Daily Office:
Wednesday, 3 November 2010


¶ In “Caucasion Nation,” Marco Roth  reflects on racism in America in its surreptitious but no less malignant modern form: the crisis of “white victimhood.” We haven’t read anything so in accord with our own view of the problem — ever. (n + 1; via 3 Quarks Daily)

In spite of Sherrod’s vindication, the affair was another political triumph for the right. The White House went no further than to blame the fake scandal on technology and the 24-hour news environment, probably because polls show that distrust of the media is bipartisan. The actual content of the fake scandal, unlike its form, could hardly be discussed by respectable parties. We all know that racism has been sufficiently anathematized in America that it can no longer present itself directly, perhaps no longer even to the minds of those who engage in it. A paradoxical consequence of this apparent progress is that only in extreme cases can racism be referred to publicly by people in a position to condemn it. One begins to think of race in Obama’s America like sex in some caricature of Freud’s Vienna: simultaneously the main theme of all conversation, and the one that can’t be mentioned. Instead of being “overcome,” historic American racism against nonwhite people has gone into deep cover and, with the irrefutable illogic of the unconscious, emerged as a newfangled American antiracism for the protection of white people.


Despite “40 acres and a mule” talk of land redistribution, most freed slaves signed contracts to sharecrop for their former masters within a few months of the war’s official end. Defeated only on the battlefield, the Confederate army rapidly reorganized into the rifle clubs and citizens’ watch councils that would come to be known as the Ku Klux Klan. President Andrew Johnson granted full amnesty to all but a handful of secessionist Southern representatives, because he was their President too, and one year after Lee’s surrender, a former slave-hunter turned gunman could openly plot race murder, writing in a local paper about the need to “thin the niggers out and drive them to their holes.” The Civil War continued by other means and the South did rise again.

Racist vigilante groups derived a sense of their legitimacy from the idea that they were defending themselves against lawless blacks and Northern “carpetbaggers.” Their tactics were the perennial tactics of terrorists everywhere: attacks on lines of communication, both railway and telegraph; attacks on schools and teachers who wanted to educate the minority population; night visits to prominent but poorly protected ideological opponents. Cross burning happened later. In those early days, the Klan was likely just to beat a man for twenty minutes with a horse stirrup before either hanging him or agreeing to let him go as a warning to others. More relevant for our more repressed era, they also scored a remarkable PR success with the aid of rehabilitated Southern congressmen, who dismissed reports of white Southern violence as mere “waving the bloody shirt”; that is, as fictions spread by northern “radicals” to incite more civil violence. In a 2008 case study of what he calls “terror after Appomattox” in Mississippi, Georgia, and South Carolina, the historian Stephen Budiansky concludes that the Confederate vigilantes “made a victim of the bully and a bully of the victim, turned the very act of Southern white violence into wounded Southern innocence, turned the very blood of their African American victims into an affront against Southern white decency.”


¶ We knew that David Hockney began creating art on his iPhone the moment he got one; we’re not surprised to find that he has moved on to the iPad. Nor is it really unexpected of him to prefer to display his digital art on the tablet as well — instead of printing and framing it. (BBC; via Arts Journal)

When he’s worked with computers in the past he has printed the images and framed them before hanging them on the gallery wall.

But for the Paris show, he did not want to display copies. Instead, he wants visitors to see the works just as he created them with his fingers on the various iPads.

Visitors to the show are shown this process up close.

Inside the cathedral-like space, with low-lighting to enhance the luminosity of the images on the iPad, visitors are also treated to a short film in which he snappily draws the Eiffel Tower in real time.


“You know sometimes I get so carried away, I wipe my fingers at the end thinking that I’ve got paint on them.”


¶ Felix Salmon is back, and he has lost no time picking up on a guest post by Barbara Kiviat that we linked tothe other day about whether financial regulation ought to be rules-based or principle-based. Felix agrees with the Michael Lewis rule that Barbara captured, banning “any sort of position-taking at the giant publicly-owned banks.” He goes further to make an extraordinarily interesting point, one that we’re still chewing on.

More generally, I suspect that a lot of people who blame Gramm-Leach-Bliley (the repeal of Glass-Steagal) for the financial crisis should really be blaming the broker-dealers going public instead. After all, Bear Stearns and Lehman Brothers and Merrill Lynch were both entirely Glass-Steagal compliant, as, for that matter, were Fannie and Freddie and AIG. The problem wasn’t that they were merged with commercial banks; the problem was that they had far more leverage than any private partnership would ever be comfortable with.

People who blame the repeal of Glass-Steagall &c — that would be us.  


¶ Tyler Cowen tips us off to the blog of former Scientific American editor John Rennie, The Gleaming Retort. (And he has us on “retort,” always our favorite piece of chemistry-set glassware.) In “Height, Health Care, and I Q,” Mr Rennie makes a very strong case for attributing variations across populations to environmental, rather than genetic, factors.

What’s noteworthy about this observation that the varying heights of populations are not limited primarily by their genetic differences is that the best estimates peg the heritability of height at around 80 percent. That is, within a population in a consistent environment, 80 percent of the variation in height owes to genetic factors. (Or if you prefer, your parents’ height was 80 percent predictive of your own because their height suggested how much your height might vary from the mean.) In the case of height, those genetic factors are still rather obscure—a Nature Genetics paper published last summer suggested that tiny nudges might be scattered throughout the genome rather than concentrating within a few clearly identifiable “tallness” or “shortness” alleles. But whatever the case, two facts are undeniable: (1) a genetic signal in height is undeniable, and (2) environmental influences can swamp—not erase, but overwhelm—the variation otherwise attributable to genetics, which is why the traditionally short Japanese are nearly the height of Americans now and we are nine inches taller than the Frenchmen who stormed the Bastille.

Remember this the next time you read about the genetics of I.Q. and the arguments that are framed around differences in intelligence between races or other population groups. The heritability of I.Q. can be hard even to define (read this lengthy but worthwhile post by Cosma Shalizi to understand why) but good estimates often place it at around 50 percent—well below that of height. Environmental influences on I.Q. should therefore be huge, and one should be very skeptical of arguments that imply (or state outright) that any alleged differences between those groups are innate or unchangeable. Indeed, if Komlos and his colleagues are right that differences in health care explain the plateau in U.S. height, one might expect that those same health care differences—which certainly correlate with economic status and race in this country—could have a very marked effect on I.Q., too.


¶ Someone’s gotta do it, and Roxane Gay steps up to the plate. She not only makes the case for money, but she suggests that, in the wake of the Virginia Quarterly Review debacle, everybody in the lit world did.  

Poverty is not awesome. I cannot say I am at all acquainted with poverty but I have certainly seen it (both relatively, in the US, and absolutely, abroad). Graduate school taught me that it’s a pain in the ass to live on an extremely tight budget. There was nothing cool or special about it. Just because we can live on some absurdly low sum of money does not mean we should if it is within our means to do otherwise. Just because we can produce a good literary magazine on, say, $5,000 a year, doesn’t mean we should turn our noses up at producing a magazine for $25,000 a year or even $250,000 a year.

When the VQR story broke, a lot of people, myself included, were simply staggered by the kind of money they had to work with–not thousands or tens of thousands, but hundreds of thousands of dollars. The death of Kevin Morrissey and the accusations of bullying were troubling and tragic, but really, it was the money we were interested in discussing. Being able to produce a magazine with that kind of capital was (and is) simply flabbergasting. Many of us began composing wish lists of everything we could do with a mere fraction of the VQR money (unicorns! ponies! cupcakes!) and there was an undercurrent of anger in many of the discussions. We weren’t worried about a man’s unfortunate passing or the events leading up to his death. We were outraged, I think, that a magazine dared to spend money, and a lot of it and did so without explanation or apology.


¶ Yves Smith, who lived in Australia for a few years, insists that they’ve got some things terribly wrong Down Under; but, when it comes to elections, they put us to shame. No TV ads, and no shirking the ballot.

One of their strong points was politicking and voting. Australia didn’t, and I hope still does not, permit paid TV ads. Each party (or was it candidate? I never was clear on the mechanics) who scored above a very low threshold got a certain amount of free air time. This took the big reason for fundraising out of the picture. And the result, a limit on how much TV advertising their was in total, seemed to have the effect that people got proportionately more of their information about politics via print, which allows for longer form discussion.

Another interesting feature was that voting is a duty not a right. I was surprised at about month three in my apartment there to get a sternly-worded official notice, which wanted to know who the hell I was and why hadn’t I voted. If you don’t vote, you get fined.


¶ As Yevgeniya Traps argues, in her discussion of Howard Jacobson’s Man Booker winner at The Millions, the real “Finkler Question” is one of just how different Jews are from everybody else. Not that it can be answered clearly; but one point that the book doesn’t make is the Family-of-Man thesis that Jews are “just like everybody else.”  And she turns to the author himself for an eloquent rebuttal.

Some British reviewers have suggested that the novel’s concern with Jewishness is merely cover for a larger concern with the self. Writing about the novel in the Observer, Edward Docx concludes that “Jewishness” is here “a metaphor for human culture in general.” This is true in so far as The Finkler Question is finally interested in the way a particular personal identity intersects with the larger world and in what it means to be an outsider in the very worlds that we expect to be most welcoming. But it also seems false to deny the particularity of the way in which such issues are explored in The Finkler Question. For one thing, there is Jacobson’s own identity, which, despite his lack of religious feeling, he has repeatedly identified as Jewish: “What I feel is that I have a Jewish mind, I have a Jewish intelligence,” he remarked in a 2004 interview with Tablet Magazine. “I feel linked to previous Jewish minds of the past. I don’t know what kind of trouble this gets somebody into, a disputatious mind. What a Jew is has been made by the experience of 5,000 years, that’s what shapes the Jewish sense of humor, that’s what shaped Jewish pugnacity or tenaciousness.” There seems to be, for Jacobson, a personal concern with what it means to be a Jewish writer, especially in a country that has given rise to a number of anti-Israel boycotts, measures that Jacobson has publicly opposed, and it is this concern that gives The Finkler Question so much of its energy, its frisson. Having said that, it would indeed, be unfortunate to reduce the novel to identity politics, or, rather, to any one set of identity politics, given Jacobson’s enthusiasm for poking fun at the highmindedness brought to discussions of what it means to be anything. And anyway, what the novel is about is hardly half as important as how it goes about being about anything. The Finkler Question is never portentous, never precious. It swells with laughter and with sorrow, and you are glad to be its reader, whatever your identity.


¶ At Salon, Michael Humphrey interviews Ted Fishman, author of Shock of Gray, a book about “How old people will remake the world.” We certainly sat up. (via 3 Quarks Daily)

You have a section title in your book called “Why We Don’t Like Old People.” Do you really think we don’t?

I think it is true. In general, we don’t like them because for people who are not in late life yet, late life remains a mystery. And it’s a mystery fraught with danger. Lots of things start happening to people at age 60 and the people who are on the young side of that divide see those as frightening and threatening. But there’s also another divide: We think very differently about people in our own lives who are above that age than we do about the general population above that age.

There’s a notion that certain cultures do better by their elderly than we Americans do. You looked at this as a worldwide phenomenon. What did you conclude?

One of the really dumbfounding truths of the book is that very often the places that insist that they are the most loyal and faithful to their families are the places that do the most violence to them. As soon there are geographic distances, the things that once bound the family break up very rapidly. Almost all these very traditional places have driven down birthrates to among the lowest in the world. I think there’s a relationship between the mythologies — and expectations of people to be bound to their families — and the desperation to escape those bonds.

Have a Look

¶ Antonio Rubino. (The Rumpus)


¶ Amazing retinal implant. (Not Exactly Rocket Science)

¶ Facebook knows when you will break up. (GOOD)