Author Archives: Kelly

Yuta Uchida

Yuta Uchida is a portraiture/figurative painter, born and raised in Hiroshima, Japan. After finishing high school, he moved to Superior, WI, where he found a passion for painting while he participated in several local art shows and exhibitions. He completed BFA in visual arts at University of Wisconsin-Superior.

Currently, he is pursuing MFA at Minneapolis College of Art and Design. Learn more about Yuta and his work here:

Bobby Kennedy: A Raging Spirit

Chris Matthews
Simon & Schuster ($28.99)

by Mike Dillon

“Doom,” poet Robert Lowell wrote of Robert Kennedy, “was woven into your nerves.” On June 5, 1968, the junior senator from New York, after winning the California Democratic primary, was gunned down in a crowded kitchen pantry at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles. Chaos surrounded him as he lay on a cement floor; his gaze was calm, “as if he knew it would all end this way,” wrote journalist Pete Hamill, who witnessed the scene. With the approach of the fiftieth anniversary of Kennedy’s death, another book has come along to remind us of the tragic dispossession from that turbulent spring.

Chris Matthews, host of MSNBC’s Hardball, has synthesized a familiar story into a brisk, straightforward biography in which he casts Kennedy’s life as an existential progress of the soul—which it most definitely was. Late in Bobby Kennedy: A Raging Spirit, Matthews quotes Kennedy’s words to the wife of a staffer in 1967 after he visited heart-rending scenes of poverty and starvation in the Mississippi Delta: “I’ve done nothing in my life . . . everything I’ve done was a waste . . . everything I’ve done was worthless!”

Matthews, also author of Jack Kennedy: Elusive Hero, Tip and the Gipper: When Politics Worked, and other books, is well suited to tell the Kennedy tale. Like the Kennedys, Matthews grew up with an Irish Catholic lens on the world. Born in 1945 on the leading edge of the Boomer generation, and a former Peace Corps volunteer who went on to work for Speaker of the House Tip O’Neill, Matthews breaks into the narrative here and there to connect his own personal experience to the Kennedy saga and the 1960s.

Matthews acknowledges two prior biographies as crucial sourcebooks: Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr.’s capacious Robert Kennedy and His Times (1978) and Evan Thomas’s Robert Kennedy: His Life (2000). His biography won’t replace those works or Larry Tye’s Bobby Kennedy: The Making of a Liberal Icon (2016). Still, Matthews’ narrative, bolstered by archival interviews, manages to advance our understanding of an enigmatic man, the runt of the Kennedy litter who grew up under the shadow of an overweening father and a constellation of dazzling siblings.

“My goal here is to come to grips with his story, who and what he was and what lay beneath the man we saw,” Matthews writes in the prologue. “Born twenty years before me, he was from a different East Coast City and an environment far more privileged than mine. Yet the familiarities of our Irish Catholic world rang ardently through our everyday lives.”

Matthews has a sharp eye for those moments in Kennedy’s early life that flag the man he would become. One summer the four-year-old Kennedy jumped off a boat so he would have no choice but learn to swim. In 1951, while a law student at the University of Virginia and president of the school’s Student Legal Forum, Kennedy invited Ralph Bunche, the first African American to win the Nobel Peace Prize, to speak on campus. According to state law the audience would be segregated. Kennedy wrote a five-page letter to the university president, logical and eloquent, arguing for integrated seating.

Early enemies made in Washington D.C. were also a credit to his character. They included the menacing Roy Cohn, whiz kid attorney and chief counsel to Sen. Joseph McCarthy. Cohn, later disbarred for unethical conduct in New York, went on to become Donald Trump’s mentor.

The legendary feud with Jimmy Hoffa, President of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters from 1958 to 1971, is the stuff of film noir. As Chief Counsel for the Senate Rackets Committee prior to his brother’s 1960 presidential run, the millionaire’s son had the corrupt union boss squarely in his cross hairs. Matthews notes: “Hoffa, Bobby would recall, ‘was glaring at me across the counsel table with a deep, strange, penetrating expression of intense hatred . . . There were times when his face seemed completely transfixed with this stare of absolute evil.’”

Kennedy managed John Kennedy’s quest for the presidency with tenacious—some said ruthless—efficiency, and as Attorney General he became his older brother’s most trusted confidant. Matthews give a good account of the pair’s slow swing toward the civil rights struggle. The violent mobs assaulting the Freedom Riders and federal authorities in Alabama in 1961 shocked the Attorney General. Matthews quotes singer Harry Belafonte, friend to both Martin Luther King, Jr. and Kennedy: “At last, Bobby’s moral center seemed to stir.”

Following his brother’s assassination in November 1963, Kennedy, his sharp features haunted by grief, dived into the works of the Greek tragedians and Albert Camus, trying to understand suffering. A successful run for the Senate seat in New York in 1964, riding on the hated Lyndon Johnson’s coattails, gave Kennedy a base from which to act. And so began his interregnum: unwelcome at Johnson’s White House, he pondered, in Hamlet-like fashion, a return of “Camelot” to the same address.

Finally, he began to doubt the war in Vietnam. In an speech to Senate colleagues in 1967, after pointing out that three presidents had overseen the war’s expansion, he admits, with nearly unthinkable political honesty: “As one who was involved in those decisions, I can testify that if fault is to be found or responsibility assessed, there is enough to go around for all — including myself.” Clearly, Robert Kennedy was no ordinary politician.

On the evening of April 4, 1968 it fell to the presidential candidate to inform an African American crowd in Indianapolis of the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. Matthews rightly quotes Kennedy’s speech in full. It was a rare moment in American history — a son of privilege, vulnerable and raw, speaking softly, at times haltingly, of tragedy and hope to the grief-stricken African American community like no other white politician could. That night riots broke out in major cities across the United States, but not in Indianapolis.

As he barnstormed in key states during the extraordinary 82 days of his presidential run, the man who searched deep inside himself for his better angels called on the country to do the same. In the last days of the California primary campaign, frenzied crowds rushed Kennedy’s open car, grabbing for a piece of him. “You know, I feel now for the first time that I’ve shaken off the shadow of my brother,” Kennedy tells family confidant Ken O’Donnell by phone on the night of his California primary win.

Kennedy’s victory speech called for an end to violence and division before he turned from the podium towards the kitchen pantry. He was 42 years old. “Give sorrow words,” Shakespeare wrote in Macbeth. This Matthews has done.

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Rain Taxi Online Edition Spring 2018 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2018

Future Noir: The Making of Blade Runner

Paul M. Sammon
Dey Street Books ($16.99)

by Ryder W. Miller

Blade Runner, though not a cinematic blockbuster, ranks up there at with the very best of science fiction films. Credited with revolutionizing science fiction filmmaking and heavily influencing the cyberpunk subgenre, the film presents a post-nuclear world in a state of anarchy, a dystopian setting with pollution that has caused permanent night and a police division that can kill the artificial life humankind has created without a trial or consequence. Despite the dangerous pollution on earth—the opening scene of the film landscape was actually called “Hades”—people are stuck on the planet even though they would like to go to the stars.

Future Noir, originally published in 1996 and now in its third edition, does a great job of exploring the film in depth (or perhaps I should say “films”; there have been seven different versions due to studio demands at the time, and more recently a sequel). Though loosely based on Philip K. Dick’s novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? the film moves the story out of the Bay Area and cuts some of the novel’s major elements, namely a fictional religion called Mercerism and dystopian society’s use of live animals as status symbols. Most life is now dead because of DNA-destroying radiation. Androids, here called “replicants,” have been created to be “more human than human” but they lack empathy. “Blade runners” are supposed to eliminate them from the population.

There is really not a hero in the movie; this is a film about replicants who cannot fit in. Dick was not thrilled about the adaptation process, and he died before the film premiered, but he knew it would change science fiction. He has since received a “cinematic rebirth” of sorts; so many movies have been based on his books, with more coming—which is good since his books usually explore dark undercurrents in society and politics.

Future Noir, which runs almost 600 long pages and contains interviews with director Ridley Scott and some of the actors, is the bible concerning Blade Runner. For those who want to know about all the infighting and struggles of putting a film together, and what is sometimes lost and misunderstood in the process, journalist and film insider Paul M. Sammon has done a monumental service.

Click here to purchase this book
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Rain Taxi Online Edition Spring 2018 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2018

A New Enlightenment:
An Interview with Steven Pinker

photo by Rose Lincoln

Interviewed by Allan Vorda and Shawn Vorda

One of the most popular and widely read cognitive scientists of our era, Steven Pinker is the Johnstone Family Professor of Psychology at Harvard University, where he conducts research on cognition, language, and social relations. Pinker received his B.A. in psychology from McGill University in 1976 and his Ph.D. in experimental psychology from Harvard University in 1979. He later did research at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where he taught from 1982 until 2003. He is the author of over a dozen books, including How the Mind Works, The Better Angels of Our Nature, The Sense of Style, and most recently Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress (Viking, $35).

Pinker was named one of Time’s 100 most influential people in the world in 2004, has been twice named to Foreign Policy’s list of top global thinkers, and was elected to the National Academy of Sciences in 2016; he has won many awards both for his books and his research, and he chairs the Usage Panel of the American Heritage Dictionary. Known for his long curly locks as well as for his impressive intellect, Pinker was voted in 2001 as the first member of the Luxuriant Flowing Hair Club for Scientists.

The following interview took place at the ZAZA Hotel in Houston on March 9, 2018.

Allan Vorda: What was the genesis for writing Enlightenment Now?

Steven Pinker: One source was my coming across data sets that showed the world had improved in areas beyond those I had documented in The Better Angels of Our Nature. That book, which came out in 2011, was itself inspired by my surprise at data that showed many measures of violence had been in historical decline, such as crime, war, and violence against women and children. That surprise led to me to the conviction that it was an underappreciated story waiting to be told, and it set the challenge to me as a psychologist to explain it. Why has there been so much violence throughout human history and how have we managed to tame it? Enlightenment Now came from a similar epiphany, namely the realization that it wasn’t just violence in which the human condition had improved, but measures of hunger, disease, child mortality, maternal mortality, literacy, work hours—pretty much every aspect of human flourishing has shown an improvement. Once again the vast majority of literate, educated people are unaware of these improvements and once again they demand an explanation. I suggest that the overarching cause for this human progress consists of the ideals of the enlightenment: reason, science, humanism, and progress.

AV: Can you briefly describe these four major ideals?

SP: The commitment to reason amounts to our not trusting sources and claims to knowledge other than reason, such as dogma, sacred texts, authority, tradition, intuition, gut feelings. Every belief should be justified by reason. The companion value of science holds that the world is intelligible, that we can understand it by forming possible explanations and testing them empirically against the world. And the value of humanism is the commitment to human well-being and flourishing as the ultimate moral good, as opposed to the glory or preeminence of the nation, tribe, or faith, as opposed to obeying divine commandments, as opposed to achieving feats of heroic glory, as opposed to advancing some mystical force or struggle towards a messianic or utopian age.

Shawn Vorda: In Part II of Enlightenment Now, you explain how these ideals have led to progress in just about every single measure of human well-being. Bill Gates recently cited five of his favorite facts from this section, ranging from time spent doing laundry to a global increase in IQ. Gates also declared Enlightenment Now is now his favorite book of all time. Are there any facts regarding progress that you consider particularly promising?

SP: Certainly the rise of global literacy is promising. The fact that 90% of the people in the world under the age of twenty-five can read and write is unprecedented in human history. The decline of extreme poverty is also promising; the level of extreme poverty is less than ten percent, and the UN has set as one of its sustainable development goals the elimination of extreme poverty everywhere by the year 2030. Lifespans continue to rise and life expectancy at birth is increasing. Also the many technological innovations in the pipeline promise additional improvements in human well-being; these include energy technology, recycling technology, synthetic biology and rational drug design, genomics, and many others.

SV: Despite an increase in the literacy of the world, recent Pew results indicate an overall decrease in literary reading. Do you have any thoughts on these results? Have you considered producing your work through other media, such as podcasts or YouTube, where they might reach a wider audience?

SP: It seems these are happening at opposite ends of the literary spectrum. The increase in literacy pertains mainly to the children in the developing world who formerly could not read at all, as opposed to the literary elite who might be reading less fiction or literature. I have been struck by ideas I want to share, and how the world of non-text media has exploded. There are hundreds of podcasts, and YouTube videos seem to get greater circulation than text interviews and articles. People recognize me on the street because they’ve seen me in a YouTube video, and impressionistically that does seem to have increased. I suppose I would need numbers to know whether the increase in YouTube viewership came at the expense of people who would otherwise read, or if it consists of people who would otherwise be watching television programs or playing video games.

AV: In the chapter “Reason” you state: “People affirm or deny these beliefs to express not what they know but who they are.” In a polarized political society it seems we have come to a point where a political party puts their agenda ahead of the best interests of America. Essentially, a person might identify himself by saying, “I am a Republican” instead of saying “I am an American.” What can be done to limit this trend?

SP: I don’t know what can be done, but certainly identifying it as a prime source of public irrationality would be the first step; especially if a larger community of people can think about what can be done about it. I don’t have a prescription for turning around an entire society from the trends that have been following for the past twenty years. At least being aware of it would mean that some portion of the intellectual community, those that are not ideologically or tribally committed, are at least aware that all of us are vulnerable to it. Whether that can proliferate, go viral, or reach a tipping point, I don’t know. But there have been inroads against other forms of irrationality. People don’t believe in alchemy or unicorns or miasmas. There is an increasing number of people who are aware of the data revolution and insist on metapolls like, or sabermetrics in sports, or evidence based policy and medicine. It is nowhere close to a consensus, but it has certainly penetrated the awareness of many elite professions. Political tribalism as a source of irrationality is a new idea and I think it’s largely unknown. I think if it becomes better known, it sets the stage for us to take measures against it.

SV: Also in “Reason,” you discuss “The Most Depressing Discovery about the Brain, Ever” or “How Politics Makes Us Stupid.” Can you briefly describe the studies related to these articles?

SP: These were studies done by the Yale legal scholar Dan Kahan, who was a big influence on that chapter. The studies presented people with data from a fictitious study in which the first impression of the data contradicted the actual message of the data. That is, if you looked at the absolute value of the numbers but didn’t do a simple comparison of ratios, you could misinterpret the results. Kahan varied whether the content of these studies were politicized (the effect of a concealed carry law on violent crime) or politically neutral (the effectiveness of skin cream treating a rash). He post hoc divided his subjects into numerate, more numerate, and less numerate groups based on tests of mathematical ability. In the case of politically neutral content (the skin cream study), the more numerate subjects scored better than the less numerate subjects, regardless of left or right leaning tendencies. But when it came to political issues (the gun control study), each faction fell back on their primitive, innumerate impulses. The subjects were seduced by raw numbers and made mathematical errors if the results didn’t agree with their ideology’s favored position. It suggests that we’re apt to ignore evidence when it presents a challenge to our favored position, and we’re all too ready to accept evidence when it confirms it.

AV: Recent studies have shown that twenty-three percent of people are non-religious and the numbers are increasing every year. Nevertheless, when there is a political discussion on cable TV networks, they often talk about the religious right and the evangelical vote, but they virtually never mention the non-religious vote, which is almost a quarter of the populace. Why is this?

SP: In part it’s because religious groups are organized and they form effective voting blocks. They’re emboldened by their coalition and encouraged to vote in large numbers. Many of the so called “nons”—people without a religious affiliation—are not necessarily rational, secular atheists; rather, they’re people who have just dropped out of all institutions. They’ve not only dropped out of organized religion but also out of engagement with the entire political process. This is a regrettable development because it’s an example of how democratic politics is often pushed by the most energized interest groups, as opposed to the interests of the population as a whole. Perhaps it also speaks to the lack of political shrewdness of non-evangelical movements since they have not had the same success in mobilizing their forces and getting their faction to the polls. I also suspect a reason for the disengagement of so many center and left-wing voters is the left has joined in the Trumpist denunciation of mainstream institutions and his dystopian vision of American society. If you agree with Trump that the country is a cesspool of inequality, crime, police shootings, and racism, then you’re apt to figure there is no difference in the major party candidates. So it doesn’t matter if your president is Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump, because they’re both presiding over equally dysfunctional systems. One of the reasons I think it is essential to take note of the progress that has occurred, is so people don’t become cynical or fatalistic about our existing institutions, or perhaps tempted towards radical or nihilistic alternatives.

AV: Every day we wake up to news that is generally depressing. Your book is the opposite, since it presents a very positive outlook for our species, especially over the last couple of centuries. This seems to go against the grain of the “modern apocalypse” in regards to concerns of overpopulation, resource shortage, pollution, and nuclear war. What is the greatest existential risk now facing us and is there an existential risk that concerns you in the far future?

SP: I don’t know that the risk is existential, but climate change certainly poses a serious risk of disruption and perhaps human misery. If climate change disrupts the growth of food, forces wide-scale migration, and results in catastrophic tipping points like the diversion of the Gulf Stream, there could be wrenching changes. I doubt they would be existential, but they don’t have to be existential to cause great amounts of misery. The chance of nuclear war is something we should be concerned about, although I think the chance is small, but the consequence could be catastrophic. Again it’s too easy to leap to something being horrific to something being an existential threat. In the most extreme nuclear winter scenario, the threat could be existential, but that would require the exchange of hundreds of weapons. A single nuclear exchange would be far short of an existential threat.

SV: In a recent event we attended in Houston, both Sam Harris and Geoffrey Miller expressed concerns over the existential threat of Artificial Intelligence. Miller was specifically concerned with an ongoing “arms race” between China and the U.S. to develop AIs for defense systems. You explain in your book why you don’t share concerns regarding AI, but you do mention concerns regarding nuclear war. If newly developed AI is linked to our defense systems, is that not slightly concerning?

SP: I don’t think it’s more concerning than the systems we have now. In fact we have AI in cruise missiles and it’s a cliché of computer science that once a system starts to work we no longer call it AI. AI is reserved for computational challenges at the frontier of knowledge. So there isn’t even a clear line between AI and computer programming. There is a fantasy of a godlike artificial general intelligence that would be omnipotent, omniscient, and have the power to solve any problem instantly, and in some scenarios has a thirst for infinite power and influence. I think that’s fanciful. There is no evidence that current AI is on such a trajectory. It’s not clear that the concept of artificial general intelligence is even coherent, because intelligence requires knowledge in the domain in which one is reasoning. There is no reason to think that merely being intelligent is tantamount to seeking power and domination. The fear an AI system hooked up to vast infrastructure might be given a vague goal that would include collateral damage to humans is utterly fanciful, like giving an AI a task of curing cancer where it turns us all into guinea pigs for lethal experiments. I think if we were smart enough to design a system that could cure cancer, we would not be so stupid as to give it a blanket goal without programming in the various tradeoffs and considerations. Any system that is intelligent enough to accomplish anything of interest would be intelligent enough to consider all the tradeoffs and potential for collateral damage.

In general I think apocalyptic scenarios are accepted with too much credulity, whereas the reasons that apocalyptic scenarios don’t occur are boring and people don’t like to write about them. The previous apocalypse scenarios haven’t happened. We have never run out of a resource, and population is likely to plateau in the second half of the 21st century. The apocalypse makes for too enticing theatre to be evaluated rationally. The AI scenarios assume an utterly implausible handover of control to the systems, or an equally implausible megalomaniacal designer of the system, or a lack of control of the system despite the fact every interface with the real world has to be mediated with humans to make it happen.

SV: In “The Environment” chapter, you discuss the dangers of climate change and William Norhaus’ concept of a Climate Casino: if there is an even chance the world will get worse and a five percent chance of catastrophe, it would be prudent to take preventative action even if the outcome is uncertain. However, you seem less concerned with issues regarding resources. Could the same logic of the Climate Casino also be applied to concerns with resources, or other concerns in general.

SP: Yes, it could be applied to other concerns in theory. When it comes to resources, I think the concern is misconceived, because the model in which we successfully extract more and more of a resource until it depletes violates the way resources actually are exploited. Namely, as the more plentiful deposits are consumed, it becomes more and more expensive to get at the remainder, and that incentivizes economies to develop more efficient ways to extract the resources that remain, to conserve existing resources, or to switch to some substitute. Long before a resource is exhausted, the world typically does find a substitute. to quote Jesse Ausubel. The reason the world switched from wood to coal at the advent of the industrial revolution is not that we ran out of wood, just like the reason we switched from coal to oil is not because we ran out of coal. It’s because the new resources turned out to be more efficient with fewer negative side effects than the older one.

SV: In “Safety” you explain that we are safer in basically every aspect of life: in the workplace, from natural disasters, from homicide, etc. Gun control and safety is at the forefront of political discussions given the recent events in Florida. You briefly state “neither right-to-carry laws favored by the right, nor bans and restrictions favored by the left, have been shown to make much difference.” Do you have any further thoughts regarding gun control?

SP: I’m in favor of tightening gun control. It should be regulated like any other kind of dangerous technology, the way we regulate cars. The interpretation of the Second Amendment which nullifies controlling guns like we control cars is erroneous. It’s a tragic mistake the Supreme Court upheld that interpretation. I think it’s unlikely stricter gun control would make much of a difference in homicide rate, though. There might be fewer mass shootings, but there are so many guns already out there. The U.S. has such a well-developed culture of retaliation, intolerance of insults, and “culture of honor,” as anthropologists call it, that whatever the number guns we do have, we’re still going to have a higher rate of violence than other European countries. I do think these regulations are worth implementing and I think we need to acquire more knowledge about the effects of gun restrictions. The acquisition of such knowledge has been impeded by an absurd gag order on the Centers for Disease Control which prevents studies on gun violence. Being ignorant is always worse than being knowledgeable, and the policy of not studying something is always the worst conceivable policy.

AV: A common argument is with the increase of automation and A.I.s, there will be fewer jobs for humans. Can you explain your thoughts on this sentiment? Could there ever be a second Luddite revolution? Do you have any thoughts on universal basic income?

SP: I don’t have a confident expectation with what will happen with growth of AI or automation. On one hand they will clearly eliminate many jobs, but that doesn’t necessarily imply new jobs won’t materialize to put idle hands to work. Every challenge for robots has turned out to be much harder than we originally anticipated. We don’t even have cars that are allowed to drive automatically from point to point; there is some skepticism as to whether we’re going to see them any time soon. We may have trucks and cars that can change lanes, slow down or speed up on the highway, but we will still put a human behind the wheel to get it to the last couple of miles to the loading dock. Driving is a relatively easy challenge compared to ones that require a lot of tactile feedback, such as laying bricks, changing a diaper, or emptying a dishwasher. Even these tasks turn out to be harder than we thought. I’m skeptical of scenarios in which AI will revolutionize life because the problems AI have been set to solve are really hard problems, harder than one might think. I think this is a near consensus from people who are actually working in AI, at least ones I know. It may be as some jobs go the way of telephone switchboard operators or wheelwrights, the gains from automation could be redirected to other fields. We could perform more healthcare needs, hire teachers that instruct in the developing world over the Internet, or plant forests to suck CO2 out of the atmosphere. We just don’t know whether the economy will be supple enough to find new lines of work for the people that have been displaced from their old lines of work. Indeed, in the stats thus far, there hasn’t been the leap in productivity unemployment one might expect from rapid advances in AI or automation.

We also know that economies can expand employment opportunities in response to the supply of workers. This is what happened in the 1970s when massive numbers of women entered the workforce. Each woman that received a job did not necessarily take a job from a man; rather, the total number of jobs increased. For all we know this could happen again. If not, and if there is widespread unemployment or underemployment, it might increase pressure to adopt a UBI (Universal Basic Income) or at least a negative income tax. We already have one, the income tax credit, but it could be expanded to discourage Luddites. It would allow the economy to adapt dynamically to opportunities made available by technology and not be dragged backward by Luddites. That alone might be a reason to encourage that kind of income transfer, so the entire society can benefit from the obvious gains in productivity that AI promises, even if it hasn’t delivered it so far. Many of the jobs rendered obsolete by robots aren’t particularly desirable jobs anyway. It’s kind of perverse to romanticize the job of a coal miner, or a forklift operator, or a truck driver—professions that not so long ago were the subject of woe and pity and concern.

AV: Since people are living longer, what impact do you think this will have on our health regulations and the possible legalization of euthanasia?

SP: It’s possible that the ability of medical technology to keep people alive in a state that isn’t worth living, that is in pain or disability, could increase pressure for physician assisted suicide. I personally think this would be a tremendously humane development, assuming it came with obvious safeguards so you don’t have daughters-in-law wanting to do in their mother-in-law to accelerate their inheritance. States and countries that have adopted physician-assisted suicide, as far as I know, don’t have an epidemic of sons and daughters-in-law knocking off granny.

AV: In Enlightenment Now, you state C. P. Snow “never held the lunatic position that power should be transferred to the culture of scientists.” Why not? Wouldn’t it be interesting to see what scientists, engineers, and humanists could achieve if they were appointed to positions in the Cabinet to the President?

SP: I certainly think individual scientists who develop the expertise to run for office deserve our support, and I personally support a number of them. Not least to change some of the culture of the legislative process from the one that is second nature to lawyers, where the goal is to win, and replace it with one that is second nature to scientists, where the goal is to seek the truth. These are very different objectives in debate, and I don’t think we’re very well served by the lawyerly one. What I was referring to is the fear among many intellectuals that C. P Snow’s arguments and my arguments that suggest we should all think more scientifically is just a power competition among the elites. I certainly don’t think just because someone is a scientist that their positions on all issues should be taken seriously. I list a number of crackpot opinions that are often popular among scientists—not scientists that actually have the discipline and knowledge to run for legislative office. For example: we should have mandatory licensing for parents who screw up their children and harm society; we should seek the ability to colonize other planets in case we foul the earth so much that it’s unfit for human habitation, or the only way to prevent war is through a world government, or the only way to eliminate poverty and hunger in the developing world is to let them die of hunger or disease. I’ve heard all of these ideas from scientists now and again, and they’re all cockamamie ideas that should not be indulged just because they’re from scientists in some other field.

AV: They wouldn’t necessarily have to run for office, but they could be appointed, so you wouldn’t have people like Ben Carson saying things like the worse thing since slavery is Obamacare.

SP: On the other hand, he’s a neurosurgeon. I agree scientists who engage with the political process would be both an asset to the Cabinet or to Congress. I think a better example might be the contrast between Rick Perry as the Secretary of Energy, who is an utter ignoramus and buffoon compared to Ernest Moniz or Stephen Chu. It’s heartbreaking.

AV: Since the time of Freud psychology has become an influential science, and it really seemed to take-off in the 1960s. Its popularity with the masses may have tapered off, but there are expanding fields of psychology led by yourself and others such as your sister Susan Pinker, Jordan Peterson, Geoffrey Miller, and perhaps Gad Saad might also be included. What is your opinion about the importance of psychology in the world we live in today?

SP: I think psychology is tremendously important as a reminder of our limitations, our biases, our fallacies, and our illusions. Here I would point to cognitive psychologists like Daniel Kahneman, Richard Thaler, Tali Sharote, my colleague Dan Gilbert, and Dan Ariely, who have brought into the public sphere an awareness of our cognitive limitations. We should not be so fooled by our intuitions and gut feelings. An awareness of our moralistic biases is highly relevant to discounting our own moral outrage and trying to put our ethics on a more defensible basis. Here I would point to people like Jonathan Height and Joshua Green—those are two examples, but similar to my discussion with scientists, it doesn’t mean we should trust everything psychologists say. Rather, the field of psychological research should be integrated into our understanding of politics, persuasion and behavior change, and the judicial system so that our best understanding of us as humans is brought to bear on the desire of our institutions. I have to add this is an idea that very much came out of the Enlightenment—that there could be a science of human nature and that it should inform the design of our institutions. That was at the forefront of the design of the American democracy, in The Federalist Papers and in comments by John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, and Thomas Paine. They all alluded to their own intuitive psychology and their observations of what makes us tick, in order to design instructions that would lead to greater well-being.

Click here to purchase this book
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Rain Taxi Online Edition Spring 2018 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2018


Thursday, July 26, 2018,
5:00pm: Social Hour
5:45pm: Book Discussion
The Commons
425 Portland Avenue S, Minneapolis

BYOB for a social mixer and freewheeling discussion of Robert M. Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance! Drop in anytime starting at 5 pm with your own beer, wine, or beverage of your choice—we’ll have snacks handy and some cool swag to give away! From 5:45-6:30, we’ll chat about the Minnesota classic that got generations pondering the nature of “Quality.” ; discussion leaders include:

Patrick Coleman
(acquisitions librarian for the Minnesota Historical Society)
Nor Hall
(Jungian therapist who once rode the world’s smallest Harley)
Steve Marsh
(senior writer at Mpls.St.Paul Magazine)

Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance is available at many book stores in the Twin Cities. This event is free and open to the public!

Glimpse of Light:
New Meditations on First Philosophy

Stephen Mumford
Bloomsbury Academic ($14.95)

by Scott F. Parker

Writer and philosopher Stephen Mumford takes Descartes for his model in Glimpse of Light: New Meditations on First Philosophy, and readers for whom Meditations on First Philosophy is more than just assigned reading in college will welcome Mumford’s “new meditations,” which offer another inspiring run at an ever-elusive certainty on which to ground a worldview. The very possibility of a coherent worldview—could the narrative stakes be higher?

Following Descartes, Mumford’s book consists of six meditations produced over six days, to which he adds a chapter of “Objections and Replies.” Mumford situates his meditations in the fictitious story of Benedict Chilwell, a philosopher in mid-life who is at a crossroads. Chilwell travels in winter to an island in Norway, where a friend’s cabin has been made available to him. In these details, Mumford evokes another philosopher, Wittgenstein, who built his own cabin for meditation in Norway, and who gave what could have been Chilwell’s orienting axiom: “Whoever is unwilling to descend into himself, because it is too painful, will of course remain superficial in his writing.”

Chilwell is tired of being superficial. “I’m giving myself these six days,” he tells his Norwegian friend, “to find some certainty . . . some clarity . . . for what I believe in.” If he fails: “there’s nothing to go on for.”

Why does Mumford go to the trouble of crafting a fictional narrative around his meditations, especially when he himself took the retreat on which his book is based? For that matter, why did Descartes? Meditations, after all, that foundational text of western philosophy, comprises a simple but invented narrative. A man “withdraws into solitude” to do some thinking—we are in the territory of plot. Descartes wrote his Meditations over a period of years, not in the six days recounted, and like Plato, Kierkegaard, and Nietzsche, his work demonstrates that philosophy is a genre of literature, and argument a form of story.

Mumford’s story goes like this: Chilwell goes to the cabin for the peace and quiet that will allow him to find sufficient support for the philosophy of realism—the idea that “things existed whether we thought of them or not.” His isolation (and therefore his meditation) is interrupted by neighbors who drop by (some more welcome than others), but it soon becomes clear, even to Chilwell, that his meditations would run out of momentum if not for the stimulation these visitors bring him. It is only in response to the questions and objections of others that he is able to develop a workable metaphysics. The story allows Mumford the opportunity to dramatize the argument’s coming to be, a comment on philosophy’s methodology, rather than present it in the abstract.

None of this would amount to much of a story, though, if Chilwell weren’t able to develop his argument for realism. The bedrock he builds his worldview on is—contra Descartes—causality, which he takes for the sine qua non of existence. Objections come readily from the directions of science and religion, but Chilwell rebuts them all to his satisfaction. The fiction is inspiring in its own right; as with Descartes’s Meditations, the reader needn’t be convinced by the argument itself to be moved by the drama of a person struggling to think clearly.

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Rain Taxi Online Edition Spring 2018 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2018

The Endless Summer

Madame Nielsen
Translated by Gaye Kynoch
Open Letter ($14.95)

by Richard Henry

Danish artist Madame Nielsen is best known for her multiplicity. After declaring the death of her birth-identity in 2001, she produced work under multiple names (Anders Claudius West, Peter Hansen, etc.) before arriving at “Madame Nielsen,” an evolution accompanied by a switch from male to female pronouns. Nielsen, who identifies as multi-gendered, works in a number of different artistic zones, ranging from performance art and music (her latest album Mum and Dad has just been released) to acting and writing novels. Her 2014 novel Den endeløse sommer has now been translated into English as The Endless Summer.

While Nielsen’s creative work is often the site of identity issues, surprisingly few drive The Endless Summer as its multiple dramas unfold. At most are the introductory scenes playing off the opening line: "The young boy, who is perhaps a girl, but does not yet know it. The young boy, who is perhaps a girl, but will never touch a man, never strip naked with a man and rub skin against his skin, never ever, no matter how titillatingly repellant the notion might be.” So goes the young boy, "so fetching, so delicate," who sleeps platonically with his stepsister as a matter of love and comfort. Eventually, however, the non-sexual drifts into the sexual, a sexuality that is simply part of the landscape here, an ordinary exploration into the human experience: "the girl and the sensitive, slender boy, who across the years, and every time they return from each their travels and each their adventures with other, unfamiliar or far too proximate genders, have kept on meeting up and resuming something that is long since over."

Is The Endless Summer a love story? Perhaps. As the narrator says: "all this improbable but entirely credible love story is, like every story in this story, a story in itself, which must constantly be interrupted and then resumed until every story has reached its more or less tragic ending." This larger story, a story which must constantly be interrupted, focuses on a woman and a much younger man from Portugal; they find each other by chance and discover a kind of happiness amidst the swirl of summer. The woman is married, however, and her relationship with the Portuguese hitchhiker actually constitutes her second affair. The reader learns that the woman’s husband, saddened by his wife’s first affair and the overwhelming demands of running a large estate he has inherited, vanished in the night—all with barely a comment from the narrator. In the fallout from his disappearance, the nameless woman drifts and eventually takes up with the nameless Portuguese man. The woman’s children, including the unnamed step-siblings and “handsome Lars,” drift also. The course of the novel is nearly dream-like as the characters move about as if in a cloud, as if lost in Nielsen's prose.

Perhaps The Endless Summer is more an elegy—an elegy for the beautiful boy, whose death marks the end of summer. It is the beautiful boy, the handsome boy, Handsome Lars, the sensitive slender boy, the boy who sleeps with his stepsister (who might as well be his brother). And with the passing of Handsome Lars, not from "those three letters of the alphabet, or at least in the silence that follows them," but from a "cold [that] turns into pneumonia, but it's not pneumonia, the doctor says, it’s it,” summer has ended, all things are undone. The mother and her Portuguese lover part ways, and so forth and so on, as the drama unfolds from sentence to sentence.

The Endless Summer is a lush read, best done in a single sitting, for its prose is luxurious and tumbling. Indeed, what most drives the narrative is Nielsen's style, a style captured by translator Gaye Kynoch as she moves from "The young boy, who is perhaps a girl, but does not yet know it" to "through the Word, unto eternal life."

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Rain Taxi Online Edition Spring 2018 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2018

Michael Ondaatje Broadside

This broadside, an excerpt from Michael Ondaatje’s Warlight, was printed by supersessionpress on the occasion of Ondaatje's appearance in the Rain Taxi Reading Series on May 21, 2018.

Limited edition letterpress broadside, Printed in black and brown inks on French Mod Tone paper, measures 11" x 15". Limited to 60 copies. Each copy is SIGNED by the author.

Available with a donation of $100 to Rain Taxi, a nonprofit literary organization. Donations are deductible to the extant allowable by law.


Black and Blur - Epistrophies

Black and Blur
consent not to be a single being

Fred Moten
Duke University Press ($27.95)

Jazz and the Literary Imagination

Brent Hayes Edwards
Harvard University Press ($35)

by Patrick James Dunagan

In a recent interview in The Brooklyn Rail, poet Fred Moten says this when describing the “blur” resisting “individuation” of an artwork: “Everything is going on. There is an enigmatic line I always wondered about that Coltrane has in the poem that he wrote to accompany the third part of A Love Supreme, something like, It all has to do with it.” Moten also recalls

reading this great essay by Baraka called “The Myth of a Negro Literature” where he’s actually saying, There is nothing in this literary tradition that approaches the music, in terms of its complexity and depth. This was a commonplace formulation that seemed empirically true though there’s a great new book by Brent Edwards called Epistrophies: Jazz and The Literary Imagination (Harvard, 2017) which calls that so-called empirical truth into severe question. Still, for many, the music is at the top.

Moten’s Black and Blur joins with Edwards’s Epistrophies in challenging this longstanding status music has consistently held as “the top” influence within the African American artistic tradition. Exploring and exposing how this idea becomes a limitation, both books engage in a push to broaden the status quo, contributing to an ongoing re-formation of critical considerations shaping the tradition. Where Edwards offers an academically astute critical reading of a vein running through a broad cross-section of jazz history at points where themes or motifs of “literature” intersect, Moten implodes the subject area, assessing the various influences on artists and thinkers across the board—musicians, poets, philosophers, dancers, visual artists, etc.—what all is in the stew from out of which emerges an ongoing, if previously submerged, tradition that Moten is now a part of.

Edwards, it should be noted, is “attempting to do something more than provide nuanced interpretations of the formal interrelations between jazz and literature.” While later chapters do consider where and how jazz is taken up by poets such as Nathaniel Mackey and Ed Roberson, and there is (not too surprisingly) a chapter on Sun Ra’s poetry and music, other chapters focus on Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Mary Lou Williams, Cecil Taylor, James Weldon Johnson, and Langston Hughes. The reach is broad. In many cases, Edwards dives into the archives of writings by these artists, including reproductions of manuscript pages and transcriptions, in order to push our traditional understanding of what constitutes the literary; in doing so he offers a fresh perspective on how writing itself embodies the physical experience.

For example, in regard to Johnson’s versification in God's Trombones : Seven Negro Sermons in Verse, Edwards finds a distinctive “technique of transferring the ‘swing’ from the vernacular performing black body into the formal ‘body’ of the poem. In its manipulations of line, measure, and punctuation, the poem itself begins to be sketched out as a ‘breathing,’ ‘syncopating’ body.” Edwards sees Langston Hughes as having extended this practice into a “true compositional strategy.” He also examines the “zoning” practices found in Mary Lou Williams’ music by way of looking over her daily note-keeping, and includes a fascinating consideration of her musical relationship to Cecil Taylor’s practice as evidenced by the pair’s live concert album Embraced.

Edwards closes his book by asking “shouldn’t a criticism so deeply engaged with the art of innovation itself be innovative?” This is an exciting proposal, but as engaging as Epistrophies is, it comes nowhere near the complete revisualization presented by Black and Blur of what a critical text might be and how it might operate. Moten’s poems are decidedly of the experimental sort, often with a prose appearance, yet his prose here is most definitely neither poetic nor recognizable as a standard academic text. It is most definitely a creative critical engagement.

Implicit in Moten’s work is the idea that there are no firm boundaries. European critical theory and classical music are as relevant to the discussion as is consideration of contemporary art. In other words, while the engagement is with “blackness,” the discussion is ever attending to the (artistic) endeavor itself:

Blackness, which is to say black femininity, which is to say black performance, will have turned out to be the name of the invaginative, the theatrical, the dissonant, the atonal, the atotal, the sentimental, the experimental, the criminal, the melodramatic, the ordinary. It is and bears an aesthetic of the trebled (troubled, doubled) seer’s voice disturbed by being seen and seeing up ahead where escape, crossing over, translation will have meant the continual reanimative giving—unto the very idea of freedom—of the material.

Firmly grounded by his experiential perspective as a black man, Moten’s work enacts a broadening redefinition of the formal constraints of criticism: “it is our task to make an alternative practice, not form an alternative identity.” Reworking the expected narrative of a critical text by embedding a “blackness” throughout that refutes assimilative forces.

Moten slings astute references to postmodern theory with the best of them, but is equally not to give a nod to a friend’s remark. Consideration of a musician leads to a riff on a personal remembrance of deep recognition felt with an artist’s work, back into a passage from one philosopher or another followed by a further riffing from this or that performance or exhibit. The whole is a swirl of relations bound together by Moten’s discernment and critical reading as he follows the flow of associations along. Moten’s writing more than welcomes that motto of Coltrane’s he mentions in the Rail interview cited above: “It all has to do with it.”

In the same interview, Moten acknowledges, “When I read Derrida the first time it wasn’t like I knew what was going on, it was just that I knew I wanted to read more. So I kept reading.” That sums up how readers might best approach Black and Blur: Be ready to be wowed; be ready to be challenged; most of all, be ready for the long haul. It is, apparently, the first in a planned trilogy. Moten is tracking his own course, and it’s fast-moving and spectacular.

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Rain Taxi Online Edition Spring 2018 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2018

Late Empire

Lisa Olstein
Copper Canyon Press ($16)

by Denyse Kirsch

In Late Empire, Lisa Olstein’s fourth poetry collection, the poet throws herself into a disturbing discussion about 21st-century realities, pinpointing, questioning, and exhorting. It’s a riveting picture of the micro, day-to-day busy-ness against the macro, overshadowing struggle of existential survival. “We bring the world to bed with us, / its weather, its moving maps, / and its wars.” The writing is inclusive; we are all in the same bunker, facing constant trauma. This is well portrayed in “Night People”:

we are all Malaysia Airlines
as we like to say, as we have learned
to say, as it somehow comforts us
to say. Tonight, this week, for as long as
we can bear it or until something
pulls us away we are all one hundred
and fifty-three Chinese nationals and
six Australians and three
Americans . . .

Structurally, the collection is divided into five sections, each written in a different form: sonnets, prose poems, poems written in tercets based on Gaston Bachelard’s The Poetics of Space, and lyrical one-stanza poems that open and close the book. The atmosphere intensifies from section to section. A mystery figure, Whistle, enters the prose poems and becomes Olstein’s sounding board.

With repetition and short sharp sentences in the poem “The Disaster,” Olstein brings home the effect of round-the-clock reporting moving from catastrophe to catastrophe: “The disaster is not / our affair. The disaster takes care / of everything.” Additionally, Olstein is a master of poetic syntax. Her words paint fresh, beautiful images, as in “Glitter-spilled stars / velvet the gaze,” or “The foot / of the lake meets the mouth of the river.” Her sensitive lens focuses on our most basic dreams and fears: “Mark, what if / by chance I met my true love when I was / too young to know to keep him?”

Olstein also vents her frustration at our neglect of the earth. “Monday / it’s a report on the impossible future of bananas. Tuesday it’s / the story of limes held hostage by cartels. Both still appear / on our shelves, but we don’t know for how long.” “A Poetics of Space” deals with our connection with our surroundings, including the “intimate data” of shells and walnuts, garrets and rooms. Perhaps “I Want to Save This Whale” is the poet at her most ecologically passionate:

She’s tangled in nets and lines
and there’s only one way to
get her out, she tells us
with her bathtub-sized eyes
one at a time because we
have to swim around to see.

Lisa Olstein’s perceptive voice cuts through our “safe house” of complacency. She calls on us—and on the empire to which we belong—to take note of what’s going on before it’s too late.

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Rain Taxi Online Edition Spring 2018 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2018