Tag Archives: politics

What *should* we be worried about?

This year’s question to Edge is “what should we be worried about?” Here are some of the best answers:

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We Don’t Do Politics
Artist; Composer; Recording Producer: U2, Coldplay, Talking Heads, Paul Simon; Recording Artist

Most of the smart people I know want nothing to do with politics. We avoid it like the plague—like Edge avoids it, in fact. Is this because we feel that politics isn’t where anything significant happens? Or because we’re too taken up with what we’re doing, be it Quantum Physics or Statistical Genomics or Generative Music? Or because we’re too polite to get into arguments with people? Or because we just think that things will work out fine if we let them be—that The Invisible Hand or The Technosphere will mysteriously sort them out?

Whatever the reasons for our quiescence, politics is still being done—just not by us. It’s politics that gave us Iraq and Afghanistan and a few hundred thousand casualties. It’s politics that’s bleeding the poorer nations for the debts of their former dictators. It’s politics that allows special interests to run the country. It’s politics that helped the banks wreck the economy. It’s politics that prohibits gay marriage and stem cell research but nurtures Gaza and Guantanamo.

But we don’t do politics. We expect other people to do it for us, and grumble when they get it wrong. We feel that our responsibility stops at the ballot box, if we even get that far. After that we’re as laissez-faire as we can get away with.

What worries me is that while we’re laissez-ing, someone else is faire-ing.

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I’ve Given Up Asking Questions
Acreenwriter, Film director, Animator, Actor; Member, Monty Python Comedy Troupe; Director, Brazil; Fear And Loathing In Las Vega

 

I’ve given up asking questions. l merely float on a tsunami of acceptance of anything life throws at me… and marvel stupidly.

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The Loss Of Death
Professor of Behavioural Neuroscience, Head, Dept. of Cognitive, Perceptual and Brain Sciences, University College, London

 

Every generation our species distils the best of itself, packages it up and passes it on, shedding the dross and creating a fresher, newer, shinier generation. We have been doing this now for four billion years, and in doing so have transmogrified from unicellular microorganisms that do little more than cling to rocks and photosynthesize, to creatures of boundless energy and imagination who write poetry, make music, love each other and work hard to decipher the secrets of themselves and their universe.

And then they die.

Death is what makes this cyclical renewal and steady advance in organisms possible. Discovered by living things millions of years ago, aging and death permit a species to grow and flourish. Because natural selection ensures that the child-who-survives-to-reproduce is better than the parent (albeit infinitesimally so, for that is how evolution works), it is better for many species that the parent step out of the way and allow its (superior) child to succeed in its place. Put more simply, death stops a parent from competing with its children and grandchildren for the same limited resources. So important is death that we have, wired into our genes, a self-destruct senescence program that shuts down operations once we have successfully reproduced, so that we eventually die, leaving our children—the fresher, newer, shinier versions of ourselves—to carry on with the best of what we have given them: the best genes, the best art, and the best ideas. Four billion years of death has served us well.

Now, all this may be coming to an end, for one of the things we humans, with our evolved intelligence, are working hard at is trying to eradicate death. This is an understandable enterprise, for nobody wants to die—genes for wanting to die rarely last long in a species. For millennia, human thinkers have dreamed of conquering old age and death: the fight against it permeates our art and culture, and much of our science. We personify death as a spectre and loathe it, fear it and associate it with all that is bad in the world. If we could conquer it, how much better life would become.

Half a century ago that millennia-old dream began to take form, for we humans discovered genes, and within the genes we discovered that there are mechanisms for regulating aging and death, and we also discovered that we can engineer these genes—make them do things differently. We can add them, subtract them, alter their function, swap them between species—the possibilities are exciting and boundless. Having discovered the molecular mechanisms that regulate senescence and lifespan, we have begun to contemplate the possibility that we can alter the life course itself. We may be able to extend life, and possibly quite soon—it has recently been estimated that due to medical and technical advances, the first person to reach 150 years has already been born. Once we have eradicated cancer, heart disease, and dementia, our biggest killers, we can turn next to the body clock—the mechanism for winding-up operations that limits our lifespans—and alter that too. Why stop at 150? If a person is kept disease-free and the aging clock is halted, why could a person not reach 200? 300? 500?

What a wonderful idea. Few people seem to doubt that this is a wonderful idea and so research into aging and lifespan is a funding priority in every wealthy, technologically advanced society. Termed “healthy aging”, this research really means prolonging life, for aging is by definition progressive time-dependent loss of health and function, and if we prevent that, we prevent death itself. Who wouldn’t want to live to 500? To live a life free of decrepitude and pain, to be able to spend so much more time enjoying favourite activities, achieving so much, wringing every drop from mysterious but wonderful existence, seeing the growing up not just of one’s children and grandchildren but also their children and grandchildren. Oh, yes please!

But wait. Our lifespan is our lifespan for a reason. Lifespans vary enormously in the biological world, from barely a day in the mayfly to more than 100 years in the Galapagos tortoise and an estimated 1500 years in the Antarctic sponge. These spans have been imprinted by natural selection because they are those that serve the species best—that maximise the trade-off between caring for and competing with one’s offspring.

Most of us love our parents but imagine a world inhabited not only by your own parents but also everyone else’s, and also your and their grandparents, and your and their great-grandparents… a society run by people whose ideas and attitudes date back four centuries. Imagine a world in which your boss might be in the post you covet for the next 100 years. Truly, would the generations be competing with each other: for food, housing, jobs, space. As it is, the young complain about how their elders, with their already rapidly increasing lifespans, are driving up house prices by refusing to downsize in middle age, and driving up unemployment by refusing to retire. Imagine four centuries of people ahead of you in the housing and job queues.

The prolonging of the human lifespan is often lauded in the media but it is almost never questioned. Nobody seems to doubt that we should push forward with aging research, identify those genes, tinker with them, make them work for us. For nobody wants to die, and so we all want this research to succeed. We want it for ourselves, and our families. We want ourselves and our loved ones to live as long as possible—forever, if we can.

But is it the best thing for our species? Have four billion years of evolution been wrong? We are not Antarctic sponges or blue-green algae—we die for a reason. We die so that our youth—those better versions of ourselves—can flourish. We should worry about the loss of death.

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etc…

(click here for the full list, it’s worth it)

Hitler sketch. Armstrong & Miller.

The truth about dishonesty? It’s all about rationalisation

Are you more honest than a banker? Under what circumstances would you lie, or cheat, and what effect does your deception have on society at large? Dan Ariely, one of the world’s leading voices on human motivation and behaviour is the latest big thinker to get the RSA Animate treatment.

Taken from a lecture given at the RSA in July 2012 . Watch the longer talk here.

The rise of the Gobblegobble Reich!

From the collected speeches…

The Guy Quote – Gore Vidal

His “pansexuality” stopped him getting into politics, he was punched by Norman Mailer, described Truman Capote’s death as “a good career move” and he never quite hit the same literary orbit as some of his peers (Updike, Bellow, Roth et al), but Gore Vidal was a stunning essayist, a brilliant speaker and a glittering wit. The following comes from his obituary in The Guardian, but if you’re interested, read the one in Time too:

For as long as democracy lasts, people will quote the most brilliant of his many epigrams – “Politics is just showbusiness for ugly people” – and, for as long as competitive endeavour exists, will parrot his cruel but psychologically astute observation that: “It is not enough to succeed; others must fail.” It is rare for a week to pass without one or both of these remarks being quoted approvingly somewhere.

He was open to the charge of namedropping, but claims of famous acquaintance were never faked: he had been a friend and relative of the Kennedys and, when I went to interview Vidal at his breathtaking clifftop villa on the coast of the Amalfi coast, there were photographs of him with Hillary and Chelsea Clinton, who were reputed to have taken refuge there during one of the presidential scandals. However, though distantly related to Clinton’s vice-president, Al Gore, Vidal delighted in declining to meet a branch of the family he regarded as dull, grey sheep.

As often with Vidal, the remark about politics compensating the plain was double-edged. Famously attractive as a young man, he would have been a beautiful politician but, with the American electorate reluctant even now to back for most high offices candidates known to be gay, he was surely doomed to fail in the profession of his influential grandfather, Senator Gore of Oklahoma, who, being blind, relied on the newspapers being read to him by a group of assistants who included his grandson[...]But, even had he been straight, a mainstream political career would likely have been undermined by the savagery of his analysis of America. Politically, she was a corrupt and failing empire with a government that ruled through paranoid invocation of national security, he felt. However, he liked to reassure people that there was no risk of American culture dying – because it had never existed.

Despite the extremity of these opinions – and the fact that early novels such as The City and the Pillar (1948) and Myra Breckinridge (1968) were censored and banned because of their sexual content – Vidal later achieved mainstream bestseller and Book of the Month club status with a fictional sequence designed to correct what he saw as the deficient historical knowledge of his fellow Americans.

The Narratives of Empire books, from Burr (1973) to The Golden Age (2000), combined fact, gossip and waspish commentary in the most entertaining and subversive history lessons until the advent of David Starkey, whose style somewhat echoes Vidal’s.

These popular works and lucratively paid but cheaply produced screenplays for projects including Bob Guccone’s Caligula permitted Vidal to live in some splendour in Italy and California, while writing the essays on politics, literature and culture. They were premiered in periodicals and later preserved in book-form and had the feel of his true vocation. It was in one of these pieces that he characteristically claimed to have sneaked a gay sub-text into the screenplay of Charlton Heston’s Ben-Hur.

A walking rejection of the claim that America has no class system, Vidal had the manner of an aristocrat. During the BBC coverage of the 2008 election, he spectacularly blanked David Dimbleby, whom he seemed to feel was pulling rank on him. Often, while interviewing Vidal, it struck me as a minor tragedy that no director had ever cast him as Lady Bracknell, for no actress has ever managed the levels of hauteur that this author could summon.

A few years ago, when I mentioned a passage in his memoirs that admits to being unable to express any open distress after the death of Howard Austen, his supportive partner for almost 50 years, he drawled: “Have you seen that film with Helen Mirren? The Queen? Our class are brought up not to show emotion.”

This effortless identification with one of the highest-born figures in history was very Vidal: both in its social self-confidence and the fact that a question about emotional evasion was itself emotionally evaded through a provocative aphorism.

With a writer who was such a brilliant speaker and a natural entertainer, it is fitting that he has left a more durable record on film than most writers do: through occasional acting turns such as the arrogant senator in the political satire Bob Roberts. That part was a vision of another life he might have led. But anyone who relishes elegant and incisive writing and speech will be glad that Vidal was fated to explain, rather than practise, politics.

“The planet Venus, a circle of silver in a green sky, pierced the edge of the evening while the wintry woods darkened about me and in the stillness the regular sound of my footsteps striking the pavement was like a the rhythmic beating of a giant stone heart.”
― Gore Vidal, Clouds and Eclipses: The Collected Short Stories

“Because there is no cosmic point to the life that each of us perceives on this distant bit of dust at galaxy’s edge, all the more reason for us to maintain in proper balance what we have here. Because there is nothing else. Nothing. This is it. And quite enough, all in all.”

“Love it or loathe it, you can never leave it or lose it.”

“Politics is just showbusiness for ugly people”

“You hear all this whining going on, ‘Where are our great writers?’ The thing I might feel doleful about is: ‘Where are the readers?’”

“A writer must always tell the truth, unless he is a journalist.”

“The four most beautiful words in our common language: I told you so.”

“I suspect that one of the reasons we create fiction is to make sex exciting.”

“How marvelous books are, crossing worlds and centuries, defeating ignorance and, finally, cruel time itself.”

“The corporate grip on opinion in the United States is one of the wonders of the Western world. No First World country has ever managed to eliminate so entirely from its media all objectivity – much less dissent.”

“The American press exists for one purpose only, and that is to convince Americans that they are living in the greatest and most envied country in the history of the world. The Press tells the American people how awful every other country is and how wonderful the United States is and how evil communism is and how happy they should be to have freedom to buy seven different sorts of detergent.”

“Never miss a chance to have sex or appear on television.”

“[Professor] Frank recalled my idle remark some years ago: ‘Never pass up the opportunity to have sex or appear on television.’ Advice I would never give today in the age of AIDS and its television equivalent Fox News.”

“At a certain age, you have to live near good medical care — if, that is, you’re going to continue. You always have the option of not continuing, which, I fear, is sometimes nobler.”

“All children alarm their parents, if only because you are forever expecting to encounter yourself.”

“Democracy is supposed to give you the feeling of choice, like Painkiller X and Painkiller Y. But they’re both just aspirin.”

“It is not enough to succeed. Others must fail.”

(on Norman Mailer) “You know, he used the word ‘existential’ all the time, to the end of his life, and never even learned what it meant. I heard Iris Murdoch once at dinner explain to Norman what existential meant, philosophically. He was stunned.”

“Little Bush says we are at war, but we are not at war because to be at war Congress has to vote for it. He says we are at war on terror, but that is a metaphor, though I doubt if he knows what that means. It’s like having a war on dandruff, it’s endless and pointless.”

“As societies grow decadent, the language grows decadent, too. Words are used to disguise, not to illuminate, action: you liberate a city by destroying it. Words are to confuse, so that at election time people will solemnly vote against their own interests.”

“There is no such thing as a homosexual or a heterosexual person. There are only homo- or heterosexual acts. Most people are a mixture of impulses if not practices.”

“Anyone who sings about love and harmony and life [John Lennon] is dangerous to someone who sings about death and killing and subduing [Nixon]”

“A narcissist is someone better looking than you are.”

“In America, the race goes to the loud, the solemn, the hustler. If you think you’re a great writer, you must say that you are.”

“I believe there’s something very salutary in, say, beating up a gay-bashing policeman. Preferably one fights through the courts, through the laws, through education, but if at a neighborhood level violence is necessary, I’m all for violence. It’s the only thing Americans understand.”

“Any American who is prepared to run for president should automatically by definition be disqualified from ever doing so.”

“Democracy is supposed to give you the feeling of choice like, Painkiller X and Painkiller Y. But they’re both just aspirin.”

“Envy is the central fact of American life.”

“There is only one party in the United States, the Property Party … and it has two right wings: Republican and Democrat.”

“In America, if you want a successful career in politics, there is one subject you must never mention, and that is politics. If you talk about standing tall, and it’s morning in America, and you press the good-news buttons, you’re fine. If you talk about budgets, tax reform, bigotry, and so on, you are in trouble. So if we aren’t going to talk issues, what can we talk about? Well, the sex lives of the candidates, because that is about the most meaningless thing that you can talk about.”

(on Ronald Reagan) “He is not clear about the difference between Medici and Gucci. He knows Nancy wears one of them.”

“I’m all for bringing back the birch, but only between consenting adults.”

“There is something about a bureaucrat that does not like a poem.”

“Every time a friend succeeds, I die a little.”

“The United States was founded by the brightest people in the country — and we haven’t seen them since.”

“Today’s public figures can no longer write their own speeches or books, and there is some evidence that they can’t read them either.”

“Until the rise of American advertising, it never occurred to anyone anywhere in the world that the teenager was a captive in a hostile world of adults.”

“We must declare ourselves, become known; allow the world to discover this subterranean life of ours which connects kings and farm boys, artists and clerks. Let them see that the important thing is not the object of love, but the emotion itself.”

“Every four years the naive half who vote are encouraged to believe that if we can elect a really nice man or woman President everything will be all right. But it won’t be.”

“Never have children, only grandchildren.”

“Andy Warhol is the only genius I’ve ever known with an IQ of 60″

“The unfed mind devours itself.”

“A good deed never goes unpunished.”

“I’m not sentimental about anything. Life flows by, and you flow with it or you don’t. Move on and move out.”

“All children alarm their parents, if only because you are forever expecting to encounter yourself.”

“Apparently, a democracy is a place where numerous elections are held at great cost without issues and with interchangeable candidates.”

“Fifty percent of people won’t vote, and fifty percent don’t read newspapers. I hope it’s the same fifty percent.”

“Some writers take to drink, others take to audiences.”

“The genius of our ruling class is that it has kept a majority of the people from ever questioning the inequity of a system where most people drudge along, paying heavy taxes for which they get nothing in return”

“Style is knowing who you are, what you want to say, and not giving a damn.”

“If one starts with the anatomical difference, which even a patriarchal Viennese novelist was able to see was destiny, then one begins to understand why men and women don’t get on very well within marriage, or indeed in any exclusive sort of long-range sexual relationship. He is designed to make as many babies as possible with as many different women as he can get his hands on, while she is designed to take time off from her busy schedule as astronaut or role model to lay an egg and bring up the result. Male and female are on different sexual tracks, and that cannot be changed by the Book or any book. Since all our natural instincts are carefully perverted from birth, it is no wonder that we tend to be, if not all of us serial killers, killers of our own true nature.”

“Write what you know will always be excellent advice for those who ought not to write at all. Write what you think, what you imagine, what you suspect!”

“The more money an American accumulates, the less interesting he becomes.”

“The four most beautiful words in our common language: I told you so.”

“Congress no longer declares war or makes budgets. So that’s the end of the constitution as a working machine.”

“We should stop going around babbling about how we’re the greatest democracy on earth, when we’re not even a democracy. We are a sort of militarised republic.”

“As the age of television progresses the Reagans will be the rule, not the exception. To be perfect for television is all a President has to be these days.”

“Sex is. There is nothing more to be done about it. Sex builds no roads, writes no novels and sex certainly gives no meaning to anything in life but itself.”

“Think of the earth as a living organism that is being attacked by billions of bacteria whose numbers double every forty years. Either the host dies, or the virus dies, or both die.”

“There is no such thing as a homosexual or a heterosexual person. There are only homo- or heterosexual acts. Most people are a mixture of impulses if not practices.”

“There is no human problem which could not be solved if people would simply do as I advise.”

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Your suggestions:

He described Reagan during the 1980s as “a triumph of the embalmer’s art”. – Clarence

The Guy Quote – Abraham Lincoln

Abraham Lincoln (1809 – 1865) was the 16th President of the United States, well clever and well tall. He was only president for four years, from 1861 until his assassination in 1865, but in that short time he led his country through enormous change and adversity. We’re talking constitutional, military and moral crisis (American Civil War), during which he preserved the Union, ended slavery, sorted out the economy and the financial system. And this on top of a brutal route to office. I liked doing this post. His quotes aren’t too fancy, they’re practical and meaty and some of them are very funny. He must have been a very skilled judge of character. Wonder what his voice sounded like.


“Some day I shall be President.”

No silver spoons here. Lincoln was born into a poor family on the western frontier. Mostly self-educated, he started out as a country lawyer, then became a state legislator and a one-term member of the House of Representatives…the rest was grind.

[this next bit is edited from Wikipedia] In 1859-60, he opposed the expansion of slavery in the US in his campaign debates and speeches, secured the Republican nomination and was elected president in 1860. Before Lincoln took office in March, seven southern slave states declared their secession and formed the Confederacy. When war began with the Confederate attack on Fort Sumter on April 12, 1861, Lincoln concentrated on both the military and political dimensions of the war effort, seeking to reunify the nation. He vigorously exercised unprecedented war powers, including the arrest and detention without trial of thousands of suspected secessionists. He prevented British recognition of the Confederacy by skillfully handling the Trent affair late in 1861. His efforts toward abolition include issuing his Emancipation Proclamation in 1863 and encouraging Congress to propose what would become the Thirteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution.

Lincoln closely supervised the war effort, especially the selection of top generals, including commanding general Ulysses S. Grant. He brought leaders of various factions of his party into his cabinet and pressured them to cooperate…Each time a general failed, Lincoln substituted another until finally Grant succeeded in 1865.

As the leader of the moderate faction of the Republican party, Lincoln found his policies and personality were “blasted from all sides”: Radical Republicansdemanded harsher treatment of the South, War Democrats desired more compromise, Copperheads despised him, and irreconcilable secessionists plotted his death. Politically, Lincoln fought back with patronage, pitted his opponents against each other, and appealed to the American people with his oratory. His Gettysburg Address of 1863 became the most quoted speech in American history. It was an iconic statement of America’s dedication to the principles of nationalism, equal rights, liberty, and democracy.

At the close of the war, Lincoln held a moderate view of Reconstruction, seeking to reunite the nation speedily through a policy of generous reconciliation in the face of lingering and bitter divisiveness. But six days after the surrender of Confederate commanding general Robert E. Lee, Lincoln was assassinated by Confederate sympathizer John Wilkes Booth at Ford’s Theatre.

A woman is the only thing I am afraid of that I know will not hurt me.

Most folks are as happy as they make up their minds to be.

I don’t like that man. I must get to know him better.

You cannot build character and courage by taking away a man’s initiative and independence.

Am I not destroying my enemies when I make friends of them?

You cannot escape the responsibility of tomorrow by evading it today.

Don’t worry when you are not recognised, but strive to be worthy of recognition.

I walk slowly, but I never walk backward.

Public sentiment is everything. With public sentiment, nothing can fail. Without it, nothing can succeed.

Every man is said to have his peculiar ambition. Whether it be true or not, I can say for one that I have no other so great as that of being truly esteemed of my fellow men, by rendering myself worthy of their esteem.

All that I am, or hope to be, I owe to my angel mother.

As I would not be a slave, so I would not be a master. This expresses my idea of democracy.

Every one desires to live long, but no one would be old.

I can make more generals, but horses cost money.

My great concern is not whether you have failed, but whether you are content with your failure.

Nearly all men can stand adversity, but if you want to test a man’s character, give him power.

To sin by silence when they should protest makes cowards of men.

Everybody likes a compliment.

I will prepare and some day my chance will come.

What kills a skunk is the publicity it gives itself.

Whatever you are, be a good one.

No matter how much cats fight, there always seem to be plenty of kittens.

Important principles may, and must, be inflexible.

Avoid popularity if you would have peace.

I don’t know who my grandfather was; I am much more concerned to know what his grandson will be.

Be sure you put your feet in the right place, then stand firm.

You can fool all the people some of the time, and some of the people all the time, but you cannot fool all the people all the time.

You have to do your own growing no matter how tall your grandfather was.

When I hear a man preach, I like to see him act as if he were fighting bees.

When I do good, I feel good. When I do bad, I feel bad. That’s my religion.

These capitalists generally act harmoniously and in concert, to fleece the people.

The shepherd drives the wolf from the sheep’s for which the sheep thanks the shepherd as his liberator, while the wolf denounces him for the same act as the destroyer of liberty. Plainly, the sheep and the wolf are not agreed upon a definition of liberty.

Books serve to show a man that those original thoughts of his aren’t very new at all.

The things I want to know are in books; my best friend is the man who’ll get me a book I ain’t read.

When I am getting ready to reason with a man, I spend one-third of my time thinking about myself and what I am going to say and two-thirds about him and what he is going to say.

There is another old poet whose name I do not now remember who said, “Truth is the daughter of Time.”

Give me six hours to chop down a tree and I will spend the first four sharpening the axe.

He has a right to criticise, who has a heart to help.

Marriage is neither heaven nor hell, it is simply purgatory.

It has been my experience that folks who have no vices have very few virtues.

How many legs does a dog have if you call the tail a leg? Four. Calling a tail a leg doesn’t make it a leg.

The best thing about the future is that it comes one day at a time.

It is better to remain silent and be thought a fool than to open one’s mouth and remove all doubt.

Tact is the ability to describe others as they see themselves.

Hold on with a bulldog grip, and chew and choke as much as possible.

The Gettysburg address:

NB. read it out loud, don’t just read it to yourself.

(short backstory – an amazing piece of oratory delivered to commemorate soldiers who fell in the war, ten sentences and two minutes in which he redefined the Civil War as a struggle not just for preserving the Union but as “a new birth of freedom”, also compare it with Pericles’ Funeral Speech if you like this sort of thing)

Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation, conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.
Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation, so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure. We are met on a great battle-field of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field, as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.
But, in a larger sense, we can not dedicate, we can not consecrate, we can not hallow this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us—that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion—that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain—that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom—and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.

[[ps - please check out some of my other quote collections here - The Guy Quote]]

Selflessness gone awry: giving until it hurts

Edited from a piece by Natalie Angier in the NY Times. Click here to read the whole thing (I chopped out the intro for length, but read it if you can).

“If you’re supremely confident of your skills, and if you’re certain that what you’re doing is for the good of your patients,” says Dr. Robert A. Burton, “it can be very difficult to know on your own when you’re veering into dangerous territory.”

The author of “On Being Certain” and the coming “A Skeptic’s Guide to the Mind,” Dr. Burton is a contributor to a scholarly yet surprisingly sprightly volume called “Pathological Altruism,” to be published this fall by Oxford University Press.

As the new book makes clear, pathological altruism is not limited to showcase acts of self-sacrifice, like donating a kidney or a part of one’s liver to a total stranger. The book is the first comprehensive treatment of the idea that when ostensibly generous “how can I help you?” behaviour is taken to extremes, misapplied or stridently rhapsodised, it can become unhelpful, unproductive and even destructive.

Selflessness gone awry may play a role in a broad variety of disorders, including anorexia and animal hoarding, women who put up with abusive partners and men who abide alcoholic ones.

Because a certain degree of selfless behaviour is essential to the smooth performance of any human group, selflessness run amok can crop up in political contexts. It fosters the exhilarating sensation of righteous indignation, the belief in the purity of your team and your cause and the perfidiousness of all competing teams and causes.

David Brin, a physicist and science fiction writer, argues in one chapter that sanctimony can be as physically addictive as any recreational drug, and as destabilising. “A relentless addiction to indignation may be one of the chief drivers of obstinate dogmatism,” he writes. “It may be the ultimate propellant behind the current ‘culture war.’ ” Not to mention an epidemic of blogorrhea, newspaper-induced hypertension and the use of a hot, steeped beverage as one’s political mascot.

Barbara Oakley, an associate professor of engineering at Oakland University in Michigan and an editor of the new volume, said in an interview that when she first began talking about its theme at medical or social science conferences, “people looked at me as though I’d just grown goat horns. They said, ‘But altruism by definition can never be pathological.’ ”

To Dr. Oakley, the resistance was telling. “It epitomised the idea ‘I know how to do the right thing, and when I decide to do the right thing it can never be called pathological,’ ” she said.

Indeed, the study of altruism, generosity and other affiliative behaviours has lately been quite fashionable in academia, partly as a counterweight to the harsher, selfish-gene renderings of Darwinism, and partly on the financing bounty of organisations like the John Templeton Foundation. Many researchers point out that human beings are a spectacularly cooperative species, far surpassing other animals in the willingness to work closely and amicably with non-kin. Our altruistic impulse, they say, is no mere crown jewel of humanity; it is the bedrock on which we stand.

Yet given her professional background, Dr. Oakley couldn’t help doubting altruism’s exalted reputation. “I’m not looking at altruism as a sacred thing from on high,” she said. “I’m looking at it as an engineer.”

And by the first rule of engineering, she said, “there is no such thing as a free lunch; there are always trade-offs.” If you increase order in one place, you must decrease it somewhere else.

Moreover, the laws of thermodynamics dictate that the transfer of energy will itself exact a tax, which means that the overall disorder churned up by the transaction will be slightly greater than the new orderliness created. None of which is to argue against good deeds, Dr. Oakley said, but rather to adopt a bit of an engineer’s mind-set, and be prepared for energy losses and your own limitations.

Train nurses to be highly empathetic and, yes, their patients will love them. But studies show that empathetic nurses burn out and leave the profession more quickly than do their peers who remain aloof. Give generously to Child A, and Child B will immediately howl foul, while quiet Child C will grow up and write nasty novels about you. “Pathologies of altruism,” as Dr. Oakley put it, “are bound to arise.”

Rachel Bachner-Melman, a clinical psychologist at Hadassah University Medical Center in Jerusalem who specialises in eating disorders, has seen the impact of extreme selflessness on the anorexic young women who populate her ward.

“They are terribly sensitive to the needs of those around them,” she said in an interview. “They know who needs to be pushed in a wheelchair, who needs a word of encouragement, who needs to be fed.”

Yet the spectral empaths will express no desires of their own. “They try to hide their needs or deny their needs or pretend their needs don’t exist,” Dr. Bachner-Melman went on. “They barely feel they have the right to exist themselves.” They apologize for themselves, for the hated, hollow self, by giving, ceaselessly giving.

In therapy they are reminded that to give requires that first one must have. “It’s like in an airplane,” Dr. Bachner-Melman said. “The parents must put on the oxygen mask first, not because they’re more important, but if the parents can’t breathe, they can’t help the child.”

Denial and mental compartmentalisation also characterise people who stay in abusive relationships, who persuade themselves that with enough self-sacrifice and fluttering indulgence their beloved batterer or drunken spouse will reform. Extreme sensory denial defines the practice of animal hoarding, in which people keep far more pets than they can care for — dozens, scores, hundreds of cats, rodents, ferrets, turtles.

The hoarders may otherwise be high-functioning individuals, says Dr. Gary J. Patronek, a clinical assistant professor at the veterinary school of Tufts University and founder of the Hoarding of Animals Research Consortium. “We’ve seen teachers, nurses, public officials, even veterinarians,” he said in an interview. “They live a double life.”

At work, they behave responsibly and know the importance of good hygiene. They go home and enter another world, one of squalor and chaos, of overwhelming stench and undernourished animals, of pets that have died for lack of care.

Yet the hoarders notice none of this. “You walk in, you can’t breathe, there are dead and dying animals present, but the person is unable to see it,” Dr. Patronek said. Cat carcasses may alternate with food in the refrigerator, “but in the person’s mind it’s happy and wonderful, it’s a peaceable kingdom.”

Hoarders may think of themselves as animal saviours, rescuing pets from the jaws of the pound; yet they are not remotely capable of caring for the animal throngs, and they soon give up trying. “It’s a very focal, delusional behaviour,” Dr. Patronek said. And it can be all the more difficult to treat for wearing the trappings of selflessness and love.

++

(the comments are all here)

Texts from Hillary Clinton

New favourite tumblr – texts from Hillary Clinton.

Memorandum to all staff – Daily Mail ethics c. 1966

In 1966-7 my Dad got a job as a young reporter for the Daily Mail’s Manchester office, just as it was made Newspaper of the Year. All staff received the memo below from editor Mike Randall.

When Dad sent it to me, he added: “Mike Randall left the paper soon afterwards. It became a tabloid and in ethical terms its downhill slide began. However, I think Randall’s statement still stands as the model of propriety to which all journalists working for all media should aspire.”

I couldn’t agree more – and it’s certainly how I’d hope people expect writers to behave. I’d add though that in the 15 years I’ve been writing, I haven’t noticed nearly as much awareness of the dangers of libel, sensationalism and indiscretion in young journos as was drilled into [my generation of] pre-internet trainees. I don’t think Twitter and the pressure of instant comment helps much though.

[EDITED TRANSCRIPT]
1. No member of the staff intrudes or is called to intrude into private lives where no public interest is involved.

2. No ordinary member of the public is lured, coerced or in any way pressed by a Daily Mail representative into giving an interview or picture which he is clearly unwilling to give.

3. It remains our duty at all times to expose the fraud and reveal the mountebank wherever public interest is involved.

4. In the reporting of Divorce Cases we use our own and not the Judge’s discretion. We give details only where the case and the summing up are of valid legal or public interest. We do not at at any time carry reports which merely hold either party up to ridicule or reveal aspects of their private lives which cannot be any concern of the public.

5. No member of the Daily Mail invents quotes or uses subterfuge to obtain quotes.

6. We are not in business to suppress news. Where anybody is guilty of withholding information that ought to be made public we use every legitimate method to give our readers that information.

7. Daily Mail staff do not allow themselves to be used as vehicles for the promotion of publicity stunts which have no legitimate news value.

8. Anyone who works for the Daily Mail should be watchdog of ours standards and a person who commands public respect.

ill Manors, Plan B and demonisation of the youth

Watch this video, Plan B’s directorial debut. Angry and passionate, mixed up and furious. Lots of hate pouring off the screen and out of the speakers – I mean, listen to the chorus! But then, once you’ve let it settle and you feel you have a handle on it, allow it context beyond your initial reaction. Context such as below, an extract from his TEDx speech (and the full speech itself).

I’m working really hard at the minute trying to finish my directorial debut,Ill Manors, which is a hip-hop-based film. When people ask me what the film is about, I say it’s about all the things we read in the newspaper; the despicable things that I don’t think many of us agree with when we read them. The papers tell us that they happen but they never tell us why they happen. So Ill Manors is trying to get to the bottom of why we have these problems in society with our youth, why we constantly keep on reading negative things about our youth.

The reason I’ve done this is because I got kicked out of school in year 10 and no other schools would take me. I had to go to a pupil referral unit called the Tunmarsh Centre in Plaistow. I was there with other kids from a lot more dysfunctional families than me. They’d been through a lot more than me. And one thing we shared is we didn’t have any respect for authority, whether it be teachers or police.

I think the reason why we didn’t have respect for authority was that we felt that we were ignored by society, that we didn’t belong to it. And so we wouldn’t listen to anyone apart from our favourite rappers. We would let this music raise us and, though most of will never meet those artists in our lives, their words are what guided us.

Unfortunately, some of those words are negative. Within hip-hop there’s some that romanticises street life and being a gangster and selling drugs. But there’s also conscious hip-hop. I was a fan of conscious hip-hop. I was a fan of the hip-hop that was like poetry. It was like reading a book and it changed your life. Just one sentence could change your life. I realised that this was a powerful tool and I wanted to change things; I wanted to change the stuff that I read in the paper or the stuff that I came in direct contact with which I didn’t agree with.

Damilola Taylor was 10 years old when he lost his life. He was stabbed by a kid who was maybe only five or six years older than him. This is a child killing another child. I didn’t agree with that. I didn’t agree with the mentality that a lot of these kids were going round with, but I understood why they were going round with it. I understood that they were from broken families. They had parents who were probably alcoholics, drug addicts, dysfunctional, who raised them up to believe they could never make anything of themselves because they as parents never made anything of themselves.

The great thing about Tunmarsh was it was a place where these kids could go and, for the first time in their life, be shown encouragement and motivation and be told that they can make something of their lives. They can come from a negative family environment [but] they only have to bump into one person that can plant one positive seed in their head and in their heart and it can change their life. Tunmarsh was full of these positive teachers. When I left there I went on this journey through hip-hop music and I decided to write an album that tried to reach out to these kids and I tried in some ways, I guess, to be a father figure to these kids because they were parentless.

What does the word chav mean? The term may have its origins in the Romany word “chavi”, meaning child. My godfather used to call me chav, but it was affectionate. I used to enjoy it. So what does that word mean now? I believe it stands for “council house and violent”. It’s a word that is used to ridicule and label people who come from a less educated background than the rest of society. For me, it’s no different from similar words used to be prejudiced towards race or sex. The difference is, in this country we openly say the word chav. The papers openly ridicule the poor and less unfortunate. If you did the same thing with race or sex, there’d be public uproar and rightly so. But why is it different with this word?

I believe that there is a demonisation of the youth throughout the media. And people are falling for it, because if you’d had no direct contact with the kids that I’m talking about how the hell can you judge them? Because you’re only judging them based on something you read in a newspaper, aren’t you?

See, this fuels the fire. If you call kids words that are derogatory to them just because they are unlucky enough to be born into a family that couldn’t afford to give them the education that you had, they’re going to hate you. Of course they’re going to hate you and you’re going to hate them because of their actions. And it’s this vicious circle that goes round. By calling these kids these words you push them out of your society and they don’t feel part of it. You beat them into apathy and in the end they just say: “Cool, I don’t care. I don’t want to be part of your society.”

And then the riots happen, right? We’ve got a generation of youths out there on the streets. The weather is hot, it’s nice. They ain’t got nothing to do because all the community centres have been shut down. And all the money that was put into summer projects to keep these kids monitored and occupied [has gone]. Their parents ain’t going to take them out of the country on holiday. You’ve got a whole generation of kids that do not feel that they’re part of this society and they start rioting and looting. And taking the things that society has made them feel are the most important things. Sheldon Thomas [former gang member and mentor] said: “If you ask how we became a society where young peoplethink it’s OK to rob and loot, I respond how did we get to a society that cares more about shops and businesses than lives of young people.” That’s some strong words right there.

This guy, he’s from Forest Gate, comes from a dysfunctional family background like myself, had a bad attitude but [he's] very talented. And I took him on the road with me and I showed him the opportunities that were out there for him. Andrew Curtis was trained by Vidal Sassoon. He was offered a very high-paying job. He said: “No, I don’t want to take your job. I won’t take your money.” He said: “I want to go and start an academy where we teach underprivileged kids how to cut hair.”

And so he did. Him and his girlfriend got this building and they set up this salon. They’re living there and they’re putting their hands in their pockets to pay for the things that these kids need in order to be trained. Because no one is giving them any funding. So he’s got kids who without this would have criminal records, who would go to prison. They’d be going down that path. No one is funding him, no one is backing him to do this. He’s doing this off his own back, just out of love.

Everyone knows one person out there they can help who’s less fortunate than them. And I’m not talking about help financially. I’m talking about knowledge. Plant that seed. Find out what these kids are good at, or what they care about or what they like, and try and draw it out of them because it will change their lives.

There’s a song by Jacob Miller called “Each One Teach One”. It’s a reggae song. You should listen to that song because that’s all we’ve got to do.

What isn’t for sale? Exploring the moral limits of markets

(via The Atlantic, adapted from What Money Can’t Buy: The Moral Limits of Markets, by Harvard political philosopher Michael J. Sandel)

THERE ARE SOME THINGS money can’t buy—but these days, not many. Almost everything is up for sale. For example:

• A prison-cell upgrade: $90 a night. In Santa Ana, California, and some other cities, nonviolent offenders can pay for a clean, quiet jail cell, without any non-paying prisoners to disturb them.

• Access to the carpool lane while driving solo: $8. Minneapolis, San Diego, Houston, Seattle, and other cities have sought to ease traffic congestion by letting solo drivers pay to drive in carpool lanes, at rates that vary according to traffic.

• The services of an Indian surrogate mother: $8,000. Western couples seeking surrogates increasingly outsource the job to India, and the price is less than one-third the going rate in the United States.

• The right to shoot an endangered black rhino: $250,000. South Africa has begun letting some ranchers sell hunters the right to kill a limited number of rhinos, to give the ranchers an incentive to raise and protect the endangered species.

• Your doctor’s cellphone number: $1,500 and up per year. A growing number of “concierge” doctors offer cellphone access and same-day appointments for patients willing to pay annual fees ranging from $1,500 to $25,000.

• The right to emit a metric ton of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere: $10.50. The European Union runs a carbon-dioxide-emissions market that enables companies to buy and sell the right to pollute.

• The right to immigrate to the United States: $500,000. Foreigners who invest $500,000 and create at least 10 full-time jobs in an area of high unemployment are eligible for a green card that entitles them to permanent residency.

NOT EVERYONE CAN AFFORD to buy these things. But today there are lots of new ways to make money. If you need to earn some extra cash, here are some novel possibilities:

• Sell space on your forehead to display commercial advertising: $10,000. A single mother in Utah who needed money for her son’s education was paid $10,000 by an online casino to install a permanent tattoo of the casino’s Web address on her forehead. Temporary tattoo ads earn less.

• Serve as a human guinea pig in a drug-safety trial for a pharmaceutical company: $7,500. The pay can be higher or lower, depending on the invasiveness of the procedure used to test the drug’s effect and the discomfort involved.

• Fight in Somalia or Afghanistan for a private military contractor: up to $1,000 a day. The pay varies according to qualifications, experience, and nationality.

• Stand in line overnight on Capitol Hill to hold a place for a lobbyist who wants to attend a congressional hearing: $15–$20 an hour. Lobbyists pay line-standing companies, who hire homeless people and others to queue up.

• If you are a second-grader in an underachieving Dallas school, read a book: $2. To encourage reading, schools pay kids for each book they read.

WE LIVE IN A TIME when almost everything can be bought and sold. Over the past three decades, markets—and market values—have come to govern our lives as never before. We did not arrive at this condition through any deliberate choice. It is almost as if it came upon us.

As the Cold War ended, markets and market thinking enjoyed unrivaled prestige, and understandably so. No other mechanism for organizing the production and distribution of goods had proved as successful at generating affluence and prosperity. And yet even as growing numbers of countries around the world embraced market mechanisms in the operation of their economies, something else was happening. Market values were coming to play a greater and greater role in social life. Economics was becoming an imperial domain. Today, the logic of buying and selling no longer applies to material goods alone. It increasingly governs the whole of life.

The years leading up to the financial crisis of 2008 were a heady time of market faith and deregulation—an era of market triumphalism. The era began in the early 1980s, when Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher proclaimed their conviction that markets, not government, held the key to prosperity and freedom. And it continued into the 1990s with the market-friendly liberalism of Bill Clinton and Tony Blair, who moderated but consolidated the faith that markets are the primary means for achieving the public good.

Today, that faith is in question. The financial crisis did more than cast doubt on the ability of markets to allocate risk efficiently. It also prompted a widespread sense that markets have become detached from morals, and that we need to somehow reconnect the two. But it’s not obvious what this would mean, or how we should go about it.

Some say the moral failing at the heart of market triumphalism was greed, which led to irresponsible risk-taking. The solution, according to this view, is to rein in greed, insist on greater integrity and responsibility among bankers and Wall Street executives, and enact sensible regulations to prevent a similar crisis from happening again.

This is, at best, a partial diagnosis. While it is certainly true that greed played a role in the financial crisis, something bigger was and is at stake. The most fateful change that unfolded during the past three decades was not an increase in greed. It was the reach of markets, and of market values, into spheres of life traditionally governed by nonmarket norms. To contend with this condition, we need to do more than inveigh against greed; we need to have a public debate about where markets belong—and where they don’t.

Consider, for example, the proliferation of for-profit schools, hospitals, and prisons, and the outsourcing of war to private military contractors. (In Iraq and Afghanistan, private contractors have actually outnumbered U.S. military troops.) Consider the eclipse of public police forces by private security firms—especially in the U.S. and the U.K., where the number of private guards is almost twice the number of public police officers.

Or consider the pharmaceutical companies’ aggressive marketing of prescription drugs directly to consumers, a practice now prevalent in the U.S. but prohibited in most other countries. (If you’ve ever seen the television commercials on the evening news, you could be forgiven for thinking that the greatest health crisis in the world is not malaria or river blindness or sleeping sickness but an epidemic of erectile dysfunction.)

Consider too the reach of commercial advertising into public schools, from buses to corridors to cafeterias; the sale of “naming rights” to parks and civic spaces; the blurred boundaries, within journalism, between news and advertising, likely to blur further as newspapers and magazines struggle to survive; the marketing of “designer” eggs and sperm for assisted reproduction; the buying and selling, by companies and countries, of the right to pollute; a system of campaign finance in the U.S. that comes close to permitting the buying and selling of elections.

These uses of markets to allocate health, education, public safety, national security, criminal justice, environmental protection, recreation, procreation, and other social goods were for the most part unheard-of 30 years ago. Today, we take them largely for granted.

Why worry that we are moving toward a society in which everything is up for sale?

For two reasons. One is about inequality, the other about corruption. First, consider inequality. In a society where everything is for sale, life is harder for those of modest means. The more money can buy, the more affluence—or the lack of it—matters. If the only advantage of affluence were the ability to afford yachts, sports cars, and fancy vacations, inequalities of income and wealth would matter less than they do today. But as money comes to buy more and more, the distribution of income and wealth looms larger.

The second reason we should hesitate to put everything up for sale is more difficult to describe. It is not about inequality and fairness but about the corrosive tendency of markets. Putting a price on the good things in life can corrupt them. That’s because markets don’t only allocate goods; they express and promote certain attitudes toward the goods being exchanged. Paying kids to read books might get them to read more, but might also teach them to regard reading as a chore rather than a source of intrinsic satisfaction. Hiring foreign mercenaries to fight our wars might spare the lives of our citizens, but might also corrupt the meaning of citizenship.

Economists often assume that markets are inert, that they do not affect the goods being exchanged. But this is untrue. Markets leave their mark. Sometimes, market values crowd out nonmarket values worth caring about.

When we decide that certain goods may be bought and sold, we decide, at least implicitly, that it is appropriate to treat them as commodities, as instruments of profit and use. But not all goods are properly valued in this way. The most obvious example is human beings. Slavery was appalling because it treated human beings as a commodity, to be bought and sold at auction. Such treatment fails to value human beings as persons, worthy of dignity and respect; it sees them as instruments of gain and objects of use.

Something similar can be said of other cherished goods and practices. We don’t allow children to be bought and sold, no matter how difficult the process of adoption can be or how willing impatient prospective parents might be. Even if the prospective buyers would treat the child responsibly, we worry that a market in children would express and promote the wrong way of valuing them. Children are properly regarded not as consumer goods but as beings worthy of love and care. Or consider the rights and obligations of citizenship. If you are called to jury duty, you can’t hire a substitute to take your place. Nor do we allow citizens to sell their votes, even though others might be eager to buy them. Why not? Because we believe that civic duties are not private property but public responsibilities. To outsource them is to demean them, to value them in the wrong way.

These examples illustrate a broader point: some of the good things in life are degraded if turned into commodities. So to decide where the market belongs, and where it should be kept at a distance, we have to decide how to value the goods in question—health, education, family life, nature, art, civic duties, and so on. These are moral and political questions, not merely economic ones. To resolve them, we have to debate, case by case, the moral meaning of these goods, and the proper way of valuing them.

This is a debate we didn’t have during the era of market triumphalism. As a result, without quite realizing it—without ever deciding to do so—we drifted from having a market economy to being a market society.

The difference is this: A market economy is a tool—a valuable and effective tool—for organizing productive activity. A market society is a way of life in which market values seep into every aspect of human endeavor. It’s a place where social relations are made over in the image of the market.

The great missing debate in contemporary politics is about the role and reach of markets. Do we want a market economy, or a market society? What role should markets play in public life and personal relations? How can we decide which goods should be bought and sold, and which should be governed by nonmarket values? Where should money’s writ not run?

Even if you agree that we need to grapple with big questions about the morality of markets, you might doubt that our public discourse is up to the task. It’s a legitimate worry. At a time when political argument consists mainly of shouting matches on cable television, partisan vitriol on talk radio, and ideological food fights on the floor of Congress, it’s hard to imagine a reasoned public debate about such controversial moral questions as the right way to value procreation, children, education, health, the environment, citizenship, and other goods. I believe such a debate is possible, but only if we are willing to broaden the terms of our public discourse and grapple more explicitly with competing notions of the good life.

In hopes of avoiding sectarian strife, we often insist that citizens leave their moral and spiritual convictions behind when they enter the public square. But the reluctance to admit arguments about the good life into politics has had an unanticipated consequence. It has helped prepare the way for market triumphalism, and for the continuing hold of market reasoning.

In its own way, market reasoning also empties public life of moral argument. Part of the appeal of markets is that they don’t pass judgment on the preferences they satisfy. They don’t ask whether some ways of valuing goods are higher, or worthier, than others. If someone is willing to pay for sex, or a kidney, and a consenting adult is willing to sell, the only question the economist asks is “How much?” Markets don’t wag fingers. They don’t discriminate between worthy preferences and unworthy ones. Each party to a deal decides for him- or herself what value to place on the things being exchanged.

This nonjudgmental stance toward values lies at the heart of market reasoning, and explains much of its appeal. But our reluctance to engage in moral and spiritual argument, together with our embrace of markets, has exacted a heavy price: it has drained public discourse of moral and civic energy, and contributed to the technocratic, managerial politics afflicting many societies today.

A debate about the moral limits of markets would enable us to decide, as a society, where markets serve the public good and where they do not belong. Thinking through the appropriate place of markets requires that we reason together, in public, about the right way to value the social goods we prize. It would be folly to expect that a more morally robust public discourse, even at its best, would lead to agreement on every contested question. But it would make for a healthier public life. And it would make us more aware of the price we pay for living in a society where everything is up for sale.

==
Further reading (if you want it) here, in his original lecture on the subject.

Wise words on perseverance, from them what know

“Never give in, never give in, never, never, never, never, in nothing, great or small, large or petty, never give in except to convictions of honor and good sense.”
Winston Churchill

“Our greatest glory is not in never failing, but in rising up every time we fail.”
Ralph Waldo Emerson

“The miracle, or the power, that elevates the few is to be found in their industry, application, and perseverance under the prompting of a brave, determined spirit.”
Mark Twain

“I have learned, that if one advances confidently in the direction of his dreams, and endeavors to live the life he has imagined, he will meet with a success unexpected in common hours.”
Henry David Thoreau

“A rolling stone gathers no moss.”
Publilius Syrus

“If I were to try to read, much less answer, all the attacks made on me, this shop might as well be closed for any other business. I do the very best I know how – the very best I can; and I mean to keep doing so until the end. If the end brings me out all right, what’s said against me won’t amount to anything. If the end brings me out wrong, ten angels swearing I was right would make no difference.”
Abraham Lincoln

“Apply yourself both now and in the next life. Without effort, you cannot be prosperous. Though the land be good, You cannot have an abundant crop without cultivation.”
Plato

“To be worn out is to be renewed.”
Lao Tzu

“I will prepare and some day my chance will come.”
Abraham Lincoln

“All endeavor calls for the ability to tramp the last mile, shape the last plan, endure the last hours toil. The fight to the finish spirit is the one… characteristic we must posses if we are to face the future as finishers.”
Henry David Thoreau

“It is common sense to take a method and try it. If it fails, admit it frankly and try another. But above all, try something.”
Franklin D. Roosevelt

“When I was young, I observed that nine out of ten things I did were failures. So I did ten times more work.”
George Bernard Shaw

“It’s not that I’m so smart, it’s just that I stay with problems longer.”
Albert Einstein

“Sure I am of this, that you have only to endure to conquer. You have only to persevere to save yourselves.”
Winston Churchill

“It’s not the size of the dog in the fight, it’s the size of the fight in the dog.”
Mark Twain

“If your determination is fixed, I do not counsel you to despair. Few things are impossible to diligence and skill. Great works are performed not by strength, but perseverance.”
Samuel Johnson

“It is a rough road that leads to the heights of greatness.”
Lucius Annaeus Seneca

Peace at any cost

Eisenhower’s worst fears came true. We invent enemies to buy the bombs

Britain faces no serious threat, yet keeps waging war. While big defence exists, glory-hungry politicians will use it

Fascinating article by Simon Jenkins in The Guardian:

Why do we still go to war? We seem unable to stop. We find any excuse for this post-imperial fidget and yet we keep getting trapped. Germans do not do it, or Spanish or Swedes. Britain’s borders and British people have not been under serious threat for a generation. Yet time and again our leaders crave battle. Why?

Last week we got a glimpse of an answer and it was not nice. The outgoing US defence secretary, Robert Gates, berated Europe’s “failure of political will” in not maintaining defence spending. He said Nato had declined into a “two-tier alliance” between those willing to wage war and those “who specialise in ‘soft’ humanitarian, development, peacekeeping and talking tasks”. Peace, he implied, is for wimps. Real men buy bombs, and drop them.

This call was echoed by Nato’s chief, Anders Fogh Rasmussen, who pointed out how unfair it was that US defence investment represented 75% of the Nato defence expenditure, where once it was only half. Having been forced to extend his war on Libya by another three months, Rasmussen wanted to see Europe’s governments come up with more money, and no nonsense about recession. Defence to him is measured not in security but in spending.

The call was repeated back home by the navy chief, Sir Mark Stanhope. He had to be “dressed down” by the prime minister, David Cameron, for warning that an extended war in Libya would mean “challenging decisions about priorities”. Sailors never talk straight: he meant more ships. The navy has used so many of its £500,000 Tomahawk missiles trying to hit Colonel Gaddafi (and missing) over the past month that it needs money for more. In a clearly co-ordinated lobby, the head of the RAF also demanded “a significant uplift in spending after 2015, if the service is to meet its commitments”. It, of course, defines its commitments itself.

Libya has cost Britain £100m so far, and rising. But Iraq and the Afghan war are costing America $3bn a week, and there is scarcely an industry, or a state, in the country that does not see some of this money. These wars show no signs of being ended, let alone won. But to the defence lobby what matters is the money. It sustains combat by constantly promising success and inducing politicians and journalists to see “more enemy dead”, “a glimmer of hope” and “a corner about to be turned”.

Victory will come, but only if politicians spend more money on “a surge”. Soldiers are like firefighters, demanding extra to fight fires. They will fight all right, but if you want victory that is overtime.

On Wednesday the Russian ambassador to Nato warned that Britain and France were “being dragged more and more into the eventuality of a land-based operation in Libya”. This is what the defence lobby wants institutionally, even if it may appal the generals. In the 1980s Russia watched the same process in Afghanistan, where it took a dictator, Mikhail Gorbachev, to face down the Red Army and demand withdrawal. The west has no Gorbachev in Afghanistan at the moment. Nato’s Rasmussen says he “could not envisage” a land war in Libya, since the UN would take over if Gaddafi were toppled. He must know this is nonsense. But then he said Nato would only enforce a no-fly zone in Libya. He achieved that weeks ago, but is still bombing.

It is not democracy that keeps western nations at war, but armies and the interests now massed behind them. The greatest speech about modern defence was made in 1961 by the US president Eisenhower. He was no leftwinger, but a former general and conservative Republican. Looking back over his time in office, his farewell message to America was a simple warning against the “disastrous rise of misplaced power” of a military-industrial complex with “unwarranted influence on government”. A burgeoning defence establishment, backed by large corporate interests, would one day employ so many people as to corrupt the political system. (His original draft even referred to a “military-industrial-congressional complex”.) This lobby, said Eisenhower, could become so huge as to “endanger our liberties and democratic processes”.

I wonder what Eisenhower would make of today’s US, with a military grown from 3.5 million people to 5 million. The western nations face less of a threat to their integrity and security than ever in history, yet their defence industries cry for ever more money and ever more things to do. The cold war strategist, George Kennan, wrote prophetically: “Were the Soviet Union to sink tomorrow under the waters of the ocean, the American military-industrial complex would have to remain, substantially unchanged, until some other adversary could be invented.”

The devil makes work for idle hands, especially if they are well financed. Britain’s former special envoy to Kabul, Sherard Cowper-Coles, echoed Kennan last week in claiming that the army’s keenness to fight in Helmand was self-interested. “It’s use them or lose them, Sherard,” he was told by the then chief of the general staff, Sir Richard Dannatt. Cowper-Coles has now gone off to work for an arms manufacturer.

There is no strategic defence justification for the US spending 5.5% of its gross domestic product on defence or Britain 2.5%, or for the Nato “target” of 2%.

These figures merely formalise existing commitments and interests. At the end of the cold war soldiers assiduously invented new conflicts for themselves and their suppliers, variously wars on terror, drugs, piracy, internet espionage and man’s general inhumanity to man. None yields victory, but all need equipment. The war on terror fulfilled all Eisenhower’s fears, as America sank into a swamp of kidnapping, torture and imprisonment without trial.

The belligerent posture of the US and Britain towards the Muslim world has fostered antagonism and moderate threats in response. The bombing of extremist targets in Pakistan is an invitation for terrorists to attack us, and then a need for defence against such attack. Meanwhile, the opportunity cost of appeasing the complex is astronomical. Eisenhower remarked that “every gun that is made is a theft from those who hunger” – a bomber is two power stations and a hospital not built. Likewise, each Tomahawk Cameron drops on Tripoli destroys not just a Gaddafi bunker (are there any left?), but a hospital ward and a classroom in Britain.

As long as “big defence” exists it will entice glory-hungry politicians to use it. It is a return to the hundred years war, when militaristic barons and knights had a stranglehold on the monarch, and no other purpose in life than to fight. To deliver victory they demanded ever more taxes for weapons, and when they had ever more weapons they promised ever grander victories. This is exactly how Britain’s defence ministry ran out of budgetary control under Labour.

There is one piece of good news. Nato has long outlived its purpose, now justifying its existence only by how much it induces its members to spend, and how many wars irrelevant to its purpose it finds to fight. Yet still it does not spend enough for the US defence secretary. In his anger, Gates threatened that “future US leaders … may not consider the return on America’s investment in Nato worth the cost”. Is that a threat or a promise?

On this day in 1963… JFK

Fascinating article by Andrew Marr:

President John F Kennedy and the art of dirty politics

Fifty years since he was elected US president, there is still an aura around John F Kennedy’s White House, yet arguably the dirtier side of modern politics has its roots in his rise to power.

Get the picture right, and your history will take care of itself. Jack Kennedy always got the picture right. Even now, it is hardly possible to glimpse the gleaming white smile, the sunlit hair and the perfect First Family without a lump in the throat.

JFK became the icon of democratic optimism, the man who inspired half the world. Cut down in his prime, he never grew old enough to betray, disillusion or bore his legion of admirers.

Who is President Josiah Bartlett of The West Wing but the liberal fantasy of a mature Kennedy – pin-sharp, hard as nails and bright with idealism?

So it comes as a shock to properly study Kennedy the campaigner. The story of how a rich, preppy party boy from Massachusetts managed to raise a roar for underdog America loud enough to carry him to the White House is gripping. But uplifting it certainly isn’t.

Yes, it’s a tale of soaring and risk-taking rhetoric, partly fashioned by the late lamented Ted Sorensen, and of a candidate with remarkable energy.

It is also, however, a tale of big money, smears, bribes, wire-pulling and bottomless cynicism. If you are asking what has gone so wrong with modern politics, Kennedy’s 1960 election campaign is a good place to start.

And in that campaign, West Virginia, the impoverished and sidelined state where Kennedy polished off his main Democratic rival Hubert Humphrey, is better still.

West Virginia is still the wooded, hilly, coal-mining-ravaged place of small towns, military volunteers and neighbourliness it was when the rivals clashed there.

On the one side came Kennedy with his private plane, a present from Daddy, and huge amounts of money for campaign commercials.

He came with promises about more money for the state but above all he was selling an image – the naval war hero, the glamorous wife, the kids, the homespun family with their little sailing boats.

Earlier politicians have had a “back-story” – log-cabins, Welsh cottages, you name it – but Kennedy was the first to sell his lifestyle.

Kennedy’s father Joe, the former (and unfriendly) ambassador to Britain, had made his fortune in steel, movies, whisky, stocks and property.

With an obsession about building his family into a great political dynasty, he had squared many of the key newspaper owners for his son, who in turn was a master at flattering their reporters.

He was ruthless and properly understood the rising power of the advertising companies – the world of Mad Men taking shape at the time.

As JFK later said, his father wanted to know the size of the eventual majority because “there was no way he was paying for a landslide”.

The Kennedy machine, an awesomely well organised instrument, had some obvious problems. Joe Kennedy was rumoured to have been a bootlegger, had been brought back to the US in 1940 having announced that “in Britain, democracy is finished”, and was a close ally of Senator Joe McCarthy.

Above all, he was a Roman Catholic at a time of fierce anti-Catholic prejudice, including in the overwhelmingly Protestant West Virginia. Yet the Kennedys knew that if they could beat Humphrey and win there, they could win anywhere.

Against them, Hubert Humphrey had a classic old-fashioned campaign. He had been too ill to fight in the war. His finances were meagre.

His wife was homely and old-fashioned. He had no private plane, but a bus – with a broken heater – instead.

He was one of the most intelligent, compassionate and literate politicians in modern American history, who had taken on Communists, organised crime and racialism when these were very dangerous fights to pick, and who understood middle America far better than Kennedy. But he was about to be crushed.

The Kennedy team dealt with their Catholic problem above all by smearing Humphrey as a draft-dodger. They saturated the state with advertising, money and helpers.

By the end, a stunned Humphrey, who had compared his fight to that of a corner store against a supermarket chain, was reduced to using the few hundred dollars he and his wife had saved for their daughter’s education to pay for a final campaign ad.

Having smeared Humphrey and trashed his reputation, the Kennedys washed their hands and denied it all.

Well, you may say, that’s politics. Kennedy went on, after all, to see off the grandees of the Democratic Party – Adlai Stevenson and the rising Texan, Lyndon Baines Johnson (who became his running mate) at the Democratic convention in LA.

Then he narrowly beat Richard Nixon after those famous televised debates when Nixon’s heavier growth of beard, badly chosen suit and tendency to sweat persuaded viewers Kennedy was the better man.

When I met some of those involved, including Kennedy’s TV adviser in 1960, I came away freshly awestruck by his presentational audacity.

For instance, in that first debate, Kennedy politely excused himself for a “comfort break” a minute before the two men were live on air. He did not come back.

As the studio manager was counting down the final seconds to going live, everyone – Nixon included – was aghast. Just as the count ended, there was Kennedy, smiling at the podium. “Psyching” an opponent doesn’t get smarter than that.

And yet… Kennedy beat Nixon not simply with his ads, his sound bites, his jingles, the carefully posed photographs and the downright lies he told about his health. He beat Nixon by not standing for anything beyond rousing banalities.

On the “missile gap” with the Russians, Kennedy knowingly hyped the danger. Nixon, as vice-president, knew the real facts but also for reasons of national security, could not reveal them. (And Kennedy probably knew that, too.)

On the other great issue – civil rights – the Kennedy team sent one message to black audiences and another to middle America.

Did it matter? I came away thinking the mix of big money, smearing, a feel-good blur where policy should have been, and the selling of the candidate like soap flakes, added up to a fairly shameful record.

Even then, he barely won. The younger Nixon, who was liberal on race and more economically mainstream than he became, could well have made a good earlier president.

In office Kennedy made some terrible overseas blunders (though kept his nerve over the Cuban missile crisis) and was slow on domestic policy, particularly civil rights. Had he lived longer, I think he would have had a lower presidential reputation.

The 1960 campaign is not the story I had expected. It’s a far more interesting one. It has been obliterated by those images of the handsome young father and husband, then the young king cut down in his prime.

But today we live in a world that has become profoundly cynical about politics. I think we owe it to ourselves to look past those images and ask: aren’t there better ways of doing democracy than Kennedy’s?

And the 2011 TED prize goes to… JR

JR exhibits his photographs in the biggest art gallery on the planet. His work is presented freely in the streets of the world, catching the attention of people who are not museum visitors. His work mixes Art and Action; it talks about commitment, freedom, identity and limit.

JR’s career as a photographer began when he found a camera in the Paris subway. In his first major project, in 2001 and 2002, JR toured and photographed street art around Europe, tracking the people who communicate their messages to the world on walls. His first large-format postings began appearing on walls in Paris and Rome in 2003. His first book, Carnet de rue par JR, about street artists, appeared in 2005.

In 2006, he launched “Portrait of a Generation,” huge-format portraits of suburban “thugs” from Paris’ notorious banlieues, posted on the walls of the bourgeois districts of Paris. This illegal project became official when Paris City Hall wrapped its own building in JR’s photos.

In 2007, with business partner Marco, he did “Face 2 Face,” which some consider the biggest illegal photo exhibition ever. JR and a grassroots team of community members posted huge portraits of Israelis and Palestinians face to face in eight Palestinian and Israeli cities, and on both sides of the security fence/separation barrier.

He embarked on a long international trip in 2008 for his exhibition “Women Are Heroes,” a project underlining the dignity of women who are the target of conflict. In 2010, the film Women Are Heroes was presented at the Cannes Film Festival and received a long standing ovation.

JR is currently working on two projects: “Wrinkles of the City,” which questions the memory of a city and its inhabitants; and Unframed, which reinterprets famous photographs and photographers by taking photos from museum archives and exposing them to the world as huge-format photos on the walls of cities. It asks the question: What is the art piece then? The original photo, the photo “unframed” by JR or both?

JR creates pervasive art that spreads uninvited on buildings of Parisian slums, on walls in the Middle East, on broken bridges in Africa or in favelas in Brazil. People in the exhibit communities, those who often live with the bare minimum, discover something absolutely unnecessary but utterly wonderful. And they don’t just see it, they make it. Elderly women become models for a day; kids turn into artists for a week. In this art scene, there is no stage to separate the actors from the spectators.

After these local exhibitions, two important things happen: The images are transported to London, New York, Berlin or Amsterdam where new people interpret them in the light of their own personal experience. And ongoing art and craft workshops in the originating community continue the work of celebrating everyone who lives there.

As he is anonymous and doesn’t explain his huge full-frame portraits of people making faces, JR leaves the space empty for an encounter between the subject/protagonist and the passerby/ interpreter.

This is what JR is working on: raising questions…

Portrait of JR photo credit: © Christopher Shay
Original link and copy for this page (with more images) at TED.

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