I disagree with ultra-conservative presidential candidate Ron Paul on most issues, and I can not imagine myself ever voting for him (I'm a lock for Obama in 2012 anyway). Still, I recently found myself vigorously defending this controversial Texas politician to my journalist and fellow liberal friend Tom Watson. Tom has been a severe and constant critic of Ron Paul, and has called him the worst of the Republican presidential candidates.
I know that Paul has many flaws, but I think he's clearly the best of the Republican presidential candidates, because he's the only one who does not advocate a ridiculous "get tough" policy on Iran. This "get tough on Iran" idea is rooted in the same guerrophilia and bigotry as George W. Bush's previous "get tough on Saddam Hussein" idea, and I really can't understand how Ron Paul can be the only Republican candidate to understand the similarity. He is also the only Republican candidate willing to propose strong cuts in military spending and military activities around the world. The Republican candidates for 2012 are a raggedy bunch, but Ron Paul seems at least to be more clued-in than the others on military and foreign policy.
After reading a steady stream of anti-Ron Paul tweets by Tom Watson, I asked Tom why he puts so much effort into criticizing the one Republican candidate who has an antiwar platform, and who stands very little chance of getting elected, when other Republicans who have stated an inclination to invade Iran if they get elected are actually considered serious contenders. I also asked Tom why he doesn't feel any optimism about the fact that Ron Paul is introducing an antiwar message to many conservative voters who have long ago shut their ears to antiwar messages from liberals or from the mass media.
There were two incarnations of the fabled Shakespeare and Company Bookstore in Paris.
The first store was the labor of love of Sylvia Beach, an American expat from New Jersey. It lasted from 1919 until 1940 when it was closed by the Nazi occupation. But during its best years it was the haunt of “Lost Generation” writers like Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ezra Pound and Gertrude Stein. James Joyce used the shop as his office, and it was here also that Sylvia Beach published Joyce’s Ulysses in 1922.
In 1951, another American (and English language) book store sprang up on the Rive Gauche, on the banks of the Seine, a stone’s throw from Place Saint Michel. This bookstore, originally named Le Mistral, was opened by bohemian wanderer George Whitman. His goal was to create“a socialist utopia masquerading as a bookstore”. Under the sign “Be not inhospitable to strangers lest they be angels in disguise”, Whitman opened his bookshop not only for browsing and reading, but he also provided couches and beds for tired literary travelers to spend the night.
The Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street -- two serious protest movements with urgent messages about the condition of the economy and the purpose of government -- do not currently communicate or collaborate with each other. What a wasted opportunity! Even worse, Tea Partiers and Occupiers often look at each other as opponents -- a ridiculous idea, since we are all protesting the same injustices and mistakes, and we all seek the same basic goals: an honest economy, a smaller government, greater freedom and greater opportunity.
It's time for the Tea Party and Occupy movements to begin working together. Throughout history, protest movements with common goals have benefited from collaboration even when they've disagreed on specific issues. The Tea Party and Occupy movements have a few major differences on principles, but we should not let this obscure the fact that our goals converge more often than they diverge. So why are we at each other's throats? Why isn't there a combined Occupy Wall Street/Tea Party gathering going on in every city in the United States of America right now?
I like to develop and improve my political ideas by talking to as many different people as I can, and I've already tested today's argument on a wide range of friends, co-workers and relatives. I discovered a surprising and encouraging thing: people who do not have much interest in either the Tea Party or Occupy movements are the ones most likely to dismiss the idea that they can work together, to declare that the Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street are opposites.
I took a gang of about twelve family members on a field trip to Occupy Wall Street this Thanksgiving weekend. First, we visited the desolate remains of the famous tent city at Zuccotti Park that was raided by New York City police a week and a half ago.
The Occupy Wall Street leadership (yes, there is leadership -- they just keep away from the spotlight) has abandoned Zuccotti Park to the police. This was a smart decision, because the park itself was never meant to be more than a temporary home, and a territory battle can only be a distraction from the movement's important messages about the economy. So, Zuccotti has been left to a raggedy bunch of drop-by protesters, tourists, homeless people, persistent old-school lefties, sign-carriers, guitar players and sad-looking solo drummers. The police have surrounded the entire plaza with a continuous metal barricade fence, and I led my family through a checkpoint into the center of the concrete plaza. It was nothing like the beautiful, crowded, energetic scene I'd witnessed only two weeks before. We caught a few weak "mic check" attempts that went nowhere, and stopped to listen in on one large sitting session, an outreach/messaging conversation group, but the session barely managed to keep itself going.
A drum-banging protest march finally emerged outside the barricades around 5:45 pm on Friday evening, and my family enjoyed joining it for a noisy stroll around Zuccotti. The six teenagers in our group participated with a healthy mix of irony and enthusiasm, and together we presented three generations of support for the movement. Then we left Zuccotti Park, because I hoped to find better action in the quiet atrium at 60 Wall Street, one of many locations where small, focused groups of protesters have been holding meetings to make decisions about the future direction of the Occupy action.
We found a much more lively scene at 60 Wall than at Zuccotti Park. At least five working groups were meeting this Friday evening. The Occupy discussion groups are fully open, and my gang of tourists was able to feel welcome as we split up to listen in on various working groups. Some forbidding new signs have been put up by the lease-holders of this building, the gargoyle institution Duetsche Bank, warning protesters not to push their luck. But the mood in the atrium appeared to be as friendly and positive on Thanksgiving weekend as it had been the previous time I'd come around, before the police crackdown.
In a nod to my childhood fascination with Halloween and things that go bump in the night, I still reserve the month of October for books about dark subjects. I’ll sample the latest in horror fiction or bury myself in non-fiction accounts of unsolved mysteries or infamous killers. This year, my October selections were two recent works of historical non-fiction: Death in the City of Light: The Serial Killer of Nazi-Occupied Paris by David King and Monsters of the Gévaudan: The Making of a Beast by Jay M. Smith.
At a glance, these books might seem to have little in common, other than the fact that they both take place in France. Monsters of Gévaudan, after all, is about the well-documented events that took place in the rugged, rural mountains of south-central France from in the 1760’s, when a mysterious creature – known simply to the French as La Bête – viciously attacked over 200 women and children, killing at least half. Death in the City of Light, on the other hand, takes place in more modern times, telling the story of a mad doctor who used the chaos of the Occupation to murder scores of Parisian Jews and gangsters eager to flee the beleaguered city. But beyond the French connection and the murderous monsters at the center of each book, many more striking similarities exist.
CHEREA: He was too fond of bad poetry.
LUCIUS: That’s typical ...
CHEREA: Of his age, perhaps, but not of his rank. An emperor with artistic and intellectual inclinations is a contradiction in terms.
LUCIUS: We've had one or two, of course. But there’s misfits in every family. The others had the sense to remain good bureaucrats.
When I watch the shaky camera-phone videos of Col. Qaddafi's violent death that made the rounds last week, I think of Albert Camus's play Caligula. First performed in 1941 in Angers, France (as Camus was writing The Stranger), the historical play presents the legendary Roman emperor as a Dionysian monster, a prisoner of his own charisma and success.
Many historical dramas (for instance, Shakespeare's) emphasize the struggle for power. Camus's Caligula presents a dictator who has achieved complete power, who has reduced every single one of his fellow countrymen to submissive disgrace. With nobody able to challenge or destroy him, his only remaining goal can be to destroy himself.
The play presents Caligula's last days, after the death of his lover and sister has cast him into a final existential swoon. Bored and sickened by the insipid timidity of the senators who surround him, he gathers a council to torture the members for sport. He forces a senator to hand over his beloved wife, and proclaims idly to the group that they will all be killed in order to "reform our economic system":
The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined is a new book by psychologist Steven Pinker (I introduced it here last week, and it's on the cover of today's New York Times Book Review) that documents in exhausting detail how much less violent our planet is than ever before in history. The First Total War: Napoleon's Europe and the Birth of Warfare as We Know It by David A. Bell, one of my all-time favorite history books, is an illuminating look at how the Napoleonic wars following the French Revolution began a new era of vicious ideological warfare in Europe that set the pattern for the genocidal horrors of the past century. War and politics, according to David A. Bell, have never before been as broadly destructive as they are today.
How can both of these books be telling the truth at the same time?
1. Kafkaesque: Stories Inspired by Franz Kafka, edited by John Kessel and James Patrick Kelly, includes pieces by J. G. Ballard, Jorge Luis Borges, T. Coraghessan Boyle, Philip Roth, Rudy Rucker and Robert Crumb. Here's the full table of contents.
2. And the Nobel Prize in Literature goes to ... some dude I never heard of! Which kind of surprises me, since I thought I sort of knew this space. Anyway, meet Tomas Transtromer of Stockholm, Sweden. Words Without Borders has him, of course.
3. I couldn't find any Tomas Transtromer at Asymptote, another new journal of international/translated literature I've started looking at, but they do have Robert Walser (translated by Susan Bernofsky), Lin Yoade and a new translation by Mani Rao of an old Upanishad.
The popular psychologist Steven Pinker has written a provocative book about politics and history, The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined. The title comes from Abraham Lincoln's first inaugural address:
We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield and patriot grave to every living heart and hearthstone all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.
This book proposes that we often miss a vital point when we talk about war, violence and genocide. On a broad historical level, says Pinker, mankind is doing great. Fewer people are victimized by war or violent crime than ever before. This cuts against the common idea that our civilization has declined, that the 20th century was a century of military and genocidal horror, that the 21st century is shaping up to be even worse. Pinker explains the moral significance of his contrary findings, and his approach in writing the book, in the introductory chapter:
The belief that violence has increased suggests that the world we made has contaminated us, perhaps irretrievably. The belief that it has decreased suggests that we started off nasty and that the artifices of civilization have moved us in a noble direction, one in which we can hope to continue. This is a big book, but it has to be. First I have to convince you that violence really has gone down over the course of history, knowing that the very idea invites skepticism, incredulity and sometimes anger. Our cognitive faculties predispose us to believe that we live in violent times.
Not surprisingly, initial reviews of this book are expressing skepticism, incredulity and sometimes anger. Elizabeth Kolbert considers and dismisses the book's purpose in the current New Yorker, objecting to Pinker's cold calculus. Even if statistics prove that the world gets less violent as it civilizes, Kolbert asks, what solace is this to teenage shooting victims in Norway, to the murdered millions of World War II, to inner-city African-Americans unlucky enough to live in depressed housing projects that fail to follow the happy trend? Kolbert's reaction is exactly the one Pinker predicted in his introduction (though, of course, the fact that Pinker anticipated Kolbert's criticism doesn't mean that Kolbert's criticism is invalid).
The book's inevitable critique has an emotional subtext that you won't pick up unless you begin to read the book yourself. Pinker, a Harvard professor who has also written How the Mind Works and The Stuff of Thought: Language as a Window into Human Nature, writes with the excited tone of a smart-ass at a party who enjoys offending polite society with uncomfortable truth, and the excitement in his narrative voice becomes palpable during the long passages in which he describes the high incidence of pillage, child slaughter and rape (committed, unfortunately, by the good guys) in Homer's Iliad and Odyssey and in every book of the Hebrew Bible. This is a book for pacifists, but like many pacifist books, Better Angels is designed to deliver a punch.
There once lived a giant of philosophy, a rock star of ethics, now almost completely forgotten, named Auguste Comte. Born in Montpelier in southern France amidst the tumult of the French Revolution, he made it his life's mission to integrate the Revolution's better ideas into a scientific structure, Positivism, that sought rational principles to guide our understanding of both the physical and the moral world.
His scientific writings would gain wide favor in the Darwinian era, but he challenged his readers to follow his arguments beyond science into the thorny arena of culture and politics. He is often cited as the founder of Sociology, and he invented the word "altruism" (in French, altruisme, based on the Latin root for "other"). With a deft perception that often eludes us today, Comte described altruism as a basic fact of human nature -- not an illusory by-product of selfish interests, but a primary, inviolable element of the soul.
Auguste Comte was vastly admired during the late 19th Century, not only by his peers and followers (philosopher John Stuart Mill, novelist George Eliot, theologian Richard Congreve) but also by the public at large. He was a rare intellectual celebrity of international proportions, and his fame grew even greater after his death in 1857. Basking in popularity towards the end of his life, he went so far as to found his own "religion", a scientific and philosophical "Church of Humanity" that would last for decades (one elegant church building is now a tourist attraction in Brazil). He and his followers were so sure that they had found the key to a happy and peaceful world society that they decided to invent a new calendar, the Positivist Calendar, with months and days named after great thinkers (today, according to this calendar, is the 15th of Shakespeare). The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy describes Auguste Comte's influence at its peak:
It difficult today to appreciate the interest Comte's thought enjoyed a century ago, for it has received almost no notice during the last five decades. Before the First World War, Comte's movement was active nearly everywhere in the world. The best known case is that of Latin America: Brazil, which owes the motto on its flag ‘Ordem e Progresso’ (Order and Progress) to Comte and Mexico are two prominent examples. The positivists, i.e., the followers of Comte, were equally active in England, the United States and India. And in the case of Turkey, its modern secular character can be traced to Comte's influence on the Young Turks.