I had a cat I almost never saw. Big and old, Mr. Pops had filmy yellow eyes, coarse black fur, and an endearing snaggletooth. Apparently Pops was affectionate before he came to live with me, when he was confined to a four-by-four-foot pen. We fosterers mistakenly assumed that he would prefer the freedom and light of my bedroom to the confines of the pen. Instead, the change made him anxious. Stubborn and nervous, Pops made his dim cloister anew in my room, only this time he wasn’t as friendly. He spent all of our time together hiding behind my couch. When I touched him he’d purr before scurrying off to his next hideout. Senior cats don’t often enter the foster circuit, and when they do, they are rarely adopted. But after two months a lovely old French woman whisked Mr. Pops away to the apartment she’s lived in since 1972. She regularly adopts elderly cats, and once one dies she takes on another. I assumed, perhaps too quickly, that she does this to regularly face and cope with death. I assumed this because I started fostering cats, in part, to get accustomed to growing attached and then distant—something I thought I should work on as I become an adult, like building credit. But as I looked around the woman’s quiet apartment I realized that it wasn’t fear of mortality but a sense of empathy that led her to adopt old cats. She might just know how lonely it can be for somebody like Pops. I dropped Pops off in her small, sparsely furnished study. Realizing he didn’t have anywhere to hide, and frustrated that the door was closed, Pops turned and hissed at the old woman. In her thick French accent she calmly and assertively replied, “No, no, Mr. Pops, you will not hiss at me.” Then she picked him up, tossed him over her shoulder, and stroked his back, assuring him that they would “very much enjoy each other.” Pops gave a begrudging purr, which eased into a thankful meow. She’d found a way to help him. And instead of speculating why or how, I watched. They enjoyed each other.
Critics have pounced on the politics behind the opening ceremony of the London Olympics. Some have seen a riposte to Beijing in the sheer ungovernable chaos of Saturday’s proceedings, but most have focused on the Leftist elements—most obviously the song and dance tribute to the NHS, but also the almost unceasing display of marginalized groups, epitomized by the integrated deaf-and-hearing children’s choir that sung the national anthem. One Tory MP tweeted that it was “multicultural crap”; Rupert Murdoch found it “a little too politically correct.” I felt just the opposite. On another occasion it might well have been tedious and tokenistic, but this was the Olympics, and the whole point was to tell a story in which division is overcome by unity: class division by national healthcare, colonialism by multiculturalism, disability by compassion. If anything, the most offensive thing—if one has to be found—was the absence of the one group who find themselves mocked and shamed by the very existence of the Olympics: not Tory MPs, but fat people. Despite the fact that fully one-third of the UK population is now clinically obese, even liberal do-gooders would rather keep this particular underclass out of sight and out of mind. Is it because the obese have authored their own fates, unlike the disabled and the oppressed? Or is it because their ugliness contradicts another, more ancient Olympic ideal, one whose triumph must go unspoken in these pseudo-democratic times—the aristocracy of the beautiful body?
It was curious enough when the (now former) New Yorker writer Jonah Lehrer was hailed as an “important new thinker” for a book that attempted to use brain science to prove such banalities as that creativity could be fed by daydreaming, or that it was a good idea to put people from different specialties in the same building. It was even more curious when it turned out that Lehrer had cherry-picked scientific evidence, presented a misleading chronology, and (as it now turns out) completely fabricated a series of quotations from at least one of the creative geniuses whose “process” he describes in his book—mostly to support arguments with which no sane person would disagree. (Obsessing about a problem all the time is not always the best way to solve it? Really?). But the thing that was always most curious about Imagine: How Creativity Works was how many people seemed to think it offered, in a series of purple passages about brain waves and neurochemistry, some kind of answer to questions that philosophers have been debating since Plato. Now that we know he committed the unforgivable sin of misleading fact-checkers, Lehrer’s star will dim, but it would be a nice bonus if his demise prompted us to re-examine our culture’s broader belief that brain science may (someday, if not today) serve as a suitable substitute for philosophy. If you look at the elaborate praise that Lehrer’s book originally received, you come often across some version of the statement that Lehrer stood “at the crossroads of neuroscience and the humanities.” But does such a place really exist? And if so, who stands there besides the public relations experts who seemed almost intuitively to recognize the best use for Lehrer’s talents?
Close your eyes and imagine the “American Dream.” Freedom. Equality. Opportunity. Did you imagine “Walmart?” I think this is the fundamental economic and political question of our time.
Amid all the debate about the political implications of Dark Knight Rises—its treatment of class inequality, the presence of Occupy Wall Street, the menace of Bane Capital—we’ve lost sight of some of the inherent strangeness of Batman. Why does it take a bat costume to fight crime? The answer given by the series is fairly simple. Bruce Wayne was traumatized by seeing his parents murdered. This trauma was linked to his childhood fear of bats, present at both his parents’ death and beneath the family mansion. Psychically, fear of bats equals powerlessness, and overcoming this fear allows Bruce to seek vengeance. So far, this is all straightforward reaction formation. But what if something stranger is at work? What did Bruce really see and hear in that alleyway when he thought his parents were being murdered? And why was he so preoccupied with the dark, furry cave under his house? The Freudian theory of the primal scene suggests another answer: like Freud’s Wolf Man, young Bruce caught his parents in the act of intercourse, (which, to a child, appears as a murder, complete with screams and blood), then spent the rest of his life to re-staging the scene in hopes of exorcising himself of the hold it had on his mind. Primal scene trauma normally leads to sexual perversity, exhibitionism, and voyeurism. Psychoanalyst Henry Edelheit notes that it also leads to a heightened affinity for animal-human hybrids and compound mythological beasts as figures of the intertwined parents. That’s pretty much the combination you’d expect in a vigilante wearing a latex cowl with pointy ears and driving a rocket-propelled phallus. This reading helps resolve a few of the discordant elements of the Batman myth—Batman’s fixation on childhood, the obsession with caves and wells, the nighttime scopophilia, his preference for the company of other fetishists, the vinyl, the suit. It might also restore something that has been sorely missing from the superhero genre—a dose of psychological realism. After all, being a citizen may take nothing more than a willingness to trust your own judgment as much as you do that of your fellows. But to be a hero, to devote yourself to public service, to throw yourself into fighting corruption and crime—does that take dedication and public-spiritedness, or perversion, exhibitionism and obsession?
Having recently begun working as a copyeditor, I’m training my eye to wince at errors—symbols that shouldn’t be together, like a comma before a parenthesis. When I haven’t found an error in a while I grow anxious, like an addict in withdrawal from an error-high. Accordingly, I occasionally revel in finding mistakes. If an error seems particularly rare, I begin to well up with pride. Before I get too giddy, though, I remember what my boss remarked to a colleague: “It’s not a big deal; it’s just adding a ton of hyphens. But as far as I’m concerned—I mean, puppies won’t die if this doesn’t happen.” It’s true, there is a part of me that knows that readers will understand the author’s intentions regardless of my efforts and that their puppies will be safe from my hyphens. Nevertheless, we copyeditors strive toward an ideal mandated by our house manual. This manual suggests a coordinated style, a certain way of outfitting English grammar, to ensure that errors and discrepancies in form don’t distract from the ideas at hand. Our goal as copyeditors and stylists is to sensitively adapt our standards to a particular text, making its underlying ideas as clear as possible. The thoughts we receive are already formed and organized. In most cases it has taken the authors years to craft them. In many ways my work feels like following politics—that I am only coming in after something has been decided, and that in the grand scheme of things my contribution really doesn’t matter. But, from time to time when I find an error, I have that relief of voting—that is, of participating in some small way. In copyediting I’ve learned that good writing is vital to the thoughts it describes: clarity is an execution of an idea’s intention. As a copyeditor I can accordingly help realize, and be in the service of, great ideas. All that is necessary is that I learn how to pay attention—caring enough to notice and speaking up whenever I do find a mistake, however small—as my eyes scan along. I can only hope that this thoughtful meditative attention continues on past the page, carrying me through the humdrum of living.
On June 13 Colin Powell was caught on camera singing the chorus to Carly Rae Jepsen’s “Call Me, Maybe” along with CBS ‘This Morning” anchor Gayle King. Charlie Rose looked on bemused, never a novice to eccentric shenanigans. Certainly silly but no national scandal, this ill-conceived karaoke selection highlighted just how damn addictive modern pop music has become to people from every social stratum. Sure, song lyrics have become streamlined for maximum repeatability—“Call Me, Maybe” features twelve chorus refrains within three minutes, all set to a relentless and sensory oozing beat. But that’s all carrier wave. What’s really so addictive, a real sinister display of genius, is that it sells a fictional experience everyone wants but almost no one can ever partake in. This comprehensive experience, hardwired into modern American culture, consists of a maximally fun reprieve from responsibility. The Animal House toga party. The Can’t Hardly Wait post-high school bash. The Project X bacchanal. Jepsen’s song captures all of these, and our attention, by offering adulthood’s quixotic wet dream, a retreat from responsibility and an escape into an adolescence felt to pass too quickly by.
As Joe Paterno was in the midst of denying any involvement in the Penn State scandal, it seems he was cutting himself a sweetheart deal worth millions. And now a debate rages over whether to remove his statue in front of Beaver Stadium. The statue is of Coach Paterno leading four heavily armored players into battle. Surely, Paterno was responsible for many achievements on the Penn State football battlefield, but now, thanks to this week’s independent investigation, we know some other things he was responsible for as well. Maybe, instead of taking down the statue, the trustees should simply add a group of young boys being trampled underfoot.
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“Terrorism” is a complicated term. It refers to the use of violence and terror for political purpose—usually with a disregard for civilian life. Certainly Al Qaeda’s 9/11 attacks were acts of “terrorism.” But then wouldn’t current US military drone attacks on Pakistani tribal villages, or the US carpet bombing of Cambodia in 1969, or the US atomic bombing of Hiroshima in 1945, also be acts of terrorism? (Of course we were at war with Japan. But Al Qaeda is also at war with us). Or is it that a “terrorist” group must not be affiliated with a specific nation state? But in 2007, the US Senate passed legislation designating the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps as a “terrorist” organization even though the IRGC is directly sanctioned by the Iranian state. So what actually is a “terrorist?” More than anything, it seems to be a term of propaganda we use to dehumanize our enemies, which is exactly the sort of thing we’re always accusing “terrorists” of doing.