Monthly Archives: June 2011

“Democracy beyond anatomy”

Yet another brilliant TED talk. Bioethicist and social activist Alice Dreger talks about the fuzzy boundaries between our disconcertingly unstable biological categories; the shift from supernatural to natural explanations for the world; the basis both within and beyond biology for our notions of political rights; the genius of the Founding Fathers in envisioning a “democracy beyond anatomy”; and more:

It’s an impressive synthesis of several themes I’ve expressed interest in: identity beyond ethnicity (or biology in general), the relationship between science and democracy, and the reasons for expanding the circle of our moral concern, among others. One quibble: the music from 1776 is not forgettable! Otherwise, highly recommended viewing.

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The case for optimism, cont’d: “Isn’t pessimism necessary? Isn’t optimism complacent?”

Paul Gilding, author of The Great Disruption, is optimistic about climate change. The coming crisis will be catastrophic, he predicts, but humanity will rise to the challenge:

Historically, looking at World War II as the prime example, we don’t act until the crisis hits […] We don’t act until the evidence is so overwhelming we have no choice left. But then we do amazing things. […]

There will be arguments and debates and conflicts between countries. And we will think we won’t make it various times […] but what I’m saying is from history the evidence is that we will make this and we will work it out. The only thing that has to change is for us to end the denial that it’s happening and get to work on fixing the problem.

Matt Ridley is an even deeper optimist: Based on our very long track record for predicting global catastrophes — and getting it wrong — he thinks it’s quite possible that climate change, while undeniably real, may not wind up being the downfall of human civilization that the current doomsayers are making it out to be. (I suspect Al Gore might consider Ridley to be part of the “climate of denial,” though to be fair Ridley isn’t a denialist — merely trying very hard not to be unnecessarily alarmist about the issue.)

In any case, I continue to find his confidence in progress and human innovation deeply persuasive:

Here’s an excerpt from his talk, “Deep Optimism,” for Fora TV:

I highly recommend watching the whole thing (and get Ridley’s answers to the questions posed in the title, while you’re at it). Ridley’s argument doesn’t fit neatly into “progressive” or “conservative” philosophies; it requires a shift of thought away from pat categories and — perhaps more profoundly — away from the easy and sadly pervasive assumption that it’s all downhill from here. There are plenty of reasons for rational optimism — regardless of how difficult it seems to be to recognize them.

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The case for optimism, cont’d: “The most decadent thing is fear itself”

Andrew Sullivan’s readers have been discussing whether or not America is now like late imperial Rome. One points out:

When did we become decadent? When did the fall of our great society begin? The Rome comparison is a beloved cliche to kick around the comments section on liberal  and conservative blogs alike. And let’s be honest: people have been kicking that around for over 100 years. And while I’m sure we’d like to believe our 20-30 year window is the perfect encapsulation of a Romanesque collapse, can we at least acknowledge that the “fall” of Rome is generally considered to have occurred over a period of 300 years? We’re not even that old. If this is the fall, then societies down the road will barely recognize we even got off the ground. Me? I’m optimistic.

Another concurs:

I think the point when I realized our political system and our entire culture was not like late imperial Rome was when I read all the articles and posts by people declaring that our political system and our entire culture was like late imperial Rome. […]

[W]hat has become an industry in this country — doom and gloom — threatens everything we are.

This country has endured very difficult and trying times and prevailed. Suddenly, we are in danger of extinction because of the deficit (just the part since Obama was elected) and Medicare and unions. Isn’t anyone acquainted with Hitler, the Great Depression, or the Civil War? The most decadent thing in our culture is our hyperbole and our panic. What happened to fearing nothing but fear itself? […]

As for me, I believe in this country, and sometimes surprising even to myself, I believe in the ultimate decency of the American people. We can be late imperial Rome, or we can choose not to be. It is that simple. The difficulty lies in what we do after we stop whining.

Nothing is written, and no one will save us but ourselves. We still can.

More reasons for optimism here.

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How to listen

I dove into this video without preamble, without reading preliminary descriptions, and found percussionist and composer Evelyn Glennie simply amazing. Glennie gives an inspiring talk — and spectacular performance — that winds up being not just about how to listen to music with your whole body, but ultimately about how to be truly aware of other people and completely alive to the world.

And she blew me away even before the 10:27 mark in the video, when I found out… well, just watch.

(via TED)

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Why stereotypes need to die, cont’d

Because people who have English accents aren’t automatically smarter or more sophisticated than people with American accents, thank you very much.

The main significant effect found in this study was that people who’d lived at least three months outside the US rated the English accent significantly lower than people who’d only lived in the US. In fact, Americans who had not lived abroad considered the English-accented person to be much more intelligent than themselves, but the people who had lived abroad rated the standard American accent more intelligent than the standard English one.  My preferred way of interpreting this (a bit tongue-in-cheek) is that Americans are happy to rate the English as more intelligent than themselves up until they actually start meeting and talking to the English.

And speaking English with a French accent doesn’t make you sexier or classier than someone who speaks English with, say, Chinese or Southeast Asian inflections. And so on.

Stereotypes, grrr!

(via The Dish)

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Maya Beiser and the cello’s “endless possibilities”

TED has been giving a lot of love to cellists lately. (You’ll find no complaints here!) Here, Maya Beiser uses technology, voice, and dramatic physical performance to take the cello into exciting new territory:

The pieces, commissioned for Beiser, are Steve Reich’s “Cello Counterpoint” and David Lang’s “World to Come.” There’s lots more on YouTube; her performance of Led Zeppelin’s “Kashmir,” for one. Go explore!

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Farewell to the Big Man

In memory of Clarence Clemons, whose white-hot saxophone lifted many of Bruce Springsteen’s classic songs to transcendent heights. A huge loss for Springsteen, for his fans, and for great-hearted rock and roll.

A 2009 interview with Jon Stewart here.

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