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Category Archives: intellectual spot

Reading several books at once may do your head in…

… or it may set up a rather interesting and unexpected harmonic.

The three books in question are:

All three are well worth reading. 

I give Armstrong five stars more as a history than as a work that is entirely convincing theologically – it is if you agree with her, which I am inclined to do, but even so I still take the Axial Age hypothesis with a grain or two of salt. What is good in this wide-ranging work is the fresh insight it has afforded me into unexpected and often hitherto unexplored parallels in the thinkers and prophets of the ancient world in Greece, India, the Middle East and China. Armstrong is no fundamentalist; her very respectable scepticism on the historicity of much of the Bible as “fact” bears witness to that. On the other hand, her opposition of mythos and logos will not appeal to everyone, even if I think there is much to be said for it so long as one realises it has the weakness of all such dichotomies. Religion to Armstrong is not well served by being treated as logos. Paradoxically that is what fundamentalists tend to do. Mythos reminds me more than anything of John Keats and “negative capability.”

I had not a dispute but a disquisition with Dilke, on various subjects; several things dovetailed in my mind, & at once it struck me, what quality went to form a Man of Achievement especially in literature & which Shakespeare possessed so enormously – I mean Negative Capability, that is when man is capable of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts without any irritable reaching after fact & reason.

More on Armstrong: Heavy-hitter stands up for God and religion; Richard Dawkins vs. Karen Armstrong: "Where Does Evolution Leave God?"; Man vs. God – the Armstrong/Dawkins “debate” which was reprinted in The Australian this weekend: it mostly shows two contrasting sensibilities, in my opinion.

I repeat: Armstrong is an excellent historian of ideas.

D Michael Lindsay is an excellent ethnologist of religion. I very much agree with this review.

Summary: This author spoke with more than 300 leaders in politics, business, academia, media and entertainment between 2003 and 2006. All were self-identified evangelicals, a category Lindsay defines as "someone who believes (1) the Bible is the supreme authority for religious belief and practice, (2) that he or she has a personal relationship with Jesus Christ, and (3) that one should take a transforming activist approach to faith." His intent was to study the historical events and social forces that have facilitated the movement of evangelicals into prominent mainstream positions and roles during the past forty or fifty years. He focuses on four broad sectors reflective of modern life in America – politics, higher education, entertainment and business. How did evangelical influences come to wield any kind of power in this democracy, given the small percentage of adherents relative to that of the greater population of more casual believers?

Lindsay’s essential answer is that evangelicals have chosen to actively apply themselves (through both their labor and their not inconsiderable resources) to the job of ensuring that their understanding of Christian behavior and values seed the future direction of American culture and government. In his view, the various groups have accomplished a tremendous amount in politics and education but have had far less impact on the media and entertainment industries. In the corporate environment, he notes that influential business executives seem to put more emphasis on leveraging their faith at levels that don’t necessarily include local churches or parishes tending instead to focus on the parachurch. [Note: I had to look this word up; it refers to bodies that operate outside of and across denominational churches to accomplish specific goals. I gather the word tends to be used chiefly in evangelical circles.]

One of the great strengths of Lindsay’s documentation is that he makes it clear that evangelicals are far from being a monolithic group. Whether talking about specific individuals or evangelical organizations, he makes clear that they are diverse and sometimes accomplish their goals by aligning with clearly different belief sectors, such as the Roman Catholic Church, when necessary to achieve an end. Such alliances don’t always last, for obvious reasons, but the evangelicals have built social relationships and networks that foster the desired end result…

It is “thick description” – far more subtle than the standard rant pro or con religion in US politics. I found it fascinating.

SONY DSC                     Timothy Clack is far younger than I thought! He is “[St Peter’s] College [Oxford] Lecturer in Archaeology and Director of Studies in Archaeology and Anthropology. Tim is an anthropological archaeologist with diverse research and teaching interests. Themes with which he is currently engaged include: archaeology of experience, archaeological mediation, syncretism and religious fusion, anthropology of conflict, and memory and cultural landscapes. He has been fortunate in being able to conduct archaeological and anthropological research in the UK, Ethiopia, Rwanda, Tanzania and Borneo. Timothy is an elected fellow of the Royal Asiatic Society, Royal Geographical Society and the Royal Anthropological Institute. He is also holds associate membership of the British Institute in Eastern Africa and the African Studies Centre, University of Oxford.”

He has, however, not been well served by proof-readers – there are quite a few clangers in Ancestral Roots. For example, I am sure Dr Clack knows that T H Huxley is not the same as Aldous Huxley, though they are related.

The book is in the evolutionary biology genre, but ranges much more widely than most. According to Alan Bilsborough in The Times Educational Supplement: “Overall, Ancestral Roots is a fluent and wide-ranging account of the human condition viewed from an evolutionary perspective, although the author’s preaching sometimes obtrudes to interrupt the flow. The text suffers from the selectivity of all such eclectic accounts, and there are sufficient errors of detail in the bits I think I know something about to make me wonder as to the accuracy of those I don’t. In other words, read this book as a stimulating and engaging survey, but don’t take it too seriously as a definitive diagnosis of our current predicament.”  I didn’t mind the preaching, personally. Loved what he says about ethnocentrism, religion, and co-operation – just to name a few areas.

 

One fiction, one non-fiction

Two good reads for the last July 09 book review.

star30star30star30star30  1. Gary Bryson, Turtle, Sydney, Allen & Unwin 2008

I am not overfond of some of what passes as magic realism, but in this case the magic is really magic and the realism gritty and true. This is a wonderful first novel from Bryson, who works as a radio journalist on Radio National’s Encounter. From the title link above:

Mandy Sayer interviews Gary Bryson

Mandy Sayer was Gary Bryson’s creative writing lecturer when he was writingTurtle. She calls the book ‘one of the finest debut novels I have read in years’ and says Bryson’s storytelling is ‘quite simply, enchanting’. She spoke to Gary for Readings on the eve of Turtle’s release.

What are the chances of finding a turtle in Scotland?

You might find one in the zoo, but otherwise the turtle steers well clear of Scotland. A country where you have to wear two pairs of socks most of the year is no place for our flippery friends.

So how did a turtle that speaks with a Glasgow accent come about?

When Donald (the story’s narrator) has to imagine his escape from his mother’s curse, it’s a turtle that he latches on to, as an exotic creature that’s seemingly about as far from Glasgow as you can get. But Donald’s imagination is shaped by his culture and his upbringing, so the turtle he conjures up as his saviour is a distinctly Glasgow one. The Turtle in the book is a sketch of a particular kind of Glasgow character, all front and no-nonsense, whose relations with everyone are enacted through a kind of genial, foul-mouthed banter which sometimes spills over into vindictiveness, but also expresses a kind of love. It’s not so far-fetched, really. On the face of it a turtle is about the most un-Glaswegian creature you could imagine, but on the other hand, it hides itself behind this big, tough shell. That’s its survival tactic and it’s one that’s worked well for both turtles and Glaswegians…

star30star30star30star30 2. Umberto Eco, Mouse or Rat: Translation as Negotiation, London, Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2003

Sounds dry, doesn’t it? But is really is a most interesting book. As the reviewer in the title link says:

This is a real gem of a book – especially if you’re a translator. Eco does a great job of exploring the complexities of the translation process and the problems faced by literary translators in particular. Translation is not just "typing in a foreign language"; translators are forced to continually analyze, interpret, evaluate and – as Eco puts it – negotiate with a text in order to craft a translation that conveys not just the "meaning" but the intent of the original. As both a translator and a "translatee", Eco has a unique insight into translation, and he provides numerous intriguing anecdotes relating to how the trickier passages in his own books and the books of others have been dealt with successfully – and sometimes less successfully – by translators. Being a translator myself, I couldn’t help but nod and smile in agreement all through this book…

The Guardian reviewer exaggerates the book’s difficulty, though there are indeed some knotty passages. On the other hand very many of the anecdotes and examples are highly amusing as well as instructive, such as the passing of the opening of Genesis through several languages in a computer translator by which the Spirit turns into alcohol…

 

The hidden power of language

The idea that language shapes (if not determines) our perspectives, indeed what we may think, has been around for a long time. I have encountered examples of the phenomenon in teaching ESL and EFL (English as a Foreign Language). For example, some Chinese students and I once disputed the colour of something we were all looking at only to discover that our mother tongues cut the spectrum into somewhat different arbitrary bits in the blue/green section. The “real” spectrum has no divisions; our language imposes or constructs divisions.

So I am drawn (via the Arts & Letters Daily) to HOW DOES OUR LANGUAGE SHAPE THE WAY WE THINK? [6.12.09] by Lera Boroditsky.

For a long time, the idea that language might shape thought was considered at best untestable and more often simply wrong. Research in my labs at Stanford University and at MIT has helped reopen this question. We have collected data around the world: from China, Greece, Chile, Indonesia, Russia, and Aboriginal Australia. What we have learned is that people who speak different languages do indeed think differently and that even flukes of grammar can profoundly affect how we see the world. Language is a uniquely human gift, central to our experience of being human. Appreciating its role in constructing our mental lives brings us one step closer to understanding the very nature of humanity…

Scholars on the other side of the debate don’t find the differences in how people talk convincing. All our linguistic utterances are sparse, encoding only a small part of the information we have available. Just because English speakers don’t include the same information in their verbs that Russian and Turkish speakers do doesn’t mean that English speakers aren’t paying attention to the same things; all it means is that they’re not talking about them. It’s possible that everyone thinks the same way, notices the same things, but just talks differently.

Believers in cross-linguistic differences counter that everyone does not pay attention to the same things: if everyone did, one might think it would be easy to learn to speak other languages. Unfortunately, learning a new language (especially one not closely related to those you know) is never easy; it seems to require paying attention to a new set of distinctions. Whether it’s distinguishing modes of being in Spanish, evidentiality in Turkish, or aspect in Russian, learning to speak these languages requires something more than just learning vocabulary: it requires paying attention to the right things in the world so that you have the correct information to include in what you say.

Such a priori arguments about whether or not language shapes thought have gone in circles for centuries, with some arguing that it’s impossible for language to shape thought and others arguing that it’s impossible for language not to shape thought. Recently my group and others have figured out ways to empirically test some of the key questions in this ancient debate, with fascinating results. So instead of arguing about what must be true or what can’t be true, let’s find out what is true…

I am storing a copy for future reference: Edge_ HOW DOES OUR LANGUAGE pdf.

 

June review catch-up 1

Yes, I know how long I have been promising a string of reviews on that “sticky” above. ;)  Well, now to get started…

star30 star30star30star30star30 1. Simon Schama, The American Future: A History (2008).

Rather snooty review by David Brooks in The New York Times: “His book is called “The American Future: A History” (which is a puerile paradox before you even open the cover), and it has nothing whatsoever to do with the American future.” When you actually read the book you do get the title: historically “The American Dream” (the phrase itself, if not the idea, first appeared in 1931) has been very much about possibility and the future – witness the ending of The Great Gatsby. Beginning each chapter with vignettes of the 2008 Presidential Election, Schama traces a series of themes back through a number of intelocked and fascinating profiles. The result, in my view, is one of the most subtle portraits of the USA and its evolution that I have ever read. Nothing puerile about the title or the book.

Much nearer the mark is Carmela Ciuraru in The Christian Science Monitor.

William Faulkner once famously wrote that “the past is never dead; it isn’t even past,” a quote that aptly describes the perspective of Simon Schama’s latest book. In The American Future: A History, the eminent British historian and Columbia University professor offers a kaleidoscopic view of our national identity – by way of examining war, immigration, religion, and prosperity.

He sets off these themes with the 2008 presidential election, “impregnated with history,” an event that Schama likens to Thomas Jefferson’s inaugural in 1801, when Jefferson similarly spoke out against divisive rhetoric, proclaiming that “every difference of opinion is not a difference of principle.”

Weaving in original reportage, analysis, and historical events, Schama investigates where our nation of boundless appetite and ambition might be headed. The book (a companion to his BBC documentary series) is both a celebration and a wake-up call. “The American future is all vision, numinous, unformed, light-headed with anticipation,” he writes. “The American past is baggy with sobering truth.” The author is particularly harsh about our country’s recent past, notably “the woeful performance of [former president George W. Bush] and his hapless maladministration.” …

He isn’t striving for objectivity; this book is part history, part polemic. As a scholar and an outsider in his adopted country, he views the Bush administration as an unmitigated disaster. Yet the author is smart enough to (mostly) keep his opinions to himself, and let others do the talking – whether through contemporary interviews or quotes from historical figures…

He’s especially adroit at studying our historical ambivalence toward immigrants, and how religious ideology has shaped our identity. (He notes that American evangelism has always puzzled “habitually secular, skeptical Europeans.”)

American history is endlessly rich and fascinating, but Schama’s travelogue makes it come alive in a wonderfully accessible way. Sure, some of his pronouncements seem a bit obvious, but he includes so many surprising moments (an amusingly candid off-the-cuff encounter with George W. Bush, for instance) that all is forgiven. Schama happens to be a marvelous storyteller, too. Never condescending, his portrait of America’s complexities and contradictions is entertaining, provocative, and above all, hopeful.

The chapter on religion — “American Fervour” – is particularly valuable. It is a nuanced corrective to the polarised and polarising views of the subject one so often sees.* Let’s face it, too much we see and hear about the USA is at the level of cartoon thought, whether it be mindless patriotism on the one hand or subscription to the idea that the USA is at the bottom of all that is wrong with the world on the other.

You can read Chapter One here. Some idea of the TV series may be seen here. A definite Best Read of 2009!

* See also Caspar Melville “Free Market Faith”, New Humanist May/June 2009.

star30star30 star30 2. Stephen Prothero, Religious Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know – and Doesn’t (2007)

I really have mixed feelings about this one.

"Many US high school students think that Sodom and Gomorrah were husband and wife."

The book is written for a popular audience and serves several good purposes. It contains a useful “encyclopedia” of relevant religious movements and ideas that really does encapsulate much that we all “need to know” to make sense of the world around us. These entries cover most of the main world religions. They are sane on Islam-related matters.

On the other hand much of the historical section is, to my mind, quite odd – a nostalgia for contexts and situations that even the author eventually admits we can’t return to, and probably shouldn’t try.

star30star30star30star30 3. June 2009 Monthly Magazine

I particularly enjoyed Waleed Aly “Patriot Acts”, Fiona Capp “In the Garden” (about Judith Wright and Nugget Coombs) and Peter Sutton “Here I Stand” – a very insightful profile of the undoubtedly brilliant if controversial Noel Pearson: “Peter Sutton reflects on the many facets of Noel Pearson’s thought as it appears in Up From the Mission, the Cape York leader’s comprehensive new collection of writing.”

The blurb for “Patriot Acts” follows.

“American patriotism does not celebrate a country that exists or has ever existed. It is a celebration of the idea of America: of possibility, what Barack Obama calls ‘America’s promise’. Where we may look upon America as the country of slavery and racial segregation, Americans see a country that overcame these things … This is a concept alien to those whose sense of patriotism has an older, more European flavour. The message of Australia’s staunchest patriots is that ours is a great country with a great history and no need for change.”

In “Patriot Acts”, Waleed Aly looks beyond the cheering and flag waving to provide a unique and compelling analysis of American patriotism, its history and complexity, and the lessons Australia can draw from it. “The secret to America’s unique brand of national identity,” Aly says, is that it “coheres principally around not a social culture but a political one”; it is this, he argues, that allows American patriotism to be embraced by even the most marginalised in US society.

“The demands America makes of its minorities are less trenchant than those preferred by anti-multiculturalists. Its demands are civic demands. If Australia has lately had a message for its migrants, it has been, ‘Fit in’. America’s message is, ‘Participate’. The two are worlds apart. The latter expresses a national identity that is dynamic and open, and that offers citizens a belief in their own freedom of conscience and the opportunity to contribute something new. The former expresses a national identity that is comparatively fixed, that makes its demands without inviting input and that, as a consequence, inspires little fidelity.”

 

Substantial food for thought on Radio National

Given the trivia and infotainment and sometimes unbalanced ranting that characterise too much of the media, it can be refreshing – and challenging – to tune into Australia’s Radio National. I probably should do so more.

I was struck particularly by some recent episodes of All in the Mind.

1. Child soldiers: the Art and arts of healing (Part 1 of 2). “Born into the bloody horror of war, Sudanese rap artist Emmanuel Jal was 9 when he was recruited into the Sudanese Peoples’ Liberation Army as a child soldier. Incredibly he survived, and his music reaches a generation of Lost Boys.”

2. Child soldiers: the Art and arts of healing (Part 2 of 2). “In Sierra Leone, child soldiers committed acts that words can barely describe. At the war’s end, ravaged communities responded to them with terror and stigma. A minority of former child soldiers, many orphaned, have access to reintegration programs. Dance and movement therapist David Alan Harris describes an extraordinary project to respond to the traumatised psyche through engaging the body.”

You can listen, or read the transcripts. It is strong stuff.

Then I enjoyed A tribute to Isaiah Berlin on The Philosopher’s Zone.

John Gray: Although he thought each of these conceptions, negative and positive liberty were in some ways legitimate and authentic developments from a basic core, which is common to both, he preferred negative liberty to positive liberty in any of the versions that it had had throughout history, and there were several. I mean I think what he feared in positive liberty was paternalism, and even a type of authoritarianism, or even totalitarianism….

I should make one very important point though. I think it’s a great mistake as some people do, to assimilate Berlin therefore to certain types of narrow or extreme liberal or libertarian thinkers who argue that what states should only do is to protect negative liberty. And he himself certainly did not take the view that the purpose of government was only to protect and promote negative liberty. As I mentioned earlier he wasn’t a tremendously political person; he was never actively involved in politics but if I had to describe his political outlook it would be that of a Rooseveltian liberal or in British or Australian terms of a moderate social democrat, and of course being that, meant that negative liberty could and should be tempered and constrained and supplemented by other important values such as social cohesion, distribution, equality and so forth.

Nonetheless he was strongly critical of positive conceptions of liberty because they assumed within individuals and between individuals and in societies as a whole, an actual or a potential harmony which he thought was delusory.

NOTE: The transcript for the second All in the Mind program goes up later this week. You may listen though.

 
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Posted by on June 9, 2009 in Africa, Australia, Australia and Australian, faith and philosophy, human rights, humanity, inspiration, intellectual spot, radio

 

China, the USA, the car, and the environment

Two good items from Monday’s Arts & Letters Daily.

1. P J O’Rourke, The End of the Affair. Provocative and ironic as usual…

The phrase “bankrupt General Motors,” which we expect to hear uttered on Monday, leaves Americans my age in economic shock. The words are as melodramatic as “Mom’s nude photos.” And, indeed, if we want to understand what doomed the American automobile, we should give up on economics and turn to melodrama.

Politicians, journalists, financial analysts and other purveyors of banality have been looking at cars as if a convertible were a business. Fire the MBAs and hire a poet. The fate of Detroit isn’t a matter of financial crisis, foreign competition, corporate greed, union intransigence, energy costs or measuring the shoe size of the footprints in the carbon. It’s a tragic romance—unleashed passions, titanic clashes, lost love and wild horses…

The American automobile is—that is, was—never a product of Japanese-style industrialism. America’s steel, coal, beer, beaver pelts and PCs may have come from our business plutocracy, but American cars have been manufactured mostly by romantic fools. David Buick, Ransom E. Olds, Louis Chevrolet, Robert and Louis Hupp of the Hupmobile, the Dodge brothers, the Studebaker brothers, the Packard brothers, the Duesenberg brothers, Charles W. Nash, E. L. Cord, John North Willys, Preston Tucker and William H. Murphy, whose Cadillac cars were designed by the young Henry Ford, all went broke making cars. The man who founded General Motors in 1908, William Crapo (really) Durant, went broke twice. Henry Ford, of course, did not go broke, nor was he a romantic, but judging by his opinions he certainly was a fool…

2. Jacques Leslie, The Last Empire: China’s Pollution Problem Goes Global.

…The emergence of China as a dominant economic power is an epochal event, as significant as the United States’ ascendancy after World War II. It is in many ways an astonishment, starting with the ideological about-face that enabled it, the throwing over of Maoist values for plainly capitalist ones starting in the late 1970s. So thorough is the change that the 19-foot-tall portrait of a stolid, potato-faced Mao Zedong that still looms over traffic-choked, commerce-suffused Tiananmen Square looks paradoxical, even startling, in seeming need of an update in which Mao winks—or sobs—in blinking neon. Meanwhile, inside Beijing’s Forbidden City, the heart of old China, buildings with such intoxicating names as Hall of Preserved Harmony and Palace of Heavenly Purity bear signs reading, "Made Possible by the American Express Company."

The grander astonishment is the most massive and rapid redistribution of the earth’s resources in human history. In a mere two and a half decades, China has awakened from Maoist stagnancy to become the world’s manufacturer. Among the planet’s 193 nations, it is now first in production of coal, steel, cement, and 10 kinds of metal; it produces half the world’s cameras and nearly a third of its TVs, and by 2015 may produce the most cars. It boasts factories that can accommodate 200,000 workers, and towns that make 60 percent of the world’s buttons, half the world’s silk neckties, and half the world’s fireworks, respectively.

China has also become a ravenous consumer. Its appetite for raw materials drives up international commodity prices and shipping rates while its middle class, projected to jump from fewer than 100 million people now to 700 million by 2020, is learning the gratifications of consumerism. China is by a wide margin the leading importer of a cornucopia of commodities, including iron ore, steel, copper, tin, zinc, aluminum, and nickel. It is the world’s biggest consumer of coal, refrigerators, grain, cell phones, fertilizer, and television sets. It not only leads the world in coal consumption, with 2.5 billion tons in 2006, but uses more than the next three highest-ranked nations—the United States, Russia, and India—combined. China uses half the world’s steel and concrete and will probably construct half the world’s new buildings over the next decade. So omnivorous is the Chinese appetite for imports that when the country ran short of scrap metal in early 2004, manhole covers disappeared from cities all over the world—Chicago lost 150 in a month. And the Chinese are not just vast consumers, but conspicuous ones, as evidenced by the presence in Beijing of dealers representing every luxury-car manufacturer in the world. Sales of Porsches, Ferraris, and Maseratis have flourished, even though their owners have no opportunity to test their finely tuned cars’ performance on the city’s clotted roads…

 

Notelets for end of May

Personal

  1. By sheer chance my current batch of my little pills is lactose-free! I get the generics, and thus far have never had the same brand twice. All so far have lactose as a filler, except this lot. This is a shame, as I (like many others) am lactose intolerant, and the lactase tablet antidote only works so far. I’ll try to make sure future batches are the lactose-free ones.
  2. Another grand-nephew has become a friend on Facebook. 🙂
  3. My story will be in the June South Sydney Herald and I have a feature coming up in July.
  4. No stats today as the end is nigh – of the month, that is.

Spotted on Arts & Letters Daily.

Very interesting review article: Free market faith by Caspar Melville on New Humanist.

Another day, another denunciation of Dawkins and Hitchens and their fellow New Atheists. No sooner have we absorbed Chris Hedges’ I Don’t Believe in Atheists (2008), Tina Beattie’s The New Atheists: The Twilight of Reason and the War on Religion (2008) or David Bentley Hart’s Atheist Delusions (2009) when along comes God is Back: How the Revival of Religion is Changing the World, by Economist journalists John Micklethwait (pictured right) and Adrian Wooldridge.

But this "God book" is of a rather different order. Unlike its rivals it contains a wealth of fact and subtle argument, empirical evidence and expert witness. As we might expect from The Economist its perspective is global – it sweeps comfortably from the corridors of the Pentagon to a front room church in Shanghai, and speaks authoritatively about events in Nigeria, Pakistan and Egypt. Altogether it lays down a very serious challenge to any of us who had waved God a not-so-fond farewell…

Secularists might find some of the arguments in this book hard to swallow, though they should welcome the opportunity to sharpen their own against them, but as a clear and convincing case for the separation of religion and politics, it counts as a considerable, and unapologetically secular, achievement.

 
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Posted by on May 30, 2009 in health, intellectual spot, personal, religion