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Reading Notes from my Sickbed

Let's try to do this without tiring me out; just dragging the stack of magazines to the computer was wearying.

Granta 91: Wish You Were Here. How long has Simon Gray been scribbling memoirs on the Barbadian strand? This installment is eventually about Mr Gray's friend and colleague, the late Alan Bates; it takes seventeen entries for the piece to reach its subject. Happily, Simon Gray is an adorable procrastinator. Also absorbing was Simon Garfield's memoir of stamp collecting, "The Error World." Not that I've read much, but this is an excellent essay on the pleasures and pitfalls of philately, which all boys ought to be made to take up between the ages of eight and eleven. Stamp collecting is the royal road to mastering geography, and a subtle witness to modern history as well. Mr Garfield, his interest reawakened in middle-ages, teeters on the edge of an obsession with Errors - misprinted stamps - that, now that he can actually pay for them, might ruin him. As long as I'm on this issue, I have to point out Geoff Dyer's short and shocking "White Sands." The shock comes early and resonates right up until the end.

The Atlantic, December 2005. James Fallows has the cover story, "Why Iraq Has No Army." Since I don't want to know any more about the mess over there than I do, or in any greater detail, I skipped what was probably a lucid analysis. Like most Americans right now, I wouldn't know what to do with a lucid analysis. (I'll have more to say about this a little further along the list.) What I did read was Paul Bloom's "Is God an Accident?" Studies of infant and juvenile behavior suggest that we come into the world hard-wired to believe in the supernatural and in a creator. Adults just tone this down and rationalize it - and of course they exploit it for purposes that would never occur to a child. Apparently, we learn about the material world - the one in which rocks fall and things stay where they are until someone moves them - much earlier than we learn about the "social" world's rules.

For those of us who are not autistic, the separateness of these two mechanisms, one for the understanding the physical world and one for understanding the social world gives rise to a duality of experience. We experience the world of material things as separate from the world of goals and desires. The biggest consequence has to do with the way we think of ourselves and others. We are dualists; it seems intuitively obvious that a physical body and a conscious entity - a mind or soul - are genuinely distinct. We don't feel that we are our bodies. Rather, we feel that we occupy them, we possess them, we own them.

According to Mr Bloom, science and religion will always clash, because science makes no room for the duality that most of us (but not all) feel so intimately that we don't notice it. Science says, "that doesn't exist," and we feel robbed. The first lesson of science, of course, is that you don't go by your feelings; they're to be mistrusted at every turn. For lots of people, this is no way to live; it's not nice at all.

¶ In The Nation for December 26, 2005, Sasha Abramsky recounts the charming life story of Charles Graner, the ex-Marine prison guard who, recalled to Iraq, organized the Abu Ghraib follies. Nothing that he did surprises anyone back home in Waynesburg, Pennsylvania. Tara McKelvey writes about the think-tankers and scholars who have developed the Bush Administration's justifications of torture. Barry Schwabsky's long and knowing review of Art Since 1900 will have to wait until I sink my teeth into Barry Gewen's essay, "State of the Art," one of these days when I'm not feeling poorly. In The Nation for December 19, Daniel Lazare reviews two very different books, The Jewish Century, by Yuri Slezkine, and A History of the Jews in the Modern World, by Howard M Sachar. Mr Slezkine's looks to be the more interesting book by far, but it is contentious about Israel and Palestine.

¶ Michael Massing concludes his two-part look at the American media in The New York Review of Books, Volume LII No 20 (December 15, 2005). The first piece concentrated on structural problems, such as corporate ownership; the second focuses on the rot within the profession of journalism itself. What it comes down to, in argument after argument, is a failure of courage. Reporters and, more significant, as gatekeepers, editors, don't want to rouse the wrath of wingnuts.

When NBC cameraman Kevin Sites filmed a US soldier fatally shooting a wounded Iraqi man in Fallujah, he was harassed, deounced as a an antiwar activist, and sent death threats. Such  incidents feed the deep-seated fear that many US journalists have of being accused of being anti-American, of not supporting the troops in the field. These subjects remain off limits.

In other words, we're no better than Turkey, where discussing atrocities that occurred almost ninety years ago is still taboo. If you don't talk about it, it goes away. I wish that Paul Bloom would go back to those cognitive scientists who studied children and see if there's something in our early development that makes denial appear to be a successful strategy. Not that it ever, ever is.

Mr Massing correctly points out that, for one reason or another, the weekly New York Times Magazine is considerably bolder than the daily paper in its Iraqi reportage.


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I do tend to go by my feelings, but I don't feel robbed by the absence of God.

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