Monday, December 09, 2013
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Wednesday, December 11, 2013
As the letters proceed, the reader is drawn again into the central drama of Cézanne's life: his tenacious pursuit of his ideas about painting. Even his slight sketches have a remarkable hold on our attention and convey a sense, not of realism, which Zola advised him to abjure, but of the real. He was afflicted with hesitations and uncertainty, and required much persuasion from Zola before he left Aix for Paris. Once there he immediately wanted to return, but stayed five months. It took another year at home before he returned to Paris, in 1862, this time staying for almost two years. Back with his family in 1866, he wrote to Camille Pissarro, 'I'm here in the bosom of my family, with the foulest people on earth, those who make up family, excruciatingly annoying.' No wonder he began to insist on his need to be elsewhere. No wonder that Zola complained, 'Convincing Cézanne of something is like persuading the towers of Notre Dame to execute a quadrille.'
He was becoming a thinker-painter.
This test is the subject of the Book of Job. Is there such a thing as disinterested faith? Will people go on believing in God if they are not rewarded—indeed, if they are unjustly punished? And why should they be faithful to a God who allows the wicked to triumph and the innocent to suffer? Mark Larrimore, the director of the religious-studies program at the New School, has published “The Book of Job: A Biography” (Princeton University Press), which is a “reception history,” chronicling the answers given to that riddle by commentators from the midrash—the rabbinical meditations that were first compiled in the third century—down to Elie Wiesel.
When God first unleashes Satan on Job, he tells him that he must not damage the man physically. So Satan just kills Job’s children, servants, and livestock. In response, Job tears his robe, shaves his head, falls to the ground—and worships God! “The Lord gave, and the Lord hath taken away,” he says. “Blessed be the name of the Lord.” Satan returns to God and complains that as long as Job remains physically unharmed the test isn’t valid: “But put forth thine hand now, and touch his bone and his flesh, and he will curse thee to thy face.”
Jeanene Swanson in Scientific American:
Depression strikes some 35 million people worldwide, according to the World Health Organization, contributing to lowered quality of life as well as an increased risk of heart disease and suicide. Treatments typically include psychotherapy, support groups and education as well as psychiatric medications. SSRIs, or selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors, currently are the most commonly prescribed category of antidepressant drugs in the U.S., and have become a household name in treating depression. The action of these compounds is fairly familiar. SSRIs increase available levels of serotonin, sometimes referred to as the feel-good neurotransmitter, in our brains. Neurons communicate via neurotransmitters, chemicals which pass from one nerve cell to another. A transporter molecule recycles unused transmitter and carries it back to the pre-synaptic cell. For serotonin, that shuttle is called SERT (short for “serotonin transporter”). An SSRI binds to SERT and blocks its activity, allowing more serotonin to remain in the spaces between neurons. Yet, exactly how this biochemistry then works against depression remains a scientific mystery.
In fact, SSRIs fail to work for mild cases of depression, suggesting that regulating serotonin might be an indirect treatment only. “There’s really no evidence that depression is a serotonin-deficiency syndrome,” says Alan Gelenberg, a depression and psychiatric researcher at The Pennsylvania State University. “It’s like saying that a headache is an aspirin-deficiency syndrome.” SSRIs work insofar as they reduce the symptoms of depression, but “they’re pretty nonspecific,” he adds. Now, research headed up by neuroscientists David Gurwitz and Noam Shomron of Tel Aviv University in Israel supports recent thinking that rather than a shortage of serotonin, a lack of synaptogenesis (the growth of new synapses, or nerve contacts) and neurogenesis (the generation and migration of new neurons) could cause depression. In this model lower serotonin levels would merely result when cells stopped making new connections among neurons or the brain stopped making new neurons. So, directly treating the cause of this diminished neuronal activity could prove to be a more effective therapy for depression than simply relying on drugs to increase serotonin levels.
Stephen Kinzer in The Guardian:
Most Pakistani politics is conducted within a narrow spectrum. Politicians spend much time debating the best ways to fight India, or take Kashmir, or dominate Afghanistan, or punish the United States for its real and imagined sins. Now comes a voice arguing that these debates are meaningless in a country that cannot care for its own citizens and is fast becoming a pariah state. It is the voice of Husain Haqqani, a wily veteran of Pakistani politics who served as his country's ambassador to the United States from 2008 to 2011. During those years, Pakistani-American relations were fraught with tension and mistrust. Haqqani had to deal with fallout from the American raid that killed Osama bin Laden, and with the arrest of a CIA contractor, Raymond Davis, for the murder of two Pakistanis. His diplomatic skill and dense web of contacts in Washington helped contain these crises and maintain a semblance of partnership in the increasingly poisoned US-Pakistan relationship.
Now Haqqani has published a book exploring the roots of this relationship and explaining how it became so toxic. Its arresting title is Magnificent Delusions: Pakistan, the United States, and an Epic History of Misunderstanding. As a trenchant and unsparing account of how these two countries came to mistrust each other so deeply, despite pretending to be friends, this book is unmatched. Its implicit message – the need to remake Pakistan – is even more provocative. Haqqani has been travelling around the United States, where he now lives, preaching this message. Officially he is on a book tour, but it feels like something more. Haqqani is laying out a radically different path for his homeland. His campaign is important not only to Pakistanis, but to all who are terrified by threats to global security posed by what Liam Fox, a former United Kingdom defense secretary, recently called "the most dangerous country in the world".
Tuesday, December 10, 2013
Imraan Coovadia in n + 1:
President Nelson Mandela died on December 5. There are countless remembrances in South Africa of his grace and wit, his strength, and the unconstrained speed of his forgiveness. When you take him at his word, though, you can see something else behind the beautiful character. In politics, he described himself as a strategist. He liked to make a friend, or neutralize an adversary; he liked, best of all, to transform his adversaries. For this reason his strategy, if it ever was one, was a form of the golden rule. His shrewdness about people was innocent and particular and apparently down-to-earth, and it was visible early in his life: “There is a fellow I became friendly with at Healdtown [a Methodist school], and that friendship bore fruit when I reached Johannesburg. A chap called Zachariah Molete. He was in charge of sour milk in Healdtown, and if you were friendly to him, he would give you very thick sour milk.” Mandela applied the same lesson to his jailors on Robben Island, and, in the end, to the National Party as a whole.
Imagine yourself in a small boat that has stopped midway between a river and a raging waterfall below. This is how the man with the tragic sense of life lives. It is, in any case, how Miguel de Unamuno lived — in a state of existential crisis, hovering over the abyss.
Imagine, now, that you are dead. You can’t do it; no matter how hard you try. It is literally impossible, wrote Unamuno, to imagine ourselves as not existing, no matter how great our imagination. Sit for a moment, he suggested, and try to imagine your mind — your consciousness — as it is when you are in a deep, dreamless sleep. It makes your head hurt. Try even harder and you will start to feel crazy. “It is like a cramped cell,” wrote Unamuno, “against the bars of which my soul beats its wings in vain. Its lack of air stifles me. More, more, and always more!”
I want to be myself, and yet without ceasing to be myself to be others as well, to merge myself into the totality of things visible and invisible, to extend myself into the illimitable of space and to prolong myself into the infinite of time. Not to be all and for ever is as if not to be—at least, let me be my whole self, and be so for ever and ever. And to be the whole of myself is to be everybody else. Either all or nothing!
It turns out that for a not insignificant fee, literary museums and author’s homes will often let guests handle the artifacts, materials, and manuscripts of long-deceased writers. On a chilly, windblown visit to the Brontë Parsonage, I once held, in gloved hands, the tiny 2-inch-by-2-inch booklets the startlingly precocious Brontë children sewed and then filled with tales of imaginary lands. To hold and smell and access a manuscript at such close range was an inimitable experience. An exhaustive digital archive may satiate the researcher and gratify the fan, but a manuscript’s essence is inevitably tarnished when observed through a screen.
What makes The Gorgeous Nothings—a facsimile collection of the poems Emily Dickinson composed, as she often did, on envelopes—so riveting is that despite presenting reproductions it very nearly captures what Walter Benjamin would have referred to as the envelopes’ auras. Perfectly to scale, warmly photographed, and positioned inside a generous, expansive white margin, the envelopes are nearly as breathtaking on the page as they might be in the hand. But to merely call The Gorgeous Nothings, and the envelope poems within it, beautiful, would do a disservice to Marta Werner and Jen Bervin’s remarkable artistic and scholarly achievement.
William Lane Craig has faced Richard Dawkins in a debate about the existence of God only once. It was on November 13, 2010—part of La Ciudad de las Ideas, a three-day, all-star conference in Puebla, Mexico. The setting there suited the drama of the occasion; a podium stood at the center of a full-size boxing ring, which the debaters mounted in turn. The event’s organizer, the Mexican television personality Andrés Roemer, later described them to me as “gladiatores mentales” in “a war of intelligence and arguments.” There were three men on each side. Three thousand people watched live in the audience, and as many as ten million saw it on TV, especially when it was rebroadcast after the boxing match the following night between Manny Pacquiao and Antonio Margarito.
Richard Dawkins, whose name many people are likelier to know than Craig’s, was once professor of “the Public Understanding of Science” at Oxford. He wrote a parade of well-regarded popular books on evolutionary biology. In retirement, he has turned his attention to—or, against—religion.
David Simon in The Guardian:
America is a country that is now utterly divided when it comes to its society, its economy, its politics. There are definitely two Americas. I live in one, on one block in Baltimore that is part of the viable America, the America that is connected to its own economy, where there is a plausible future for the people born into it. About 20 blocks away is another America entirely. It's astonishing how little we have to do with each other, and yet we are living in such proximity.
There's no barbed wire around West Baltimore or around East Baltimore, around Pimlico, the areas in my city that have been utterly divorced from the American experience that I know. But there might as well be. We've somehow managed to march on to two separate futures and I think you're seeing this more and more in the west. I don't think it's unique to America.
I think we've perfected a lot of the tragedy and we're getting there faster than a lot of other places that may be a little more reasoned, but my dangerous idea kind of involves this fellow who got left by the wayside in the 20th century and seemed to be almost the butt end of the joke of the 20th century; a fellow named Karl Marx.
I'm not a Marxist in the sense that I don't think Marxism has a very specific clinical answer to what ails us economically. I think Marx was a much better diagnostician than he was a clinician. He was good at figuring out what was wrong or what could be wrong with capitalism if it wasn't attended to and much less credible when it comes to how you might solve that.
Very few articles have been written on the topic of the Holy Foreskin, partly because in the year 1900 the Roman Catholic Church threatened to excommunicate anyone who did so. However, Robert Palazzo bravely did his research and his article “The Veneration of the Sacred Foreskin(s) of Baby Jesus: A Documentary Analysis,” offers some interesting details about this relic. He notes that apocryphal gospels, such as the The First Gospel of Baby Jesus, which was written sometime before the 6th century, described how the foreskin was kept and passed down from generation to generation.
By the eleventh century, several churches in Europe explained they had the Holy Foreskin – the story often went something like this – Jesus’ mother Mary kept the foreskin, along with the umbilical cord, and later gave it to Mary Magdalene. We then jump forward several centuries to the time of Charlemagne, when an angel gave the relic to the Emperor. From there it went to this place or that place, including to Rome. In 1421, it was even sent to Cathernine of Valois in England, so that it would bring good fortune (and a pregnancy) to her marriage with Henry V.
Palazzo has been able to find at least 31 churches in Europe that claimed to have the Holy Foreskin sometime during the Middle Ages, including ones in Paris, Antwerp, Bologna, Compostela and Toulouse.
Hussein Ibish in Bookforum:
Henri Lefebvre’s notion of “Revolution as Festival,” which the great French political thinker developed in his account of popular uprisings of the twentieth century, continues to inspire today’s global Left and its ideas of “people power.” Cultural theorist Gavin Grindon cannily sees this vernacular spirit of celebration in “the global cycle of social struggles since the 1990s, from Reclaim the Streets to the Seattle World Trade Organization Csarnival Against Capitalism, Euromayday and Climate Camp to Occupy’s Debt Jubilee.” And this same narrative—which at times approached a shared, lived reality—informed many domestic and international perceptions of the early “Arab Spring” uprisings of 2011, particularly those in Tunisia and Egypt.
Most of Ahdaf Soueif’s new book, Cairo, participates wholeheartedly in this celebratory, utopian account of the eighteen-day overthrow of Egyptian dictator Hosni Mubarak and its aftermath. But as Soueif traces the still-unresolved and unstable arc of Egypt’s unfolding saga, she comes away—as Lefebvre would have anticipated—with a much more subdued evaluation of just how this festival may end. Looking back on his own youthful idealism, Lefebvre—with an obviously heavy heart—recalled how “a few years after the Russian Revolution,” the French Left “naïvely imagined the revolution as an incessant popular festival.” And in Soueif’s account of Mubarak’s downfall, there are hints of a similar leap of imagination. “Everyone is suddenly, miraculously, completely themselves,” she writes of the uprising. “Everyone understands.”
Richard Dawkins at the RDFRS website:
I have been asked to respond to an article by David Dobbs called ‘Die, selfish gene, die’. It’s a fluent piece of writing featuring some interesting biological observations, but it’s fatally marred: infected by an all-too-common journalistic tendency, the adversarial urge to (presumably) boost circulation and harvest clicks by pretending to be controversial. You have a topic X, which you laudably want to pass on to your readers. But it’s not enough that X is interesting in its own right; you have to adversarialise it: yell that X is revolutionary, new, paradigm-shifting, dramatically overthrowing some Y.
The Y in Dobbs’ article is my book, The Selfish Gene, and his main X is the important but far from new point that genes are not always expressed in the same way. He calls it phenotypic plasticity. Locusts are transformed grasshoppers: same genes, differently expressed. A caterpillar and the butterfly it morphs into have exactly the same genome, expressed in different ways. An animal is the way it is, not just because of the genes it possesses but because the context in which a gene sits affects how – and indeed whether – it is expressed. Dobbs makes some sensible points about all this, but there’s not a single one of them that I wouldn’t be happy to make myself – and in most cases did make, either in The Selfish Gene itself or in my other books. But his headline conclusion, namely that recent findings negate the thesis of The Selfish Gene, is not just untrue but deeply and perversely untrue.
Carl Zimmer in The New York Times:
In 1602, a Spanish fleet was sailing up the Pacific coast of Mexico when the crew became deathly ill. “The first symptom is pain in the whole body that makes it sensitive to touch,” wrote Antonio de la Ascensión, a priest on the expedition. “Purple spots begin to cover the body, especially from the waist down; then the gums become so swollen that the teeth cannot be brought together, and they can only drink, and finally they die all of a sudden, while talking.” The crew was suffering from scurvy, a disease that was then both bitterly familiar and deeply mysterious. No one knew why it struck sailors or how to cure it. But on that 1602 voyage, Ascensión witnessed what he considered a miracle. While the crew was ashore burying the dead, one sick sailor picked up a cactus fruit to eat. He started to feel better, and his crewmates followed his example. “They all began to eat them and bring them back on board so that, after another two weeks, they were all healed,” the priest wrote. Over the next two centuries, it gradually became clear that scurvy was caused by a lack of fruits and vegetables on long-distance voyages. In the late 1700s, the British Navy started supplying its ships with millions of gallons of lemon juice, eradicating scurvy. But it wasn’t until 1928 that the Hungarian biochemist Albert Szent-Gyorgyi discovered the ingredient that cured scurvy: vitamin C.
Szent-Gyorgyi’s experiments were part of a wave of early-20th-century research that pulled back the curtain on vitamins. Scientists discovered that the human body required minuscule amounts of 13 organic molecules. A deficiency of any of the vitamins led to different diseases — a lack of vitamin A to blindness, vitamin B12 to severe anemia, vitamin D to rickets. Today, a huge amount of research goes into understanding vitamins, but most of it is focused on how much of them people need to stay healthy. This work does not address a basic question, though: How did we end up so dependent on these peculiar little molecules?
The Tragedy of Hats
by Clarinda Harriss
from Poetry, 1999
Monday, December 09, 2013
by Alexander Bastidas Fry
Comets have long been portents of change. They challenge the rote repetition of our skies. An astute observer of the sky will perhaps have recently noticed a new object in the sky, a comet, present for the last few weeks (you would have had to look east just before sunrise near the star Spica). This was the comet ISON. But comet ISON, having strayed too close to the Sun, has been mostly annihilated. If there is a comet in the sky and no one sees it, was it ever really there?
William Carlos William's poem, Landscape with the Fall of Icarus, captures the essence of comet ISON's elusive journey around the Sun. Brueghel, the Felmish Renaissance painter, carefully recorded the event like a faithful astronomer, but the worker is not keen on the sky and Icarus goes wholly unnoticed. It is just the same to the worker, for had they noticed Icarus or not it would likely make no difference to their toils in the field. And similarly ISON went largely unnoticed.
According to Brueghel
when Icarus fell
it was spring
a farmer was ploughing
the whole pageantry
of the year was
sweating in the sun
the wings' wax
off the coast
a splash quite unnoticed
ISON made a brief appearance to the unaided eye for a few days before it grazed the sun and then uncoiled itself. But to the learned astronomer ISON is still interesting. Comets are rare objects in the inner solar system so even a dead comet is a chance to learn something, in fact, further spectroscopic observations of this dead comet's remains will continue to tell us exactly what it was made of. There is a legacy here.
Let us begin at the beginning. Some four or five billion years ago as the Solar System itself was forging its identity trillions of leftover crumbs were scattered into the outer solar system.
by Shadab Zeest Hashmi
Exile is a state of mind and quite necessary in the kind of critical awareness, imaginative empathy and artistic autonomy that go into a work of excellence, a "global work." Our lists of poets we consider as “world poets,” assuming that “world poet” is indeed a meaningful category, may vary dramatically but the criteria we are likely to agree upon for such a category, are: an agile imagination, an intuitive bond with humanity, a finely tuned connection with history, and an ability to go beyond merely utilizing language— to reach for the universally unsayable and cast it in a renewed, common language, and above all: an ability to move the spirit in an authentic way.
I recently had the luxury of conversing with Fady Joudah and Anis Shivani— two writers I admire for their range and gift for innovation. Their approach to literature, as reflected in their poetry and prose, betrays traits of the contemporary “global writer” I’m interested in—traits that ultimately cast the larger literary moment in their art. In other words, the shared and conflicted global histories they address, the deftness with which they assemble disparate cultural perspectives, and the richness of their positions—political and aesthetic—illuminate the present, and in a sense, the future, of an increasing and an increasingly globalized readership.
My conversation with these authors was centered on the idea of our literary moment, mainly keeping Fady Joudah’s book Textu and Anis Shivani’s My Tranquil War in mind.
by Scott F. Aikin and Robert B. Talisse
Why We Argue (And How We Should) is centrally concerned to elucidate the concept of a dialectical fallacy. This concept deserves comment. "Fallacy" is the name given to especially common and attractive failures of reasoning. Works in logic and critical thinking typically distinguish between formal and informal fallacies.
Formal fallacies are pervasive errors of formal inferences. Consider the argument:
If Bill is a carpenter, then Bill is handy.
Bill is handy.
Therefore, Bill is a carpenter.
This argument fails because the truth of the premises does not guarantee the truth of the conclusion: the first premise states that being a carpenter is sufficient for being handy; it does not claim that all and only handy people are carpenters. After all, Bill could be a handy car mechanic who has never cut a piece of wood. We call this error the fallacy of affirming the consequent. This error gets its own name because we are especially prone to this kind of mistake. Once one is trained to spot it, one will find that this fallacy is committed frequently.
By contrast, informal fallacies are pervasive errors in informalinferences. Informal inferences differ from formal ones in that the latter propose to demonstrate the truth of their conclusions whereas the former aspire only to show that their conclusions are most likely true. A familiar informal fallacy is the ad populum fallacy. Consider:
Most people think that Joe is guilty.
Therefore, Joe is guilty.
This argument fails because it appeals simply to what "most people" think, without any regard for questions concerning the level to which "most people" are informed of the relevant facts of Joe's case. The mere fact that "most people" agree about some claim is no evidence at all for its truth.
The important thing about fallacies is that they are attractive and so pervasive errors of reasoning. Part of what accounts for their popularity is the way in which they mimic or ride piggyback on proper inferences. The fallacy of affirming the consequent is a mimic of the obviously successful inference known as modus ponens:
If Bill is a carpenter, then Bill is handy.
Bill is a carpenter.
Therefore, Bill is handy.
Haji Habib-ur-Rehman, or Haji Sahib, who has been painting trucks, vehicles, and crafts since 1955, in Rawalpindi, Pakistan.
"They are everywhere. Those heavy-set Gods of the highway, those mammoth trucks in their entire jazzy splendor. The swirls, the motifs, the colours, the patterns, the tigers, the peacocks, the parrots, the lions, and the roses, the thick lashes on singular eyes, the lips, and (at times) the face of a politician, a star, thrown in for good measure ..." from Allah Rung Laave by Sonia Rehman.
Thanks to Nighat Mir.
Personal narrative on a journey to find the confluence of the Chicago River and the North Shore Channel
On the Saturday after Thanksgiving I walked, without having given it very much forethought, nor having fortified myself with breakfast, nor even with sufficient tea, a distance of about 7 miles from my home to discover the confluence of the North Shore Channel and the Chicago River. The digging of the former waterway was completed in 1909 in order to bear the sewage from Chicago’s prosperous North Shore communities away from Lake Michigan and into the Chicago River. By that time the Chicago River was itself a marvel of engineering, its flow having been reversed so that all soluble, floatable and mobile waste ran west into the Mississippi watershed rather than into the lake.
Breakfastlessly I walked alongside this water, keeping the channel to my left for the first few miles then crossing over into the parks to the east of the channel. In many places buckthorn, a dominant invasive species in the Midwest, and by some accounts the most common woody plant in Chicago, is so dense that I only rarely saw water. At its densest the soil under these plants is litter-less and rivulets have rent passageways through the channel bank.
Although it was past 10 AM when I walked under the bridge on Lincoln avenue, a homeless man swiveled in his sleeping bag, his head almost fully submerged, trying, on that cold morning, to stay aslumber. His radio played a Christmas carol on low; a paperback best seller peeped out from one of his bags. A little further along a woman behind me asked if I had enough food to keep me going. I turned but she was talking to another homeless fellow so on I walked.
I had not checked on a map where the confluence occurred, nor did I have a phone that I could consult. I knew that it could not be too far since I had kayaked the Chicago River north of Addison, though that spot was still a few miles to my south. As I walked through a park near Foster Avenue, the Canada geese glanced up from their listless grazing, and I finally spotted the fork where the two waters co-mingle. I could not, however, get close as I was separated from the water by a chain link fence and by phalanxes of those invasive shrubs. I leaned there for a moment against a spindly hackberry.
by Jalees Rehman
The Autocomplete function of Google Search is both annoying and fascinating. When you start typing in the first letters or words of your search into the Google search box, Autocomplete takes a guess at what you are looking for and "completes" the search phrase by offering you multiple query phrases. The queries offered by Autocomplete are "a reflection of the search activity of users and the content of web pages indexed by Google". Considering the fact that more than five billion Google searches are conducted on an average day, the Google Autocomplete function has a huge database of search information that it can reference. This also means that the Autocomplete suggestions are quite dynamic and can vary over time. A popular new song lyric, the name of a viral video or a recent movie quote can catapult itself to the top of the Autocomplete suggestion list within a matter of hours or days if millions of users start search for that specific phrase. Autocomplete may also take a user's browsing history or location into account, which explains why it may offer a varying set of suggestions to different users.
Autocomplete can be quite annoying because the suggested lists of queries are based on their web popularity and can thus consist of bizarre combinations which are not at all related to one's intended searches. On the other hand, Autocomplete is also a fascinating tool to provide a window into the Zeitgeist of web users, revealing what kinds of phrases are most commonly used on the web, and by inference, what contemporary ideas are currently associated with the entered keywords. The Google Zeitgeist website reveals the most widely searched terms to help identify cultural trends - based on the frequency of Google search engine queries - during any given year.
The United Nations Entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women (UN Women) recently used the Google Search Autocomplete function in an ad campaign to highlight the extent of misogyny on the web. Searching for "women should…" or "women need to…" was autocompleted to phrases such as "women should be slaves" or "women need to be put in their place". The fact that Autocomplete suggested these phrases means that probably hundreds of thousands of internet users have used these phrases in their search queries or on web pages indexed by Google – a reminder of how much gender injustice still exists in our world.
"And if you can't bear the thought of messing up
your nice, clean soul, you'd better give up the
whole idea of life, and become a saint."
~ John Osborne, "Look Back in Anger"
As the paeans for Nelson Mandela rolled in last week, observers might have been forgiven for thinking that it was not a single human being had passed, but rather an astonishing confabulation of Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King and Mother Teresa. The narrative can be encapsulated thusly: a despicable regime unjustly imprisons a passionate activist for 27 years, who upon his release goes on to lead his nation into peaceful democracy and becomes an avuncular elder statesman, unconditionally loved and respected by all. But this narrative tells us little about who Mandela actually was, and why he acted in the world in the way he did. A brief examination of Mandela's involvement in the ending of non-violence and the initiation of armed struggle in the early 1960s serves to illustrate some of this nuance.
The perpetuation of the saccharine narrative is enabled by, among other things, the cherry-picking of Mandela's own words. One endlessly quoted passage has been the end of Mandela's opening statement at the start of his trial on charges of sabotage, at the Supreme Court of South Africa, on April 20th, 1964:
During my lifetime I have dedicated myself to this struggle of the African people. I have fought against white domination, and I have fought against black domination. I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons live together in harmony and with equal opportunities. It is an ideal which I hope to live for and to achieve. But if needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.
This is stirring stuff, and worthy of being engraved into the marble of a monument, but only if you bother to read the preceding 10,000 words. In a far-reaching statement notable for its pellucidity, Mandela lays out the circumstances and philosophy that resulted in armed struggle against the regime.
I have already mentioned that I was one of the persons who helped to form Umkhonto [we Sizwe, the armed wing of the ANC]. I, and the others who started the organisation, did so for two reasons. Firstly, we believed that as a result of Government policy, violence by the African people had become inevitable, and that unless responsible leadership was given to canalise and control the feelings of our people, there would be outbreaks of terrorism which would produce an intensity of bitterness and hostility between the various races of this country which is not produced even by war. Secondly, we felt that without violence there would be no way open to the African people to succeed in their struggle against the principle of white supremacy. All lawful modes of expressing opposition to this principle had been closed by legislation, and we were placed in a position in which we had either to accept a permanent state of inferiority, or to defy the government. We chose to defy the law. We first broke the law in a way which avoided any recourse to violence; when this form was legislated against, and then the government resorted to a show of force to crush opposition to its policies, only then did we decide to answer violence with violence.
Without this context, Mandela's lofty concluding paragraph is as cheap as a Hallmark card. It's now clear to the reader exactly the lengths to which Mandela would be willing to go to die for his beliefs – not as a lamb to slaughter, but as a fiery revolutionary. It is difficult to conceive of Gandhi initiating such actions. But why was Mandela prepared at that point to resort to violence?
by Madhu Kaza
During the month or so that my father spent in an Intensive Care Unit in a hospital in suburban Detroit, my travel habits changed in peculiar ways. Not knowing ahead of time the duration of my stay in Detroit nor how long I would be back home in New York before being called again to the Midwest, I was hardly able to pack anything at all. Yet I could not help but take luggage with me, so more than once I travelled with an empty suitcase, which brought to mind the image of an out-of-work businessman who still carries his briefcase everywhere. What I did pack were vegetables. I found myself regularly transporting produce from one state to the other. If I had lettuce in my fridge in New York I would carry it with me on the flight to Detroit imagining the salad I would make at my parents' house. One time, I took two carrots from my mother's fridge and put them in my vacant suitcase so that I could use them in a lentil soup I planned to make when I returned to New York. Suddenly, using an airline carrier to transport the ingredients I had gathered for the day's lunch or dinner not only made sense, but also seemed vital to my well-being. I think it allowed me to feel a kind of continuity between morning in the ICU with my father in Michigan and early evening alone in my apartment in New York at a time when I felt quite dislocated from the routines of my life. During this same period of time there was another odd development, which I understood far less: I became a person who felt compelled to take a fifteen hour train journey instead of a routine one and a half hour flight.
I bought my ticket for the Lake Shore Limited departing from New York on September 21st. The #49 train departs daily from New York Penn Station at 3:40pm and reaches its final destination, Chicago's Union Station at 9:59 the following morning. Another section of the Lake Shore Limited departs from Boston. In Albany, the New York and Boston trains are hitched together for the journey to the Midwest. I would be getting off in Toledo, OH around 5:55am and would continue by car for another hour to Detroit.
I had enough experience on Amtrak's well-trafficked Northeast Corridor routes to not be romantic about American train travel. But I also knew that the railroads had been fundamental to the (often mythologized) American past. 19th century railroads, including those regional lines that were consolidated into the powerful New York Central Railroad, facilitated the economic development and westward expansion of the country. Given the proliferation of railroad companies in the 19th century, many ventures bankrupted investors and owners. On the other hand, the success of the New York Central Railroad made the Vanderbilt fortune.
by Brooks Riley
by David V. Johnson
In "San Manuel Bueno, Martir," the Spanish philosopher Miguel de Unamuno tells the fictional story of a parish priest in Valverde de Lucerna, a small Spanish town, and his successful conversion of a sophisticated favorite son, Lazaro, who had left to seek his fortunes in America and returned an atheist.
"The main thing," San Manuel says, in summarizing his ministry, "is for the people to be happy, that everyone be happy with their life. The happiness of life is the main thing of all."
When Lazaro arrives from the New World, he dismisses the town's medieval backwardness and begins confronting villagers about their superstitions. "Leave them alone, as long as it consoles them," San Manuel tells him. "It is better for them to believe it all, even contradictory things, than not to believe in anything."
Lazaro confronts San Manuel with a mixture of curiosity and respect, since San Manuel is not only beloved by Lazaro's family for his piety but also because he appears educated. Over time, the two become friends and, eventually, Lazaro rejoins the Church and takes communion, to the tearful delight of all.
The twist: Like Lazaro, San Manuel doesn't believe the articles of faith. ("I believe in one God, the Father and Almighty, Creator of heaven and Earth, of all that is seen and unseen …") What he believes in, rather, is administering to the needs of the villagers, in putting on such a convincing performance of dedication to Christ that they all believe he is a saint and have their faith in the Church and in life everlasting sustained. Lazaro's "conversion," then, is one consistent with atheism. He becomes a lay-minister of sorts under San Manuel and eventually dies a Catholic.
I think of this story when I hear the arguments against religion of the late Christopher Hitchens, Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris. If Unamuno's story were updated, I could imagine Lazaro coming home to Valverde de Lucerna with a copy of God Is Not Great under his arm, ready to do battle with San Manuel. And if the story makes sense, we can imagine someone who has imbibed the arguments of Hitchens, yet converts to the faith under the saint's arguments.
The question is why.