“I’m so bored. I hate my life.” - Britney Spears

Das Langweilige ist interessant geworden, weil das Interessante angefangen hat langweilig zu werden. – Thomas Mann

"Never for money/always for love" - The Talking Heads

Friday, July 24, 2015

the mystery of the NYRB's article, the mystery of ISIS


These are times that try men’s ribcages – due to the laughter the bigwig journals provoke. Case in point is an “analysis” of Isis that was published by “Anonymous”, in the NYRB. We are assured by the editors that Anonymous is a very serious person. In fact, so serious that the editors seem to have blithely given him carte blanche to say things and give references that have the same relation to fact as, say, the figures of monsters on medieval maps have to zoology. At least the medieval cartographers were cute.

But where to begin? Reading the hopeless mess of the article, I was struck by one passage.
“The movement’s behavior, however, has not become less reckless or tactically bizarre since Zarqawi’s death. One US estimate by Larry Schweikart suggested that 40,000 insurgents had been killed, about 200,000 wounded, and 20,000 captured before the US even launched the surge in 2006.” 

I asked myself why such a toll hadn’t attracted much more world wide attention. Then I looked up the “u.s.” analyst, Larry Schweikart. There’s no reference for Schweikart’s article, but going to Schweikart's author page, I learned all about his expertise in Iraqi history, which is, it appears, considerably less than his knowledge of the electric guitar, which he once played in a minor rock bank. His cv is unimpressive even by the low standards of second rate institutions of higher education. It consists most impressively of the fact that he co-wrote a book entitle Patriot’s History of the US and a bestseller entitled 48 Liberal Lies About American History.  So, basically, under the highminded pretence that we are reading about anonymous' very informed views about the Middle East, where he served in some kind of diplomatic capacity, heaven help us, we are served up retreads from Fox and Friends, which often interviews Mr. Schweikart. NYRB, meet Daily Caller. At least the rightwing site makes no pretences. 
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It is interesting that in the period of time since 2002, when the media hysteria about Iraq was at its height, to now, when the media hysteria about ISIS is at its height, the major journals have learned absolutely nothing about reporting. The NYR should profusely apologize to its readers for thrusting anonymous on their attention. I doubt they will.


Wednesday, July 22, 2015

jim holt's review: witches, slaves

I’ve been pondering Jim Holt’s review of a biography of Sir Thomas Browne. You don’t often see Browne, who is a mandarin’s mandarin writer, given space in the NYT. The review was evidently launched from the side that does not appreciate Browne as a writer.  So be it. Yet there was an emphasis on Browne’s belief in witchcraft that I found troubling – notably this paragraph:
:Browne harbored some foolish beliefs himself, even by the standards of his time. Notably, he believed in witches. Worse, he acted on this belief. In 1662, the supposed savant offered expert testimony at a trial in which two elderly widows were convicted of practicing witchcraft and hanged. The trial at which Browne testified cast a long shadow, serving as an exemplar for the infamous Salem witch trials in America 30 years later.”
Foolish belief it may have been, but Holt’s paragraph has a certain positivist peremptoryness that is unfair and distorting. Sir Robert Boyle, Browne’s contemporary and certainly one of the heros in the creation of early modern science, wrote a preface to Glanvill’s book defending the belief in witchcraft. One could round up a number of worthies whose beliefs, if parsed through the lens of foolish belief, might not be spared the condenscension of the popular science writer, including Newton, who of course spent a good number of years working out the numerology of the apocalypse. Newton is actually a case in point of the use of foolish beliefs, since it has long been known that the action at a distance that he ratified against the Cartesian insistance on the naïve material world picture that depended on vortices was borrowed from the alchemists.
Browne’s testimony against the hapless defendents in the Bury St. Edmond’s trial. Browne testified that the accounts given by the bewitched could be evidence of a satanic power devised against them. He didn’t give his opinion as to the guilt, however, of the accused. As has been noted by one of Browne’s biographers, his testimony was an odd amalgam of naturalizing description – “that the devil in such cases did work upon a natural foundation” - and orthodox witch belief. However, one must grant that Browne’s opinion, which was considered expert, may well have converted the jury to condemning the two women, Amy Denny and Rose Cullender.

Their deaths should stain Browne’s reputation, just as Locke’s investments in the slave trade and arguments for slavery as head of the Board of Trade in response to various laws in Virginia should forever stain his. Let all the ghosts be heard. But I don’t think this should serve the idea of some few “modern” scientific men advancing our consciousness. Because it is never like that.