Monday, September 10, 2012

9/11 and the case for reality (Part 1): In the world of science, and in the life and work of Salman Rushdie and Philip Roth


Can you believe that Martin Chalfie, Osamu Shimura, and Roger Tsien goofed around with jellyfish nervous systems? Ha ha ha! Okay, so they shared the 2008 Nobel Prize in Chemistry, for work that "led to advances in cancer diagnosis and treatment, increased understanding of brain diseases such as Alzheimer’s, and improved detection of poisons in drinking water." Still, jellyfish nervous systems? Gimme a break!

by Ken

Maybe it has something to do with the calendar. We all know what day is coming up tomorrow, and while 9/11 has for the last 11 years been a crucial jumping-off point for much of America into a world of delusion and lies, maybe it's also an occasion for some people to attempt to face up to reality, and the massive challenges it's routinely subjected to.

Or maybe it's just a coincidence. But it's been a wildly overstimulating reading day, and when I'd read as much as I could absorb in a day, I realized there was a common thread running through much of it: society's tenuous grasp on reality.


It all started innocently enough with an eager, commonsensical Washington Post op-ed piece titled as above, by Rep. Jim Cooper (D-TN) and Alan Lesher, chief executive of the American Association for the Advancement of Science and executive publisher of Science, the much-respected magazine on, well, science.

The authors tackle head-on the mythology that has built up around scientific research projects with names that lend themselves to guffawing ridicule from "some policymakers, including certain senators and members of Congress," whose "press releases are perhaps already waiting in the drawer, with blanks for the name of the latest scientist being attacked. The hottest topics for ridicule involve sex, exotic animals and bugs." They cite the increasingly unfortunate precedent of Sen. William Proxmire's monthly Golden Fleece Awards, which from 1975 to 1988 "became a staple of news coverage," drawing reliably hearty guffaws.

Unfortunately, nonscientists tend to be appallingly inept judges of what constitutes potentially valuable research, especially when it's being twisted into comedy material. (Bill Proxmire was an admirable pol in many ways, but not this one.) The authors think "maybe it's time for researchers to fight back, to return a comeback for every punch line," as the U.S. faces the possibility of "falling behind in scientific discoveries as other countries increase their science funding."
We are already investing a smaller share of our economy in science as compared with seven other countries, including Japan, Taiwan and South Korea. Since 1999, the United States has increased R&D funding, as a percentage of the economy, by 10 percent. Over the same period, the share of R&D in the economies of Finland, Germany and Israel have grown about twice as fast. In Taiwan, it has grown five times as fast; in South Korea, six times as fast; in China; 10 times. In the United States, meanwhile, additional budget cuts have been proposed to R&D spending for non-defense areas. If budget-control negotiations fail, drastic across-the-board cuts will take effect in January that could decimate entire scientific fields.

And so the authors indeed fight back, providing examples of improbably research that changed the world. There was Charles H. Townes's ridiculed play with "an obscure technique for amplifying radiation waves into an intense, continuous stream," which laid the groundwork for laser technology. There was "research on jellyfish nervous systems" by Osamu Shimomura, Martin Chalfie and Roger Y. Tsien which "led to advances in cancer diagnosis and treatment, increased understanding of brain diseases such as Alzheimer’s, and improved detection of poisons in drinking water" -- and, oh yes, a shared Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 2008. There was a study called "Acoustic Trauma in the Guinea Pig," and another of "the sex life of the screwworm, and on and on.

Not a whole lot of basic science goes on these days, the authors remind us, without government funding. Bottom-line-obsessed corporations fund almost entirely applied science, the sort of thing they hope will lead to immediate payback. All in all, it was invigorating to have an unapologetic case made for the indispensability of science.

And then there was a fascinating pair of pieces from The New Yorker by a pair of distinguished authors, Salman Rushdie and Philip Roth. Roth's case concerns just a single book of his; Rushdie's concerns his whole life. Let's start with the narrower case.


Roth begins what is, as far as I can tell, just a blogpost, "Open Letter to Wikipedia":
Dear Wikipedia,

I am Philip Roth. I had reason recently to read for the first time the Wikipedia entry discussing my novel The Human Stain. The entry contains a serious misstatement that I would like to ask to have removed. This item entered Wikipedia not from the world of truthfulness but from the babble of literary gossip -- there is no truth in it at all.

Yet when, through an official interlocutor, I recently petitioned Wikipedia to delete this misstatement, along with two others, my interlocutor was told by the "English Wikipedia Administrator" -- in a letter dated August 25th and addressed to my interlocutor -- that I, Roth, was not a credible source: "I understand your point that the author is the greatest authority on their own work," writes the Wikipedia Administrator -- "but we require secondary sources."

At issue is a statement in the Wikipedia article that The Human Stain was "allegedly inspired by the life of the writer Anatole Broyard." Except that it wasn't. Roth goes into great detail about his exceedingly limited dealing with and biographical knowledge of Broyard to demonstrate just how impossible it would have been for Broyard to figure in the book's genesis in any way, going so far at to reveal theactual source for"the core" of The Human Stain, "the initiating incident" that causes the undoing of the protagonist, Coleman Silk. It was, he says, a "witch hunt" that followed the wholly innocent use by Princeton Prof. Melvin Tumin -- whom Roth met when he was artist-in-residence in Princeton in the 1960s -- of the word "spooks" in inquiring whether anyone in class knew two students with whom, as of mid-semester, he had as yet had no contact, either in or out of class.

"Does anyone know these people?" Professor Tumin asked the class. "Do they exist or are they spooks?"

The context, you would think, should have allowed no possible misunderstanding as to what the professor was asking. Unfortunately for him, the missing students happened to be African-American. The furor that ensued over the months that followed led to the unraveling of the life of a man who, ironically, had established himself as one of the country's foremost researchers into racial inequality and advocates for improved race relations. "None of these credentials counted for much," Roth writes, "when the powers of the moment sought to take down Professor Tumin from his high academic post for no reason at all, much as Professor Silk is taken down in The Human Stain."

Most of the rest of the fictional Professor Silk's life, Roth writes, is the product of his imagination. "Novel writing is for the novelist a game of let's pretend. Like most every other novelist I know, once I had what Henry James called 'the germ' -- in this case, Mel Tumin's story of muddleheadedness at Princeton -- I proceeded to pretend and to invent" all the rest.

With regard to the Wikipedia administrator, you know what he/she is getting at in not accepting the author's word as the only word on a subject. After all, authors have a vested interest in telling only their side of the story. It's why, after all, biographers take such a careful, indeed jaundiced view of their subjects' autobiographies and memoirs. Still, you'd think the administrator might understand that there's no rule about the reliability or unreliability of primary sources. And surely you'd expect some sense of reality to kick in by the time he/she hears him/herself declaring that primary sources don't count only secondary sources matter. Are even such august personages as Wikipedia administrators truly gifted enough to evaluate the validity of any and all secondary sources dumped in their laps?


The other New Yorker entry in the Author's Reality Sweepstakes is a riveting, must-read "personal history" piece by Salman Rushdie, "The Disappeared: How the fatwa changed a writer's life," his telling of how Ayatollah Khomeini"s fatwa ordering his execution created a new, imaginary Salman Rushdie who bore pretty much no resemblance to himself except that the name "Salman Rushdie" appeared as the author of the novel The Satanic Verses. (I assume it's for this reason that Rushdie writes about himself here in the third person, which takes some getting used to, especially when the story involves other male persons who may also be referred to as "he.")

What's so terrifying about this story is the extent to which the actual contents of The Satanic Verses had nothing to do with the furor. Rushdie writes nostalgically of the early weeks of the book's publication, when the discussion it provoked, often heated, both pro and con, was at least literary -- it was about the book and what was actually in it and what it amounted to.

Even at the time I think it was abundantly clear that the loony old Ayatollah Khomenei, clinging to power as his own powers were fading and his regime's hold on Iran was slipping in the wake of the disastrous (and ultimately pointless) war with Iraq, not only had never read a word of the book, he had literally no idea what was in it -- as was the case of virtually everybody who, for assorted reasons of their own, made a religious crusade out of it. In case anyone has forgotten the nature and extent of that furor:
Bookstores were firebombed -- Collets and Dillons in London, Abbey's in Sydney. Libraries refused to stock the book, chains refused to carry it, a dozen printers in France refused to print the French edition, and more threats were made against publishers. Muslims began to be killed by other Muslims if they expressed non-bloodthirsty opinions. In Belgium, the mullah who was said to be the "spiritual leader" of the country's Muslims, the Saudi national Abdullah al-Ahdal, and his Tunisian deputy, Salem el-Behir, were killed for saying that, whatever Khomeini had said for Iranian consumption, in Europe there was freedom of expression.

Rushdie writes of an interview he did with CBS the morning after the issuing of the fatwa, Valentine's Day 1989 (again, writing of himself in the third person):
On air, when he was asked for a response to the threat, he said, "I wish I'd written a more critical book." He was proud, then and always, that he had said this. It was the truth. He did not feel that his book was especially critical of Islam, but, as he said on American television that morning, a religion whose leaders behaved in this way could probably use a little criticism.

Rushdie was always rankled by the ayatollah's pronouncement in the fatwa "that the author of the Satanic Verses book, which is against Islam, the Prophet and the Koran, and all those involved in its publication who were aware of its content, are sentenced to death." His old self, he recalls (someone who was dealing with the already-apparent unwinding of his second marriage, and the approach of the ninth birthday of his son from his first marriage), objected at the time that "this was not a sentence handed down by any court that he recognized, or that had any jurisdiction over him." But his new self understood that it didn't matter, that there was a new, invented Salman Rushdie who "was the person in the eye of the storm."

I realize that the English Wikipedia Administrator would undoubtedly insist on secondary sources for all of this. I'm glad to have Rushdie's account. There's even a comic moment on that first post-fatwa day -- though he cautions that "after that, there was no comedy."

In addition to the CBS interview, for which a car had been sent to bring him to the studio, his schedule included a memorial service for his writer friend Bruce Chatwin. By the end of the interview, his wife warned him that there were 200 journalists outside their house," so he had her pack a bag and meet him at his literary agency. His British agent, Gillon Aitken, accompanied them to the memorial service. (Again, remember that "he" is Salman R.)
When it was over, they pushed their way toward him. Gillon, Marianne, and Martin [Amis, the novelist] tried to run interference. One persistent gray fellow (gray suit, gray hair, gray face, gray voice) got through the crowd, shoved a tape recorder toward him, and asked the obvious questions. "I'm sorry," he replied. "I'm here for my friend's memorial service. It's not appropriate to do interviews."

"You don't understand," the gray fellow said, sounding puzzled. "I'm from the Daily Telegraph. They’ve sent me down specially."

Salman appeals to Gillon, the agent, for help.
Gillon leaned down toward the reporter from his immense height and said, firmly, and in his grandest accent, "Fuck off."

"You can't talk to me like that," the man from the Telegraph said. "I've been to public school."

Salman appeals to Gillon, the agent, evidently a tall fellow, for help.
Gillon leaned down toward the reporter from his immense height and said, firmly, and in his grandest accent, "Fuck off."

"You can't talk to me like that," the man from the Telegraph said. "I've been to public school."

And that, as I mentioned, was the end of the comedy. Out on the street he found hordes of journalists and photographers.
He stood there blinking and directionless, momentarily at a loss. There was no chance that he'd be able to walk to his car, which was parked a hundred yards down the road, without being followed by cameras and microphones and men who had been to various kinds of school and who had been sent down specially.


Which brings us to a stimulating and stirring "Tomgram" brought to us by Tom Engelhardt's, "Jeremiah Goulka, Confessions of a Former Republican" (which I first encountered in its posting by Nation of Change as "Joining the Reality-Based Community") and a 2010 Tomgram to which Jeremiah harks back, "Andrew Bacevich, How Washiington Rules." I can't imagine more suitable material for a 9/11 post tomorrow.

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At 11:47 PM, Blogger John said...

Relevant 9/11 reading:

"The Deafness Before the Storm"

John Puma


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