Daily Office:
Wednesday, 20 October 2010


¶ Although the word “honor” is not music in our ears, we read Kwame Anthony Appiah’s reflections on national and familial honor with the greatest interest — not least because of Mr Appiah’s almost fantastic parentage. We’re not persuaded, however, to abandon our preference for decency over honor. (Telegraph; via 3 Quarks Daily)

For my father, a proud Ashanti man, the notion that the colonised were psychically damaged, as Fanon supposed, would have been simply comical. The damage colonialism did wasn’t that it drove you crazy, as Fanon, ever the psychiatrist, thought; it was that it dishonoured you, not so much individually (though there were many moments of individual shame for “natives”) but as a people. To gain independence was to re-establish the honour of Ashanti and the other people of what became Ghana.

And when he had a falling out with his old friend Nkrumah, the country’s increasingly autocratic ruler, and ended up imprisoned without charges, he and his fellow political prisoners were disinclined to mute their criticisms. It was, once again, a matter of honour.

The ways in which honour can drive moral change is one of the great lessons I’ve learnt in thinking about the subject and exploring its history. British working-class abolitionists were urged on in the 19th century by the thought that slavery dishonours labour. Chinese mandarins were mobilised by the conviction that footbinding was a stain on China’s good name.

And today? International feminists are engaged in struggles in dozens of nations because honour-killing and female genital cutting and the veil, they think, show contempt for women: fighting these abhorrent “honour practices” itself becomes a matter of honour.

Why, for that matter, are gay and lesbian activists so intent on “marriage equality” at a time when sophisticates have come to regard marriage as positively démodé? Campaigners mention the practical advantages that marriage confers, which are real enough, but everyone knows there’s more to it. Things get clearer when you recall that matrimony is the ultimate “honourable estate”.


¶ If you’re like us, you’ve already got Alex Ross’s Listen to This on your list, if you don’t already have the book itself. Readers less familiar with the inside of Carnegie Hall (where, too, classical music isn’t the only kind on offer, not by a long shot) may be inspired by Jessica Freeman-Slade’s fresh-faced review, at The Millions.

Every music fan, classical or contemporary, will find something to savor in this collection. Among Ross’s subjects are Mozart’s struggle to find emotional balance in his work and his personal life; attempts to revitalize the Los Angeles Philharmonic audience, and the emergence of Western classical music fans in China. His brief portraits of Cobain and Sinatra are fun, but it’s John Luther Adams and the St. Lawrence Quartet who get the rock-star treatment. (He may also make the New York cabaret act Kiki and Herb the hottest ticket in town.) His essay on Radiohead could sit with the best of Rolling Stone’s think-pieces, except Ross has the ear for the band’s classical roots. “The doubling of the theme, a very Led Zeppelin move, has thunderous logic, as if an equation had been solved. The interplay was as engaging to the mind as anything that had been done in classical music recently, but you could jump and down to it.”

The one previously unpublished essay, and the highlight of the book, will blow the minds of even the best-read music aficionados. “Chacona, Lamento, Walking Blues” is Ross’s study of the basso lamento, a repeating bass line meant to represent sorrow across multiple styles of music, from the earliest flamenco melodies to modern-day blue riffs. (He points the reader to both Bach’s 1714 cantata “Weinen, Klagen, Sorgen, Zagen” and Skip James’s “Devil Got My Woman” as viable examples of this weepy progression.). He traces this melodic marker not only as a strand of sonic DNA across different genres, but as a narrative device that marks storytelling from different kinds of musical authors. (The book’s illustrative playlist is available on iTunes for $20.00, or you can go to the book’s website to sample mentioned songs for free.) It would be a shame to read Ross’s criticism without your headphones on: his description of Marian Anderson’s voice is lush and accurate—“caressing little slides from note to note and a delicately trembling tone adding human warmth”—, but one has to listen to the recording to get the full effect. His affection or derision is so perfectly pitched, you want to run to your radio, your iPod, whatever source you prefer, to share in his enthusiasm.


¶ In a chummy little piece at The Reformed Broker, “Blogging on the Shoulders of Giants,” Joshua Brown pulls a coy tent over fellow admirers of the hedge fund superstars — all the while warming up some crocodile tears about the hit that a few of them are taking on Bank of America, and how much it hurts no matter what they say.

A post I wrote yesterday about the reflationista hedge funds with big positions in Bank of America spread like wildfire.  John Paulson, David Tepper and mutual fund manager Bruce Berkowitz all have monstrous stakes in BofA, as a play on the recovery of housing and employment over the intermediate to long-term but my take was that this mortgage fraud issue hit them like a ton of bricks.

Over on CNBC’s NetNet blog, my pal John Carney disagrees with me, saying that the government will sweep this issue under the rug before these hedge fund shareholders even bat an eyelash.  Teri Buhl has her take up at Forbes in which she says I am wrong about these hedge funds fretting because they are looking out to 2012 and beyond for their investment theses to play out.  Further, she asserts, they have such low cost averages in BAC shares that any volatility is unimportant.

While I respect both Buhl’s and Carney’s take, they are both wrong.

They are each missing the fact that regardless of what the government does or what price BAC trades at in 2 years, a lot of damage has already been done in a short period of time.  As someone who has been running money for a decade, I can promise you that when Bank of America trades from 19 to 11 in 6 months, a 40% suicide dive against a market that is flat to up, these guys feel it -  regardless of what their pr flacks say to reporters.  You can’t not feel that and nobody running a multi-billion dollar hedge fund with their name on the door is ever “unconcerned” with an unknown like Foreclosuregate.

Okay, “crocodile tears” is mean. We’re sorry.


¶ The idea that opposition makes people intransigent, advanced by Leon Festinger half a century ago, has only now been tested, and not only demonstrated but proved in a way that supports our intuitive (as yet untested) view that calm and security are essential for civilized life. In conversational terms, this means that doubt and uncertainty must be handled with great tact. Ed Yong reports, at Not Exactly Rocket Science.

In their first experiment, Gal and Rucker asked 88 students to write about their views on animal testing for consumer goods, but only half of them were allowed to use their preferred hand. This may seem random, but previous studies have shown that people have less confidence in what they write with the hand they’re less comfortable with. Indeed, that’s what Gal and Rucker found in their study. When asked later, the volunteers who didn’t use their dominant hand were less confident in their views.

However, they were also more likely to try and persuade others of those same views. When they were asked to write something to persuade someone else about their opinions, those who felt less confident wrote significantly longer missives. With a sliver of doubt in their minds, they spent more effort in their attempts at persuasion.

Gal and Rucker also found that this extra effort vanished if the volunteers had a chance to affirm their own identity beforehand. If they were asked to identify their favourite items (books, cities, songs and so on) before writing about animal testing, the choice of hand had no effect on their advocacy attempts. If they were asked to say what their parents’ favourite things were, the hand effect reappeared.


¶ Something wrong with the world of late: Choire Sicha hasn’t been writing very much. (Or we have been missing it.) We’re reminded of this regrettable deficit by his warm appreciation of that excellent motion picture, Jackass 3D, which we’re going to run out and see on his recommenda — oh. (The Awl)

And the Jackass franchise could have gone either way. In this strange world of theirs, almost always utterly woman-less, packs of boys-swiftly aging into old man-boys-live among the ruins of technology. There are things with motors, things with engines. It is possible, the boys decide, to use the power of these machines in ways unintended, and so they skip through a primer on the laws of inertia and gravity and physics as a test of what comedy is, and what bodies are, putting into practice the kinds of ideas that occur when we are waking up from a nap and have a strange and stupid idea. (You know how it is when you wake up suddenly: Why is all the furniture on the floor, you think-How shortsighted, there are walls and a ceiling too!)

When they are not looking outside, at things that are bouncy or blowy or exploding-ey, they are looking at themselves, in the manner of all boys in their bedrooms. What’s most telling about the Jackass franchise to me is how they move without transition from issues of social embarrassment (dressing up as old people and ruining things) to technology-play (motors and engines) to bodies (specifically, barf and shit).

It’s the barf and shit that does me in-I’m the great Victorian holdout when it comes to this. I am being left behind by our forward-looking times. In the near future, we’ll all crap together. People will throw up in the streets and on the subways, and no one will think anything of it! Men will pee together in little pots in the streets of Berlin and Philadelphia!


¶ What’s surprising about Christopher Hitchens’s essay on Hezbollah in Lebanon is his suprirse that paternalism orders society effectively. He makes it sound like a dark art, instead of the hardy cultural survival that it is. (Slate)

A depressingly excellent book on the contours of that new reality is provided by Thanassis Cambanis. A Privilege To Die lays out the near-brilliant way in which Hezbollah manages to be both the party of the downtrodden and the puppet of two of the area’s most retrograde dictatorships. Visiting Beirut not long after Hezbollah had been exposed as an accomplice to Syria and as the party that had brought Israel’s devastating reprisals upon the innocent, I was impressed, despite myself, by the discipline and enthusiasm of one of Nasrallah’s rallies in the south of the city. Cambanis shows how the trick is pulled. With what you might call its “soft” power, the Party of God rebuilds the shattered slums, provides welfare and education, and recruits the children into its version of a Boy Scout movement, this time dedicated to martyrdom and revenge. With its “hard” power, it provides constant reminders of what can happen to anyone who looks askance at its achievements. Its savvy use of media provides a continual menu of thrilling racial and religious hatred against the Jews. And its front-line status on Israel’s northern frontier allows it to insult all “moderate” regimes as poltroons and castrati unwilling to sacrifice to restore Arab and Muslim honor. Many Sunni Arabs hate and detest Hezbollah, but none fail to fear and thus to respect it, which Nasrallah correctly regards as the main thing.


¶ Raynard Seifert reviews Padgett Powell’s The Interrogative Mood — or does he? (HTMLGiant)

Do you know exactly what is meant by E=Mc2 and do you grasp its significance? Did you know that Albert Einstein was one of the early detractors to Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle and that he referred to it, sarcastically, as the Copenhagen Interpretation of Quantum Mechanics? Does that strike you as haha? If so, and you are an attractive member of the feminine gender with a steady, high-paying job and a general interest in becoming a ‘patron of the arts,’ will you go on a date with me? Were I to say that I was only joking, what degree of truth would you place on that? When Michel Foucault declared that truth was not a constant but an ever-evolving construct related to and reliant upon systems of power to produce and sustain it, do you think he was getting a lot of ass? Isn’t everything, on some level, mutually exclusive?

Excellent questions all.


¶ We were also  interested to read ” No More Arcs,” Rochelle Gurstein’s lament for the days when the nations of the West, especially the democracies, tried to live up to the glories of Antiquity. It’s not a sentiment that we share.

That we were speculating about the history of the West coming to an end amid the fantastic—decadent—luxury of the Right Bank was not lost on us. All that is left, I announced to my husband, at least to those who still have money these days, is consumption and private pleasures, leisure and tourism. This thought was long familiar to me—as a historian, I am fully aware of the historical developments that made the private sphere the locus of individual happiness—but in lovely, perfected Paris, it hit me with greater intensity. I understood better than ever before what Hannah Arendt meant when she wrote about the undermining of the civic humanist idea of politics—the exercise of civic liberty by participating in self-rule among equals—by “the rise of the social”: “We see the body of peoples and political communities in the image of a family whose everyday affairs have to be taken care of by a gigantic nationwide administration of housekeeping.”

We’ll take housekeeping over the celebration of conquest any day!

Have a Look

¶ Alida Valli. (Who knew the bed was green?) (Stirred, Straight Up, With a Twist)

¶ Living in: Rear Window. (Design Sponge)

¶ Economy Candy. (The Awl)