Gerry Canavan

the smartest kid on earth

Posts Tagged ‘Peter Singer

Friday Night Everything

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Sunday Night!

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* Rest in peace, David Markson. Though I could never make it through This Is Not a Novel, let me second David Foster Wallace; Wittgenstein’s Mistress really is “pretty much the high point of experimental fiction in this country.”

* Peter Singer vs. the future: Should This Be the Last Generation? He comes down on the “no” side, though he doesn’t seem quite convinced:

I do think it would be wrong to choose the non-sentient universe. In my judgment, for most people, life is worth living. Even if that is not yet the case, I am enough of an optimist to believe that, should humans survive for another century or two, we will learn from our past mistakes and bring about a world in which there is far less suffering than there is now. But justifying that choice forces us to reconsider the deep issues with which I began. Is life worth living? Are the interests of a future child a reason for bringing that child into existence? And is the continuance of our species justifiable in the face of our knowledge that it will certainly bring suffering to innocent future human beings?

* Terrifying Nixon-era Children’s Books.

* A history of soccer in South Africa.

* Ending the university: Under a program announced Thursday, employees of Wal-Mart and Sam’s Club will be able to receive college credit for performing their jobs, including such tasks as loading trucks and ringing up purchases. Workers could earn as much as 45 percent of the credits needed for an associate or bachelor’s degree while on the job.

The credits are earned through the Internet-based American Public University, with headquarters in Charles Town, W.Va., and administrative offices in Manassas.

* What if political scientists covered politics? Via Yglesias.

Obama now faces some of the most difficult challenges of his young presidency: the ongoing oil spill, the Gaza flotilla disaster, and revelations about possibly inappropriate conversations between the White House and candidates for federal office. But while these narratives may affect fleeting public perceptions, Americans will ultimately judge Obama on the crude economic fundamentals of jobs numbers and GDP.

Chief among the criticisms of Obama was his response to the spill. Pundits argued that he needed to show more emotion. Their analysis, however, should be viewed in light of the economic pressures on the journalism industry combined with a 24-hour news environment and a lack of new information about the spill itself.

Republicans, meanwhile, complained that the administration has not been sufficiently involved in the day-to-day cleanup. Their analysis, of course, is colored by their minority status in America’s two-party system, which creates a strong structural incentive to criticize the party in power, whatever the merits…

* And some sunday night surrealism from Vladmir Kush. Via MeFi.

No More Zoos

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Written by gerrycanavan

March 8, 2010 at 11:13 am

Best American Essays 2007

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About halfway through my reading of Best American Essays I began to feel very sick of David Foster Wallace’s taste in writing. About half the fault would seem to lie with the alphabet—for whatever reason the best essays seem to fall at the beginning and end of the alphabet this year—and the other half would seem to lie with Wallace himself. A lot of these just didn’t strike me as “the best” of anything, much less of the best of 2007—this is all pretty milquetoast, and I found myself flipping a lot of pages.

But definitely trudge through until you read Elaine Scarry’s exemplary “Rules of Engagement,” which I found to be one of the better essays I’ve yet read on the subject of the Bush administration and the laws of war. It’s indispensable, really, laying out the justification for the relevant Geneva convention and then walking you through Bush’s wholesale abuse of it. Lucky for us, it’s online:

So severe is the rule protecting the signs of truce and medical care that it cannot be suspended, even for the sake of escape, a circumstance that often permits a relaxation of the rules. For example, it is permissible, for the purpose of escape, to take off one’s uniform and wear civilian clothes, an act impermissible in any other context. 5 In contrast, it is never permissible for uninjured soldiers to travel in an ambulance, whether they are moving forward into battle or trying to escape from it.

The stark prohibition on the false use of the red cross is derived from a logically prior and overarching prohibition: that a Red Cross vehicle or building cannot itself be the target of assault. It is because all participants are obligated to regard the white flag and red cross as inviolable that a secondary obligation arises not to use either sign falsely. As the Air Force manual observes, “The rule prohibiting feigning hors de combat status, such as sickness, distress or death, in order to commit or resume hostilities is only a corollary rule to the principle prohibiting attacks on persons who are hors de combat.”

What, then, are we to make of the joint Army–Navy–Air Force mission to storm al Nasiriyah General Hospital to take back the injured prisoner of war Private Jessica Lynch? The people of the United States were asked by their government to bear collective witness to this mission—to take it, and honor it, as our national war story. If the narrative captivated national attention, it did so in part because the deeds were so fresh, so unheard of—but they were fresh and unheard of because such deeds are not ordinarily performed, and they are not ordinarily performed because to storm a hospital is to be guilty of perfidy: it is a violation of the primary and overarching prohibition from which the perfidy prohibition is derived.

Did anyone present at the planning session for this mission have a handbook of military rules available? Did anyone object to the plan? 6 For the U.S. Special Forces to drive up to the hospital in Nasiriyah in a fleet of ambulances would of course have been a clear act of perfidy. So, too, was it an act of perfidy to arrive at the threshold of the hospital in a fleet of military tanks and helicopters loaded with Navy Seals, Army Rangers, and Air Force pilots, who spilled through the corridors at midnight, breaking down doors and blasting guns. Upon hearing the roar of approaching machinery, the hospital staff, according to their reports, fled to the basement. Inciting members of a medical staff to abandon their posts beside their patients for several hours is a concrete harm, though if they had not abandoned their posts, the United States might now have the slaying of medical personnel and hospital administrators on its hands.

It’s an important essay. Read it.

Other highlights:

Jo Ann Beard’s “Werner,” from Tin House [excerpt]

Mark Greif’s “Afternoon of the Sex Children” from n+1 (maybe the best essay I’ve read on the subject of the late twentieth-century’s hypersexualization of children)

George Gessert’s “An Orgy of Power” from Northwest Review (on torture, and quite good)

Peter Singer’s “What Should a Billionaire Give—and What Should You?” from the New York Times Sunday Magazine

Now let’s look at the incomes of America’s rich and superrich, and ask how much they could reasonably give. The task is made easier by statistics recently provided by Thomas Piketty and Emmanuel Saez, economists at the École Normale Supérieure, Paris-Jourdan, and the University of California, Berkeley, respectively, based on U.S. tax data for 2004. Their figures are for pretax income, excluding income from capital gains, which for the very rich are nearly always substantial. For simplicity I have rounded the figures, generally downward. Note too that the numbers refer to “tax units,” that is, in many cases, families rather than individuals.

Piketty and Saez’s top bracket comprises 0.01 percent of U.S. taxpayers. There are 14,400 of them, earning an average of $12,775,000, with total earnings of $184 billion. The minimum annual income in this group is more than $5 million, so it seems reasonable to suppose that they could, without much hardship, give away a third of their annual income, an average of $4.3 million each, for a total of around $61 billion. That would still leave each of them with an annual income of at least $3.3 million.

Next comes the rest of the top 0.1 percent (excluding the category just described, as I shall do henceforth). There are 129,600 in this group, with an average income of just over $2 million and a minimum income of $1.1 million. If they were each to give a quarter of their income, that would yield about $65 billion, and leave each of them with at least $846,000 annually.

The top 0.5 percent consists of 575,900 taxpayers, with an average income of $623,000 and a minimum of $407,000. If they were to give one-fifth of their income, they would still have at least $325,000 each, and they would be giving a total of $72 billion.

Coming down to the level of those in the top 1 percent, we find 719,900 taxpayers with an average income of $327,000 and a minimum of $276,000. They could comfortably afford to give 15 percent of their income. That would yield $35 billion and leave them with at least $234,000.

Finally, the remainder of the nation’s top 10 percent earn at least $92,000 annually, with an average of $132,000. There are nearly 13 million in this group. If they gave the traditional tithe — 10 percent of their income, or an average of $13,200 each — this would yield about $171 billion and leave them a minimum of $83,000.

You could spend a long time debating whether the fractions of income I have suggested for donation constitute the fairest possible scheme. Perhaps the sliding scale should be steeper, so that the superrich give more and the merely comfortable give less. And it could be extended beyond the Top 10 percent of American families, so that everyone able to afford more than the basic necessities of life gives something, even if it is as little as 1 percent. Be that as it may, the remarkable thing about these calculations is that a scale of donations that is unlikely to impose significant hardship on anyone yields a total of $404 billion — from just 10 percent of American families.

Jerald Walker, “Dragon Slayers” from The Iowa Review (on writing, particularly African-American writing)

Edward O. Wilson, “Apocalypse Now” from The New Republic (on environmental catastrophe)

As usual, I wish more of the good essays were online. But then you’d have no reason to buy the book, and it’s worth it for these alone even if the overall selection struck me as significantly weaker than it’s been in past years.

Written by gerrycanavan

December 21, 2007 at 12:31 am