Mitt’s Back

November 3, 2011

This image has been posted with express written permission. This cartoon was originally published at Town Hall.

Games Terrorists Play

November 3, 2011

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Perfect Protest Attire

November 3, 2011

Libya’s awakening

November 3, 2011

The National:

One morning in late September, as Libyan rebels launched their final advance on Sirte, Muammar Qaddafi’s hometown, Hisham Matar explained to a small, rapt audience at the century-old Chicago Club why the removal of repressive long-time dictators, though great, had not been the most meaningful achievement of the Arab Spring. “Our collective imagination – a whole array of expectations about our governments, our institutions, our dreams – has just shifted,” he said. “The horizon has moved much further than even the most audacious of us would have suggested.”

Matar speaks softly, but with confidence and precision. “You can see it on people’s bodies, in their eyes and their faces, hear it in their voices,” he adds during an interview in the lobby of his downtown hotel later that morning. “It’s as if these regimes were sitting literally on top of us. There’s a new ease, a new optimism, a new sense of ownership of the future. That tiresome record of complaining with resignation at the end of it – that’s gone, and it’s quite an extraordinary thing to lose so quickly.”

Little-known outside literary circles before this year, Matar seems to have surfaced at precisely the right moment to herald a new Arab modernity. Born in New York City in 1970, he moved with his family to Tripoli three years later when his father, Jaballa, resigned from a United Nations posting in objection to the Qaddafi regime. In 1979, Jaballa found himself on a Libyan government watch list and again moved the family, this time to Cairo. He wrote articles calling for democracy, and became a leader of the National Front for the Salvation of Libya. In the mid-80s, Matar was sent to boarding school in the UK, where he stayed to study architecture at university.

On the afternoon of March 12, 1990, Jaballa was taken from the family’s Cairo home by Egypt’s mukhabarat, handed over to the Libyan government and deposited in Abu Salim prison. Two letters, smuggled out by fellow prisoners in 1992 and 1995, relayed stories of interrogation and torture. The family has not heard from Jaballa since. His fate remains unknown.

Matar’s twenties fell away in a decade of hate for the Egyptian and Libyan governments. By 2004, he had moved to Paris, met his future wife and begun work on a novel. In the Country of Men, published in 2006, is the story of a sensitive Libyan boy experiencing the quiet panic of a childhood under despotic terror. The book made the Man Booker Prize shortlist and won the Royal Society of Literature’s Ondaatje Prize, honouring a work that evokes “the spirit of a place”.

Released early this year, his second novel, Anatomy of a Disappearance, is also narrated by a sensitive Arab youth and has received strong reviews. The story pivots around his father’s mysterious abduction and the long-held secrets it reveals. A “chronicle of the dead years”, is how the poet and critic Luke Kennard described the book in his February review for this publication. “Moving and impressively concise, what ultimately sets Anatomy of a Disappearance apart and makes it something of a modern classic is not just the universality of loss, but the deep humanity of Matar’s prose.” Written in English, that prose is simple, declarative, and all the more forceful as a result of his great care.

“Every word we utter betrays us, says a little more than what we think we are saying, reveals more than what we anticipated, exposes us further,” Matar said during a recent lecture at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA).

Few better expose the long, dark reach of dictatorship than Matar, which is something of an irony, as Anatomy’s publication coincided with the uprisings sweeping the region. Suddenly, Matar was everywhere: writing about Libya and his father in the New York Times, The Guardian and The New Yorker; interpreting the Arab Spring at think-tank discussions and literary festivals; chatting with the BBC, NPR and other news channels.

All at once, and despite spending more than half of his life in the UK, Matar emerged as the new Arab world’s unofficial interlocutor to the West. “It’s not so much translating or communicating things, but it’s dispelling the presumptions that we are quintessentially different,” he says of his new role. “I’m very glad to be one of the people in the army of artists that are doing that on both sides. I do think this opportunity is a fantastic moment for anyone interested in culture, to start to define this relationship.”

The Arab Spring did not begin with Tunisian fruit-seller Mohamed Bouazizi. Nor did it begin with Iran’s green movement in 2009, or Lebanon’s so-called Cedar Revolution of 2005. It began more than a century ago, with scholars, writers and revolutionaries who sounded the region’s first modern-day clarion call for unity and self-determination.

Soon after Khayr al-Din, a reformist Circassian legion of the Ottoman Sultan, became prime minister of Tunisia in 1873, he founded Sadiki, a liberal university that taught secularism and emulated European politics. The new college became a breeding ground for the political elite that later built the institutions of an independent Tunisia. Around the same time, Muhammad Abduh, a prize pupil of the bold religious and political thinker Jamal al-Din al-Afghani, gained a pulpit as professor of history at Cairo’s Darul Uloom. He denounced unjust rulers, sought harmony among religions and sects and argued that every society should be allowed to choose the form of government best-suited to its era.

And on a June 1880 night in Beirut, a small band of Muslim and Christian men snuck out under cover of darkness and posted placards at street corners and public squares, as co-conspirators did the same in Damascus, Tripoli and Sidon. The message on their poster “rebukes the people of Syria for their lethargy,” writes George Antonius in his masterful 1946 history, The Arab Awakening, “incites the people to sink their differences and unite against their tyrants under the inspiration of their ‘Arab pride’…”

Read it all.

Scientific American:

If ever Americans were up for a bit of class warfare, now would seem to be the time. The current financial downturn has led to a $700 billion tax-payer-financed bank bailout and an unemployment rate stuck stubbornly above nine percent. Onto this scene has stepped the Occupy Wall Street (OWS) movement, which seeks to bring together a disparate group of protesters united in their belief that the current income distribution is unfair.  “The one thing we all have in common is that We are the 99% that will no longer tolerate the greed and corruption of the 1%,” says their website.  In an era of bank bailouts and rising poverty – and where recent data show that the top 1 percent control as much as 35 percent of the total wealth in America – it would appear that the timing of this movement to reconsider the allocation of wealth could not be more perfect.

Or, maybe not.

Support for redistribution, surprisingly enough, has plummeted during the recession. For years, the General Social Survey has asked individuals whether “government should reduce income differences between the rich and the poor.” Agreement with this statement dropped dramatically between 2008 and 2010, the two most recent years of data available.  Other surveys have shown similar results.

What might explain this trend? First, the change is not driven by wealthy white Republicans reacting against President Obama’s agenda: the drop is if anything slightly larger among minorities, and Americans who self-identify as having below average income show the same decrease in support for redistribution as wealthier Americans.

Our recent research suggests that, far from being surprised that many working-class individuals would oppose redistribution, we might actually expect their opposition to rise during times of turmoil – despite the fact that redistribution appears to be in their economic interest. Our work suggests that people exhibit a fundamental loathing for being near or in last place – what we call “last place aversion.” This fear can lead people near the bottom of the income distribution to oppose redistribution because it might allow people at the very bottom to catch up with them or even leapfrog past them.

How does last-place aversion play out with regard to redistribution? In our surveys, we asked Americans whether they supported an increase to the minimum wage, currently $7.25 per hour. Those making $7.25 or below were very likely to support the increase – after all, they would be immediate beneficiaries. In addition, people making substantially more than $7.25 were also fairly positive towards the increase. Which group was the most opposed? Those making just above the minimum wage, between $7.26 and $8.25. We might expect people who make just below and just above $7.25 to have similar lifestyles and policy attitudes – but in this case, while those making below $7.25 would benefit if the minimum wage were raised to, say, $8.25, those making just above $7.25 would run the risk of falling into a tie for last place.

We’ve also found evidence of last place aversion in laboratory experiments. In one, we created an artificial income distribution by endowing individuals with different sums of money and showing them their “rank”– with each rank separated by $1. We then gave them an additional $2, which they had to give to either the person directly below or directly above them in the distribution. In this income distribution, of course, giving $2 to the person below you means he will jump ahead of you in rank. In our experiments, most people still give to the person below them – after all, the alternative is to give $2 to a person who already has more money than you. People in second-to-last place, however, who would fall to last place when giving the money to the person below them, are the least likely to do so: so strong is their desire to avoid last place that they choose to give the money to a wealthier person (the person above them) nearly half the time. If Americans behave like people in our experiments, then it could be challenging to unite those in the bottom of the income distribution to support redistribution…

Read it all.

Quack Prophet

November 3, 2011

Lapham’s Quarterly:

Soothsayers have been around as long as recorded history, probably longer—after all, knowing what’s to come has always been accorded more value than knowing what’s already happened. Whether Isaiah shouting from the mountaintop or Jim Cramer shouting from the television screen, there has always been power and notoriety to be gained from prognostication. But considering that most (if not all) of these seers—whatever market expertise or God-given insight they might claim for themselves—are just shooting in the dark, it’s not altogether clear what makes a good prophet. Showmanship and some lucky guesses, to be sure, but beyond that? This is the question that surrounds the strange and enduring popularity of one of the unlikeliest prophets: an ex-doctor from southern France named Nostradamus.

His name is almost a byword for cataclysm, trotted out over the centuries in the wake of major disasters as evidence that long ago someone had figured out they had been foreordained. Such was the case in the aftermath of September 11, for instance, when Nostradamus most recently reappeared in the spotlight. Today, venture into any bookstore’s occult section, and you’re bound to find multiple translations of The Prophecies, his best-known work, alongside books hotly debating its significance and validity. Or turn on the History Channel, and you might catch repeats of The Nostradamus Effect, a show that explored apocalyptic prophecies throughout history, with episodes bearing titles like “The Third Anti-Christ?” and “Armageddon Battle Plan.” His name and work have permeated our experience of doom and destruction, but the man himself is almost a cipher. Getting any kind of reliable understanding or impression of him takes some work.

Before you even begin, forget the Internet. A Google search of his name would leave you mired in hordes of conspiracy theorists, New Age peddlers, devotees who give him the cloying nickname “Nosty” and credulously recycle the same badly translated lines and outright inventions that people have always cited as “proof” of his foresight. You’ll find apocryphal prophecies, such as the one which warns that “two steel birds will fall from the sky on the Metropolis,” or logical contortionists like Nostradamus “expert” and self-styled prophet John Hogue, who contends that the prophecy beginning “When 1999 is seven months over” can be made a reference to 9/11 if one only reverses “1999” to “9-11-1,” and translates the French sept as “September,” not “seven.” There are literally millions of web pages like this, and the man himself—Michel de Nostredame—is scarcely evident behind all this noise.

The authoritative sources aren’t much better, unfortunately. In its entry for Nostradamus, the current edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica contains at least half a dozen basic factual errors. It gets known dates wrong: the years in which he began his medical practice, moved to the town of Salon, and began publishing The Prophecies, which it mistakenly calls Centuries. It also claims his books were banned by the Roman Catholic Church, which they never were.

He would have wanted it this way. His business was in secrets, and he spent much of his life building a sense of mystery around himself and his writings. He purported to have all the answers but claimed that “the danger of the times” required that “Such secrets should not be bared except in enigmatic sentences.” Dwelling in what he called “cloudy obscurity,” he constantly courted controversy and always had as many detractors as believers. “A certain brainless and lunatic idiot, who is shouting nonsense and publishing his prognostications and fantasies on the streets,” ran 1558’s First Invective of the Lord Hercules the Frenchman Against Monstradamus. That same year, the astrologer Laurent Videl, in his Declaration of the Abuses, Ignorances, and Seditions of Michel Nostradamus, crowed that “if I wanted to recite all the ignorances, errors, and idiocies that you have been putting in your works for the last four or five years, it would need a pretty big book.” This anonymous Latin epigram from the same time perhaps sums him up most succinctly: “Nostra damus cum falsa damus, nam fallere nostrum est:/Et cum falsa damus, nil nisi nostra damus.” “We give our own when we give the false, for it is ours to be false. And when we give the false, we give nothing but our own.” To look at Nostradamus is to give one’s own, and to see what you want to see.

He was born on December 14, 1503, in St. Remy-de-Provence, as Michel de Nostradame. His paternal grandfather had been Jewish but converted to Catholicism and changed his name from Guy Venguessonne to Gassonet, perhaps to eliminate any suggestion of the Hebrew “Ven.” Nostradamus later played up the mystique of his Jewish heritage when he boasted that his “natural instinct” for prophecy had been “inherited from my forebears.” Gassonet later changed his name again to Pierre de Sainte-Marie in 1455, and then once more to Pierre de Nostradame. Michel would later Latinize his surname toNostradamus in 1550, when he started writing, the alteration then a fashionable way to suggest erudition.

When he was still Nostradame, however, he tried to make his name first through more traditional means, spending his early years attempting to combat the Black Death, which ravaged Europe in the fourteenth century, and continued to flare up throughout the continent in brief, deadly bursts. He had early on developed an interest in medicine and enrolled as a teenager in the University of Avignon in 1519. A year later, though, the town was stricken by plague, and the university closed down, advising its students to flee to the countryside. Unmoored, Nostradamus became a traveling apothecary, roaming throughout France, Italy, and Spain. He spent eight years, in his words, occupied with “the study of natural remedies across various lands and countries, constantly on the move to hear and find out the source and origins of plants and other natural remedies involved in the purposes of the healing art.” He returned to school again in 1529, this time at Montpellier, but this too would only last a year—he was quickly expelled after the university learned, in the registrar’s words, that he was an “apothecary and a quack.” Apothecaries were reviled throughout Europe as little more than charlatans: a London editorial once described the “mere apothecary” as a “creature that requires little brains. There is no branch or business in which a man requires less money to set him up than this very profitable trade: ten or twenty pounds, judiciously applied, will buy gallipots and counters and as many drugs to fill them with as might poison the whole island…”

Read it all.

Cain Clarifies

November 3, 2011

This image has been posted with express written permission. This cartoon was originally published at Town Hall.

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