Archive for the ‘rare sincerity’ category

Grace In Extremis, And Its Reward

September 29, 2015

I’m not going to get in the way. This story speaks for itself:

I’ll only add that I found Francine Christoph’s story to be both a reminder of the evil of which human individuals and societies are capable, and a glorious rebuke to those then and now who would urge us to heed our yetzer hara.

Pick Up The Damn Phone — The Phonening

August 25, 2015

Yup — that time again, the time when I get to nag  y’all about calling your representatives about the Iran deal.


Here’s the menu:  if they’ve already said they support the deal, thank them.  I’m just about to do that for Senator Markey.

If they’ve already declared against the deal, tell them, politely, that you disagree, and that you’ll remember this at the next relevant November.  Even if your senators and/or congressperson are utterly safe seat types, they and their staffs hate hearing from a constituent directly that they’re doing a bad job.  Think of it as a long game:  they’re on the wrong side of this one.  But it doesn’t take many calls — shockingly few — to make them just a touch gunshy, which softens them up next time.  That matters, articularly on matters that you may care deeply about, but that haven’t risen to the level of automatic partisan division.

Most important:  if they are still undeclared, tell ’em what you think and emphasize how much this means to you.  I told my peeps that everyone has a make or break issue, and this one is mine.  YMMV — but make sure your representatives know you care. Joe Kennedy is about to hear — again — from me.

Speaking of which — it’s OK to call a second time if your folks are still in play.  That shows you mean it — and that’s what your representatives need to hear.

It really does make a difference.  They keep records of these calls.  The anti-deal folks are funded, out in numbers, and very, very dangerous. This is your chance to punch back.

House of Representatives numbers.

Senate numbers.

You know what to do.

Image: Julius Kronberg, Mushrooms1908

A Couple Of Things To Talk About When You Pick Up The Damn Phone

August 12, 2015

I promise I won’t post on this every day — but I’m going to come back to this pretty often until we get through the votes on the Iran deal.

Anyway — yesterday I asked everyone to call their Congressional representatives — Senators and Congresspeople alike — to thank them if they’ve already declared for the deal, to urge them to do so if they’re still (publicly) thinking about it, and, respectfully but very firmly, to give them grief if they’ve come down on the wrong side.

I’m asking again.  Here are the House and Senate directories.

Today I’ve got a couple of new developments you can talk about when you do call.

First up, meet Gary Samore:

“I think President Obama’s strategy succeeded,” said Mr. Samore, who left his post on Monday. “He has created economic leverage and traded it away for Iranian nuclear concessions.”

Samore quit his job as head of United Against Nuclear Iran — a pressure group that worked to deepen sanctions against Iraq and that now, under its new head, old friend Joe Lieberman (D then I, but really R-Likud) opposes the Iran deal.


The key here is that Samore is not someone who just fell of the turnip truck, nor is he a squish about the sweetness and light that may follow an agreement:

Though he backs the accord as the most that can be achieved diplomatically, Mr. Samore is skeptical that the agreement will open a new chapter in American-Iranian relations.

“The best you can achieve with diplomacy is delay in the hope that at some point a new Iranian government emerges that is not committed to developing nuclear weapons,” he said.

And if that leadership does not materialize, Mr. Samore acknowledges that Iran might vastly expand its nuclear enrichment program after core elements of the agreement expire in 15 years.

He is also not convinced that Iran will continue to adhere to the accord once economic sanctions are lifted. Even so, he argues, the accord will put the United States in a stronger position to respond than a congressional rejection would.

“We will have bought a couple of years, and if Iran cheats or reneges we will be in an even better position to double down on sanctions or, if necessary, use military force,” Mr. Samore said. “If I knew for certain that in five years they would cheat or renege, I’d still take the deal.”

This is what “best available option” means:  not that Lieberman and his herd of neo-con ilk can fart pixie dust and will away Iran’s political establishment, its institutional memory, and the broadly available knowledge of nuclear weapons design, but that we put ourselves in the most advantageous position we can to shape events as they unfold.

And in other news, it turns out that Iran is not, in fact, a monolithic Borg committed to the destruction of the United States and Israel.  Who says so? None other than a reporter from that famously pro-Iran media organ, The Forward.*

Mr. Cohler-Esses’s reporting, coming as Congress prepares to vote on the nuclear agreement next month, presents a more nuanced view of Iran compared with the dark descriptions advanced by a number of Jewish-American advocacy groups that consider Iran a rogue enemy state…

“Ordinary Iranians with whom I spoke have no interest at all in attacking Israel,” Mr. Cohler-Esses wrote. “Their concern is with their own sense of isolation and economic struggle.”

Among some of Iran’s senior ayatollahs and prominent officials, he wrote, there is also dissent from the official line against Israel.

“No one had anything warm to say about the Jewish state,” he wrote. “But pressed as to whether it was Israel’s policies or its very existence to which they objected, several were adamant: It’s Israel’s policies.”

While he wrote that there was no freedom of the press in Iran, “freedom of the tongue has been set loose.”

“I was repeatedly struck by the willingness of Iranians to offer sharp, even withering criticisms of their government on the record, sometimes even to be videotaped doing so,” Mr. Cohler-Esses wrote.

There you have it, folks: the deal on the table — even if the Iranians break it — still works to the advantage of the US, according to one of the most expert and skeptical figures in this long-running debate.  And the Iranians have a polity that is not in fact a unified autocracy bent on rogue violence, but is instead a much more complicated web of interests, beliefs and aspirations — exactly the kind of situation that offers opportunity for those deft enough to seek it out.

Oh — one more thing.  Last night I got an email from someone I’ve never met, who thanked me for yesterday’s effort to get some calls into the Hill.  He identified himself as someone who works on the senate side, and this is what he wrote:

We all hear the report every week on the top issues being called/written about and the breakdown. That message isn’t lost.

Your five minutes makes a difference.  Go to it.  Call your representatives.  Let them know you’re paying attention.

Once more:  the House and Senate directories.

*Snark, friends, if you’re not familiar with this pillar of New York Jewish newspapering.

Image:  Giuseppe Arcimboldo, Wintersecond half of the sixteenth century.


Offense, Speech, Redress

January 7, 2015

In the thread below yesterday’s post on the shootings in Paris in its Balloon Juice version, a … lively … discussion broke out around various forms of the question of provocation.  No one, I think, suggested that the murders were anything but grotesque, an expression of evil.  But several people noted that they weren’t surprised that the atrocity occurred, given the known impact of the sort of satire in which Charlie Hebdu traded.

That evoked discussion — and sharp disagreement — about the duty of respect, especially to minority views or senses of identity.  (I’m paraphrasing and drastically shrinking the discussion here.  Feel free to correct, demur, dismiss in the comments.)

My view is pretty simple.  The price to pay for living in an open society is suffering the existence and the independence of those who drive you crazy.  Sort of like being the parent of a teenager.

But I digress.

Bluntly:  the appropriate response to speech that pisses you off is speech.  Nothing else.  I am a cultural relativist in my daily work. (What is a historian, even or especially a popular historian like myself, but someone who tries to grasp that foreign country, the past, in its own terms as well as in our own time’s?)

But that relativism has limits.  It commands empathy, sympathy, the effort to understand; it does not require, or even permit any veto on thought or behavior based on the cultural demands of one group over another.

That’s why anti-abortion groups become terrorists when they shoot clinic workers.  That’s why those who provide public accommodations — bakers, for example — no more get to choose to deny a gay couple a wedding cake than they would an African American one.  And so on.

So, no.  I don’t have a lot of sympathy for the contextualization of the murder of foul mouthed, blasphemous satirists as an extreme (and — everyone agreed on this — utterly unacceptable) extension of genuine grievances.  Even if it is true that France treats its former-colonial Muslim population culpably wretchedly.  Speech is speech.  Murder is murder.  The former never ameliorates, much less excuses guilt for the latter.  It doesn’t, really, even make it comprehensible.  Those who kill over cartoons (or use a cartoon as a pretext for a killing for other ends) are neither sembables or frères

That thought is what, earlier today, led me back to one of the monuments of 2oth century American jurisprudence.  It’s only surprising that the William Rehnquist wrote the opinion in Hustler Magazine v. Falwell in light of the current debasement of the Supreme Court.  I can actually remember when the party identification of the appointing President was not a wholly reliable guide to where opinions would land.

The issue in dispute in Hustler v. Falwell was whether or not the egregious preacher was entitled to damages for emotional suffering imposed by Hustler’s publication of a mock advertisement that showed a drunken Falwell having sex with his mother in an outhouse.

As Rehnquist wrote,

There is no doubt that the caricature of respondent and his mother published in Hustler is at best a distant cousin of the political cartoons described above [works by Thomas Nast and others], and a rather poor relation at that.


Nonetheless, crappy, nasty, or downright mean political speech is still vital, Rehnquist and a unanimous Supreme Court (Fat Tony included!) agreed, to the point that the no-doubt sincerely pissed off Falwell had to suck it up:

If it were possible by laying down a principled standard to separate the one from the other, public discourse would probably suffer little or no harm. But we doubt that there is any such standard, and we are quite sure that the pejorative description “outrageous” does not supply one. “Outrageousness” in the area of political and social discourse has an inherent subjectiveness about it which would allow a jury to impose liability on the basis of the jurors’ tastes or views, or perhaps on the basis of their dislike of a particular expression. An “outrageousness” standard thus runs afoul of our longstanding refusal to allow damages to be awarded because the speech in question may have an adverse emotional impact on the audience.

Rehnquist was hardly my beau-ideal of a jurist.  But he was always strong on the first amendment.  And in this  opinion, he nailed the essence of what freedom of speech means and requires from a society that values and trusts itself:

France isn’t the US.  I can imagine a different view of what might constitute shouting “Fire!” in a crowded theater if one were in Lebanon, say, rather than the Bronx — or the Marais.  But the underlying theme in the Hustler v. Falwell opinion talllies with the way I believe free societies would choose to live.

It remains vital to have enough sympathy to be able to recognize genuine pain evoked carelessly or deliberately by speech.  It’s an important part of living well to model the best definition I’ve heard for what it means to be a gentleman:  someone who never insults another person unintentionally.

But granting the reality of grievance in the face of either deliberate or ignorant disdain, still Rehnquist had it right:


“[T]he fact that society may find speech offensive is not a sufficient reason for suppressing it. Indeed, if it is the speaker’s opinion that gives offense, that consequence is a reason for according it constitutional protection.

Amen and amen.

The full text of the opinion follows below the jump.

Image:  Thomas Nast, Boss Tweed, before 1871.


Nous Sommes Tous Charlie

January 7, 2015

By now I’m assuming everyone’s heard about the dreadful attack on the offices of the French satirical newspaper Charlie Hebo:

Masked gunmen burst into the Paris offices of a French satirical newspaper on Wednesday and killed 12 people, including top journalists and two police officers, before fleeing in a car. The gunmen were still at large at dusk, as an extensive police dragnet spread across a traumatized city.

Among the dead were four prominent cartoonists who have repeatedly lampooned Islamic terrorists and the Prophet Muhammad, leading to speculation that the attack on the newspaper, Charlie Hebdo, was the work of Islamic militants acting alone or in concert with extremist groups.

The gunmen — reports suggest there were three — are still at large, and, according to Times coverage, it remains unknown what group, if any, organized the attack.

Salman Rushdie knows something about words and art and the threat of deadly violence aimed at suppressing it.  He’s one of many who have responded to the attack.  The statement was apparently up at PEN’s site, but that’s down now, and (via a Neil Gaiman tweet) I found it at the Wall St. Journal.  Here it is:

“Religion, a mediaeval form of unreason, when combined with modern weaponry becomes a real threat to our freedoms. This religious totalitarianism has caused a deadly mutation in the heart of Islam and we see the tragic consequences in Paris today. I stand with Charlie Hebdo, as we all must, to defend the art of satire, which has always been a force for liberty and against tyranny, dishonesty and stupidity. ‘Respect for religion’ has become a code phrase meaning ‘fear of religion.’ Religions, like all other ideas, deserve criticism, satire, and, yes, our fearless disrespect.”  –Salman Rushdie

Bad times, sad times.  My thoughts and deepest sympathy to all the families and friends of the murdered.

La Lucha Continua…With A Sideways Reason To Keep Fighting From The (A) Good Doctor

November 6, 2014

Serendipity works sometimes.  My friend David Dobbs publishes a near-daily newsletter of three or four fascinating essays or articles to read.  (You can sign up here.) Today he took me to a writer I’ve only occasionally glanced at in the past, Sadie Stein, (may have to change that)  for a piece that comes to a climax with a vision of a young, fictionalized Joyce Carol Oates, TA-ing her first class.  Trust me; it’s worth a look. (It’s over at the Paris Observer, itself a venue I chance upon more than seek out — might want to change that too.)

Contemplating the various joys of full-body immersion in student fiction was fun, enough so that I clicked through to Stein’s archive, and there, just below the bon-bon of a post to which David had directed me, I came upon her entry for Tuesday.  Mostly (though not entirely) she hands the microphone over to William Carlos Williams, and a poem, which, thus acknowledged, I herewith steal:

Election Day

Warm sun, quiet air

an old man sits

in the doorway of
a broken house–

boards for windows
plaster falling

from between the stones
and strokes the head

of a spotted dog


The dog and the man deserve better.  The struggle continues. It will not end easily, as Tuesday’s results remind us.  But to mix references and speakers of very different histories, the arc of the moral universe is long.  But that we can conceive of the idea of justice allows us to bend that arc towards the just end.  (And yes, I’m feeling my Anselm just a bit today.)

Image:  George Wesley BellowsMan and Dog, 1905.

For A Good Time On the ‘Tubes: David Dobbs, Sociable Genes edition

September 18, 2013

Dear all,

A little late — but it’s that time of the month again.  I’ll be doing my regular gig as one of the hosts of Virtually Speaking Science this evening at 6 EDT — just a little more than two hours from now.

My guest this time is David Dobbs, a wonderful science writer and (full disclosure) a good friend.  David has been focusing on neuroscience, genes and behavior for some time now.  Some of you may recall his big Atlantic feature on “the orchid hypothesis.”  There, David wrote about a fascinating line of scientific research that, among much else, showed how subtle and powerful the interactions of genes and environment can be.  Nature or nurture, that old debate, turns out (in this and in many other good works) to be a much richer, and much less dichotomized point of inquiry.


Flash forward to now.  David has been working on a book, The Orchid and the Dandelion, to be published by Crown in 2015, that extends the ideas and arguments of that magazine feature into a nuanced (and very tricky to write) account of how scientists are now trying to piece together the gene-to-behavior chain.  Some of that work led to the essay he just published at one of the delightful new web-based venues for serious, long-form public intellection, The Pacific Standard.  In that piece, “The Social Life Of Genes,” David writes about fascinating work on the way experience affects gene expression — which both takes the nature-nurture interaction to new, much more ephemeral time scales (itself a delightful shocker, at least to me) and points to the way the extraordinary advances in genetic and genomic research have reached a peculiar moment.  We know vastly more than we ever have before about the informational content of life.  We have tools that allow us to produce intimate moments in the daily life of genes and attendant molecules.  But that knowledge has gone just far enough to demonstrate how much more complex, intricate and so far ill-deciphered the genetic view of life remains.  We know more — and yet that knowledge leaves us much less certain about how a lot of biology works than we thought we understood a decade ago.

Which, of course, is just great.  (Physicists would kill for such wide open spaces!)  We live in interesting times — which, as I hope this conversation will demonstrate, is not always an accursed thing.

Tune in:  audio and later podcast here.

Also — do check out David’s website. Lots of good stuff there, but I’d draw the attention of any writers (or devoted readers) to David’s links to good work, and to his own  and others’ fine analyses of writing craft.

Image:  Jacopo Bassano, Earthly Paradisec. 1573


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