Books in Washington
I enjoyed this article in this weekend’s New York Times about the influence of books and ideas inside Washington. As the article states, books still matter in shaping ideas. The article, written by Emily Parker, senior fellow and digital diplomacy adviser at the New America Foundation, also has some great book recommendations for those bibliophiles who want to know what ideas have influenced leaders in recent years. She writes:
“What hasn’t changed is that a book with a strong idea has a good chance of getting inside the Beltway in some form or other. And what makes for a strong idea? Back in the 1960s, a former assistant secretary of defense, John T. McNaughton, perhaps put it best: An outside idea has a chance to influence government policy only if it has two characteristics. First, it can be stated in a simple declarative sentence. Second, once stated it is obviously true.”
This is cool. It comes courtesy of Brain Pickings, which is one of my favorite websites. This clip shows some of the behind-the-scenes work done on the Beatles revolutionary 1968 animated film Yellow Submarine. I remember seeing the film when I was young and being so enthralled with the mixture of music and animation.
It seems like everybody is talking about this book right now: Coming Apart by Charles Murray. Both those on the left and the right are talking about (and arguing about) this book, most likely due to its author. Murray wrote the very controversial book The Bell Curve, a book about intelligence and class structure that many believed was racist. His latest book is everywhere: David Brooks writes about it, On Point with Tom Ashbrook talks about it, Book TV is airing a speech delivered by Murray, The Wall Street Journal reviews it, and here is a review from Timothy Noah in The New Republic. Many reviewers agree with his description of America’s cultural conditions, but they disagree with him about how conditions got this way and what we should do about it.
Noah writes a good review of Murray’s book. From his review: “Murray’s book has taken some unfair criticism for ignoring lower-to-middle-income African Americans and Latinos. Murray focuses on white America not because he doesn’t care about non-whites, but rather because he wants to describe various self-destructive behaviors afflicting the working class—he doesn’t call them “pathologies,” but that’s more or less what he means—without drawing accusations of racist victim-blaming. That has been an occupational hazard for Murray ever since he coauthored, with Richard J. Herrnstein, The Bell Curve: Intelligence and Class Structure in American Life, in 1994, which attributed much of the achievement gap between blacks and whites to what Herrnstein and Murray claimed was blacks’ inherent and genetically-based mental inferiority. The scholarly community was near-unanimous in finding Herrnstein and Murray’s evidence on this point unpersuasive and their conclusion repugnant.”
Later in his review, Noah points out where many who disagree about the book might differ in their opinions. “Where Murray parts company with most others is in denying that the cleavages he is describing are rooted in realities, such as the relative availability of jobs and the growing income gap between Belmont and Fishtown. Murray’s refusal to accept this mainstream narrative ought to occasion lots of bold reinterpretation of the numbers and at least one full chapter laying out in detail his reasoned refutation of the conventional wisdom. At an earlier stage in his career Murray would probably have done this. In Coming Apart, though, he confines himself to a few stray provocations.”
One good point about the book is made here in another review in The New Republic by Alec MacGillis: “But here’s the thing: that Murray is overlooking the actual work that is no longer available to many working-class men is particularly odd given that his own vision of a lost cross-class togetherness is based on, well, that lost work. In today’s New York Times profile of Murray, he says that the mingling of classes that the country needs more of, and that he has sought by moving his family to semi-rural Burkittsville, Md., “approximates the small-town virtues he enjoyed growing up in Newton, Iowa, where, as the son of a manager at Maytag, he could mingle easily with the children of assembly-line workers. A-ha! Yes, Maytag was once in Newton, Iowa. And then in 2006, Whirlpool bought it and shut down the headquarters and manufacturing plant in Newton, sending jobs to Mexico.”
A problem of cultural inequality exists. But what it means, and what, if-anything, should be done about it is a point of often contentious debate.
A rare exhibit of Leonardo da Vinci’s work is on display at the U.K. National Gallery in London. The show is sold out. However, beginning February 16, movie theaters around the world will be presenting an HD satellite-delivered presentation of the exhibit, “Leonardo da Vinci: Painter at the Court of Milan.” Click here for details.
The current debate about publishing has centered on technology. Will the world of print go away as e-readers continue to gain ground? Yet, this article by Curtis White in Lapham’s Quarterly shows that this question only gets to part of the issue.
“When we speak of literature, we should not imagine that we are speaking of some stable and enduring Platonic entity. The history of literature has always been about its highly mutable institutions, whether bookstores, publishers, schools of criticism, or, for the last half century, the mass media. In other words, literature has always been about the struggle over who would have the social authority to determine what would count as literature.”
White looks at the broken book business model from many angles. Bookselling has become disconnected fom its public ... “once the selection and manufacture of books became specialized, separating writers, from publishers, from retailers, and once the centralized manufacture of books required real capital, the chance that this new industry would ever challenge the reign of free market capitalism and its multiform ideologies was reduced to nothing. Publishers made profitable commodities and they kept the lid on ideas. It’s hard to say which of those two purposes was the more important. As my late friend Ronald Sukenick liked to say, “What can you expect from Simon and Shoestore?””
The Righteous Mind
Jonathan Haidt’s research is cited in a wonderful book I am reading at the moment: Steven Pinker’s The Better Angels of our Nature. Haidt, a professor of social psychology at the University of Virginia, has conducted research on how your politics really are shaped by how you view the world. That sounds obvious, and I’m making it sound very simplistic; it’s much more nuanced than that. This week Haidt was a guest on Bill Moyers. Check out the show, and read more about his upcoming book: The Righteous Mind, which comes out next month.
Are Newspapers Civic Institutions?
At Big Think, the writers as a good question: Are newspapers civic institutions? If so what are the implications? Or are they just algorithms? Dominic Basulto raises good questions in his post, with plenty of links to other studies and writers.
More than 200 newspapers have folded or suspended their print editions since 2007, Basulto writes. “ As a result, the typical argument calls for supporting newspapers historically have been based on the idea of newspapers as a sort of civic institution that we, as a society, must preserve in the name of ideals (always capitalized) like Truth. But what if, instead, we begin to think of newspapers in perhaps a more mundane manner—as algorithms for solving problems?”
Are tablet applications making it easier for newspapers to pay for content? Are consumers becoming accustomed to paying for applications? “If you think about this for a second, this is a profound change that the appification of media makes possible. Online or in the physical world, your product is worth zero. Add a mobile layer to it, and it’s suddenly worth something,” writes Basulto. Is it true? If so, is it enough to preserve journalism as we’ve known it?