Why is comedy more painful than tragedy?

by John Holbo on November 20, 2014

So there’s this bit by Aristotle (famous philosopher) where he discusses tragedy. (If you don’t know it … well, you should Know Your Meme. Do some research, already.) Why do good people like to watch bad things happening to good people, so long as it’s fictional? Katharsis? Related topics: why do people like watching horror movies, since they are scary, and being scared is, apparently, unpleasant? [click to continue…]

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The World Is Squared: Episode 4 – In Hot Places

by Daniel on November 18, 2014

And the travelogue continues – this chapter covers my family’s visits to Jordan and to Sri Lanka. The next episode will take us to a seaside cottage in Bali …

[click to continue…]

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Sunday photoblogging: Clifton steps

by Chris Bertram on November 16, 2014

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Darkness Visible: The Depression of George Scialabba

by Corey Robin on November 13, 2014

Many of you will know George Scialabba simply as “geo,” one of our most thoughtful, incisive, and funny commenters at Crooked Timber. You may not know, however, that George has a day job. Two, actually. One is as the manager of a building at Harvard. The other is as one of our most brilliant contemporary essayists and critics. I discovered George’s essays about a decade and a half ago, and I’ve been hooked ever since.

One other fact about George you may not know: he has been suffering from acute depression for nearly a half-century.

In The Baffler today, he has a memoir of sorts about that depression. It’s really a record of the memos, emails, reports from the various doctors, therapists, psychiatrists he has seen over the years. While I’ve read some of the memoirs/reports of depression—William Styron’s and Andrew Solomon’s—George’s collection of documents is oddly more harrowing and desperate than those memoirs. Because you see just how baffled and helpless the doctors and helping professions often are as well. Every few years, they have to reinvent the wheel, it seems, and start from scratch.

What also marks George’s piece is his attention to the political economy of mental illness and its treatment. His conclusion, I fear, will be overlooked:


Let me bring this melancholy chronicle up to date. The last record printed here is dated July 2012. Things remained bad through August and September. In early October I began a three-month medical leave of absence, with pay; I had taken a similar leave in 2005, when the depression was at its worst. Harvard has a generous provision for medical leave, perhaps because of the presence of a strong union, the Harvard Union of Clerical and Technical Workers (HUCTW). Once again, the medical leave made possible a course of electroconvulsive therapy, this one only about half as long as before.


What would have happened if I had not received those medical leaves is something I’d rather not think about. At the least, a psychological ordeal would have eventuated in a financial calamity. The combination of an enlightened employer and a strong union is one that ever fewer Americans enjoy. Universal financial security is probably the single best countermeasure to the depression epidemic. It would certainly be more effective and more humane—and even, perhaps, cheaper—than providing antidepressants and ECT.



Anyway, you should read it. Here also is a piece in the Boston Globe about it. And an interview with George, too.

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Jerks will be jerks

by Maria on November 13, 2014

The thing about an ICANN meeting is they’re mostly men, and most of them are lovely, especially the older, very techie ones. I do the policy circuit and the 16 hour days, and I mostly skip the big industry parties. (Actually, I’m not usually invited. Probably because I’m such a blue stocking.) So I don’t usually interact with the trade show marketing types, the back end salesmen and the domainer guys.

But once, I think it was in Dakar but they all blur into one, I’d had a couple of drinks and ran into a friend I call in my heart of hearts the ‘king of the registrars’, the hard scrabble companies that sell domain names and figure out how to game any system they can get to let them in. Whatever hotel this was, it had managed to create some mystique about having a club on the top floor that didn’t advertise itself. It was the place to be. My friend convinced me and a female colleague to go up for a nightcap.

Now my colleague was six feet tall, blonde and the kind of gorgeous that makes even straight women pause to enjoy an extra look. In fact, when my boss first introduced her as his incredibly capable new assistant, we all went ‘uh-huh, sure.’ (He took it on the chin and sure enough she turned out to be the smartest on the team and pretty much indifferent to being ritually dismissed for her beauty.) So she and I catwalked out of the elevator on whatever secret floor this club was on and right into a long glitzy bar we walked the length of, got seen to be seen, and went and sat down on a magically free sofa. It was just that kind of night.

Various youngish guys we didn’t know sat down to talk, offer us drinks and wander off. I was on water by now. Holding court beside us was the alpha guy I liked to call the king. A bit like ‘the king of the travellers’, in that you don’t get it by being born – you have to fight smarter and tougher than anyone else, and a bit of charisma doesn’t hurt either. Guys would ply their differing wares to him, then us, or vice versa. One glommed on to me, probably because I was older and plainer than my colleague. The conversation started off harmlessly enough, the usual ‘what do you do’ and ‘where are you from’. He was keen to show he was also a big time domainer or domain name seller or something, and he’d keep nodding in the direction of the king.

Then things got a little strange. He would ask me a question and I’d answer it, and he’d say something rude about my answer. I wish I could remember the actual things he said. They weren’t outrageous, just mildly obnoxious. I’d nod and wait for him to say or ask something else, and then say ‘right’ or ‘is that so?’ But he was quite insistent about me giving substantive answers that he would then say rude things about in a weirdly affectless way. I remember wondering if he was Aspergers or something, which is not unknown in the technical community, though this guy seemed far more interested in money than code. I swatting that idea away. The rudeness had an edge. It was intentional.

So I said to him ‘wow, that was really quite rude, did you mean to say it?’ And he said something like ‘come on, you liked it. You know I’m in charge’. Or something equally asinine.

And then the penny dropped.

I was being chatted up by a real live Pick Up Artist!

I burst out laughing and said ‘oh my god, I don’t believe it. You’re doing that thing, aren’t you?’
‘What thing?’ he asked.
‘You know, the thing where you try and make a woman feel bad enough about herself that she’ll suck your cock.’
‘Don’t flatter yourself’, he said.

Then my little lizard brain stirred deep down in the folds of the amygdala and said to me ‘you know what will work best here, don’t you?’. And I thought to myself, this doesn’t make me a good feminist, but it will be nasty good fun.

I turned to the king and said, over the guy’s head, ‘you’ll never believe what this guy just tried on. He negged me. Have you heard of that? The whole PUA thing?’

‘What, him?’ the king said, laughing, to us both. ‘Little jerk. Is he even old enough?’

And the little jerk slunk away, defeated.

Oh how we laughed.
Patriarchy. You’ve gotta love it.

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I’m just in the middle of writing an article on the technicalities of the foreign exchange market, and what went wrong, and this example came up. I think the fair solution is pretty intuitive, but maybe others will differ. Presume below that this is a one-time interaction, so nothing to do with reputations, repeat business etc.

“You are on your way to the fruit market, because you want to buy five oranges. Someone you’ve never met before accosts you on your way and says “Hey, you! Could you buy me five oranges please? I’ll give you the money when you come back and I’ll pay you ten pence for doing it”. You think what the hell, and say yes. You ask what’s the maximum he’s prepared to pay for them and he says “Don’t care – whatever the market price is”.

Down at the market, there is one stall which has five oranges for sale at 50p each, and another stall with five oranges for sale but charging 55p each. You buy five oranges from each stall and head back home.

Your customer is waiting back at your gate. He gives you your ten pence, and asks “How much did my oranges cost?” What do you tell him?

You have three choices really (I’d be interested to know if anyone could justify any other price).

a) Tell him “50p each” – ie, you filled his order first and then your own
b) Tell him “55p each” – ie, you bought yours first, and then his
c) Tell him “52 and a half pence” – ie, you give him the weighted average of what you managed to pick up

In case a) your good turn has cost you a pretty penny – you paid £2.75 for your oranges when you could have got them for £2.50, and your 10p wages doesn’t cover the difference. Even in case c) you are down on the deal – paying £2.625 for your oranges, less 10p for an “all in” cost of oranges of £2.525 which is 2.5p more expensive than if you’d never met the guy. A lot of people would say case b) is perfectly fair – this guy clearly doesn’t really care all that much about how much he pays for oranges, or he would have gone to market himself rather than grabbing a complete stranger to do so. It’s also the point at which your profit from the overall transaction (10p) equals the wage that he said he would pay you.

Why should you subsidise him? But on the other hand, isn’t there something a bit hinky about deciding that all the best-priced oranges were for you, and all the worst deals were for your client?

Of course, I think people’s intuitions about fairness might change if your customer was paying you £10 to go to market for him, or if you had explicitly promised him that you would get him the best price possible. But in the simplest case (and this does match up pretty well to the actual structure and pricing of the FX market), I think it’s not obvious at all that the most intuitive concept of fair dealing corresponds at all to the regulatory concept of “duty of best execution”. Anyway, what do you think?

Update the longer post is now up.

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David Ricardo: Machiavelli of the Margin

by Corey Robin on November 13, 2014

In my grad seminar this semester at the CUNY Graduate Center, “The Political Theory of Capitalism,” we’ve been exploring how some of the classics of modern political economy translate, traduce, transmit, efface, revise, and/or sublimate traditional categories of and concepts in Western political theory: consent, obedience, rule, law, and so forth.

Through economic thinkers like Smith, Ricardo, Keynes, Schumpeter, Jevons, and the like, we try and read political economy as the distinctively modern idiom of political theory. In the same way that religion provided a distinctive language and vocabulary for political thought after Rome and before the Renaissance, might not economics provide modern political theory with its own distinctive idiom and form? In other words, our interest in the political moment of economic discourse is not when the state intervenes or intrudes on the market; it’s when economic discourse seems to be most innocent of politics. That’s when we find the most resonant and pregnant political possibilities.

I’ll give you an example.

For the last several weeks we’ve been reading and talking about Ricardo’s On the Principles of Political Economy and Taxation, which I have to admit, damn near killed me. Turns out it’s really hard to teach a text you don’t understand.

But one of the more interesting—and, at least to me, semi-intelligible—arguments in Ricardo is his account of rent. (I don’t think the problem is Ricardo; it’s me.) For it’s there, in his chapter on rent, that he introduces the idea of the margin. I could be wrong, but I don’t see anything like a notion of the margin in other parts of the book. It’s all in his chapter on rent. (Ricardo experts or intellectual historians: is that right? Are there other places in Ricardo’s texts where he talks about the margin? Were there other theorists prior to Ricardo who talked about it?)

Now that in and of itself is interesting: Is there something to be gleaned from or learned about the idea of the margin from the fact that it arose, for Ricardo, in the context of a discourse on rent? [click to continue…]

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Confessional Brezhnevism and Brian Farrell

by Henry on November 12, 2014

The Boston Review have just put up a piece I wrote on Ireland’s internal Cold War, which wasn’t about politics, but religion. My generation (and Kieran’s; and Maria’s) grew up in an Ireland where the Catholic Church’s control of politics and society was visibly rotting away from inside, but still strong enough to foreclose the alternatives. It was like Brezhnevism – a dying system, but one strong enough to make it difficult to imagine what life would be like if it were gone.

One vignette from the piece, describing the moment when Bishop Eamon Casey was revealed to have had a long term relationship and child resulting from same.

The day the news broke, I met one of my professors, who had a sideline as a scrupulously evenhanded television host, wandering across campus in dazed delight. “It’s over,” he said. “They’ve lost.” He was right.

I didn’t name the professor, although I didn’t exactly make it hard to figure out who he was. He was Brian Farrell (no relation), a very well known academic, intellectual and television host and interviewer, who died a couple of days ago at the age of 85. I don’t know what he’d have made of the piece – he very carefully kept his politics to himself. This is the only moment when I ever saw him break cover. Yet I don’t think this revealed any political or religious animus on his part, so much as a small-l liberalism, a straightforward pre-political desire that people be allowed to live their lives and love whom they wanted to, without having to live in fear of social ostracism or of losing their job. It must have been very hard to be gay, or living in an unmarried relationship in Ireland in the 1970s, and it still wasn’t especially easy in the 1990s. The Eamon Casey scandal undermined the religious and social institutions which made it so very hard, so that prejudice, while it continued, mostly went underground. This, I think, is why he was so happy.

That brief conversation with Brian, beside the ugly artificial lake at the center of University College Dublin, is the moment when it became clear to me that Ireland was finally, irrevocably, changing. It’s a different memory of Brian than most people who grew up watching Irish TV will have – his public persona was as a rather formal and mildly acerbic interviewer, who regularly grilled evasive politicians. Yet in person, even if you didn’t know him particularly well (I just knew him as a student taking his MA class on Irish politics) his decency and kindness came through. He will be very much missed.

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Planet saved … in Brisbane!

by John Quiggin on November 12, 2014

It’s hard to overstate the significance of the agreement announced today by Barack Obama and Xi Jinping to limit US and Chinese greenhouse gas emissions. The limits are significant in themselves: not enough to guarantee stabilization of greenhouse gas levels at the agreed target of 450 ppm, but enough that we can get there just by ratcheting up an existing agreement rather than by looking for something new.

I’ll write more later, but I wanted to note this event as soon as I could

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Lud-in-the-Mist

by John Holbo on November 12, 2014

Hope Mirrlees’ 1926 fantasy novel/fairy tale, Lud-in-the-Mist, has a funny old publication history. An unauthorized version appeared in 1970, again in 1977, because publishers couldn’t figure out whether the lady – who died in 1978 – was alive. (Here’s Michael Swanwick, trying to sort it out.) I just noticed Amazon has a cheap Kindle edition available. I think you would be quite mad to read any other fantasy novel or fairy tale first, if you have so far failed to read this one, and are looking for anything of the sort with which to stock your electronic device.

It’s a fable of alienation and reconciliation. I’ll quote from chapter 1. Our proper Master Nathaniel has a strange secret, tucked into his soul. [click to continue…]

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Adventures in Sexual Implicature

by John Holbo on November 12, 2014

OK, let me see if I got this straight. (Here’s a copy of Limbaugh’s lawyer’s complaining letter to the DCCC, via TPM.)

OSU instituted a strong, positive ‘affirmative consent’ policy for student sexual relations.

‘No’ means no, and only ‘yes’ means yes.

Clear? [click to continue…]

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Remembrance Day

by John Quiggin on November 11, 2014

Every year on this day, I post on the futility of war, arguing that wars and armed revolutions are almost never justified. I haven’t convinced anyone, and there are probably more wars, frozen conflicts and insurgencies now than there were when I started blogging.

And I realise I haven’t even convinced myself. Intellectually, I know that wars will always turn out badly, but still when a new conflict erupts, I find myself picking sides and cheering for the good (less bad) guys.

Why do we fall for the spurious appeal of a simple, violent solution to complex and intractable problems? And why is it so hard to end a war once it has started? I have some half-formed ideas, but I’ll leave it to others to discuss.

In the meantime, Lest we Forget.

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So I know I wrote this in The Reactionary Mind:

Beyond these simple professions of envy or admiration, the conservative actually copies and learns from the revolution he opposes. “To destroy that enemy,” Burke wrote of the Jacobins, “by some means or other, the force opposed to it should be made to bear some analogy and resemblance to the force and spirit which that system exerts.”

This is one of the most interesting and least understood aspects of conservative ideology. While conservatives are hostile to the goals of the left, particularly the empowerment of society’s lower castes and classes, they often are the left’s best students.


Sometimes, their studies are self-conscious and strategic, as they look to the left for ways to bend new vernaculars, or new media, to their suddenly delegitimated aims. Fearful that the philosophes had taken control of popular opinion in France, reactionary theologians in the middle of the eighteenth century looked to the example of their enemies. They stopped writing abstruse disquisitions for each other and began to produce Catholic agitprop, which would be distributed through the very networks that brought enlightenment to the French people. They spent vast sums funding essay contests, like those in which Rousseau made his name, to reward writers who wrote accessible and popular defenses of religion.

Even without directly engaging the progressive argument, conservatives may absorb, by some elusive osmosis, the deeper categories and idioms of the left, even when those idioms run directly counter to their official stance. After years of opposing the women’s movement, for example, Phyllis Schlafly seemed genuinely incapable of conjuring the prefeminist view of women as deferential wives and mothers. Instead, she celebrated the activist “power of the positive woman.”…When she spoke out against the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA), she didn’t claim that it introduced a radical new language of rights. Her argument was the opposite. The ERA, she told the Washington Star, “is a takeaway of women’s rights.” It will “take away the right of the wife in an ongoing marriage, the wife in the home.” Schlafly was obviously using the language of rights in a way that was opposed to the aims of the feminist movement; she was using rights talk to put women back into the home, to keep them as wives and mothers. But that is the point: conservatism adapts and adopts, often unconsciously, the language of democratic reform to the cause of hierarchy.


Still, I was surprised to read this in the International Business Times:

White supremacist organisation, the Ku Klux Klan is rebranding as the “new Klan” by trying to increase membership to Jews, black people, gays and those of Hispanic origin.



Some black people have already expressed an interest in joining, after John Abarr organised a summit with civil rights groups.


Abarr, who has claimed that he is a former white supremacist, told the Great Falls Tribune, “The KKK is for a strong America. White supremacy is the old Klan. This is the new Klan.”


Abarr has organised a peace summit with religious groups and the National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People (NAACP) next summer.


The KKK organiser from Great Falls, Montana told the Associated Press that he filled out a membership card to NAACP, not only paying the $30 enrollment fee but also adding a $20 donation.


Jimmy Simmons, a president of the Montana NAACP chapter, said that while he questioned the use of the letters KKK, if the peace summit took place, he would “take a strong look” at joining the Rocky Mountain Knights.


“If John Abarr was actually reformed, he could drop the label of the KKK,” said Rachel Carroll-Rivas from the Montana Human Rights Network. “They know that their beliefs aren’t popular, so they try to appear moderate. I think it’s just a farce. Our mission for the last 24 years has been to shine a light on hatred.”


However, the more traditional elements of the organisation were unhappy about the direction Abarr is heading in.


Bradley Jenkins, Imperial Wizard of the KKK, said: “That man’s going against everything the bylaws of the constitution of the KKK say. He’s trying to hide behind the KKK to further his political career.”


In 2011 Abarr, describing himself as a former KKK organiser, ran as a Republican for Montana’s seat in the US House of Representatives, reportedly believing there would be a backlash against President Obama’s re-election.


According to an Associated Press report at the time, Abarr’s manifesto included “promises to legalize marijuana, increase mental health programs, keep abortion legal, abolish the death penalty… and ‘save the White Race.’”


At the time mainstream Republicans denounced Abarr as a racist. ”There’s no room for racism in our party,” said Rich Hill, a former Republican congressman who lost the 2012 election for Montana’s governor. “That is not what we are about, and we have never been about that.”

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In the post just before me, Chris writes:

Yesterday I was listening to BBC Radio 4, and they were remembering the people who died, shot by East German border guards. It doesn’t seem to occur to our official voices of commemoration that there are parallels today with the thousands who die trying to escape tyranny, war or poverty and who drown in the Mediterranean, perish from thirst in the Arizona desert, or with those who the Australian government turns back at sea or interns offshore.

He’s right. Years ago, I reviewed two books on migration, immigration, and exile—one by Caroline Moorehead, the other by Seyla Benhabib—for The Nation. Here’s a factoid from that review:

 

Between 1994 and 2001, at least 1,700 migrants from Mexico died trying to reach the United States. Throughout its entire existence, by contrast, exactly 171 people died trying to cross the Berlin wall.

And that, mind you, was under the Clinton regime, before the last decade and a half of agitation around the extension and elaboration of a security wall between Mexico and the United States.

And just in case anyone missed the parallels between the Berlin Wall and the separation wall in Israel, Palestinian activists are on the case (not that anyone in the Western media noticed them, as Chris notes). [click to continue…]

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Sunday photo(re)blogging: the Wall then, and borders now

by Chris Bertram on November 9, 2014

Yesterday I was listening to BBC Radio 4, and they were remembering the people who died, shot by East German border guards. It doesn’t seem to occur to our official voices of commemoration that there are parallels today with the thousands who die trying to escape tyranny, war or poverty and who drown in the Mediterranean, perish from thirst in the Arizona desert, or with those who the Australian government turns back at sea or interns offshore. Nor do such barriers as the “separation wall” in Palestine seem to evoke such horror in those voices as the Berlin Wall did then. These newer barriers are treated as necessary and normal and those deaths as self-inflicted by people naive enough to believe that a better life awaits in prosperous liberal democracies. Not that free movement is the only thing where official attitudes have changed. It isn’t long since the comprehensive surveillance of citizens depicted in Anna Funder’s Stasiland and in the film Das Leben der Anderen was emblematic of how communist states would trample on the inalienable rights of people in pursuit of state security. Today we know that our states do the same. I’m not making the argument that Western liberal democracies are “as bad” as those states were, lest any commenter come along and moan about “moral equivalence”. But I note that these kinds of violations were not seen back then as being impermissible because those states were so bad in other ways — undemocratic, dirigiste — but rather were portrayed to exemplify exactly why those regimes were unacceptable.

Here’s my photoblog from five years ago:

Berlin Wall

Swords into ploughshares

Two photos today. My partner, Pauline Powell and I visited East Germany and West Berlin in 1984. The first picture is a shot of the Berlin Wall from the western side, and seems appropriate as tomorrow is the 20th anniversary of its fall. The second shot, taken inside the Nikolaikirche in Leipzig, announces one of the prayers for peace meetings that helped to build the popular movement that would eventually contribute to the fall of the regime. Both pictures are Pauline’s, not mine (all rights reserved etc). We believe the swords into ploughshares picture is unique on the web, though perhaps others exist as prints. As such, it is something of a historic document.

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