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How can hierarchical structures benefit equality among people?

Edited by Brigid Hains

Brought to you by, an Aeon partner

The modern West has placed a high premium on the value of equality. Equal rights are enshrined in law while old hierarchies of nobility and social class have been challenged, if not completely dismantled.

Few would doubt that global society is all the better for these changes. But hierarchies have not disappeared. Society is still stratified according to wealth and status in myriad ways. (Follow the set of privileges trail)

The idea of a purely egalitarian world in which there are no hierarchies at all would appear to be both unrealistic and unattractive. Still very few would want to eliminate all hierarchies, for we all benefit from the recognition that some people are more qualified than others to perform certain roles in society.

We prefer to be treated by senior surgeons not medical students, get financial advice from professionals not interns. Good and permissible hierarchies are everywhere around us.

Yet hierarchy is an unfashionable thing to defend or to praise.

British government ministers denounce experts as out of tune with popular feeling; both Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders built platforms on attacking Washington elites; economists are blamed for not predicting the 2008 crash (they are no scientific professionals); and even the best established practice of medical experts, such as childhood vaccinations, are treated with resistance and disbelief (when vaccines are laced with viruses to decimate unwanted populations to grab their lands?).

We live in a time when no distinction is drawn between justified and useful hierarchies on the one hand, and self-interested, exploitative elites on the other.

As a group, we believe that clearer thinking about hierarchy and equality is important in business, politics and public life. We should lift the taboo on discussing what makes for a good hierarchy.

To the extent that hierarchies are inevitable, it is important to create good ones and avoid those that are pernicious. It is also important to identify the ways in which useful and good hierarchies support and foster good forms of equality.

When we talk about hierarchies here, we mean those distinctions and rankings that bring with them clear power differentials. (Especially public privileges in education, healthcare, bureaucratic facilitations…)

We are a diverse group of scholars and thinkers who take substantively different views on many political and ethical issues. Recently, we engaged in an intensive discussion of these issues under the aegis of the Berggruen Philosophy and Culture Center in Los Angeles, and we found ourselves agreeing on this:

much can be said in defence of some kinds of hierarchy.

The ideas we present here are at the very least worthy of more widespread and serious attention. All of this takes on a new urgency given the turn in world politics towards a populism that often attacks establishment hierarchies while paradoxically giving authoritarian power to individuals claiming to speak for ‘the people’.

What then, should be said in praise of hierarchy?

First, bureaucratic hierarchies can serve democracy. Bureaucracy is even less popular these days than hierarchy. Yet bureaucratic hierarchies can instantiate crucial democratic values, such as the rule of law and equal treatment.

There are at least 3 ways in which usually hierarchical constitutional institutions can enhance democracy:

by protecting minority rights, and thereby ensuring that the basic interests of minorities are not lightly discounted by self-interested or prejudiced majorities;

by curbing the power of majority or minority factions to pass legislation favouring themselves at the expense of the public good; and

by increasing the epistemic resources (could this term be clarified?) that are brought to bear on decision-making, making law and policy more reflective of high-quality deliberation.

Hence democracies can embrace hierarchy because hierarchy can enhance democracy itself.

Yet in recent decades, these civic hierarchies have been dismantled and often replaced with decentralised, competitive markets, all in the name of efficiency.

This makes sense only if efficiency and effectiveness (usually assumed to be measured in economic terms) are considered the overriding priorities.

But if we make that assumption, we find ourselves giving less weight to values such as the rule of law, democratic legitimacy or social equality (health and safety of products and services?).

Hence, we might sometimes prefer the democratically accountable hierarchies that preserve those values even over optimal efficiency.

Hierarchical constitutional institutions are often criticised for not being directly accountable to the electorate but it is too crude to think of democratic accountability as requiring such an immediate link.

Ultimate accountability is consistent with a large degree of proximate insulation from direct electoral accountability. (Not clear. Good to be insulated or Not from public accountability?)

Apart from their civic importance, hierarchies can be surprisingly benign in life more broadly. Hierarchy is oppressive when it is reduced to a simple power over others. But there are also forms of hierarchy that involve power with, not over.

Daoism characterises this kind of power effectively in the image of riding a horse, when sometimes you have to pull, and sometimes let go. This is not domination but negotiation. In Daoism, power is a matter of energy and competence rather than domination and authority. In this sense, a hierarchy can be empowering, not disabling.

Take the examples of good relationships between parents and children, teachers and students, or employers and employees. These work best when the person higher in the hierarchy does not use that position to dominate those lower down but to enable them to grow in their own powers.

A common Confucian ideal is that a master ought to aim for the student to surpass him or her. Confucian hierarchies are marked by reciprocity and mutual concern. The correct response to the fact of differential ability is not to celebrate or condemn it, but to make good use of it for the common pursuit of the good life.

Inequalities of status and power can therefore be acceptable to the extent that these inequalities are embedded in relationships of reciprocity and mutual concern, and conducive to the advancement of those lower in the hierarchy. This would fit with the Daoist conception of a power that is not a form of domination but that aims at empowering those over whom it is exercised.

As well as being empowering, hierarchies should be dynamic over time. Hierarchies are often pernicious not because they distinguish between people, but because they perpetuate these distinctions even when they are no longer merited or serve a good purpose. In short, hierarchies become ossified.

There might be reasons, for example, to appoint people on merit to positions of power, such as to Britain’s House of Lords. Historically, however, this has often led to people not only retaining that power when they have ceased to deserve it personally, but also passing it on to their children.

All legitimate hierarchies must allow for changes over time in order for them not to lead to the unjust accumulation of power. This is built into the age-based hierarchies endorsed by Confucians, since the young will eventually rise to take on the elevated status and authority of the old.

To protect against abuse by those with higher status, hierarchies should also be domain-specific: hierarchies become problematic when they become generalised, so that people who have power, authority or respect in one domain command it in others too.

Most obviously, we see this when holders of political power wield disproportionate legal power, being if not completely above the law then at least subject to less legal accountability than ordinary citizens. Hence, we need to guard against what we might call hierarchical drift: the extension of power from a specific, legitimate domain to other, illegitimate ones.

This hierarchical drift occurs not only in politics, but in other complex human arenas. It’s tempting to think that the best people to make decisions are experts. But the complexity of most real-world problems means that this would often be a mistake. With complicated issues, general-purpose competences such as open-mindedness and, especially, reasonableness are essential for successful deliberation.

Expertise can actually get in the way of these competences. Because there is a trade-off between width and depth of expertise, the greater the expert, the narrower the area of competence. Hence the best role for experts is often not as decision-makers, but as external resources to be consulted by a panel of non-specialist generalists selected for general-purpose competences.

These generalists should interrogate the experts and integrate their answers from a range of specialised aspects into a coherent decision. So, for example, parole boards cannot defer to one type of expert but must draw on the expertise of psychologists, social workers, prison guards, those who know the community into which a specific prisoner might be released, and so on. This is a kind of collective, democratic decision-making that makes use of hierarchies of expertise without slavishly deferring to them.

But are hierarchies compatible with human dignity?

It’s important to recognise that there are different forms of hierarchy as there are different forms of equality. The UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights says in Article 1: ‘All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights.’

It is entirely compatible with this equal dignity that some should be honoured more than others. In other words, we can acknowledge that individuals differ from one another in embodying excellence of various sorts, and these various forms of human excellence elicit from us a special kind of positive regard that philosophers call ‘appraisal respect’. Appraisal respect is a form of esteem that we have for those who display certain excellences: for example, for their high moral character, or their great skill in argument.

Since excellences are intrinsically comparative, people will inevitably be ranked through these appraisals, and so to honour someone is to regard them as (in some particular respects) better than people who embody or advance the value less. Equality here seems conceptually out of place.

One reason why hierarchy is offensive to the modern, egalitarian mind is that it implies deference to those higher up than them. But if the idea that deference can be a good thing seems shocking, then so be it. Philosophy should upset and surprise us.

Hierarchy can be understood as a signal as to when deference – deferring to others – is expected. Good hierarchies signal the right kinds of deference, oppressive hierarchies demand the wrong ones.

Of course, deference can go too far, with very bad consequences. The Confucian call for ‘distinction’ between husbands and wives, for example, has lent itself to the support of an oppressive, hierarchical social system of gender relations. But the fact that deference is bad in excess does not mean it is wrong in due measure.

There are various reasons to think that deference, when due, is good. Accepting that others know more or can do more than us communicates and enables an openness to learning and growth. It allows us to access what the philosopher Li-Hsiang Lisa Rosenlee at the University of Hawai‘i calls ‘the complex web of human relations in which the knowledge of the past is passed on from the elderly to the young’.

Deference expresses a recognition of one’s finite and fallible nature, communicates both to oneself and to others the centrality of relationality to one’s identity and wellbeing, contributes to fluid – and even graceful or beautiful – social functioning.

Deference requires acknowledging that we are not all equal in our excellences. But even if we grant that some people embody human excellence more than others, or that there is some kind of ‘order of rank’ among human beings, we should be careful to notice how little follows from this, especially in the political sphere.

For a start, human excellence takes multiple forms, which means that there might be any number of ways that a person could exhibit excellence, even if they are in general ‘average’. We just don’t know what people might be able to contribute, so we ought to give everyone the benefit of the doubt that they contain the potential for excellence in some sphere of life.

Second, despite our difference in abilities, humans are equal in all that fundamentally matters for ascribing value to life. We are all members of the human species, and our common humanity includes important features worthy of protection. That there are some legitimate rankings of human beings does not mean that those who are closest to the bottom of some of them are not also above a certain threshold that makes them worthy of full respect.

Politics ought to reflect this. A political system such as democracy, which embodies political equality, gives each person the benefit of the doubt that she is as likely as anybody else to embody some form of human excellence.

Hierarchies based on expertise are currently under criticism; hierarchies based on age are positively unfashionable. However, gerontocracy has underappreciated merits, and can provide a rather subtle mix of egalitarian and meritocratic benefits. Historical analysis of Qing China, for example, suggests that gerontocratic hierarchies resulted in a high representation of lower-income groups among political elites.

This was simply because life expectancy did not differ much by income, which meant that village elders comprised a representative cross-section of society. Of course, what has been true in the past might not be true in the future, and the structure of society around the world has changed so much that this correlation would not hold if we tried to replicate it today. For example, now that wealth significantly enhances life span in many countries, a true gerontocracy would under-represent lower-income groups.

Gerontocracy is often associated with paternalism, which has become another dirty word. Political paternalism can be defined as coercive interference with autonomy. This form of hierarchy is generally regarded with great suspicion for very good reason: many authoritarian governments have disregarded the interests of the people under the pretence of acting in them. But there might be a justification for at least some forms of this, as paternalism can, in fact, foster autonomy.

The reasoning here is that autonomy requires two things: first, to know what is best and, second, the ability to live according to this knowledge without being sidetracked or disabled by our own irrationality. Both conditions are hard to meet. Up to early modern times, many philosophers believed that humans were, for the most part, imperfectly rational and thus could not fully understand what was best, and all psychologists accept that we have very limited control over the irrational elements of our nature.

Good paternalistic interventions, on this view, take two forms. They disseminate knowledge of what is best in forms that are accessible to imperfectly rational agents. And they might habituate individuals’ irrational impulses from an early age such that they later collaborate in the implementation of reason’s prescriptions.

Such interventions are justified only to the extent that they ultimately enable us to act more autonomously. That they might is suggested by Aristotle’s theory of habituation, which says that to live well we need to cultivate the habits of living well. Hence, being required habitually to act in certain ways, especially while young, might, paradoxically, enable us to think more rationally for ourselves in the long run.

Modern psychology lends some support to this view, since it suggests a need to provide appropriate environments to foster good and just decision-making. Both Confucians and modern psychologists understand that human behaviour has two main roots: inner sources such as character traits, and external features of the particular situations in which we find ourselves.

Paternalistic hierarchy might then benefit individual autonomy. And hierarchy has one final benefit. Although it would seem to be divisive, hierarchy can promote social harmony. Many cultures justifiably place a high value on communal harmony. This involves a shared way of life, and also sympathetic care for the quality of life of others.

Excessive hierarchy works against this, creating divisions within societies. Indeed, in a sense, hierarchy always brings with it the threat of tension, since it is a condition in which one adult commands, threatens or forces another to do something, where the latter is innocent of any wrongdoing, competent to make decisions, and not impaired at the time by alcohol, temporary insanity, or the like. But the goal of preserving communal life means that hierarchy might be justifiable if – and only if – it is the least hierarchical amount required, and likely either to rebut serious discord or to foster a much greater communion. This is a minimalist justification that only ever sanctions the least amount of hierarchy necessary.

We can find echoes of such endorsements of harmony-enabling hierarchies in many traditional African societies, as well as in Confucian-influenced cultures in the East. If we look beyond theory and to practice, it also seems evident that some version of this principle justifies hierarchy in many Western cultures too. Think of how the police are given authority over others in the name of keeping the public peace.

Some of these ideas about hierarchy will no doubt be received more favourably than others. There will also be disagreement – as there is among ourselves – about whether we simply need to be clearer about the value of some hierarchies, or whether we need more of them in certain domains.

Hierarchy has been historically much-abused and it is the understandable fear of being too enthusiastic about hierarchy that makes some queasy about talking about its merits. Nonetheless, we think it important to put these ideas forward as an invitation to begin a much-needed conversation about the role of hierarchy in a world that is in many ways now fundamentally egalitarian, in that it gives equal rights and dignity to all.

However, it clearly does not and cannot give equal power and authority to all. If we are to square the necessary inequality that the unequal distribution of power entails with the equally necessary equality of value we place on human life, it’s time to take the merits of hierarchy seriously.

Stephen C Angle

is professor of philosophy at Wesleyan University. He has written and edited many books on Chinese philosophy, including Sagehood: The Contemporary Significance of Confucian Philosophy (2012). He lives in Middletown, CT.

Kwame Anthony Appiah

is professor of philosophy and law at New York University.

Julian Baggini

is a writer and founding editor of The Philosophers’ Magazine. His latest book is The Virtues of the Table (2014).

Daniel Bell

is professor of philosophy at Tsinghua University in Beijing, China.

Nicolas Berggruen

is chairman of The Berggruen Institute, an independent, non-partisan think tank which develops ideas to shape political and social institutions. He lives in Los Angeles, CA.

Mark Bevir

is professor of political science at the University of California, Berkeley.

Joseph Chan

is professor of politics and public administration at the University of Hong Kong.

Carlos Fraenkel

is professor of philosophy and jewish studies at McGill University in Montreal, Canada.

Stephen Macedo

is professor of politics at Princeton University in New Jersey.

Michael Puett

is professor of Chinese history at Harvard University in Massachusetts.

Jiang Qian

is an independent scholar living in Cleveland, Ohio.

Mathias Risse

is professor of philosophy and public policy at Harvard University in Massachusetts.

Carlin Romano

is professor of philosophy and religious studies at Ursinus College in Pennsylvania.

Justin Tiwald

is associate professor of philosophy at San Francisco State University in California.

Robin Wang

is professor of philosophy at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles, CA.

Inside the Growing Movement of Women

Who Wish They’d Never Had Children

It’s unthinkable, and it’s definitely unspeakable, but women all over the world are coming forward to say it: I regret having my children.

Neuroscientists Can Now Read Your Dreams With a Simple Brain Scan

Like islands jutting out of a smooth ocean surface, dreams puncture our sleep with disjointed episodes of consciousness. How states of awareness emerge from a sleeping brain has long baffled scientists and philosophers alike.

For decades, scientists have associated dreaming with rapid eye movement (REM) sleep, a sleep stage in which the resting brain paradoxically generates high-frequency brain waves that closely resemble those of when we’re awake.

Yet dreaming isn’t exclusive to REM sleep.

A series of oddball reports also found signs of dreaming during non-REM deep sleep, when the brain is dominated by slow-wave activity—the opposite of an alert, active, conscious brain.

Now, thanks to a new study published in Nature Neuroscience, we may have an answer to the tricky dilemma.

By closely monitoring the brain waves of sleeping volunteers, a team of scientists at the University of Wisconsin pinpointed a local “hot spot” in the brain that fires up when we dream, regardless of whether a person is in non-REM or REM sleep.

“You can really identify a signature of the dreaming brain,” says study author Dr. Francesca Siclari.

What’s more, using an algorithm developed based on their observations, the team could accurately predict whether a person is dreaming with nearly 90 percent accuracy, and—here’s the crazy part—roughly parse out the content of those dreams.

“[What we find is that] maybe the dreaming brain and the waking brain are much more similar than one imagined,” says Siclari.

The study not only opens the door to modulating dreams for PTSD therapy, but may also help researchers better tackle the perpetual mystery of consciousness.

“The importance beyond the article is really quite astounding,” says Dr. Mark Blagrove at Swansea University in Wales, who was not involved in the study.

The anatomy of sleep

During a full night’s sleep we cycle through different sleep stages characterized by distinctive brain activity patterns.

Scientists often use EEG to precisely capture each sleep stage, which involves placing 256 electrodes against a person’s scalp to monitor the number and size of brainwaves at different frequencies.

When we doze off for the night, our brains generate low-frequency activity that sweeps across the entire surface. These waves signal that the neurons are in their “down state” and unable to communicate between brain regions—that’s why low-frequency activity is often linked to the loss of consciousness.

These slow oscillations of non-REM sleep eventually transform into high-frequency activity, signaling the entry into REM sleep. This is the sleep stage traditionally associated with vivid dreaming—the connection is so deeply etched into sleep research that reports of dreamless REM sleep or dreams during non-REM sleep were largely ignored as oddities.

These strange cases tell us that our current understanding of the neurobiology of sleep is incomplete, and that’s what we tackled in this study, explain the authors.

Dream hunters

To reconcile these paradoxical results, Siclari and team monitored the brain activity of 32 volunteers with EEG and woke them up during the night at random intervals. The team then asked the sleepy participants whether they were dreaming, and if so, what were the contents of the dream. In all, this happened over 200 times throughout the night.

Rather than seeing a global shift in activity that correlates to dreaming, the team surprisingly uncovered a brain region at the back of the head—the posterior “hot zone”—that dynamically shifted its activity based on the occurrence of dreams.

Dreams were associated with a decrease in low-frequency waves in the hot zone, along with an increase in high-frequency waves that reflect high rates of neuronal firing and brain activity—a sort of local awakening, irrespective of the sleep stage or overall brain activity.

“It only seems to need a very circumscribed, a very restricted activation of the brain to generate conscious experiences,” says Siclari. “Until now we thought that large regions of the brain needed to be active to generate conscious experiences.”

That the hot zone leaped to action during dreams makes sense, explain the authors.

Previous work showed stimulating these brain regions with an electrode can induce feelings of being “in a parallel world.” The hot zone also contains areas that integrate sensory information to build a virtual model of the world around us. This type of simulation lays the groundwork of our many dream worlds, and the hot zone seems to be extremely suited for the job, say the authors.

If an active hot zone is, in fact, a “dreaming signature,” its activity should be able to predict whether a person is dreaming at any time. The authors crafted an algorithm based on their findings and tested its accuracy on a separate group of people.

“We woke them up whenever the algorithm alerted us that they were dreaming, a total of 84 times,” the researchers say.

Overall, the algorithm rocked its predictions with roughly 90 percent accuracy—it even nailed cases where the participants couldn’t remember the content of their dreams but knew that they were dreaming.

Dream readers

Since the hot zone contains areas that process visual information, the researchers wondered if they could get a glimpse into the content of the participants’ dreams simply by reading EEG recordings.

Dreams can be purely perceptual with unfolding narratives, or they can be more abstract and “thought-like,” the team explains.

Faces, places, movement and speech are all common components of dreams and processed by easily identifiable regions in the hot zone, so the team decided to focus on those aspects.

Remarkably, volunteers that reported talking in their dreams showed activity in their language-related regions; those who dreamed of people had their facial recognition centers activate.

This suggests that dreams recruit the same brain regions as experiences in wakefulness for specific contents,” says Siclari, adding that previous studies were only able to show this in the “twilight zone,” the transition between sleep and wakefulness. (Why be surprised? What other brain regions could be activated?)

Finally, the team asked what happens when we know we were dreaming, but can’t remember the specific details. As it happens, this frustrating state has its own EEG signature: remembering the details of a dream was associated with a spike in high-frequency activity in the frontal regions of the brain.

This raises some interesting questions, such as whether the frontal lobes are important for lucid dreaming, a meta-state in which people recognize that they’re dreaming and can alter the contents of the dream, says the team.

Consciousness arising

The team can’t yet explain what is activating the hot zone during dreams, but the answers may reveal whether dreaming has a biological purpose, such as processing memories into larger concepts of the world.

Mapping out activity patterns in the dreaming brain could also lead to ways to directly manipulate our dreams using non-invasive procedures such as transcranial direct-current stimulation.

Inducing a dreamless state could help people with insomnia, and disrupting a fearful dream by suppressing dreaming may potentially allow patients with PTSD a good night’s sleep.

Dr. Giulo Tononi, the lead author of this study, believes that the study’s implications go far beyond sleep.

“[W]e were able to compare what changes in the brain when we are conscious, that is, when we are dreaming, compared to when we are unconscious, during the same behavioral state of sleep,” he says.

During sleep, people are cut off from the environment. Therefore, researchers could hone in on brain regions that truly support consciousness while avoiding confounding factors that reflect other changes brought about by coma, anesthesia or environmental stimuli.

“This study suggests that dreaming may constitute a valuable model for the study of consciousness,” says Tononi.

Image Credit: Shutterstock

Now, using an algorithm, a team of scientists say they can predict if a person is dreaming with nearly 90 percent accuracy, and roughly parse out the content of those dreams.

Like islands jutting out of a smooth ocean surface, dreams puncture our sleep with disjointed episodes of consciousness. How states of awareness emerge…

John Steinbeck’s Tortilla Flat is not for ‘literary slummers’

This story of easygoing, thirsty paisanos was an immediate hit with readers who found the characters ‘quaint’, and made the author regret his creation

Tortilla Flat was the book that made John Steinbeck’s name – and his fortune. By the time it was published in May 1935, he’d managed to publish four other books, but they had been poorly received.

He was in his 30s, close to the breadline, living in a house his father had given him and largely dependent on his wife’s paychecks.

And then the reviews started rolling in for Tortilla Flat.

The San Francisco Chronicle called it “exceptionally fine”. “Not since the days of WW Jacobs making his charming characters out of scoundrels has there been a book quite like this one,” said the New Republic.

The Spectator suggested that the book might make “a wet afternoon wetter for its readers”, as they cried both with laughter and sadness. The Saturday Review admired its “facile style and the whimsical humour underlying its sharp and clear-cut presentation of character”.

And so it went on. The book sold in huge quantities, the film rights were bought and Steinbeck was properly launched. Soon he would produce classics including Of Mice and Men and The Grapes of Wrath.

Surprisingly, he was also soon regretting writing the story of central character Danny and his bibulous housemates. “When this book was written it did not occur to me that paisanos were curious or quaint, dispossessed or underdoggish. They are people whom I know and like, people who merge successfully with their habitat,” he wrote in a 1937 edition foreword.

“Had I known that these stories and these people would be considered quaint, I think I never should have written them.”

The problem was that the paisano inhabitants were, as Thomas Fensch explains in his introduction to the Penguin Modern Classics edition, judged “to be bums – colourful perhaps, eccentric yes, but bums nonetheless”.

Steinbeck continued: “I wrote these stories because they were true stories and because I liked them. But literary slummers have taken these people up with the vulgarity of duchesses who are amused by and sorry for a peasantry. These stories are out, and I cannot recall them. But I shall never again subject to the vulgar touch of the decent these good people of laughter and kindness, of honest lusts and direct eyes, of courtesy beyond politeness. If I have done them any harm by telling a few of their stories, I am sorry. It will not happen again.” Perhaps mindful of drawing even more attention to the paisanos, Steinbeck soon withdrew that foreword.

His upset seemed strange to me when I read Tortilla Flat last week.

Like other “literary slummers” before me, I worried about those innocent and honest saints, their strange moral code and their lack of ambition. Perhaps I even saw “bums”.

These weren’t such big concerns for me when I first read the book in my early 20s.

I remember delighting in the paisanos’ ignorance of the scourge of work, their heroic dedication to sharing ever more wine together, and their ability to live under the same roof in simple harmony.

This time around, I found myself worrying about their hygiene and their livers and how they were going to support themselves in retirement. I still laughed at the episode where a woman proudly pushes around a vacuum cleaner that isn’t attached to any electrical circuits. I enjoyed the eventual revelation that the machine didn’t even have a motor.

I took Steinbeck’s point about the absurdity of overvaluing material possessions. But I also worried about the dust in the house and the fact that the woman still had to tidy by hand.

Through such concerns, I realised that the book held up a mirror to my own ageing.

I wasn’t entirely delighted. It was hard not to feel a pang for the younger man who would have enjoyed staying up all night with Steinbeck’s paisanos – and who also would have been as receptive to the pleasures of the world.

Would I still be able to let an afternoon grow on me “as gradually as hair grows”? Would I be as overcome by the simple beauty of my surroundings as these men often are – and count seeing other people going about their business as fulfilment enough for a day?

But the second reading also brought its compensations.

I wasn’t as spellbound as I was before: sometimes the book seemed crude and silly. And I wouldn’t be a Guardian journalist if I hadn’t worried about its sexual politics, and the few horrible moments of casual racism. But I also saw new depths.

Then, I mainly saw the book as a funny celebration of life outside the mainstream; now, I couldn’t help thinking that while Steinbeck wanted to deny that his characters were bums, he doesn’t celebrate their lives quite as wholeheartedly as he suggests in that 1937 foreword.

Similarly, while the book may (as Thomas Fensch says) have offered “escapism and entertainment” during the Great Depression, it also has sadness at its heart. It is not, as some have suggested, a happy book with a surprisingly tragic ending.

It’s one that pushes inevitably towards darkness. Right from the start, Danny is on the run from responsibility, horrified by the idea of house ownership, settling down, or even living within the constraints of the law.

His friends help distract and shelter him from reality, but cannot keep him from it for ever. Clocks may be eschewed in Tortilla Flat, but time marches on. Danny is still ageing. And now I’ve gone through more of my own journey into adulthood, I saw his fears more clearly.

I also felt I had a better understanding of his tragedy. As a younger reader, I understood the sadness of the book’s final chapters and Danny’s decision to fly roaring into the depths of the gulch near his house. But my older self also knows what he’d be missing thanks to that decision. It gave the book a poignancy I hadn’t felt before. Even if Danny is a bum, he’s also a complex and haunted man.


“Bajazet” of Racine

You have Ottoman Sultan Amurat who assassinated one of his brother and about to assassinate the younger brother Bajazet. A third brother Ibrahim is simple of spirit and is saved because he does Not constitute a threat for succession. Actually, the successor will be a son of Ibrahim.

Amurat is leading the army and put siege on Babylon. The grand vizier in Istanbul dread the return of Amurat from war because he is liked by the janissaries, contrary to their loyalty to the current Sultan.

Amurat broke the law and appointed Roxane as Sultana in his absence before she gives him a son: Thus Roxane is Not yet married to Amurat.

Amurat sent Roxane a secret order to assassinate Bajazet and the Grand Vizir drowned the messenger in order Not to leave a witness to the order.

Grand Vizir has a master plan to declare Bajazet Sultan and disseminate falsehoods to Roxane et notables about the status of the war and the predicaments of Amurat.

He also plan to marry Atalide, close relative of Amurat and Bajazet in order to retain his power. Atalide and Bajazet are in love since childhood: Bajazet’s mother brought them up together until adolescence.

The Grand Vizir entice Atalide to let Roxane believe that Bajazet loves her in order to delay the execution of the order. Roxane falls in the scheme and starts to believe that she loves Bajazet and that her love is reciprocal without meeting Bajazet personally.

“L’ingrat ne parle pas comme on le fait parler”

Finally, Roxane decides to clear her emotions and summons Bajazet to express his feelings. In case Bajazet  seems unwilling to marry her, she will execute the order.

The trick is that Atalide grew up with Bajazet and they are crazily in love.

“Ah! L amour a- t-il tant de prudence?

Mais qu’aisément l’amour croit tout ce qu’il souhaite

(Roxane) Ne put voir sans amour ce héros trop amiable…


How Israel treats Palestinian prisoners: 1,500 are on hunger strike

It is to be noted that 30% of Palestinian prisoners are youth, detained administratively without trial and for many months.

The following essay is a chapter of “Shadow of a Wall” (Zol al jidaar, 1997).  The letter of Palestinian prisoner Barghouthy to New York Times is worth reading.

Mortada Al-amine posted on FB

إضراب عن الطعام
كان العشاء قد وُزِّعَ أمام الأبواب المغلقة، تمهيداً لإدخاله إلى الزنازين، حين تردّدت في فضاء المعتقل كلمة “الإضراب”. لا أحد يعرف من أطلقها، ولكن الجميع كانوا جياعاً؛ وكانت كميّة الطعام الداخلة إلى الزنزانة بالكاد تشبع واحداً من نزلائها الستة.
يشتعل المعتقل بالكلمة. وتتناثر مطالب الزنازين في الفضاء المحدود.. ويتنقّل شباب “الكلفة” ــــ وهم معتقلون مهمّتهم توزيع الطعام ــــ بين الزنازين، لتوحيد المطالب والصفوف. والشرطة لاهية عن ذلك في الخارج.. في داخل كل زنزانة، ينعقد مجلس صغير للبحث في ما يمكن المطالبة به: طعام.. حمام.. دخان.. شمس.. أدوية.. زيارات..

ويقول أحدكم: “مشط”.. تثير الكلمة سخرية. كانوا يحلقون لكم دورياً كل شهرين، وهي فترة ما كانت تسمح للشعر بأن ينمو.. تنبّهونه إلى هذا الأمر، فلا يتراجع، ويضيف مطلباً جديداً: “أن لا يحلقوا لنا إجبارياً”.. كان ذلك نوعاً من الكماليات.. تنصرفون عنه. شيئاً فشيئاً تتكوّن اللائحة. تحتوي على الضروري من المطالب. ويتمّ الاتفاق: لن يدخل الطعام إلى الزنازين إلاّ إذا لُبِّيَتْ كل المطالب. لا مكان لأيّ وعود.
يجيء الشرطي ويبدأ فتح الأبواب لإدخال الطعام. كان الترقّب يلفّ المعتقل بالصمت. يقول معتقل في الزنزانة الأولى مخاطباً الشرطي: “لن نأكل حتى يحضر المسؤول الإسرائيلي!”. لا يقول الشرطي شيئاً.. وعند الزنزانة التالية يقولون له نفس الشيء.

يسأل عندئذٍ بصوت مرتفع: “من يريد أن يأكل؟”.. ويجيئه الرد فورياً: “لن نأكل حتى يحضر المسؤول الإسرائيلي!”.. يغادر الشرطي المعتقل بهدوء ولا مبالاة. يقول أحد المعتقلين: “سيأتون الآن لإدخال الطعام بالقوّة!”. تمرّ دقائق، وتجيء مجموعة من رجال الشرطة مدجّجة بالسلاح، وفي أيديهم هراوات يلوّحون بها في تهديد واضح.. يتجوّلون بين الزنازين..

يسألون عن أسباب الإضراب، ويحدّقون في الوجوه. يهمس القديم، ذو الخبرة: “يبحثون الآن عن أضعفنا لينفذوا من خلاله.”.. فوراً يجدونه. يدور حوار قصير مع الشرطي على مسمع من الجميع. كان الكل قلقين. على موقف هذا السجين يتوقّف مصير الإضراب. لم يكن السجين حاسماً، ولكنه قال في اختصار أنه لن يأكل إلاّ إذا كانت كمّية الطعام كافية لإشباعه.. يفتح الشرطي باب الزنزانة ويأمره بالخروج.. يصفعه على وجهه طالباً منه أن يأكل. لم يجب السجين. صفعة ثانية. يقول: “لن آكل إلاّ إذا شبعت!”.. ينهال عليه بالهراوة، والشتائم.. يقول السجين جملته القصيرة، ولا يأكل.

يعيده الشرطي إلى الزنزانة ويغلق الباب. يغمر الارتياح المعتقل. مرّت المرحلة الأصعب. ستعرف إدارة المعتقل الآن، أن هذا إضراب جدّي. يخرج رجال الشرطة، وترسل كل الزنازين تحياتها إلى الزنزانة التي صمدت. كانت المعنويات مرتفعة، وصار الخوف شيئاً منسياً. يقول ذو الخبرة: “سيجيئون الآن بوجوه كالزئبق.”. يدخل إلى الرواق إثنان من رجال الشرطة. هادئان.. لطيفان.. يؤكّدان على أحقّية مطالبكم.. و”أنهم” يشعرون معكم.. و”أنهم” كانوا ينتظرون هذا الإضراب منذ زمن.. “تأخّرتم عن المطالبة بحقوقكم..” يقولان.. “ولكن عليكم أن تفهموا أن الأوامر تأتي من الداخل.. من إسرائيل.. لا شيء يُبَتُّ هنا.”.. لذلك :”أمهلوا الإدارة.. ستنقل طلباتكم إلى المعنيّين لدراستها”.

أما الآن “فأدخلوا الطعام.. جعتم طويلاً، فلا بأس بأسبوع آخر..”. لم تلْقَ محاولاتهما ترحيباً. إهتزّ صمود البعض بالكلام المعسول، ولكن سرعان ما عدتم إلى الإلتفاف من جديد. “لا بأس. سوف ننتظر قرار الداخل”، تقول الزنازين. يخرج الشرطيان في سخط. ويقول ذو الخبرة: “سيتركوننا الآن للجوع وللوقت”.. “يعني، لن يزيدوا الطعام؟”.. يسأله أحدكم.. فيجيب في ثقة: “سيزيدونه بالقدر الذي نريد.. نحن الآن من يقرّر!”.
يطول انتظاركم. ويقف كثيرون محدّقين إلى الطعام المرمي أمام الأبواب، متحسّرين: “لندخله قبل أن يسحبه الذباب”.. يدخل شرطي: “عيّنوا لجنة من شخصين لمحاورة الإدارة”. ترفضون طلبه بالإجماع.. “هذا شرك لتفتيتنا”. يقول صاحبكم الخبير، محذراً.. يعود رجال الشرطة إلى ممرات المعتقل. يضربون الأرض بأقدامهم، فترنّ في قراغ الممرات مهدّدة.. كانت وجوههم متغضّنة بالحقد. تقابلونهم ببرود. لم تعد حركاتهم تعني شيئاً. ويقول صاحبكم: “لقد حملوا سلاحهم في وجه سلاحنا الذي شهرناه..”. تسألونه: “وأيّ سلاح نملك نحن العزّل؟”.. يقول: “العصيان”.
كانت حركات رجال الشرطة تزيد المعنويات ارتفاعاً. وكنتم واثقين من أن مطالبكم ستلبّى. فجأة، يعلو همس.. جاء الضابط الإسرائيلي. يقف رجال الشرطة بلا حراك. يختفون بالنسبة إليكم، فلا يعود لهم وجود. في كل مرة يأتي فيها الإسرائيلي، كانوا يذوبون. يصيرون لا شيء. ويسيرون خلفه كظلّه، في انتظار إشارة منه أو أمر. وكنت تستغرب: أين تروح كل قسوتهم وعجرفتهم.. وكيف يقبلون هذا الذلّ؟.. أما أنتم فكنتم تقفون قبالة الإسرائيلي وقوف الند. تطلبون. تناقشون ما يعرضه عليكم، وترفضون إغراءاته.. لكم شروطكم التي سيرضخ لها.. وكان رجال الشرطة يحسّون بهذا الفارق، فيخجلون من النظر إلى عيونكم.. وكنتم تزدادون إيماناً، ويذوب الحديد والأبواب والأقفال في شعور عارم بالثقة والاعتزاز. يقول صاحبكم: “سيمرّ الضابط على كل الغرف مهدّداً، ولكنه سيقبل في النهاية شروطنا”. كل المعتقل كان يعرف هذا الضابط. وهو كان يعرف كل المعتقل.. يذكر كلّ الوجوه.. وتفاصيل كل قضية بصغائرها.

وكانت قبضته، مثل ذاكرته قوية. ولكنكم الآن لا تخشون ذاكرته ولا قبضته.. تقفون عند أبواب زنزاناتكم، فيحدّق فيكم واحداً واحداً. يحاول أن يسخر فتجيء سخريته باهتة.. لا تثير ابتساماً إلاّ عند المتزلفين.. وهو يعرفهم ولا يأبه لهم. يقف ببابكم. خلفه ظلّه. ظلاله. خلفه لا أحد. يقول ببطء: “من لا يأكل، يموت”. لا تجيبون. يتطلّع مجدّداً ويقول: “من لا يأكل، سيموت في السجن..”. كانت كلماته تهديداً فارغاً بلا معنى. ينصرف إلى زنزانة ثانية. يدور على المعتقل بكامله. يعدكم بالنظر في المطالب: “فقط، أمهلوني إلى الغد”.. “سننتظر حتى الغد بدون طعام”.. يغضب. يقول أنه وعد. وأن الإسرائيلي يفي بوعوده، ولا يعرف الكذب. كان يشير إلى وعود مدير السجن اللبناني، التي أكلتها عقارب الساعة واحداً بعد الآخر. ذاب المدير خلف سيّده، ولم يدخل الطعام. يزمجر الضابط الإسرائيلي، وينصرف. كان المعتقلون في أوج المعركة صامدين. كانت المعركة قد انتهت.. وبدا النصر واضحاً.
يجيء رجال الشرطة. يخرجون “الكلفة” من جديد. يوزّعون طعاماً إضافياً. كان السرور عارماً. لأول مرة تأكلون كفايتكم. ويودّع بعضكم الجوع، مترحماً على أيامه.. ولكن صاحبكم الخبير يقول في هدوء: “كلوا الآن.. واعلموا أن الغد سيحمل جوعاً من جديد!..”.
من كتاب “ظل الجدار” ـــ 1997

Access a database of 70,000 books banned around the world going back to 1575

Soon the world will have a massive physical monument to censorship.

This year, Argentine artist Marta Minujín will open an installation built from books, all of which were banned around the world at some point in history.

The “Parthenon of Books,” a re-creation of her 1983 installation in Buenos Aires, will be unveiled in June at art festival documenta in Kassel, Germany.

Minujín and her team worked with researchers from the University of Kassel to identify book bans of regimes past.

The resulting list, which will help books be vetted for the installation, names around 72,000 forbidden titles going back to the 1500s.

The list, last updated in January, highlights extensive censorship in Nazi Germany, 18th-century Austria, and the Soviet Union, and draws on a huge list of banned books kept by the Catholic Church from 1559 to 1966.

It would be “simply impossible” to create a comprehensive list for all regimes for all of time, says Florian Gassner, who co-leads the project. But the list does contain a fascinating smattering of censorship attempts from the rest of the world:

In China where the state continues to censor political discourse, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll was also restricted in 1931.

In the 1970s, books by Karl Marx and Fidel Castro were banned in Argentina, as well as El Principito (Le Petit Prince) by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry.

During the country’s period of extensive censorship in the 1970s and ’80s, the government banned a host of children’s books, including those of icon María Elena Walsh, whose songs and poems criticized the Argentina dictatorship.

During the 1940s, Canada restricted Norman Mailer’s The Naked and the Dead, while the Soviet Union banned George Orwell’s 1984.

The University of Kassel database also shows that in 1870s United States, Giovanni Boccaccio’s Decameron and Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales were both banned from sale for their obscene material under the Comstock Laws.

The project aims to collect 100,000 books to build the installation. Anyone can donate books for consideration, but only those legal in Germany will be included.




May 2017
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