Five polemical books set to be election season conservative bestsellers

As Ann Coulter begins the publicity tour for her new book, Mugged, we preview five other titles sure to be rightwing hits
As the conservative firebrand™ Ann Coulter begins the publicity tour for her new book Mugged: Racial Demagoguery from the Seventies to Obama, we preview some other rightwing titles tipped to be among the season’s polemical bestsellers:
FURY: The Angry Rage of Barack Obama, by Dinesh D’Souza
In public, Barack Obama, the son of a leftwing Kenyan economist, maintains an eerily calm demeanour. insider accounts of the Obama White House suggest that he’s similarly unflappable in private; indeed, many of Obama’s leftwing critics have assailed him for being too conciliatory and conflict-averse. But in this devastating expose, the serious academic Dinesh D’Souza, president of the world-renowned Well-Respected College For Serious Academics, reveals the truth: behind Obama’s facade – unknown to his closest aides, his wife and children, or even to Obama himself – the president is angry, burning with a boiling anti-colonialist desire to subjugate America. Based on hundreds of hours of extensive daydreaming, FURY leaves the reader in no doubt that President Obama, who as you may know is black, is also very, very angry – as a direct result of his furious rage.
I KNOW YOU ARE, BUT WHAT AM I? by Jonah Goldberg
In this pathbreaking work of scholarship – a tour-de-force in the style of his bestseller Liberal Fascism – National Review writer Goldberg turns conventional wisdom on its head. Did you think the Nazis were rightwing? Actually, they were leftwing. Were you under the impression that the Democrats were the party of civil rights? Actually, that was the Republicans. Did you think that you should vote for Obama? Actually, you should vote for Romney. Do you think Jonah Goldberg is a contrarian for the sake of it? Actually, he’s vociferously opposed to contrarianism. True to the spirit of Goldberg’s worldview, the spine of this book is to the right of the pages, rather than to the left, the words can only be read if reflected in a mirror and the best way to enjoy it is not to buy it.
PUNK’D!!! Conservative Arguments to Drive Liberals #@!**?@ Crazy!, by SE Cupp and Greg Gutfeld
A book for butt-kicking, red-blooded conservatives who just don’t care how much liberals hate the fact that they love hunting with guns, eating red meat or dressing up in combat gear and pretending that the guest bedroom is a Marine training camp! In PUNK’D!!!, gun-totin’, right-leanin’, final-letter-of-words-omittin’ MSNBC commentator SE Cupp (author of Why You’re Wrong About the Right) and hilarious Fox News humorist Greg Gutfeld team up to show that liberals aren’t going to stop conservatives going hunting, or thinking about how it would probably be quite exciting to go hunting, or pretending that they went hunting once!
This book is sure to annoy the “politically correct” brigade, whose opinions Cupp and Gutfeld certainly don’t care about! They really couldn’t care less if leftwingers are outraged by what they’ve got to say! Not in the slightest! Really! (Important note: while reading this book, be sure to imagine that thousands of liberals have also bought it, for inexplicable reasons, and are being enraged by it, otherwise the entire premise collapses.)
DISTORTION: Fighting The Publishing Industry’s Liberal Lies, Communist Contortions and Socialist Spin, by Bernard Goldberg
Goldberg, a former CBS producer, shot to fame in 2001 when he published Bias, an impassioned account of how leftwing bias made it impossible for conservative voices to be heard in America. As if to prove his point, the book became a New York Times No 1 bestseller, but only for several weeks – and although Goldberg was interviewed in many news outlets, not one liberal publication dedicated an entire issue to his work. In this latest text, which has already sold 3m copies on pre-order, he shows how liberal tyranny has made it impossible to publish a conservative-leaning book in the United States.
Be inspired to live the life of abundance that God intended for you. In this special audiobook package, Osteen, the televangelist and pastor of the Lakewood megachurch in Houston, Texas, offers one spiritually enriching thought for each day of the year. In some of the days leading up to 5 November, it might occasionally sound like he’s coughing and saying “Vote Republican” at the same time – in some sort of subliminal message – but he isn’t. He is just inspiring you to live the life of abundance (and heterosexuality) that God intended for you.

Oliver Burkeman 26.9.2012



A Treasure Trove of Edward Gorey

All images courtesy of the Edward Gorey Charitable Trust

Edward Gorey: ‘Lady Under Elephant Table’ (aka ‘Table Pausing Over a Lady’), 1977
While working in the Anchor/Doubleday art department in the 1950s, the illustrator and writer Edward Gorey discovered a long-forgotten cache of material by an earlier artist, the Krazy Kat creator George Herriman. These were Herriman’s original drawings for Don Marquis’s book about a poetry-writing cockroach and his cat companion, Archy and Mehitabel. In a 1999 interview with Steven Heller, Gorey recalled:
I could scream now, because nobody knew they were there, and I anguished but finally took three of them…. You can’t believe how much stuff there was…you know, old book jackets from the ’20s, the ’teens. Nobody paid any attention to it.

Gorey’s cover for an issue of The Kenyon Review, 1966

As Herriman’s drawings aroused Gorey’s impulse to preserve them, so the work of Gorey—who illustrated fifty-odd covers for the Anchor paperback series and would go on to create more than a hundred witty and macabre books of his own—arouses ours today. For the drawings he made throughout his life capture “a whole little personal world,” as Edmund Wilson put it: “equally amusing and sombre, nostalgic at the same time as claustrophobic, at the same time poetic and poisoned.” A number of recent exhibitions and editions of his books suggest a renewed interest in his legacy.
Gorey’s work tends to combine whimsically grim story lines with dour yet dancerly protagonists. Whether they are Edwardian ladies, fur-coated gentlemen, ill-fated children, or unusual animals, his characters are almost always on some kind of journey. His stories often unfold in wallpapered rooms, on barren estates, or among statues, beast-shaped topiaries, and urns. “Few seem to return from the borders to which I’ve sent them,” he wrote to Peter Neumeyer, with whom he collaborated on three children’s books in the late 1960s. (Their correspondence has recently been collected in an absorbing, elegantly illustrated book, Floating Worlds.) Perhaps this is what gives Gorey’s work its talismanic power: his books and drawings, which are so often about imagined deaths and disasters, turn into lucky charms for his readers.

An invitation to the opening night of Dracula and an after-theater dinner party, 1977

In addition to his own books and his covers for Anchor, Gorey—who died in 2000 at the age of seventy-five—illustrated some sixty books for other writers, including Edward Lear’s The Jumblies, several collections of John Ciardi’s children’s verse, and Muriel Spark’s The Very Fine Clock. Gorey also designed the sets and costumes for a Broadway production of Dracula, illustrated the opening sequence of the PBS show Mystery!, made drawings for the New York City Ballet and the Metropolitan Opera, and for many years drew limited-edition Christmas cards for the publisher and rare books dealer George Bixby, who sent them out annually to his clients (they now often sell for hundreds of dollars apiece).
While many Gorey aficionados own a handful of his treasures, few have amassed a collection as large and comprehensive as that of the architect and attorney Andrew Alpern. The author of nine books of his own, including the Goreyesque Alpern’s Architectural Aphorisms, Alpern spent over fifty years collecting more than seven hundred Gorey-related books and souvenirs and stored them wherever he could in his one-bedroom Manhattan apartment. In 2010 he donated the entire collection to Columbia University’s Rare Book and Manuscript Library, where more than five hundred of the objects are on display until August 10 in the exhibition “Gorey Preserved.”
Curated by Alpern himself along with the library’s curator for the performing arts, Jennifer B. Lee, this gloriously overloaded exhibition has the potential to convert even an Aimlessly wandering visitor into a Zealously devoted Gorey fan, and is bound to delight those who already recognise these adverbs from Gorey’s abecedarium The Glorious Nosebleed. It is chock-full of everything from books, postcards, photographs, and newspaper clippings to T-shirts, pot holders, mugs, and plastic party cups—all decorated with Gorey’s illustrations. There are some original drawings, etchings, and prints here as well—including a rare edition of Elefantômas, his set of nine extraordinary elephant collagraphs, which are displayed alongside eleven of his exquisite elephant etchings—but the exhibition’s unmistakable emphasis is on the printed permutations of Gorey’s work and its transformation into a breathtaking trove of tchotchkes.

One of Gorey’s elephant etchings, 1985

Take, for example, the case housing Gorey’s artwork for Dracula. Near an original ink drawing of Dracula with a swooning Lucy are photostats of Gorey’s ink and water-colour sketches for the set and costume designs; posters and playbills from the performances; T-shirts, postcards, buttons, and stickers decorated with his drawings; a silver Dracula pendant; several books about vampires with cover illustrations by Gorey; a pop-up book based on Gorey’s sets; a New York Times Magazine article called “Gorey Goes Batty”; and a pair of stuffed-animal bats with thirteen-inch wingspans made out of cross-hatch-patterned cloth. Also included are a newspaper column about a wallpaper pattern adapted from Gorey’s Dracula designs, a magazine advertisement for same, and real samples of the cloth and vinyl damask, inviting visitors to imagine a life within four walls papered with Gorey’s vampiric illustrations.

The rest of the exhibition is nearly as eclectic. But one of its most impressive aspects is that, along with so much ephemera, it includes almost every edition of every book that Gorey wrote and illustrated, both under his own name and under his anagrammatic pseudonyms. Thus visitors can see a first edition of his first book, The Unstrung Harp—which depicts, in Edmund Wilson’s words, “the boredom, the monotony, the impermeable solipsistic confinement of the life of the professional writer”—as well as copies of the French and Japanese versions of The Epiplectic Bicycle, and a section dedicated to what might be Gorey’s most beloved book: The Gashlycrumb Tinies, in which twenty-six children with names from A to Z die in twenty-six different ways: by awl, by brawl, by ennui.
A drawing from an engagement calendar based on The Gashlycrumb Tinies, 2003

Especially tantalising are several rare letterpress editions of Gorey’s miniature books, The Eclectic Abecedarium and QRV (each a rhyming verse homage to moral primers of earlier centuries), complete with tiny slipcases smaller than matchboxes. Also on display are almost-as-rare editions of Gorey’s Exquisite Corpse–like books, including Les Échanges Malandreux, whose pages of drawings and text are cut into strips that can be mixed and matched to create different creatures and tell different stories. One longs to open them up and play with the possible combinations. Luckily, this will be possible for visitors to the library once the books have been catalogued and rejoin the permanent collection.
A postcard from the Interpretive Series, 1979

Gorey treated language playfully in all of his texts, hand-lettering the type, and he created many illustrated alphabet books, several of which are in the exhibition. Not on Modern Architecture’s Dark Side display is a particular favourite, one of his “thoughtful alphabets” called The Deadly Blotter, whose plot races forward letter by letter, from “Alarming behaviour” to “Corpse” to “Detective enters.” Instead of his usual finely detailed cross-hatching, Gorey used dense blocks of black and white for these illustrations, creating lean characters who drape themselves over drawing-room furniture and point their fingers in all directions while offering “Helpful irrelevancies” and “Likely motives.”
Another of Gorey’s magical word creations is his “Interpretive Series” of Dogear Wryde postcards, devoted solely to the letter I. All thirteen cards are elaborately displayed in the exhibition, giving viewers a chance to take pleasure in Gorey’s drawings of a lizard-like beast enacting “Inquisitiveness,” “Indolence,” “Inconstancy,” “Ineptitude,” “Inanity,” and eight other mostly unflattering nouns. It’s hard not to be smitten with these playful postcards, each of which was hand-painted by Gorey after being printed.
‘Christmas Tiger,’ from FMRA, 1980

Animals, both real and invented, live large in Gorey’s work, perhaps none more so than his cats. Gorey loved cats at least as much as he loved the ballet—for thirty years he spent half of each year in Manhattan during ballet season—and his anthropomorphic renderings of them are everywhere in the exhibition: peeking out from his books, posing on buttons for the “New York Kitty Ballet,” relaxing contentedly on a cat-patterned cravat, and emerging into being in a charming sketch from one of Gorey’s notebooks (on loan from the Edward Gorey Charitable Trust). “Cats share with ballet dancers the quality of graceful movement,” Gorey told Cats Magazine in 1978. “As an artist, I find their expressions endlessly and frustratingly fascinating.” Perhaps this is why most of his cats wear bewitching smiles; whether they are standing atop a unicycle or leaning against a gravestone, they seem carefree and sprightly, in happy contrast to Gorey’s more Gothic creations.
Gorey contributed a number of drawings to The New York Review of Books, including original artwork for every anniversary cover from 1978 to 1998 (two years before he died). None of them appear in “Gorey Preserved,” but many of the clippings are preserved in Alpern’s scrapbooks. Especially noteworthy is Gorey’s Les Mystères de Constantinople: La Malle Saignante, a farcical romp whose characters include a young leading lady, a baron, an ambassador, an alligator, and Ahududu, an unlikely villain apparently carved from wood. It was serialised in the Review in 1975; its heroine, according to Gorey’s close friend Alison Lurie, “was thought by some to resemble one of the NYR’s editors.”
The opening panel of Les Mystères de Constantinople, from a 1975 issue of The New York Review

It may surprise Review readers and Gorey fans alike to learn how far back his link to the magazine’s founders goes. Gorey first met the Review’s co-founding editor Barbara Epstein—who died in 2006—in the late 1940s, when he was at Harvard and she was at Radcliffe; and as a young editor at Doubleday in the early 1950s, she and her future husband, Jason Epstein, another founder of the Review who was then launching the Anchor paperback series, invited Gorey to work in the art department. Barbara Epstein recalled Gorey’s Anchor cover illustrations to Stephen Schiff in a 1992 New Yorker profile: “They were beautiful, ravishing. He worked very slowly, with a tremendous perfectionism, and he would never let a drawing out of his hands if it was less than perfect.”
Gorey’s Anchor cover for André Gide’s Lafcadio’s Adventures, 1953

Alpern’s Gorey collection began in about 1957 with one of those Anchor books: André Gide’s novel Lafcadio’s Adventures, whose cover was the first that Gorey illustrated for the series. Around the same time, Alpern bought Gorey’s second published book, The Listing Attic, a set of illustrated limericks. However, it was in the mid-1970s that his efforts became systematic. On a visit to the Gotham Book Mart in Midtown, Alpern bought a little book of Gorey’s on sale by the cash register. Andreas Brown, the bookstore’s owner, began to let Alpern know when Gorey would be making appearances at the store, where Brown frequently exhibited his work, and from then on, Alpern bought every new book that Gorey published, along with special editions of etchings and other artwork—as well as every Gorey-illustrated curiosity that came along.
In 1980, Alpern joined with George Bixby in an act of true collectors’ devotion to produce a limited edition of Gorey miscellanea. They gathered together an eclectic set of Gorey’s one-of-a-kind illustrations in a clamshell box, typed out a contract for him to sign, and asked him what to call the collection. Gorey spontaneously titled it, with the sound of the word “ephemera” in mind, FMRA—writing the letters down on a piece of paper for his enthusiastic publishers.
Today a growing number of Gorey cognoscenti are working to keep Gorey’s work permanently in print and in the public eye. More than fifty of his books and miscellany are currently available from Pomegranate, which plans to release new editions of The Osbick Bird and Thoughtful Alphabets: The Just Dessert & The Deadly Blotter this fall; and New York Review Books has also brought some of his collaborations back into print. Drawings from his archives continue to appear in magazines like the Review, in articles ranging from contemporary fiction to the Internet. Several Gorey-lovers have posted digitised versions of his books on YouTube.
An envelope that Gorey sent to Peter Neumeyer in 1968, introducing characters for their 1970 book Why We Have Day and Night (from Floating Worlds)

Meanwhile, in addition to “Gorey Preserved,” at least two other Gorey exhibitions are now on view: “Elegant Enigmas: The Art of Edward Gorey,” at the Norton Museum of Art in West Palm Beach (which features a substantial number of original drawings and is accompanied by a wonderful catalog); and “Edward Gorey’s Envelope Art,” at the Edward Gorey House in Cape Cod (which includes some of the envelopes he sent to Peter Neumeyer). Andreas Brown, who is now a representative of the Edward Gorey Charitable Trust, has been helping Gorey’s collectors find institutional homes for their valuable holdings—one or two even larger than Alpern’s—so that they will be archived and made accessible to scholars and the public. Gorey’s own enormous library of some 25,000 books has been acquired by San Diego State University, which already holds a rich collection of Gorey material and hosted a major exhibition of his work in 2004.
A postcard of the Doubtful Guest, from Leaves from a Mislaid Album, 1972

Shortly after Gorey’s death, Alison Lurie—to whom Gorey dedicated one of his most enchantingly discomfiting tales, The Doubtful Guestwrote, “Often, characters in Gorey’s books who die or disappear leave only a void behind: empty cross-hatched streets and withered formal gardens and rooms with strange wallpaper.” But for Gorey fans and addicts—who, with all this Goreyana now abounding, will have mounds of material to admire for years to come—Lurie’s closing words ring true: “We are luckier.”
“Gorey Preserved” is on view at Columbia University’s Rare Book and Manuscript Library in New York City until August 10, 2012.
Eve Bowen New York Review of Books. 5.8.2012

The Price of Inequality by Joseph Stiglitz

The ancient Greeks had a word for it – pleonexia – which means an overreaching desire for more than one’s share. As Melissa Lane explained in last year’s Eco-Republic: Ancient Thinking for a Green Age, this vice was often paired with hubris, a form of arrogance directed especially against the gods and therefore doomed to fail. The Greeks saw tyrants as fundamentally pleonetic in their motivation. As Lane writes: “Power served greed and so to tame power, one must tame greed.”
In The Price of Inequality, Joseph E Stiglitz passionately describes how unrestrained power and rampant greed are writing an epitaph for the American dream. The promise of the US as the land of opportunity has been shattered by the modern pleonetic tyrants, who make up the 1%, while sections of the 99% across the globe are beginning to vent their rage. That often inchoate anger, seen in Occupy Wall Street and Spain’s los indignados, is given shape, fluency, substance and authority by Stiglitz. He does so not in the name of revolution – although he tells the 1% that their bloody time may yet come – but in order that capitalism be snatched back from free market fundamentalism and put to the service of the many, not the few.
In the 1970s and 80s, “the Chicago boys”, from the Chicago school of economics, led by Milton Friedman, developed their anti-regulation, small state, pro-privatisation thesis – and were handed whole countries, aided by the International Monetary Fund (IMF), on which to experiment, among them Thatcher’s Britain, Reagan’s America, Mexico and Chile. David Harvey’s A Brief History of Neoliberalism describes how the democratically elected Salvador Allende was overthrown in Chile and the Chicago boys brought in. Under their influence, nationalisation was reversed, public assets privatised, natural resources opened up to unregulated exploitation (anyone like to buy one of our forests?), the unions and social organisations were torn apart and foreign direct investment and “freer” trade were facilitated. Rather than wealth trickling down, it rapidly found its way to the pinnacle of the pyramid. As Stiglitz explains, these policies were – and are – protected by myths, not least that the highest paid “deserve” their excess of riches.
In 2001, Stiglitz, a former chief economist at the World Bank, and arch critic of the IMF, won the Nobel prize for economics for his theory of “asymmetric information”. When some individuals have access to privileged knowledge that others don’t, free markets yield bad outcomes for wider society. Stiglitz conducted his work in the 1970s and 80s but asymmetric information perfectly describes the Libor scandal, rigging the interest rate at a cost to the ordinary man and woman in the street. Stiglitz details the profound consequences not just of the current financial meltdown but of the previous decades of neoliberal interventions on the incomes, health and prospects of the 99% and the damage done to the values of fairness, trust and civic responsibility.
In the process, Stiglitz methodically and lyrically (almost joyously) exposes the myths that provide justification for “deficit fetishism” and the rule of austerity. If George Osborne is depressed at the ineffectiveness of Plan A, he should turn to Stiglitz’s succinct explanation on page 230 to feel truly miserable. Cutting spending, reducing taxes, shrinking government and increasing deregulation destroys both demand and jobs – and doesn’t even benefit the 1%.
For roughly 30 years after the second world war, the 1% had a steady share of the US cake. In the five years to 2007, however, the top 1% seized more than 65% of the gain in US national income. In 2010, their share was 93%. This did not create greater prosperity for all (myth number one). On the contrary, much of this gain was “rent seeking”, not creating new wealth but taking it from others; a modern wild west. In the last three decades, the bottom 90% in the US (figures that resonate in the UK) have seen their wages grow by 15%. The 1% have seen their wages increase by 150%. Another myth is that bloated salaries are necessary to retain high achievers. Except, as Stiglitz points out, the rewards are more often for failure. The inequality gap is becoming a chasm. Stiglitz demonstrates how, in the US, those born poor will stay poor yet nearly seven in 10 Americans still believe the ladder of opportunity exists.
Stiglitz is one of a growing band of academics and economists, among them Paul Krugman, Michael J Sandel and Raghuram Rajan, who are trying to inject morality back into capitalism. He argues that we are reaching a level of inequality that is “intolerable”. Rent-seekers include top-flight lawyers, monopolists (Stiglitz refers to the illusion of competition: the US has hundreds of banks but the big four share half of the whole sector), financiers and many of those supposed to be regulating the system, but who have been seduced and neutered by lobbyists and their own avarice.
In the “battlefield of ideas”, while governments turn citizen against citizen by demonising, for instance, benefit scroungers, what Stiglitz calls corporate welfare goes unchecked. In 2008, insurance company AIG was given $150bn by US taxpayers – more, says Stiglitz, than the total spent on welfare to the poor in the 16 years to 2006. Stiglitz is a powerful advocate for a strong public sector. He argues for full employment, greater investment in roads, technology, education; far more stringent regulation and clear accountability. Culpable bankers, he says, should go straight to jail.
Gross domestic product is an unsatisfactory measure of progress, he believes. Stiglitz wants to see metrics that include the cost of inappropriate use of resources. He illustrates the price of immiseration and unfairness. Management of Firestone tyres demanded much longer hours and a 30% wage cut. The demand created conditions that led to the production of many defective tyres. Defective tyres were related to more than 1,000 deaths and injuries and the recall of Firestone tyres in 2000. Unfairness affects lives, productivity and, ultimately, Stiglitz warns, the security of the 1%.
The Price of Inequality is a powerful plea for the implementation of what Alexis de Tocqueville termed “self-interest properly understood”. Stiglitz writes: “Paying attention to everyone else’s self-interest – in other words to the common welfare – is in fact a precondition for one’s own ultimate wellbeing… it isn’t just good for the soul; it’s good for business.” Unfortunately, that’s what those with hubris and pleonexia have never understood – and we are all paying the price. .
Yvonne Roberts is an Observer leader writer and a fellow of the Young Foundation

Fear and Literature

Tim Parks

Christopher Anderson/Magnum Photos
A man driving through Catia, a violent slum in Caracas, Venezuela, 2005
Is the novel a space of intense engagement with the world, of risk and adventure? Or is it a place of refuge, of hanging back from life? The answer will be all too easy if we are living in a country that does not allow certain stories to be told. For Solzhenitsyn writing novels was indeed a serious risk. But in the West?
In my last piece in this space I considered the idea that our personalities are formed in communities of origin where one particular polarity of values or qualities tends to dominate—fear or courage, winning or losing, belonging or not belonging, good or evil. As each person seeks to stake out a position for himself in his community and later in the world outside, it will be the position he or she assumes in relation to that polarity that will be felt as the most defining and any problems in establishing such a position (am I a strong person or a weak one, am I part of the group or not?) will be experienced as especially troubling.
Now I want to toss out a provocation: that in the world of literature there is a predominance of people whose approach to life is structured around issues of fear and courage and who find it difficult to find a stable position in relation to those values. Not that they are necessarily more fearful than others, but that a sense of themselves as fearful or courageous is crucial for them and will be decisive in the structuring of both the content and style of their work.
That certain vocations attract a particular character type is evident enough. At the university where I work in Milan, we have two post-grad courses for language students, one in interpreting and one in translation. With some exceptions the difference in attitude and character between members of the two groups is evident. The students who come to translation are not looking to be out there in the fray of the conference, under the spotlights; they like the withdrawn, intellectual aspect of translation. Often their problem as they begin their careers is not so much the work itself, but the self-marketing required to find the work.
It’s also hardly revolutionary to suggest that literature can be seen simultaneously as an adventure and a refuge. Per Petterson’s novels often feature a conflicted, anxious, but would-be courageous character surrounded by reckless friends and enemies. In To Siberia the young female protagonist is excited by images of Siberia she finds in a children’s book and dreams of one day going there. Frightened of wartime developments around her—the novel is set in Denmark—she takes refuge in reading, in fantasizing future adventures, but twice loses her source of books, once when a rich friend who has a library of her own suddenly dies, and once when a lesbian librarian makes aggressive advances at her. The refuge of reading (which is full of virtual adventure) is threatened by real adventure and calamity.
Throughout Petterson’s work the main characters devote a great deal of time to practical tasks that will protect them from all kinds of dangers, or just the weather. They build huts and fires with immense care, because life is perilous, exciting, frightening. In the novel Fine By Me, a bildungsroman about a young Norwegian who looks for a way out of his depressing family situation in a life of writing, Petterson makes explicit that, as he sees it, the craft of writing, of carefully reconstructing life’s precariousness in sentences as solid and unassuming as bricks, is itself a way of building shelter: for those who see danger everywhere, literature is a place of refuge.
We could equally well look at a classic like A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. Stephen is constantly frightened. The first time his name is used, his mother is demanding an apology. Rather than confronting her, he hides under the table. His aunt threatens to pull out his eyes if he doesn’t apologise. A page later he is frightened by the hurly burly of the rugby game. Pretending to participate because afraid of criticism, he actually hides on the edge of his line. The first time we see Stephen happy and relaxed it is on his own in the sick bay where he is no longer obliged to engage in life in any way. Here for the first time we see him quoting lines of poetry, fantasizing, imagining, escaping, and in particular turning an imagined funeral into something beautiful, through words.
Two to sing and two to pray
And two to carry my soul away.
How beautiful and sad that was! How beautiful the words were…
Terrified at Christmas lunch of the quarrel between the nationalist Mr. Casey and the fanatically Catholic Aunt Dante, Stephen focuses on the way the antagonists speak, the words they use, which allows him to keep out of the firing line, and creates an illusion of comfortable distance. Wishing to be a bold adolescent he goes to a prostitute; terrified by a Jesuit sermon on hell, he tries to be chaste and good. Eventually, courageously resisting all claims on his loyalty, he conceives of the vocation of the artist as someone beyond and above the factions. All the same he needs to justify himself imagining that his work will courageously “forge the uncreated consciousness” of his race; disengaging with all parties he will single-handedly, from the safe distance of other countries, change Ireland. He claims. The decision to move to writing can thus be conceived as courageous on the one hand, or motivated by fear of succumbing to forces that terrify him on the other; his writing is a space of refuge, but he insists that it is engaged in changing the world.
Or what about the curious case of Thomas Hardy’s first, unpublished novel? Having courageously left his village home to train as an architect in London, Hardy suddenly retreats to mother in Dorsetshire, pleading fatigue and illness (we have no record of any symptoms) and in 1867, aged 27, writes The Poor Man and the Lady, whose main character Will Strong, a bold Hardy alter ego, courts a rich man’s daughter, is chased away by the family, and launches himself pugnaciously into politics. Hardy described the book as a “dramatic satire of the squirearchy … the tendency of the writing being socialistic, not to say revolutionary.”
There are various accounts about why the novel was never published, but as Hardy has it, publication was offered, but the publisher’s reader, the novelist George Meredith, warned Hardy that the content was explosive and could damage his career. So, afraid of consequences he withdrew it. Courage dominates in the story of the strong-willed Will Strong, but not in Hardy’s dealing with his publishers; he is courageous only in so far as he supposes the work will not intersect with reality. He then set about writing the entirely innocuous comedy Under a Greenwood Tree. Later in his career Hardy did take on Victorian morals very courageously in Tess of the D’Urbervilles and Jude the Obscure, but was so harrowed by the aggressive reviews he received that he chose to stop writing fiction and turned to the much safer production of poetry. “No more novel-writing for me,” he remarked. “A man must be a fool to deliberately stand up to be shot at.”
One could name any number of novels in which the tension between a desire for and fear of intense experience is played out in all kinds of ways: J.M. Coetzee’s Youth and Damon Galgutt’s The Good Doctor are two contemporary novels that immediately come to mind; Coetzee’s characters are often eager to be tested by life, but at the same time afraid that they will be caught out, found to be lacking in courage. Peter Stamm’s novels (Unformed Landscape, On a Day Like This, and Seven Years) suggest how the need to create a narrative for our lives forces us towards moments of risk and engagement, while fear of those moments may lead us to fantasise rather than act, or to become hyper rational and cautious in our decision making. These antithetical energies, towards and away from adventure, are mirrored in the writing itself as Stamm sets the reader up for melodrama, then seems to do everything to avoid or postpone it, as if, like his characters, he would much prefer to plod quietly along with life’s routine, but knows that sooner or later, alas, a writer has to deliver the goods.
So much, then, for a fairly common theme in literature. It’s understandable that those sitting comfortably at a dull desk to imagine life at its most intense might be conflicted over questions of courage and fear. It’s also more than likely that this divided state of mind is shared by a certain kind of reader, who, while taking a little time out from life’s turmoil, nevertheless likes to feel that he or she is reading courageous books.
The result is a rhetoric that tends to flatter literature, with everybody over eager to insist on its liveliness and import. “The novel is the one bright book of life,” D H Lawrence tells us. “Books are not life,” he immediately goes on to regret. “They are only tremulations on the ether. But the novel as a tremulation can make the whole man alive tremble.” Lawrence, it’s worth remembering, grew up in the shadow of violent parental struggles and would always pride himself on his readiness for a fight, regretting in one letter that he was too ill “to slap Frieda [his wife] in the eye, in the proper marital fashion,” but “reduced to vituperation.” Frieda, it has to be said, gave as good as she got. In any event words just weren’t as satisfying as blows, though Lawrence did everything he could to make his writing feel like a fight: “whoever reads me will be in the thick of the scrimmage,” he insisted.
In How Fiction Works James Wood tells us that the purpose of fiction is “to put life on the page” and insists that “readers go to fiction for life.” Again there appears to be an anxiety that the business of literature might be more to do with withdrawal; in any event one can’t help thinking that someone in search of life would more likely be flirting, traveling or partying. How often on a Saturday evening would the call to life lift my head from my books and have me hurrying out into the street.
This desire to convince oneself that writing is at least as alive as life itself, was recently reflected by a New York Times report on brain-scan research that claims that as we read about action in novels the relative areas of the brain—those that respond to sound, smell, texture, movement, etc.—are activated by the words. “The brain, it seems,” enthuses the journalist, “does not make much of a distinction between reading about an experience and encountering it in real life; in each case, the same neurological regions are stimulated.”
What nonsense! As if reading about sex or violence in any way prepared us for the experience of its intensity. (In this regard I recall my adolescent daughter’s recent terror on seeing our border collie go into violent death throes after having eaten some poison in the countryside. As the dog foamed at the mouth and twitched, Lucy was shivering, weeping, appalled. But day after day she reads gothic tales and watches horror movies with a half smile on her lips.)
The same New York Times article quotes Keith Oatley, a cognitive psychologist and, significantly, “a published novelist” who claims that “reading produces a vivid simulation of reality, one that runs on minds of readers just as computer simulations run on computers…. Indeed, in one respect novels go beyond simulating reality to give readers an experience unavailable off the page: the opportunity to enter fully into other people’s thoughts and feelings.”
If Oatley genuinely believes this I suspect he is not a very good novelist, novels being largely about form and convention. Halfway through Seven Years Peter Stamm, who I believe is an excellent novelist, has his narrator describe his oddly quiet and passive mistress thus:
My relationship with Ivona had been from the start, nothing other than a story, a parallel world that obeyed my will, and where I could go wherever I wanted, and could leave when I’d had enough.
Nothing other than a story. How disappointing. How reassuring. The passage seems to be worded in such a way as to suggest the author’s own frustration with his quiet and safe profession. But a mistress is a mistress, and a novel a novel. To ask her or it to be more than that would be to ask the mistress to become a wife, and the novel a life. Which it can never be. 12.05.2011

Dial M for Murdoch by Tom Watson and Martin Hickman

Will the phone-hacking scandal be bigger than Watergate? This is a gobsmacking account of the problems engulfing News International
Even if you are familiar with the News of the World phone-hacking saga, you will be gobsmacked by this account. It is a tale of stupidity, incompetence, fear, intimidation, lying, downright wickedness and corruption in high places. It is constructed like a thriller, with cliffhanging chapter endings and a final section entitled “Darker and darker”. Men and women fear for their lives and their families, remove batteries from their mobiles, keep their blinds down and curtains closed, check their homes for bugging devices, see sinister vehicles in rear-view mirrors, and vary their routes to work each day. Vivid characters hop on and off stage, one of them a former policeman running a private detective agency called Silent Shadow. There’s even a murder. The improbable hero, doggedly pursuing his quarry, is the portly Labour MP Tom Watson – “the tub of lard”, Rupert Murdoch’s papers called him, in the charming way they have with people they don’t like. Rather confusingly, he’s also (with an Independent journalist) the co-author, but referred to throughout in the third person.
The book opens with a quote from Carl Bernstein, one of the Washington Post journalists who unearthed Watergate, comparing phone-hacking to that celebrated scandal. The parallels are indeed close, right down to the allegation that News International (NI) eventually bugged Rebekah Brooks, its own chief executive, just as Richard Nixon bugged his own White House office. In both scandals, dirty work was done by low-level operatives. Paper (or electronic) trails couldn’t establish conclusively that they acted on orders from above. But in phone hacking, as in the Watergate burglary, top people (we still don’t know how near the top the trail will lead) implicated themselves through a systematic cover-up. With a bit of stretch, you could argue that hacking may yet turn out to be bigger than Watergate. Nixon may have been leader of the world’s most powerful nation but he was, so to speak, just a rogue president. The products of Murdoch’s global media corporation, on the other hand, are consumed annually by a billion people, and the hacking cover-up appears to have encompassed not just one political leader but the entire British political establishment, to say nothing of the police, the legal services and much of the media.
What stands out from this book is the lengths to which NI went to bury the hacking scandal and how, before the revelations in July 2011 that Milly Dowler‘s phone was hacked, the company nearly got away with it. Clive Goodman, the NoW’s royal reporter, was jailed in January 2007, along with the private detective Glenn Mulcaire. The police had evidence that Mulcaire’s targets went well beyond the royal family and that, almost certainly, many reporters other than Goodman were involved. Yet no proper investigation followed, and no more arrests until 2011. The police deployed, on different occasions, a range of implausible excuses: they were too busy investigating terrorism; Mulcaire had actually hacked only “a handful” of the phone numbers he held; the law allowed prosecution only where a voice message was intercepted before the owner heard it.
Perhaps they were just frightened. When police raided the NoW offices in the wake of Goodman’s arrest, they faced a hostile, unco-operative and (some thought) potentially violent response. In effect, they were sent packing, and didn’t dare return. As revelations grew, NI’s response was, first, to deny them, second, to put pressure on newspapers and MPs to drop their investigations (pressure that was complemented by the advice of senior police officers) and third, to take further steps to cover its tracks.
In November 2009, NI agreed a policy of deleting “unhelpful” emails from its internal computer system. “How are we doing with the email deletion policy?” asked an anxious senior executive nearly a year later. Around the same time, the company was smashing up reporters’ computers during “a routine technical upgrade”. In January 2011, an email chain to James Murdoch, then chief executive of News Corp Europe and Asia, regarding Gordon Taylor, the footballers’ union official who was paid £645,000 to keep the hacking of his phone out of the public domain, was deleted as part of a “stabilisation and modernisation programme”. Emails were still being deleted up to the NoW’s closure in July 2011, as a technology firm used by NI testified to the home affairs select committee. No wonder a judge in January this year, rejecting a request to halt a search of computers belonging to former NoW employees, said the company should be treated as “deliberate destroyers of evidence”.
All the while, the Murdoch papers and their allies were pooh-poohing hacking stories published by the Guardian and other papers. Roger Alton, executive editor of the Times and a former Observer and Independent editor, compared the NoW’s offences to parking in a resident’s bay; Kelvin MacKenzie, the former Sun editor, to stealing tools from a garden shed. Boris Johnson, mayor of London, described Guardian allegations as “a load of codswallop cooked up by the Labour party” and in April 2011 his aide Kit Malthouse was still pressing Sir Paul Stephenson, the Metropolitan police commissioner, to ignore “political media hysteria”, in Stephenson’s phrase.
NI had allies and clients in the right places. When the Guardian’s Nick Davies published the first stories in 2009 suggesting that NoW hacking was on an industrial scale, both Labour and the Tories were anxiously seeking Murdoch’s backing in the 2010 general election. The NoW had 10 former employees in Scotland Yard’s public affairs department. It had its former editor Andy Coulson in David Cameron’s office. Actors, who were among the main victims of hacking, are biddable people at the best of times and would hesitate to challenge publicly the owner of a Hollywood film studio. As for the fearless seekers of truth in the fourth estate, few wanted to kill for ever their chances of employment on Murdoch’s numerous papers and broadcast news stations in Britain and the US. Whistleblowers? When a former NoW employee spilled the beans to the New York Times, the police interviewed him under caution (by contrast, Coulson was initially questioned only as “a witness”). The whistleblower later died of drink-related disease.
If all else failed, Murdoch’s papers possessed the ultimate deterrent: the threat to investigate and publish details of the private lives of anybody who crossed them. Even those whose cupboards were empty of skeletons feared their families might be vulnerable. That is what gives a dominant media company its unique power: in effect, it can, tacitly if not explicitly, blackmail almost anybody, and it’s no use going to the police because, if they’re not actually being paid by the press, they’re scared too. The fear probably outstrips the reality, but not many risked it. One hostile biography of Rupert Murdoch, published in 2008, was followed by a Murdoch-owned US tabloid exposing the author’s extramarital affair. Neville Thurlbeck, the former NoW chief reporter, told Watson that an editor instructed staff to “find out every single thing you can about every single member” of the Commons media select committee of which Watson was a member. The paper hired Silent Shadow to follow Watson’s every move, and later used the same firm to put lawyers acting for hacking victims under surveillance. Both Andy Hayman and John Yates, the senior Met officers who chose not to challenge NI’s denials of mass criminality at the NoW, are said to have had controversial personal relationships, and both had their phones hacked (though they explicitly denied that fear influenced their decisions).
The saga is nowhere near its end. No sooner does NI settle with one group of hacking victims than more emerge. The prime minister’s loss of Coulson has been followed by a threat to his culture secretary, Jeremy Hunt. Police inquiries have extended to computer hacking, illegal acquisition of private data and corruption of police and other public officials. The number of arrests is closing on the half-century mark. It seems likely that Murdoch and his family will be forced to sell all their British papers, probably their interests in BSkyB and possibly even News Corporation itself. Nothing is forever, not even Murdoch. But nobody can be confident that he won’t bounce back. Many twists in the plot are still to come. This book covers just the first, enthralling instalment. The sequels could be even more dramatic.

Peter Wilby


Exploring groundwater arsenic contamination in Bangladesh

MARCH 9, 2012


Clean water is often taken for granted despite growing evidence that it is threatened in many parts of the world by either environmental contamination and/or socioeconomic problems, such as poverty, which often tend to go hand in hand.  Arsenic contaminated ground water used for drinking and cooking is commonplace in many parts of Bangladesh.  Like other chemical elements known to be poisonous to humans, arsenic is tolerated to some degree, but beyond certain thresholds ingesting arsenic is toxic leading to risk of disease and death.
Arsenic contaminated groundwater currently threatens the health of 70 million people in 61 of 64 districts in Bangladesh.  Many people living in districts plagued with arsenic contaminated ground water regularly drink water with concentrations of arsenic far above national and WHO standards. An important study from Prof Peter Atkins and Dr Manzurul Hassan explores how groundwater arsenic concentration varies throughout areas of southwest Bangladesh.  Understanding the scale of arsenic contamination, the complex processes that lead to arsenic in groundwater and how arsenic spreads over time is currently needed to reduce arsenic-related health risks.  The study reveals a highly uneven spatial pattern of arsenic concentrations that can inform government policy for addressing where high levels of arsenic contamination occur in order to mitigate arsenic poisoning, a health and social hazard.  358 of the 375 tubewells sampled in the study had concentrations of arsenic of at least .05 mg/L and only 17 of the tubewells (4.50 percent) sampled are considered arsenic-safe. This is a large health concern for people living in areas of Bangladesh where the only source of water they have is contaminated with arsenic that is either above or well above the WHO standard (<0.01 mg/L), but also the limit set by the government of Bangladesh (0.05 mg/L).
Using either threshold shows the degree of arsenic contamination tolerated in parts of the country where many people live.  In this study only four tubewells were found to meet the WHO permissible limit.  The average concentration of arsenic for the areas studied is 0.248 mg/L, 25 times higher than the WHO permissible limit.  These concentrations normally varied with depth.
Tubewell depths measured in the study range between 18-200 m.  A deep aquifer is normally above 144.5 m, while a shallow aquifer is equal to or less than this depth.  The samples were taken using an advanced laboratory method to ensure accuracy (FI-HG-AAS).  In the study, these methods have a minimum detection limit of .001 mg/L and are capable of measuring down to .003mg/L which works well for detecting arsenic contamination at or above permissible levels.
The study found arsenic-safe zones in the north, central and south part of the study area in Ghona Union, Satkhira District located in southwest Bangladesh close to the Indian border, but concentrations of arsenic were scattered throughout.  Generally, arsenic-safe zones lie in higher elevations, while the most contaminated areas are low-lying and used for agriculture.  The reason for varied concentrations of arsenic in different parts of the research site may be due to geological influences such as differences in texture of the aquifers and/or aquifer chemistry.  About 46 percent of tubewells are located within 25 m of each other within the study site.
While there are a number of theories as to why there is such large variation in contamination the specific cause is currently unknown.  The pattern of arsenic concentration actually ‘varied considerably and unpredictably over a distance of a few metres’, according to the study.  Arsenic contamination varied with grain-size distribution, which means the concentration was different depending on whether the sediment below the surface consisted of very fine to medium-sized sand grains.  Previous studies have shown a variation in the relationship between grain size and arsenic concentration.  This study found arsenic concentration highest in fine to medium size sand grains.
The study area covers only 18 km2, but has a population of 13,287 (recorded in 1991).  Arsenic contaminated zones were concentrated primarily in the west and northeast parts of the study area.  While contamination zones were found everywhere in the study area, the degree of contamination decreased from west to east.  What few safe zones exist are concentrated in the south.  Modelling used in the study revealed that less arsenic was found for tube wells at greater depths, but in some cases low levels of arsenic were found in deep aquifers and there is no guarantee that they cannot be contaminated with arsenic in time.  Other studies have shown that older wells tend to have a probability of higher arsenic concentrations.  A previous study found that only 1 percent of tubewells deeper than 200 m have arsenic above .05mg/L, the WHO standard, but in the study from Hassan and Atkins 75 percent of deep tube wells were above this threshold for arsenic-safe drinking water.  While greater depth is still important in terms of accessing arsenic-safe water, arsenic has been found to be wholly absent at depths less than 5 m, particularly in dug wells.
While this study along with others finds that multiple levels of arsenic contamination are present at different depths and are dependent on geological factors, more research is needed on how arsenic moves through ground water systems within different areas of Bangladesh.  Whether the variation in local geology is the main cause of the measured differences in arsenic concentration is still an open question.  If answered, it can likely assist government, NGOs and communities in addressing the arsenic problem at a much greater scale than at present.
References and Further Reading:
Application of geostatistics with Indicator Kriging for analysing spatial variability of groundwater arsenic concentrations in Southwest Bangladesh. Journal of Environmental Science and Health, Part A: Toxic/Hazardous Substances and Environmental Engineering.
Groundwater arsenic poisoning in Bangladesh: An interview with Dr Manzurul Hassan. IHRR
Contamination of drinking-water by arsenic in Bangladesh: a public health emergency. World Health Organisation 11.3.2011

Kevin Rudd and the Glory of the Martyrs

Kevin Rudd has now lost everything there is to lose in politics – everything except his seat, of course.
And his fall from political grace has been every bit as spectacular and self-caused as his ascension to the leadership of the ALP in the first place.
I’ve watched the rise and fall of Rudd with some interest for the last six years, ever since the publication of his now infamous essay on “Faith in Politics,” and I’ll confess that I was no more impressed by what seemed to me to be the self-serving way he made use of Dietrich Bonhoeffer in that essay (about which I’ll say more below) than I was by his politically anaemic campaign to unseat John Howard in 2007, or by what struck me as a morally shallow “apology” to Aboriginal Australians in 2008.
In each instance, there seemed to me clear evidence of a politician fully in the grip of what Max Weber called the political equivalent of the “sin against the Holy Spirit” – vanity.
As Weber wrote almost a century ago in his justly famed essay, “Politics as a Vocation”:
“For ultimately there are only two kinds of mortal sin in the field of politics: the lack of commitment to a cause and the lack of a sense of responsibility that is often, but not always, identical with it. Vanity, the need to thrust oneself centre stage, is what is most likely to lead the politician into the temptation of committing either or both of these sins. All the more, as the demagogue is forced to play for ‘effect’. Because he is concerned only with the ‘impression’ he is making, he always runs the risk both of turning into an actor and of taking too lightly his responsibility for his own actions.”
For Weber, vanity fundamentally corrupts the three qualities that must all be in harness for politics to be an authentic, much less successful, vocation: passion (the dedication to a cause), a sense of responsibility (owning consequences of one’s decisions, and thus refuses to indulge in politics as a mere “intellectual game” or fit of “sterile excitement”) and a sense of proportion (“the ability to allow realities to impinge on you while maintaining an inner calm and composure”). By uncoupling passion from the others, and thus exaggerating its presence in the political persona, vanity allows the politician to become intoxicated on the spectacle of his own virtue.
In the case of Kevin Rudd, however, such garden variety political vanity is given a peculiarly theological twist. And it is here, I think, that we come tantalisingly close to the key to the Rudd enigma: just what is it that fuels his seemingly inextinguishable political drive?
This question was, of course, the subject of David Marr’s meticulously well-timed 2010 Quarterly Essay, Power Trip: The Political Journey of Kevin Rudd. According to Marr, Rudd’s drive is a kind of sublimated attempt to overcome the humiliations he suffered as a child, and as such, it has endowed him with an astonishing emotional resilience. But Marr insists, famously, that what fuels this drive is also the core ingredient of the Rudd psyche: anger.
“Rudd is driven by anger. It’s the juice in the machine… Who is the real Kevin Rudd? He is the man you see when the anger vents. He’s a politician with rage at his core, impatient rage.”
However, in terms of its explanatory power, this conclusion is both overstated and unconvincing. Some puerile resentment stemming from childhood traumas explains nothing about Kevin Rudd because it explains everything. And Marr clearly erred in seeing it everywhere, coiled around the disparate elements of Rudd’s story, providing them the artificial consistency of a mediocre psychodrama. (In an especially pleading moment, Marr reports one of Rudd’s teachers as saying, “I remember teaching him about Caesar’s troubles with Pompey the Great, and young Kevin was angered by Pompey’s poor behaviour.”)
Unfortunately for Marr, his fixation with Rudd’s subterranean rage meant that he didn’t know quite what to make of those truly original observations that occur within his otherwise rather unoriginal, and ultimately overrated, essay. One such observation was well worth exploring, instead of just throwing away:
“What it is about Rudd and martyrs? It’s a fascination that goes all the way back to his school days… Could there be somewhere in him the death wish of a pious schoolboy: some trace of an old hankering to go out in a blaze of moral glory?”
Whether it be the calmly defiant Thomas More of Robert Bolt’s The Man for All Seasons or Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s brave resistance to the Nazi regime or the political assassination of Gough Whitlam, martyrs seem to function as a kind of idee fixe for Kevin Rudd. They order Rudd’s political passions.
But – and here’s the crucial point – it is not that Rudd wants to be a martyr in some masochistic or Icarian way. Rather, he wants to see himself through the eyes of the adoring throng that venerates the martyrs. After all, the underlying fantasy of martyrdom is that one can somehow outlive one’s death and be witness to one’s own vindication – and, by extension, to the abject humiliation of one’s enemies. This vainglorious lust for renown is also the great temptation of martyrs, the inherent perversion of their act.
As Augustine argued at length in The City of God, what distinguishes the witness of the apostles and martyrs from the “Roman heroes” is the fact that the virtue, righteous acts and finally the purpose for which they died is hidden from the martyrs themselves; whereas, for the heroes venerated by Rome, “What else was there for them to love save glory? For, through glory, they desired to have a kind of life after death on the lips of those who praised them.”
None recognised the potency of this temptation quite so clearly as TS Eliot. In Murder in the Cathedral, Eliot’s play about the martyrdom of Archbishop Thomas Becket, three Tempters confront Becket attempting to dissuade him from his act of defiance to the King, which will most certainly cost him his life. He rebuffs each of their advances. But then a Fourth Tempter arrives. “What is your counsel?” asks Becket. The Tempter urges him to embrace martyrdom:
But think, Thomas, think of glory after death.
When king is dead, there’s another king,
And one more king is another reign.
King is forgotten, when another shall come:
Saint and Martyr rule from the tomb.
Think, Thomas, think of enemies dismayed,
Creeping in penance, frightened of a shade;
Think of pilgrims, standing in line
Before the glittering jewelled shrine,
From generation to generation
Bending the knee in supplication,
Think of the miracles, by God’s grace,
And think of your enemies, in another place.
Thomas is thus urged paradoxically to succumb to martyrdom, but to do so out of vanity and the longing for vengeance.
What can compare with the glory of Saints
Dwelling forever in the presence of God?
What earthly glory, of king or emperor,
What earthly pride, that is not poverty
Compared with richness of heavenly grandeur?
Seek the way of martyrdom, make yourself the lowest
On earth, to be high in heaven.
And see far off below you, where the gulf is fixed,
Your persecutors, in timeless torment,
Parched passion, beyond expiation.
What else was Kevin Rudd’s appeal to his vast support among “ordinary folk,” even in the face of certain death at the hands of caucus, or his interminable and grotesquely plaintive litanies of achievement at his final press conferences as prime minister and then foreign minister, or his posturing on the world stage and his penchant for grand (but finally empty) symbolic gestures, but the expression of this longing for a kind of life after political death; like the Roman heroes, to live on “on the lips of those who praised them.”
But this obsession with the “glory of the martyrs,” it seems to me, was fully evident in his 2006 essay on “Faith in Politics.” As an appreciative engagement with Bonhoeffer, the essay is incredibly poor. It represents little more than shapeless chunks of Bonhoeffer’s best-known quotes floating in a thin gruel of sanctimonious prose. And it certainly doesn’t indicate any deep engagement either with Bonhoeffer or with the vexed question of the relationship of Christianity and politics.
But Rudd’s essay ultimately wasn’t trying to do either of these things. As David Marr rightly observed, its real intent was to embellish Rudd’s much-publicised attack on the integrity of the Howard government – which had come under particular scrutiny through the AWB scandal – with a kind of heroic overlay. Rudd was depicting himself as the Bonhoeffer to Howard’s Nazi regime. In other words, his appeal to Bonhoeffer was entirely self-referential.
It is worth recalling, on this point, Alasdair MacIntyre’s criticism of the various attempts of liberal theologians in the 1960s – of which Bishop John Robinson, author of Honest to God, and in our time John Shelby Spong, are two of the more pernicious examples – to sex-up their mediocre variety of soft-left pseudo-radicalism by appealing to the theological language and moral experience of “extreme” figures such as Dietrich Bonhoeffer.
The same can be said for Kevin Rudd. And this goes not just for his self-serving use of Bonhoeffer, but also his subsequent predilection for high-blown moral language – whether it be his now notorious description of climate change as “the great moral challenge of our time,” to his characterisation of neo-liberalism as “that particular brand of free-market fundamentalism, extreme capitalism and excessive greed which became the economic orthodoxy of our time,” to his most recent positioning of himself as the only one who could “save the Australian Labor Party… and save the country from the ravages of an Abbott government”. By raising the moral and political stakes through the roof, Rudd casts himself in an impossibly heroic posture; and if he fails, he achieves the glory of political martyrdom for a higher cause.
I thus find myself, slightly unnervingly, in profound agreement with Alexander Downer’s assessment: it’s not power that drives Rudd, or anger. It’s the lust for fame, for recognition, for glory.
One can only imagine how different it could have been if Kevin Rudd’s Christianity had been more than an ornament on his political ambition. Had he paid better attention to Catholic teaching on martyrdom, or even read Bonhoeffer a little more carefully, perhaps he would have recognised the grave, indeed mortal, dangers involved when, as Bonhoeffer put it, “I make myself the observer of my own prayer”. And that the test of the political and Christian virtue is when their “righteousness … is hidden from themselves.”
But as it stands, Rudd is no political martyr, much less a messiah. He is just a politician who wanted people to love and praise him, and who tried to use his tenuous grasp of the Christian faith to achieve that end.
Scott Stephens is the Online Editor of Religion and Ethics for the ABC The Drum

Bringing Mecca to the British Museum

Malise Ruthven
Bibliothèque Nationale de France
A detail from the Catalan Atlas, attributed to the Majorcan Jewish cartographer Abraham Cresques, 1375
Over the next two months the great domed interior of what used to be the British Museum’s reading room, where Marx researched Das Kapital and Bram Stoker (creator of Dracula) was a reader, is host to Hajj, a remarkable exhibition that celebrates the most sacred event in the Islamic calendar, the pilgrimage to Mecca. The exhibition seems more than a cultural event—a milestone, perhaps, in the public recognition and acceptance of Islam at the heart of British life. Conceived by British Museum director Neil MacGregor and the museum’s Islamic art curator Venetia Porter with assistance from the Saudi Arabian government, it is an unusual collaboration between a museum dedicated to secular learning and the current rulers of Islam’s holiest sites, who have lent many important works.
Presiding over its opening in late January were Prince Abdulaziz bin Abdullah, deputy Saudi foreign minister and son of the Saudi King, and Prince Charles—the heir to the British throne. There was a pleasing irony in the ceremony’s being held (with soft drinks only) in the gallery devoted to the eighteenth century Enlightenment with the princes reading their speeches in front of a Roman statue of the goddess Minerva. Prince Charles, who will presumably be the next Supreme Governor of the Church of England, spoke of the show’s “timeless truth that all life is rooted in the unity of our Creator.” Prince Abdulaziz—by Saudi standards an enlightened figure who sponsors translations of scientific texts into and out of Arabic—referred to his country’s “tangible efforts to spread peace all over the world,” a comment that raised few eyebrows from the assembled ranks of the British establishment, despite recent Saudi efforts to help the ruling Sunni dynasty in Bahrain suppress demonstrations by mainly Shiite protestors.
But while there were political implications, this was not in any strict sense, a political forum and in any case British royals, including Prince Charles, appear more comfortable with the hereditary rulers of Saudi Arabia and the Gulf, whom they regard as kindred spirits, than the uncertainties unleashed by the Arab Spring.
Hajj was organised in partnership with the King Abdul Aziz Public Library in Riyadh, which facilitated the loan of objects from Saudi Arabia, and helped with some of the texts, as Porter explained. (Funding came from the HSBC Amanah bank and the British government’s Arts and Humanities Research Council.) And while Saudi Arabian officials had no role in the choice or presentation of other objects loaned from more than thirty other collections, the organisers have clearly gone to some lengths to accommodate Saudi sensitivities and to undergird the monarch’s role as Guardian of Islam’s two holiest shrines (namely Mecca, where Muhammad was born and Medina where he is buried).
One of five obligatory “pillars” of the Islamic faith, the Hajj unites Muslims from all classes, backgrounds and traditions. It includes the ritual circumambulation of the Ka‘ba, the cubular building that stands at the centre of the Grand Mosque in Mecca, in the direction of which Muslims in all parts of the world face during daily prayers, as well as other demanding rituals conducted in the neighbourhood of Mecca.
Abdel-Haleem Said
Graffiti depicting the Hajj on a house in al-Asadiyya, Egypt, 2010
The Ka’ba is a somewhat stark flat-roofed structure, fifty feet high with a forty-foot façade and slightly shorter side walls, constructed from the layers of the grey-blue stone found in the hills surrounding Mecca. As the captions in the exhibition state, Muslims believe it was built by Abraham (Ibrahim), the original monotheist and with his son Ishmael (Ismail) ancestor of the Arabs). Abraham is said to have instituted monotheism and ordained the pilgrimage at God’s command, but later generations fell away, allowing idol worship to prevail until Muhammad “restored” the true religion of Abraham. The show does not mention the scholarly questions that have been raised about the Abrahamic account. The Encyclopaedia of Islam—the canonical source for non-believers, states that “aside from Muslim traditions, practically nothing is known of the history of the Ka‘ba,” although Mecca (under the name Macorba) is mentioned in Ptolemy’s Geography, so it is assumed that the shrine existed in the second century CE.
In imitation of the tawaf (the ritual of circumambulation around the Ka’ba, which is performed by pilgrims by walking seven times around it in a counter-clockwise direction) the visitor to the beautifully-designed exhibition glides up a curving gallery, to encounter a series of displays showing the history of the Hajj through the ages. A Saudi lady, who had performed the pilgrimage several times, told me the experience brought tears to her eyes: “When you enter this exhibition you feel you are entering Mecca”—a city forbidden to non-Muslims, including the British Museum people who curated the show. The exhibits include artifacts, maps, textiles, documents from some forty collections, including those loaned from Saudi Arabia, notably the great kiswa, the black silken hanging embroidered with gold calligraphy, that covers the building.
Nasser D. Khalili Collection
Mahmal, red silk with silver and gold thread on a wooden frame, Cairo, 1867-1876.
Until the Saudi occupation of Mecca in 1926 the kiswa was sent annually from Cairo in a richly decorated camel-borne palanquin known as the mahmal, of which the exhibition has a superb example. Archive footage from 1918 shows the pomp with which this august aniconic symbol of Islamic devotion began its journey.. An edited version of Journey to Mecca, a recent Imax film, conveys some powerful images of Islamic faith in action: the ritual of prostration, honed over fifteen centuries – as the believers bow in perfectly coordinated movements in circles that radiate outwards from the Ka‘ba; the standing at the sacred mount of Arafat outside Mecca, which the white-robed pilgrims cover completely, like some vast colony of sea-birds; and a speeded-up view of the tawaf, where the Ka‘ba stands majestically—like the mysterious black monolith in Stanley Kubrick’s film 2001—an otherworldly symbol surrounded by the blurred gyrations of the worshippers.
The impression is underscored by a striking statement about the merging of individual identities in the mass by the Shiite intellectual Ali Shariati, who died in 1977 two years before the outbreak of the Iranian revolution he helped to inspire: “As you circumambulate and move closer to the Ka‘ba you feel like a small stream merging with a big river. You have been transformed into a particle that is gradually melting and disappearing. This is love at its absolute peak.”
The skeptically-minded will find some significant gaps in the show’s presentation of its subject. For example the caption for the mahmal footage is somewhat reticent, pointing out only that the practice of sending the embroidered palanquin from Egypt was discontinued in 1926. No mention is made of the trouble that erupted between the Egyptian pilgrims and the Saudi Wahhabis who had recently taken over the holy city. Leadership of the Hajj and protecting the pilgrims from marauding beduin were the foremost prerequisites of Islamic legitimacy and were reflected in contests over Mecca, the ritual centre of the Islamic world. In 930, for instance, ultra-radicals of the Carmathian sect wrenched the sacred Black Stone from the south-eastern corner of the Ka‘ba and took it back to their stronghold on the Gulf near modern Bahrain. It was only returned – in pieces – more than two decades later, after the Abbasid caliph had paid a massive ransom. Given its historic and ritual significance, it would have been useful to have had a display showing the stone’s interesting but mysterious provenance. The captions relate only the Muslim belief that the stone, said to have been brought by the Angel Gabriel, was originally white, but became blackened by its contact with sinful humanity.
Some observers, including the English travellers Richard Burton who visited Mecca disguised as an Afghan in 1853 and Eldon Rutter who made the pilgrimage in 1926 considered it to be meteorite, others a fragment of rock created by meteorite impact. Such theories point in the direction of an object rendered sacred by reason of its extra-terrestrial origin. Fortunately some of the exhibition’s omissions are filled in the catalog, which contains informative articles by Robert Irwin and Ziaduddin Sardar. (My own contribution to the catalog, over-generously acknowledged, was limited to providing minor editorial suggestions, although I will have the opportunity to discuss some of the anthropological dimensions of the pilgrimage at an event scheduled for March 23).
Irwin’s essay balances the exhibitions wholesomely positive displays by pointing out how the pilgrimage had the disastrous side-effect of spreading cholera during the nineteenth century; while Sardar mentions several recent disasters, including the deaths of more than 1400 pilgrims in a stampede in 1990 and more than 300 when fire swept through a camp in 1997. Sardar also acknowledges the astonishing “improvements” being made to the holy site by its Saudi beneficiaries, which include the Royal Clock Tower, a replica of Big Ben five times the size of the London original. No surprise, perhaps, that this astonishing testimony to the taste of Saudi Arabia’s princes finds no place in the British Museum’s hallowed precincts, though images are freely available on the Internet.
Bibliothèque Nationale de France
A painting from the Maqamat of al-Hariri by Yahya al-Wasiti, Iraq, 1237 C.E.
In part, the exhibition’s unskeptical approach seems also to reflect the fact that it is dedicated to a living religion, not an antique belief system. It lays out Muslim beliefs without exploring the archaeological and anthropological matrices from which they issue. The question this raises is: should a scholarly and secular institution refrain from such exploration in order to accommodate religious sensitivities?
In this regard it may be noted that the lead essay on the early Hajj was commissioned from Hugh Kennedy, a “safe” medieval historian, rather than a scholar of religion such as G. R. Hawting. In line with the views of some western revisionists Hawting suggests that the “idolatry” against which Muhammad inveighed may not have been an actual practice, but a rhetorical trope used in arguments between rival monotheists.
On the other hand, the exhibition’s endorsement of orthodox Muslim beliefs conveys an important public message. Within a week of the exhibition’s opening nine Muslim men including seven British citizens, received prison sentences of 12 to 13 years after pleading guilty to a series of terrorist offences, including plots to place a bomb in the toilets of the London Stock Exchange. Inspired by Anwar al-Awlaki, the US citizen and al-Qaeda leader killed in a drone attack in Yemen last year, the group epitomises the alienation felt by many young Muslims from mainstream British society. An exhibition that celebrates the Islamic faith inside Britain’s foremost institution of culture must serve to counter feelings of exclusion.
Numerous schools with Muslim pupils have signed up for group visits to the show, not to mention coach loads of visitors from cities with substantial Muslim populations. The exhibition, with its blend of history, culture and the art that speaks to faith, and arises out of it, takes the British Museum beyond its traditional remit of preserving the past and puts it at the heart of the public debate about Islam and the place of Muslims in British society. Tactful, non-critical references to the beliefs held by Muslim majorities seems a reasonable price to pay for this bold initiative which MacGregor sees as serving the Museum’s “guiding principle of using objects and the forum of an exhibition to try to understand the complex world in which we live”. Minerva’s owl may fly at dusk but for Islam’s active believers, and the petrodollar Guardians of the Holy Places, this is still mid-afternoon.
Hajj is on view at the British Museum through April 15.


The Pox Beneath the Powder

Metropolitan Museum of Art
Enrique Chagoya: The Headache, A Print after George Cruikshank, 2010
The title “Infinite Jest” gives a very partial impression of the survey of caricatures showing at the Metropolitan Museum of Art through March 4. Hamlet said those words about Yorick, but Yorick was a jester at the court of Elsinore. That is not the same as a satirist. There may be something expansive about the very idea of jest, because it obeys no rules and draws hints from the humor of the audience. The art of caricature, by contrast, is finite, bounded and severe. Blake might have been speaking of caricature when he blasted the “soft” outlines of Rubens: “The Man who asserts that there is no such Thing as Softness in art, & that every thing in Art is Definite & Determinate, has not been told this by Practise, but by Inspiration & Vision.” A bad jest may redeem itself by having a better for its sequel. A flat or vapid or wrong-headed caricature cannot be pardoned. The province of satire is wit, and when wit goes wrong it signifies not a tactical error but a defect of mind.

Max Beerbohm: George Bernard Shaw, 1906
The show at the Met is limited in another sense. It is deliberately modest and selective, a sampler to whet the appetite of the stroller. It scarcely pretends to cover the history of a mode that was made possible by Hogarth, and was brought to perfection by his successors during the Napoleonic wars. The exhibition takes up three small rooms and a few feet of a wall. The great names of caricature—James Gillray, Thomas Rowlandson, Honoré-Victorin Daumier—are all present but lightly accounted for; the span is from the last decades of the eighteenth century to David Levine at the end of the twentieth.
One genius of the art has been inexplicably omitted: Max Beerbohm. Yet Beerbohm’s caricatures are as inseparable from the Edwardian age as Gillray’s are from the reign of George III and the Regency years. The victim of a Daumier or a Gillray might touch the wounded part and wonder how long it would take to heal; but Beerbohm’s models were rendered so finely and dispatched with an air so free of malice that they had no grounds for protest. His characters, from Winston Churchill to Bernard Shaw to Henry James, never knew how incurably they were themselves until he caught them. It would have made a welcome relief at the Met—between Rowlandson’s pustuled whores and the monstrous jowl of Siegfried Woldhek’s Cheney (secret papers protruding from every fold of his jacket)–-to come upon “Mr Tennyson, reading ‘In Memoriam’ to his Sovereign.” Beerbohm’s print showed the Poet Laureate and the Queen in a palace reading room which only they were formed to inhabit, Tennyson ceremonially seated but kicking up his legs with restrained enthusiasm, while Queen Victoria sits in a far chair across the room, her hands folded in her lap. Poet and sovereign are separated by a shoreless politeness.
Metropolitan Museum of Art
Wendel Dietterlin, the Younger: Procession of Monstrous Figures, 1615
“Infinite Jest” locates the beginnings of caricature, as other histories have also done, in Leonardo’s grotesques (visi monstrosi), closely followed by a “Procession of Motionless Figures” by Wendel Dietterlin the Younger (1614-69). Where Leonardo offered a view of deformed physiognomy, Dietterlin is on the track of true obscenity, with his creature-like humans and barely human creatures, drawn, as the catalog says, from the arsenal of Bosch and Breughel. A short jump further on and we are surrounded by artists who paint as successors to the prose of Swift and the poetry of Pope. They may have supposed they were working a topical sideline, but somehow they show a new expertise. They seem to have looked closely at Hogarth’s “Election” and “A Rake’s Progress” and “Marriage a la Mode.” At the same time their palettes throw off allusions with the greatest of ease to Michelangelo and Raphael.
Caricature is the most evanescent and pedantic of the visual arts. Spend an hour or two in a great collection like the Lewis Walpole Library in Farmington, Connecticut, and the impression is exhausting—so many rich and recoverable jokes are waiting to be unlocked, yet even a reasonably informed viewer stands on the outside looking in. It takes the unearthing of controversies, month by month and often week by week, to catch the meaning of a posture or the sense of a punch-line. For in the eighteenth century, the words of the visual satirist were almost as important as the image; the thought balloons in Gillray are commonly full to overflowing. Among the satirical draftsmen of the later eighteenth century, the words of the day and the density of art-historical echoes are equally essential to the intended effect.
Metropolitan Museum of Art
Honoré Daumier: Le Cauchemar (The Nightmare), 1832
This brings a curious risk to any exhibition. The isolation of an image can sap it of relevant meaning. The Metropolitan show gives us, for example, “The Nightmare,” a Daumier improvisation of 1832 in which Lafayette’s sleeping frame is rudely haunted by a dream in the form of a pear sitting on his stomach: familiar shorthand, the catalog tells us, for the drooping oval figure of Louis-Philippe to whom Lafayette had “agreed to give up his republican aspirations.” Here, then, is an instance of a shape becoming a person: the sort of casual allegory on which a great deal of caricature depends. And Daumier’s cartoon seems plain enough, but arbitrary and a little flat, unless you know that it stands at three removes from its prototype: Henri Fuseli’s gothic “Night Mare.” Fuseli’s erotically exposed dreaming woman, an incubus crouched on her belly, had already received a first homage in John Boyne’s “The Night Mare or Hag Riddn Minister” (1784) where Charles Fox, perched atop a sleeping Lord Shelburne, showers turds on his face. Fox was the insupportable ally who spoilt Shelburne’s chance of ministerial advancement. The same image was quarried yet again in Rowlandson’s send-up “The Covent Garden Night Mare,” in which Fox himself lies supine, knocked out by satiety from drink and gambling, and the incubus looks bored and put-upon. All of this baggage—unpacked with care by Diana Donald in her book The Age of Caricature—Daumier knew well; and for him and his cleverest viewers, it thickened the comedy of Lafayette and the royal pear.
James Gillray (1757-1815) was a genius as astonishing and as visionary as Blake. But he worked from the outside in. When he draws William Pitt the Younger, who was twice prime minister between 1783 and 1806, or Edmund Burke, or the Whig leader who was Pitt’s archrival, Charles James Fox, he captures these politicians as determined entities. (And they are always the same: Fox is a bandit, Burke is a Jesuit, Pitt is a benign but insinuating house-guest, his backbone flexible as a closet rod.) They are helpless abstractions of what they were always going to be. With Gillray, the costume becomes the man, and visage and posture are the leading elements of costume. So, where Blake drew the “Spiritual Form of Pitt Guiding Behemoth” and made it the terror of two continents—“that Angel who, pleased to perform the Almighty’s orders, rides on the whirlwind, directing the storms of war”—Gillray saw Pitt as an almost expressionless personage of mediocre pretensions, unusual only in his ability to carve up the world with a knife and fork.
Metropolitan Museum of Art
James Gillray: The Plumb-Pudding in Danger;–or–State Epicures Taking un Petit Souper, 1805
“The Plumb-Pudding in Danger;—or—State Epicures Taking un Petit Souper” (1805) is in the show, and it is one of Gillray’s best. You see Pitt lean and joyless here, yet wonderfully potent; he holds in reserve the shrewdness of a card player and the patience of a master poisoner. As he slices the pudding of Europe with his fellow diner, Napoleon, his eyes are calm and focused while Napoleon’s are popping with appetite. Poor Napoleon: his huge hunger is mounted on a tiny frame, and the red and blue feathers that sprout from his cap are as long as his legs. We are put in mind of the traits that made Pitt the longest-serving prime minister in Britain, and prompted William Hazlitt’s wonder at his power “to baffle opposition, not from strength or firmness, but from the evasive ambiguity and impalpable nature of his resistance.”
Metropolitan Museum of Art
George Cruikshank: The Prince of Whales or the Fisherman at Anchor, 1812
For Gillray, all politics was grotesque. He began as a Whig but was paid at last by Tories, and he made them look good, more or less. His misanthropy (anarchic, at bottom, as misanthropy tends to be) found itself checked and pushed to favour authority by an inveterate hatred of the crowd; most of all, of course, the Parisian crowd of the 1790s. Gillray’s cartoons often have the scope of canvasses, and they evoke large actions and relations; yet his faces are good enough to temper one’s appreciation of any other cartoonist. His influence was wide, beginning with George Cruikshank—whose “Prince of Whales or the Fisherman at Anchor” (1812), an obese George IV swimming among his allies and his mistresses, is a “teaser” deployed to open the show with a flourish.
Probably Gillray’s closest competitor is Thomas Rowlandson (1756-1827), an artist who seems far more satisfied in the new mode. His cartoons never struggle to be something more. A disgusting and well-executed piece like Rowlandson’s 1792 “Six Stages of Mending a Face” (perhaps an allusion to Jonathan Swift’s repellent “Progress of Beauty”) shows the pox beneath the powder of a well-made-up woman of the town. A certain professionalism and continence in Rowlandson, working up vulgar conceptions to a sensible limit, betrays an aspiration with a low ceiling. Compare any of Gillray’s crammed and eventful works with a typical piece like Rowlandson’s 1810 “Dropsy Courting Consumption” and you see that for the latter the title has cued everything: rouged cheeks, unmeaning smiles, a disagreeable complicity in disease.
Metropolitan Museum of Art
Thomas Rowlandson: Six Stages of Mending a Face, Dedicated with respect to the Right Hon-ble. Lady Archer, 1792
Rowlandson has no gusto and no superfluity of invention, but he can produce on command a correct and full-bodied slander. A straight political comment like his 1784 “Infant Hercules” shows the toils of the serpents Charles Fox and Lord North easily pushed away by the substantial infant Pitt. It is a bland compliment that loses almost nothing in the description. Compare Gillray’s “Sphere, projecting against a Plane” (1792), which renders Pitt sharp as a fishbone beside the swollen paunch that is the Honourable Albinia Hobart, and it is no surprise to discover, later in the show, Eugene Delacroix’s admiring “Studies of Four Figures after James Gillray” (1817-1825). Gillray took what turned out to be a permanent detour; but among the masters of caricature, he was the one whose work eventually could reward study by a great painter.
Lyndon Johnson; drawing by David Levine
The choices of “Infinite Jest” after the eighteenth century become haphazard. Goya’s Caprichos today are much in need of annotation: the wildness of conception and the keenness of execution take us back to the mixed mode of Dietterlin’s “Procession”; yet a specific intention and application seem to hover just above images like the monkey serenading on guitar a calmly seated donkey, with two shadowy figures applauding over the caption “Brabisimo!” Things get suddenly sparser in the twentieth century, and the selection from David Levine is one of his more obvious cartoons—Claes Oldenberg, drawn as his own “soft toilet,” the lid open on top of his head. A better specimen from Levine would have been his LBJ with lifted shirt, revealing the scar of a removed gallbladder in the exact shape of a map of Vietnam. The indiscreetness of the president’s gesture in front of reporters at Bethesda Naval Hospital was made to allude to his obsession with the bombing maps. A hard and deserved hit, sparer than Gillray but worthy of his piercing example—an image for the politician to carry to his grave, and with no false regrets about the speed of his departure.
Infinite Jest: Caricature and Satire from Leonardo to Levine is on view at the Metropolitan Museum through March 4.
David Bromwich 19. 2.2012

The Delicate Balance of Terror

How Neoclassical Economics Deploys Psychotic Reasoning to Explain Human Behaviour

A concentration camp is the complete obliteration of privacy.
– Milan Kundera
Imagine a world where everyone could read everyone else’s thoughts. There would be no privacy, of course, and no trust. We would all know what each other were thinking and would act accordingly. We would not be able to hide certain thoughts we had about others – and we would be aware of every intention others had toward us.
In Milan Kundera’s seminal novel The Unbearable Lightness of Being he explores privacy in great detail. Teresa – one of the novel’s main characters – is a deeply traumatised young woman. When she was growing up her mother allowed her absolutely no privacy and this invasion of her personal space haunted her into her adult life, colouring all her relationships.
Almost from childhood, she knew that a concentration camp was nothing exceptional or startling but something very basic, a given into which we are born and from which we can escape only with the greatest of efforts.
Kundera cleverly uses Teresa’s psychology to raise questions about what it means to lead a private life as a dissident under Soviet rule in Czechoslovakia in the late 1960s. The authorities there secretly record dissident’s personal conversations in order to broadcast on the radio; they trick dissidents into sexual encounters which they videotape and then report in the media. In modern democratic societies, we have institutions in place that do this, but they leave citizens alone and focus on celebrities (who, naturally, none of us sympathise with).
When a private talk over a bottle of wine is broadcast on the radio, what can it mean but that the world is turning into a concentration camp?
But the life of a dissident in the Soviet Union or the celebrity in a Western democracy would be nothing compared to a person living in a telepathic society. Toward the end of 1984 George Orwell makes the convincing case that we are still free when our thoughts are still our own. A person living in a telepathic society would not even have ownership over their own thoughts, which would be broadcast at every moment to everyone around them.
Tragically, there are indeed some who live in such a world. They are not telepathic, of course, but they may come to think that they are. These are people who psychiatrists refer to as suffering from a severe and usually chronic form of psychosis: paranoid schizophrenia.
The most famous case of paranoid schizophrenia in the case literature is that of Daniel Paul Schreber – a high profile judge who lived in Germany at the turn of the 20th century. Schreber is famous in part because his case was picked up on by Sigmund Freud, but his case was only picked up because it was so fascinating. Schreber – a highly gifted and intelligent writer – wrote a long book about what he had experienced while in the throes of paranoid schizophrenia.
Here is a good characterisation of the role of telepathy in the Schreber case by the psychoanalyst Michael Vannoy Adams, taken from his book The Fantasy Principle: Psychoanalysis of the Imagination:
[T]he essence of the ‘paranoid style’ is rampant, pervasive suspicion. Paranoid schizophrenics are suspicious that someone might ‘influence’ them. In just this way, Schreber suspects that his psychiatrist’s ‘nerves’ might influence his ‘nerves’ – that is, murder his soul or destroy his reason. Schreber believes that his psychiatrist has exerted the influence of telepathy. He assumes that his psychiatrist is attempting to read his thoughts for the purpose of, as he says, “appropriating his mental powers.” In order to defend himself, Schreber pretends that he is demented – that he has no thoughts that his psychiatrist might read. This is what Schreber means by “the so-called not-thinking-of-anything-thought.
Schreber’s delusional state, then, puts Teresa’s neuroticism and totalitarian state/celebrity culture invasion of privacy in their proper light. The latter are bad; but they’re not that bad.
In cases of paranoia, as the psychic structure disintegrates various last gasp defences are often summoned up. In cases where telepathy plays a role a typical manifestation of this is that the sufferer begins to think that they can read the thoughts of others. By assuming that one can read the thoughts of others, one insulates oneself from the notion that others might be reading one’s own thoughts. This gives the sufferer a defence with which they can (usually temporarily) control the disorder and maintain some sort of control over the world around them.
And this brings us to the case of John Forbes Nash Jr. Nash – who many will remember from the film (or the book on which it was based) A Beautiful Mind, which depicted his struggles with paranoid schizophrenia – played perhaps the most significant role in the development of post-war neoclassical economics.
On October 12th 1950, Nash delivered a paper on game theory to the Cowles Commission – a group of mathematical economists who were intent on formalising the discipline. What Nash gave this audience was a means to close off the theoretical edifice of neoclassical economics once and for all – something that previous generations of neoclassicals had been unable to do and which leading figures like John von Neumann and John Maynard Keynes had essentially declared impossible.
Nash employed some fancy mathematics to do this, of course, but, like all applications of mathematics, it was in the assumptions buried within the equations where the truly relevant assumptions lay.
First Nash assumed a fearful and paranoid universe where everyone was constantly scrutinising each other and weighing up what each would do next. In Nash – as in any paranoid universe – there was a total elimination of trust. In their book Modern Political Economics: Making Sense of the Post-2008 World the economists Yanis Varoufakis, Joseph Haveli and Nicholas Theocrakis, put it as such:
Nash proves that bargainers [that is, economic agents] will only settle for an equilibrium of fear agreement and then proves that there exists only one such agreement: his solution to the bargaining problem. [Authors’ emphasis]
In his book Machine Dreams: Economics Becomes a Cyborg Science, the historian of economic ideas, Philip Mirowski, ties this directly to the ‘paranoid style’, as portrayed by Vannoy Adams above:
The Nash solution concept was not a drama scripted by Luigi Pirandello or a novel by Robert Musil; it was much closer to a novella by Thomas Pynchon. Just as von Neumann’s minimax solution is best grasped as the psychology of the reluctant duelist, the Nash solution is best glossed as the rationality of the paranoid. Nash appropriated the notion of a strategy as an algorithmic program and pushed it to the nth degree.
From these paranoid premises where all trust is eliminated and all action taken on the basis of perpetual fear, Nash then slips in an assumption that completes the circle and makes his vision of the economic agent truly in line by assuming telepathy on the part of the actor. From Modern Political Economics:
[Nash’s proof] only holds water if we can assume that [the economic agents] can potentially share common knowledge of the probability of no agreement [taking place when one agents threatens another]. But how can they, given that [each agent] has an incentive to overrepresent it [in order to strengthen their bargaining position]? As rationality alone cannot bring about such common knowledge, something closer to telepathy is necessary.[Author’s emphasis]
Or, Mirowski again:
In the grips of paranoia, the only way to elude the control of others is unwavering eternal vigilance and hyperactive simulation of the thought processes of the Other. Not only must one monitor the relative ‘dominance’ of one’s own strategies, but vigilance demands the complete and total reconstruction of the thought processes of the Other – without communication, without interaction, without cooperation – so that one could internally reproduce (or simulate) the very intentionality of the opponent as a precondition for choosing the best response. An equilibrium point is attained when the solitary thinker has convinced himself that the infinite regress of simulation, dissimulation, and countersimulation has reached a fixed point, a situation where his simulation of the response of the Other coincides with the other’s own understanding of his optimal choice. Everything must fit into a single interpretation, come hell or high water.[My emphasis]
Welcome to the concentration camp in which telepathy reigns and all privacy melts into ether!
We should, of course, take this as a powerful critique of the game theoretic foundations of modern neoclassical doctrine – foundations which were then built upon by Nobel prize winners Kenneth Arrow and Gérard Debreu and many others. But we should also see this as something more.
Those who came before Nash recognised that the economy – inhabited as it is by people whose decisions are impossible to pin down – cannot be wholly reduced to some model or others. Keynes’ theories were the most eloquent expression of this, but even von Neumann who did develop game theoretic and general equilibrium models which he deployed for the purpose of economic explanation recognised the limits of this axiomatic way of portraying a capitalist economy. And yet, after the war, the neoclassicals pursued their closed, autistic models with gusto.
What we should see in this example is something about the very nature of trying to apply mathematical models to systems that are created and inhabited by humans. Modelling these systems is equivalent to trying to model those around us. And while many neoclassicals (we hope) would not try to write equations to explain their spouse’s or their child’s behaviours, they seem perfectly content to do so for everybody else – absurdity be damned!
By Philip Pilkington, a writer and journalist based in Dublin, Ireland 16.2.2011