God, but get da real kine life dat stay to da max foeva.” (John 3:16) The work of 12 years with the help of 26 indigenous speakers, it resulted in a grammar book and a dictionary as well.

SIL International missionaries continue to travel to far-flung parts of the world to document languages, much like academic linguists, but with the security of faith rather than of tenure, and with no official retirement age. With thousands of languages still undocumented, many of which are in danger of dying before they are written down, it looks as though these emissaries of faith will continue to find plenty of work to keep them busy.

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Full article and photo: http://moreintelligentlife.com/content/ideas/laura-spinney/god-loving-linguists

Who Can Resist a Man Who Sings Like a Woman?

The countertenor Philippe Jaroussky performing in New York in 2007.

One afternoon last July, a small, anxious crowd gathered in the lobby of Amsterdam’s Concertgebouw, hoping for a glimpse of Philippe Jaroussky, the young French countertenor who was to give a Baroque recital later that night. Among them were a Japanese woman in a black-and-white houndstooth coat, carrying a candy-pink shopping-bag with a DVD of a Kurosawa film that she intended to present to him, and a Russian violin teacher from Bremen wearing a sapphire ball gown. This was the kernel of die-hard Jaroussky admirers who follow the singer around the world, posting live videos of his concerts on YouTube and commiserating on his fan sites with fellow devotees who’d been unable to get to Sydney or Basel.

Jaroussky made his professional debut singing Scarlatti at a French summer festival in 1999, when he was 21. He was fortunate in his timing. In the last few decades, much of the Baroque repertory — the operas and sacred music of composers like Monteverdi, Purcell and Gluck, as well as that of lesser-known masters — has enjoyed a widespread revival. And with it, that most startling of voices, the countertenor — a grown man who sings like a turbo-charged choirboy, performing the roles of heroes or saints that were originally written for a castrato and that are often sung by a female mezzo-soprano.

CASTRATI PINUPS In their day (the 18th century), castrati were worshiped like rock stars. 1. Francesco Bernardi (known as Senesino). 2. Giovanni Carestini. 3. Carlo Farinelli.4. Gaetano Majorano (known as Caffarelli).

Forty years ago, there were perhaps half a dozen countertenors on the world stage. Today the South Carolinian David Daniels or the German Andreas Scholl fill concert halls and opera houses, and every season brings a new wonder boy from Croatia or the Ukraine. The 32-year-old Jaroussky’s exceptionally pure voice, combined with his cherubic good looks, have won him a passionate following.

“When I heard Philippe Jaroussky for the first time, I was struck by his musicality and sensibility,” Cecilia Bartoli, who sang with him in Handel’s “Giulio Cesare,” wrote in an e-mail. “There is a beauty in his phrasing and a delicacy, if not fragility in his soul, that touches the listener profoundly.” The legendary English countertenor James Bowman says that “Jaroussky sounds like the boy Bach would have loved to write for.”

The countertenorial voice — a high girlish tone produced by using the outer edges of the vocal cords — is something of an acquired taste, continually teetering on the knife edge between creepy and sublime. Jaroussky himself is well aware of what he describes as its “element of repulsion.”

“It’s true that there is something potentially ridiculous about this voice coming out of a man’s body,” Jaroussky told me when we first met. “People talk about the countertenor being a third sex, or something quasi female, but I think for me it’s more a way of staying a child.”

Indeed, throughout history, male sopranos, whether in sacred music, opera or pop, have been prized as much for an ideal of angelic purity as for romantic heroism. The voice does not, as some might have it, appeal chiefly to gay men: much of pre-19th-century opera — or for that matter, Shakespearean comedy — is based on the understanding that what drives a woman wild is a boy who may or may not be a girl.

At 8:30 p.m., Jaroussky, tall and slim in a black suit with a pleated white dress shirt unbuttoned at the collar, ran down the steps leading to the Concertgebouw’s stage with the buoyancy of a kid who prefers sliding down banisters.

Jaroussky specializes in reviving the works of now-forgotten Baroque composers. Tonight, accompanied by the Concerto Köln, he was singing a sequence of opera arias by the early-18th-century composer Antonio Caldara, which he has since recorded and will release as an album in the United States next month. Amsterdam’s Concertgebouw is one of the world’s most acoustically perfect concert halls. Even in the topmost row of this 2,000-seat auditorium, you could hear Jaroussky’s luscious tones sail up from the stage below with heartrending precision, his often-naked voice rippling, diving and soaring, in improvised ornamentations that were by turns jitterbug fast and perturbingly slow.

By the time he reached his encore of Porpora’s “Alto Giove,” an aria composed for the great Italian castrato Farinelli, the audience was on its feet, stamping and cheering.

The countertenor is a 20th-century phenomenon, the approximation of an art that has luckily been lost to us. Much of the sacred music and opera roles sung today by Jaroussky or by mezzo-sopranos like Cecilia Bartoli were originally composed for Farinelli and his peers — male singers who were castrated before they reached puberty in order to preserve their high, pure voices. This act of oversophisticated barbarism, supposedly a response to St. Paul’s edict in the Corinthians (mulier taceat in ecclesia, “women should be silent in church”), kept the papal choirs and ducal courts of Europe supplied with sopranos for their Vivaldi oratorios. By the 17th-century, when public decency laws forbade women to appear onstage in the papal states, castrati were moving into the recently invented art of opera, playing male and occasionally female roles, much as boys did on the Elizabethan stage. By the 18th century, a large percentage of male opera singers were castrati.

Today most countertenors regard castrati as a gold standard that cannot be matched. For a start, their hormonal peculiarities gave castrati an unbeatable advantage. “Their rib cages were absolutely enormous, like battery chickens, and they never needed to breathe,” the opera historian Rupert Christiansen told me. This lung capacity made their voices more powerful than a woman’s or a boy’s, while their child-size vocal cords enabled them to zip up and down registers with dizzying speed and agility. The 18th-century musicologist Charles Burney describes a (possibly apocryphal) lung-power contest between the young Farinelli and a German trumpeter, in which Farinelli, having finally exhausted his rival, “not only swelled and shook the note, but ran the most rapid and difficult divisions, and was at last silenced only by the acclamations of the audience.”

The leading castrati were the pop stars of the 18th century. When Farinelli — whose voice spanned almost three octaves — appeared onstage, an Englishwoman supposedly cried, “One God, one Farinelli!” and others fainted. His salary for one London season was 2,000 guineas, with as much again earned in “tips” from noble admirers, about $1 million in today’s money. Jaroussky, who has recorded an album of arias sung by the castrato Carestini, confesses to “a great tenderness for castrati,” who mostly came from very poor families and were sold by their parents like slaves. “There was a form of hysteria: they were gods onstage, nonexistent in society. They were forbidden to marry, although women prized them as lovers because there was no danger of having children. Once their voices were gone, they were finished. And of course, thousands of children were sacrificed to find one beautiful voice.” By the early 19th century, the new style of romantic opera perfected by composers like Rossini — not to mention more muscular ideas of masculine sex appeal — was putting them out of business, although it was not till 1903 that the Vatican officially outlawed the use of castrati. Yet these maimed idols, these eunuchs to the kingdom of art, continued to haunt our collective psyche. In his tale “Sarrasine” (1830), Balzac recounts the hero’s fatal obsession with La Zambinella, a ravishing diva who he refuses to accept is actually a man. The Danish writer Isak Dinesen, in her short story “The Cardinal’s First Tale,” portrays the supernatural love between a young castrato and a girl trapped in an arranged marriage. To Dinesen, castrati, like women, were tragic chattel in a world defined by male power.

Sometimes you get the impression that Jaroussky regards the great castrati as ghostly forebears. “When I imagine the color of their voices,” he reflects, “it seems to me they must have always carried with them the drama of their woundedness, as Callas does.”

The first time I heard Jaroussky sing was at the Teatro Real in Madrid last May. He was playing the role of Nerone in Monteverdi’s “Incoronazione di Poppea,” in a performance by William Christie and his Baroque orchestra Les Arts Florissants. Christie, a harpsichordist who is largely responsible for the latest revival of Baroque, insists on the music’s “otherness.” His approach — training musicians to play period instruments; teaching singers an archaic style of diction in which first the words are declaimed and only afterward the note is sung — has paradoxically made the music more attractive.

Clad in a floor-length robe of black rooster plumes and wearing white pancake makeup and black lipstick, Jaroussky portrayed the Roman emperor as a kind of androgynous dreamer, persuasively conveying the sexual ambiguity that can make Baroque opera seem so contemporary.

The next afternoon, we met at a sunlit cafe in downtown Madrid. In person, Jaroussky resembles an overgrown schoolboy. Rosy-cheeked, with wavy black hair, sparkling green eyes and full lips, he has a mobile, vivid face that continually flushes and lights up with the emotions and ideas he is expressing.

Jaroussky (the Russian surname comes from a grandfather who fled the Bolshevik Revolution) is a child of the upper-middle-class Parisian suburbs. The milieu in which he grew up was serious-minded, professional. At age 11, he took up the violin with a passion, winning first prize at the Conservatory of Versailles, but he was told he started too late to make it a career. Same with piano. His musical epiphany came at 18, when he went to a Baroque concert, at which Fabrice di Falco, a sopranist from Martinique, happened to be singing.

Di Falco is an intriguingly offbeat choice of role model. With a voice that glides eerily from baritone to soprano, he is equally at home singing Bach or performing with the African jazz saxophonist Manu Dibango. “I was shocked by the disjunction between his physique and that high crystalline voice,” Jaroussky recalled. “He had this beautifully androgynous face, and a voice like Barbara Hendricks. As soon as I heard him, I had the strangest feeling that I could do that, too. I knew right away that this was what I wanted to do with my life.”

Singing had an added charm: as an instrumentalist, he spent his life being told, What a pity you began too late. Suddenly people were saying, You’re only 18? Don’t rush things. He approached Di Falco’s voice coach, Nicole Fallien, who is still Jaroussky’s teacher and whom he described to me as “my second mother.”

When I visited Fallien in Paris, she recalled their first meeting. “Philippe came to me and asked me to teach him how to sing,” she said. “He had a lovely voice, but tiny. I said, ‘Maybe you should stick with the violin.’ He said: ‘I want to sing. And what’s more, I want to sing in a head voice ’ ” — the falsetto used by countertenors — “which means even smaller. I said, ‘I’m not sure you’ll succeed.’ He said, ‘Don’t worry; I’m sure’ — not to be arrogant, but to encourage me. Well, he wasn’t wrong.”

Fallien enrolled him in a summer course taught by the celebrated French countertenor Gerard Lesne, who immediately invited Jaroussky to sing in the Scarlatti oratorio “Sedecia.” Music critics were struck by what one reviewer referred to as Jaroussky’s “liquid” and “ethereal” tone.

“That same week,” he recalled, “Jean-Claude Malgoire” — a French conductor specializing in Baroque music — “asked me to do a Monteverdi cycle. Two engagements in my first week — it was a bit crazy! Now when I hear recordings from that period, my voice sounds so tight and childish, and yet there was something touching about it too.”

Three years later, he founded his own group, the Artaserse Ensemble, to explore the works of lesser-known Baroque composers, taking advantage of the fact that most scores of operas popular in the 18th century now lie moldering in library archives. “I take pleasure in rediscovering things that have been forgotten,” he said. “There’s a sly side to it too: when you are the first to record a song, you aren’t under the same pressure as if you were performing Bach’s ‘Magnificat.’ It’s virgin territory.”

Jaroussky may see himself as the successor to the Italian singers of the 18th century, but in fact, the modern-day countertenor movement was born in England, where historically castrati were a high-priced import and composers like Handel were obliged to be fairly flexible about whether their Thracian princes were sung by female mezzos or castrati.

Last June, I met James Bowman at his club on London’s Pall Mall. Bowman is a tall, florid-faced gentleman who might be mistaken for a retired university lecturer. In fact, he was one of the most influential countertenors of the 20th century. (He still gives public recitals at age 69, much to the consternation of those who assume that the fragility of the voice means it packs it in early.) The countertenor revival, according to Bowman, began with Alfred Deller, a Canterbury Cathedral chorister. “Countertenors have been around for years: every church choir in England had them,” Bowman told me. “But Deller was the first countertenor people wanted to hear on his own. He brought the voice out of the choir and onto the concert platform. And Deller was the first to record commercially: he was huge in America,” where his late-’50s recordings of traditional English songs coincided with a growing folk-music revival. In 1960 he sang the role of Oberon in Benjamin Britten’s “Midsummer Night’s Dream.”

Alfred Deller’s voice was lovely, but as the critic Rupert Christiansen explained to me, he had a very narrow range. “Today recordings of Deller’s voice sound genteel and teeny-weeny,” he said. “And he had no interest in acting. It is James Bowman who is venerated as being the one who broke the mold, opening up the opera repertory for countertenors.” Profiting from Bowman’s example, a younger generation of countertenors arose, with voices powerful enough to hold their own with mezzo-sopranos. In 1988, the American Jeffrey Gall (who was Marilyn Horne’s understudy in Handel’s “Orlando”) became the first countertenor to sing a major role at the Met. Today, according to Christiansen, the new battleground is the early-19th-century repertory, with younger singers taking on Rossini and Bellini roles written for contraltos.

The countertenor voice is suddenly money. Last year, Virgin released a recording of Handel’s “Faramondo.” When the opera opened in 1738, Handel could afford only one castrato; many of the remaining male roles were assumed by women. In the 2009 recording, all the male roles are sung by men. “Each week, I discover a new countertenor on the Internet,” Jaroussky told me. “It’s very challenging, all these young ones coming up behind me. It’s exciting too.” Jaroussky’s rendition of Vivaldi’s “Vedro con mio diletto” has received more than 1.3 million hits on YouTube. Thirty years ago, he would have been lucky to fill half a church on a Saturday afternoon.

“The Baroque repertory appeals to us today because of its audacity, its combination of rationality and freedom,” William Christie told me when I met him after his “Incoronazione di Poppea” in Madrid. “A Venetian composer in the early 18th century behaved the same way as a New Orleans jazzman in the early 20th century. There was a spirit of improvisation, a horror of sameness. Baroque composers pushed to the limit the idea of spontaneity.”

Jaroussky, who performs a “jazz” version of Monteverdi with the Austrian lutenist Christina Pluhar’s chamber orchestra “L’Arpeggiata,” agrees. “Who are we to know that Monteverdi wasn’t playing blue notes?”

The morning after his Amsterdam recital, Jaroussky sat in his hotel garden, talking about future projects, including a contemporary opera about the painter Caravaggio.

He spoke the night before of the recent shift in attitudes toward gender that has given his métier political resonance. “Finally, after three centuries, we are getting closer to the more open sexual codes of the Baroque, where no one found it in the least surprising that Farinelli was singing the part of Cleopatra and that a woman was singing Julius Caesar!”

When he first began, Jaroussky told me, he was obsessed by the idea of what’s natural. “I always ask myself, Does this seem natural? We countertenors are in perpetual search for sincerity. We lie a bit, we fudge, we are in a constant state of doubt and conflict, searching for a grace that escapes us. What’s especially difficult for a light, airy voice like mine is to find solid ground — to anchor the voice in my body.”

Fernanda Eberstadt is the author, most recently, of “Rat: A Novel.” Her last article for the magazine was about the band CocoRosie.

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Full article and photo: http://www.nytimes.com/2010/11/21/magazine/21soprano-t.html

Hollowed by time

LEO TOLSTOY died one hundred years ago today, aged 82. His last days and hours succumbing to pneumonia in a railway master’s house were followed by the entire world. A special telegraphic wire was installed in Astapovo to transmit news about the state of his health, and newspapers carried reports from the Russian and foreign press. Tostoy was hardly aware of all the commotion.
 
Nine days earlier he had left his estate in Yasnaya Polyana in secret before dawn, accompanied by his doctor. Having contemplated leaving home several times before, he decided it was finally time to break away from his family life, from the rows over his literary heritage, from the battles between his wife and his secretary. On the night of his escape he wrote that he was doing what people of his age do: leaving the worldly life to spend his last days in quiet and solitude.
 
On the way to the station he stopped at Shemardino convent to see his sister. He stayed the night in a hotel by a monastery, and again left at four in the morning, heading south. He did not get very far, reaching Astapovo with a high fever.
 
His escape from Yasnaya Polyana inspired his contemporaries with awe. It was seen as a heroic release from the constraints of life, the removal of the last barriers between him and the God. (“The release of Tolstoy” was the title of a wonderful account of Tolstoy’s last days by Ivan Bunin, a Russian poet and writer who won the Nobel prize for literature in 1933.) Tolstoy’s death—like his life—was a monumental event, particularly in Russia. Writers, artists, followers and peasants flocked to his funeral. Trains from Moscow to Yasnaya Polyana, where he was brought after his death, were packed. (The government forbade the running of extra trains.)
 
A “cinematograph” filmed the coffin being carried by peasants. A choir of 100 people sang “Eternal Memory” and a procession of some 10,000 people in black coats followed the coffin. There were no clergymen at the funeral. Tolstoy was excommunicated by the Orthodox Church. His relationship with God did not need intermediaries.
 
Leopold Sulerzhitsky, one of Tolstoy’s friends and followers, once wrote in a letter that there were two Tolstoys—the great and the real. “The great has remained and will remain for ever, and that is why he is not lost, but the kind friend, tender and patient, full of humility is gone for ever.” This assessment is in keeping with a new biography of the man by Rosamund Bartlett, “Tolstoy: A Russian Life”. Informative and detailed, with the facts of Tolstoy’s life and the usual tributes to his ideas, the book sadly lacks the flare necessary for breaking beyond the obvious.
 
“I fear the death of Tolstoy,” Anton Chekhov once observed. “If he were to die, a large empty space would appear in my life… So long as he lives, bad taste in literature, all vulgarity, insolence and snivelling, all crude, embittered vainglory, will stay banished into the outer darkness.” Chekhov never lived to see Tolstoy’s death, having died of tuberculosis six years before him at the more gentle age of 44. But he was right to understand that Tolstoy’s presence imposed certain ethical restrictions on Russian society.
 
Devastatingly, but perhaps unsurprisingly, the 100th anniversary of Tolstoy’s death is hardly marked in Russia. Tolstoy was a man who opposed state violence, who considered the Church’s union with the state as blasphemous, who denounced pseudo-patriotism, and who wrote to Alexander III asking him to pardon those who assassinated his father. These principles are firmly out of fashion in today’s Russia. By turning Tolstoy into an icon, the Soviets ultimately hollowed him out.
 
A recent political manifesto published by Nikita Mikhalkov, one of Russia’s most odious, wealthy and Kremlin-favoured film directors, is a good example of the country’s dreary move away from Tolstoy’s ideals. Called “Right and Truth”, the 10,000-word call for “enlightened conservatism” draws on the ideas of Konstantin Pobedonostsev, one of Russia’s most reactionary thinkers, who viewed Tolstoy as one of his most dangerous enemies. (He once denounced democracy as “the insupportable dictatorship of vulgar crowd”, and saw Tolstoy’s non-violent resistance as a real threat.) As a senior figure in the Church, Pobedonostsev helped to initiate Tolstoy’s excommunication. In 1899 the Holy Synod banned all prayers in Tolstoy’s memory after his death.
 
A hundred years after Tolstoy’s death, this ban feels very much in place in Russia today.

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Full article and photo: http://www.economist.com/blogs/prospero/2010/11/remembering_tolstoy

Religious Persuasion

At first glance, the authors of “American Grace” would seem to suffer from very bad timing. Between the completion of their manuscript and its publication, the dispute over the Islamic center in Lower Manhattan erupted, followed by the ­Koran-burning controversy, and somewhere along the way a New York cabdriver was stabbed, apparently for being a Muslim. All this gives a quaint air to their declaration, in the book’s first chapter, that “America peacefully combines a high degree of religious devotion with tremendous religious diversity.” And it seems to render moot one of their main goals: to illuminate the source of this inter­faith ­tolerance.

Actually, though, the story told in this book, by the social scientists Robert D. Putnam of Harvard and David E. Campbell of Notre Dame, is urgently relevant to the recent surge in interfaith tension.

True, America’s tradition of peaceful religious coexistence is largely about harmony among Christian denominations, and so doesn’t speak directly to the question of Islam’s place in America. But it’s also true that there was a time when many American Protestants viewed Roman Catholics no more charitably than a certain Pentecostal preacher in Florida views Muslims. In the 19th century, a Massachusetts convent was destroyed by anti-Catholic rioters, and civil unrest in Philadelphia — set off by rumors that Catholics wanted to rid the public schools of Bibles — led to some two dozen deaths and the destruction of two churches.

The question of how this changed, how Protestants came to stress their commonality with Catholics, is, generically speaking, the question of the day: How do mutual fear, hostility and suspicion give way to amity, or at least tolerance? How do supposedly deep doctrinal chasms recede from view? The answers offered by Putnam and Campbell deserve the attention of everyone concerned about America’s future cohesion.

This is a big, multifaceted work, with scores of graphs, as well as narrative ­vignettes that put flesh on the book’s analytical skeleton. (A tour through the Rev. Rick Warren’s Saddleback megachurch, for example, helps explain the power of state-of-the-art evangelism.) The topics covered range from the dynamics of conversion to the role in religion of gender, ethnicity and class to the question of how civically engaged believers are. (Putnam gained fame for his lament, in “Bowling Alone,” about the seeming decline of civic engagement.) But the dominant theme is, as the subtitle puts it, “How Religion Divides and Unites Us.”

Putnam and Campbell pay particular attention to the past half-century, which has shown how fluid fault lines can be. In 1960, the marriage of a Protestant to a Catholic was often unwelcome on both sides of the aisle, and the presidential candidate John F. Kennedy faced intense Protestant skepticism. Today churchgoing Catholics and Protestants often feel as if they’re on the same team.

They tend toward conservatism on social issues, opposing a liberal coalition that includes lapsed Catholics, mainline Protestants of often modest devoutness and growing legions of the avowedly nonreligious. Putnam and Campbell write, “By the 2000s, how religious a person is had become more important as a political dividing line than which denomination he or she belonged to.”

This leads to a puzzle. If the devoutly religious increasingly constitute one big family, why aren’t Muslims a part of it? Why was the would-be 9/11 Koran burner not an atheist but a minister from an evangelical church (if, in fairness to mainstream evangelicals, an eccentric evangelical church)? Why are Newt Gingrich and other politicians who aim to harness fear of Muslims directing their message toward evangelicals with, apparently, some success?

The answer may lie in the final chapter. Here the authors explain the observation they started the book with: America’s religious diversity hasn’t generally involved much intolerance. Indeed, believers seem willing to bend basic doctrines in the name of interfaith amity. Most Christians, even most evangelical Christians, ­believe that non-Christians can go to heaven, notwithstanding the New Testament’s repeated assertions that Christ is the only path to the Kingdom of God.

The authors’ explanation for this bigheartedness is common-sensical: “Most Americans are intimately acquainted with people of other faiths.” Americans have, on average, at least two friends who don’t share their faith, and at least one ­extended-family member who fits that description. And who wants to tell friends or relatives that they’re going to hell — or even believe that a friend or relative is going to hell? More broadly: getting to know an adherent of an otherwise alien faith tends to humanize the aliens.

Obviously, there’s a chicken-and-egg ­issue here. Are we tolerant because of our diverse social networks, or do we have diverse social networks because we’re tolerant? Putnam and Campbell, aware of the problem, wield an analytical tool that, though not dispositive, is unusually subtle. They conducted surveys with the same large pool of people in consecutive years and tracked changes in both social milieus and attitudes. They conclude, for instance, that gaining an evangelical friend leads to a warmer assessment of evangelicals — by seven degrees on a “feeling thermometer,” to be exact — and gaining a non­religious friend brings four degrees of added warmth toward the nonreligious.

In this view, a recipe for being viewed coolly is to be a religious group that is both small and geographically concentrated; that way, most Americans don’t have a chance to meet anyone from your group. This is the authors’ posited explanation for why Buddhists, Mormons and Muslims get particularly low feeling-­thermometer readings.

Of course, Muslims suffer from an additional problem. If most Americans don’t personally know any Muslims, they’ve seen some on TV — Osama bin Laden, for starters. That may help explain why, though 54 percent of evangelicals say non-Christians can go to heaven, only 35 percent say Muslims can.

Even so, the authors’ 2007 survey found that evangelicals, like mainline Protestants, viewed Muslims no more coolly than they viewed Buddhists. But black Protestants viewed Muslims more positively than they did Buddhists, perhaps, the authors point out, because many black Christians are acquainted with black Muslims.

The claim here isn’t that mere social contact is Miracle Glue. Drawing on longstanding social theory, the authors suggest that certain ingredients — sharing a goal, for example — make acquaintance more likely to bring affinity. Still, given that many Muslims are aligned with evangelicals and churchgoing Catholics on various social issues, that particular ingredient would seem to be in place; maybe the contact itself is what’s mainly lacking.

There are two basic schools of thought on religious strife. Essentialists believe that religions have a firm character, grounded in Scripture and theology and doctrine, and that religious conflicts are thus deep-seated and enduring. The more optimistic view is that clashing beliefs aren’t the big problem; underlying the conflict, and driving it, are less ethereal and in some cases more pliable issues: economic grievances or insecurities, resentment of perceived arrogance, fears of domination (like the perceived threat of Western cultural or political hegemony, or of worldwide Shariah).

Putnam and Campbell are closer to the second camp. Repeatedly, they show how fluid religious doctrine and practice are, how responsive to social and political context. In that sense, their subtitle is subtly misleading; this intellectually powerful book suggests that religion per se is often not the thing that actually divides us. This view, though common in academia, is hardly gospel among the public at large. But it may turn out to be gospel in the literal sense of the term: good news.

Robert Wright, a senior fellow at the New America Foundation, is the author, most recently, of “The Evolution of God” and the editor in chief of Bloggingheads.tv.

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Full article and photo: http://www.nytimes.com/2010/10/10/books/review/Wright-t.html

Friendship in an Age of Economics

When I was 17 years old, I had the honor of being the youngest person in the history of New York Hospital to undergo surgery for a herniated disc. This was at a time in which operations like this kept people in the hospital for over a week. The day after my surgery, I awoke to find a friend of mine sitting in a chair across from my bed. I don’t remember much about his visit. I am sure I was too sedated to say much. But I will not forget that he visited me on that day, and sat there for I know not how long, while my humanity was in the care of a morphine drip. 

The official discourses of our relations with one another do not have much to say about the afternoon my friend spent with me. Our age, what we might call the age of economics, is in thrall to two types of relationships which reflect the lives we are encouraged to lead. There are consumer relationships, those that we participate in for the pleasure they bring us. And there are entrepreneurial relationships, those that we invest in hoping they will bring us some return. In a time in which the discourse of economics seeks to hold us in its grip, this should come as no surprise.

The encouragement toward relationships of consumption is nowhere more prominently on display than in reality television. Jon and Kate, the cast of “Real World,” the Kardashians, and their kin across the spectrum conduct their lives for our entertainment. It is available to us in turn to respond in a minor key by displaying our own relationships on YouTube. Or, barring that, we can collect friends like shoes or baseball cards on Facebook.

Entrepreneurial relationships have, in some sense, always been with us. Using people for one’s ends is not a novel practice. It has gained momentum, however, as the reduction of governmental support has diminished social solidarity and the rise of finance capitalism has stressed investment over production. The economic fruits of the latter have lately been with us, but the interpersonal ones, while more persistent, remain veiled. Where nothing is produced except personal gain, relationships come loose from their social moorings.

Aristotle thought that there were three types of friendship: those of pleasure, those of usefulness, and true friendship. In friendships of pleasure, “it is not for their character that men love ready-witted people, but because they find them pleasant.” In the latter, “those who love each other for their utility do not love each other for themselves but in virtue of some good which they get from each other.” For him, the first is characteristic of the young, who are focused on momentary enjoyment, while the second is often the province of the old, who need assistance to cope with their frailty. What the rise of recent public rhetoric and practice has accomplished is to cast the first two in economic terms while forgetting about the third.

In our lives, however, few of us have entirely forgotten about the third — true friendship. We may not define it as Aristotle did — friendship among the already virtuous — but we live it in our own way nonetheless. Our close friendships stand as a challenge to the tenor of our times.

Conversely, our times challenge those friendships. This is why we must reflect on friendship; so that it doesn’t slip away from us under the pressure of a dominant economic discourse. We are all, and always, creatures of our time. In the case of friendship, we must push back against that time if we are to sustain what, for many of us, are among the most important elements of our lives. It is those elements that allow us to sit by the bedside of a friend: not because we know it is worth it, but because the question of worth does not even arise.

There is much that might be said about friendships. They allow us to see ourselves from the perspective of another. They open up new interests or deepen current ones. They offer us support during difficult periods in our lives. The aspect of friendship that I would like to focus on is its non-economic character. Although we benefit from our close friendships, these friendships are not a matter of calculable gain and loss. While we draw pleasure from them, they are not a matter solely of consuming pleasure. And while the time we spend with our friends and the favors we do for them are often reciprocated in an informal way, we do not spend that time or offer those favors in view of the reciprocation that might ensue.

Friendships follow a rhythm that is distinct from that of either consumer or entrepreneurial relationships. This is at once their deepest and most fragile characteristic. Consumer pleasures are transient. They engulf us for a short period and then they fade, like a drug. That is why they often need to be renewed periodically. Entrepreneurship, when successful, leads to the victory of personal gain. We cultivate a colleague in the field or a contact outside of it in the hope that it will advance our career or enhance our status. When it does, we feel a sense of personal success. In both cases, there is the enjoyment of what comes to us through the medium of other human beings.

Friendships worthy of the name are different. Their rhythm lies not in what they bring to us, but rather in what we immerse ourselves in. To be a friend is to step into the stream of another’s life. It is, while not neglecting my own life, to take pleasure in another’s pleasure, and to share their pain as partly my own. The borders of my life, while not entirely erased, become less clear than they might be. Rather than the rhythm of pleasure followed by emptiness, or that of investment and then profit, friendships follow a rhythm that is at once subtler and more persistent. This rhythm is subtler because it often (although not always) lacks the mark of a consumed pleasure or a successful investment. But even so, it remains there, part of the ground of our lives that lies both within us and without.

To be this ground, friendships have a relation to time that is foreign to an economic orientation. Consumer relationships are focused on the momentary present. It is what brings immediate pleasure that matters. Entrepreneurial relationships have more to do with the future. How I act toward others is determined by what they might do for me down the road. Friendships, although lived in the present and assumed to continue into the future, also have a deeper tie to the past than either of these. Past time is sedimented in a friendship. It accretes over the hours and days friends spend together, forming the foundation upon which the character of a relationship is built. This sedimentation need not be a happy one. Shared experience, not just common amusement or advancement, is the ground of friendship.

Of course, to have friendships like this, one must be prepared to take up the past as a ground for friendship. This ground does not come to us, ready-made. We must make it our own. And this, perhaps, is the contemporary lesson we can draw from Aristotle’s view that true friendship requires virtuous partners, that “perfect friendship is the friendship of men who are good.” If we are to have friends, then we must be willing to approach some among our relationships as offering an invitation to build something outside the scope of our own desires. We must be willing to forgo pleasure or usefulness for something that emerges not within but between one of us and another.

We might say of friendships that they are a matter not of diversion or of return but of meaning. They render us vulnerable, and in doing so they add dimensions of significance to our lives that can only arise from being, in each case, friends with this or that particular individual, a party to this or that particular life.

It is precisely this non-economic character that is threatened in a society in which each of us is thrown upon his or her resources and offered only the bywords of ownership, shopping, competition, and growth. It is threatened when we are encouraged to look upon those around us as the stuff of our current enjoyment or our future advantage. It is threatened when we are led to believe that friendships without a recognizable gain are, in the economic sense, irrational. Friendships are not without why, perhaps, but they are certainly without that particular why.

In turn, however, it is friendship that allows us to see that there is more than what the prevalent neoliberal discourse places before us as our possibilities. In a world often ruled by the dollar and what it can buy, friendship, like love, opens other vistas. The critic John Berger once said of one of his friendships, “We were not somewhere between success and failure; we were elsewhere.” To be able to sit by the bed of another, watching him sleep, waiting for nothing else, is to understand where else we might be.

Todd May is a professor of philosophy at Clemson University. He is the author 10 books, including “The Philosophy of Foucault” and “Death,” and is at work on a book about friendship in the contemporary period.

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Full article and photo: http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2010/07/04/friendship-in-an-age-of-economics/

Two Friendships: A Response

Earlier columns in The Stone have raised the question of what philosophy is. Surely among its tasks is to think about matters that are at once urgent, personal and of general significance. When one is lucky, one finds interlocutors who are willing to share that thought, add to it in one way or another, or suggest a different direction. In the comments from readers of my earlier post, “Friendship in an Age of Economics,” I have been fortunate.

I would like to linger over two friendships described in the comments. One, offered by Echo from Santa Cruz, describes a life-long friendship with someone from whom she was physically separated for many years, and who eventually died of cancer. (I am inferring from the context of her comment, that Echo, as in Greek mythology, is a woman, though she never says so explicitly.) The other is from E. Kelley Harris in Slovakia, who recounts the example of an intimidating seaman named Frank with whom, over the course of intense theological dispute, a moment of intimacy arose in an unexpected way. 

The friendship described by Echo is one that many of us will find examples of in our life. I am still close friends with the person who sat by my bedside 38 years ago, even though we live far from each other. Regarding her friendship, Echo comments that, “There was no work to that friendship. Our instincts told us what to do, in the same way as a new mother takes her child and holds it to her breast.” I am sure Echo would agree with me that a friendship without work is not something that is given; it is an achievement. Friendships take time. They must be cultivated, sometimes when one is in the mood, sometimes when one is not. That is part of its non-economic character. What Echo describes in personal language is an achieved friendship, one that likely started with a spark, but has been tended over the years and allowed the two friends to continue sharing with each other up to the end of one of their lives.

Several comments insisted that one would never become friends with someone unless there was something to be gained. This is certainly true. Close friendships are not simply exercises in altruism. Friendships that come to resemble relationships between donors and recipients begin to fray. Eventually they come to look like something other than friendships. The non-economic character of friendship does not lie in its altruism, but in its lack of accounting. We are friends not solely because you amuse me or assist me, but more deeply because we have rooted ourselves together in a soil we have both agreed to cultivate. Echo has provided an example of the fruit of that cultivation.

What E. Kelley depicts is a more unlikely friendship between someone who can best be described as a bully and another person, the author, who found himself in the unenviable position of bunk mate. Over time, passionate theological conversation developed between them, leading to a moment where the author put himself in a vulnerable position before the bully, who declined to play his expected role. As with Echo’s example, there is the accretion of shared time that is necessary for that moment to occur. It would hardly have happened the first night Frank stepped from the brig. But there is something else as well. There is the development of aspects of oneself that otherwise might have gone neglected or even unrecognized. E. Kelly displayed a kind of courage that seemed even to surprise him, and Frank lent himself to passionate discussion without having to overpower his conversational adversary. This is what I meant when I wrote in my column that in close friendships we step into the stream of another’s life.

One might say that there is, among seamen — as among military personnel and those facing collective harm generally — a motivation for a common bond that helped drive the two together. BlueGhost from Iowa says this explicitly in his discussion of his son’s decision to join the military. If so, this would be another example of the idea in the column that we are always creatures of our time and our circumstances. There were some who worried that in criticizing the consumer and entrepreneurial models of friendship, I might be suggesting that there was a previous period in which friendships were better or more pure. That would be, as the comments noted, naïve. Each age has its context, and people in that age — or in one specific aspect of it — cannot escape engaging with the themes of that context, its motifs and parameters. Consumerism and entrepreneurship are dominant themes of our age; if my column is right, they are a threat to our friendships. Other ages have had different themes and their friendships different dangers.

There is, of course, much more to be said about how consumerism and entrepreneurship endanger our friendships. I neglected to do so in the column because my goal in that short space was not so much critique as a description or a reminder of how we often still participate in relationships whose value is not the subject of most of our public discourse about them. To trace the development of consumerism and entrepreneurship in their particular character over the past 30 or 40 years, as well as their effects on our relationships, would require a much longer discussion as well as an engagement with many contemporary theorists and social scientists — basically, a book. What I counted on in the column was that there would be a resonance among readers for what was being suggested. If the comments are any indication, I was fortunate there as well.

A last note. Several comments suggested that there may be other ways to characterize friendship than by appeal to the Aristotelean distinctions I invoked. This is undoubtedly true. It is also true that there is a certain oversimplification to any categorization of friendship. There is more to Echo’s and E. Kelley’s friendships than the themes I have isolated here. What Aristotle offers us — and this over two millennia after his death — are tools that help us think about ourselves. It is not that there are three and only three types of friendships. Rather, in thinking about Aristotle’s categories of friendship in the context of our time we can begin to see ourselves and our relationships more clearly than we might otherwise. This is also true of many other philosophers, a number of whose names were invoked in the comments. It is what philosophers who stand the test of time offer us: not rigid categories to which we must conform, but instead ways of making sense of ourselves and our lives, of considering who we are, where we are, and what we might become.

Todd May is a professor of philosophy at Clemson University. He is the author 10 books, including “The Philosophy of Foucault” and “Death,” and is at work on a book about friendship in the contemporary period.

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Full article: http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2010/07/13/two-friendships-a-response/

A Naturalist’s Feast for the Eyes

Hardly a Thanksgiving goes by without someone mentioning Benjamin Franklin’s affection for the American turkey. That founding father famously proposed it as the country’s national bird, arguing that it was a more virtuous creature than the bald eagle, which he despised as “a bird of bad moral character.” But the turkey has had at least one other prominent American fan. Naturalist and artist John James Audubon (1785-1851) began his ambitious “The Birds of America” picture series with an image of the wild turkey cock.

Audubon’s turkey cock is memorable for its vivid suggestion of movement, with the bird glancing backward, as if eyeing the approach of a predator, and pumping its legs forward in a purposeful stride. While his contemporaries’ painted birds are often as static as butterflies pinned to velvet, Audubon’s wildlife studies shimmer with kinetic intensity. For Audubon, nature was not a noun but a verb, and he conditioned viewers to think of the wild as a place where something is always happening, a precursor to the modern nature documentary.

The American turkey

As his depiction of the turkey cock also makes clear, Audubon was keenly aware of the stage on which his wildlife dramas unfolded. The canebreak in the background evokes the area near Beech Woods plantation in Louisiana where Audubon spotted the bird that inspired the picture. Audubon often used other artists to help create his backgrounds, but this wasn’t because he regarded the backdrops of his paintings as afterthoughts. He liked to make landscape an active character in his art, and in his picture of the turkey cock, scenery becomes a scene-stealer.

Notice how the cock’s gaze directs the viewer’s attention toward the thicket. What dark mystery lies beyond that curtain of green, inspiring the turkey’s apprehension? Audubon’s posing of this beguiling, unanswered question attests to his gifts as a showman. There’s also his lavish layering of color—the turkey cock is a pageant of dusky browns and hints of orange, along with shades of chocolate and mahogany.

Most bird books are arranged by type—shore birds in one chapter, song birds in another, birds of prey somewhere else. But Audubon broke with that tradition, instead sequencing his bird pictures for dramatic effect. In selecting the turkey cock as Plate No. 1 in his series, he seemed to celebrate the turkey as the alpha bird of the American landscape.

Audubon, who was also a perceptive writer about birds, devoted more words to the turkey than to any other bird in his “Ornithological Biography.” For many years, Audubon, a naturalized American of French heritage, closed his letters with a seal bearing the likeness of a turkey cock and the words “America My Country,” a gift from a friend that appeared to affirm the turkey as an icon of national greatness. Audubon even adopted a turkey as a pet, though—in a bit of darkly comic farce—his hunting dog almost nabbed it by accident. The pet survived that close call, only to be fatally shot later by another hunter.

What was it about turkeys that sparked the special admiration of an artist who had painted hundreds of other birds?

Obviously, the basic bigness of the turkey appealed to Audubon’s epic sense of scale. In a striking gesture of grandiosity, Audubon insisted on rendering the subjects of “The Birds of America” life-size, which required pages that were more than two feet wide and more than a yard high. The resulting project, which appeared between 1827 and 1838, was an early coffee-table book the size of a table itself. To promote his book, which cost about $1,000—roughly $23,000 in today’s dollars—for a finished copy, Audubon recruited wealthy subscribers, many of them across the Atlantic, by dressing the part of a frontiersman, creating a buzz in England. Old World admirers found Audubon’s paintings no less exotic than the artist, and the turkey had particular appeal because it seemed, like Audubon himself, such a magnificent American oddity.

With the turkey cock, as with so many of his other subjects, Audubon achieved lifelike effects in his pictures by using dead birds as his models. This isn’t unusual; even today, scientists and bird artists often depend on dead specimens for study. But in the days before air conditioning and refrigeration, the practice was often a race against time.

As he worked on his picture of the turkey cock at Beech Woods in 1825, Audubon’s methods drew the disgust of Robert Percy, a member of the plantation family. “The damned fellow kept it pinned up there until it rotted and stunk,” he recalled of Audubon and his lifeless subject. “I hated to lose so much good eating.”

The irony would not have been lost on Audubon, who probably also liked the turkey because it was such an inviting game bird. Much of his extended written commentary on the turkey deals with the best way to bag a bird for the table. Perhaps ornithologist Roger Tory Peterson had the best summary of Audubon’s culinary predilections: “Not only does he speak with a gourmet’s authority about the edibility of owls, loons, cormorants and crows, but also the gustatory delights of juncos, white-throated sparrows, and robins.”

Although some modern naturalists have trouble squaring Audubon’s hunting and his art, the simple truth is that each enterprise mutually sustained the other, relying on a shared set of skills: patience, sharp observation, and a shrewd understanding of wildlife.

What is also true is that Audubon often killed more birds than he could either eat or draw, making him a dubious poster child for conservation. He did raise occasional alarms about the health of bird populations, including that of the turkey, which he lamented as being “less numerous in every portion of the United States, even in those parts where they were very abundant thirty years ago.” Thanks to game laws and conservation efforts often spearheaded by hunters, wild turkey populations in North America have actually rebounded to more than seven million birds, up from 1.3 million birds in 1973.

Audubon “recognized and often speculated about the impact overhunting could have on wildlife populations,” biographer William Souder has written. “But he was never deterred. He sometimes said that a day in which he killed fewer than a hundred birds was a day wasted.”

Audubon’s real contribution to the cultural understanding of wildlife, said Mr. Peterson, “was not the conservation ethic but awareness. That in itself is enough; awareness inevitably leads to concern.”

Such awareness can also be the wellspring of gratitude, which is why this Thanksgiving, as in all others, Audubon’s wild turkey cock should be savored as a feast for the eyes.

Mr. Heitman, the author of “A Summer of Birds: John James Audubon at Oakley House,” ia a columnist for the Baton Rouge Advocate.

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Full article and photo: http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052748704312504575618700444769566.html

Beyond the Veil: A Response

I’m extraordinarily grateful to the many people who posted comments on my piece, “Veiled Threats?”  I note that many have come from educated and active Muslim women (in countries ranging from the U. S. to India), who have expressed a sense of “relief” at having their convictions and voices taken seriously.

I’ll begin my reply with a story.  The day my article came out, I went to a White Sox game (the one in which my dear team took over first place!).  I was there with two friends from Texas and my son-in-law, who was born in Germany and now has a green card.  So, in Chicago terms, we were already a heterogeneous lot.  Behind me was a suburban dad with shoulder-length gray hair (an educated, apparently affluent ex-hippie, like the “Bobos” of David Brooks’s book), who took pleasure in explaining the finer points of the game (like the suicide squeeze) to his daughter and two other preteen girls in fashionable sundresses.  On our right was a sedate African-American couple, the woman holding a bag that marked her as working for the “U. S. Census Religion subcommittee” of her suburban county.  In front of us were three Orthodox Jewish boys, ages around 6, 10, and 18, their tzizit (ritual fringes) showing underneath their Sox shirts, and cleverly double-hatted so that they could doff their Sox caps during the national anthem, while still retaining their kipot.  Although this meant that they had not really bared their heads for the Anthem, not one person gave them an ugly stare or said, “Take off your hat!” — or, even worse, “Here we take off our hats.”  Indeed, nobody apart from me seemed to notice them at all.

I don’t always feel patriotic, but I did then.  I would not encourage a child or relative of mine to wear tzizit or, outside of temple, a kipoh.  I’m a Reform Jew, and I view these things as totemism and fetishism.  But I would not offend strangers by pointing that out, or acquaintances unless they were friends who had asked my advice.  And that’s the way I feel about most of these things: it’s not my business.  Luckily, a long-dominant tradition in American culture and law agrees with me.  From the time when Quakers and Mennonites refused to doff their hats, and when both Mennonites and Amish adopted “pre-modern” dress, we Americans are pretty comfortable with weird clothes, and used to the idea that people’s conscientious observances frequently require them to dress in ways that seem strange or unpleasant to the majority.  To the many people who wrote about how immigrants have to learn to fit in, I ask: what would you have liked to see at that ball game?  The scene I witnessed, or three Jewish boys being ejected from the park because they allegedly failed to respect the flag?  (And note that, like most minorities, they did show respect in the way they felt they could, without violating their conscience.)

Before addressing a series of points raised in the comments, two prefatory notes:

1.  Throughout, I am speaking only about liberal democracies, not about autocratic regimes.   It’s only in such democracies where liberty of conscience is a reality anyway, so I think that examples of autocracy in Saudi Arabia are beside the point.  We’re talking about what limits liberal democracies may reasonably impose on freedom of conscience and expression while remaining consistent with their basic principles.

2.  To those who described me as in an “ivory tower,” let me point out that I have spent many years working in international development organizations and that I have particularly close ties with India, home to the second-largest Muslim population in the world (the largest being in Indonesia).  I’ve written a book about interreligious violence in India (“The Clash Within: Democracy, Religious Violence, and India’s Future,” 2007), which turns out to be largely a story of Hindu neo-fascist organizations fomenting violence against Muslims.  So in fact I am not in the ivory tower so far as these issues are concerned, and I’ve spent many years working with organizations that foster education and other opportunities for poor women.

All right, now to my argument.   Remember that my contention was that pursuit of conscientious commitments is a very important human interest, closely linked to human dignity, which can rightly be limited only by a “compelling state interest.”  I then went on to argue that none of the interests standardly brought forward against the burqa is compelling, and, moreover, that any ban on the burqa in response to these reasons would require banning other common practices that nobody objects to because of their familiarity.   As Annie rightly summarizes (126): “Hypocrisy isn’t democratic.”

1. The position of the Catholic Church. Stephen O’Brien points out helpfully that the “Catechism of the Catholic Church,” in sections dealing with religious liberty and conscience (sections 1782 and 2106) takes a position that has been used by the Catholic Church in France to oppose a ban on the burqa.   O’Brien and I once acted in a play together, during the time that both of us were undergraduates at N.Y.U., and in fact we had an intense argument about propriety in dress, which turned into a lasting collegial relationship.  So I thank him for his intervention and his urging my  study of the Catechism!

2. The special case of France.  I did not discuss France in my piece, but since some readers did, let me comment.  The French policy of laïcité does indeed lead to restrictions on a wide range of religious manifestations, all in the name of a total separation of church and state.  But if one looks closely, the restrictions are unequal and discriminatory.  The school dress code forbids the Muslim headscarf and the Jewish yarmulke, along with “large” Christian crosses.  But this is a totally unequal burden, because the first two items of clothing are religiously obligatory for observant members of those religions, and the third is not: Christians are under no religious obligation to wear any cross, much less a “large” one.   So there is discrimination inherent in the French system.

Would French secularism be acceptable if practiced in an even-handed way?  According to U.S. constitutional law, government may not favor religion over non-religion, or non-religion over religion.  For example, it was unconstitutional for the University of Virginia to announce that it would use student fees to fund all other student organizations (political, environmental, and so forth) but not the religious clubs (Rosenberger v. Rector and Visitors of the University of Virginia, 515 U. S. 819 (1995)).  I must say that I prefer this balanced policy to French laïcité; I think it is fairer to religious people.   Separation is not total, even in France: thus, a fire in a burning church would still be put out by the public fire department; churches still get the use of the public water supply and the public sewer system.  Still, the amount and type of separation that the French system mandates, while understandable historically, looks unfair in the light of the principles I have defended.

3. Terrorism and safety.  A number of the commenters think that the burqa creates unique risks of various sorts, particularly in the context of the legitimate interest in preventing acts of terrorism.  All I can say is that if I were a terrorist in the U. S. or Europe, and if I were not stupid, the last thing I would wear would be a burqa, since that way of dressing attracts suspicious attention.  Criminals usually want not to attract suspicious attention; if they are at all intelligent, they succeed.  I think I’d dress like Martha Nussbaum in the winter: floor length Eddie Bauer down coat, hat down over the eyebrows, extra hood for insulation, and a bulky Indian shawl around nose and mouth.  Nonetheless, I have never been asked to remove these clothes, in a department store, a public building, or even a bank.  Bank workers do look at my ID documents, though, and I’ve already said that at this stage in our technological development I think it is a reasonable request that ID documents contain a full face photo.  (Moreover, I’ve been informed by my correspondence that most contemporary Islamic scholars agree: a woman can and must remove her niqab for visual identification if so requested.)   In the summer, again if I were an intelligent sort of terrorist, I would wear a big floppy hat and a long  loose caftan, and I think I’d carry a capacious Louis Vuitton bag, the sort that signals conspicuous consumption.  That is what a smart terrorist would do, and the smart ones are the ones to worry about.

So, what to do about the threat that all bulky and non-revealing clothing creates?  Airline security does a lot with metal detectors, body imaging, pat-downs, etc.  (One very nice system is at work in India, where all passengers get a full manual pat-down, but in a curtained booth by a member of the same sex who is clearly trained to be courteous and respectful.)  The White Sox stadium searches all bags (though more to check for beer than for explosives, thus protecting the interests of in-stadium vendors).  Private stores or other organizations who feel that bulky clothing is a threat (whether of shoplifting or terrorism or both) could institute a nondiscriminatory rule banning, e.g., floor-length coats; they could even have a body scanner at the door.  But they don’t, presumably preferring customer friendliness to the extra margin of safety.  What I want to establish, however, is the invidious discrimination inherent in the belief that the burqa poses a unique security risk.  Reasonable security policies, applied to similar cases similarly, are perfectly fine.

4. Depersonalization and respect for persons. Several readers made the comment that the burqa is objectionable because it portrays women as non-persons.    Is this plausible?  Isn’t our poetic tradition full of the trope that eyes are the windows of the soul?  And I think this is just right: contact with another person, as individual to individual, is made primarily through eyes, not nose or mouth.  Once during a construction project that involved a lot of dust in my office, I (who am prone to allergies and vain about my singing voice and the state of my hair) had to cover everything but my eyes while talking to students for a longish number of weeks.  At first they found it quite weird, but soon they were asking me how they could get a mask and filter scarf like the ones I was using.  My personality did not feel stifled, nor did they feel that they could not access my individuality.

More generally, I think one should listen to what women who wear the burqa say they think it means before opining.  Even if one feels convinced that depersonalization is what’s going on, that might be a reason for not liking that mode of dress, but why would it be a reason for banning it?  If the burqa were uniquely depersonalizing, we could at least debate this point: but, as I pointed out, a lot of revealing clothing is plausibly seen as a way of marketing a woman as sex objects, and that is itself a form of depersonalization.  The feminist term is “objectification,” and it has long been plausibly maintained that a lot of advertising and other aspects of culture objectify women, treat them as sex objects rather than as full persons.  The models in porn (whether films or photos) are usually not conspicuous for their rich individuality.   (Indeed, in the light of the tremendous cultural pressure to market oneself as a sex object, one might feel that wearing a lot of covering is a way of resisting that demand or insisting on intimacy.)  In any case, what business is it of government to intervene, if there is no clear public interest in burdening liberty of conscience in this way?

At this point, I want to address the point about respect raised by Amy (115).  I agree with her that we needn’t approve of the forms of dress that others choose, or of any other religious observance.  We may judge them ridiculous, or revolting, or even hateful.  I do think that one should try to understand first before coming to such a judgment, and I think that in most cases one should not give one’s opinion about the way a person is dressed unless someone has asked for it.  But of course any religious ceremony that expresses hatred for another group (a racist religion, say) is deeply objectionable, and one can certainly protest that, as usually happens when the KKK puts on a show somewhere these days.

I do not think that a burqa is a symbol of hatred, and thus not something that it would be reasonable to find deeply hateful.  It is more like the boys and their tzizit, something I may feel out of tune with, but which it is probably nosy to denounce unless a friend has asked my opinion.  Still, if Amy wants to say that it is deeply objectionable, and that she does not respect it, that does not in any way disagree with the principles I expressed in my article.   Her intervention prompts me to make a necessary clarification.   I am not saying that all religious activities ought to be respected.  Equal respect, in my view, is rightly directed at the person, and the core of human dignity in the person, which I hope Amy will agree all these people still have.  Respecting their equal human dignity and equal human rights means giving them space to carry out their conscientious observances, even if we think that those are silly or even disgusting.  Their human dignity gives them the right to be wrong, we might say.  One religion that makes me cringe is an evangelical sect that requires its members to handle poisonous snakes (the subject of long litigation).  I find that one bizarre, I would never go near it, and I tend to find the actions involved disgusting.  But that does not mean that I don’t respect the people as bearers of equal human rights and human dignity.  Because they have equal human rights and human dignity, they get to carry on their religion unless there is some compelling government interest against it.  The long litigation concerned just that question.  Since the religion kept non-consenting adults and all children far away from the snakes, it was not an easy question.  In the end, a cautious government decided to intervene (Swann v. Pack, 527 S. W. 2d 99 (Tenn. 1975)).  But that did not mean that they did not show equal respect for the snake-handlers as human beings and bearers of human dignity and human rights.

What respect for persons requires, then, is that people have equal space to exercise their conscientious commitments, not that others like or even respect what they do in that space.  Furthermore, equal respect for persons is compatible, as I said, with limiting religious freedom in the case of a “compelling state interest.”  In the snake-handler case, the interest was in public safety.  Another government intervention that was right, in my view, was the judgment that Bob Jones University should lose its tax exemption for its ban on interracial dating (Bob Jones v. U. S., 461 U. S. 574 (1983).  Here the Supreme Court agreed that the ban was part of that sect’s religion, and thus that the loss of tax-exempt status was a “substantial burden” on the exercise of that religion, but they said that society has a compelling interest in not cooperating with racism.   Never has the government taken similar steps against the many Roman Catholic universities that restrict their presidencies to a priest, hence a male; but in my view they should all lose their tax exemptions for this reason.  (The compelling interest standard is difficult to delineate, and courts can get it wrong, which is one reason why Justice Scalia prefers the Lockean position.)

Why is the burqa different from the case of Bob Jones University?  First, of course, government was not telling Bob Jones that they could not continue with their policy, it was just refusing to give them a huge financial reward, thus in effect cooperating with the policy.  A second difference is that Bob Jones enforced a total ban on interracial dating, just as the major Catholic universities (Georgetown excepted, which now has a lay president) have imposed a total ban on female candidates for the job of president.  The burqa, by contrast, is a personal choice, so it’s more like the case of some student at Bob Jones (or any other university) who decides to date only white females or males because of familial and parental pressure.  Amy and I would probably agree in disliking such behavior.  But it does not seem like a case for government intervention. Which brings me to my next point.

5. Social Pressure and government intervention. When is social and familial pressure bad enough to justify state intervention with a conscientious observance?  I have already said that all forms of physical coercion are inadmissible and should be vigorously interfered with, whether they concern children or adults.   I would even favor no-drop laws in cases of domestic violence, since we know that a woman’s withdrawal of a complaint against a violent spouse or partner is often coerced.  My judgment about Turkey in the past — that the ban on veiling was justified, in those days, by a compelling state interest — derived from the belief that women were at risk of physical violence if they went unveiled, unless the government intervened to make the veil illegal for all.  Today in Europe the situation is utterly different, and no physical violence will greet the woman who wears even scanty clothing — apart from the always present danger of rape, which should be dealt with by convicting violent men, not by telling women they can’t wear what they want to wear.   (And this too the law has now recognized: thus, in the case that became the basis for the excellent film “The Accused,” a woman’s sexually provocative behavior was found not to give the men who raped her any defense, given that she clearly said “no” to the rape.

Thus, in response to Samuel (44), my point about Turkey is not one about numbers: if even a minority were at risk of physical violence, some government action would be justified.   Usually, what government will rightly do is to stop the assailants from beating up on people, rather than banning any religious practices.   For example, the Supreme Court said that Jehovah’s Witnesses have a constitutional right to say negative things about Catholics in the public street, and the sort of government intervention that would be appropriate would not be a ban on insults to Catholics, but rather a careful defense of the minority against coercive pressure both from the state and from private individuals (see Cantwell v. Connecticut, 310 U. S. 296 (1940): Connecticut’s action charging the Jehovah’s Witnesses with a breach of the peace for their slurs against Catholics violated their rights under the First and Fourteenth Amendments).  The situation in Turkey was different, because the violence toward unveiled women was thought to be so widespread and so unstoppable that only a total ban on the veil could stop it.  If the facts were correct, the decision was (temporarily) right.

When the pressure is emotional only, the case is much more difficult.  On the whole, we tend to favor few legal limits for adults: thus, if someone is in an emotionally abusive relationship, that is a case for counseling or the intervention of friends and family, not for the police. Even when we can see that what is going on is manipulative — e.g. the man says, “I won’t date you any longer if you don’t do this or that sex act” — we think that is the business of the people involved and those who care about them, not of the police.   I think that emotional coercion to wear a burqa, applied to an adult woman (threats of withdrawal of affection, for example, but not physical violence) is like this, and should be dealt with by friends and family, not by the law.

What about children?  This opens up a huge topic, since there is nothing that is more common in the modern family than various forms of coercive pressure (to get into a top college, to date people of the “right” religion or ethnicity, to wear “appropriate” clothes, to choose a remunerative career, to take a shower, “and so each and so on to no last term” as James Joyce wrote in “Ulysses.”  So: where should government and law step in?  Not often, and only where the behavior either constitutes a gross risk to bodily health and safety (as with Jehovah’s Witness children being forbidden to have a life-saving blood transfusion), or impairs some major functioning.  Thus, I think that female genital mutilation practiced on minors should be illegal if it is a form that impairs sexual pleasure or other bodily functions. (A symbolic pin-prick is a different story.)  Male circumcision seems to me all right, however, because there is no evidence that it interferes with adult sexual functioning; indeed it is now known to reduce susceptibility to H.I.V./AIDS.   The burqa (for minors) is not in the same class as genital mutilation, since it is not irreversible and does not engender health or impair other bodily functions — not nearly so much as high-heeled shoes, as I remarked (being a proud lover of the same).  Suppose parents required their daughters to wear a Victorian corset — which did do bodily damage, compressing various organs.  There might be a case for a ban then.  But the burqa is not even in the category of the corset.   As many readers pointed out, it is sensible dress in a hot climate where skin easily becomes worn by sun and dust.

At the limit, where the state’s interest in protecting the opportunities of children is concerned, is the denial of education at stake in the Supreme Court case, Wisconsin v. Yoder (406 U. S. 205 (1972)), in which a group of Amish parents asked to withdraw their children from the last two years of legally required schooling.  They would clearly have lost if they had asked to take their children out of all schooling, but what was in question were these two years only.  They won under the accommodationist principle I described in my article, although they probably would have lost on Justice Scalia’s Lockean test, since the law mandating education until age 16 was nondiscriminatory and not drawn up in order to persecute the Amish.  The case is difficult, because the parents made a convincing case that work on the farm, at that crucial age, was a key part of their community-based religion — and yet education opens up so many exit opportunities that the denial even of those two years may unreasonably limit children’s future choices.    And of course the children were under heavy pressure to do what their parents wanted.  (Thus Justice Douglas’s claim that the Court should decide the case by interviewing the children betrayed a lack of practical understanding.)

6. How much choice is enough?   Annie (126) and several others have pointed out that we all get our values through some type of social indoctrination, religious values included.  So we can’t really assume that the choice to wear a burqa is a free choice, if we mean by that a choice that has been deliberated about with due consideration of all the alternatives and with unimpeded access to some alternatives.  But then, as Annie says, we can’t assume that about anyone’s choice of anything — career, romantic partner, politics, etc.  What we can do, I think, is to guarantee a threshold level of overall freedom, by making primary and secondary education compulsory, by opening higher education to all who want it and are qualified (through need-blind admissions), and to work on job creation so that all of our citizens have some choice in matters of employment.  Moreover, the education that children get should encourage critical thinking, expansion of the imagination, and the other humanistic ideals that I discuss in my recent book, “Not For Profit: Why Democracy Needs the Humanities” (Princeton University Press 2010).  If a person gets an education like that (and it is not expensive, I’ve seen it done by women’s groups in India for next to nothing, just a lot of passion), then we can be more confident that a choice is a choice.

Thanks to you all for taking the time to respond!

Martha Nussbaum teaches law, philosophy, and divinity at The University of Chicago. She is the author of several books, including “Liberty of Conscience: In Defense of America’s Tradition of Religious Equality” (2008) and “Not for Profit: Why Democracy Needs the Humanities” (2010).

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Full article: http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2010/07/15/beyond-the-veil-a-response/

Moral Camouflage or Moral Monkeys?

After being shown proudly around the campus of a prestigious American university built in gothic style, Bertrand Russell is said to have exclaimed, “Remarkable. As near Oxford as monkeys can make.” Much earlier, Immanuel Kant had expressed a less ironic amazement, “Two things fill the mind with ever new and increasing admiration and awe … the starry heavens above and the moral law within.” Today many who look at morality through a Darwinian lens can’t help but find a charming naïveté in Kant’s thought. “Yes, remarkable. As near morality as monkeys can make.”

So the question is, just how near is that? Optimistic Darwinians believe, near enough to be morality. But skeptical Darwinians won’t buy it. The great show we humans make of respect for moral principle they see as a civilized camouflage for an underlying, evolved psychology of a quite different kind.

This skepticism is not, however, your great-grandfather’s Social Darwinism, which saw all creatures great and small as pitted against one another in a life or death struggle to survive and reproduce — “survival of the fittest.” We now know that such a picture seriously misrepresents both Darwin and the actual process of natural selection. Individuals come and go, but genes can persist for 1000 generations or more. Individual plants and animals are the perishable vehicles that genetic material uses to make its way into the next generation (“A chicken is an egg’s way of making another egg”). From this perspective, relatives, who share genes, are to that extent not really in evolutionary competition; no matter which one survives, the shared genes triumph. Such “inclusive fitness” predicts the survival, not of selfish individuals, but of “selfish” genes, which tend in the normal range of environments to give rise to individuals whose behavior tends to propel those genes into future.

A place is thus made within Darwinian thought for such familiar phenomena as family members sacrificing for one another — helping when there is no prospect of payback, or being willing to risk life and limb to protect one’s people or avenge harms done to them.

But what about unrelated individuals? “Sexual selection” occurs whenever one must attract a mate in order to reproduce. Well, what sorts of individuals are attractive partners? Henry Kissinger claimed that power is the ultimate aphrodisiac, but for animals who bear a small number of young over a lifetime, each requiring a long gestation and demanding a great deal of nurturance to thrive into maturity, potential mates who behave selfishly, uncaringly, and unreliably can lose their chance. And beyond mating, many social animals depend upon the cooperation of others for protection, foraging and hunting, or rearing the young. Here, too, power can attract partners, but so can a demonstrable tendency behave cooperatively and share benefits and burdens fairly, even when this involves some personal sacrifice — what is sometimes called “reciprocal altruism.” Baboons are notoriously hierarchical, but Joan Silk, a professor of anthropology at UCLA, and her colleagues, recently reported a long-term study of baboons, in which they found that, among females, maintaining strong, equal, enduring social bonds — even when the individuals were not related — can promote individual longevity more effectively than gaining dominance rank, and can enhance the survival of progeny.

A picture thus emerges of selection for “proximal psychological mechanisms”— for example, individual dispositions like parental devotion, loyalty to family, trust and commitment among partners, generosity and gratitude among friends, courage in the face of enemies, intolerance of cheaters — that make individuals into good vehicles, from the gene’s standpoint, for promoting the “distal goal” of enhanced inclusive fitness.

Why would human evolution have selected for such messy, emotionally entangling proximal psychological mechanisms, rather than produce yet more ideally opportunistic vehicles for the transmission of genes — individuals wearing a perfect camouflage of loyalty and reciprocity, but fine-tuned underneath to turn self-sacrifice or cooperation on or off exactly as needed? Because the same evolutionary processes would also be selecting for improved capacities to detect, pre-empt and defend against such opportunistic tendencies in other individuals — just as evolution cannot produce a perfect immune system, since it is equally busily at work improving the effectiveness of viral invaders. Devotion, loyalty, honesty, empathy, gratitude, and a sense of fairness are credible signs of value as a partner or friend precisely because they are messy and emotionally entangling, and so cannot simply be turned on and off by the individual to capture each marginal advantage. And keep in mind the small scale of early human societies, and Abraham Lincoln’s point about our power to deceive.

Why, then, aren’t we better — more honest, more committed, more loyal? There will always be circumstances in which fooling some of the people some of the time is enough; for example, when society is unstable or individuals mobile. So we should expect a capacity for opportunism and betrayal to remain an important part of the mix that makes humans into monkeys worth writing novels about. 

How close does all this take us to morality? Not all the way, certainly. An individual psychology primarily disposed to consider the interests of all equally, without fear or favor, even in the teeth of social ostracism, might be morally admirable, but simply wouldn’t cut it as a vehicle for reliable replication. Such pure altruism would not be favored in natural selection over an impure altruism that conferred benefits and took on burdens and risks more selectively — for “my kind” or “our kind.” This puts us well beyond pure selfishness, but only as far as an impure us-ishness. Worse, us-ish individuals can be a greater threat than purely selfish ones, since they can gang up so effectively against those outside their group. Certainly greater atrocities have been committed in the name of “us vs. them” than “me vs. the world.”

So, are the optimistic Darwinians wrong, and impartial morality beyond the reach of those monkeys we call humans? Does thoroughly logical evolutionary thinking force us to the conclusion that our love, loyalty, commitment, empathy, and concern for justice and fairness are always at bottom a mixture of selfish opportunism and us-ish clannishness? Indeed, is it only a sign of the effectiveness of the moral camouflage that we ourselves are so often taken in by it?

Speaking of what “thoroughly logical evolutionary thinking” might “force” us to conclude provides a clue to the answer. Think for a moment about science and logic themselves. Natural selection operates on a need-to-know basis. Between two individuals — one disposed to use scarce resources and finite capacities to seek out the most urgent and useful information and the other, heedless of immediate and personal concerns and disposed instead toward pure, disinterested inquiry, following logic wherever it might lead — it is clear which natural selection would tend to favor.

And yet, Darwinian skeptics about morality believe, humans somehow have managed to redeploy and leverage their limited, partial, human-scale psychologies to develop shared inquiry, experimental procedures, technologies and norms of logic and evidence that have resulted in genuine scientific knowledge and responsiveness to the force of logic. This distinctively human “cultural evolution” was centuries in the making, and overcoming partiality and bias remains a constant struggle, but the point is that these possibilities were not foreclosed by the imperfections and partiality of the faculties we inherited. As Wittgenstein observed, crude tools can be used to make refined tools. Monkeys, it turns out, can come surprisingly near to objective science.

We can see a similar cultural evolution in human law and morality — a centuries-long process of overcoming arbitrary distinctions, developing wider communities, and seeking more inclusive shared standards, such as the Geneva Conventions and the Universal Declaration of Humans Rights. Empathy might induce sympathy more readily when it is directed toward kith and kin, but we rely upon it to understand the thoughts and feelings of enemies and outsiders as well. And the human capacity for learning and following rules might have evolved to enable us to speak a native language or find our place in the social hierarchy, but it can be put into service understanding different languages and cultures, and developing more cosmopolitan or egalitarian norms that can be shared across our differences.

Within my own lifetime, I have seen dramatic changes in civil rights, women’s rights and gay rights. That’s just one generation in evolutionary terms. Or consider the way that empathy and the pressure of consistency have led to widespread recognition that our fellow animals should receive humane treatment. Human culture, not natural selection, accomplished these changes, and yet it was natural selection that gave us the capacities that helped make them possible. We still must struggle continuously to see to it that our widened empathy is not lost, our sympathies engaged, our understandings enlarged, and our moral principles followed. But the point is that we have done this with our imperfect, partial, us-ish native endowment. Kant was right to be impressed. In our best moments, we can come surprisingly close to being moral monkeys.

Peter Railton is the Perrin Professor of Philosophy at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor. His main areas of research are moral philosophy and the philosophy of science. He is a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.

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Full article and photo: http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2010/07/18/moral-camouflage-or-moral-monkeys/

Memory Makers

On the publication of scrapbooks by legendary photographer and bon vivant Cecil Beaton, fellow nostalgist Charlotte Moss revels in the art of cut and paste

Scrapbooks are diaries of a sort. While I have yet to come across a scrapbook with scandalous confessions or incriminating evidence, a private collection of pictures and ephemera can reveal volumes about the creator’s life.

DEAR DIARY: Cecil Beaton’s scrapbooks were works of art in their own right.

Scrapbooking does not have a reputation as cool, which has always struck me as odd. Few other art forms invite you to employ your taste and wit as you mash up your favorite images and ideas.

It is the most democratic and accessible art, and according to the Craft & Hobby Association, it is the top-selling category in the country’s $27 billion craft and hobby industry. I remember creeping into my grandmother’s attic and finding a trunk with my mother’s scrapbook of valentines. I felt as though I had met my mother in a different time. All of my life, I have created scrapbooks and collected others from inspiring women such as Elsie de Wolfe, Pauline Trigère and Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis.

Weighing in at 14 pounds, “Cecil Beaton: The Art of the Scrapbook” (Assouline) offers reproductions from the iconic Vogue and Vanity Fair photographer’s personal scrapbooks. It showcases images that Beaton took as well as pictures taken by others that he admired. They’re arranged in idiosyncratic collages and spreads, ironic juxtapositions and “once in a while just a great picture,” New York gallerist James Danziger wrote in his forward to the book. In an interview I asked Mr. Danziger about the collection of images chosen from Beaton’s scrapbooks for this volume. He said they are like a “valentine to a liberal arts education, from Greco-Roman statues to pop stars.”

The pages above feature a montage of Hollywood stars; others show bullfighters and dancers

The photo spreads selected were distilled from approximately 40 scrapbooks and over 8,000 photographs from the Cecil Beaton Archive. Beaton started collecting postcards when he was three years old. Later on, his country house weekends were not complete without a session of “cutting and pasting,” comparing notes and reviewing the pages of a previous weekend’s accomplishment. In his diaries, Beaton describes a scene at Wilsford, the home of his great friend Stephen Tennant. “We looked at scrapbooks of old photographs and [Tennant] rhapsodized suitable texts,” he wrote. These were gatherings one would have paid to observe.

From bullfighters, bodybuilders, dancers, society figures, the Royal family, actors and artists, there is a commonality that struck the book publisher Martine Assouline as she edited the scrapbook pages selected for the book. She described it to me as a “lesson in elegance.”

Some might say the proliferation of digital cameras and the attendant Facebook and Flickr pages have rendered physical scrapbooks less relevant than they used to be. But why not see them as newfangled iterations of an age-old artform? Witness the creativity that users are unleashing on Polyvore, the scrapbook-y fashion website that lets users mix and match pictures of clothing, accessories and arty backgrounds to create one-of-a-kind “sets.”

As in all, endeavors that become systematized, CAVEAT EMPTOR…. Homogeneity lurks. Proceed with caution. Memories are precious; protect them. Personalize them. Be creative, add, subtract, layer, annotate. My favorite quote from David Hockney says it all: “The thing about high tech is that you always end up using scissors.”

Charlotte Moss is a designer based in New York.

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Full article and photos: http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052748703326204575616680209182858.html

Your Move: The Maze of Free Will

You arrive at a bakery. It’s the evening of a national holiday. You want to buy a cake with your last 10 dollars to round off the preparations you’ve already made. There’s only one thing left in the store — a 10-dollar cake.

On the steps of the store, someone is shaking an Oxfam tin. You stop, and it seems quite clear to you — it surely is quite clear to you — that it is entirely up to you what you do next. You are — it seems — truly, radically, ultimately free to choose what to do, in such a way that you will be ultimately morally responsible for whatever you do choose. Fact: you can put the money in the tin, or you can go in and buy the cake. You’re not only completely, radically free to choose in this situation. You’re not free not to choose (that’s how it feels). You’re “condemned to freedom,” in Jean-Paul Sartre’s phrase. You’re fully and explicitly conscious of what the options are and you can’t escape that consciousness. You can’t somehow slip out of it.

You may have heard of determinism, the theory that absolutely everything that happens is causally determined to happen exactly as it does by what has already gone before — right back to the beginning of the universe. You may also believe that determinism is true. (You may also know, contrary to popular opinion, that current science gives us no more reason to think that determinism is false than that determinism is true.) In that case, standing on the steps of the store, it may cross your mind that in five minutes’ time you’ll be able to look back on the situation you’re in now and say truly, of what you will by then have done, “Well, it was determined that I should do that.” But even if you do fervently believe this, it doesn’t seem to be able to touch your sense that you’re absolutely morally responsible for what you next.

The case of the Oxfam box, which I have used before to illustrate this problem, is relatively dramatic, but choices of this type are common. They occur frequently in our everyday lives, and they seem to prove beyond a doubt that we are free and ultimately morally responsible for what we do. There is, however, an argument, which I call the Basic Argument, which appears to show that we can never be ultimately morally responsible for our actions. According to the Basic Argument, it makes no difference whether determinism is true or false. We can’t be ultimately morally responsible either way.

The argument goes like this.

(1) You do what you do — in the circumstances in which you find yourself—because of the way you then are.

(2) So if you’re going to be ultimately responsible for what you do, you’re going to have to be ultimately responsible for the way you are — at least in certain mental respects.

(3) But you can’t be ultimately responsible for the way you are in any respect at all.

(4) So you can’t be ultimately responsible for what you do.

The key move is (3). Why can’t you be ultimately responsible for the way you are in any respect at all? In answer, consider an expanded version of the argument.

(a) It’s undeniable that the way you are initially is a result of your genetic inheritance and early experience.

(b) It’s undeniable that these are things for which you can’t be held to be in any way responsible (morally or otherwise).

(c) But you can’t at any later stage of life hope to acquire true or ultimate moral responsibility for the way you are by trying to change the way you already are as a result of genetic inheritance and previous experience.

(d) Why not? Because both the particular ways in which you try to change yourself, and the amount of success you have when trying to change yourself, will be determined by how you already are as a result of your genetic inheritance and previous experience.

(e) And any further changes that you may become able to bring about after you have brought about certain initial changes will in turn be determined, via the initial changes, by your genetic inheritance and previous experience.

There may be all sorts of other factors affecting and changing you. Determinism may be false: some changes in the way you are may come about as a result of the influence of indeterministic or random factors. But you obviously can’t be responsible for the effects of any random factors, so they can’t help you to become ultimately morally responsible for how you are.

Some people think that quantum mechanics shows that determinism is false, and so holds out a hope that we can be ultimately responsible for what we do. But even if quantum mechanics had shown that determinism is false (it hasn’t), the question would remain: how can indeterminism, objective randomness, help in any way whatever to make you responsible for your actions? The answer to this question is easy. It can’t.

And yet we still feel that we are free to act in such a way that we are absolutely responsible for what we do. So I’ll finish with a third, richer version of the Basic Argument that this is impossible.

(i) Interested in free action, we’re particularly interested in actions performed for reasons (as opposed to reflex actions or mindlessly habitual actions).

(ii) When one acts for a reason, what one does is a function of how one is, mentally speaking. (It’s also a function of one’s height, one’s strength, one’s place and time, and so on, but it’s the mental factors that are crucial when moral responsibility is in question.)

(iii) So if one is going to be truly or ultimately responsible for how one acts, one must be ultimately responsible for how one is, mentally speaking — at least in certain respects.

(iv) But to be ultimately responsible for how one is, in any mental respect, one must have brought it about that one is the way one is, in that respect. And it’s not merely that one must have caused oneself to be the way one is, in that respect. One must also have consciously and explicitly chosen to be the way one is, in that respect, and one must also have succeeded in bringing it about that one is that way.

(v) But one can’t really be said to choose, in a conscious, reasoned, fashion, to be the way one is in any respect at all, unless one already exists, mentally speaking, already equipped with some principles of choice, “P1″ — preferences, values, ideals — in the light of which one chooses how to be.

(vi) But then to be ultimately responsible, on account of having chosen to be the way one is, in certain mental respects, one must be ultimately responsible for one’s having the principles of choice P1 in the light of which one chose how to be.

(vii) But for this to be so one must have chosen P1, in a reasoned, conscious, intentional fashion.

(viii) But for this to be so one must already have had some principles of choice P2, in the light of which one chose P1.

(ix) And so on. Here we are setting out on a regress that we cannot stop. Ultimate responsibility for how one is is impossible, because it requires the actual completion of an infinite series of choices of principles of choice.

(x) So ultimate, buck-stopping moral responsibility is impossible, because it requires ultimate responsibility for how one is; as noted in (iii).

Does this argument stop me feeling entirely morally responsible for what I do? It does not. Does it stop you feeling entirely morally responsible? I very much doubt it. Should it stop us? Well, it might not be a good thing if it did. But the logic seems irresistible …. And yet we continue to feel we are absolutely morally responsible for what we do, responsible in a way that we could be only if we had somehow created ourselves, only if we were “causa sui,” the cause of ourselves. It may be that we stand condemned by Nietzsche:

The causa sui is the best self-contradiction that has been conceived so far. It is a sort of rape and perversion of logic. But the extravagant pride of man has managed to entangle itself profoundly and frightfully with just this nonsense. The desire for “freedom of the will” in the superlative metaphysical sense, which still holds sway, unfortunately, in the minds of the half-educated; the desire to bear the entire and ultimate responsibility for one’s actions oneself, and to absolve God, the world, ancestors, chance, and society involves nothing less than to be precisely this causa sui and, with more than Baron Münchhausen’s audacity, to pull oneself up into existence by the hair, out of the swamps of nothingness … (“Beyond Good and Evil,” 1886).

Is there any reply? I can’t do better than the novelist Ian McEwan, who wrote to me: “I see no necessary disjunction between having no free will (those arguments seem watertight) and assuming moral responsibility for myself. The point is ownership. I own my past, my beginnings, my perceptions. And just as I will make myself responsible if my dog or child bites someone, or my car rolls backwards down a hill and causes damage, so I take on full accountability for the little ship of my being, even if I do not have control of its course. It is this sense of being the possessor of a consciousness that makes us feel responsible for it.”

Galen Strawson is professor of philosophy at Reading University and is a regular visitor at the philosophy program at the City University of New York Graduate Center. He is the author of “Selves: An Essay in Revisionary Metaphysics” (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 2009) and other books.

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Full article and photo: http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2010/07/22/your-move-the-maze-of-free-will/