Sunday, June 4, 2017


Rain, London; Monika Jakubowska. Tears, tears . . .



These are amazing: each
Joining a neighbor, as though speech
Were a still performance.
Arranging by chance

To meet as far this morning
From the world as agreeing
With it, you and I
Are suddenly what the trees try

To tell us we are:
That their merely being there
Means something; that soon
We may touch, love, explain.

And glad not to have invented
Such comeliness, we are surrounded:
A silence already filled with noises,
A canvas on which emerges

A chorus of smiles, a winter morning.
Placed in a puzzling light, and moving,
Our days put on such reticence
These accents seem their own defense.

~ John Ashbery

This is not the absurdist, disjointed Ashbery of his later poems. It’s the title poem of his first book, and it’s among my favorite Ashbery poems — which are few (I can think of only three, in fact).

These are my favorite lines:

you and I
Are suddenly what the trees try

To tell us we are:
That their merely being there
Means something; that soon
We may touch, love, explain.

The world is a gift to the lovers, an unearned grace. And the lovers too are a gift to each other “merely being there.” We are back to Heidegger’s insight that we don’t have to try so hard, we don’t have to invent beauty or cleverness; already our being is a gift to others.

Alienation and isolation are said to be among the central themes of modern literature. But this poem is about connection. And it starts with the trees, “each / Joining its neighbor.” This is a prelude to “soon / We may touch, love, explain.”

There is also the sense that when you’re in love, the whole world is smiling. And that certain shyness — “reticence” — that’s the sacred shyness of two people who are about to experience the mystery of each other.


“There is no stupider abuse of emotion than the gung-ho, can-do spirit in deciding to go to war.” ~ Jeremy Sherman

Powkett Mowse


~ “Beginning with the solid premise that “Russia was neither as unique nor as exotic as either its admirers or its detractors claimed,” Dominic Lieven seeks to explain the origins of the First World War from Russia’s perspective but within an international context. He correctly reminds us that the challenges faced by the Russian Empire—aggressive nationalism, the emergence of an activist civil society, and the unanticipated toll of modern warfare—were shared by all combatants and that Russia’s three immediate neighbors and principal enemies (Germany, Austria-Hungary, and the Ottoman Empire) also succumbed to them. His new analysis offers an original explanation of how the tzarist government really worked. Above all, he provides a remarkable vindication of the role of individual personalities, for better or worse, in making history.

To virtually anyone at the highest level of Russian politics in 1914, war with Germany—a fellow authoritarian monarchy with a much larger economy and in many ways both a natural and historical ally—was “suicidal madness.” As a result, an odd paradox at play among the Russian elite was that the more reactionary an official, the less inclined he was to endorse war. Probably the best expression of this entrenched caution was the high-ranking statesman Peter Durnovo’s distillation of numerous internal discussions in a brief but extraordinarily prescient memorandum circulated in February 1914. One of the era’s most revealing documents, it repeated three essential points about Russia’s likely fate in a general European war: that it would probably lose, that victory would only bring more restive ethnic minorities under already unpopular Russian rule, and that the strains of conflict would cause a massive revolution that would destroy Russia’s state and society. Durnovo was no liberal—in the decades before 1914 he had built a career as a nasty secret police chief and Interior Minister devoted to upholding the tzarist order (his early career in high officialdom was nearly undone when it was discovered that he used police spies to steal his mistress’s letters to a rival). But he was absolutely right about what a general European war would do to the Russia he served.

As Russia’s leaders edged toward their reluctant decision to go to war in the wake of the July Crisis, Old Regime reactionaries filed report after report denouncing the idea. Those who eventually accepted war as unavoidable did so against their better judgment. When one minister veered toward favoring war in the days leading up to mobilization, he and the adamantly pacifist yet arch-reactionary Interior Minister Nikolai Maklakov nearly fought a duel over it. To add irony to insult, the staunchly anti-war Maklakov was one of the first tzarist ministers to meet his end at the hands of the Bolsheviks.

Just why did Russia’s leaders end up in a war almost none of them wanted? Lieven presents a much more banal culprit few scholars have ever suspected: civil society. Russia did have one. Particularly after the unrest of Russia’s “first” revolution in 1905, civic activity exploded as legal restrictions on expression and association almost completely vanished.

It may seem surprising that this should have led to a devastating war that claimed millions of Russian lives and ended in an unspeakably violent revolution that claimed millions more. In our relentlessly liberal age, one usually expects that broadening civil society will automatically engender more responsible government. In a mournful irony, Lieven’s study proves that Russia’s war fever was not inflamed by the expected cadre of reactionary lunatic warmongers, but rather by two phenomena that students of modernity are practically inoculated to trust: the independent media and the allied professional meritocracy. Yet at every step in the years leading up to 1914, many of their representatives shamelessly championed war over peace, nationalism over internationalism, and conflict over conciliation.

As the reactionary “amateurs” sought to avoid hostilities, they were brutally assailed at every turn by a newly empowered group—a functional middle class—of journalists, editors, academics, parliamentarians, and even professionalized meritocrats who had risen within government circles, all passionately urging them toward war. In an era of mass media in which public opinion truly started to matter, they found their natural caution and reserve broadsided by opinionated critics happy to indulge their lack of government experience with the absence of any practical limitations on what they could say in the public sphere.

The critics also roamed free of the cosmopolitan sensibilities and “Olympian Majesty” for which they derided their stunned betters in the halls of the Foreign Ministry. As the documentary record unambiguously shows, the beleaguered government officials suddenly had no choice but to devote time and energy to the new and unfamiliar concept of “spin”

—reacting to public opinion, shaping policy to accommodate it, and, very often, simply admitting that it lay beyond their control. The deep irresponsibility of the Russian press, Lieven writes, shattered Europe’s peace more assuredly than any tzarist martinet in court dress. In its final decade Imperial Russia emerges not as a divine-right autocracy but as a disturbingly modern society in which media and information elites arrogated unelected and unaccountable power to themselves.

Once they rounded on Russia’s well-known diplomatic reversals in the years beginning with the Bosnian Crisis of 1908, there could be no going back if they felt the country’s prestige had been bruised. Opposing them promised danger at least as great as going along with them. Thus could Nikolai Hartwig, Russia’s self-made middle-class career minister to Serbia, buck up his host government—to the disgust of his nobly born colleagues—with confident assurances that public opinion alone would force Russia to go to war to defend it in its brewing conflict with Austria-Hungary. Hartwig’s allies in the media even relished their corrosive role: “All your arguments will be to no avail,” one Russian popular journalist mocked a diplomat. “Our purpose now is to destroy the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.” In sending Russia into a spiral of crisis that toppled its dynasty, unchecked public opinion was as effective as Bolshevik firing squads. As Vladimir Putin cracks down on freedom of expression and association a century later, we might at least credit him with a sardonic ability to learn from history.” ~

Oriana: This is an eye-opening article. We tend to assume the aristocrats wanted war; in fact they tended to be internationalists rather than nationalists. 

Valentin Serov: The Anointing of Tzar Nicholas II 1896

“There’s no official line from the Kremlin – they can’t identify themselves with Lenin, because he was a revolutionary, and they can’t identify with Nicholas II because he was a weak leader.” ~ Mikhail Zygar.


Now, it’s not as if Tzarist Russia didn’t deserve to fall; it’s that ideally it would have been transformed into a democracy. But Kerensky did not have the courage and wisdom it would have taken to withdraw from WWI, against the tremendous pressure of the Allies; and even if he did, the Bolsheviks had cunningly prepared the ground for a coup, and were probably unbeatable at that point.

And let’s not forget Germany’s part in this: transporting Lenin and thirty-five of his fellow revolutionaries in a sealed railway car “like a dangerous bacillus” from Switzerland to Sweden, from where he made his way into Russia. Denounced as a “German agent” by the provisional government that he openly sought to overthrow, he had to flee to Finland, but his motto of “peace, land, and bread” gained wide support. Ultimately he returned to Russia to lead the October Revolution — which he hoped was the beginning of a wider revolution all across Europe. The anti-war, internationalist Tzarist diplomats were hopelessly irrelevant at that point, a minor footnote to history.


Oriana: When I was in an MFA program that turned out to be a huge mistake (not writing per se, but that particular program), I met a man who told me he gave up trying to be a professional actor and instead became a postal employee. He was perfectly happy with that choice: it provided him with a steady income, which in turn led to marriage and two children instead of a life, as he put it, of “living in Los Angeles and going to auditions.” I could barely conceal my outrage that he gave up on his dream. Only later I realized the man’s happiness said it all.

This article points out several important facts. The two I chose to highlight in the excerpt seem critical: 1) not knowing what your passion is when you are young and 2) the importance of luck

~ “High school and college graduation speeches often revolve around some variant of the advice to “Follow your passion.” The theme has enduring popularity because it sounds so liberating and affirming, and also because it is pretty much guaranteed to meet with audience approval. It is a safe way to sound daring.

Unfortunately, the follow-your-passion plea may actually be poor advice, feeding into some destructive tendencies that new graduates should be trying to overcome.

Inexperience. Whose passion is it? The passion of a new high school graduate hopefully will change with age, experience, and maturity. Why would we want to encourage young people to fixate on childhood dreams that are likely to be unrealistic and, by definition, juvenile? Many new graduates have very restricted life experiences, so what career choices can they imagine? Becoming fashion models? Designing video games? Playing in a rock band? Parlaying their enjoyment of student plays into a career in theater or film?

Cluelessness. Many young people don’t know what their passion is. Yet they believe they are selling out if they choose paths that aren’t their passion. So they wander through college and post-college unwilling to commit, waiting for the moment when their passion will become clear to them. Some of them wait a long time and never have that epiphany. They spend a lost decade in a twilight state, keeping their options open and rejecting one career path after another because they find some reason to doubt that it is their passion.

Magical Thinking. Let’s not ignore the importance of luck. The graduation speakers encouraging young audiences to find their own path tend to be intelligent, persistent, and lucky. Their less fortunate counterparts rarely get invited to give motivational speeches. I am referring to those whose path ran into a brick wall and who persisted anyway because they didn’t want to waste the time and energy they’d already expended. They found their passion, only to get trapped by it.

Job and life satisfaction may depend less on finding one’s passion than on making contributions and being valued members of worthwhile organizations. Too many graduates live in the purgatory of skeptically examining each career path to gauge whether this is their ideal. They might be better off learning to bloom where they are planted.
Learn to find ways to grow and thrive even if the conditions aren’t perfect. A friend of mine described how, late in his career, he was given an assignment typically reserved for those about to be pushed into retirement. He was disappointed — he wasn’t ready to retire, and he had hoped for additional promotions and challenges. But then he remembered his mother’s admonition to bloom where you are planted. He abandoned hopes for further advancement and plunged into his new work. Without having to worry about supervisor evaluations, he found that he could make some sweeping and necessary changes. He did an outstanding job and, to his surprise, he was promoted.

Still, we don’t want to counsel anyone to stay stuck in a terrible situation, so even the advice to bloom where you are planted needs to be tempered. No one-liner is going to fit all situations. Career choices aren’t simple, which is why they shouldn’t be guided by simplistic slogans.” ~

John Singer Sargent: A Street in Venice, c. 1880-1882

~ “Star Wars rejects the ambiguity and moral uncertainty of post-Vietnam America and instead depicts a universe of moral absolutes. It deploys elements of classic western films: characters Luke Skywalker, Han Solo and Chewbacca resonate with frontier archetypes. The dust up in the saloon and the frequent shoot outs play with the conventions of the genre.

References to American wars in which the US held the moral high ground are another recurring motif. The imagery and iconography of World War II is everywhere in Star Wars. Terms like stormtroopers, the evil empire and super weapons are suggestive. The design of the ships, costumes and weaponry are modeled on examples from World War II. The choreography of the space battles are even based on aerial dogfight sequences from other war movies.

Lucas also employs a range of visual cues from Nazi propaganda film The Triumph of the Will, most obviously in the closing medal ceremony.

Moral high ground

In the film’s opening moments, Lucas reminds audiences of another war with mythic implications, America’s Revolutionary War. This conflict ideally suited Lucas’s purpose because it is perhaps the most unambiguous war in American history: the Americans were underdogs fighting a well-equipped empire – but they were victorious. For Lucas it is a compelling and attractive alternative to Vietnam’s moral ambiguities, atrocity and defeat.
Looking at the film through the lens of the Revolutionary War, Lucas’s myth building is fascinating. The opening shot of the small blockade runner being chased down by the massive Star Destroyer perfectly articulates the heroic context and asymmetry of the conflict.

This sense of poorly equipped rebels versus a professional military force is further enhanced when the action comes aboard the smaller ship, where a small force of men awaits combat. These are not traditional soldiers, however: they are not young men at the peak of physical and psychological readiness. Rather they are all older, scared, a volunteer militia, and the coming combat, as historian John Hellman has suggested, resonates with the iconic clash of redcoats and minutemen.

Lucas’s efforts were an attempt to repair and rebuild American confidence and the belief that the United States was a force for good by celebrating the simplicity and certainties of mythic narratives. Star Wars reminds audiences of the qualities of innocence, purity and heroism these stories contain. The “return to childhood” that critic Pauline Kael recognized in her famously negative New Yorker review in 1977 is an acknowledgement of Star Wars’ ability to reconnect audiences with a more innocent time.” ~


~ On April 20, 1970, the poet Paul Celan left his home in Paris, walked to a bridge over the River Seine, and jumped to his death. He left a biography of Hölderlin open on his desk, with the following words underlined: ‘Sometimes this genius goes dark and sinks down into the bitter well of his heart.’

The sentence does not end there. Celan chose not to underline the rest: ‘but mostly his apocalyptic star glitters wondrously.’ ~ Maggie Nelson, from The Red Parts

Celan is known mainly for the great poem Todesfuge — The Fugue of Death — an elegy for Holocaust victims (strange how “elegy” seems too shallow a word for that poem).

As for not underlining the positive part of the sentence — possibly not even noticing it, or, even if noticing, not remembering it — anyone who knows from experience how depression distorts perception and memory would not be surprised.

The grave of Paul Celan near Paris


~ "In the vast literature about Stalin and Hitler during World War II, little is said about their being allies for twenty-two months. That is more than an odd chapter in the history of that war, and its meaning deserves more attention than it has received.

Two factors were involved in this neglect. One was that after Hitler chose to conquer Russia he did not succeed; Stalin emerged as one of the supreme victors of World War II. The other was the Western Powers’ relative lack of interest in Eastern Europe. Yet the war broke out in 1939 because of Eastern Europe, as a result of the British (and French) decision to oppose the German conquest of Poland. The political earthquake of the Nazi–Soviet Pact of August 23, 1939, nine days before the outbreak of war on September 1, did not deter Britain and France from declaring war on Germany upon its invasion of Poland. This is one of the few—very few—decisions in their favor at the time. That they were reluctant in the months that followed to wage war seriously against Germany is another story.

[Before the Nazi-Soviet pact] Nazism and communism were outright enemies. From the very beginning of his political rise Hitler described Judaism and communism as his principal enemies. Stalin, by that time, was less of an ideologue. Like Hitler, he was a nationalist; he had little interest in international communism.

What was more important than the Non-Aggression Pact was its addendum, a Secret Protocol, that called for nothing less than a division of Eastern Europe, particularly Poland, part of which was to be taken over by the Soviets. In addition, Germany recognized Russia’s “sphere of interest” in Estonia, Latvia, Finland, some of Lithuania, and the Romanian province of Bessarabia. Moscow denied the very existence of this Secret Protocol for a long time, well beyond World War II. But it existed in the German archives; and in 1939 it became a somber and dreadful reality. As late as 1986 the aged Molotov (then over ninety) denied its very existence to a Russian journalist. In fact, many of its conditions survived both the world war and the succeeding conflicts until 1989.

Poland, its army and its people, fought the Germans bravely for a month in 1939 (almost as long as France, with its considerable army, in 1940). But seventeen days after the German invasion Stalin’s armies invaded Poland from the east. A few days later in Brest, a meeting place then just on the Russian side of the new partition of Poland, there was a small joint military parade of Nazi and Soviet soldiers and military vehicles. Just over two months later, less than three months after the outbreak of World War II, the only fighting on land in Europe was between Russians and Finns, who would not accept Russian control of their country. The British were aghast. They (and the French) even considered, briefly, intervening, but this did not come about. Soon Hitler’s armies conquered Denmark, Norway, Holland, Belgium—and then France. Churchill and Britain stood alone, for more than a year to come.

At the end of September 1939 Ribbentrop flew to Moscow once more to arrange some border deals that would carry out the Secret Protocol. Throughout the war, of all Germany’s high officials, he was the most inclined to seek and keep agreements with the Russians. (His counterpart among the Russians, Molotov, had often reciprocal inclinations.) In this respect we may also notice the reciprocal tendencies of Hitler and Stalin. Hitler thought it necessary to carry out the terms of the alliance with Stalin; Stalin, for his part, was more enthusiastic about it than Hitler. One example is his perhaps unnecessary toast to Hitler after the signing of their pact on August 24, 1939: “I know how much the German nation loves its Führer, I should therefore like to drink to his health.” More telling for the historical record and more consequential for the peoples of Eastern Europe were the Soviets’ intentions and their aggressive behavior soon after the signing of the Nazi–Soviet Pact.

Two months later the Winter War with Finland began. The small Finnish army fought well and courageously, a fact that even Stalin had to accept; the result was a treaty that gave up pieces of territory to the Soviet Union but for the most part maintained Finnish independence.

Far more ominous and horrible was the situation in Poland. There the Soviet occupation was at least as brutal and murderous—if not more so—than in the parts of Poland subjugated by the Germans. The Russians deported at least one million people—including entire families, without any of their belongings—to Siberia, Kazakhstan, and the Russian far north, with very few ever seeing their homelands again. In April and May 1940, some 22,000 Polish officers were shot to death near Katyn. More than a million Polish prisoners and workers were deported to Germany for forced labor during the war.

On June 14, 1940, the very day the German army marched into Paris, Moscow finally decided to implement the Secret Protocol. Within a day or two it declared the total incorporation of Estonia and Latvia and Lithuania into the Soviet Union. Their governments were imprisoned or exiled. Many of their former officers were executed, and at least 25,000 of the Baltic peoples were deported to the Soviet Union. Hitler transported the German minorities in the Baltics to Germany on German ships.
Stalin ordered many friendly gestures toward Germany, including speeding up the deliveries of Soviet products there. He did not in the least react to a warning from Churchill about a prospective German attack against the Soviet Union. During the ten days before the Nazi invasion—all kinds of information about the German threat notwithstanding—Stalin did his best or, rather, his worst, to affirm his faith in Hitler and in Germany. I do not know of a single instance of such abject behavior (for that is what it was) by a statesman of a great power.

The German attack shocked Stalin into silence at first. (Molotov’s words after the German declaration of war were also telling: “Did we deserve this?”) Stalin’s first orders for the Soviet army were not to respond at all. It took him hours after the invasion—until noon—before he ordered the army to resist.

There is still a controversy about how shaken he was during the first days of the Nazi onslaught. Eventually he pulled himself together. On July 3, 1941—eleven days after the German invasion—he addressed the peoples of the Soviet Union as a patriot. By that time some Nazi troops were more than one hundred miles inside the western Soviet Union and advancing toward Moscow.

Nazi and Soviet officers at Brest-Litovsk, September 22, 1939


“Wanna-be tyrants in a democracy are just comical figures on soapboxes when they have no following. So the real…threat lay coiled in parts of the population itself…ready someday to catapult the next Hitler to power with their votes.” ~ Bob Altemeyer, 1998

~ “Research indicates that a bed rock 20-25% of the adults in North America is highly vulnerable to a demagogue who would incite hatred of various minorities to gain power. 25% of the American population is always ready to vote for a dictator. These people are constantly waiting for a tough “law and order” “man on horseback” who will supposedly solve all our problems through the ruthless application of force. When such a person gains prominence, you can expect the authoritarian followers to mate devotedly with the authoritarian leader, because each gives the other something they desperately want: the feeling of safety for the followers, and the tremendous power of the modern state for the leader.

We know a lot about authoritarian followers. Compared with most people:

They are highly ethnocentric, highly inclined to see the world as their in-group versus everyone else. Because they are so committed to their in-group, they are very zealous in its cause. They will trust their leaders no matter what they say, and distrust whomever the leader says to distrust.

They are highly fearful of a dangerous world. Their parents taught them, more than parents usually do, that the world is dangerous. They may also be genetically predisposed to experience stronger fear than people skilled at “keeping their heads while others are losing theirs.”

They are highly self-righteous. They believe they are the “good people” and this unlocks a lot of hostile impulses against those they consider bad.

They are aggressive. Given the chance to attack someone with the approval of an authority, they will lower the boom.

They are highly prejudiced against racial and ethnic minorities, non-heterosexuals, and women in general.

They will support their authorities, and even help them, persecute almost any identifiable group in the country.

Their beliefs are a mass of contradictions. They have highly compartmentalized minds, in which opposite beliefs live independent lives in separate boxes. As a result, their thinking is full of double-standards.

They reason poorly. If they like the conclusion of an argument, they don’t pay much attention to whether the evidence is valid or the argument is consistent. They especially have trouble realizing a conclusion is invalid.

They are highly dogmatic. Because they have mainly gotten their beliefs from the authorities in their lives, rather than think things out for themselves, they have no real defense when facts or events indicate they are wrong. So they just dig in their heels and refuse to change.

They are very dependent on social reinforcement of their beliefs. They think they are right because almost everyone they know and listen to tells them they are. That happens because they screen out sources that will suggest that they are wrong.

Because they severely limit their exposure to different people and ideas, they vastly overestimate the extent to which other people agree with them. And thinking they are “the moral majority” supports their attacks on the “evil minorities” they see in the country.

They believe strongly in group cohesiveness, and being loyal. They are highly energized when surrounded by a crowd of fellow-believers because it makes them feel powerful and supports their belief that “all the good people” agree with them.

They are easily duped by manipulators who pretend to espouse their causes when all the con-artists really want is personal gain.

They are largely blind to themselves. They have little self-understanding and insight into why they think and do what they do. They are heavily into denial.

I hasten to add that studies find examples of all these things in lots of others, not just authoritarian followers. But not as consistently, and not nearly as much.


A wannabe dictator is all about dominance. He wants to dominate everyone and he will do whatever he can get away with to become “Number One.” Often the movement he leads becomes a personality clique, because ultimately it is really just about, only about, him. Trump appears every bit as narcissistic as he is aggressive and constantly striving for dominance.

The most remarkable thing about Donald Trump as an authoritarian leader, in my mind, is that he’s so obvious about it. Look at his comments about Vladimir Putin, Saddam Hussein, and Kim Jong-un. While he has some negative evaluation of each, he praises all three for becoming autocrats and using their power to dominate their countries.

The authoritarian followers’ connection with their leader is not rational but emotional. It’s based on fear that he fans and anger that he channels. That’s why Trump can contradict himself so often, and say so many outrageous things, with no effect on his followers’ support. He is likely more vulnerable to emotional backlash among his followers when he does something horrendous than to intellectual rejection when he lies or says something stupid.” ~ Bob Altemeyer


This stands out for me: authoritarian followers tend to see the reality in terms of their in-group versus everyone else. Their in-group is the “good people”; anyone different is bad. The world is a dangerous, alien place. They are dogmatic and dismiss evidence. If their leader says something is true, it’s true. They severely limit their exposure to different people and different ideas and assume they are the “moral majority.”

Naturally those are the nationalists rather than the internationalists, people who can say “Pittsburgh not Paris” without the slightest inkling that anyone might find it ludicrous. And it’s an easy guess that they aren’t familiar with Casablanca, never mind that it’s an American movie classic — but with an international flavor. 

To some extent the description of authoritarians fits most of us — we all prefer our “in-group.” There is, however, a question of degree. Some people have had much more exposure to other cultures and are more curious about the world — which they don’t see mainly as a bad, dangerous place, populated by evil minorities who worship the wrong god.

This may seem trivial, but I find this clue to be quite useful: a preference for ethnic restaurants usually indicates a less authoritarian person. Having tasted snails, frog’s legs, unusual kinds of seafood, odd Chinese fruit and so forth is an excellent sign of openness to experience. I hope I don’t sound like a hopeless foodie, but this has never failed me.

(By the way, this article was written before the election.)

I find comfort in my perception that Trump doesn’t have the vitality and charisma that Hitler and Stalin had, nor their cunning at playing the game of politics. He’s old and fat and in mental decline. Still, laugh as we may at “covfefe” and other twitter nonsense, there is no denying the damage.

“Trump is always reaching for a stronger and better word . . . and not finding it.” ~ Alec Baldwin

“Turns out that the Trump era isn’t ‘1984.’ It’s ‘King Lear.’ Turns out there is no monolithic power — there is just one man’s erratic personality.” ~ Washington Post
“Every authoritarian follower I know is on an urgent crusade against other authoritarians” ~ Jeremy Sherman (thus the right wing opposes Marxists, for instance)

“An idea that is not dangerous is unworthy of being called an idea at all.” ~ Oscar Wilde


~ “May you live to a ripe old age, and may the only people who come visit you be Mormon missionaries.

May your insurance company decide constipation is a pre-existing condition.

May you find yourself insisting to a roomful of skeptics that your great-grandmother was “legitimately” raped by Cossacks.

May the state of Arizona expand their definition of “suspected illegal immigrants” to “anyone who doesn’t hunt.”

May you be reunited in the world to come with your ancestors, who were all socialist garment workers.” ~

“OK, sure, but what's the point, other than venting your personal anger and frustration? Why bother, knowing that your words will change nothing?”

“Not so. Everything changes something in some way. Every spoken or written word does. Silence does, too. Silence is no less interpretable than speech, and no less of a statement.” ~ M. Iossel

  St. Sebastian (note the arrows — apparently even his soul is a permanent pincushion — or, as Charles commented, this is an example of medieval acupuncture) interceding for the plague-stricken at Pavia; Josse Lieferinxe (Netherlandish), ca 1500. Note also the angel and the devil flying above the city. Ah, the good old days.

THE FIRST TIME I STOOD UP TO A PRIEST was just after I turned 14, a month or so after I'd left the church. The beauty of it unfolded when I suddenly realized I didn't have to stand there and listen to him practically yell at me in the street. It was a major, crowded street (Grójecka, in the Ochota district of Warsaw). The priest was having a combined rage and anxiety attack. He was red in the face and shaking. “Have you stopped going to church?” he asked sharply. Then, with unmistakable fear in his voice, “Have you stopped believing in god?”

His fear startled me. I did not answer. My silence was the answer. And this seemingly tiny fact — that a young girl had decided that the invisible god in the sky wasn’t real — seemed to unnerve him to the core, to threaten his whole worldview. It was the first time in my life that I felt I was threatening to someone — a middle-aged man at that!

Yet I was only a teenager, a “girl from a good home” who’d never be impolite to an adult. No need to fear that I’d say some equivalent of “Fuck Jesus” or "Fuck god" or “give the priest a fig” (like “giving him the finger”). That was simply unimaginable. (I say “equivalent” since I was too innocent to even know the f-word in Polish — I am not kidding. In six weeks in Milwaukee I learned all the bad words in English; two-thirds or more I wouldn’t have been able to translate into Polish.)

I merely stood in the middle of the sidewalk, small next to this massive man in his voluminous black “sutanna” (‘soutane, a priestly cassock’), a sparrow against a crow — “little sparrows,” as our literature teacher called me now and then, strangely using the plural, as if I were a collectivity of smallness — a mere girl but suddenly with a mind that had obviously done something other than regurgitate catechism. He, red in the face and screaming; me, cool and silent, just staring at him.

After about seven or eight minutes of listening to his frantic scolding, I suddenly realized that he had no power over me. Other than rant, what could he do? Nothing. It was centuries too late for burning atheists at the stake. So, first the beautiful realization that god had no power to punish me — then the realization that my parish priest had no power to punish me. He continued to speak in a loud voice, getting even redder in his face, gasping. Without a word, I turned my back on him and resumed walking to wherever I was going.

But at that point it was no longer real courage. I wish I'd had courage back when hell was terribly real for me, and oh, how I hated going to confession! But I didn’t rebel as long as I though god actually existed, an invisible man in the sky who was all-powerful and could read everyone’s thoughts.

I might have stayed longer in a liberal Protestant church, the kind where they tell you you don’t have to worry about going to hell because you’re already saved . . . (“You don’t have to worry about your sins. Nothing can separate you from the Lamb,” Martin Luther said — but I learned that only decades later). Or perhaps not as long because who knows at what point reading the bible (forbidden to Catholics) would make me question the more revolting stories . . . I'm pretty sure that even in a supportive “everyone goes to heaven; your dog too will be waiting there for you” congregation, I would sooner or later come to question the truth of the teachings. Even in a church so advanced that it held that Jesus died for everyone, even the extraterrestrials! (this I learned of course only in the U.S.)

It was fascinating, though, to see a priest throw a tantrum in public, pedestrians in a quick staccato walking by us with with barely a glance at the spectacle — the usual human wave of faces lost in their own preoccupations. I threatened his worldview, while he did not threaten my new clarity. He, a suddenly frightened priest of a dead god; I, suddenly filled with courage, my life ahead of me, the future, the new world.

Post-script: In retrospect I'm astonished that he didn’t threaten me with hell, the most prevalent spiritual terrorism the church used. Was his own belief in hell wavering? Or did he by any chance sense that to threaten me with hell would have been even more abusive than hitting me, and that would have been ignoble, a big man hitting a small young girl? Finally, I wonder if he understood that the sole power he used to have over me relied totally on my belief in all kinds of invisible nonsense. A person who doesn’t believe in hell will not be manipulated by being threatened by it. Lack of belief reduces the church to impotence — now that it can’t burn heretics and apostates at the stake.

By the way, I’ve noticed an interesting trend: some people keep saying that god is a good guy; it’s religion that’s bad. Religion is divisive, and at its worst leads to suicide bombings and other atrocities. Let’s get rid of religion, but keep god!

But god is a social construct; without a social structure (e.g childhood indoctrination, places of worship, ritual) to support the idea that god exists, the idea — and a particular god — would vanish. Does anyone believe in Zeus anymore? Yet at one time true believers in Zeus swore that the god guided them and answered their prayers. They even claimed they could sense the god’s presence. Yet as soon as the worship of Zeus ended, it was as if he had never existed — except for the myths, the broken up statues, and the ruins of temples. And for those we are eternally grateful — not only for their beauty, but also for having provided an example of how quickly and totally an unworshiped deity can die.

ending on beauty

To go in the dark with a light is to know the light.
To know the dark, go dark. Go without sight,
and find that the dark, too, blooms and sings,
and is traveled by dark feet and dark wings.

~ Wendell Berry, To Know the Dark

photo: Connie Peterson

Saturday, May 27, 2017


Andrea Mantegna: Children Playing with Masks, 1495. Note the child's arm stuck out like a tongue. That's perhaps the most creative part of this unusual work.

My grandmother’s story before it’s forgotten: her parents dying
the father first. When the widow realizes the disease will take
    her too
she walks from house to house, sails from island to island
with her daughter. “Who can take care of Maria?”
A strange house on the other side of the bay takes her in.
They could afford to do it. But the ones that could afford it
    weren’t the good ones.
Piety’s mask cracks. Maria’s childhood ends too soon,
she’s an unpaid servant, in perpetual coldness.
Year after year. Perpetually seasick behind the
long oars, the solemn terror
at the table, the expressions, the pike skin crunching
in her mouth: be grateful, be grateful.
                    She never looked back.
But because of this she could see The New
and seize it.
Break out of the bonds.

I remember her, I used to snuggle against her
and at the moment she died (the moment she passed over?) she
    sent out a thought
so that I, a five year old, understood what had happened
a half an hour before they called.

I remember her. But in the next brown photo
someone I don’t know —
by the clothes from the middle of the last century.
A man about thirty, the powerful eyebrows,
the face that looks me right in the eye
whispering “Here I am.”
But who “I” am
is someone no one remembers any more. No one.

TB? Isolation?

Once he stopped
on the stony, grass-streaming slope coming up from the sea
and felt the black blindfold in front of his eyes.

~ Tomas Tranströmer, from Baltics, VI
translated by Samuel Charters

The last section brings us the story of the poet’s grandmother: her widowed mother, sick with TB,  going from house to house, island to island (the setting is the Stockholm Archipelago), trying to find foster parents for her daughter. Then childhood’s painful end with the family who treated her like an unpaid servant. Finally, the closeness between the grandmother and the poet as a child — at the moment of her dying, that mysterious communication between the two.

Countless people have told a similar story about knowing exactly when someone they loved died. The speaker isn’t sure if death is a “passing over” to another realm of consciousness. Perhaps all we can say is that while we are alive, up to the last moment, our minds are interconnected in more ways than we know.

Then we come to the brief vignette of a stranger whom no one remembers, no one (Tranströmer’s emphatic repetition). Then the masterful lines about how that man knew death was coming for him, with the image of the black blindfold, as before being executed by a firing squad. But let’s not forget the single line before that passage: “TB? Isolation?”

The two are equated. The poet implies a person can die of isolation, and I suspect that at least some old people die precisely of that. We are social animals, and absolutely need a signal from others that says “live!” to cells of our bodies. We must feel needed, appreciated, cherished — dare we say “loved”?

“Needed” is probably sufficient. Needed at least by our cat and houseplants. That’s why a handful of nursing homes allow pets and houseplants, though this is still regarded as a radical, experimental practice. No one denies the benefits, but these are disregarded in favor of less bother. Affection? The purring of a cat? Forget it. Make them take antidepressants.

But I digress. The important step at this point is to return to the beginning of this section, where the speaker says: “My grandmother’s story before it’s forgotten: . . . ” I think this is the paradox of being human: the poet appears almost desperate to save his grandmother’s story from oblivion, so she doesn’t become like the stranger whom no one remembers anymore.

But is being forgotten a tragic fate, or merely a universal one? Kings and queens, heroes, great artists, great discoverers — those are rare exceptions that indeed confirm the rule — and with time, their names too begin to fade. What seems to be left is our awareness that great multitudes of people lived before us. And here is what they say: I lived, I loved, I had my dreams, my joys, my sorrows. And we can nod, and perhaps remember, “No man is an island.” We are connected to them. It doesn’t matter if the connection is anonymous.

On further thought, I think Tranströmer is fully aware that even though he tells his grandmother's story, it will be quickly forgotten anyway. He doesn't have Shakespeare's (and various other poets') illusions about being able to make someone “immortal.” But for a moment he makes us care about the grandmother, and that moment of affection is enough. I also feel affection for her mother, who knew she was dying and was no doubt barely holding on, but tried so hard to find an adoptive family for her daughter. I can imagine little details here: trying to make her daughter look pretty in a little bonnet, or maybe a ribbon in her hair — all that caring, while dying.

So ultimately we are moved by something universal: a mother’s love. No matter how bad the foster parents turned out to be, Maria understood that her sick mother tried to make sure her daughter would not starve, and held on to life until she could be sure of that. No hardship and humiliation would stop her. I think Maria preserved the memory of her mother’s love, and that memory was her salvation — it prevented her spirit from being broken. She preserved her self-worth and was able to form a positive vision of a future self.

I think what makes us kind or unkind is almost never religion, but mainly the kindness or unkindness we received in childhood — and later on. Receiving sufficient love (even if abuse happens later on) is a kind of vaccine against the child’s growing up to become an abuser in his or her turn.

Grinda, part of the Stockholm Archipelago

One of the most reliable sex differences in reactions to marriage is in who files for divorce. This difference has been documented at least as far back as 1867. It is still true now, in places such as Europe, Australia, and the U.S. Who is more likely to walk away from a marriage? Women. They initiated about 62 percent of divorces in the U.S. in 1867, and that number is now close to 70 percent.

Some marriages end with the death of a spouse, and that can be deeply distressing for both men and women. There are indications, though, that women adapt faster to bereavement than men do.

Once a marriage ends, women are much less likely than men to try marriage again. Rates of remarriage are almost twice as high for men as for women. Some of that can be explained by more advantageous sex ratios for men who want to remarry than women, but that is unlikely to be the entire explanation for such a big difference.

There are also some indications that women savor their solitude more than men do. When asked whether they enjoy their time alone, women are more likely than men to say that they do.

Porsche introduced its first electric car already in 1898! Cleaner, quiet, easy to start — alas, the electric car was favored by women, so it became stigmatized as a “woman's car.” 

An electric car, England, 1896. The first practical electric car was invented in 1884.


~ “Eighty! I can hardly believe it. I often feel that life is about to begin, only to realize it is almost over . . . One’s reactions are a little slower, names more frequently elude one, and one’s energies must be husbanded, but even so, one may often feel full of energy and life and not at all “old.” Perhaps, with luck, I will make it, more or less intact, for another few years and be granted the liberty to continue to love and work, the two most important things, Freud insisted, in life.

My father, who lived to 94, often said that the 80s had been one of the most enjoyable decades of his life. He felt, as I begin to feel, not a shrinking but an enlargement of mental life and perspective. One has had a long experience of life, not only one’s own life, but others’, too. One has seen triumphs and tragedies, booms and busts, revolutions and wars, great achievements and deep ambiguities, too. One has seen grand theories rise, only to be toppled by stubborn facts. One is more conscious of transience and, perhaps, of beauty.

At 80, one can take a long view and have a vivid, lived sense of history not possible at an earlier age. I can imagine, feel in my bones, what a century is like, which I could not do when I was 40 or 60. I do not think of old age as an ever grimmer time that one must somehow endure and make the best of, but as a time of leisure and freedom, freed from the factitious urgencies of earlier days, free to explore whatever I wish, and to bind the thoughts and feelings of a lifetime together.” ~

But what about dying, you may ask. Writing two years before his death of cancer (and he did know at this point that he had a nasty kind of cancer — in remission, but bound to recur) Sacks seems unperturbed. He hopes to die “in harness,” working to the end. “I have no belief in (or desire for) any post-mortem existence, other than in the memories of friends and the hope that some of my books may still ‘speak’ to people after my death.”

(I’ve lost the link, but this probably appeared in the New York Times)

  campanula x rays


This is how I felt in my late teens and twenties

 Artist: Luthyen


~ “That the weak liberal parties dominated the new [Kerensky-led] government was to be expected. What worried Lenin were the reports he was receiving that his own Bolsheviks were vacillating over the way forward. Theory had bound them, together with most of the left, to the Marxist orthodoxy that, at this stage, the revolution in Russia could be only bourgeois-democratic. Socialism was possible only in advanced economies like Germany, France or even the United States, but not in peasant Russia. (Leon Trotsky and his band of intellectuals were among the few dissenters from that view.)

Since the course of the revolution was thus preordained, all that socialists could do was offer support to the provisional government as it carried through the revolution’s first phase and developed a full-fledged capitalist society. Once this was completed, then they could agitate for a more radical revolution.

The Bolshevik slogan that embodied his tactical thinking was “peace, land and bread.” As for the revolution, he now argued that the international capitalist chain would break at its weakest link. Winning over the Russian workers and peasants to create a new socialist state would pave the way for an insurrection in Germany and elsewhere. Without this, he argued, it would be difficult to build any meaningful form of socialism in Russia.

From February to October, arguably the most open period in Russian history, Lenin won over his party, joined forces with Trotsky and prepared for a new revolution. The provisional government of Alexander Kerensky refused to withdraw from the war. Bolshevik agitators among the troops at the front assailed his vacillations. Large-scale mutinies and desertions followed.

Within the workers’ and soldiers’ councils, or soviets, Lenin’s strategy began to make sense to large numbers of workers. The Bolsheviks won majorities in the Petrograd and Moscow soviets, and the party was developing rapidly elsewhere. This merger between Lenin’s political ideas and a growing class consciousness among workers produced the formula for October.

Far from being a conspiracy, let alone a coup, the October Revolution was perhaps the most publicly planned uprising in history. Two of Lenin’s oldest comrades on the party’s central committee remained opposed to an immediate revolution and published the date of the event. While its final details were obviously not advertised beforehand, the takeover was swift and involved minimal violence.

That all changed with the ensuing civil war, in which the nascent Soviet state’s enemies were backed by the czar’s former Western allies. Amid the resulting chaos and millions of casualties, the Bolsheviks finally prevailed — but at a terrible political and moral cost.

The choice that followed the revolution of October 1917 was thus not between Lenin and liberal democracy. The real choice was to be determined instead by a brutal struggle for power between the Red and White armies, the latter led by czarist generals who made no secret that if they won, both Bolsheviks and Jews would be exterminated. Pogroms carried out by the Whites saw entire Jewish villages wiped out. A majority of Russian Jews fought back, either as members of the Red Army or in their own partisan units. Nor should we forget that a few decades later, it was the Red Army — originally forged in the civil war by Trotsky, Mikhail Tukhachevsky and Mikhail Frunze (the former two killed later by Stalin) — that broke the military might of the Third Reich in the epic battles of Kursk and Stalingrad. By then, Lenin had been dead for almost two decades.

A White propaganda poster

 Weakened by a stroke for the last two years before he died in 1924, Lenin had time to reflect on the achievements of the October Revolution. He was not happy. The Revolution had to admit its mistakes and renew itself, he believed; otherwise, it would fail. Yet this lesson went unheeded after his death. His writings were largely ignored or deliberately distorted. No subsequent Soviet leader emerged with Lenin’s vision.

“His mind was a remarkable instrument,” wrote Winston Churchill, no admirer of Bolshevism. “When its light shone it revealed the whole world, its history, its sorrows, its stupidities, its shams, and above all, its wrongs.”

Of his successors, neither of the notable reformers — Nikita Khrushchev in the 1950s and ’60s and Mikhail Gorbachev in the 1980s — had the capacity to transform the country. The implosion of the Soviet Union owed almost as much to its degraded political culture — and, at times, the ridiculous deficiency of the bureaucratic elite — as it did to the economic stagnation and resource dependency that set in from the 1970s. Obsessed with mimicking the technological advances of the United States, its leaders cut the ground out from beneath their feet. In the revolution’s final, sorry chapter, not a few of its bureaucrats rediscovered themselves as millionaires and oligarchs — something Trotsky had predicted from exile in 1936.

In the national-conservative Russia of its president, Vladimir V. Putin, there are no celebrations this year of either the February Revolution or the October one.

“After their death,” Lenin wrote of revolutionaries, “attempts are made to convert them into harmless icons, to canonize them, so to say, and to hallow their names to a certain extent for the ‘consolation’ of the oppressed classes and with the object of duping the latter.” After his death, against the cries of his widow and sisters, Lenin was mummified, put on public display and treated like a Byzantine saint. He had predicted his own fate.


Lenin was actually flexible and pragmatic — for instance, he allowed limited capitalism (NEP, later abolished by Stalin).

I think the article points out something obvious that generally escapes attention: it wasn't the Revolution per se that caused most casualties, but the Civil War that followed. The carnage can ultimately be traced to Kerensky’s failure to withdraw from WWI. To be sure, he was under tremendous pressure by the Western allies. And of course now we have the wisdom of hindsight.

Russia's Civil War: American Troops near Vladivostok, 1918. “The experience in Siberia for the soldiers was miserable. Problems with fuel, ammunition, supplies and food were widespread. Horses accustomed to temperate climates were unable to function in sub-zero Russia. Water-cooled machine guns froze and became useless.” (Wiki)

“. . . most men and women will grow up to love their servitude and will never dream of revolution.” ~ Aldous Huxley, Brave New World 


The hardest thing I had to give up when I left Christianity was the concept of heaven. To be sure, I do think that existence would eventually be boring regardless of the state I found myself in — eternity was a long time to live (although I’ll admit — as a believer I thought this wouldn’t really be an issue). But there was also a disappointment that there were many family members and friends I would never see again.

I have to say — I think this is one of the reasons some I know cling to religion so tightly. It’s this tenuous connection that they have towards the dead that gives them a vested interest in making sure belief in God and heaven and the rest is protected.
The easiest thing to give up, by contrast, was the concept of hell. Usually bringing this up has many Christians insisting that the image I have of hell isn’t accurate — there seems to be more attempts to sanitize the concept of hell, in my experience, than any other concept in the Bible. I think this speaks to how uncomfortable the basic concept is — it’s unpleasant to think that people are going to heaven, while others are going to hell (regardless of the way you define “hell”).

The most common thing I hear from Christians is that people shouldn’t worry about hell. God’s going to be just and it’ll all make sense when we die. But even the trust that it’s OK for this being to send some people to hell based on his own judgment (which is supposedly just, whatever it is) is disturbing — especially since the judgment of this supposed being doesn’t have to answer to anybody.

The encouragement to trust God’s judgment above our own experience and sense of empathy is, if God doesn’t exist, an encouragement to trust a fictional being that is created by a few people, and for that trust to actually trump our actual real-life experiences and relationships.

During my last few years as a Christian, this approach of “just trust God’s judgment” wasn’t enough for me. I was always trying to look behind the curtain. Also, I was beginning to trust my own love and valuation of other people so much that God’s supposed opinion of how worthy they were to go to heaven began to matter less and less. The refrain, “Oh, if you saw it from God’s view it would all make sense” was an increasingly difficult position to take …my own empathy and trust in the beauty of other people I knew began bleeding through, and I began to see that the Bible — and the God in it — had less and less to do with the empathetic view of people that was growing in my heart.

And I eventually came to see that, although people are occasionally wrong, and although they do malicious things once in a while … no one deserves eternity in hell. So it’s a real relief not to believe in it.

And it’s really nice to live for the world that actually exists without feeling as if this life will be judged by a higher power.

It’s simpler. I enjoy life as it comes, embrace people who make this life better, and more soberly and honestly appreciate the lives of those who have gone before, knowing that there is only one me and that, for awhile, I contributed another verse to existence in a unique way that no one can replace and that doesn’t seem likely to come around again.

Leaving the concept of hell has given me a lot of peace. Asking me if I miss the concept of heaven (as an abstractly beautiful place — I wouldn’t want to spend a moment with the God of the Bible up there) is like asking me if I wish I could believe there were a million dollars in my bank account. Sure, it would be nice to see a couple buddies who have passed on after I die. But many things are there that indicate that isn’t the case, and that death is just a part of existence that is is simply “there.” This honesty makes it easier to live with myself and with others; there’s not this nagging view that I’m starring in my own Truman Show. Things are more peaceful, in a way, when I don’t have to twist my mind to think things that don’t seem real… leaving a lot more brainspace to get to the business of living a life that is, at least to me, much more authentic.” ~

Tintoretto: Paradise (detail). Isn’t this the most repulsive image of paradise imaginable? 


Love and work: I need no other heaven. But then I remember beauty. I need beauty to survive, or life is not worth living.

“This I teach men: no longer to bury one’s head in the sand of heavenly things, but to bear it freely, an earthly head, which creates a meaning for the earth.” ~ Nietzsche

To turn to something more fun, here is “Devil carrying his soul basket”; Holkham Bible, England c. 1320-1330. Images of hell are a lot more common in religious art than images of heaven. Note all the extra faces. Note also that one of the souls is a monk — so people did not automatically assume that monks were holy. 

~ “It was on my 15th birthday in the Summer of 2005 in Northern Morocco that, by chance, I got my hands on a series of online articles about the European Enlightenment. What I read was as transfixing as it was transformative, and marked the beginning of a radical change in my life.

It was particularly impactful to learn that until the 18th century, Europe — now a developed and free continent — had been characterized by the same religious dogmatism, sectarianism, and attacks on free expression that today underpin many Muslim states. It was encouraging to read that those philosophers of Europe on the front lines of the struggle for freedom — advocates of individual liberty, intellectual openness, and the eradication of religious oppression — had accomplished so much while being so few. They were lone voices without popular support, suffering from persecution, and living in exile; akin to many secularists and intellectuals in the Muslim world today.

This Europe, with its literature, philosophy, and revolutionary heritage, was a source of inspiration. I was a young Moroccan who had a complicated history of religious education — obliged to leave school and join a Salafi Madrasat the age of 14 — but reading the works of enlightenment intellectuals served as the catalyst of my own personal enlightenment.

The views of Spinoza on religion as an organized dogma, and the courage of Voltaire in the face of religious persecution, or Diderot and his belief in the importance of science and reason are particularly relevant and speak to the present challenges of the Islamic world.

To understand such fascination with the European Enlightenment in the Muslim world, we must be cognizant of the historical context of both.

Today, in France, Germany and England state-sponsored religious persecution is unheard of. One need not fear repercussion for speaking their mind or practicing their religion as they see fit, or not at all.

Meanwhile, the situation in the Muslim world is radically different from today’s Europe, but at the same time very much akin to the Europe of Spinoza and Denis Diderot. The issues with which these thinkers grappled continue to pose a serious challenge to many around the world, anywhere from Tangier to Jakarta.

I encountered Europe in person in the Spring of 2011, when I arrived in Geneva as a political refugee. It was a great shock to discover that the Europe of the enlightenment — the Europe that I read about in the books that had moved me to write and fight for freedom — had ceased to exist. While it may still exist geographically — you can still see it and you can visit it — you can no longer unconditionally immerse yourself in its ideas or experience the values and humanist principles it was founded upon.

It is now another Europe. It is a Europe where artists and writers must censor themselves in fear of death threats. A Europe where making caricatures of Jesus is considered freedom of speech, but drawing Mohamed is hate speech. A Europe where many liberals and feminists bury their heads in the sand when faced with the suffering of apostates, women, and minorities in the Islamic world. At the same time, far-Right populists exploitatively portray themselves as the new voice of freedom and enlightenment values, while their actions demonstrate an utter rejection these principles.

I was not surprised to see a French documentary about supporters of the far-Right National Front political party, who seemed to crave a return to the pre-enlightenment era, with one middle-aged man stating on camera that “I want Louis XIV to be back.”

It is equally unsurprising to see radical Islamists in Europe calling for Sharia law and demonizing the secular pluralist societies in which they live freely, while being supported by many liberals who confuse criticism of Islam with anti-Muslim bigotry or hate toward Muslims.

This betrayal of religious and sexual minorities in the Muslim world by some of those who identify as Leftists is disheartening. Their characterizations of ex-Muslims, feminists and liberals in the Islamic world as being euro-centrist or traitors of their own tribe are condescending and reek of ideological paternalism. However, there have also been many reasonable voices within the Left who don’t simply blame all the current misery in the Muslim world on Western foreign policy, but acknowledge and denounce the role of violent theocratic regimes such as in Iran and Saudi Arabia, and their responsibility in sponsoring terrorism and promoting the ideology of extremism.

So, has Europe ceased to exist? Perhaps the Europe which once inspired me never existed in the first place, and I am just confronted with the harsh realities of a continuing struggle towards enlightenment. Perhaps, in a moment of deficit, I was simply projecting my hopes and dreams onto my favorite philosophers and their books. Or maybe it did exist and still does; as long as I can speak my mind freely, as long as I can criticize the Left, the Right, and the Islamists without fear of persecution or jail, and as long as I am not taking my freedom for granted, Europe, this Europe which inspired me, will always exist.” ~

Somewhere in England, of course. It’s so easy to imagine the stately matron saying, “How do you do?”

"THE BIO-HUMANISM FALLACY: The assumption that you could eliminate our cultural infrastructure and people would remain civilized, as though human progress is now in our DNA, inborn in our bones.

When people say that Trump is a baby there's more to it than they notice. Without civilizing cultural constraints, we are all Trump at birth.

We don't fall from grace, we are cultured up from slime ball. Beastly behavior is largely our default state. The crass inhumanity of the dark past — that's still us, without culture to straighten us out.

The Bio-humanism fallacy is related to the illusion of autonomy. We feel free to be individuals not because we're less dependent on society but because the society we depend upon has become so reliable that we don't notice its effects." ~ Jeremy Sherman, Facebook


For the most part, I agree with this — and the movie “Lord of the Flies” was an unforgettable statement contradicting this fallacy (although we also need to remember that the movie starts out by presenting the boys’ attempt at fairness and democracy). In the history of humanity, there has been no mythical Golden Age, no paradise and fall from grace, but only a steady struggle to become less aggressive and more cooperative and civilized. So, did we really begin as slime balls whose progress toward civilization is an incomprehensible miracle?

No — and this is huge. No because of the neurobiology of the social species. We seem born pre-wired with a sense of fairness and with rudimentary empathy. We are the most social of the social species, and one most dependent on cooperation.

Alas, we are also wired for the in-group, out-group bias — that has led to many increasingly lethal conflicts, especially as family clans gave way to tribes, and tribes to nation-states and empires (by any other name). Thus, the naval officer at the end of the Lord of the Flies instantly restores civilization by his mere presence — but what’s this war ship we see anchored nearby? Even if that particular war was fought by the allies in defense of civilization, the overall failure of humanity is blatantly obvious. (But we are inching forward, Pinker reminds us, and he has statistics to prove it.)

I wish everyone would become familiar with the Yale Baby Clinic studies on empathy and the sense of fairness in pre-verbal infants — as well as the in-group, out-group bias. We, the most social of all species, don’t start as slime balls, but are in fact pre-wired for empathy and fairness and cooperation, as is true not just of primates but of elephants, wolves, dolphins, and several other species.

It's chiefly the out-group bias that can lead to atrocities. Kindness and fairness are in constant struggle against bullying and might-makes-right. Taking responsibility is a learned behavior — seeking excuses and trying to find scapegoats may seem “only natural.” I agree that it takes a lot of civilizing effort on top of the pre-wiring to end up with a kind, truly cooperative human being. And survival stress must not be too high, or stress of any kind, really, so that the cortex can perform its more subtle tasks.

At the same time, sure, survival comes first and a baby must scream if he perceives danger, without worrying about how annoying the screaming may be to others.

But people-pleasing starts early too, and may lead to excessive altruism. The complexities of the human situation are truly enormous. 



~ “Ah, to sleep, perchance … to shrink your neural connections? That’s the conclusion of new research that examined subtle changes in the brain during sleep.

The researchers found that sleep provides a time when the brain’s synapses — the connections among neurons — shrink back by nearly 20 percent. During this time, the synapses rest and prepare for the next day, when they will grow stronger while receiving new input — that is, learning new things, the researchers said.

Without this reset, known as “synaptic homeostasis,” synapses could become overloaded and burned out, like an electrical outlet with too many appliances plugged in to it, the scientists said.

“Sleep is the perfect time to allow the synaptic renormalization to occur … because when we are awake, we are ‘slaves’ of the here and now, always attending some stimuli and learning something,” said study co-author Dr. Chiara Cirelli of the University of Wisconsin-Madison Center for Sleep and Consciousness.

“During sleep, we are much less preoccupied by the external world … and the brain can sample [or assess] all our synapses, and renormalize them in a smart way,” Cirelli told Live Science.

Sleep is the price people pay for brains that are able to keep learning new things, the researchers said.

Russell Foster, who directs the Sleep and Circadian Neuroscience Institute at the University of Oxford in the United Kingdom, who was not associated with the study, called it a “very nice, clear piece of work.” The findings support the notion that sleep is necessary for the consolidation of memories and thus learning, Foster said.

In a paper published in 2003, Cirelli and Tononi hypothesized about sleep’s role in the growth of synapses, which serve as avenues to ferry information among neurons. Synapses are constantly strengthening, or widening, during the day to accommodate the flow of traffic as the brain soaks up new experiences. But that strengthening cannot go on indefinitely, or else the synapses will become saturated — think “information overload.”

To find evidence for this, the researchers used a new form of electron microscopy that can discern the miniscule changes in the shrinking and subsequent expansion of these microscopic synapses at the nanometer level in mice brains. They found that a few hours of sleep led to an 18 percent decrease in the size of the synapses on average.

Cirelli said that one interesting finding was that this pruning occurred in about 80 percent of the synapses but spared the largest ones. These larger synapses may be associated with the most stable and important memories, connections the brain does not want to lose, the researchers speculated. Yet, the way in which the brain decides what synaptic connections to prune is another mystery to explore, Cirelli said.

“It is critical to have pruning back at night, so that the huge amount of information encoded by temporary synapses during the day won’t overwhelm the brain,” said Foster. “Pruning ensures that only the most important information is retained.”

Foster said he can envision follow-on experiments based upon the Cirelli-Tononi work that would use mouse models to explore the connections among circadian rhythms (the body’s “internal clock”), sleep, synapse pruning and psychiatric disorders. Some of the key features of these disorders seem to be a disruption in neural circuitry, sleep disruption, and impaired cognition and memory, said Foster.

Foster added that resetting synapses may be a core feature of sleep, particularly for humans, with their advanced cognitive abilities compared to other animals. However, pruning is likely to be just one of many essential functions that takes place during the sleep phase, a period during which the body takes advantage of physical inactivity to perform a range of essential housekeeping activities, he said.” ~

ending on beauty

And then I rose
in the dazzle of light, to the pine trees
plunging and righting themselves in a furious wind.

To have died and come back
raw, crackling,
and the numbness

That clumsy
pushing and wheeling inside my chest, that ferocious
upturn —
I give myself to it. Why else
be in a body?

~ Chana Bloch (1940-2017), Afterlife

photo: Susan Rogers