Much to the chagrin of the traitor Snowden and the tyrant Putin, another Thanksgiving has come around and, despite their worst efforts, the United States persists. And it will, to the despair of those who have made a trade out of wishing for its decline and fall. Typical of this lot is Al Jazeera America, which shed crocodile tears recently with “The consequences of US decline.” The fons et origo of this recurrent irrationality is, of course, the Guardian, and it piled in earlier in the year with “Decline and fall: how American society unravelled.” To understand what’s behind this wishful thinking, it’s worth rereading an essay that Hannah Arendt wrote in 1954 for Commentary Magazine.
“Europe and America: Dream and Nightmare” was originally part of a series of talks at Princeton University on the Transatlantic relationship. Arendt asked: “What image does Europe have of America?” She answered that the image is based on two myths. Firstly, America is less the New World than the personification of the Old World, the place where European dreams of equality and liberty are realized; secondly, America is the land of plenty. It is this second myth that powers the anti-Americanism of European liberals, even as it inspires the poor.
“As a result,” of this myth, Arendt writes, “sympathy for America today can be found, generally speaking, among those people whom Europeans call ‘reactionary,’ whereas an anti-American posture is one of the best ways to prove oneself a liberal.” And so it is 58 years after Hannah Arendt’s “Europe and America: Dream and Nightmare” was published. Except that there’s a new myth doing the rounds: American decline. For all engaged in peddling declinism, Josef Joffe has some sobering news. The publisher-editor of the German weekly, Die Zeit, exposes The Canard of Decline in the November/December issue of The American Interest.
The source of modern declinism, says Joffe, can be found in “the serial massacre that was World War I,” the horrific slaughter that revealed “the evil face of technology triumphant.” The same laboratories that produced the blessings of pharmacology invented poison gas. The scientists who created good also enabled evil. The result was an anti-scientific theory about the “death of progress” took hold in Europe. America, however, the epitome of progress, is the embodiment of the rebuke to that theory. Josef Joffe writes:
“Technology and plenty, the critics of the Enlightenment argued, would not liberate the common man, but enslave him in the prison of ‘false consciousness’ built by the ruling elites. The new despair of the former torchbearers of progress may well be the reason that declinism flourishes on both Left and Right. This new ideological kinship alone does not by itself explain any of the five waves of American declinism, but it has certainly broadened its appeal over time.”
Decline, writes Joffe, ‘is as American as apple pie.” But for the day that’s in it, we’ll have a slice of pecan pie and wish all our American readers a happy Thanksgiving.Tweet
“An original lexicon of emotions we don’t have words for,” is what John Koenig calls his Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows. Take, for example, his noun trumspringa, which means “the temptation to step off your career track and become a shepherd in the mountains, following your flock between pastures with a sheepdog and a rifle, watching storms at dusk from the doorway of a small cabin, just the kind of hypnotic diversion that allows your thoughts to make a break for it and wander back to their cubicles in the city.” And then there’s sonder, “the realization that each random passerby is living a life as vivid and complex as your own.”
Those who know their German will be aware that the prefix sonder means “special”, so it’s nice to see John Koenig porting it over to English and giving it a new twist. This lexical traffic flows both ways, of course, and the English adjective that means “very useful or helpful” has been reinterpreted by German as its word for mobile phone.Tweet
In William Boyd’s Solo, the latest iteration of the James Bond saga, 007 gets into a spot of bother in Africa, which leads to a spell in an intensive care unit at a sanatorium on a British Army base to the south of Edinburgh. There, he is attended to by Nurse Sheila McRae and such is the quality of her care that Bond begins to meditate on the heroic nature of her profession:
“She helped Bond on with his dressing gown after he’d dried himself and Bond reflected on the curious, intimate non-intimacy that existed between nurse and patient. You could be standing there, naked, as your bedpan was emptied or a catheter was inserted in your penis, chatting to the nurse about her package holiday in Tenerife as if you were passing time at a bus stop waiting for your bus to arrive. They had seen everything, these nurses, Bond realised. Words like prudish, embarrassed, shocked, disgusted or ashamed simply weren’t in their vocabulary. Perhaps that was why people — why men — found them so attractive.”
That James Bond. Along with being such an effective killer, he’s so wise when it comes to matters of the human heart. Nurses are, indeed, astonishing people and they deserve far more recognition and reward from society than they currently get.Tweet
“Selfies, Selfies and more selfies: so much so it is the word of the year and in order to celebrate and understand the concept of selfie, I decided to curate seven of the best pieces I have read around selfies.” So said Om Malik in his regular “7 stories to read this weekend” feature.” Included is what he terms the “definitive” article on selfie culture by Jenna Wortham.
The major selfie artist of our time is, of course, Kim Kardashian. Her sister Khloe recently gave an interview in which she revealed Kim’s top secret: shoot from above to avoid double chins. The front-facing camera of the iPhone 4 spurred the rise of the craze, but there’s more to the story than hardware as Kate Losse pointed out in The Return of the Selfie in the New Yorker in June:
“For teen-age social-media users, who generally prefer on-the-go mobile applications, like Instagram and Snapchat, the self is the message and the selfie is the medium. The Instagram selfie, with its soft, artfully faded tones, has replaced the stern, harshly lit mug-shot style of years past. The small, square photo, displayed on one’s phone, invites the photographer and the viewer to form a personal connection. There is little space on Instagram for delivering context or depicting a large group of people; the confines of the app make single subjects more legible than complex scenes. A face in an Instagram photograph, filtered to eliminate any glare or unflattering light, appears star-like, as if captured by a deft paparazzo.”
In his list, Om Malik adds a link to the marvellous selfie taken by astronaut Aki Hoshide while working outside the International Space. Next stop for the selfie? Mars. But wait. Been there. Done that.Tweet
In September last year, the American rock band Lynyrd Skynyrd appeared on stage without the Confederate Flag as their backdrop. The controversial emblem had for years been part of their concert show, but they decided to abandon it, arguing that they didn’t want to be associated with “extremists” who had adopted it as their own. […]
In all, there are 16 television channels to be surfed, from “The Price is right” to Pawn Stars. Others include a classic rock, a news and a sports station. There’s even video taken from a CCTV camera showing the pained victim of a mugging singing, “How does it feel…?” It’s Vania Heymann, the 27-year-old Israeli viral video director of Like A Rolling Stone, the latest visual masterpiece from Bob Dylan. This is not the first time, though, that Dylan has merged music with film to challenge convention. In 1965, in the “Dont Look Back” documentary by D.A. Pennebaker, he performed Subterranean Homesick Blues while flipping cue cards with words from the lyrics as the song plays. The potential of the music video clip was revealed and now Dylan is pushing the limits of the medium again.
Like A Rolling Stone is one of the most important of Dylan’s works and one of the greatest rock songs ever written. It tells of a young woman from a good family who immerses herself in the counter-culture of the 1960s but then falls from grace. As she questions her choices, Dylan appears ambivalent about her dilemma. It’s hard to tell if he has pity on Miss Lonely or is secretly pleased with her distress.
“Princess on the steeple and all the pretty people
They’re drinkin’, thinkin’ that they got it made
Exchanging all kinds of precious gifts and things
But you’d better lift your diamond ring, you’d better pawn it babe.”
Concluding remarks prepared for delivery in Dallas by President John F. Kennedy on 22 November 1963:
“We in this country, in this generation, are — by destiny rather than choice — the watchmen on the walls of world freedom. We ask, therefore, that we may be worthy of our power and responsibility, that we may exercise our strength with wisdom and restraint, and that we may achieve in our time and for all time the ancient vision of ‘peace on earth, good will toward men.’ That must always be our goal, and the righteousness of our cause must always underlie our strength. For as was written long ago: ‘except the Lord keep the city, the watchman waketh but in vain.’”
Here is the full text of the speech JFK was to have made at the Dallas Trade Mart on the day he was assassinated.Tweet
Yes, there really was a Camelot upon the banks of the Potomac. Sure, it was a media construct, but it resonated with millions yearning for a sunnier alternative to the sombre uncertainty of the Cold War. The shots that rang out in Dallas on 22 November 1963, and the sudden death of the 46-year-old president, still echo down the decades and on the 50th anniversary of the assassination of John Fitzgerald Kennedy we pause to take stock of one of the defining moments of modern history because nothing in the course of “the American century” marked it as profoundly as the killing of Camelot. RIP, JFK.
In short, there’s simply not
A more congenial spot
For happily-ever-aftering than here
In March 1960, Ian Fleming had dinner with John F. Kennedy at the White House. In his book, The Life of Ian Fleming, John Pearson notes: “During the dinner the talk largely concerned itself with the more arcane aspects of American politics and Fleming was attentive but subdued. But with coffee and the entrance of Castro into the conversation he intervened in his most engaging style. Cuba was already high on the headache list of Washington politicians, and another of those what’s to-be-done conversations got underway. Fleming laughed ironically and began to develop the theme that the United States was making altogether too much fuss about Castro — they were building him into a world figure, inflating him instead of deflating him. It would be perfectly simple to apply one or two ideas which would take all the steam out of the Cuban.” Kennedy asked him what would James Bond do about Fidel Castro. Fleming replied, “Ridicule, chiefly.”
In March 1961, Hugh Sidey wrote an article in Life Magazine on JFK’s top ten favourite books designed to show that the president was both well-read and in touch with popular taste. The only work of popular fiction on the list was From Russia With Love. Up until then, Bond had not sold well in the US, but by the end of 1961 Ian Fleming had become the largest-selling thriller writer in America.
“The great trains are going out all over Europe, one by one, but still, three times a week, the Orient Express thunders superbly over the 1,400 miles of glittering steel track between Istanbul and Paris. Under the arc-lights, the long-chassied German locomotive panted quietly with the laboured breath of a dragon dying of asthma. Each heavy breath seemed certain to be the last. Then came another.” Ian Fleming, From Russia With Love
We have to admit that “selfie” is not just a more popular choice, but it’s also easier to spell than “littoralization”. The phenomenon of people snapping smartphone self-portraits and then uploading the photos to social media websites is very much in synch with our narcissist times and research shows that the frequency of “selfie” in English increased by 17,000 percent in the last year. By choosing “selfie”, the Oxford Dictionaries were reflecting the reality of a language that’s being driven by innovation.
And “littoralization”? It means the tendency of things to cluster on coastlines. Today, 80 percent of our planet’s population lives within 100 kilometres of a coastline, and of the world’s ten largest cities, all but two are on a coastline or a coastal delta. The term came to our attention when reading Out of the Mountains: The Coming Age of the Urban Guerrilla by David Kilcullen, and he gives it a central role when explaining the origins of the 2008 Mumbai attacks, when Pakistani terrorists killed 164 people in a merciless crime against civil society. Kilcullen writes, “the attack could only have occurred in a highly networked, urban, littoral environment — precisely the environment that that’s becoming the global norm.” After Mumbai, Kilcullen turns his attention to Mogadishu, the capital of Somalia, located on the Indian Ocean coast, and he introduces the reader to the word “urbophobia”, which was used by the Somali writer Nuruddin Farah when describing the state of the city. “If Mogadishu occupies an ambiguous space in our minds and hearts,” Farah wrote in 1988, “it is because ours is a land with an overwhelming majority of pastoralists, who are possessed of a deep urbophobia. Maybe this is why most Somalis do not seem unduly perturbed by the fate of the capital: a city broken into segments, each of them ruthlessly controlled by an alliance of militias.”
Further up the coast, another alliance of militias turned the town of Eyl into a pirate haven at the beginning of this century. The raiders would sail their hijacked ships to Eyl, take their hostages ashore and hold them until a ransom was paid. That was the piracy strategy for the US-flagged MV Maersk Alabama but the crew thwarted the plan and the result is now showing in cinemas near you. Both Tom Hanks as the eponymous Captain Phillips and Barkhad Abdi as the pirate leader Muse deliver fine performances in the film of the story. At one point, Captain Phillips says, “There’s got to be something other than being a fisherman or kidnapping people.” And Muse replies, “Maybe in America, maybe in America.” Which brings us back to littoralization and David Kilcullen, who lists the megatrends — population growth, urbanization, littoralization, and connectedness — that will “define the environment for future conflict, and for every other aspect of life, in the next generation. How do we react to this? How should we think about the coming environment, how can we prepare it, and what can we do about it?”Tweet
After the cataclysm of the First World War, Winston Churchill looked across the sea towards Ireland and noted, grimly: “The whole map of Europe has been changed … but as the deluge subsides and the waters fall short we see the dreary steeples of Fermanagh and Tyrone emerging once again.” The steeples are still there, the dreariness persists and the hatred is tenacious.
Like Ireland, Cyrus is deeply divided. On 15 November 1983, the Turkish Cypriot leader Rauf Denktash proclaimed the unilateral independence of the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus and the resulting wound has scarred the island and its capital, Nicosia, ever since. At the weekend, the Famagusta Gazette stated: “The unilateral declaration of independence (UDI) proclaimed by the illegal regime in Turkish-occupied Cyprus is ‘null and void’, the Foreign Ministry stresses in a press release.” Reconciliation is not in sight and reunification is as unlikely as in Ireland.
In his video clip, “Nicosia — A timelapse”, Alex Cican presents the beauty and melancholy and energy of a divided island.Tweet