In “Puddleglum and the Savage” The Pasty Little Putz whines that two deaths were overshadowed by the death of J.F.K. (He’s talking about C. S. Lewis and Aldous Huxley, and of course uses the opportunity to do his best to trash JFK.) Commenter “Bryan Barrett” from Malvern, PA, with whom I usually adamantly disagree, had this to say about The Putz’s piece of crap: “As one who, as an adult in his twenties lived through the Kennedy era, and who did not adhere to his political philosophy, it is my pleasure to inform you that you have misjudged the era, the times, the President, his character and his backbone, and those of us who experienced a sublime moment in US history when JFK epitomized the American spirit and American exceptionalism of his tragic Presidency, were proud of his accomplishments, long before 11/22/1963.” MoDo, FSM help us, is trying to wrap her head around science. It ain’t pretty. In “Why the Y?” she babbles that in a battle of the sexes 200 million years in the making, the willful Y chromosome fights to hold its ground. The Moustache of Wisdom is still in Dubai. In “Oh, Brother! Big Brother Is Back” he says deal-making with Iran is quite a shock to the whole Middle East system. Mr. Kristof says “Danger Lurks in That Mickey Mouse Couch” and outlines the corporate boondoggle that may threaten the health of our children. Mr. Bruni has a question: “Are Kids Too Coddled?” He says tougher education standards like the Common Core may require a tough love that some parents and educators don’t like. Here, unfortunately, is The Putz:
They died in their homes, not from an assassin’s bullet, and in their 60s, not in their prime. When C. S. Lewis collapsed in his Oxford bedroom, the presidential motorcade was leaving Love Field. When Aldous Huxley requested a final shot of LSD, a TV set in the next room had just blared the news that the president had been shot. And then the coincidence of two of modernity’s keenest critics dying on the same November day was lost in a storm of headlines and public grief.
It’s too soon to reclaim Nov. 22, 1963, for Huxley and Lewis, and reassign John F. Kennedy to a lower rung of historical significance, where some of us suspect his presidency belongs. But pausing amid this month’s Kennedy-anniversary coverage to remember the two British-born writers offers a useful way to think about the J.F.K. mythos as well.
Huxley and Lewis did not share a worldview — one was a seeker drawn to spiritualism, Eastern religion and psychedelics; the other was (and remains) the most famous Christian apologist in the modern English-speaking world. But they shared a critique of contemporary civilization, and offered a similar warning about where its logic might end up taking us.
For Huxley, this critique took full shape in “Brave New World,” his famous portrait of a dystopia in which the goals of pleasure and stability have crowded out every other human good, burying discontent under antidepressants, genetic engineering and virtual-reality escapes.
For Lewis, the critique was distilled in “The Abolition of Man,” which imagined a society of “men without chests,” purged of any motivation higher than appetite, with no “chatter of truth and mercy and beauty” to disturb or destabilize.
In effect, both Huxley and Lewis looked at a utilitarian’s paradise — a world where all material needs are met, pleasure is maximized and pain eliminated — and pointed out what we might be giving up to get there: the entire vertical dimension in human life, the quest for the sublime and the transcendent, for romance and honor, beauty and truth.
Two passages from their work illustrate this point — that comfort purchased by sacrificing transcendence might not be worth the cost. The first comes from Lewis’s Narnia novel “The Silver Chair,” in which a character named Puddleglum confronts a queen who has confined the heroes in an underground kingdom, and lulled them with the insistence that the underground world is all there is — that ideas like the sun and sky are dangerous wishful thinking, undermining their immediate contentment.
“Suppose we have only dreamed, or made up, all those things,” Puddleglum replies — “trees and grass and sun and moon and stars and Aslan himself. Suppose we have. Then all I can say is that, in that case, the made-up things seem a good deal more important than the real ones … We’re just babies making up a game, if you’re right. But four babies playing a game can make a play-world which licks your real world hollow.”
The second comes from the end of “Brave New World,” when a so-called “Savage” raised outside the dystopia confronts its presiding “Controller,” Mustapha Mond. The Savage lists everything that’s been purged in the name of pleasure and order — historical memory, art and literature, religion and philosophy, the tragic sense. And Mond responds that “these things are symptoms of political inefficiency,” and that the comforts of modern civilization depend on excluding them.
“But I don’t want comfort,” the Savage says. “I want God, I want poetry, I want real danger, I want freedom, I want goodness. I want sin.”
Which brings us back to that notorious sinner John F. Kennedy. What exhausts skeptics of the Kennedy cult, both its elegiac and paranoid forms, is the way it makes a saint out of a reckless adulterer, a Camelot out of a sordid political operation, a world-historical figure out of a president whose fate was tragic but whose record was not terribly impressive.
But in many ways the impulses driving the Kennedy nostalgists are the same ones animating Lewis’s Puddleglum and Huxley’s Savage — the desire for grace and beauty, for icons and heroes, for a high-stakes dimension to human affairs that a consumerist, materialist civilization can flatten and exclude.
And one can believe J.F.K. is a poor vessel for these desires, and presidential politics the wrong place to satisfy them, without wishing they would disappear.
“It is a serious thing,” Lewis wrote, describing the implications of his religious worldview, “to live in a society of possible gods and goddesses, to remember that the dullest and most uninteresting person you talk to may one day be a creature which, if you saw it now, you would strongly be tempted to worship.”
It is obviously a serious mistake, from this perspective, to deify someone prematurely or naively, as too many of Kennedy’s admirers have done.
But it’s a much greater mistake, the two writers who entered eternity with J.F.K. would argue, to seek a brave new world with no heights or depths, no room for divinity or heroism anymore.
He has such a problem with the “deification” of JFK, but has never had a word to say about the Cult of Reagan… Here’s MoDo, all tangled up in science:
Even sitting in an M.I.T. classroom made me feel smarter.
But I was still struggling with the difference between meiosis and parthenogenesis.
Dr. David Page, the zippy evolutionary biologist teaching a class Wednesday called “Are Males Really Necessary?,” had helpfully laid out some props to illustrate gene swapping — bananas, apples and heads of lettuce arranged on a table covered with a flowery white tablecloth.
“Since only females can give birth, why is it of any advantage to the species to have a second sex?” he asked. “Why should nature bother with males?”
He told the packed classroom about the ingenious genetic feat of the Laredo striped whiptail lizards in the Rio Grande Valley in Texas and Mexico.
“This species is a Girls Only club, and the girls reproduce by cloning themselves,” Dr. Page said. “In the species with males, life is pretty routine. The females produce eggs, the males produce sperm, fertilization occurs and the male-inclusive life cycle is completed. In species without males, life has a different texture. The females produce eggs, but the eggs do not need sperm. That’s parthenogenesis, which is a big word that means we understand absolutely nothing about how this works.”
He said old-fashioned fertilization (meiosis) beats cloning (parthenogenesis) because, as genes mutate, “males provide females with spare parts.”
It had been eight years since I’d talked to Dr. Page, director of the Whitehead Institute for Biomedical Research, about doomsday predictions that we were hurtling toward a planet without men in a mere 100,000 to 10 million years.
The Y chromosome was shedding genes and wilting into a mere remnant of its once mighty structure. Y declinists were arguing that, from sperm count to social status, men were vanishing, Snapchat-style.
The Y had shrunk to a fraction of the size of its partner, the X chromosome. (Obviously, Stephen Colbert told Dr. Page, it had just gotten out of the pool.)
The Y-sky-is-falling predictions mirrored Hanna Rosin’s thesis in “The End of Men,” showing that women are consolidating power — as graduates, breadwinners, single mothers, consumers.
Indeed, former Clinton money guy Terry McAuliffe would not be the new governor of Virginia if his Republican opponent, Ken Cuccinelli, had not scared off single women by belonging to a state party crew that was chasing women around with wands, trying to do transvaginal probes.
Even back when I first talked to Dr. Page — known as Mr. Y — he cast himself as “the defender of the rotting Y chromosome.”
He painted a picture of the Y as “a slovenly beast,” sitting in his worn armchair, surrounded by boxes and pizza crusts.
“The Y wants to maintain himself but doesn’t know how,” he said. “He’s falling apart, like the guy who can’t manage to get a doctor’s appointment or clean up the house or apartment unless his wife or girlfriend does it.”
But, as it turned out, it was a mistake to underestimate a chromosome that had for centuries madly attacked, annexed, enslaved, pillaged, plundered, inseminated and thrust forward to create great art, architecture and literature.
Driven no doubt by lust and ego, the Y heroically revived.
“The Y chromosome did essentially fall asleep at the wheel about 200 to 300 million years ago, not long after we parted evolutionary company with birds, while we were still pretty close to our reptilian ancestors,” Dr. Page tells me now. “And then, at the last minute before the car veered off the cliff, the Y chromosome woke up and got with the program and said, ‘I don’t have a lot left, but what I have left I’m going to keep.’”
Dr. Page and Dr. Jennifer Hughes led a team that decoded the Y chromosome of rhesus monkeys, which share a common ancestor with humans, and discovered that the Y’s gene shedding leveled off about 20 to 30 million years ago. In the Y’s cliffhanger, the chromosome used its toolbox to repair some of its genes and became fastidious about not allowing the other genes to be damaged.
As The Times’s Nicholas Wade sanguinely noted, “There are grounds for hope that the Y chromosome has reached a plateau of miniaturized perfection and will shrivel no more.”
While the Y was shrinking, the “buxom” X, as Wade dubbed it — formerly considered “a staid, pristine relic,” as Dr. Page says — was growing larger and stronger, acquiring new bunches of genes, some of which play roles in producing sperm.
But just when the Y thought it was safe to go back in the water, a new American study in the journal Science shows that mice, with only two Y chromosome-derived genes, can produce cells capable of joining with an egg to make a new mouse.
“Scientists have practically obliterated the ultimate symbol of maleness in DNA, the Y chromosome,” the BBC reported, “and believe they may be able to do away with it completely.”
Which brings us to a recent Sarah Silverman tweet: “Dear Men, Just b/c we don’t need you anymore doesn’t mean we don’t WANT you! Love forever, Women.”
Heaven only know what’s in her water cooler, giving her ideas for columns. Next up we have The Moustache of Wisdom:
I’ve never been in a big earthquake, but I know what one feels like now, having spent this past week in Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. The American-led interim negotiations in Geneva to modestly loosen some sanctions on Iran in return for some curbs on its nuclear program — in advance of talks for an end to sanctions in return for an end to any Iranian bomb-making capability — has hit the Sunni Arab world (and Israel) like a geopolitical earthquake. If and when a deal is struck, it could have a bigger impact on this region than anything since the Camp David peace treaty and Iran’s Islamic Revolution in the 1970s combined to reorder the Middle East.
Why? When Iran had its Islamic Revolution in 1979, it was, emotionally speaking, like a big brother who walked out, slamming the door behind him. Everyone in the family got used to his being gone. Somebody took his bedroom; somebody else took his bicycle; and everyone enjoyed the undiluted attention and affection of Uncle Sam — for 34 years. Now, just the thought of big brother, Iran, being reintegrated and having its own direct relationship with the United States has set all of America’s Sunni Arab allies — Saudi Arabia, the Gulf states, Egypt and Jordan — on edge, especially at a time when Iran is malignly meddling in Syria, Lebanon, Yemen and Bahrain.
The signs of that nervousness range from the attack on the Iranian Embassy in Beirut last week that killed 23 people to a recent essay in Al-Sharq al-Awsat newspaper by one of the Arab Gulf’s leading journalists, Abdul Rahman Al-Rashed, who wrote: “From a theoretical, political and military perspective, Saudi Arabia will have to protect itself from the Iranian regime’s nuclear program, either with a nuclear weapon or via agreements that will maintain the regional balance of power and protect Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states.” Yikes.
There are so many layers to this: Iran is big — 85 million people; Saudi Arabia is small — 20 million people. Saudi Arabia has the largest oil and gas reserves in the Middle East — and Iran is right behind. If sanctions are fully eased one day, will Iran take market share away from Gulf Arabs? The Arab Gulf is primarily Sunni; Iran is Shiite. The Iranians are developing indigenous nuclear technology; the Sunni Arabs have none.
The Geneva talks are exposing the different interests that America and its regional allies have vis-à-vis Iran, which the sanctions regime had been masking. All the years of sanctions allowed diverse parties with diverse interests — the U.S., Israel, Saudi Arabia, the other Gulf Arabs, Europe, Russia and China — to “pretend to be having the same discussion about Iran strategy, while disagreeing about the ultimate goal of negotiations and the role that sanctions could play in getting us there or not,” notes Daniel Brumberg, a Georgetown University professor and Middle East expert.
If the United States is to maintain its relationships out here, and ensure that the Iran nuclear agreement doesn’t fuel more instability, the interim and final deals have to be good ones. Sanctions should only be finally removed if we can impose on Iran a rollback of its enriched fuels and enrichment technologies, along with sufficient intrusive inspections, to make an undetectable Iranian breakout to a nuclear bomb impossible.
But even if the Iranians agree to such a deal, it will be a hard sell to our allies. American officials believe that, ultimately, the only way to defuse an Iranian threat to the region is both to defuse its nuclear program and change the character of the regime, and that the two are related. Unlike our allies here in the Gulf, we believe that there is real politics inside Iran and differences within the leadership and between the leadership and the people. But those differences have been largely choked off — and the hard-liners given a monopoly on power — as a result of Iran’s isolation from the world. If we can get an airtight nuclear deal that also opens the way for Iran’s reintegration into the global economy, American officials hope that different interest groups — including more stakeholders in engagement with the U.S. and the West — will be empowered inside Iran and start to change the character of the regime.
It may not work, but it’s a worthy bet because the only real security for Iran’s neighbors can come from an evolutionary change in the character of that regime. So, if Iran’s nuclear capabilities are curbed, we can live with that bet on evolutionary change — especially since it would likely facilitate an end to the U.S.-Iran cold war, which has hampered our cooperating on regional issues. Our allies, by contrast, do not trust Iran at all and therefore don’t believe in evolutionary change there. They want Iran stripped of all nuclear technology until there is regime change.
We can’t close that gap. We can only manage it by being very clear about our goals: to unleash politics inside Iran as much as possible, while leashing its nuclear program as tightly as possible, while continuing to protect our Arab and Israeli allies. That’s why, in addition to Secretary of State John Kerry, we may also need a “Secretary of State Just for the Middle East.” Because restoring the U.S.-Iran relationship and bringing it in from the cold after 34 years is such a wrenching shock to the Middle East system, it will require daily consultation and hand-holding with all our Arab and Israeli friends.
And now we get to Mr. Kristof:
Researchers this summer purchased 42 children’s chairs, sofas and other furniture from major retailers and tested them for toxic flame retardants that have been linked to cancer, birth defects, diminished I.Q.’s and other problems.
In a study released a few days ago, the Center for Environmental Health reported the results: the toxins were found in all but four of the products tested.
“Most parents would never suspect that their children could be exposed to toxic flame-retardant chemicals when they sit on a Mickey Mouse couch, but our report shows that children’s foam furniture can carry hidden health hazards,” a co-author of the study, Carolyn Cox, said in releasing the report.
These flame retardants represent a dizzying corporate scandal. It’s a story of corporate greed, deceit and skulduggery, powerfully told in a new HBO documentary, “Toxic Hot Seat,” that is scheduled to air on Monday evening.
This is a televised window into political intrigue and duplicity that makes “House of Cards” or “Breaking Bad” seem like a Sunday school picnic.
The story goes back to the 1970s, when the tobacco industry was under pressure to make self-extinguishing cigarettes because so many people were dying in fires caused by careless smokers. The tobacco industry didn’t want to tinker with cigarettes, so it lobbied instead for requiring flame retardants in mattresses and couches.
This became a multibillion-dollar boondoggle for the chemical industry, but studies showed that flame retardants as actually used in sofas don’t prevent fires. This is easy to test: Just set a cushion on fire. The documentary shows that it will burn right up.
The chemical industry has cited the work of a fire safety scientist, Vytenis Babrauskas, as showing that flame retardants do limit fires. But Babrauskas says in the HBO documentary that chemical companies misrepresented his findings “in an exceedingly blatant and disgraceful way.”
Babrauskas says that, in fact, retardants provide little if any delay for a fire, and then lead to much more toxic fumes. “You get the worst of both possible worlds,” he says.
One risk is to firefighters, who are coming down with rare cancers. The larger danger is to people sitting on those couches. Retardants are released as dust from the foam and accumulate on the floor. The greatest risk is probably to pregnant women and to small children, who are also more likely to be on the floor.
These chemicals are frequently endocrine disruptors that mimic hormones, and mounting evidence links them to cancer, reproductive problems and other ailments. One positive step: California announced new standards on Thursday that will lead to the sale of flame-retardant-free furniture there.
It’s often impossible to know whether a particular couch contains retardants. The Center for Environmental Health suggests that parents avoid foam and choose furniture made of wood, or upholstered with cotton, down, wool or polyester fiberfill.
Arlene Blum, a California scientist whose research led to certain flame retardants being banned from children’s pajamas in the 1970s, recounts her horror when she found that those same chemicals were still being used in couches that children sleep on.
As the evidence grew about the danger of flame retardants, legislation was proposed in California, Maine and elsewhere to curb these chemicals. That’s when a mysterious organization called Citizens for Fire Safety Institute began running commercials defending the chemicals.
“The California Legislature is considering a bill that will endanger our children,” the group warned in one commercial. Another cautioned that without flame retardants, household furniture would spread fire through a home.
“Say no to laws that put our children in danger,” the group warned.
So who are these Citizens for Fire Safety? Their website once showed an image of children in front of a fire station and described the group as “a coalition of fire professionals, educators, community activists, burn centers, doctors, fire departments and industry leaders.”
“Toxic Hot Seat” follows a group of Chicago Tribune reporters as they dig into Citizens for Fire Safety. Their excavation of public records revealed that this “coalition” has just three members — a trio of giant companies manufacturing flame retardants. The organization was a lie, meant to deceive politicians and voters.
(These days the website has been mostly dismantled and simply refers visitors to the chemical lobby, the American Chemistry Council, which has set up a website responding to the HBO documentary: flameretardantfacts.com.)
Let’s be clear. The companies stonewalling safety regulation include giants like Exxon, BASF, DuPont and Dow Chemical, and I hope their executives squirm on Monday evening as they watch “Toxic Hot Seat.”
They won’t because they’re making a buck. Now here’s Mr. Bruni:
At a middle school near Boston not long ago, teachers and administrators noticed that children would frequently return from a classmate’s weekend bar mitzvah with commemorative T-shirts, swag that advertised a party to which many fellow students hadn’t been invited.
So administrators moved to ban the clothing.
They explained, in a letter to parents, that “while the students wearing the labeled clothing are all chatting excitedly,” the students without it “tend to walk by, trying not to take notice.” What an ordeal.
Many parents favored the ban, a prophylactic against disappointment.
Some did not, noting that life would soon enough deal the kids much worse blows along these lines. And one observer, in a Facebook thread, said this, according to a local TV station’s report: “Perhaps they should dress the children in Bubble Wrap and tie mattresses to their backs so they don’t get hurt.”
I assume that’s facetious.
But these days, you never know.
I occasionally flash on that anecdote as I behold the pushback against more rigorous education standards in general and the new Common Core curriculum in particular. And it came to mind when Education Secretary Arne Duncan recently got himself into a big mess.
Duncan, defending the Common Core at an education conference, identified some of its most impassioned opponents as “white suburban moms” who were suddenly learning that “their child isn’t as brilliant as they thought they were, and their school isn’t quite as good.”
It was an impolitic bit of profiling. Gratuitous, too. But if you follow the fevered lamentations over the Common Core, look hard at some of the complaints from parents and teachers, and factor in the modern cult of self-esteem, you can guess what set Duncan off: a concern, wholly justified, that tougher instruction not be rejected simply because it makes children feel inadequate, and that the impulse to coddle kids not eclipse the imperative to challenge them.
The Common Core, a laudable set of guidelines that emphasize analytical thinking over rote memorization, has been adopted in more than 40 states. In instances its implementation has been flawed, and its accompanying emphasis on testing certainly warrants debate.
What’s not warranted is the welling hysteria: from right-wing alarmists, who hallucinate a federal takeover of education and the indoctrination of a next generation of government-loving liberals; from left-wing paranoiacs, who imagine some conspiracy to ultimately privatize education and create a new frontier of profits for money-mad plutocrats.
Then there’s the outcry, equally reflective of the times, from adults who assert that kids aren’t enjoying school as much; feel a level of stress that they shouldn’t have to; are being judged too narrowly; and doubt their own mettle.
Aren’t aspects of school supposed to be relatively mirthless? Isn’t stress an acceptable byproduct of reaching higher and digging deeper? Aren’t certain fixed judgments inevitable? And isn’t mettle established through hard work?
Apparently not, to judge from some reactions to the Common Core in New York, which has been holding hearings on the guidelines.
One father said that while his 8-year-old son was “not the most book-smart kid,” he was nonetheless “extremely bright.” With the new instruction, however, too many kids were “being made to feel dumb.” There was “no room for imagination or play,” the father groused. “All the kids are stressed out.”
A social worker testified that she’d been receiving calls and referrals regarding elementary-school students on the psychological skids. “They said they felt ‘stupid’ and school was ‘too hard,’ ” she related. “They were throwing tantrums, begging to stay home and upset even to the point of vomiting.” Additional cases included insomnia, suicidal thoughts and self-mutilation, she said, and she wondered aloud if this could all be attributed to the Common Core.
A teacher on Long Island did more than wonder, speaking out at a forum two weeks ago about what she called the Common Core Syndrome, a darkly blooming anxiety among students that’s “directly related to work that they do in the classroom.”
“If that’s not child abuse, I don’t know what is,” she thundered, to wild applause. Then she endorsed the idea of parents’ exempting kids from Common Core-related tests. “The mommies in New York,” she concluded, “don’t abuse their children.”
If children are unraveling to this extent, it’s a grave problem. But before we beat a hasty retreat from potentially crucial education reforms, we need to ask ourselves how much panic is trickling down to kids from their parents and whether we’re paying the price of having insulated kids from blows to their egos and from the realization that not everyone’s a winner in every activity on every day.
There are sports teams and leagues in which no kid is allowed too much more playing time than another and in which excessive victory margins are outlawed. Losing is looked upon as pure trauma, to be doled out gingerly. After one Texas high school football team beat another last month by a lopsided score of 91-0, the parent of a losing player filed a formal complaint of bullying against the winning team’s coach.
It used to be that trophies went to victors; now, in many leagues, they go to everybody — for participation. Some teams no longer have one or two captains, elected by the other players, but a rotating cast, so that nobody’s left out.
Some high schools have 10, 20 or 30 valedictorians, along with bloated honor rolls and a surfeit of graduation prizes. Many kids at all grade levels are Bubble-Wrapped in a culture that praises effort nearly as much as it does accomplishment.
And praise itself is promiscuous, though there are experts with profound reservations about that approach. They say it can lessen motivation and set children up to be demoralized when they invariably fail at something.
“Our students have an inflated sense of their academic prowess,” wrote Marc Tucker, the president of the National Center on Education and the Economy, in Education Week. “They don’t expect to spend much time studying, but they confidently expect good grades and marketable degrees.”
David Coleman, one of the principal architects of the Common Core, told me that he’s all for self-esteem, but that rigorous standards “redefine self-esteem as something achieved through hard work.”
“Students will not enjoy every step of it,” he added. But if it takes them somewhere big and real, they’ll discover a satisfaction that redeems the sweat.
And they’ll be ready to compete globally, an ability that too much worry over their egos could hinder. As Tucker observed, “While American parents are pulling their kids out of tests because the results make the kids feel bad, parents in other countries are looking at the results and asking themselves how they can help their children do better.”