Sunday, September 30, 2012

Χρυσή Αυγή παρεμπόριο τέλος

Right-Wing Extremists’ Popularity Rising Rapidly in Greece

ATHENS — The video, which went viral in Greece last month, shows about 40 burly men, led by Giorgos Germenis, a lawmaker with the right-wing Golden Dawn party, marching through a night market in the town of Rafina demanding that dark-skinned merchants show permits.

Some do, and they are left alone. But the action quickly picks up, as the men, wearing black T-shirts with the party’s name, destroy a stall with clubs and scatter the merchandise. “We saw a few illegal immigrants selling their wares,” Mr. Germenis says in the video. “We did what Golden Dawn has to do. And now we’re going to church to pay our respects to the Madonna.”
Just a few months ago, the name Golden Dawn was something to be whispered in Greece.
But three months after the extremist right-wing group won an electoral foothold in Parliament, talk of Golden Dawn seems to be on everybody’s lips.
In cafes, taxis and bars, Greeks across the political spectrum are discussing the palpable surge in Golden Dawn’s popularity, which has risen in recent political polls even as the group steps up a campaign of vigilantism and attacks against immigrants.
The poll gains come amid growing disenchantment over rising illegal immigration, and with the government of Prime Minister Antonis Samaras, which is being forced by its international lenders to push through $15 billion in additional, highly unpopular, austerity measures. If Greece were to hold new elections soon, Golden Dawn could emerge as the third-largest party in Parliament, behind Mr. Samaras’s New Democracy and the left-wing Syriza. Currently, Golden Dawn is the fifth largest, with 18 out of 300 seats.
“We have a major socioeconomic crisis in which several hundred thousand Greeks are losing ground,” said Nikos Demertzis, a professor of political sociology at the University of Athens. “And you have a rising number of immigrants in Greece, many illegal. This is creating a volcanic situation where all the classic parameters for the flourishing of a far-right force like Golden Dawn are present.”
Golden Dawn’s tactics are similar to ones it used before parliamentary elections in June. Preying on fears that immigrants are worsening crime rates and economic hardship, the group has been stepping up attacks against immigrants, many of whom are legal citizens, with the police frequently standing by. It is also trying to expand its reach with the Greek diaspora.
The group recently opened an office in New York, announcing its presence with a sleek Web site depicting a stylized Swastika against a darkened Manhattan skyline. The Web site was disabled by hackers less than a day later and remains down, and the American Hellenic Educational Progressive Association condemned the group’s outreach, saying that “fascism has no place in the United States.”
Golden Dawn has also established an outpost in Australia, where Greeks have been emigrating by the thousands to escape the crisis in their homeland.
The group is still far from being a major threat to Mr. Samaras’s party, or to his fragile three-party coalition government. Most Greeks express alarm at the group’s rise, and anti-fascist organizations in Athens are continuing efforts neighborhood by neighborhood to counter its increased vigilantism.
Yet, rising political and social discontent is rich fodder for Golden Dawn as it tries to cultivate a larger base. These days, it is not uncommon for conversations to evolve into laments about the ineffectiveness of Mr. Samaras’s government, before a mention of Golden Dawn’s rise in the polls slips in.
“People have no faith in the political system,” said Dimitris Kaklamanos, 41, a worker at a Shell gas station in the town of Piraeus, on the outskirts of Athens.
Mr. Kaklamanos said he had long voted for Pasok, the Socialist party, but grew disillusioned with corruption and the ineptitude of its politicians. Now, he feels attracted to Golden Dawn, he said, whose popularity he expects to continue to rise, especially as the group replaces police and government services in poor areas where the state has almost ceased to function.
Other political parties “know that Golden Dawn is gaining power and they see that as a threat,” Mr. Kaklamanos said. “But Golden Dawn are the only ones out there demonstrating they care about the Greek people.”
He cited food and clothing drives conducted by the group across a widening area of Athens, as well as protections it extends to vulnerable Greeks in neighborhoods where crime has surged in tandem with illegal immigration.
Kaiti Lazarou, 55, the owner of a newspaper and cigarette kiosk in Piraeus, agreed. “I myself have gotten food and potatoes from them in Syntagma Square,” she said. “I would not be surprised if they become the government one day, and why shouldn’t they? They protect the Greeks, while Samaras and the government are out of touch with the people.”
In an interview last week, Mr. Samaras said that hundreds of thousands of illegal immigrants fleeing hardship in Africa, South Asia and now Syria were creating “major distress” in Greece, which they use as a gateway to the European Union after entering through Turkey. He appealed to Greece’s European partners to modify immigration accords so that other countries could take on a greater share of Greece’s immigration burden.
With more than 1.5 million immigrants in a country of about 11 million, “this is creating extremism” that feeds the popularity of Golden Dawn, Mr. Samaras said. Outlawing the group could backfire by fueling their popularity, he added.
Mr. Demertzis, the University of Athens professor, said Golden Dawn was effective because it did more than just utter political platitudes. Its members “do their propaganda through deeds, exactly the same way that the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt does, or Hezbollah in Lebanon.”
In Golden Dawn’s case, the most high-profile activities center on anti-immigrant campaigns, like the one documented in the video, depicted as the actions of good Samaritans.
In another raid, filmed and posted on YouTube, in the town of Missolonghi, Greek shopkeepers shout at Golden Dawn members as they walk through a fruit and vegetable market kicking over stands loaded with produce. The raid was led by another Golden Dawn lawmaker, Costas Barbarousis. “These tactics were used in the dictatorship!” one woman cries.
After the episodes, Golden Dawn lawmakers were barred from receiving the protection of the police, who human rights groups say are increasingly looking the other way when confronted with evidence of violence by Golden Dawn sympathizers, with some officers seeming more sympathetic to them than to their victims. Mr. Samaras played down concerns that the Greek police were sympathetic to the group. “I’m very happy with the way they’ve done their job,” he said in the interview.
Justice Minister Antonis Roupakiotis condemned the Golden Dawn attacks, saying they created “conditions for the growth of neo-fascist practices in the country.” He added that his ministry would consider tougher penalties for racist violence. New Democracy, Pasok and independent Greeks also condemned the attacks.
But such talk may only go so far.
“It’s the current government that brought more power to Golden Dawn because the people are angry at what the government is doing,” said Iakovos Zorzios, 73, a retiree whose pension has been cut as part of Greece’s austerity measures.
“How can we not be angry when the government cuts our earnings so much?” said Mr. Zorzios, who is bracing for yet another reduction in the latest austerity plan forged this week. “How can they expect us not to support Golden Dawn?”


The Myth of Male Decline

SCROLL through the titles and subtitles of recent books, and you will read that women have become “The Richer Sex,” that “The Rise of Women Has Turned Men Into Boys,” and that we may even be seeing “The End of Men.” Several of the authors of these books posit that we are on the verge of a “new majority of female breadwinners,” where middle-class wives lord over their husbands while demoralized single men take refuge in perpetual adolescence.
Wendy MacNaughton

How is it, then, that men still control the most important industries, especially technology, occupy most of the positions on the lists of the richest Americans, and continue to make more money than women who have similar skills and education? And why do women make up only 17 percent of Congress?
These books and the cultural anxiety they represent reflect, but exaggerate, a transformation in the distribution of power over the past half-century. Fifty years ago, every male American was entitled to what the sociologist R. W. Connell called a “patriarchal dividend” — a lifelong affirmative-action program for men.
The size of that dividend varied according to race and class, but all men could count on women’s being excluded from the most desirable jobs and promotions in their line of work, so the average male high school graduate earned more than the average female college graduate working the same hours. At home, the patriarchal dividend gave husbands the right to decide where the family would live and to make unilateral financial decisions. Male privilege even trumped female consent to sex, so marital rape was not a crime.
The curtailment of such male entitlements and the expansion of women’s legal and economic rights have transformed American life, but they have hardly produced a matriarchy. Indeed, in many arenas the progress of women has actually stalled over the past 15 years.
Let’s begin by determining which is “the richer sex.”
Women’s real wages have been rising for decades, while the real wages of most men have stagnated or fallen. But women’s wages started from a much lower base, artificially held down by discrimination. Despite their relative improvement, women’s average earnings are still lower than men’s and women remain more likely to be poor.
Today women make up almost 40 percent of full-time workers in management. But the median wages of female managers are just 73 percent of what male managers earn. And although women have significantly increased their representation among high earners in America over the past half-century, only 4 percent of the C.E.O.’s in Fortune’s top 1,000 companies are female.
What we are seeing is a convergence in economic fortunes, not female ascendance. Between 2010 and 2011, men and women working full time year-round both experienced a 2.5 percent decline in income. Men suffered roughly 80 percent of the job losses at the beginning of the 2007 recession. But the ripple effect of the recession then led to cutbacks in government jobs that hit women disproportionately. As of June 2012, men had regained 46.2 percent of the jobs they lost in the recession, while women had regained 38.7 percent of their lost jobs.
The 1970s and 1980s brought an impressive reduction in job segregation by gender, especially in middle-class occupations. But the sociologists David Cotter, Joan Hermsen and Reeve Vanneman report that progress slowed in the 1990s and has all but stopped since 2000. For example, the percentage of female electrical engineers doubled in each decade in the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s. But in the two decades since 1990 it has increased by only a single percentage point, leaving women at just 10 percent of the total.
Some fields have become even more gender-segregated. In 1980, 75 percent of primary school teachers and 64 percent of social workers were women. Today women make up 80 and 81 percent of those fields. Studies show that as occupations gain a higher percentage of female workers, the pay for those jobs goes down relative to wages in similarly skilled jobs that remain bastions of male employment.
Proponents of the “women as the richer sex” scenario often note that in several metropolitan areas, never-married childless women in their 20s now earn more, on average, than their male age-mates.
But this is because of the demographic anomaly that such areas have exceptionally large percentages of highly educated single white women and young, poorly educated, low-wage Latino men. Earning more than a man with less education is not the same as earning as much as an equally educated man.
Among never-married, childless 22- to 30-year-old metropolitan-area workers with the same educational credentials, males out-earn females in every category, according to a reanalysis of census data to be presented next month at Boston University by Philip Cohen, a sociologist at the University of Maryland. Similarly, a 2010 Catalyst survey found that female M.B.A.’s were paid an average of $4,600 less than men in starting salaries and continue to be outpaced by men in rank and salary growth throughout their careers, even if they remain childless.
Among married couples when both partners are employed, wives earned an average of 38.5 percent of family income in 2010. In that year nearly 30 percent of working wives out-earned their working husbands, a huge increase from just 4 percent in 1970. But when we include all married-couple families, not just dual-earner ones, the economic clout of wives looks a lot weaker.
In only 20 percent of all married-couple families does the wife earn half or more of all family income, according to Professor Cohen, and in 35 percent of marriages, the wife earns less than 10 percent.
Once they have children, wives usually fall further behind their husbands in earnings, partly because they are more likely to temporarily quit work or cut back when workplace policies make it hard for both parents to work full time and still meet family obligations.
But this also reflects prejudice against working mothers. A few years ago, researchers at Cornell constructed fake résumés, identical in all respects except parental status. They asked college students to evaluate the fitness of candidates for employment or promotion. Mothers were much less likely to be hired. If hired, they were offered, on average, $11,000 less in starting salary and were much less likely to be deemed deserving of promotion.
The researchers also submitted similar résumés in response to more than 600 actual job advertisements. Applicants identified as childless received twice as many callbacks as the supposed mothers.
Much has been made of the gender gap in educational achievement. Girls have long done better in school than boys, and women have now pulled ahead of men in completing college. Today women earn almost 60 percent of college degrees, up from one-third in 1960.
The largest educational gender gap is among families in the top 25 percent of the earnings distribution, where women lead men by 13 percent in graduation rates, compared to just a 2 percent advantage for women from the lowest income families.
But at all income levels, women are still concentrated in traditionally female areas of study. Gender integration of college majors has stalled since the mid-1990s, and in some fields, women have even lost ground. Between 1970 and 1985, women’s share of computer and information sciences degrees rose from 14 percent to 37 percent. But by 2008 women had fallen back to 18 percent.
According to the N.Y.U. sociologist Paula England, a senior fellow at the Council on Contemporary Families, most women, despite earning higher grades, seem to be educating themselves for occupations that systematically pay less.
Even women’s greater educational achievement stems partly from continuing gender inequities. Women get a smaller payoff than men for earning a high school degree, but a bigger payoff for completing college. This is not because of their higher grade point averages, the economist Christopher Dougherty concludes, but because women seem to need more education simply to counteract the impact of traditional job discrimination and traditional female career choices.
If the ascent of women has been much exaggerated, so has the descent of men. Men’s irresponsibility and bad behavior is now a stock theme in popular culture. But there has always been a subset of men who engage in crude, coercive and exploitative behavior. What’s different today is that it’s harder for men to get away with such behavior in long-term relationships. Women no longer feel compelled to put up with it and the legal system no longer condones it. The result is that many guys who would have been obnoxious husbands, behaving badly behind closed doors, are now obnoxious singles, trumpeting their bad behavior on YouTube.
Their boorishness may be pathetic, but it’s much less destructive than the masculine misbehavior of yore. Most men are in fact behaving better than ever. Domestic violence rates have been halved since 1993, while rapes and sexual assaults against women have fallen by 70 percent in that time. In recent decades, husbands have doubled their share of housework and tripled their share of child care. And this change is not confined to highly educated men.
Among dual-earner couples, husbands with the least education do as much or more housework than their more educated counterparts. Men who have made these adjustments report happier marriages — and better sex lives.
ONE thing standing in the way of further progress for many men is the same obstacle that held women back for so long: overinvestment in their gender identity instead of their individual personhood. Men are now experiencing a set of limits — externally enforced as well as self-imposed — strikingly similar to the ones Betty Friedan set out to combat in 1963, when she identified a “feminine mystique” that constrained women’s self-image and options.
Although men don’t face the same discriminatory laws as women did 50 years ago, they do face an equally restrictive gender mystique.
Just as the feminine mystique discouraged women in the 1950s and 1960s from improving their education or job prospects, on the assumption that a man would always provide for them, the masculine mystique encourages men to neglect their own self-improvement on the assumption that sooner or later their “manliness” will be rewarded.
According to a 2011 poll by the Pew Research Center, 77 percent of Americans now believe that a college education is necessary for a woman to get ahead in life today, but only 68 percent think that is true for men. And just as the feminine mystique exposed girls to ridicule and harassment if they excelled at “unladylike” activities like math or sports, the masculine mystique leads to bullying and ostracism of boys who engage in “girlie” activities like studying hard and behaving well in school. One result is that men account for only 2 percent of kindergarten and preschool teachers, 3 percent of dental assistants and 9 percent of registered nurses.
The masculine mystique is institutionalized in work structures, according to three new studies forthcoming in the Journal of Social Issues. Just as women who display “masculine” ambitions or behaviors on the job are often penalized, so are men who engage in traditionally female behaviors, like prioritizing family involvement. Men who take an active role in child care and housework at home are more likely than other men to be harassed at work.
Men who request family leave are often viewed as weak or uncompetitive and face a greater risk of being demoted or downsized. And men who have ever quit work for family reasons end up earning significantly less than other male employees, even when controlling for the effects of age, race, education, occupation, seniority and work hours. Now men need to liberate themselves from the pressure to prove their masculinity. Contrary to the fears of some pundits, the ascent of women does not portend the end of men. It offers a new beginning for both. But women’s progress by itself is not a panacea for America’s inequities. The closer we get to achieving equality of opportunity between the sexes, the more clearly we can see that the next major obstacle to improving the well-being of most men and women is the growing socioeconomic inequality within each sex.

Stephanie Coontz teaches family history at Evergreen State College and is the author of “A Strange Stirring: The Feminine Mystique and American Women at the Dawn of the 1960s.”

Saturday, September 29, 2012

Encounters With the God Particle

The Higgs boson, the pope, and the curious interaction between organized religion and big science

Event recorded with the CMS detector in 2012, showing characteristics expected from the decay of the SM Higgs boson to a pair of Z bosons. (© 2012 CERN, for the benefit of the CMS Collaboration)
This is the season when many minds are tuned in to the concept of “God” and origins and fundamentals. I am reminded of a papal visit in the spring of 1982, when Pope John Paul II came to CERN, the European center where I was engaged in physics research on basic physical law. He spoke to the staff about “prodigious things,” world peace, and how he hoped the science discovered at CERN should be subject to the constraints of conscience, quoting Genesis 1:31 (“And God saw everything that he had made, and behold, it was very good”). In reply, the CERN director spoke of a fecund dialogue between science and religion. I am sure most of my colleagues—a good portion of them Jewish, many European agnostics, many Catholics—kept these two categories in separate mental compartments. But undoubtedly the need for good public relations on CERN’s part and the need for an open mind on scientific research on the church’s part played some role in this curious interaction between organized religion and big science.
Up to the middle of the last millennium, of course, with the exception of some considerable accomplishment by the ancient Greeks, the search for rules that govern that physical universe was largely religious in nature. But around the time of Galileo things took a fruitful turn. The search for physical law became more of a game of proposition, prediction, and test by experiment. We accepted a modus of working on what was accessible to our instruments or detectors. We went after laws at large scales—Newton’s gravitation, say, or the laws of friction. We studied and systemized electricity and magnetism. We learned about atoms and with the additional knowledge of electrical forces got access to the laws of chemistry. By the end of the 19th century we were breaking down atoms, learning over a 50-year span about the construction of the nucleus and sub-nuclear structure.
Physics experiments today are often done by colliding constituents of matter with one another at ever-higher energies and studying the debris. The highest-energy facilities—today, as then, at CERN—are huge and expensive, but they work at the frontier of the research that led us this summer to the much-noted announcement of the discovery at CERN of the so-called “god particle,” a particle associated with how all other particles get their masses. (In fact, the phrase “god particle” does not convey much information, but it is a fine way to attract attention, and it helped to sell a 1993 book when it was coined.) The “god particle” is only one piece of an elaborate structure known as the standard model.
The basics of the so-called quantum field theory—the theoretical context in which the Higgs boson resides—are spectacularly beautiful.
Physicists prefer the term Higgs boson to “god particle.” That title, after one of several theorists who around 1964 more or less simultaneously proposed a mechanism that implies its existence, does have significance for those who know the science. The CERN discovery was not a matter of blind luck, like that of a gambler discovering a row of five cherries on a slot machine. The invention and search for the Higgs boson are part of the next stage of physics research, where we attempt to learn the rules that govern the sub-constituent parts of the nucleus and other stable or unstable particles and give us a coherent picture of the basic rules governing the way the universe was, is, and will be. In fact, there remains much to do to confirm and test whether what was found was really the Higgs boson, as well as to continue to sift through the various ways this particle fits into our larger conceptual framework about matter. The machine that discovered the Higgs boson at CERN has a physical scale of tens of kilometers and costs many billions of dollars—so expensive that politics killed a counterpart machine here in the United States after much money had already been spent.
All the thought and experience about physical law of the last 500 years have given us a set of criteria as to what makes a good set of rules. For one, the language of physical law is mathematical. Why this is so is a mystery. Mathematics carries within itself a kind of logic that somehow is reflected in the way the world is. And it has to be the right kind of mathematics. Newton discovered his laws of gravitation with the aid of calculus, which he essentially had to invent on his own. It was short work with his mathematics in hand. He then spent years trying to explain these laws with a geometrical description adapted to the knowledge of his contemporaries.
Furthermore, a set of rules at a small scale should encompass and explain the laws at larger scales. The rules must have testable predictive power. The rules must be simple and economical. And the rules must be aesthetic. The basics of the so-called quantum field theory—the theoretical context in which the Higgs boson resides—are spectacularly beautiful. That is the only way to put it, a beauty based on what is almost an inherent inevitability—“almost” because rival theories are in play, each with its own kind of beauty.
So, what makes the Higgs boson so important? The Higgs mechanism was put forward in the 1960s as a way to allow symmetry in the underlying structure of a theory while the physical manifestation of the theory did not exhibit such symmetry. Physicists were coming to realize that symmetries play a central role in physical law—a realization that had taken root over 50 years earlier. Then, in 1967, a group of theorists found a way to use the Higgs mechanism to unify two previously separate domains of subatomic forces, electromagnetism and the so-called weak interactions. (The latter were responsible for some radioactive decays.) This “electroweak unification” fit the set of rules I wrote above with one particularly grave set of exceptions: When you tried to calculate with them, you apparently came up with meaningless numbers, infinities. But by the early 1970s other workers had learned that the apparent infinities were only apparent. In fact when you were careful to calculate more completely and look at only physically measurable quantities, the infinities would systematically cancel out.
The Higgs mechanism also did something else: It put terms into the equations that were identical with terms that corresponded to the various particles having been given individual masses by hand. The mass of an object is a measure of the difficulty of speeding up or slowing down that object: Up until the invention of the Higgs mechanism, mass was just something you had to take as an otherwise unjustified given. With the Higgs mechanism in play, mass has a significance, an origin. Since mass is one of the most fundamental concepts in physical law, the Higgs mechanism, and the Higgs boson associated with this mechanism, becomes a central piece of our picture of the rules.
In fact the electroweak unification predicted three new and very heavy particles, and, even better, information on their mass ratio was numerically predicted. When Pope John Paul II visited me and my co-workers at CERN, a new machine had begun operation, and the discovery of these new particles, with exactly the predicted properties, was less than a year away. What remained was the discovery of the Higgs boson itself, which would eliminate alternative theories and cement the new interpretation of mass. Now, 30 years later, the Higgs boson is on the road to being fully confirmed.
Pope John Paul II with model of proton-antiproton interaction
During Pope John Paul II’s visit, Director-General Herwig Schopper presented him with a representation, made in the CERN workshops, of a high energy proton-antiproton interaction, such as was seen in the SPS collider. June 15, 1982. (CERN)
I admit to a certain melancholy about all this. When I passed through CERN in 1982, I had been thinking about physics for some 15 years. At the beginning of that period, it was still possible for a professor and several graduate students to perform an experiment at one of the existing accelerators and get a result worth publishing, even to make a major discovery, in a matter of months. Theorists could both propose and analyze on the same time scale. By the early 1980s things had changed. Experiments in the new era involved bigger and bigger detectors. Bigger and bigger collaborations were necessary, and the time required to do an experiment grew longer. The accelerators, ever more expensive, were fewer, and their construction took years and involved dodging political minefields.
I am not complaining about the cost here. (I admit I did not build the machine myself.) The track record of something falling out of research on “pure” physics is pretty good. The World Wide Web arguably came from CERN, and techniques for the difficult analysis of the vast amounts of data from high-energy collisions are paying good dividends in other contexts. The current generation of accelerators has also taught us a great deal about superconducting technology.
But the fact that the United States has not provided an equivalent machine to check CERN’s results—or even to have beaten them to the punch—is discouraging. Will experiments at a single machine, without a second machine to check the results, be acceptable? This is not going to get any easier. Peter Higgs had to wait 50 years to learn that his proposal was at least partly proven right. He retired in 1996 and is now in his early eighties. Results from modern machines come slowly, and many theorists have wandered off into regions where unverifiable speculation is king. For the worker bees who stick to experimentation, thousand-person collaborations are now the rule. Will the most creative individuals be willing to spend all their time in such collaborations on a single life-spanning experiment? I wouldn’t bet on it.
Perhaps the popes still have something to teach us.

Let me try to explain this teacher thing

I've stopped worrying about being perceived as selfish because I prefer being, in all ways, alone. 

Let me try to explain this.
I'm constantly shocked when parents tell me their kids think I really care.

Let me try to explain this. 
Society expects my job as an educator  to be first and foremost about my students. However, any teacher worthy of the name knows from experience that, as in all things, you teach by teaching to yourself. 

Let me try to explain this. 
The most profound and moving moments of class time for me have been those that enhance my knowledge of what I was teaching.  

Let me try to explain this. 
Think of it as sharing, being available, as opposed to giving. 

Let me try to explain this. 
Loving something so much you want someone else to know why you do but, ultimately not caring at all what they think.

Let me try to explain this. 
Letting others in on.... This, by the way, is why and how and for what reason I paint. Oh sorry, teach.

Friday, September 28, 2012

The political psychology of self-immolation

A simple act of protest that can take on mythical proportions.

The mother of Mohamed Bouazizi, who self-immolated in 2010, holds up his picture
The mother of Mohamed Bouazizi, who self-immolated in 2010, holds up his picture. Photograph: Getty Images
Here he is. Matches in one hand, petrol bottle in the other. He removes the bottle cap, drops it to the ground and douses himself in liquid. He does everything slowly, methodically, as if it were part of a routine he has practiced for years. Then he stops, looks around, and strikes a match.
At this moment nothing in the world can bridge the gap that separates the self-immolator from the others. His total defiance of the survival and self-preservation instincts, his determination to trample on what everybody else finds precious, the ease with which he seems to dispose of his own life, all these place him not only beyond our capacity of understanding, but also outside of human society. He now inhabits a place that most of us find inhabitable. Yet, from there he does not cease to dominate us.
“As he burned he never moved a muscle, never uttered a sound, his outward composure in sharp contrast to the wailing people around him.”
Journalist David Halberstam describes the death of Thích Quàng Đúc, the Vietnamese Buddhist monk who set himself on fire in Saigon in 1963. The quieter the self-immolator the more agitated those around him. The former may slip into nothingness, but his performance changes the latter’s lives forever. They experience repulsion and attraction, terror and boundless reverence, awe and fear, all at once. Over them he now has the uncanniest form of power.
The experience is so powerful because it is so deeply seated in the human psyche. In front of self-immolation, even the most secularized of us have a glimpse into a primordial experience of the sacred. Originally, the sacred is defined as something set apart, cut off from the rest, which remains profane; what we feel towards such a radically different other is precisely a mix of terror and fascination. Self-immolation is a unique event precisely because it awakens deep layers of our ultimate make-up. In a striking, if disguised fashion, self-immolation occasions the experience of the sacred even in a God-forsaken world like ours.
Self-immolation has little to do with suicide. “Suicidal tendencies almost never lead to self-immolation,” says Michael Biggs, one of the few sociologists who have studied the phenomenon systematically. Self-immolation is a deliberate, determined and painfully expressive form of individual protest. Under certain circumstances, the gesture of an individual self-immolator is enough to ignite large-scale social movements. Thích Quàng Đúc’s self-immolation triggered a massive response, which resulted in the toppling of the Ngô Đình Diem regime in South Vietnam. Only six years later, Jan Palach, a Czech philosophy student, set himself ablaze in protest to the Soviet Union’s crush of the Prague Spring. His death did not cause a regime change right away, but it shaped in a distinct manner the anti-communist dissidence in Czechoslovakia. Twenty years later, in 1989, it was a “Palach week” of street protests and demonstrations that set in motion the Velvet Revolution. More recently, in December 2010, Mohamed Bouazizi, a young Tunisian street vendor, stroke a match that not only burned him to death, but set the entire Arab world on fire; we are still witnessing the aftermath of his gesture.
Self-immolation is a fearsome, compelling act, but it would be wrong to infer that whenever it occurs it has significant political consequences. Michael Biggs estimates that between 800 and 3,000 self-immolations may have taken place over the four decades after 1963. Yet, only a handful of them had any political impact. What makes a death by self-immolation politically consequential is its capacity to become the focus of a community’s social life. Self-immolation is “successful” in this sense when it is not anymore about the one who performs it, but about the community in the midst of which it occurs and which suddenly recognizes itself in the predicament of the self-immolator, it feels “shamed” by his gesture and compelled to act. Thus, that individual death is re-signified, and turned from a biological occurrence in the history of someone’s body into a “founding” event of mythical proportions, something that renews the community’s political life.
Politically “successful” self-immolations are extraordinary events. There are no “recipes for success” here; no science can satisfactorily explain when they should occur or why they shouldn’t. To use some kind of analogy, they are not unlike artistic masterpieces; you can recognize one when you see it, but they cannot be produced “on demand”. As such, they are inimitable and unrepeatable. Bouazizi, Đúc and Palach had many imitators, but they never managed to get out of their masters’ shadows; the more they were the less their gestures meant.
This brings home the point that a politically consequential self-immolation is usually the first one in a series. Since February 2009 no less than fifty-one Tibetans, mostly Buddhist monks and nuns, have self-immolated in Tibetan parts of China, yet they have not caused any significant political changes so far. Why? Because fifty-one self-immolations may be fifty too many; the more Tibetans self-immolate the clearer it becomes that there are no Quàng Đúc, Jan Palach or Mohamed Bouazizi among them.
The fact that self-immolation as a form of political protest could even appear in Tibetan monastic circles may seem puzzling. Buddhism notoriously rejects violence; moreover, Tibetan Buddhism is eminently based on compassion towards all sentient beings. One of the four vows that any Tibetan monk has to take when joining a monastery is “never to take a life”. The Dalai Lama’s total embrace of Gandhi’s satyagraha is only the logical corollary of such a religious mind-set.
Yet, the explanation has to do more with political, rather than theological, factors. The Chinese occupation of Tibet has been unusually oppressive and much of the violent repression has been directed against Buddhist monasteries, seen as the symbol of a “backward,” “feudal” Tibet. Violence only breeds violence. For all its anti-violent stance, when its very existence comes under threat, Buddhism could sometimes find the resources, and even the theoretical justification, for violent resistance; the PLA experienced this first-hand in the Tibet of the 1950s, when monasteries would often fight back. Moreover, most of the recent self-immolations have taken place in what used to be, before the communist take-over, Amdo and Kham, regions populated by fiercely independent people, combination of warriors and monks, that almost no central authority could subdue in the past. The Kampas could be as brutal as the PLA soldiers.
That self-immolation, by all means an extreme and extraordinary act, tends now to become a routine form of political action is a very dangerous development. And, yet, just as the Chinese authorities do not signal that they want to make concessions, the Tibetans find it inconceivable to give up. The fact that all those who set themselves ablaze are young (some are teens) is telling. These are people who don’t have the memory of a pre-communist Tibet; all they could possibly have is the hope of a post-Chinese one. But, then again, with Tibet’s new demographic structure and China’s super-power status, even such a hope is unsustainable. So all they are left with is despair.
In the long-run Tibetans’ despair may be China’s worst nightmare. What a routinisation of self-immolation as political protest can lead to the Chinese authorities may not be even able to comprehend. And, yet, they should not be surprised; maybe it is time they start re-reading the little red book: “Where there is oppression, there is resistance.” In his grave, Mao Zedong is dreaming in Tibetan.
Costica Bradatan is Fellow at Notre Dame Institute for Advanced Study in the US. He is the author or editor of several books, most recently "Philosophy, Society and the Cunning of History in Eastern Europe" (Routledge 2012). Currently, he is writing a book on “dying for an idea”.

My Mother's passing

Her name was Nora and after  92 years of life and a debilitating and relentless battle with dementia my Mother finally passed away last night. She's been in a near-vegetative state for quite sometime now and in Hospice care for about a week.There are no surprises here.It was just too long in coming. I'm just numb right now.And relieved. And angry. And not a son anymore.

Thursday, September 27, 2012

Lydia Satterthwaite, Embroidered terrestrial globe (1817)

What I hate is ignorance, smallness of imagination, the eye that sees no farther than its own lashes. All things are possible. Who you are is limited only by who you think you are.
‐ Egyptian Book of the Dead

El Volcán Más Increíble de Todos los Tiempos

Op-Ed Contributors

Fighting Over God’s Image

Mark Pernice

THE murders of four Americans over an amateurish online video about Muhammad, like the attempted murder of a Danish cartoonist who in 2005 had depicted the prophet with a bomb in his turban, have left many Americans confused, angry and fearful about the rage that some Muslims feel about visual representations of their sacred figures.
The confusion stems, in part, from the ubiquity of sacred images in American culture. God, Jesus, Moses, Buddha and other holy figures are displayed in movies, cartoons and churches and on living room walls. We place them on T-shirts and bumper stickers — and even tattoo them on our skin.
But Americans have had their own history of conflict, some of it deadly, over displays of the sacred. The path toward civil debate over such representation is neither short nor easy.
The United States was settled, in part, by radical Protestant iconoclasts from Britain who considered the creation and use of sacred imagery to be a violation of the Second Commandment against graven images. The anti-Catholic colonists at Plymouth and Massachusetts Bay refused to put images of Jesus in their churches and meetinghouses. They scratched out crosses in books. In the early 1740s, English officials even marched on an Indian community in western Connecticut, where they cross-examined Moravian missionaries who reportedly had a book with “the picture of our Saviour in it.”
The colonists feared Catholic infiltration from British-controlled Canada. Shortly after the Boston Tea Party, a Connecticut pastor warned that if the British succeeded, the colonists would have their Bibles taken from them and be compelled to “pray to the Virgin Mary, worship images, believe the doctrine of Purgatory, and the Pope’s infallibility.”
It was not only Protestants who opposed sacred imagery. In the Southwest, Pueblo Indians who waged war against Spanish colonizers not only burned and dismembered some crucifixes, but even defecated on them.
In the early Republic, many Americans avoided depicting Jesus or God in any form. The painter Washington Alliston spoke for many artists of the 1810s when he said, “I think his character too holy and sacred to be attempted by the pencil.” A visiting Russian diplomat, Pavel Svinin, was amazed at the prevalence of a different image: George Washington’s. “Every American considers it his sacred duty to have a likeness of Washington in his home,” he wrote, “just as we have images of God’s saints.”
Only in the late 19th century did images of God and Jesus become commonplace in churches, Sunday school books, Bibles and homes. There were many forces at work: steam printing presses; new canals and railroads; and, not least, the immigration of hundreds of thousands of Catholics who brought with them an array of crucifixes, Madonnas and busts of saints. Protestants began producing their own images — often, to appeal to children — and gradually became more comfortable with holy images. In the 20th century, the United States began exporting such images, most notably Warner Sallman’s 1941 “Head of Christ,” which is one of the most reproduced images in world history.
But there was also resistance. When Hollywood first started portraying Jesus in films, one fundamentalist Christian fumed, “The picturing of the life and sufferings of our Savior by these institutions falls nothing short of blasphemy.” Vernon E. Jordan Jr., an African-American who was later president of the National Urban League and an adviser to President Bill Clinton, recalled that white audience members gasped when he played Jesus as an undergraduate at DePauw University in Indiana in the 1950s.
In fact, race has been a constant source of conflict over American depictions of Jesus. In Philadelphia in the 1930s, the black street preacher F. S. Cherry stormed into African-American churches and pointed at paintings or prints of white Christs, shouting, as one observer recounted, “Who in the hell is this? Nobody knows! They say it is Jesus. That’s a damned lie!”
During the civil rights era, black-power advocates and liberation theologians excoriated white images of the sacred. A 1967 “Declaration of Black Churchmen” demanded “the removal of all images which suggest that God is white.” As racial violence enveloped Detroit that year, African-American residents painted the white faces of Catholic icons black.
More recently, there have been uproars over the Nigerian-British painter Chris Ofili’s “Holy Virgin Mary” and the New York artist and photographer Andres Serrano’s “Piss Christ.” Mr. Serrano’s image of Jesus on the crucifix, submerged in the artist’s own urine, roused a crusade against the National Endowment for the Arts in the late 1980s. Mr. Ofili’s painting of a dark-skinned Madonna with photographs of vaginas surrounding her enraged Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani. The mayor, who mistakenly claimed that elephant dung was smeared on the image when it in fact was used at the base to hold the painting up, tried to ban it from being displayed at the Brooklyn Museum of Art, in 1999. (One upset Christian smeared white paint over it.)
Images of the sacred haven’t caused mass violence in the United States, but they have generated intense conflict. Our ability to sustain a culture supersaturated with visual displays of the divine, largely without violence, came only after massive technological change, centuries of immigration and social movements that forced Americans to reckon with differences of race, ethnicity and religion.
Edward J. Blum, an associate professor of history at San Diego State University, and Paul Harvey, a professor of history at the University of Colorado, Colorado Springs, are the authors of “The Color of Christ: The Son of God and the Saga of Race in America.”

Might as well

Eunuchs reveal clues to why women live longer than men

Birthday cake Will castration earn a few extra candles?
Castration had a huge effect on the lifespans of Korean men, according to an analysis of hundreds of years of eunuch "family" records.
They lived up to 19 years longer than uncastrated men from the same social class and even outlived members of the royal family.
The researchers believe the findings show male hormones shorten life expectancy.
The study is published in the journal Current Biology.
Castration before puberty prevents the shift from boy to man. One of the scientists involved in the study, Dr Cheol-Koo Lee from Korea University, said: "The records said that eunuchs had some women-like appearances such as no moustache hair, large breasts, big hips and thin high-pitched voice."
Eunuchs had important roles in many cultures from protecting harems to castrati superstar singing sensations. The imperial court of the Korean Chosun dynasty used eunuchs to guard the gates and manage food. They were the only men outside the royal family allowed to spend the night in the palace.
They could not have children of their own, so they adopted girls or castrated boys.
Ageing well Researchers in South Korea analysed the genealogical record of these "eunuch families".
They worked out the lifespans of 81 eunuchs born between 1556 and 1861. The average age was 70 years, including three centenarians - the oldest reached 109.
By comparison, men in other families in the noble classes lived into their early 50s. Males in the royal family lasted until they were just 45 on average.
There are no records for women at the time for comparison.
Dr Kyung-Jin Min, from Inha University, told the BBC: "We also thought that different living circumstances or lifestyles of eunuchs can be attributed to the lifespan difference.
"However, except for a few eunuchs, most lived outside the palace and spent time inside the palace only when they were on duty."
Instead he thinks the data "provides compelling evidence that male sex hormone reduces male lifespan".
Men v women Women tend to outlive men across human societies. However, theories are hard to test in experiments and the exact reason for the difference is uncertain.
One thought is that male sex hormones such as testosterone, which are largely produced in the testes, could be damaging. The researchers said the hormones could weaken the immune system or damage the heart. Castration would prevent most of the hormone from being produced, protecting the body from any damaging effect and prolonging lifespan.
Dr Min said: "It is quite possible that testosterone reduction therapy extends male lifespan, however, we may need to consider the side effects of it, mainly reduction of sex drive in males.
Dr David Clancy, from the University of Lancaster, said: "The results are persuasive, but certainly not conclusive."
He said the relatively high number of centenarians in the group suggested eliminating testosterone may have prolonged life. However, he cautioned that difference in lifestyle could have had a significant impact.
"In this case eunuchs were raised by eunuchs over generations, lifestyle differences may have been reinforced in this way.
"Castrato versus non-castrato singers are probably a better comparison, and showed no difference in lifespan. Non-castrato lived an average 65 years and both groups lived fairly cosseted lives."

Animals on Trial

The Public Domain Review is an online journal and not-for-profit project dedicated to showcasing the most interesting and unusual out-of-copyright works available on the web. You can explore our curated collections of curiosities and our fortnightly articles from leading scholars, writers, and artists at publicdomainreview.orgMurderous pigs sent to the gallows, sparrows prosecuted for chattering in Church, a gang of thieving rats let off on a wholly technical acquittal – welcome to the very strange world of medieval animal trials as recounted in E.P. Evans’ The Criminal Prosecution and Capital Punishment of Animals published in 1906. The frontispiece of this remarkable book shows a pig, dressed in jacket and breeches, being strung up on the gallows while the 14th century inhabitants of a Normandy village look on. The pig had been sentenced to be “mangled and maimed in the head forelegs” then dressed and hung, for having torn the face and arms of a baby in its cradle. This is just one of hundreds of cases details in Evans’ book including sparrows being prosecuted for chattering in Church, a pig executed for stealing a communion wafer, and a cock burnt at the stake for laying an egg.
These were not, however, sham trials – they were conducted with the full pomp and ceremony of human law. Indeed the animals would as a matter of course be appointed their very own lawyer, the most respected and famous of which was a certain Frenchman called Bartholomew Chassenée. His remarkable list of victories include successfully securing the aquittal of a horde of rats who had been charged for having “feloniously eaten up and wantonly destroyed” the local barley. He defended their failure to appear in court in a two fold argument: firstly, due to their nomadic nature, they probably never even received the court summons, and secondly, even if they did receive the order they were hardly likely to come as they could not be promised a safe passage to court on account of the villagers’ cats.
Other acquittals included a gang of weevils in 1587 who, accused of damaging a vineyard, were decided to have been simply exercising their natural right to eat – and, in compensation, were given a vineyard of their very own. In 1457, the six blood stained piglets of a murderous sow were indicted as accomplices in the murder but were eventually let off due to their tender age. In 1750 a man and a she-ass were caught doing the naughty and the prosecution asked for the death sentence for them both. The man was sentenced, but the animal was let off after the local priest gave evidence that he had known the said she-ass for four years, that she had always shown herself to be virtuous and well-behaved both at home and abroad and that she had never given occasion of scandal to anyone. Therefore he was “willing to bear witness that she is in word and deed and in all her habits of life a most honest creature”, and was a victim not a perpetrator.

Chicken Lickin

Tasting Like Chicken

Its evolutionary origins.

Illustration by Robert Neubecker.

At least once a week, someone tells me that some food other than chicken “tastes like chicken.” People throw the analogy around constantly. Virtually any meat that is pale in color, firm in texture, and lacking a strong flavor is subjected to the chicken comparison.
Why chicken? It’s probably at least in part because most of us haven’t eaten very many types of meat. The meat universe of a typical American carnivore is limited to chicken, turkey, beef, pork, and perhaps lamb. That’s a pretty narrow selection in a world that includes more than 10,000 species of birds—let alone the rest of the vertebrate world. (And saying that things “taste like chicken,” it appears, is a distinctly American habit.)
The range of species I’ve heard compared to chicken, flavor-wise, is very broad across the evolutionary spectrum: various birds, of course, but also snakes, lizards, small mammals, certain fish. Which made me wonder: Can we trace the taste of chicken back down the evolutionary tree to a common ancestor? What was the first creature in evolutionary history that tasted like chicken? And for how long in the Earth’s history has life been tasting like chicken? Something had to come first, and I don’t think it was either the chicken or the egg.
In order to answer this question, we need to start with chickens and work our way back through the evolutionary family tree.
Does chicken taste like chicken? Don’t laugh—this is an important question. Even lifelong chicken eaters usually have a very narrow experience because the birds sold in grocery stores are usually one of a very few breeds that have been designed to grow a lot of breast meat very quickly in factory-farm settings. A Plymouth roasting hen slaughtered for market at 7 weeks does not make for the same eating experience as a 2-year-old Rhode Island Red. I once ate a bantam rooster that tasted more like iguana than a grocery store chicken.
I posed a question for a group of friends on Facebook, asking them whether they thought Cornish game hens taste like chicken. Some of the respondents were adamant that the little birds have their own flavor and texture that hardly resembles chicken. What I didn’t mention when I asked the question was the fact that Cornish game hens are simply ordinary chickens slaughtered at a younger age. Our idea of what chicken tastes like seems to be as informed by our expectations as by our palate.
A consensus has emerged in the scientific community that chickens and other birds are probably the direct descendants of dinosaurs. I have lost many good nights of sleep wondering what various species of dinosaurs tasted like, but the fact is that we don’t have any left to eat. Other than birds, the closest living relatives that we have to eat are the crocodilians, which date back to at least 250 million years ago.
I have eaten alligators on several occasions and have found that they can have a lot in common with chicken. Like chickens, their muscles are primarily light meat, which is made of muscle fibers that are well-suited for short-term bursts of speed and power. Tail meat tends to be somewhat tough (except in a very young animal), while the limbs are more tender. The best alligator meat I have ever eaten was in a bar on the Gulf Coast of Florida, where the bartender brought out a tray of “gator wings.” These alligator limbs had been prepared identically to conventional Buffalo wings, and they tasted exactly like enormous Buffalo wings, with the most noticeable difference being that the bones were less delicate. I figure this similarity dates the taste of chicken back at least 250 million years right there. (This is assuming, of course, that the crocodilians of yesteryear didn’t taste terribly dissimilar from the alligators of today.)
Looking back even further on the evolutionary tree, modern reptiles are related to chickens through a group of animals known as diapsids, which originated around 300 million years ago. Modern snakes and lizards are both descended from the diapsids—and as it happens, I have had the pleasure of eating a nice assortment of them: black spiny-tailed iguanas, green iguanas, and various snakes. What all of them had in common was a taste and a color after cooking that was like chicken, coupled with a texture reminiscent of crab meat. You wouldn’t mistake the texture of snake for chicken, but run it through a meat-grinder, and you wouldn’t know the difference.
Another group of animals related to diapsids are the testudines: turtles and tortoises. Their exact evolutionary origins are murky, but what’s clear is that they taste like chicken. Raw snapping turtle meat is multicolored, with individual chunks mottled either red or white. But cooked, snapping turtle is indistinguishable from chicken to most palates. My 8-year-old daughter and 5-year-old son have enjoyed battered, deep-fried “turtle tenders,” and they have deemed the meat identical to chicken. (I agree.) If it passes the taste test of a fussy 8-year-old, it probably really does taste like chicken. (Maybe the ranch dressing helped.)
What chicken-reminiscent beasts existed before the diapsids? Now we must go way back in time to the first vertebrates that lived on land: the early amphibians. We don’t have any good fossils of these earliest land-dwellers, but there have been some well-preserved amphibian footprints dating back roughly 395 million years.
The only amphibians still around today split off from the early amphibians around 300 million years ago. Frogs, the prototypical modern-day amphibian, taste definitively like chicken. Their texture is even like chicken. In a blind taste test, I couldn’t tell the difference. White meat, intermediate texture, mild flavor: It’s all there. This, along with the taste of snakes, lizards, and turtles, implies that tasting like chicken has been around for at least 300 million years.
Looking further back in time to before the amphibians, we arrive at the fish. I’ve been told that many kinds of fish taste like chicken, but in practice I have never found this to be the case unless the meat is disguised in some way. Only last week I fried some fresh haddock in a beer batter and refrigerated the leftovers. The next morning I found that the cold fish tasted just like chicken—right up until I tried a bite without the breading. Then it tasted like fish again. My brain had been confused by an outer layer that reminded it of a chicken recipe.
If there is one group of fish that can be considered more closely related to chicken than the others, it’s the lobed fish. Lobed fish are the class of fish that are popularly thought of as a missing link—the creatures that first became adapted to spending time on land and eventually evolved into amphibians. These types of fish usually had fleshy fins with articulated bones. They were very common during the Devonian period, but today lungfish and coelacanths are the only survivors.
Coelacanths have hardly changed at all in the last 400 million years, but they are endangered today, which sadly takes them off the table. However, fishermen from islands off the coast of Mozambique used to eat coelacanths before scientists began paying them a premium for live specimens. The fishermen described the fish as oily and said the texture of the cooked flesh was unappetizingly soft unless it had first been salted and dried. This doesn’t sound like chicken at all.
Lungfish are more appetizing to the Western palate than the coelacanth but still distinctly fishy tasting. One might cook with them interchangeably with cod or bass—but nobody will mistake the taste or texture for chicken.
Why is this? Several barriers prevent fish from tasting like chicken. A chemical called trimethylamine, which develops after a fish dies and creates that distinctly fishy flavor and odor, is a big one. Texture also plays a role: Fishes’ muscle structure is different from chickens’.  Fish muscles are typically arranged in bands along the sides of the body and are separated by relatively less connective tissue than what is found in the muscle of their evolutionary descendants. These bands of muscle are what make cooked fish flaky. Fish muscles are relatively simple because all they have to do to move through water is perform a sort of sideways flopping motion. The muscles of land-dwellers like chickens, lizards, and frogs are more specialized and are designed for the more varied movement of individual limbs.
Neither the coelacanth nor the lungfish is the evolutionary missing link per se, but both are solid living representatives of the group of species that amphibians, reptiles, dinosaurs, and chickens are all descended from. If the lungfish or the coelacanth’s meat is representative of lobed fish in general, then we can surmise that meat probably didn’t start to taste like chicken until the transition from fish to amphibians occurred.
Pederpes finneyae, a Carboniferous tetrapod.
Pederpes finneyae.Illustration by DiBgd/Wikimedia Commons.
The first known species to make that transition from water to land was Pederpes finneyae. P. finneyae appeared about 350 million years ago and was the earliest creature in the fossil record to have the forward-facing feet of a fully terrestrial animal. Assuming the transition from water to land necessitated the complicated muscle structures we see in today’s land creatures, then P. finneyae probably would have been an excellent candidate for marinating in lime juice and cilantro and then cooking and shredding for tacos.
So roughly 350 million years ago is probably when life began to taste like chicken, right when some lobed fishes had fully transformed into the first terrestrial amphibians, like P. finneyae. It’s hard to imagine that this trait has had any advantage for the animals that exhibited it, given that the only situation in which flavor is expressed is when the organism dies. (In fact, considering that we generally like the taste of chicken and go out of our way to kill chickens in order to taste them, you could say that tasting like chicken is a distinct disadvantage.)  But it would appear that the taste has nonetheless persisted for hundreds of millions of years. So maybe instead of saying that the next pale, firm, mild thing you eat tastes like chicken, you should say it tastes like Pederpes finneyae.

Boho Blues: What To Do When Your Brooklyn Neighborhood Loses Its Edge

The Last Bohemia: Scenes from the Life of Williamsburg, Brooklyn

by Robert Anasi

Farrar Straus & Giroux, 230 pp., $15
ROBERT ANASI LEFT Williamsburg in 2008, which makes his new memoir of the neighborhood a work of very recent history. Proximity defines The Last Bohemia—both its author’s perspective and his book’s appeal. I have sat in a Williamsburg restaurant reading The Last Bohemia, with the girl next to me also reading The Last Bohemia. Anasi’s old neighborhood now houses a built-in audience of navel-gazers. And while it’s easy to fault those ever-Tumbling and Tweeting millennials for a surfeit of narcissistic self-awareness, Anasi has the inverse problem: a fatal lack of self-awareness, an unexamined regard for himself and his experience, which constitutes its own brand of narcissism.
The Last Bohemia chronicles the fourteen years Anasi spent in Williamsburg after moving there in 1994. In those years, it was home to gangsters, hookers, sprawling lofts, a brigade of artists, a bar called Kokie’s that sold cocaine, a post-industrial waterfront wilderness, and swoony, crazily low rents. This was, of course, a world that was disappearing even as he inhabited it. Anasi quotes a New York magazine story from June, 1992: “In the seventies, it was SoHo. … In the eighties, the East Village. In the nineties, it will be Williamsburg.” And so it was. And now we speak of the neighborhood with knee-jerk jokes about skinny jeans and artisanal pickles and condo towers with names like The Edge.
It’s clear Anasi has a story on his hands: the neighborhood has changed, and changed fast enough that every mention of an intersection, bar, or subway stop offers a disorienting thrill for the present-day Williamsburger. “Getting off the L at the Bedford stop put you on guard,” he writes. “Upstairs, Bedford Avenue wasn’t any better. At seven p.m. you felt fear in the gloom and rightly so.” It’s the rush-hour crowds that now scare commuters at the Bedford stop; potential hazards of the Avenue are generally limited to missing a dinner reservation. The waterfront where you can now find a park (and, on summer Sundays, the Brooklyn Flea) was once a landscape “for the daredevil,” where Anasi cleared razor wire to gaze over the East River. Anasi favors Manifest Destiny, untamed-frontier analogies to describe the development that he witnessed, but I found myself imagining him as less a pioneer than a pilgrim. “Writing was my religion,” he says, and Williamsburg was the hard shore where he sought the freedom to practice it.
What’s less clear, though, is whether Anasi is the best one to tell this story. The book’s subtitle—“Scenes from the Life of Williamsburg, Brooklyn”—is fair warning that the portrait will consist of quick sketches and emphasize immediacy. But in this case immediacy seems to preclude critical distance, and without it, the sketches are Rent kitsch: the girls are sexy, the landlords are crafty, the junkies are desperate. Everybody is an artist.
Neighborhood nostalgia does not have to mean sentimental cliché. But for stories of life as a young writer in the city to transcend this formula, the narrator needs a clear sense of his own youthful foibles. In Kafka Was the Rage, his posthumously published memoir, Anatole Broyard warmly portrayed the Greenwich Village of the 1940s while describing feats of youthful pretension that would put Anasi and his peers to shame. But—looking back across decades—Broyard observed those antics with wry sensitivity: he wins the reader’s trust with his self-awareness.
Anasi, on the other hand, appears disinclined to admit he had youthful foibles. A sense of humor would help, but his chief gestures in that direction are to recount jokes he has previously made—jokes that, one feels, perhaps did not get the reception he had hoped for. Of the Bedford bookstore Spoonbill & Sugartown: “I called it ‘Spoonfed & Sugar Tit’ because I couldn’t afford their titles.”
He will occasionally venture a joke at his own expense, but won’t really let his guard down. The late ’90s, he explains, brought a new breed of hipster to the neighborhood, for whom “enthusiasm about anything ‘serious’ was forbidden.” Walking home from a party with a poet friend (“as successful as a poet can be—he’d been a Stegner Fellow at Stanford, his poems were published in The New Yorker”), Anasi shows him a volume of Lucretius. “Now, I wasn’t in school, I didn’t have a fellowship anywhere, but I loved books,” Anasi writes. “I was hoping for insight or at least a conversation.” The poet does not oblige. “Kind of pretentious to have that book,” the poet says. “Don’t you think?”
There’s nothing wrong with a genuine interest in Lucretius. But there’s also nothing wrong with feeling like the walk home from a party isn’t the time to prove intellectual seriousness, and this seems like the kind of human subtlety to which Anasi’s defensiveness blinds him. The glint of hangdog humor in the anecdote (“I left De rerum natura at home after that,” he concludes) is lost amid Anasi’s scramble to produce earnest-intellect bona fides. A book lover who is not a student or fellowship recipient: perhaps this is not as rare a breed as he imagines. Elsewhere he describes the King James Bible as subway reading, and wistfully recalls picking up a German model over Phenomenology of Spirit, and even a reader who found the poet a little curt begins to sympathize with his exasperation.
Class is a central concern, as it has to be in a book that is fundamentally about real estate. But Anasi’s perpetually defensive posture rules out any but the bluntest treatment of the questions class raises—questions about how groups of people define themselves, signal belonging, regard one another, and exercise power. Anasi gives us obvious talking points—the crass opulence of glass towers on the waterfront, the spectacle of hipsters in trucker hats playing white-trash dress-up, the maddening fact that some people are born wealthy—and no fresh insight, beyond the fact that he does not like these things. “Rich kids” especially seem to vex him, and while this is an understandable displeasure for the 22-year-old he once was, it’s a tiresome fixation for the 46-year-old he is now.
The hostility would be less off-putting if accompanied by a clearer acknowledgment of his advantages. He brings dates to the waterfront (“a test for the women”), but he doesn’t seem concerned that blithely roaming an abandoned industrial zone by night is a distinctly male privilege. He writes that today’s Williamsburg residents “are as likely to have graduated from Yale as the University of the Streets”—but his own alma mater, Sarah Lawrence, is not exactly the liberal arts college of hard knocks. He distinguishes between his cohort and those that followed only in the broadest of strokes: real vs. fake, poor vs. rich.
So Anasi’s impassioned nostalgia for the neighborhood where he lived once and I live now frustrates me. But here is my predicament: I can’t counter with an impassioned version of my own. Williamsburg for me is not a wild frontier, but it’s not a corrupt luxury dystopia, either. Williamsburg is just a place to live. It requires no romance. Such is the plight of the post-bohemian, expertly described in 1934 in Malcolm Cowley’s Exile’s Return, a Lost Generation coming-of-age history. Cowley traced the notion of “Bohemia” from the 1830s on, distinguishing between two successive generations to invade early twentieth-century Greenwich Village. “They’,” Cowley writes, were the pre–World War I holdovers—“rebels, political, moral, artistic, or religious”; “we” were the postwar newcomers, those who “got what we wanted in a quiet way, simply by taking it.”
“We were content to build our modest happiness in the wreck of ‘their’ lost illusions, a cottage in the ruins of a palace,” Cowley writes of his cohort. “The truth is that ‘we,’ the newcomers to the Village, were not bohemians. We lived in top-floor tenements along the Sixth Avenue Elevated because we couldn’t afford to live elsewhere.”
This is the same logic that brought me to a top-floor tenement in South Williamsburg. (For what it’s worth, my six flights of stairs and my roach problem offer daily proof that at least some crummy living persists in Williamsburg.) Unlike Anasi, I never even had the chance to get priced out of Manhattan—Williamsburg wasn’t “a dog whistle that people like me were starting to hear”; it was the obvious point of entry for a post-college life in the city.
Neighborhoods change; they age and get expensive, and young people eventually flock elsewhere. Undoubtedly there is a case to be made against this pattern—though it’s a case that should be made on behalf of overrun low-income enclaves, not on behalf of the college grad who wants to support his art by watering plants two days a week. But perhaps Anasi’s biggest lapse is misreading the quiet, predictable shift in personality that accompanies a neighborhood’s development, a tendency of places to pass from a first generation of fiery pilgrim-rebels on to mild and presumptuous young strivers. There’s a perverse self-aggrandizement in Anasi’s assumption that the forces to overtake his neighborhood were large and sinister rather than small and boring.
We have built cottages in the ruins. Lost illusions, it turns out, are as good as any cheap building materials, and they go OK with Ikea couches.
Molly Fischer is a writer in Brooklyn. Her work has appeared in The New York Observer and n+1. Follow @mollyhfischer.