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27 April 2010


Matins: At the risk of playing with paradoxes, we submit that, buried in plain sight in the following extract from Jill Lepore's Letter from Boston, "Tea and Sympathy," there is an indictment of the largely liberal academic class — an indictment not from the right or from the left, but from the point of view of engaged humanism. (The New Yorker)

The rise of this sort of thinking has gone, to some degree, unchallenged, just as, in the nineteen-seventies, historians mocked the Bicentennial as schlock and its protests as contrived, but didn’t offer an answer, a story, to a country that needed one. The American historical profession defines itself by its dedication to the proposition that looking to the past to explain the present falls outside the realm of serious historical study. That stuff is for amateurs and cranks. Hofstadter disagreed. He recognized the perils of presentism—seeing the past as nothing more than a prologue to the present introduces evidentiary and analytical distortions and risks reducing humanistic inquiry to shabby self-justification—but he believed that scholars with something to say about the relationship between the past and the present had an obligation to say it, as carefully as possible, by writing with method, perspective, and authority. Hofstadter died in 1970. He was one of the last university professors of American history to reach readers outside the academy with sweeping interpretations of his own time.

The Bicentennial—a carnival of presentism—helped make the position that Hofstadter once occupied impossible. That left a great deal of room for a lot of other people to get into the history business. Today’s reactionary history of early America, reductive, unitary, and, finally, dangerously anti-pluralist, ignores slavery and compresses a quarter century of political contest into “the founding,” as if the ideas contained in Thomas Paine’s “Common Sense,” severing the bonds of empire, were no different from those in the Constitution, establishing a strong central government. “Who’s your favorite Founder?” Beck asked Palin in January. “Um, you know, well,” she said. “All of them.”

If you leave popular history to cranks, as American historians have done, then the witlessness of Tea Party thinking comes as no surprise.

Lauds: Toni Bentley has her hip replaced, and comes to terms with the arthritis that ended her City Ballet career when she was still a young woman. She also learns what you do with bones to keep them from going rancid. (NYRBlog)

There on the bottom of my red plastic colander that had held so many strands of pasta was my hip. Sort of. This was the first time I had really seen the pieces not submerged in liquid. I had to look in brief flashes to get used to it. There was me, the inside on the outside, and it sure didn’t look pretty. I had hoped to see the arthritis that had caused the end of my dance career at an age young even for a dancer. I wanted to confront the enemy and see that it was real. Even now, all these years later, I still think I should have been able to cure my injury, alleviate the pain and increase my motion with enough sleep, steak, cod liver oil, time, acupuncture, physical therapy, and Pilates. Like a child, I thought my bad hip was my fault. I wanted to face it now, to confirm somehow that I could not, with all the will in the world, have overcome it and danced again.

So there it was, the femur head in two halves (pathology had cut it in half). But there were numerous other pieces, bits, God knows what. Yuck. Maybe the bleach would, at least, turn everything white, purify it. It didn’t. And neither did the sun.

Prime: For some reason, the idea of self-financing the Securities and Exchange Commission — funding staff and operations with fines and fees would double its budget — has just moved Tyler Cowen to consider the idea. He sees some pros, but more cons. (Marginal Revolution) The Epicurean Dealmaker made the case for self-financing in March.

 I fear that in the longer run self-finance means that the SEC never wishes to see the financial sector shrink.  (Of course maybe it's not going to shrink anyway.)  A related question is what kind of internal controls the SEC would need to maintain its own fiscal discipline and prevent overspending, backed by an excess raising of funds and fees.  So whether self-finance is a good idea probably depends on what you are comparing it to.  A final question, and not a small one, is whether you think the SEC should be more independent from Congress.

But Mr Cowen overlooks the biggest pro: equalizing compensation between regulators and the folks (lawyers, mostly) whom they regulate. You oughtn't to have to take a pay cut — not in this country — just because you want to do the right thing.

Tierce: Fight or flight: a guy thing? Looks like it. Ingrid Wickelgren reports at Scientific American.

These conditions revealed a striking sex difference in the brain in the extent to which men and women process faces, and perform emotional assessments of others, under stress. The men under the influence of high cortisol levels showed less activity in a key face-processing region of the brain (the fusiform face area or FFA) than the unstressed men did, suggesting that stressful situations diminish the ability of men to evaluate facial expressions. By contrast, the brains of the women under strain worked harder on the faces: in these females, the FFA was more active than it was in women who did not experience the cortisol boost.

This sex difference was apparent not only in the face evaluation area, but also in a circuit of regions that enables people to internally simulate and understand the emotions of others. This circuit includes the insula, which governs feelings of empathy, and the temporal pole, which helps us understand others' states of mind. According to the researchers' analysis, stress appeared to increase the flow of information between these regions and the FFA in women, orchestrating a concerted response. But in males, cortisol worked to disconnect the brain's analysis of facial expression from its evaluation of others' emotions.

Sext: In case you've been hoping that the story would just go away, David Carr wrote a thoughtful piece about it over the weekend: "Monetizing an iPhone Spectacle." Quaere: is a news story a commodity? Perhaps it's better to ask if a news story is actually involved in this case. (NYT)

As a scoop, the iPhone story had some legs and certainly some interest for Apple’s competitors. As a piece of journalism, it didn’t make the world a better place, or even a much more interesting one. Of course, there is very real business value to Apple’s competitors and it was keenly read by a self-selected group, but by the end of the week, the phone, which may or may not have been stolen goods, depending on your perspective, seemed a little beside the point.

“Any other news organization would make this a story about, you know, the actual phone,” said Rex Sorgatz, a veteran blogger who runs Kinda Sorta Media, a consulting company. “But the phone itself is a boring piece of hardware. (‘Oh, look, an iPhone with square corners and two volume buttons.’) In Denton’s hands, it’s a story of intrigue: ‘How did they get the phone? Where was it found? Did they pay for it? How much?’ ”

So millions of us showed up for the phone but stayed for the intrigue. And Gawker squeezed the grape for every bit of juice there was. Stories began to pop up about how Gawker bought the scoop — beating out Engadget, another tech blog, which refused to pay — and then there was a lot of kerfuffle over whether it was legal, moral or just canny business.

Nones: Todd Cowell and Joshua Kurlantzick agree that intercession by Thailand's King Bhumibol would probably not quell the Red Shirts' insurgency. Mr Cowell traces chilling similarities between Thailand today and Spain in 1936. Interestingly, it's difficult to assess the one difference that he locates — is it a good thing or a bad thing?

One major difference between Thailand 2010 and Spain 1936 is the supreme lack of interest by anyone outside of Thailand. The Spanish Civil War was a landmark event in 20th century history because it became a kind of proxy war between democracy and the rising forces of communism in the Soviet Union and fascism in Germany and Italy.

Nobody outside of Thailand has a dog in this fight, even as the country unravels. Maybe only those of us who have lived or visited there can feel the horror as the events unfold and feel the shame expressed even by the local media: "Yesterday was a truly shameful day for our country, which had its international reputation destroyed," said the Bangkok Post, speaking of the red shirt assault on a foreign ministerial meeting in which some dignitaries had to be rescued by helicopter.

Vespers: What Jill Lepore calls presentism (above), Patrick Kurp calls temporal parochialism. (Anecdotal Evidence)

“Men do mightily wrong themselves when they refuse to be present in all ages and neglect to see the beauty of all kingdoms.”

A gently apt turn of phrase: “present in all ages.” Judging by most blogs and book-related web sites, the cult of diversity has been adopted only by a minority of readers when it comes to pre-contemporary writers. Most remain present only in the impoverished present. Temporal parochialism reigns – an odd prejudice considering the ephemerality of this literary age. To limit one’s reading in time seems a graver foolishness than to do so in space (that is, by the language or nationality of authors). I feel the impulse to ask such time-blinkered readers: “When did you last read `Gusev?’ Religio Medici? `Apology for Raymond Sebond?’”

Compline: There's a first time for everything, and this one is sweet to read about: Emily Guerin takes her first train ride along the Northeast Corridor, from Boston's South Station to Washington's Union Station. It's a strange kind of sightseeing, to be sure. (The Bygone Bureau)

As I boarded the train in Boston that morning, I didn’t realize that I was about to glimpse an overlooked part of America. The secret hideouts of children and the homeless in the woods of Rhode Island, Baltimore’s decaying neighborhoods, and the industrial wastelands surrounding Philadelphia are sights hidden from everyone except local residents and Amtrak passengers.

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