Daily Office:
Friday, 27 August 2010


¶ With a manner only slightly less facetious than that of Gail Collins, Claire Berlinski holds Turkey’s Iran policy up to something like ridicule. The only way that she can explain it is by analogy to the Turkish preference for emotion over logic. Not safe for the politically correct! But good fun withal. (World Affairs; via Real Clear World)

Many in the West have interpreted the Turkish position as evidence that the place is under the control of Islamic crypto-fundamentalists. This is certainly part of the picture and a very important part, but do not make the mistake of thinking that’s all there is to it. The West is overlooking something both more subtle and more obvious: Emotions are running the show. The Turks have a good feeling about their recent encounters with Iran and a bad feeling about their recent encounters with Israel. Long-term, rational economic and geostrategic interests? To hell with those. The patient, subtle advancement of an Islamist agenda? To hell with that, too. This is a logic-free zone. Iran’s not a threat. No sanctions need be applied.

The only real material advantage that accrues to Turkey from the bargain is the chance to do trade with Iran—in the short term, at least. I single out Turkey for no special opprobrium in noting that its government finds it commercially advantageous to pretend there’s nothing going on in Iran requiring any urgent further attention from the world; France and Russia have long followed the same policy. But France and Russia are both nuclear powers in their own right. Should Iran acquire the Bomb, they at least have a deterrent. Turkey is not a nuclear power. Iran is a state with whom it has a very long history of enmity and quite a number of significant outstanding geostrategic and religious conflicts. The Ottoman and Persian Empires have been competing for regional hegemony since the Safavid and Qajar dynasties. As the nineteenth-century Ottoman statesman Fuad Paşa remarked, in comments no less true today,

The government of [Iran], which is in a state of continual disorder and in the grip of Shiite fanaticism, has always been at one and in agreement with our enemies. Even in the Crimean War, she came to an agreement with Russia and united her ambitions with hers. The fact that she was unable to bring her hostile calculations to fruition was due to the West’s prudent and vigilant diplomacy. Today, the Shah’s government follows in the wake of [Russia]. As long as the Ottoman government is not occupied elsewhere, the discredited Iranian government, being impotent, ignorant, and incapable of taking any initiative on its own, dares not quarrel with us. However, at the moment of our first confrontation with Russia, Iran will take her place among our most irreconcilable enemies, due to her political dependence and, more important, her blind jealousy, in spite of our cautious and well-intentioned attitude.

Russia’s fear of rising nationalism among its Turkic minorities gives it good reason to favor Iran. An Iran in possession of nuclear weapons would almost certainly cooperate with Russia to the detriment of Turkey, dominate Central Asia and the Caucasus, and put an end to Turkish aspirations to be a great power. A regional nuclear arms race would likely ensue. Iran has close diplomatic relations with Armenia; Turkey has no diplomatic relations with Armenia. Tehran has supported the Kurdish-separatist PKK, with which Turkey is at war. The Iranians are still Shiite fanatics who deplore both Sunni Islam and the Turkish secular state. There is no way whatsoever that it could be in Turkey’s long-term military or economic interests to live next door to a nuclear Iran, however impressive the short-term trade benefits of this deal might be—and they are not even that impressive.

¶ Writing about the extent of classical-music ignorance in Britain, Lynsey Hanley makes an eloquent plea for “a common culture, the riches of which are shared, rather than hoarded.” (Guardian)

Notions of what culture is remain fundamentally split between what we persist in regarding as high and low art. When we talk about a cultured person, it’s clear we’re also making an inference based on class. To use Tony Harrison’s words: Poetry’s the speech of kings. You’re one of those / Shakespeare gives comic bits to: prose! Britain’s ingrained economic inequality doesn’t help the cause of a unified culture one bit.

In such a context there’s no way that “we” – and I’m allying myself here with my social place of origin, rather than the easier place I inhabit now – can learn that we are also “kings”, as much the rightful readers of poetry as of prose. There’s nothing like being told, in any number of ways, how undeserving, how ripe for being patronised, you are to make you reject the lot.

At present it feels like there’s little useful communication between consumers of high culture and that third of Britain that has never listened to classical music – for reasons to do with mutual contempt, ignorance, and the accretion of privilege and disadvantage at opposite ends of the divide. There is a well-poisoning tendency towards saying that cultural choices are all about money – take Glyndebourne, or this weekend’s Serenata Glastonbury-style classical camping festival, with some day tickets at £295 a pop – when money forms only part of the complex knit of social relations. Our culture contains symbols less visible and more powerful: keys that can’t be bought, which gain access to rooms whose contents can’t be envisaged until entered.


¶ At The Awl, “Carl Hegelman” directs our attention to two goodly solutions to our economic disarray: Robert Reich’s proposal to turn defense contractors into infrastucturists, and Milton Friedman’s negative income tax. (If that isn’t one from Column A and one from Column B, we don’t know what is.)

Why bring this up now? Well, the creation of an egalitarian society is a worthy goal. It seems particularly pertinent now, at a time when the gap between The Rich and the Not Rich is as wide as it’s been since the Robber Baron days—the so-called “gilded age”—before Teddy Roosevelt was President. Politicians are arguing over the best way to tackle our current economic difficulties, and in November economic policy will probably be a key issue. It’s an opportunity for a creative restructuring which can both help us out of this mess and create a more equitable, less polarized society. In order to do it, we need to know what works and what doesn’t. The Reaganomics/Thatcherite/Free Market model didn’t work—is that pretty clear now?

But the English socialist model didn’t work, either. So what to do?


Really, it’s been one long battle between Left and Right for as long as most of us can remember. Can’t we just call it a draw and focus on fixing the mess?


¶ E O Wilson, once an early proponent of kin selection theory — an attempt to square the selfishness of natural selection with manifestations of altruism — now spearheads what he thinks is a better idea, which Brendan Keim, writing at Wired Science, never quite calls “colonial selection,” although that’s what it sounds like to us.

The researchers propose a theoretical narrative that begins with a primordial, solitary ant — perhaps something like the ancient Martialis heureka — that lived near a food source and developed genetic mutations that caused it to feed its offspring, rather than letting them fend for themselves. Called progressive provisioning, such nurture is widespread in insects.

Another mutation could result in offspring that stayed near the nest, rather than leaving. They would “instinctively recognize that certain things need to be done, and do them,” said Nowak, describing real-world examples. “Put two normally solitary wasps together, and if one builds a hole, the other puts an egg in it. The other sees the egg, and feeds it.”

That would be enough to form a small but real colony — and from there, eusociality could emerge from an accumulation of mutations that led to a hyper-specialization of tasks, limited reproduction to queens alone and favored the colony’s success above all else. Within this colony, a queen would be analogous to a human egg or sperm cell — a unit that embodies the whole. Worker self-sacrifice is no more nonsensical than that of a white blood cell.

The researchers called this series of steps a “labyrinth,” one that isn’t easily navigated. Hence the rareness of eusociality, which is believed to have arisen just 10 to 20 times in history. But their theory explains everything that kin selection does, plus what it doesn’t.


¶ Daniel Adler approaches comfort food from the vantage of a road warrior, and attempts to make bánh mì in his hotel bathroom. It’s all about process. (The Bygone Bureau)

The sandwich is awful. The marinade for the tofu is tinny and insipid; it tastes like it’s been soaked overnight in Mountain Dew. Too many seeds have been removed from the jalapenos, so there is not enough spice to draw my interest. Worst of all is the bread. It is soft and tacky, providing none of the resistant crackle that a decent baguette should have. The inner parts of the bread get mushy from being in contact with the daikon and carrots. As I finish off the sandwich in several more bland, matted mouthfuls, I think about going back to the Middle Eastern place.

To my surprise, over the next few days I make and eat the sandwich again and again. Even though I practically choke it down, even though added experimental ingredients (avocado, nori) can’t rescue it, I continue to suffer through until the package of six baguettes is finished. I just can’t pass up the chance to “cook,” even if the results are disappointing. The food itself might not be good, but every time I hunker over the fluorescent-lit bathroom counter, I am comforted, because I am making something, I am focused, and I forget I am alone.


¶ We continue to believe that the instability of Pakistan, brought to some sort of tipping point by dreadful flooding that has brought about a devastation that the government seems unable or unwilling to redress, is the most alarming crisis on the planet today. Of all the pieces to which we’ve linked in recent months, none has displayed the scope of Ahmen Rashid’s “The Anarchic Republic of Pakistan,” at The National Interest. (via 3 Quarks Daily)

However, no real change is possible without a change taking place in the army’s obsessive mind-set regarding India, its determination to define and control national security, and its pursuit of an aggressive forward policy in the region rather than first fixing things at home.

It is insufficient for the army to merely acknowledge that its past pursuit of foreign-policy goals through extremist proxies has proven so destructive; it is also necessary for the army to agree to a civilian-led peace process with India. Civilians must have a greater say in what constitutes national security. Until that happens, the army’s focus on the threat from New Delhi prevents it from truly acknowledging the problems it faces from extremism at home.

The army’s track record shows that it cannot offer political or economic solutions for Pakistan. Indeed, the history of military regimes here shows that they only deepen economic and political problems, widen the social, ethnic and class divide, and alienate the country from international investment and aid.

Like Burma, Pakistan appears to be a state that exists to serve military fantasies. At least Burma dispenses with the pretense of democracy.


¶ Michelle Dean unpacks the “Franzenfreude,” and shakes out the possibility that Jonathan Franzen is highly regarded by critics because he’s the best writer to cover what is uncritically understood to be the American Scene. She notes that Mr Franzen himself is not as deluded on this point as his admirers seem to be. (The Awl)

What collective American experience do these critics envision Franzen as describing? I have a suspicion they simply imagine their own white, male, middle class experiences as the “American experience,” because it’s always been presented that way to them, not least in the novels of Updike and Mailer and sometimes Roth that they so often list as favorites. And since Franzen does seem to have a knack for describing that particular strain of the American experience, the critics elide all the issues.¹ As an American resident for just five years, what I left there with was a profound sense that there was very little one could generally say about American culture without profoundly ignoring certain communities, without writing them right out of existence. And I lived in Brooklyn, which, it bears mentioning, is a far more diverse borough than these middle-class white narratives about it might have you believe. And I suspect there are a lot of people there, never mind in the rest of the country, who don’t relate to Franzen’s work, or Jonathan Lethem’s, or David Foster Wallace’s.

That doesn’t mean that people answering to other demographic characteristics can’t like these books. You can relate across chasms of experience and even prejudice—no one can tell you this better than, say, a person of color who’s spent her life studying and loving E.M Forster’s work. But should she always have to? Isn’t it fair for her to ask critics to value for something that speaks more closely to her actual life?

And of course it isn’t necessary, for an individual writer trying to write one good book, to make sure that it represents, in every significant respect, every experience out there under the sun. Yes that’s demanding too much. But it might, indeed, be the task of literary fiction as a whole to continually be revising it’s standards to be sure it’s being as inclusive as it can be. In the age after we’ve realized that white men are not the end-all and be-all of humanity, it seems worth trying to build a canon that says if we are separated from one another by class and race and gender and any number of things, the very least we can do is recognize that in a literature that’s really about “what it is to be human,” every single one of those experiences must be given airtime. It’s not a request; it’s a requirement.

Reading Freedom with the greatest relish, the Editor wishes that more readers would bracket Jennifer Egan with Jonathan Franzen as a smart, generous, comprehensive American writer with a first-class prose style. Ms Egan happens to be white, but even if you can’t have everything you can have a more inclusive pantheon.  


¶ Hats off Andrew Price, for asking “Does Anyone Know What the Point of Prison Is, Anyway?” It’s a very practical question, because only a clear and distinct idea of the point of incarceration will fix our bloated, if not entirely broken, prison system. (Good)

But what is the service that prisons are supposed to deliver? There isn’t much agreement on this question. Most people probably have a vague mix of ideas swimming in their head about what prisons should deliver. Prisons should sequester criminals to protect the public; prisons should provide a deterrent to potential offenders; prisons should rehabilitate; prisons should punish criminals by giving them an unpleasant experience that they “deserve.”

How the hell do we know if prisons are delivering with a mandate like that? The aims of prison, as understood by the public and articulated by politicians, are often contradictory, or at least apparently so. Do therapeutic rehabilitation programs compromise the deterrent effect of prison, or make the punitive element too weak? Do punitive policies make it hard to rehabilitate?


This total lack of clarity about the service prisons are providing, combined with the twisted economic incentives of guards’ unions and the opportunistic fearmongering of politicians, has created a system of punishment that’s totally divorced from the public interest. It’s a problem for public and private prisons alike.

Have a Look

¶ Flat Plans. (The Best Part)