An occasionally updated list of things seen, heard, read:
1. The nine hottest Madonna videos of all time, compiled by The Beast.
2. Staying with music, Nilanjana Roy makes a compelling case for why the next Nobel Laureate in literature needs to be Robert Zimmerman Bob Dylan.
3. Picked up, in course of a bookshop raid yesterday, Amartya Sen’s The Idea of Justice. I’ll likely inflict more on it once I get through the books I’m reading now and pick up Sen’s latest. In the interim, just stumbled on this appreciation in The Chronicle. Carlin Romano underlines the perennial fascination of this subject: justice is something everyone wants, yet no one has been able to adequately define.
Plato argued, through his familiar Socratic ventriloquy, that justice is divine, an ideal to which human justice can only haltingly aspire. Aristotle then introduced a formal criterion of justice that still wins the greatest agreement, perhaps because it’s merely formal: Treat equals equally and unequals unequally.
From then on, follow the history of philosophers’ sentences that begin “Justice is … ” on and you hit so many diverse endings you wonder whether anyone, including the lady in the blindfold, knows what justice is.
To Aquinas, it’s “a certain rectitude of mind whereby a man does what he ought to do in the circumstances confronting him.” To Hume, it’s “nothing but an artificial invention.” To Sir Edward Coke, it’s “the daughter of the law, for the law bringeth her forth.” To 20th-century American jurist Learned Hand, it’s “the tolerable accommodation of the conflicting interests of society.” Do a survey, and about the only thinker who invites instant agreement is Belgian philosopher of law Chaim Perelman. According to Perelman, justice is simply “a confused concept.”
4. If at the end of his life and career the storied speechwriter and political columnist stayed
true to form, he must have written this last column in 20 minutes — which is the time William Safire took, or claimed he took, to write his 700-word riffs on politics and language for the New York Times [Archive of his columns here].
I’ve delighted in the fact that he was a college dropout [“If he can do it…” — of course, it didn’t quite turn out that way, just as I haven’t managed to make quite as much money as another famous dropout, Bill Gates]; I’ve picked up language cues from his columns over the years; after stumbling on, and reading, his novel Full Disclosure at Strand late 2005, the other half and I spent a wine-soaked evening tossing around ideas on how it could possibly be adapted into a Bollywood film set in New Delhi; a more recent, equally delightful acquisition was Safire’s compilation of the great speeches of history.
His political opeds for the NY Times were one of my must-reads [his language columns, not so much]; when he wrote his ‘good-bye to opeds’ column in 2005, he said something that has stayed stuck in my mind, and which even today prompts occasional bouts of dissatisfaction with where I am and what I do:
In an interview 50 years before, the aging adman Bruce Barton told me something like Watson’s advice about the need to keep trying something new, which I punched up into “When you’re through changing, you’re through.”
I interpreted that to mean that when you are no longer capable of making a difference, however small, it is time to move on. He had a more wide-ranging interpretation:
We’re all living longer. In the past century, life expectancy for Americans has risen from 47 to 77. With cures for cancer, heart disease and stroke on the way, with genetic engineering, stem cell regeneration and organ transplants a certainty, the boomer generation will be averting illness, patching itself up and pushing well past the biblical limits of “threescore and ten.”
But to what purpose? If the body sticks around while the brain wanders off, a longer lifetime becomes a burden on self and society. Extending the life of the body gains most meaning when we preserve the life of the mind.
Safire famously said he wrote his column in 20 minutes, which is in part what gave his pieces their immediacy and force, as though his hand had untrammeled access to his thoughts and conveying them through touch-typing 750 words was all it took. He took far more care with the novels he wrote–among them the wonderful potboiler Full Disclosure, about a conspiracy to evade the requirements of the 25th Amendment, and the enormous bestseller Freedom, about Abraham Lincoln.
He achieved perhaps even greater popularity with his Times Magazine column on language, of which I was not an admirer–Safire was himself a writer of little elegance and served as an advocate for inelegant prose at a time when Americans really could have used a voice of authority that did not grant them unlimited permission to muck around with the rules of grammar and usage. In this way, actually, Safire revealed that the word conservative really didn’t properly apply to him. Rather, he was a patriot, an American nationalist, a Zionist, a civil libertarian, and a classic Washington type of a sort that has now almost entirely passed from the scene.
Jack Shafer in Slate is anything but complementary.
When his scooplets panned out, as they did during the Carter administration, winning him a Pulitzer Prize, Safire the reporter would take a bow. When they didn’t—see his contributions on Whitewater, the Vince Foster suicide, Wen Ho Lee, Saddam Hussein and Osama Bin Laden, the Mohamed Atta connection to Iraqi intelligence, and Iraqgate—Safire the opinionator would either say the jury was still out or just move on without correcting the record.
5. Ever wondered why good writers often make poor speakers?
”]6. From Spiegel Online, the Kafka-esque battle for Franz’s papers.
8. ‘Social justice’ works — where earlier you had autocrats from one class/caste, you now have autocrats from other castes, says Mrinal Pande in a Mint column on the stone gardens of Lucknow.
9. Everything you ever wanted to know about Roman Polanski’s recent arrest but didn’t know who to ask.
10. Review of a Nicholas Kristof book on sex trafficking:
Kristof and WuDunn are advocates, but they are journalists first, and that means they don’t shy away from pointing out failures as well as successes in the field. In fact, some of the book’s most compelling sections are those that detail mistakes or upend assumptions.
Many readers of Kristof’s columns will recall the time Kristof bought a girl who’d been imprisoned in a Cambodian brothel and set her free, only to see her willingly return to her jailers. That story gets new depth and texture here. There’s also a fascinating and disturbing section about the Sonagachi Project, a sex-workers union in Calcutta, India. Sonagachi was organized with backing from the World Health Organization, and Western feminists have lauded it as a model. It seems, though, that there’s a dark side. I once expressed admiration for Sonagachi to a woman who works at an anti-trafficking nongovernmental organization and was taken aback when she snapped that it had become simply a front for pimps. Kristof and WuDunn’s reporting indicates that she was right. Their research serves not only as an important exposé but as a reminder that ideology is no substitute for experience in figuring out how to help people.
11. And now, classes on how to be kidnapped — and survive. Minimum qualification: you have to be a journalist. On successful completion of the course, you win a posting in Afghanistan?
12. While on new books, author Shelley Seale links to an India Abroad magazine feature I did a while back on The Weight of Silence, her book on the disadvantaged children of India.