Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘politics’

05 DECEMBER, 2012

Susan Sontag on Courage and Resistance

By:

“Principles invite us to do something about the morass of contradictions in which we function morally.”

The confluence of this week’s anniversary of Rosa Parks’s arrest, which sparked the historic Montgomery Bus Boycott, and the recent cease-fire in the Gaza conflict reminded me of “On Courage and Resistance” — the timeless Oscar Romero Award keynote address Susan Sontag delivered on March 30, 2003, originally published in the 2007 posthumous anthology At the Same Time: Essays and Speeches (public library). In honoring the Israeli soldiers who defied orders and refused to serve in the occupied territories, Sontag examines the osmosis between individual acts and collective fate, the interplay between morality and courage, and the role of fear in violence:

Fear binds people together. And fear disperses them. Courage inspires communities: the courage of an example — for courage is as contagious as fear. But courage, certain kinds of courage, can also isolate the brave.

The perennial destiny of principles: while everyone professes to have them, they are likely to be sacrificed when they become inconveniencing. Generally a moral principle is something that puts one at variance with accepted practice. And that variance has consequences, sometimes unpleasant consequences, as the community takes its revenge on those who challenge its contradictions — who want a society actually to uphold the principles it professes to defend.

The standard that a society should actually embody its own professed principles is a utopian one, in the sense that moral principles contradict the way things really are — and always will be. How things really are — and always will be — is neither all evil nor all good but deficient, inconsistent, inferior. Principles invite us to do something about the morass of contradictions in which we function morally. Principles invite us to clean up our act, to become intolerant of moral laxity and compromise and cowardice and the turning away from what is upsetting: that secret gnawing of the heart that tells us that what we are doing is not right, and so counsels us that we’d be better off just not thinking about it.

The cry of the antiprincipled: ‘I’m doing the best I can.’ The best given the circumstances, of course.

In discussing the relationship between morality and courage, Sontag speaks to the kind of “moral imagination” so essential for happiness:

At the center of our moral life and our moral imagination are the great models of resistance: the great stories of those who have said no. No, I will not serve.

[…]

Courage has no moral value in itself, for courage is not, in itself, a moral virtue. Vicious scoundrels, murderers, terrorists may be brave. To describe courage as a virtue, we need an adjective: we speak of ‘moral courage’ — because there is such a thing as amoral courage, too.

She zooms in on the Israel-Palestine conflict and its reverberations around the world:

A wounded and fearful country, Israel, is going through the greatest crisis of its turbulent history, brought about by the policy of steadily increasing and reinforcing settlements on the territories won after its victory in the Arab-Israeli war of 1967. The decision of successive Israeli governments to retain control over the West Bank and Gaza, thereby denying their Palestinian neighbors a state of their own, is a catastrophe — moral, human, and political — for both peoples. The Palestinians need a sovereign state. Israel needs a sovereign Palestinian state. Those of us abroad who wish for Israel to survive cannot, should not, wish it to survive no matter what, no matter how. We owe a particular debt of gratitude to courageous Israeli Jewish witnesses, journalists, architects, poets, novelists, professors — among others — who have described and documented and protested and militated against the sufferings of the Palestinians living under the increasingly cruel terms of Israeli military subjugation and settler annexation.

Long before the “peer progressive” movement, Sontag makes an infinitely important point about the incrementally cumulative value of individual acts of resistance:

The Israeli soldiers who are resisting service in the Occupied Territories are not refusing a particular order. They are refusing to enter the space where illegitimate orders are bound to be given… What the refuseniks have done — there are now more than one thousand of them, more than 250 of whom have gone to prison — does not contribute to tell us how the Israelis and Palestinians can make peace beyond the irrevocable demand that the settlements be disbanded. The actions of this heroic minority cannot contribute to the much-needed reform and democratization of the Palestinian Authority. Their stand will not lessen the grip of religious bigotry and racism in Israeli society or reduce the dissemination of virulent anti-Semitic propaganda in the aggrieved Arab world. It will not stop the suicide bombers.

It simply declares: enough. Or: there is a limit. Yesh gvul.

It provides a model of resistance. Of disobedience. For which there will always be penalties.

Sontag then issues a critique all the more apt today, nearly a decade of wars later:

Our ‘United We Stand’ or ‘Winner Takes All’ ethos: the United States is a country that has made patriotism equivalent to consensus.

On the flawed logic of going to — and staying at — war:

The force of arms has its own logic. If you commit an aggression and others resist, it is easy to convince the home front that the fighting must continue. Once the troops are there, they must be supported. It becomes irrelevant to question why the troops are there in the first place.

Sontag zooms back out into the bigger picture:

Let’s not underestimate the force of what we are opposing.

The world is, for almost everyone, that over which we have virtually no control. Common sense and the sense of self-protectiveness tell us to accommodate to what we cannot change.

It’s not hard to see how some of us might be persuaded of the justice, the necessity of a war. Especially of a war that is formulated as small, limited military actions that will actually contribute to peace or improve security; of an aggression that announces itself as a campaign of disarmament — admittedly, disarmament of the enemy; and, regrettably, requiring the application of overpowering force. An invasion that calls itself, officially, a liberation.

Every violence in war has been justified as a retaliation. We are threatened. We are defending ourselves. The others, they want to kill us. We must stop them.

[…]

Never mind the disparity of forces, of wealth, of firepower — or simply of population. How many Americans know that the population of Iraq is 24 million, half of whom are children? (The population of the United States, as you will remember, is 290 million.) Not to support those who are coming under fire from the enemy seems like treason.

She illustrates the case for personal responsibility — something Joan Didion pointed to as the pillar of character — with an example of how seemingly ineffectual individual acts of resistance can spark massively influential chain reactions of effects:

Thoreau’s going to prison in 1846 for refusing to pay the poll tax in protest against the American war on Mexico hardly stopped the war. But the resonance of that most unpunishing and briefest spell of imprisonment (famously, a single night in jail) has not ceased to inspire principled resistance to injustice through the second half of the twentieth century and into our new era. The movement in the late 1980s to shut down the Nevada Test Site, a key location for the nuclear arms race, failed in its goal; the operations of the test site were unaffected by the protests. But it led directly to the formation of a movement of protesters in faraway Alma Ata, who eventually succeeded in shutting down the main Soviet test site in Kazakhstan, citing the Nevada antinuclear activists as their inspiration and expressing solidarity with the Native Americans on whose land the Nevada Test Site had been located.

The likelihood that your acts of resistance cannot stop the injustice does not exempt you from acting in what you sincerely and reflectively hold to be the best interests of your community.

Thus: it is not in the best interests of Israel to be an oppressor.

Thus: it is not in the best interests of the United States to be a hyperpower, capable of imposing its will on any country in the world, as it chooses.

Sontag concludes with a necessary reminder that, just like the light and heat of the distant sun are responsible for the flame in your fireplace, our local, individual actions and inextricably connected to and fractionally instrumental in our global, collective fate:

Beyond these struggles, which are worthy of our passionate adherence, it is important to remember that in programs of political resistance the relation of cause and effect is convoluted and often indirect. All struggle, all resistance is — must be — concrete. And all struggle has a global resonance.

If not here, then there. If not now, then soon. Elsewhere as well as here.

At the Same Time is a remarkable anthology in its entirety — highly recommended. Complement with Sontag’s insights on art, love, writing, censorship, boredom, and aphorisms.

Donating = Loving

Bringing you (ad-free) Brain Pickings takes hundreds of hours each month. If you find any joy and stimulation here, please consider becoming a Supporting Member with a recurring monthly donation of your choosing, between a cup of tea and a good dinner:





You can also become a one-time patron with a single donation in any amount:





Brain Pickings has a free weekly newsletter. It comes out on Sundays and offers the week’s best articles. Here’s what to expect. Like? Sign up.

16 NOVEMBER, 2012

How Thomas Jefferson Pioneered the Tomato, Championed Urban Farming, and Taught Americans to Make Coffee

By:

The Founding Father’s lesser-known but monumental contributions to modern culture.

If you, like me, believed that Julia Child brought French cuisine to America, you’re off — nearly two centuries off. It turns out we owe the feat to Thomas Jefferson, who in 1784 made a deal with one of his slaves, 19-year-old James “Jame” Hemmings, to apprentice him to one of France’s finest chefs. In exchange for going along with the plan, Jefferson would grant Jame his freedom. “Thus began the most interesting and influential culinary partnership in American history,” writes Thomas J. Craughwell in Thomas Jefferson’s Creme Brûlée: How a Founding Father and His Slave James Hemings Introduced French Cuisine to America (public library). But perhaps most fascinating in Craughwell’s account is the role Jefferson played in championing vegetables and minimal animal products more than 200 years before Michael Pollan, popularizing indispensable plant species previously thought inedible, and even pioneering modern-day buzzword concepts like urban farming.

For starters, Jefferson took special pride in his diet. In a letter to his physician in 1819, he wrote:

I have lived temperately, eating little animal food, and that not as an aliment, so much as a condiment for the vegetables which constitute my principal diet.

And it was an active, actionable pride that he backed with practical tactics. Craughwell writes:

In his thousand-foot-long vegetable garden, Jefferson grew almost all the vegetables, fruits, and herbs he needed to feed himself, his family, and their guests. Over a period of nearly sixty years, he experimented with ninety-nine species of vegetables and three hundred thirty varieties. He also cultivated plants that were unknown in his neighbors’ gardens, including tomatoes, peppers, eggplant, and peanuts.

Jefferson was ahead of his time in many ways, including the intersection of food and aesthetics and the notion of edible architecture:

The man who built one of the most beautiful homes in eighteenth-century America also desired his garden to be visually appealing. Along the border of the square in which he grew tomatoes, for example, he planted okra and sesame plants. The smooth, red skin of the tomatoes contrasted with the tough, deep green of the okra, while the sesame plant, standing five or six feet tall, added height and visual interest. When he planted eggplant, he alternated white and purple varieties. The cherry trees he placed along the walkway through the garden, where they would provide shade.

So intense was Jefferson’s passion for vegetation that he once wrote:

There is not a shoot of grass that springs uninteresting to me.

More than mere curiosity, however, Jefferson’s relationship with vegetables was an almost political one, reining in monumental cultural shifts in culinary perceptions:

He was one of the first Virginians to grow and eat tomatoes, or ‘tomatas,’ as he called them. Most Americans thought the tomato was poisonous (and, indeed, it is a member of the deadly nightshade family, though its low toxicity levels pose no risk to humans), and so it was an astonishing event when, in 1806, Jefferson served them to guests at the President’s House.

He also had a soft spot for cabbage:

[Étienne Lemaire, Jefferson’s maître d’hôtel] records fifty-one purchases in 1806 alone. At Monticello, Jefferson not only raised his own cabbage — eighteen varieties in al — he also bought some from his slaves. Closely related to cabbage is sea kale, which was also grown at Monticello; Jefferson found a variety that was perennial, thus eliminating the expense of purchasing seedlings every year.

His plant pioneering didn’t stop there:

In 1812 Jefferson became the first gardener in his neighborhood to plant the hot Texas bird pepper, which his cooks used to spice up sauces. And he must have been fond of asparagus, too. Although he devoted only one square in his garden to the vegetable, he tended it with special care, mulching the plot with tobacco leaves and fertilizing it with manure. His Garden Book includes entires for twenty-two years that record the date on which the first plate of asparagus was brought to his table.

In another chapter on how Jefferson pioneered African dishes at the Monticello, Craughwell shares the Founding Father’s curious coffee recipe:

On one measure of the coffee ground into meal pour three measures of boiling water.

boil on hot ashes lined with coal till the meal disappears from the top, when it will be precipitated.

pour in three times through a flannel strainer.

it will yield 2 1/3 measures of clear coffee.

an ounce of coffee meal makes 1 ½ cup of clear coffee in this way.

the flannel must be rinsed out in hot or cold water for every making.

The rest of Thomas Jefferson’s Creme Brûlée is an equally delectable chronicle of the beloved Founding Father, political philosopher, amateur naturalist, and zealous bibliophile’s lesser-known but remarkable contributions to modern cuisine and food politics.

Donating = Loving

Bringing you (ad-free) Brain Pickings takes hundreds of hours each month. If you find any joy and stimulation here, please consider becoming a Supporting Member with a recurring monthly donation of your choosing, between a cup of tea and a good dinner.





You can also become a one-time patron with a single donation in any amount:





Brain Pickings has a free weekly newsletter. It comes out on Sundays and offers the week’s best articles. Here’s what to expect. Like? Sign up.

13 NOVEMBER, 2012

An Animated Open Letter to President Obama on the State of Science Education

By:

Reigniting the spark of physics in an education ethos stuck 150 years in the past.

Many of us living in the United States have recently taken a massive exhale at the triumphant news of four more years of sanity and progress. But it isn’t all unicorns and rainbows for President Obama, who will have to address some serious challenges. The fine folks of MinutePhysics — who have previously explained why the color pink doesn’t exist, why the past is different from the future, and why it’s dark at night — have zoomed in one of them in this animated open letter to the President, addressing an astonishing gap in physics education: Namely, the fact that most high school curricula cover none of the physics breakthroughs that have taken place in the past 150 years, including “the topic of every single Nobel Prize in physics since…always.” MinutePhysics advises the President to take a cue from Carl Sagan, Richard Feynman, and Neil deGrasse Tyson — men “committed 100% to the dissemination of the awesomeness of the universe” — and reignite the educational spark of physics.

The United States: A country with 5,000 nuclear weapons, birthplace of the world’s computing and telecommunications industry, home of the first atomic clock, and creator of the Global Positioning System. Chances are, if you just took regular American high school physics, you don’t know one iota behind the science behind those things. … That’s because high school physics students across most of America are not required to learn about pretty much any physical phenomena discovered or explained more recently than 1865. Yes, 1865. That’s the year the Civil War ended and well over a decade before Albert Einstein was even born.

Sadly, even if modern physics were required in high school, the question of how much that would actually promote an understanding of physics is a different matter — you needn’t look further than the latest data on state science standards to sigh in desperation:

Luckily, though certainly no substitute for formal education, the internet offers a worthy complement to what the classroom leaves out. To inject your daily information diet with some science-plus magic and wisdom, follow Neil deGrasse Tyson on Twitter, read Joe Hanson’s fantastic It’s Okay To Be Smart and Ed Yong’s Not Exactly Rocket Science (and consider the occasional donation — they’re that good), and peruse the Brain Pickings science archive.

Brain Pickings has a free weekly newsletter and people say it’s cool. It comes out on Sundays and offers the week’s best articles. Here’s what to expect. Like? Sign up.