Tuesday, April 28, 2015

‘Readers will like this book’: Highlight the book, not yourself, in a review

Like the blurb on a book's dust-jacket or a plot summary, a book review indicates the subject matter of the book being reviewed and the approach that the book takes, but it goes further by inserting the reviewer's personal opinion about whether the book was any good. Academic reviews demand a brief analysis and critique of a book's main arguments, while popular reviews might instead focus on the entertainment value of a sports anthology, the believability of a novel's plot line or the utility of a particular recipe collection as a holiday gift. Just because the reviewer should provide her opinion, however, doesn't mean she should use the first-person voice when writing the review.

First-, second- and third-person voice

First-person language includes pronouns like "I," "me," and "my." It also includes the plural forms "we," "us," and "our," especially where this is not intended to refer to humanity as a universalized whole, but to an exclusive sub-group such as English literature teachers, teenage fans of musical theater or members of Aunt Mabel's book club. Some publishers do not permit writers to refer to themselves and to their personal affiliations via the use of first-person language.

Book reviews for these publishers should use the third-person voice. Just as the book's author is a "he" or "she," potential readers should be considered as "they," rather than the "I" who was inspired to write the review or the "we" who gathered at Aunt Mabel's last Tuesday night to discuss it.

In some cases, the second-person voice, "you", may also be appropriate, as in: "You will like this book if you've liked the previous books by the same author."

A book review is not a journal entry

It's easy to write a book review almost as a diary entry about what it felt like to read the book. However, reviewers should not fall prey to this temptation. Many sentences in first-person can be rewritten to convey similar information in the third-person voice. The book review usually sounds better when this is done.

Below are some negative examples - that is, what not to do - regarding first-person language. Explanations are given about what falls short and how it can be corrected.

'My hot date at the movies'

"I read the book before (or after) I saw the movie."

The person consuming the book review doesn't care about the reviewer's hot date at the cinema. The reviewer will better serve the reader by providing information such as: "Many already have seen the movie, but the movie is no substitute for the book, as the book contains interesting dialogue that never made it into the screen adaptation."

'My speed-reading abilities'

"I read the book in one sitting."

The reviewer may intend to imply that the story holds his attention, but instead appears to be bragging about how quickly he reads. Would it matter if the reviewer needed three months to finish reading the book? Or if someone else wanted to read it while running on a treadmill? It shouldn't. So, instead, the reviewer might consider calling the book a "page-turner," a "riveting account" or an "absorbing story."

'I was absorbed in this book because my life is otherwise boring'

"I read the book in one sitting while flying across the country in an airplane."

This is a common variant of the above claim to speed-reading, but it's a less-than-ringing endorsement of a book. The simple fact is that air travelers engross themselves in books because it is more entertaining than staring at the backs of strangers' heads for six hours. Since most people fly rather infrequently and have few other opportunities to allow themselves such uninterrupted reading time, the experience of reading a book on an airplane may be personally transformative for the particular person locked in that situation at that time, but that in itself doesn't imply that the book is unique. The same goes for reading in a hammock on an island vacation or in a bed during a lengthy hospital recuperation. The circumstances that force a particular person to focus on reading material are not related to the book's content, nor to what others (who cannot be assumed to have airplane seats at their disposal to enhance their reading experience) are likely to gain from the book's message.

Incidentally, the author is unlikely to feel resoundingly complimented by the insinuation that it was at least easier to read their book than to sit in bored or miserable inactivity. If, on the other hand, one feels transported to another dimension while reading a book because of its inherently beautiful language (and does not feel "transported" merely because one's plane has just arrived in New Jersey), one should comment on that within the book review.

'Imagination fails me'

"I can't think of a better book about gingerbread decoration."

Unless the reviewer is familiar with at least a dozen books on the subject, this sort of comment only highlights her unfamiliarity with the topic. It would be disingenuous to rephrase it into a declarative statement that this book is, objectively speaking, the best book, as long as the reader still has no expertise to back up this assertion. It would be more helpful to tell potential readers of the book that "this book contains all the information that a beginning cake decorator is likely to need, as well as some expert-level tips." Ultimately, it doesn't matter how the book stacks up in objective or subjective rankings against other books. Most people just want to know whether it's useful or beautiful as a stand-alone purchase.

'Other stuff I like to read' 

"I usually like (or don't like) books about steel imports."

This is often embedded within a lengthier comment about the reviewer's longstanding preferences about steel imports and a confirmation that this specific book is, indeed, about steel imports. Why should the reviewer's usual personal preferences be of interest to anyone? The prospective reader wants to know what they can expect to learn about steel imports and whether this book will be an enjoyable read, not about how the reviewer's tastes have evolved over time nor about how they read the book only to impress a teacher. The reviewer could instead advise: "This book encourages business owners to look at steel imports from a new perspective."

'Full of stuff I didn't get'

"I didn't agree with everything, but maybe I just didn't understand it."

If a reader isn't confident that he understood the core elements of a book, he shouldn't publish a review. An exception occurs when the failure definitively lies with the book itself, not with the reader. If the book is so poorly conceived or executed that it would be incomprehensible even to educated, patient people who make a good faith effort to read it, it is acceptable to say so. A reviewer might therefore legitimately complain: "The argument in the first half of the book is straightforward enough, but shockingly, the author contradicts himself in the final chapter." 

'All about my day, which happened to include this book'

"I went to the library for a book about ostriches, but I accidentally checked out this book about medieval swords, and at first I didn't enjoy it, but later I realized that was only because I had a headache, and after I took a pill, I decided the book wasn't half-bad, and I was even willing to pay an overdue fine so I could finish it."

The deficiencies of this tale should be obvious. The easiest solution is to delete this sentence entirely and to replace it with a sentence with a dramatically shifted emphasis that communicates useful information. The only thing that a stranger might care about within the narrative above is what library carried the book. The book reviewer could therefore write: "This book may be difficult to find at public libraries, but some academic libraries have it."

'All the good features of this book were pleasing to me'

"I liked the book."

This is all right, but technically, it's the first-person voice. Even if the publisher permits the first-person voice, using it at all - even sparingly - risks leading the reviewer further astray into irrelevant first-person narratives. The reviewer can instead make authoritative comments about what's good (or bad) about the book's objective characteristics. For example:

  • "The characters' original antics and witty banter are entertaining."
  • "The moral lesson about the importance of charity is heartwarming."
  • "This book has sold millions of copies, and based on the deep truths it expresses so eloquently, it's easy to see why the author is a household name."

The reviewer's personal appreciation for the book is implicit in these statements.

For a real example of how this works, see how Andrew Losowsky wrote of the drugs, sex, and violence in J. K. Rowlings' "The Casual Vacancy" that "none of it is gratuitous." There was no need to qualify that he didn't personally find it gratuitous. Obviously he personally agrees with whatever declarative statements he makes.

That's all there is to it

When these approaches are taken, it's clear that the review has been written from a particular person's point of view, without the reviewer ever having to use the pronoun "I."

If a book review has already been written in the first person, it can probably be converted into third person without too much effort and without significantly changing the meaning. It's worth a try! Doing so will make the piece eligible to be published for a broad audience.

Originally posted to Helium Network on Dec. 15, 2012.

Image: Toilette - Frau vor Spiegel (Woman in front of a mirror). Art by Ernst Ludwig Kirchner (1880-1938) © public domain. Wikimedia Commons.

Sunday, April 26, 2015

Novelists on the mysteries of the passing of time

These novelists have questioned how we understand the passing of time.

Ismail Kadare:

Events had so stunned the city that it was hard to believe that this was still the same day. The very word ‘afternoon’ seemed not to fit any more. Should it be called the second part of the day? The last part? Perhaps the most treacherous part, harbouring a centuries-old grudge against the day as a whole, or rather its first part, which you might call fore-noon; forget the idea of morning. Its malice had rankled, to erupt suddenly that mid-September.

There was also a sense of gratitude to destiny for at least having preserved the city from other long-forgotten calamities such as the Double Night, a sort of calendrical monster that beggared the imagination, a stretch of time that was unlike anything else and came from no one knew where, from the bowels of the universe perhaps, a union of two nights in one, smothering the day between them as dishonored women once were smothered in the old houses of Gjirokastër.

George Orwell:

To begin with, he did not know with any certainty that this was 1984. It must be round about that date, since he was fairly sure that his age was thirty-nine, and he believed that he had been born in 1944 or 1945; but it was never possible nowadays to pin down any date within a year or two.

Amor Towles:

In that sense, life is less like a journey than it is a game of honeymoon bridge. In our twenties, when there is still so much time ahead of us, time that seems ample for a hundred indecisions, for a hundred visions and revisions – we draw a card, and we must decide right then and there whether to keep that card and discard the next, or discard the first card and keep the second. And before we know it, the deck has been played out and the decisions we have just made will shape our lives for decades to come.

Michael Ondaatje:

We follow each other into the future, as if now, at the last moment we try to memorize the face a movement we will never want to forget. As if everything in the world is the history of ice.

Sources

Ismail Kadare. The Fall of the Stone City. [Darka e Gabuar] (2008) Translated from the Albanian by John Hodgson (2011) New York: Grove Press, 2012. p. 19.

George Orwell. 1984. (Originally published 1949.) New York: The New American Library, 1961. p. 10.

Amor Towles. Rules of Civility (2011). New York: Penguin Books, 2012.

Michael Ondaatje. Coming Through Slaughter. (1976) New York: Vintage International, 1996. p. 87.

Human dignity: Finding a secular justification

Tom Beaudoin:

...’human dignity’ and ‘mystery’ can easily ossify into buzzwords. We continually have to find evocative ways of describing dignity and mystery. I propose that we ask ourselves what is that undomesticatable region of ourselves that cannot be bought, cannot be branded? What about us cannot be traded away, drugged up, or dieted off? What about ourselves cannot be sold, sweated away, or co-opted by an advertiser? How would you describe that dimension of yourself, and what might it mean to live from that ‘place’ in your economic life?

A passage in the Brown Alumni Magazine:

Speaking at the Joan and Frank Rothmans Forum on Saturday, Leo M. Cooney, chief of geriatrics and a professor at Yale’s medical school, explained that autonomy and dignity are particularly important to people in their eighties and nineties. ... Partly this is a matter of listening, Cooney said: “The worst thing to do is to get a patient in the room and then start talking to their daughter or son.” ... Above all, respect a patient’s identity. “If Mrs. Jones is used to being called Mrs. Jones, then call her Mrs. Jones. he is not now Anna just because she’s living in a nursing home.”

"Where do human rights come from, and what grounds them?" asked Anat Biletzki. Biletzski cited Ronald Dworkin's 1993 essay that stated that human life "has intrinsic and objective value quite apart from any value it might have to the person whose life it is," which is another way of saying that it is "sacred," although Dworkin also acknowledged that this idea of sanctity need not be theistic. She also cited Michael Perry's book The Idea of Human Rights in which he said, of the grounding for the claim that "every human being is sacred," that "the only intelligible versions are religious."

She wrote:

Aristotelian virtue and natural justice or the Kantian categorical imperative (arising from reason, of course) offer philosophical bases for morality at large. Theories of human needs, human interests and human agency provide analytical foundations for the idea of human rights. And then there is Hart’s one natural right – the equal right to be free; Gewirth’s turn to human action and logic; Sen and Nussbaum’s talk of basic human capabilities, and oh-so-many others, all affording humanistic starting points for the human dignity at the base of human rights that need nary a wink at religion. There is also a legitimate and, to my mind, strong critique of the individualism guiding the liberal idea of human rights that enjoins us to rethink our mantras regarding the autonomous self who is the “human.” That these are intricate and sometimes problematic, that they might be in tension with, even contradict, each other, that we must do considerable analytic and  philosophical work in their explication does not cancel out their equal profundity – equal to religion, that is – in justifying human rights.

Does it matter whether efforts to defend "human rights" have religious or secular grounding, as long as the work is done? Yes, it matters, Biletzki said, because "religion, even when indirectly in the service of human rights, is not really working for human rights. Although there is recognition of the human as sacred, it is not the concept of rights that propels the religious person. For him, the human status of sacredness draws from divine creation and directive, from man (and woman) having been created in God’s image, and therefore has nothing to do with a human right." When people agree on the work that is to be done, there is no obvious conflict, but when they disagree, then "the religious authority must vacate the arena of human rights" since

an internal, secular debate on issues that pertain to human rights is structurally and essentially different from the debate between the two camps. In the latter, the authority that is conscripted to 'command' us on the religious side is God, while on the secular side it is the human, with her claim to reason, her proclivity to emotion, and her capacity for compassion. In a sense, that is no commandment at all. It is a turn to the human, and a (perhaps axiomatic, perhaps even dogmatic) posit of human dignity, that turns the engine of human rights, leaving us open to discussion, disagreement, and questioning without ever deserting that first posit." The parallel turn to God puts our actions under his command;  if he commands a violation of human rights, then so be it. There is no meaning to human rights under divine commandment.

Robert P. Kraynak observed that

People today display extreme moral sensitivity to injustices that they understand as violations of the equal rights and equal dignity of all persons – especially the rights of persons thought to be victims of discrimination and oppression. This sensitivity leads to demands for government policies on behalf of “social justice,” and for changing social customs to protect individuals and groups from insensitive words and actions.

But at the same time that people are asked to become more aware of injustices and indignities, the foundations that might justify such obligations are disappearing from philosophy, religion, science, and culture.

Kraynak says that the idea of dignity is essential to the idea of human equality. Humans must be seen to have a "special moral status in the universe," and each individual must be seen to have "unique moral worth" that makes intelligible the idea of justice. He points out that the philosopher Richard Rorty identifies himself as a “free-loading atheist” since he admits to being unable to provide secular grounding of his moral notions, and therefore "lives off of the moral inheritance of the biblical tradition without contributing to it, and even while undermining it."

Despite the inconsistency of Darwinians and moral relativists, they perform the useful service of showing how indispensable is the concept of human dignity, even when it cannot be adequately explained or justified. The great puzzle is that everyone seems to believe that man is different from all other creatures in the universe, in some essential and fundamental way – “enough even to make a moral difference,” as Dennett says – but that no one seems to know why.

Whereas Biletzki said that Aristotle and Kant offered secular groundings for ethics, Kraynak says their groundings are inadequate, as Aristotelians postulate a "rational soul" which does not jive with modern science, while Kantians require "practical postulates of morality" to be undergirded by foundations that they cannot prove. Dignity, then, seems to be a "genuine cosmic mystery." Kraynak concludes that

reason is a very powerful, but ultimately limited and incomplete, tool for finding the whole truth about man. Thus reason must seek its completion and perfection in faith. But the faith that completes or perfects reason cannot be an arbitrary faith, like the irrational leap of postmodernists and Darwinists in accepting human dignity; rather, it must be a reasonable faith – a faith that is beyond reason while not being against reason. Such a reasonable faith is what the Bible offers us: the mystery of man as a creature favored or selected by an all-powerful Creator whose will is inscrutable but benevolent. This is a faith that arises from awe and reverence at the true but insoluble mysteries of the created universe, and the special place of man in the order of creation. And it is a faith that shows us that the Judeo-Christian conception of man provides the most plausible account of human dignity – and that divine love is the ultimate foundation of human justice.

Agreeing upon a "reasonable faith" will be hard, as what is seen as "reasonable" is usually subject to differences in individuals' common sense or personal preference. One internal problem in the way that Kraynak asserts faith here is that, if God's will is "inscrutable," then by definition we do not know that God's will is "benevolent," and we probably do not know that humans are "favored or selected" by God, either. It is furthermore a circular epistemology to say that we are alerted to our special moral worth by faith that is acquired through our "awe and reverence" of our special moral worth. If we do not yet know that we have special moral worth, we cannot be in awe of it, and then we cannot acquire the faith that is needed to realize it.

Apart from considerations of how dignity is rationally justified, the humanist chaplain Greg Epstein gives an explanation of how it is "done":

...eventually we remembered that he'd been very clear about how to deal with life's tragedies: by cultivating dignity.

[Sherwin] Wine spent many years refining his definition of this ephemeral quality, a kind of stew with equal parts love, friendship, reason, justice, and self-discipline, taken with a shot of optimism and a chaser of defiance. He defined it by describing its four qualities: "The first is high self-awareness, a heightened sense of personal identity and individual reality. The second is the willingness to assume responsibility for one's own life and to avoid surrendering that responsibility to any other person or institution. The third is a refusal to find one's identity in any possession. The fourth is the sense that one's behavior is worthy of imitation by others.”

Along with these four characteristics of dignity come three moral obligations for the person who values them: First, "I have a moral obligation to strive for greater mastery and control over my own life." Second, "I have a moral obligation to be reliable and trustworthy." And third, "I have a moral obligation to be generous.”

* * *

All of us know what it feels like to realize "I am a person." But it takes a little more awareness to realize, <“I>You are also a person." And it takes even greater awareness still to recognize that I am more of a person when I am helping you to be more of a person.

* * *

So call it "integrity" if you like, or "flourishing," or ”humanity,” or call it "x" if you like. But there is a state in which you're aware of your own humanity, and you're also aware of others' humanity, and you're aware that all human beings are human. There's a state in which you're aware of your own vulnerability and mortality, and that awareness allows you to connect with others from a place of strength and empowerment. There's a state in which you don't have too much clingy connection or too much lonely disconnection, but where you combine self and other. Being in this state feels good in both the short term and long term – good enough to motivate us strongly. And so our goal is to get there and try to stay there.

Sources

Tom Beaudoin. Consuming Faith: Integrating Who We Are with What We Buy. Lanham, Md.: Sheed and Ward, 2003. p. 98.

“Rx: Dignity.” Maria Di Mento ’03. BAM. July/August 2004. p. 37.

"The Sacred and the Humane," by Anat Biletzki, NYT Opinionator blog, July 17, 2011.

Robert P. Kraynak, "Justice without Foundations," The New Atlantis, Number 32, Summer 2011, pp. 103-120.
http://www.thenewatlantis.com/publications/justice-without-foundations

Greg Epstein. Good Without God: What a Billion Nonreligious People Do Believe. William Morrow, 2009. p. 90, 93, 98.

Saturday, April 25, 2015

Literary references to low sexual libido

Some people (and fictional characters) admit to lack of sexual interest.

Andrei Platonov's fictional character Zakhar Pavlovich said, and the character Alexander reacted:

"every man has an entire imperialism down there, in the lower place...."

Alexander could not feel the imperialism within his own body, even though he deliberately imagined himself naked.

The mathematician Paul Erdos said:

Actually, I have an abnormality. I can't stand sexual pleasure. It's a curious abnormality. It's almost unique.

Nina FitzPatrick wrote a fictional character of a priest who initially does not feel sexual but then finds himself attracted to a woman:

Father Francis had never got an erection while listening to a beautiful woman. Or a man for that matter. It dawned on him, not for the first time, that he was born to indifference the way cuckoos are born to neglect their young.

* * *

It was odd to hear her addressing him as Francis rather than Father Francis. He felt it defrocked and re-penised him.

Alternatively, some people begin life with a strong sexual interest that wanes over time for various reasons. Evans D. Hopkins wrote:

Have I become a prude, in prison, you may ask? I don't think so. Rather, I have chosen celibacy as an exercise, as a means of withdrawing from the immediacy of the visceral world, in order to see things with greater clarity. Standing at some remove is almost a prerequisite for sanity in prison; the immediate world is one of clanking bars, piercing announcements, echoing shouts. The discipline of celibacy is a means of escape, of transcendence, of maintaining self-control. So no, I am hardly a prude. Sometimes I want a woman so bad I ache – longing not just for sex but for the feminine voice, the gentle touch or just the image of someone who cares for me to hang on my wall. But I have come to understand that human sexuality is a precious and powerful force that affects us both in its presence and its absence. ... The desire for sex, I have concluded, is often a guise of the broader need for human joy, and sex doesn't always satisfy that need. At the risk of sounding square, I think I have learned to satisfy my deepest needs through writing; I feel I've been able to call upon that emotional quality referred to by early philosophers as agape – love of truth, justice, beauty and humanity. I believe that my period of celibacy has helped me ground myself for this greater purpose. I no longer feel in danger of losing moral focus, or relying upon a relationship to define myself. I am by myself beneath these trees and great sky, but I am not alone. I turn to a fresh page from my notebook, and begin to draft an ad for the personals: Single Black Male, seeking special lady who wants something real this time...

Sources

Andrei Platonov. Chevengur. Translated by Anthony Olcott. Ann Arbor: Ardis, 1978 (written 1928). p 48.

Paul Erdos, interviewed in a 1993 documentary

Nina FitzPatrick. Daimons. Boston: Justin, Charles & Co, 2003. pp. 48-49, 143.

"Sex and the (Somewhat) Celibate Prisoner." Evans D. Hopkins. ©1997 Evans Hopkins and Nerve.com

SpeakEasy Stage Company's powerful and emotional delivery of 'The Whale'

Samuel D. Hunter's play "The Whale" is a drama that was presented to stunning emotional effect by the SpeakEasy Stage Company in 2014.

The themes of art, religion and the dysfunctional family come together in "The Whale." Playwright Samuel D. Hunter unflinchingly stares into many big issues, including the effect of one's self-destructive behavior on others; disrespect and cruelty toward those who do not conform; the influence of religious opinions that work to repress sexuality between men; the inspiration of literature and writing as self-expression; and the importance of optimism and kindness.

The story centers on Charlie, a kind-hearted, articulate soul with a masters degree in English, who has continued to teach essay writing online while ballooning to 600 pounds. Charlie betrays a potential character flaw in that, years ago, he left his wife and toddler daughter to pursue a relationship with another man. This man turned out to be the love of Charlie's life, but he died, leaving Charlie bereft. When the play opens, Charlie's only friend, Liz, is his enabler, bringing him food along with her odd mix of companionship and non-stop critical comments. Within the course of the play, he reconnects with his ex-wife and his estranged teenage daughter, an apparently sociopathic child who craves attention yet deliberately repels everyone. By happenstance, a Mormon teenager on a mission knocks on the door, and this character contributes a distinctly different viewpoint, one for which Charlie and Liz harbor justified anger and have little tolerance.

SpeakEasy Stage Company, performing the play at the Boston Center for the Arts from March 7-April 5, 2014, features actor John Kuntz as Charlie; Georgia Lyman as Liz; Ryan O'Connor as Elder Thomas; Josephine Elwood as Ellie; and Maureen Keiller as Mary.

One might argue that Charlie's size, which causes his immobility and the imminence of his death, is mainly a device to force people into his apartment to talk. His morbid obesity could be universalized to represent any one of a number of illnesses, addictions or manifestations of self-loathing and despair. There is not much explicit mention of Charlie's personal habits that have caused him to become obese, and the audience rarely sees him eat. Yet Cristina Todesco's set design conveys this message indirectly: The set at the BCA is littered with mountains of fast food wrappers that the actors occasionally noisily step on, creating the visual and auditory impression that the world is full of this addictive stuff and that the walls have closed in a long time ago.

There is also David Remedios' brilliant audio of whale-like clicking and moaning sounds under the sea. This evokes the irregular beat of Charlie's congestive heart failure, giving the audience a sense of what it might feel like to contend with an illness when, as Charlie quips - perhaps not inaccurately - his internal organs are "at least two feet in." It also suggests that Charlie's perception of himself, as well as others' perception of him, is as something inhuman. The whale moans indicate despair, and the sound of ocean waves reflect memories of happier times on the beach. The indistinctness of these sounds overall suggest that the truth is in a murky, inaccessible place.

The two-and-a-half-hour play, focusing non-stop on a character who is supposed to be days from death, requires an actor with stamina. Gail Astrid Buckley's costuming feat was described in great detail in The Edge. Director David R. Gammons says in the program notes:

"The [fat] suit is a remarkable piece of craftsmanship, constructed to move realistically and really capture Charlie's unique physical proportions. We also knew that we would need to use the suit starting on the first day of rehearsal; the body is key to Charlie's character. It has been astounding to watch John Kuntz take ownership of this physicality. The suit is hot and heavy to wear, even claustrophobic, and rehearsing in it is physically and emotionally taxing."

The story, set in the playwright's home state of Idaho, has a heavy emphasis on the LDS church. Hunter, although not Mormon, attended a fundamentalist Christian high school, and his plays overall tend to address religion in Idaho. A similar story might have been written about any fundamentalist American Christian group, but it's the Mormon character's penchant for doorknocking that lands him in Charlie's apartment.

The audience finds out why Charlie chose food as his suicide method, but doesn't – as Charlie himself doesn't – find out the underlying reasons for the great tragedy of his life. It may not be necessary for Charlie to uncover this history. Although Charlie has given up on himself, he seeks hope in other people. During one Q&A session after a performance at the Boston Center for the Arts, an audience member referred to Charlie as having "Anne Frank-like optimism." This is encapsulated in one of the character's emotional lines toward the end: "People are incapable of not caring."

The specific way in which Charlie wants people to show they care is through their honesty with each other. Increasingly, he wants his students in the online essay course to tell him simply what they think about their reading assignments and about their lives. As a dying man, he does not have time to beat around the bush anymore. He has patience with people who call him "disgusting" and a "monster" because of his obesity and helplessness, perhaps in part because these are labels he does not dispute. At the same time, he wants these people to become more honest with themselves. Can they focus less on pursuing the Moby Dick he's become and work more on relieving the sadness that eats them from the inside?

Originally posted to Helium Network on March 19, 2014.

Image: "Head of a Drowned Man" (c. 1819), Saint Louis Art Museum, Jean Louis Theodore Gericault (1791-1824) © public domain Wikimedia Commons.

'Uvatiarru': Past and future all around us

Authors on the past, present and future.

Charles Rowan Beye:

One wants to sort out the details of the past, but often it is like going through yesterday’s wardrobe, surprised by the irremediable damage and wastage of so much lying in those drawers next to undeniable treasures. It is not what one had expected.

Douwe Draaisma:

Thinking back about an event that has made a great impression on us, we tend to underestimate the time interval separating us from that event. Such illusions have their counterparts in psychiatry. Traumatic events are repeated in flashbacks, memories that penetrate the psychological present and that cannot be removed from it at will.

Rainer Maria Rilke:

The future enters into us, in order to transform itself in us, long before it happens.

Carl Honoré:

In some philosophical traditions – Chinese, Hindu and Buddhist, to name three – time is cyclical. On Canada's Baffin Island, the Inuit use the same word – uvatiarru – to mean both "in the distant past" and "in the distant future." Time, in such cultures, is always coming as well as going. It is constantly around us, renewing itself, like the air we breathe.

Sources

Charles Rowan Beye. My Husband and My Wives: A Gay Man’s Odyssey. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2012. [Kindle Edition] p. 4.

Douwe Draaisma. Why Life Speeds Up As You Get Older: How Memory Shapes Our Past. (2001) Translated by Arnold and Erica Pomerans in 2004. Cambridge University Press, 2005. p 205.

Rainer Maria Rilke. Quoted in Sam Keen and Anne Valley-Fox, Your Mythic Journey: Finding Meaning in Your Life Through Writing and Storytelling. New York: G. P. Putnam's Sons, 1989. p. 74. (This is a revised version of Telling Your Story, originally published 1973.)

Carl Honoré. In Praise of Slowness: Challenging the Cult of Speed. New York: HarperCollins, 2004. p. 29.

Monotony and excitement: Perceptions of time

Elizabeth Gilbert mused on the monotony of a long marriage, specifically on how the monotony builds intimacy and might be essential to the marriage. She wrote:

The poet Jack Gilbert (no relation, sadly for me) wrote that marriage is what happens "between the memorable." He said that we often look back on our marriages years later, perhaps after one spouse has died, and all we can recall are "the vacations, and emergencies" – the high points and low points. The rest of it blends into a blurry sort of daily sameness. But it is that very blurred sameness, the poet argues, that comprises marriage. Marriage is those two thousand indistinguishable conversations, chatted over two thousand indistinguishable breakfasts, where intimacy turns like a slow wheel. How do you measure the worth of becoming that familiar to somebody – so utterly well known and so thoroughly ever-present that you become an almost invisible necessity, like air?

Yet another Gilbert, on the difficulty of achieving momentum to make significant change:

The problem, [Daniel] Gilbert points out, is that we humans are constrained by ‘presentism’: ‘Most of us have a tough time imagining a tomorrow that is terribly different from today.’

Fernando Pessoa wrote of how a life made deliberately monotonous will find excitement in the smallest things. One might interpret this as deliberately lowering one's standards. Regardless, as a trick of the mind, it might be effective.

I look again, with real terror, at the panorama of those lives and, just as I'm about to feel horror, sorrow and revulsion for them, discover that the people who feel no horror or sorrow or revulsion are the very people who have the most right to, the people living those lives. That is the central error of the literary imagination: the idea that other people are like us and must therefore feel like us. Fortunately for humanity, each man is only himself and only the genius is given the ability to be others as well.

In the end, everything is relative. A tiny incident in the street, which draws the restaurant cook to the door, affords him more entertainment than any I might get from the contemplation of the most original idea, from reading the best book or from the most pleasant of useless dreams. And, if life is essentially monotonous, the truth is that he has escaped from that monotony better and more easily than I. He is no more the possessor of the truth than I am, because the truth doesn't belong to anyone; but what he does possess is happiness.<>BR
The wise man makes his life monotonous, for then even the tiniest incident becomes imbued with great significance. After his third lion the lionhunter loses interest in the adventure of the hunt. For my monotonous cook there is something modestly apocalyptic about every streetfight he witnesses. To someone who has never been out of Lisbon the tram ride to Benfica is like a trip to the infinite and if one day he were to visit Sintra, he would feel as if he had journeyed to Mars. On the other hand, the traveller who has covered the globe can find nothing new for 5,000 miles around, because he's always seeing new things; there's novelty and there's the boredom of the eternally new and the latter brings about the death of the former.

The truly wise man could enjoy the whole spectacle of the world from his armchair; he wouldn't need to talk to anyone or to know how to read, just how to make use of his five senses and a soul innocent of sadness.

One must monotonize existence in order to rid it of monotony.

Jean-Marie Guyau (1854-1888) had a contrary recommendation. In the passage below, he is interested not in the excitement value of any single new thing, but in how to create the impression of a long, full life overall.

If you want to lengthen the perspective of time, then fill it, if you have the chance, with a thousand new things. Go on an exciting journey, rejuvenate yourself by breathing new life into the world around you. When you look back you will notice that the incidents along the way and the distance you have travelled have heaped up in your imagination, all these fragments of the visible world will form up in a long row, and that, as people say so fittingly, presents you with a long stretch of time.

Cicero looked at old age more purely as a chronological fact, something that would have been attractive per se in the ancient world especially because it was more difficult to attain then. Logically, he says, if it is desirable to live long, then those who are old should be happier on this count than those who are young, since they have achieved the goal. In his writings, he argues against hedonism, and in this passage, he suggests that in old age one finds joy in the remembrance and the rewards of a life virtuously lived.

An old man indeed has nothing to hope for; yet he is in so much the happier state than a young one; since he has already attained what the other is only hoping for. The one is wishing to live long, the other has lived long. And yet, good gods! what is there in man’s life that can be called long? ... For when that [old age] arrives, then the time which has passed has flowed away; that only remains which you have secured by virtue and right conduct. Hours indeed depart from us and days and months and years; nor does past time ever return, nor can it be discovered what is to follow.

Sources

Elizabeth Gilbert. Committed: A Skeptic Makes Peace with Marriage. New York: Viking, 2010. p. 196.

Daniel Gilbert's idea described by Christopher Gergen and Gregg Vanourek. Life Entrepreneurs: Ordinary People Creating Extraordinary Lives. Jossey-Bass, 2008.

Fernando Pessoa. The Book of Disquiet. Edited by Maria Jose de Lancastre. Translated by Margaret Jull Costa. London: Serpent's Tail, 1991 (a collection of writings that were unorganized upon Pessoa's death in 1935). p. 19.

Jean-Marie Guyau, quoted in Douwe Draaisma. Why Life Speeds Up As You Get Older: How Memory Shapes Our Past. (2001) Translated by Arnold and Erica Pomerans in 2004. Cambridge University Press, 2005. p 207.

“Cicero on Old Age.” Chapter XIX. Printed in Cicero’s Three Books of Offices, and Other Moral Works. Translated by Cyrus R. Edmonds. Bohn’s Classical Library. London: George Bell & Sons, York St, Covent Garden, 1890. p. 248.

Saturday, April 18, 2015

When 'nature' symbolizes life itself and human existence

"Nature is the common, universal language, understood by all," said Kathleen Raine.

Rene Dubos:

Sophisticated and civilized as we may be, we have retained from our distant ancestors the ability to derive profound satisfactions from the small happenings of daily life – when we eat, drink, and love; sing, dance, and laugh; dream, tell stories, or illustrate them in pictures, participate in events where we can be at the same time author, actor, and spectator. ... I also long for these simple but fundamental satisfactions which reflect what was best in the biological and social past of humankind.

* * *

The present world-wide effort to save the quality of the environment transcends the problems posed by pollution and by the depletion of natural resources. It constitutes rather the beginning of a crusade to recapture certain sensory and emotional values, the need for which is universal and immutable because it is inscribed in the genetic code of the human species.

The writer Edward Abbey – wrote Wendell Berry about him – "understands that to defend and conserve oneself as a human being in the fullest, truest sense, one must defend and conserve many others and much else."

John McPhee: "The conservation movement is a mystical and religious force, and possibly the reaction to dams is so violent because rivers are the ultimate metaphors of existence, and dams destroy rivers."

Petrus Severinus said: "Go, my sons, burn your books and buy yourselves stout shoes, climb the mountains, search the valleys, the deserts, the sea shores, and the deep recesses of the earth...Observe and experiment without ceasing, for in this way and no other will you arrive at a knowledge of the true nature of things."

Sources

Rene Dubos, Beast Or Angel?: Choices That Make Us Human, New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1974. pp 7, 149

Wendell Berry, introducing a collection of Edward Abbey's writings, The Serpents of Paradise, ed. John Macrae. New York: Henry Holt and Co., Inc., 1995. p xi.

John McPhee, Encounters with the Archdruid. New York: Farrar, Strauss, and Giroux, 1971, 1992, p 159.

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

The specious claim that human calamities are caused by an angry God

Many people blame God for terrorism, natural disasters and other calamities. If they are religious, they may interpret a disaster as God's collective punishment – usually acknowledged as eminently reasonable, since it is God's will – visited upon a large group of people for the offense of a subgroup. In the cases where such thoughts are not just held privately but are expressed out loud, they may appear on the surface to provide an explanatory cause for the disaster, but they actually exploit and redirect the public's negative emotions surrounding the disaster, often with the intent of maligning an unpopular group.

Jerry Falwell's comments about Sept. 11

Two days after the terrorist attack of Sept. 11, 2011 in which militant Arab Muslims attacked New York and Washington, Rev. Jerry Falwell appeared on "The 700 Club" television show and declared:

"The abortionists have got to bear some burden for this because God will not be mocked. And when we destroy 40 million little innocent babies, we make God mad. I really believe that the pagans, and the abortionists, and the feminists, and the gays and the lesbians who are actively trying to make that an alternative lifestyle, the ACLU, People For the American Way, all of them who have tried to secularize America. I point the finger in their face and say 'you helped this happen'."

The usual theological clarification of this statement is that God did not actively violently attack people, but rather lifted his usual protection and allowed the attacks to happen; one might see the moral distinction as analogous to passive euthanasia.

A few people agreed with him. That year, on Oct. 4, the Rev. Lou Sheldon opined that relief services for victims of the terrorist attack should be meted out with a priority rating based on the victims' sexual orientations and marital status.

Most people, however, leapt to disagree with Falwell's statement. Ralph G. Neas, president of People for the American way, called Falwell's broadcast "absolutely inappropriate and irresponsible." Spencer Phillips made the pointed jab in Front Page Magazine on Sept. 17, 2001 that Falwell's type of coercive, us-and-them fundamentalism "may have been the inspiration for 9/11 because it is an opinion wholly shared by the Islamic fundamentalists behind the attack."

In 2006, David Kuo, former special assistant to President George W. Bush, wrote of Falwell's original statement:

"No one doubted Falwell's ability to make outrageous statements. This wasn't outrageous. It was immoral. It was insane."

In 2011, Biblical scholar Jennifer Wright Knust debunked the late Falwell's claims as having

"no parallel at all in biblical writings: the word 'pagan' does not appear; abortion is not discussed; there was no ancient 'feminist' movement; 'gays and lesbians' with a 'lifestyle' are never mentioned; 'secularism' as a concept had not yet been invented; and 'pedophilia' is not talked about, let alone defined as a crime..." The American Civil Liberties Union said they "refused to dignify" Falwell's broadcast with a response. Despite the wishes of many that Falwell's statement could be swept under the table, the words still ring powerfully in people's memories years after they were spoken.

Other attempts to link 'homosexuality' and 'terrorism' in the public perception

The idea that homosexuality draws God's wrath in the form of terrorist attacks resurfaced several months later in Israel. Jerusalem's first Gay Pride event was held on June 7, 2002 despite the mayor's refusal to finance it. One writer praised the gay activists for "beat[ing] the system by ignoring it, acting as if justice and peace were fait accompli instead of a receding fantasy." Counter-protesters accused the marchers of angering God and leaving Jerusalem prone to terrorist attacks.

The association of homosexuality and terrorism persisted on a subconscious level. Fox News Channel talk show host Bill O'Reilly complained on "The O'Reilly Factor" on June 2, 2010 about a new advertisement that McDonald's was airing in France inviting gay people to "come as you are." O'Reilly asked, “Do they have an Al-Qaeda ad, you know, come as you are?”

The idea that God is angered by human sexual transgression is very old, going back at least as far as a Byzantine association of homosexuality with paganism. In the year 528 CE, earthquakes hit Antioch and destroyed much of the city of Soloi Pompeiopolis. Some people blamed God's anger over human sexual transgression. The next year, a bishop from Rhodes and a bishop from Thrace were tried before the city prefect of Constantinople; one was tortured and exiled, the other castrated and put on display. "Justinian then ordered a more comprehensive round-up of people engaging in pederasty....The penalties for conviction on charges of 'religious deviance' included public humiliation, flogging, and castration – sometimes inflicted with such brutality that the victims died." Basianius, a supporter of the Greens, was "dragged out of a church" on Theodora's orders, "tortured during the trial and castrated upon conviction," according to Procopius. (David Potter, Theodora: Actress, Empress, Saint, New York: Oxford University Press, 2015, pp. 135-136.)

How do the injured parties give an account of the situation?

The otherwise satisfying belief that victims, however remotely, somehow deserve their suffering has a shortcoming: it is primarily reassuring when one's enemies suffer, and it is never a satisfying explanation for the suffering of oneself and one's allies.

Examples abound. On June 2, 2006, a small plane owned by the Rev. Pat Robertson - who, on a broad level, shares many beliefs with Jerry Falwell - crashed in Long Island Sound, killing both pilots. Would Falwell have said that God chose not to protect Robertson's property and employees because he was angry at feminists?

And why was a flammable, six-story-tall Christian statue known as "Touchdown Jesus" in Monroe, Ohio struck by lightning in 2010? Perhaps God was angry at atheistic culture, so he stopped protecting Christian works of art?

When someone is personally injured, they may feel angry, and that anger may tie in with anger about unrelated subjects. There may be a tendency to conflate two issues together even though they are plainly unrelated; in this way, people may experience complex anger about victimhood. In his book "The Belief Instinct," Jesse Bering quoted Ray Nagin, the African-American mayor of New Orleans in 2005 during Hurricane Katrina, who conflated his anger about the Iraq war with his anger about the inadequate response to Hurricane Katrina when he said to reporters: "Surely God is mad at America. Surely He's not approving of us being in Iraq under false pretense. But surely He's mad at black America, too. We're not taking care of ourselves." Nagin subsequently had to apologize and backpedal.

Collective punishment

According to theologies that involve collective punishment, people don't always suffer for the contemporary sins of their neighbors; God may turn against an entire country for something that happened hundreds of years ago. When Haiti suffered an earthquake on Jan. 13, 2010 that killed hundreds of thousands of people, Robertson commented the same day on "The 700 Club":

"They [Haitians] were under the heel of the French, uh, you know Napoleon the 3rd and whatever, and they got together and swore a pact to the Devil. ... And, uh, they kicked the French out, you know, the Haitians revolted and got themselves free. But ever since they have been cursed by, by one thing after the other, desperately poor."

White House press secretary Robert Gibbs called Robertson's comments "really stupid."

Stupider yet was the German Evangelical Conference at Darmstadt, soon after World War II ended, which "claimed that Jewish suffering in the Holocaust had been a divine visitation and called upon Jews to stop rejecting and crucifying Christ." As Bart D. Ehrman noted in "God's Problem," it "was not German Christianity's finest moment."

More recently, Rev. John Hagee argued that Hitler was the "hunter" referred to in Jeremiah 16 who pursued the Jews and who therefore at least indirectly fulfilled God's will by hastening the creation of the state of Israel. (Sen. John McCain rejected Hagee's endorsement of his 2008 presidential bid due to these comments.) Hagee also called Hurricane Katrina "an act of God for a society that has become Sodom and Gomorrah."

In 2014, Susanne Atanus, running in a primary election to become a Republican Congressional representative for Illinois, said that God was angry about same-sex marriage and abortions and that he was punishing Americans with tornadoes and autism. The state's Republican party denied that it had ever supported her and recommended that she withdraw from the race.

Oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico

Responding to the catastrophic oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010, media mogul Ted Turner said in an interview:

"I'm not a real religious person, but I'm somewhat religious and I'm just wondering if God's telling us He doesn't want us to drill offshore, because He sure is setting back offshore drilling. And right before that we had that coal mine disaster in West Virginia where we lost 29 miners and...the Chinese lost 29 miners too in another mine disaster over in China...I think maybe we just oughta leave the coal in the ground and go with solar and wind power and geothermal...could be He's sending us a message."

A different Ted Turner - the Rev. Theodore Turner of Boothville, La. - said: "The oil spill is part of prophecy. The Bible prophesized hardships." At least to the extent that he was quoted in this article, he did not, however, make the extra leap of claiming that he knew why certain hardships were befalling certain people. His seems to be a more honest, humble approach.

Not just Christianity

People of religions other than Christianity may subscribe to analogous theological beliefs.

Former Israeli chief rabbi Mordechai Eliyahu blamed opposition to the state of Israel for causing the 2004 tsunami that killed hundreds of thousands of people in Asia, and, not having learned his lesson, he told an ultra-Orthodox radio station in 2007 that the Holocaust, which killed millions of Jews and non-Jews, was God's indiscriminate punishment delivered because some Jews were modifying and liberalizing religious tradition.

Iranian Muslim cleric Hojatoleslam Kazim Sadeghi said in a YouTube video in 2010 that inappropriate female dress leads to promiscuity, and "when promiscuity spreads, earthquakes increase." The reference to earthquakes was pointed, as tens of thousands of Iranians died in an earthquake in 2003.

The governor of Tokyo, Shintaro Ishihara, said that an earthquake-caused tsunami that killed thousands of people was divine punishment [tembatsu] for the sin of "egoism and populism." John Nelson, a professor of religious studies at the University of San Francisco, explained that the Japanese Buddhist idea of "the gods having an agenda was instrumental to the ideology of the prewar years, when it was said to be Japan's divine mission to conquer Asia and establish an empire."

Bigotry against anyone doesn't improve the victims' condition

Even if one assumes that God exists and that God is offended by certain human behaviors, it is, by the laws of probability, increasingly unlikely that additional assumptions will also be true. Common assumptions can include psychologically implausible gems such as that God wants to make large numbers of innocent people suffer. Hopefully, it is obvious to most people that much of human suffering is caused, not by divine retribution, but by human malice or simple accidents – and that there is no need to compound that pain by lacing misfortune with bigotry.

Image: Tornado in Elie, Manitoba. Image by: Justin Hobson © GNU Free Documentation License, Version 1.2 or any later version Wikimedia Commons.

This article was originally posted to Helium Network on Feb. 21, 2011.

Saturday, April 11, 2015

Are we making progress?

How do human civilizations change their technologies so quickly? The interpretation of time itself changes along with technology. Richard Wrangham: "If the Waorani someday do become fully Westernized, they will have traded a life marked by the flight of a palmwood spear for one measured by the parabola of a ballistic missile.
"

Often a society's infrastructure changes faster than its constituents can adjust to it. John Steinbeck: "Another flight of jets exploded through sound. We had maybe a half-million years to get used to fire and less than fifteen to build thinking about this force so extravagantly more fierce than fire. Would we ever have the chance to make a tool of this? If the laws of thinking are the laws of things, can fission be happening in the soul? Is that what is happening to me, to us?"

Alan Watts said that some cultures have a idea of linear change that creates a historical narrative, while others see events as more cyclical and they are more likely to see "balance" as an ideal.

We might call these two types of culture progressive and historical on the one hand, and traditional and nonhistorical on the other. For the philosophy of the first is that human society is on the move, that the political state is a biological organism whose destiny is to grow and expand. Examining the record of its past, the progressive society reconstructs it as history, that is, as a significant series of events which constitute a destiny, a motion toward specific temporal goals for the society as a whole. The fabricators of such histories easily forget that their selection of "significant" events from the record is subjectively determined – largely by the need to justify the immediate political steps which they have in mind. History exists as a force because it is created or invented here and now.


 On the other hand, traditional societies are nonhistorical in that they do not imagine themselves to be in linear motion toward temporal goals. Their records are not histories but simple chronicles which delineate no pattern in human events other than a kind of cycling like the rotation of the seasons. Their political philosophy is to maintain the balance of nature upon which the human community depends, and which is expressed in public rites celebrating the timeless correspondences between the social order and the order of the universe.
"

One of the dangers of the "progressive"/"historical"/"linear" worldview is that people sometimes see violence as an unavoidable means to whatever they see as the next end of the narrative. "History aches for such an act of greatness," said William F. Buckley, Jr., advocating pre-emptive nuclear strikes against Communist China's developing nuclear capabilities – twentieth-century war we must be relieved did not come to pass.

How do we collectively avoid the error of advocating violence? Nuclear war brings to mind great violence and the silence that follows. Stephan A. Hoeller said that we must be able to envision a positive alternative to war:

"Dennis Stillings wrote in 1988 that he attended a lecture by a New Age lecturer who said that if you visualize world peace, you can bring it about. But the lecturer failed to provide a concrete image of peace. Stillings doubted that such an image was possible – he could only imagine the silence after a nuclear holocaust. 'In my opinion, there is no clear and definite image of peace that does not also draw into consciousness imagery of its opposite: violence and war.'"

A clear image of peace would enable us to aspire to achieve it, whether we understand war and peace and our civilization itself as linear or cyclical.

'Linear' and 'cyclical' are not necessarily the only two perspectives that can be taken about time. Another question to be asked is whether all eras – regardless of whether they have an element of repetition or return – have similar meanings and worth. Heschel:

"The historian Ranke claimed that every age is equally near to God. Yet Jewish tradition claims that there is a hierarchy of moments within time, that all ages are not alike."

Sources

Richard Wrangham and Dale Peterson. Demonic Males: Apes and the Origins of Human Violence. New York: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1996. p. 80.

John Steinbeck. The Winter of Our Discontent. Penguin, 1983 (originally 1961). p 175.

Alan Watts, Nature, Man, and Woman, New York: Vintage Books, 1991 (Copyright 1958). p 16.

William F. Buckley, Jr. Quotations from Chairman Bill: The Best of Wm. F. Buckley, Jr. Compiled by David Franke. Pocket Book, 1971. p 4. from NR, Dec. 29, 1964, p 1143.

Dennis Stillings, quoted by Stephan A. Hoeller. Jung and the Lost Gospels: Insights into the Dead Sea Scrolls and the Nag Hammadi Library. Illinois: Theosophical Publishing House, 1989. p 237.

Abraham Joshua Heschel. The Sabbath: Its Meaning for Modern Man. New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 1951. p. 96.

Monday, April 6, 2015

Why the US scuttled the rainbow-colored terrorism threat chart

In 2011, the U.S. Dept. of Homeland Security replaced the rainbow-colored National Terrorism Advisory System with a new Homeland Security Advisory System.

The new National Terrorism Advisory System (NTAS) took effect in the United States on April 26, 2011. It replaced the Homeland Security Advisory System (HSAS) which was introduced on March 12, 2002 by a presidential directive.

History of the iconic rainbow-colored chart

HSAS was originally developed by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security to warn the public of the possibility of imminent terrorist attack. It was represented by the iconic rainbow-colored chart in which red is "Severe," orange is "High," yellow is "Elevated," blue is "Guarded" and green is "Low." With yellow as the default, the threat level was raised to orange five times in the first two years. Each of these so-called "orange alerts" lasted an average of 19 days and did not specify the nature of the threat about which the public was supposedly being warned.

HSAS subsequently began to provide more information about the threats. Only days after the Democratic National Convention in 2004, there was an orange alert that lasted 102 days regarding the financial services sectors in New York, New Jersey and Washington, D.C. This alert was based largely on intelligence that pre-dated 9/11. In 2005, an orange alert for mass transit lasted 36 days. In August 2006, all commercial flights were placed on an orange alert which was never lifted until the HSAS was dissolved in April 2011.

Criticism

Critics complained that the color-coded HSAS was vague and offered no practical guidance that individuals could use to protect themselves. "The terror alert system may be contributing to the very panic and confusion in our society that the terrorists seek to generate," Sen. Frank Lautenberg, D-N.J., said in a press statement in 2003. In a 2005 op-ed for the New York Times, Stephen E. Flynn, of the Council on Foreign Relations, complained U.S. intelligence is not actually able to analyze information quickly enough to provide useful public warning and that the government should not portray a monolithic threat level when certain areas are at more risk than others. Flynn cited figures that show a public outlay of about $10 million for each day the country is on "orange alert."

On July 14, 2009, DHS Secretary Janet Napolitano announced there would be a 60-day review of the effectiveness of the HSAS. A month later, former DHS Secretary Tom Ridge alleged he had been pressured to raise the threat level the night before President Bush's re-election in November 2004. (He said the incident was detailed in his forthcoming book "The Test of Our Times.") Although alerts could be issued without Ridge's approval by the members of the Homeland Security Advisory Council - who, at the time, included Attorney General John Ashcroft, FBI chief Robert Mueller, CIA director George Tenet, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and Secretary of State Colin Powell - Ridge said he successfully argued against raising the threat level in Nov. 2004. The orange alert was actually lowered to yellow on Nov. 10, and Ridge announced his resignation on Nov. 30.

The introduction of a new system

With Napolitano's acknowledgement that HSAS "has faded in utility except for late-night comics," her task force recommended eliminating the never-used lower levels of blue and green. The new NTAS system unveiled on April 20, 2011 reduced the number of alert levels to only two. Under the new system, there is no default alert level. If there is a specific threat, an alert will be issued on either the "elevated" or "imminent" level (the latter being the more severe). Details specific to the threat will be announced on television, radio, Twitter, Facebook, and on www.dhs.gov/alerts. If there is no reason to extend the alert, it will automatically expire after two weeks.

The system is improved

Andrew McCarthy, a former federal prosecutor who went after suspects in the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center, told Fox News: "I never thought that color coding made America safer to begin with." Many Americans held the same opinion, and they were probably right. The average airplane passenger has all but forgotten that the permanent "orange alert" was removed in 2011, and air travel seems no more risky today for its lack of a color-coded fear level.

Originally posted to Helium Network on March 4, 2007. Updated April 2014 on Helium Network.

Sunday, April 5, 2015

The shooting of child peace activist Malala Yousufzai by the Taliban in Pakistan

An award-winning young Pakistani peace activist was shot in a deliberate attack in October 2012. She underwent surgery, the cost of which the Pakistani government and several hospitals promised to cover, and she was expected to recover from her injuries.

The shooting targeted Malala Yousufzai, 14, who for several years has advocated secularism and education opportunities for girls in a blog for BBC Urdu. She reported on life in the Swat Valley where the Taliban was burning girls' schools. Last year, she was nominated for the International Children's Peace Prize and received the National Peace Prize from one of Pakistan's former prime ministers. 

On Oct. 9, 2012, strange men disguised with scarves approached a school bus in Malala's hometown of Mingora, asked the children to point out Malala to him, and then fired. Two bullets struck her head and neck. Surgeons said her skull was cracked, and although the bullet did not penetrate her brain, her brain swelled and she was unresponsive. A bullet had to be surgically removed from her neck.

Two of her female classmates were also wounded in the attack. They were shot in the shoulder and in the leg.

News of the attack quickly spread across the world. At a concert in Los Angeles the next day, the singer Madonna stripped to her bra, displaying the name "MALALA" written on her lower back.

Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan claimed responsibility for the attempted assassination. Calling the girl "pro-West" and "against Taliban," the group's spokesman warned that they would try to kill her again if she survived her injuries, and that "anybody who speaks against us will be attacked in the same way."

All schools in the Swat Valley – a large area near the border of Afghanistan that is home to about one million Pakistanis – temporarily closed in response to the shooting.

Speaking two days after the attack, Pakistan's foreign minister Hina Rabbani Khar said that about a hundred people had been arrested for possible connections with the attackers.

Pakistan's president Asif Ali Zardari condemned the attack. Zardari has unfortunately been affected by such violence many times, including by the assassination of his own wife, former prime minister Benazir Bhutto, in 2007. In the wake of Malala's shooting, Zardari invited former U.K. prime minister Gordon Brown to travel to Pakistan in the near future to discuss children's education. Brown accepted, and he referred to Malala as an "icon for courage and hope."

"Directing violence at children is barbaric, it's cowardly," said a spokesperson for the U.S. State Department.

The spokesperson for United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said that the Secretary-General's sympathies were with the wounded girls' families, and that he "expresses his solidarity with the Government and people of Pakistan in their efforts to confront violent extremism."

After her injury, Malala continued her advocacy work for the rights of all children to have an education. Two years and a day after the shooting, she won the Nobel Peace Prize in October 2014. Pakistan's prime minister, Nawaz Sharif, called her “the pride of Pakistan”. Malala cannot go home to Pakistan, however, for her own safety. She attends school in Birmingham, England.

This article was originally posted to Helium Network on Oct. 12, 2012, under the headline "The world hopes for Malala's swift recovery: Child peace activist Malala Yousufzai shot by the Taliban in Pakistan." Pencil drawing by Tucker Lieberman, based on a photograph of Malala Yousufzai.

How to find your muse

Are you artistically "blocked"? The majority of frustrated artists have simply lost contact with their muse, the sublime inner voice of inspiration. Here is a twelve-step guide on how to find your muse and wrap her around your little finger.

Genesis

The creation story begins with separation. So does all philosophical inquiry worth its salt. You can't find anything until you've defined what you're looking for.

Technology

Choose the tools you need to find this wayward lady muse.  Your technology will be specific to the muse in question. For example, if you were searching for any of the following things, you'd need the special search tool indicated.

  • the Loch Ness Monster: sonar
  • the Yeti: snowshoes
  • pennies on the beach: a metal detector
  • your lover's secret lover: tracking by the phone company
  • an old newspaper article: library microfiche
  • an answer to a problem: a weeklong vacation
  • a lost cat: posters on utility poles
  • a missing cordless phone: its pager
  • the burst Christmas lightbulb that interrupts the whole circuit: process of elimination
  • a certain brand of fruit juice: customer service
  • a crashed kite: the end of a tangled string
  • the names of the Seven Dwarves: persistent recitation
  • love: craigslist

Faith

Cognitive scientists have demonstrated that you can find something faster if you are certain it's there to be found. Your next step is to believe you have a muse who's waiting to reveal herself to you.

Echo / Antiphon

Say whatever you please, first in your own voice, then imitating the voice of your muse. This will annoy her enough to come out of hiding and talk back. Surprise! When she answers you, she'll say something you could never have thought up yourself. That's how you'll know it's her.

Play hard to get

Now that she's planted her fingers on your hips, think happy thoughts about something you've always wanted - aside from your muse.

Lust and the identity of desire

Who or what inside you desires a muse? What, for that matter, does your muse see in you?

Shadow

This may come as a staggering revelation, but it is not by luck alone that your muse finds her way through your haunted forests - she is part of you.

You are what you eat

Speaking of which, what have you eaten lately?

Exomologesis of scrumping

Make a formal confession of the wrong paths down which you've galumphed; eating pears that weren't yours while you were supposed to be searching for a missing lady.

Reverse psychology

Disabuse yourself of the notion that your muse cares about you or your work. She doesn't.

Shrink

Be a headshrinker to your muse. If she's been silent for a long time, chances are she's felt isolated and needs professional help.

Cleanse

Prepare your mind and body to receive your muse with a sacrificial offering. This cleansing has a double meaning: for thousands of years, roasting animal sacrifices dripped fat onto ashes, making soap. Thus, if you cannot sacrifice, at least take a shower.

These twelve steps virtually guarantee that you will find your muse. If you do all these things and she still isn't yours for keeps, face facts: she ran off to Vegas and married someone else. Get over her, and write your book by yourself.

Originally posted to Helium Network on May 26, 2010.

Image by D. J. Shin. Creative Commons Attribution - Share Alike 3.0 Unported license. Wikimedia Commons.

Saturday, April 4, 2015

Public shamings

Christie Thompson's article for The Marshall Project lists incidences where judges have required offenders to hold signs in public identifying their crimes, ranging from illegal whitewater rafting to killing someone while driving drunk. Sexual crimes have also been punished by public shaming: men have had to wear chicken suits as punishment for soliciting sex, or put their photos in the newspaper identifying them as child molesters.

“Only an idiot drives on the sidewalk to avoid a school bus.” She used the same tactic for a man who called 911 and threatened to kill police officers. His sign read: “I apologize to officer Simone & all police officers for being an idiot calling 911 threatening to kill you. I'm sorry and it will never happen again." What Everyone Gets WrongPublic shamings are not just for petty crimes: In 2012, a Texas man on probation for drunk driving was ordered to return to the scene of the crash for four Saturdays from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. with a sign reading, “I killed Aaron Coy Pennywell while driving drunk.”

Extrajudicial public shamings are another matter. These occur when someone is angry and decides to embarrass or humiliate another person. This can happen en masse on social media, especially when someone is perceived as being socially privileged and being snotty at, dismissive of, or cruel to less privileged people or otherwise abusing their own privilege.

"Doxxing" is a term that refers to exposing people online. Some people have described "ethical doxxing" or "doxxing for good," meaning that cruel or unjust people should be exposed as punishment. One problem is that playing whack-a-mole with an individual – or two – who happens to express a bigoted opinion – or three – may not be the most effective way to change what ails society. Another problem is that collective bashing can easily target a person who happens to be actually innocent of what the mob accuses them. Furthermore, “when we look at language used around doxxing for ‘good,’ it’s very similar to the language used by those trying to silence us.” After all, “in social justice, the ends don’t justify the means: The means are everything. There is nothing more than what we are actually doing right now. If our pursuit of justice means that a few innocent people are subjected to injustice due to our actions, can we actually say that it’s justice we are fighting for?”

Jon Ronson (@jonronson), author of So You've Been Publicly Shamed, explained that the instant virtual mob is not always rational in its evaluation and selection of a target, and that it is rarely merciful. It often occurs when someone makes a joke that is meant to be contrarian or sarcastic and misfires because it is taken out of its full context or is otherwise simply not skillfully done or very funny at all.

Ronson referenced the incident where a young woman made a comment on Twitter implying that only black people, not white people, get AIDS in Africa, and while she was sleeping on a long flight from the US to South Africa, her comment became the top trending tweet worldwide and she was subject of comments that amounted to aggressive public shaming – in addition to, and probably also as a result of which, she was fired from her job. Ronson said on the On Point radio show on April 2, 2015:

"One person wrote [on Twitter] while she was asleep [on the plane to South Africa]: Somebody HIV-positive should rape her and then we'll see if her skin color protects her from AIDS. Nobody went after that person because we were all so excited about going after Justine Sacco. It's like we can only – it's like we're so primitive – like our shaming on Twitter is so primitive, we've only got enough space in our brains to destroy one person a night. We couldn't handle destroying someone who was inappropriately destroying Justine. So in fact while she slept obliviously on her plane, she united the world in condemnation from nice people like us who were saying 'I am going to donate to aid to Africa in the light of this disgusting tweet,' through to 'rape her.' She united the world in condemnation."

Another example occurred when two young women had a running joke with each other in which they would pose in front of randomly selected posted signs appearing to engage in behavior that contradicted the sign's instructions. The problem occurred when they found a sign in Arlington National Cemetery that commanded "Silence and respect," and they posed for a picture demonstrating disrespect. The context was that they were simply contradicting whatever the sign said. Collective outrage was sparked because the background was Arlington National Cemetery. They were intending only to make fun of signs in general, but because of the inelegant selection of national sacred ground, they were subjected to intense public shaming.

He also acknowledged that people who participate in the social-media shaming of someone else may be drawing attention to themselves, and may themselves suffer consequences, including losing their jobs.

"See, everybody thinks they're punching up, right? Everybody thinks they're fighting the good fight, they're being like Rosa Parks. Of course, they're not like Rosa Parks, because Rosa Parks was courageous. And it's just carnage."

He said that this kind of "surveillance" is an "unfair" and "damaging way to create a society" because it attempts to characterize people based on only one or two comments, which may have occurred long ago and may not be representative of what they currently think or of what they ever thought. The risk of backlash is "chilling ideas" and pushes people toward conformism.

He also spoke about judicial shaming. He found that people who were forced to hold placards on street corners often received empathy from passersby and offers of help to turn their lives around. Social media shaming, he found, is rarely informed by that kind of empathy.

Ronson: "On the Internet, nobody is saying to the shamed person: Everything's going to be OK. In real life, we are lovely; on the Internet, we are drone strike operators."
Ashbrook: "Why is that? What's unleashed here?"
Ronson: "I think it's partly because social media is set up as a kind of mutual approval machine. We surround ourselves with people who feel the same way we do, and we approve each other."

This somewhat contrasts what Christie Thompson found, at least in the 2012 case of a Texas man whose punishment for a drunk-driving fatality was cut short after he claimed to have received death threats while holding up a sign admitting to his offense. Those labeled sex offenders, in particular, rarely meet with empathy.

In Monica Lewinsky's March 2015 Ted Talk, "The price of shame," she acknowledges that her name is in "almost 40 rap songs." She says that most people do things at 22 that they later regret, including falling in love with the wrong person or even one's boss. The boss she fell in love with happened to be the President of the United States, and therefore, she muses: "I'm probably the only person over 40 who does not want to be 22 again." What was unique about her story was that it broke online. Even though, in the late 1990s, social media hadn't been invented yet, they did transmit information online, and it was "a click that reverberated around the world." She says: "I was Patient Zero of losing a personal reputation on the global scale almost instantaneously." People began to have images of their private lives made "public without consent, public without context, and public without compassion." In 2010, she empathized with an 18-year-old college freshman whose sexual interaction with another male was videotaped and distributed; he immediately committed suicide. Learning of his death was her personal "turning point" that made her want to get involved in understanding and fighting against "technologically enhanced shaming" for the sake of others who are enduring it. She acknowledges the cycle of "the more shame, the more clicks; the more clicks, the more advertising dollars." Readers are being used: "The more numb we get, the more we click." She acknowledges that she was personally "saved" from the consequences of her ordeal by compassion from others, and she quotes Brené Brown: "Shame can't survive empathy."

Lewinsky asks: Are we speaking up with intention or for attention? Too often, it's the latter: "The Internet is the superhighway for the id."

Leora Tanenbaum wrote in I Am Not a Slut: Slut-Shaming in the Age of the Internet that, given our society's understanding of femininity and sexuality, it is "rational behavior" for girls to deliberately project a sexual image and simultaneously claim that this is not their intent. The double standard for boys and girls has always existed, but today, "there's always someone nearby with a smart phone, ready to snap a photo, upload, and tag," Beth Schwartzapfel explained in an article about Tanenbaum. One of the responses is a focus and a centering in human dignity. Tanenbaum wrote: "Remember, you are not a slut. And neither is anyone else."

Sources

"Public shamings: Why judges sometimes opt for sandwich boards, chicken suits, and other embarrassing punishments." Christie Thompson. The Marshall Project. March 31, 2015.

"Taking Down Bigots With Their Own Weapons Is Sweet, Satisfying – And Very, Very Wrong," Ijeoma Oluo, Medium.com, April 6, 2015.

"Shame: What Is It Good For? (Probably Nothing)." Jon Ronson, interviewed by Tom Ashbrook. On Point. April 2, 2015.

"The price of shame," a Ted Talk by Monica Lewinsky, March 2015.

"Who's a slut?: How to grow up under the scrutiny of smart phones and social media sites." Beth Schwartzapfel. Brown Alumni Magazine, March/April 2015. pp. 42-43.

Friday, April 3, 2015

Neoliberalism

Wendy Brown, author of Undoing the Demos: Neoliberalism’s Stealth Revolution (Zone Books, 2015)
In this book, I treat neoliberalism as a governing rationality through which everything is “economized” and in a very specific way: human beings become market actors and nothing but, every field of activity is seen as a market, and every entity (whether public or private, whether person, business, or state) is governed as a firm. Importantly, this is not simply a matter of extending commodification and monetization everywhere—that’s the old Marxist depiction of capital’s transformation of everyday life. Neoliberalism construes even non-wealth generating spheres—such as learning, dating, or exercising—in market terms, submits them to market metrics, and governs them with market techniques and practices. Above all, it casts people as human capital who must constantly tend to their own present and future value.

She continues,

Here’s where thinking about neoliberalism as a governing rationality is important: this rationality switches the meaning of democratic values from a political to an economic register. Liberty is disconnected from either political participation or existential freedom, and is reduced to market freedom unimpeded by regulation or any other form of government restriction. Equality as a matter of legal standing and of participation in shared rule is replaced with the idea of an equal right to compete in a world where there are always winners and losers.

The promise of democracy depends upon concrete institutions and practices, but also on an understanding of democracy as the specifically political reach by the people to hold and direct powers that otherwise dominate us. Once the economization of democracy’s terms and elements is enacted in law, culture, and society, popular sovereignty becomes flatly incoherent. In markets, the good is generated by individual activity, not by shared political deliberation and rule. And, where there are only individual capitals and marketplaces, the demos, the people, do not exist.

An example? Take, perhaps, Saudi Arabia's recall of its ambassador to Sweden, after Sweden's foreign minister Margot Wallstrom criticized Saudi Arabia in March 2015 for its treatment of women (who cannot leave home without a male guardian and cannot drive under any circumstances) and for its sentencing of blogger Raif Badawi to 1,000 lashes. She went on to voice her opinion that Sweden should not sell arms to Saudi Arabia. Leaders of major Swedish companies voiced their opposition to Wallstrom's comments, and Sweden's king and prime minister struck a note of apology with the Saudi king. Nick Cohen observed the economic importance for Sweden of its relations with Saudi Arabia:

Sweden is the world’s 12th largest arms exporter — quite an achievement for a country of just nine million people. Its exports to Saudi Arabia total $1.3 billion. Business leaders and civil servants are also aware that other Muslim-majority countries may follow Saudi Arabia’s lead.

Cohen said that "the rest of liberal Europe shows no interest in supporting her," and he added that "a Europe that is getting older and poorer is starting to find that moral stands in foreign policy are luxuries it can no longer afford."

Christopher Lasch wrote in 1984 that the social changes brought about by industrialization

have gradually transformed a productive system based on handicraft production and regional exchange into a complex, interlocking network of technologies based on mass production, mass consumption, mass communications, mass culture: on the assimilation of all activities, even those formerly assigned to private life, to the demands of the marketplace. These developments have created a new kind of selfhood, characterized by some observers as self-seeking, hedonistic, competitive, and ‘antinomian’...Critics of ‘hedonism’ attribute its increasing appeal to the collapse of educational standards, the democratization of an ‘adversary culture’ that formerly appealed only to the intellectual avant-garde, and the decline of political authority and leadership. They complain that people think too much about rights instead of thinking about duties.
This criticism – and its common rejoinder that it’s good to give people options in life – both fail to question, Lasch wrote, “the debased conception of democracy that reduces it, in effect, to the exercise of consumer preferences. Neither side questions the equation of selfhood with the ability to play a variety of roles and to assume an endless variety of freely chosen identities.”

Lasch explained some of the philosophical history behind this assumption:

The highest form of practice, for Aristotle and his followers, is politics, which seeks to promote the good life by conferring equal rights on all citizens and by establishing rules and conventions designed not so much to solve the problems of social living as to encourage citizens to test themselves against demanding standards of moral excellence (for example, in contests of oratorical skill and physical prowess) and thus to develop their gifts to the highest pitch. The Aristotelian conception of practice has more in common with play than with activities defined as practical in the modern sense. Practices in the Aristotelian sense have nothing to do, as such, with the production of useful objects or with satisfying material needs. This goes even for the practice of politics. Only in the sixteenth century did Machiavelli and Thomas More define material survival, the physical maintenance of life, as the chief business of the state. From that position it was a short step to the modern conception of politics as political economy, which assumes, as Jürgen Habermas points out, that “individuals are exclusively motivated to maximize their private wants, desires, and interests.”

David Callahan, more briefly: "Liberals have made serious mistakes in the past forty years. In a sentence, they have failed to think enough about either the downsides of social freedom or the upsides of economic freedom."

Siva Vaidhyanathan explained neoliberalism in 2011:

The notion of gentle, creative state involvement to guide processes toward the public good was impossible to imagine, let alone propose.

This vision was known as neoliberalism. Although Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher championed it, Bill Clinton and Tony Blair mastered it. It had its roots in two prominent ideologies: techno-fundamentalism, an optimistic belief in the power of technology to solve problems (which I describe fully in chapter 3), and market fundamentalism, the notion that most problems are better (at least more efficiently) solved by the actions of private parties rather than by state oversight or investment. And it was not just a British and American concept. It was deployed from Hong Kong to Singapore, Chile, and Estonia.

Rachel Maddow wrote in 2012:

Counterinsurgency doctrine [for example, that produced by The U.S. Army /Marine Corps Counterinsurgency Field Manual by David Petraeus, which Maddow described as “a can-do treatise on how to fight wars that were both indefinite and expandable, a full-on twenty-first century rewrite of US military doctrine”] is elegant and fulfilling as an academic exercise, particularly for liberals: the story of how a public entity (that is, the military) does everything the right way, anticipating and meeting a population’s every need, and thereby wins. The idea is that the Iraqis will love us in the end, and want to be like us, as long as our military applies the correct principles.

Stanley Fish, in 2009:

Short-term transactions-for-profit replace long-term planning designed to produce a more just and equitable society. Everyone is always running around doing and acquiring things, but the things done and acquired provide only momentary and empty pleasures (shopping, trophy houses, designer clothing and jewelry), which in the end amount to nothing. Neoliberalism, David Harvey explains, delivers a “world of pseudo-satisfactions that is superficially exciting but hollow at its core.” (A Brief History of Neoliberalism.)

Sources

Booked #3: "What Exactly is Neoliberalism?" Wendy Brown, interviewed by Timothy Shenk. April 2, 2015.

"Sweden’s feminist foreign minister has dared to tell the truth about Saudi Arabia. What happens now concerns us all," Nick Cohen, The Spectator, March 28, 2015.

Christopher Lasch. The Minimal Self: Psychic Survival in Troubled Times. New York: W. W. Norton and Co., 1984. pp. 51-52, 254.

David Callahan. The Moral Center: How We Can Reclaim our Country from Die-Hard Extremists, Rogue Corporations, Hollywood Hacks, and Pretend Patriots. USA: Harcourt, 2006. p. 19.

Siva Vaidhyanathan. The Googlization of Everything: (And Why We Should Worry). University of California, March 2011.

Rachel Maddow, Drift: The Unmooring of American Military Power, 2012. p. 210.

"Neoliberalism and Higher Education." Stanley Fish. "Think Again" blog for the New York Times. March 8, 2009.