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Geniuses

From Isaac Newton to the Genius Bar by Darrin M. McMahon.

Geniuses are a dying breed.

And yet, they seem to be all around us. We live at a time when commentators speak without irony of “ordinary genius” and claim to find it everywhere. From the “genius bar” at the local Apple Store to bestselling books that trumpet “the genius in all of us,” geniuses seem to abound. But if we consider the idea of “genius” as it has evolved across history, it starts to look like we don’t really need geniuses as we once did. It may be that we don’t need them at all. The increasing banality of genius in the contemporary world has begun to dissolve it as a useful category.

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Illiterate

You’d Have to Be Science Illiterate to Think “Belief in Evolution” Measures Science Literacy by Dan Kahan. See here.

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Passé

Obama and the End of Greatness by Jeff Shesol.

In March of 1977, several weeks into the Carter Administration, “Saturday Night Live” featured a skit called “Ask President Carter.” The premise was a radio program, hosted by Walter Cronkite (Bill Murray), on which callers brought their problems to President Carter (Dan Aykroyd). After walking a postal worker through a highly technical repair to her letter-sorting machine (“There’s a three-digit setting there, where the post and the armature meet”), the President expertly talks a man down from an acid trip. “You did some orange sunshine, Peter,” Carter tells him. “Just remember you’re a living organism on this planet, and you’re very safe.… Relax, stay inside, and listen to some music, O.K.? Do you have any Allman Brothers?”*

What the skit captures is the suspension of disbelief at the start of most Presidencies—that moment when a good number of Americans are able to convince themselves that we might be in the presence of a great man, and that his greatness will be manifest. That this is the man who has the answers. When it becomes clear that he doesn’t, we never quite forgive him for it.

This is where we stand right now with President Obama. There are two years left in his tenure, but we are already in the process of writing him off. The Atlantic is calling him “our passé President”; at a rally in Maryland on Sunday, while Obama delivered a campaign speech, dozens of people drifted out of the auditorium. Yet he is still, of course, our President, and we still, on some level, expect heroics. Deep down, we don’t want Obama to appoint an “Ebola czar.” We want him to march into the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, set some new protocols, and put this unpleasant business behind us. Instead, to quell our Ebola freak-out, Obama “hugged and kissed … a couple of the nurses” at a hospital in Atlanta, which, really, is an assignment Joe Biden could have taken.

More at The New Yorker.

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Emergence?

The India Myth by Rajan Menon.

The ubiquitous reports of India’s emergence as a great power are bogus. The road is long, the advance slow and the arrival date uncertain.

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Plantagenets

The Plantagenet Effect by Robert Kaplan.

Every school child should know about the Magna Carta, a document forced upon King John by his feudal barons in 1215 to limit the king’s power. But the full majesty of how the march toward constitutional government began in England deep in the Middle Ages is conveyed by Dan Jones, a Cambridge-educated historian, in The Plantagenets: The Warrior Kings and Queens Who Made England, published in 2012. (Jones continues the saga in the recently published The Wars of the Roses: The Fall of the Plantagenets and the Rise of the Tudors.) The story of how British democracy developed is an exceedingly slow and cumbersome one. The first meeting of parliament did not happen until 1264, nearly a half-century after the signing of the Magna Carta. And women’s suffrage was not instituted until 1918, more than 700 years after the Magna Carta. In short, what we in the West define as a healthy democracy took England the better part of a millennium to achieve. And in reading both of Jones’ books, what screams out loud and clear is the political wealth, cultural density and utter formidability of the English tradition achieved as much in war as in peace – without which the magnificent debates and rhetoric that are on display in parliament in London today would simply not exist.

A functioning democracy is not a product that can be easily exported, in other words, but an expression of culture and historical development that must be constantly nursed and maintained. Britain’s democracy did not come from civil society programs taught by human rights workers; it was the offshoot of bloody dynastic politics and uprisings in the medieval and early modern eras.

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Italy

Italy’s in Terminal Decline, and No One Has the Guts to Stop It by Nicholas Farrell.

The Rome Opera House sacked its entire orchestra and chorus the other day. Financed and managed by the state, and therefore crippled by debt, the opera house — like so much else in Italy — had been a jobs-for-life trade union fiefdom. Its honorary director, Riccardo Muti, became so fed up after dealing with six years of work-to-rule surrealism that he resigned. It’s hard to blame him. The musicians at the opera house — the ‘professori’ — work a 28-hour week (nearly half taken up with ‘study’) and get paid 16 months’ salary a year, plus absurd perks such as double pay for performing in the open air because it is humid and therefore a health risk. Even so, in the summer, Muti was compelled to conduct a performance of La Bohème with only a pianist because the rest of the orchestra had gone on strike.

After Muti’s resignation, the opera house board did something unprece-dented: they sacked about 200 members of the orchestra and chorus, in a country where no one with a long-term contract can be fired. It was a revolutionary — dare one say Thatcherite? — act. If only somebody would have the guts to do something similar across the whole of the Italian state sector. But nobody will. Italy seems doomed.

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Revisited

Evolution and Ethics, Revisited by Gertrude Himmelfarb.

They persuade the world of what is false by urging upon it what is true.” That is John Henry Newman in The Idea of a University (1852) referring to the sciences of his day, which threatened to dominate and even overwhelm theological education in the university. A science’s teaching might be true in its proper place but fallacious “if it be constituted the sole exponent of all things in heaven and earth, and that, for the simple reason that it is encroaching on territory not its own, and undertaking problems which it has no instruments to solve.”

While Newman’s notion of science was far broader than ours, including even painting and music, his description of the overreach of science is still apt. We now have a term — “scientism” — for that fallacy, exemplified, as has been demonstrated in these pages, by Richard Dawkins’s pronouncement that genes “created us, body and mind,” and Edward O. Wilson’s claim that biology is the “basis of all social behavior.” If scientism has become so prevalent, it is partly because of the emergence of new sciences, each encroaching, as Newman said, on “territory not its own” (invading, we would now say, the turf of others), and each professing to comprehend (in both senses of that word) the whole. Intended as an epithet, the term has been adopted as an honorific by some of its practitioners. A chapter in the book Every Thing Must Go: Metaphysics Naturalized (2007) by three philosophers is entitled “In Defense of Scientism.”

More here.

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Teach

Rebecca Newberger Goldstein: What Plato Can Teach Us by Jonathan Derbyshire.

Anyone who’s done an undergraduate degree in philosophy will have been made to read the great philosophers of the past—the 16th and 17th-century rationalists and empiricists, certainly, probably some Kant, and in all likelihood Plato and Aristotle as well. For decades, particularly in the anglophone world, students were encouraged to treat such monuments of the western tradition as Plato’s Republic or Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason not as relics to be venerated but rather as if they’d been published in the most recent issue of a scholarly journal such as Mind. It’s the arguments in these books that matter, so the thinking went, and if these turned out to be deficient when judged against the most rigorous contemporary standards, then so much the worse for Plato or Kant. That great swathes of the Republic or the first Critique survive this kind of treatment is presumably a sign of greatness.

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Cowardice

Intellectual Cowardice by Chris Walsh.

“Are you afraid to finish your book?” My colleague was in the habit of needling his fellow scholars with this question. It struck particularly deep with me, because my book was about being afraid – or rather, it was about being excessively afraid and therefore failing to do what you should do. It was about cowardice.

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Speed

Speed Kills by Mark C. Taylor.

“Sleeker. Faster. More Intuitive” (The New York Times); “Welcome to a world where speed is everything” (Verizon FiOS); “Speed is God, and time is the devil” (chief of Hitachi’s portable-computer division). In “real” time, life speeds up until time itself seems to disappear—fast is never fast enough, everything has to be done now, instantly. To pause, delay, stop, slow down is to miss an opportunity and to give an edge to a competitor. Speed has become the measure of success—faster chips, faster computers, faster networks, faster connectivity, faster news, faster communications, faster transactions, faster deals, faster delivery, faster product cycles, faster brains, faster kids. Why are we so obsessed with speed, and why can’t we break its spell?

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Isolation?

Conservatives, America, and Natural Law by Samuel Gregg.

For conservatives, a retreat into self-imposed isolation isn’t a responsible option. We need more conservatives publicly witnessing that humans are wired to know and freely choose truth, and that this has implications for the political order.

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Lost

How Conservatives Lost Heaven by Mark Judge.

If I had the chance at an elevator pitch with a rich conservative, say Rupert Murdoch or the Koch brothers, I would beg, plead, and cajole for one thing: a well-funded Conservative Chair in Popular Culture.

I’m thinking of a position helmed by a thinker who can contribute substantive thought and lengthy essays about American popular culture. Topics wouldn’t have to just be blockbuster superhero movies or silliness at the MTV awards; the scholar could delve into jazz, old movies, crime fiction, experimental music, whatever. Greil Marcus by way of Robert George.

A Conservative Chair in Popular Culture would address the left’s control of popular culture, but could do so in a way that was not reactive. By acknowledging that the battle for culture is a long one and that pop culture speaks to the deepest values and longings of people, a conservative focus on films, novels, comic books, and music could do what plain old conservatism has not been able to: change hearts and minds.

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Portrait

The Dark Side of Thomas Jefferson by Henry Wiencek.

A new portrait of the founding father challenges the long-held perception of Thomas Jefferson as a benevolent slaveholder.

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Modern

Victoria Kahn reviews Minding the Modern: Human Agency, Intellectual Traditions, and Responsible Knowledge by Thomas Pfau.

Related: You can download an excerpt here.

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Differences

How John Adams Helps Explain The American Mind by Richard Samuelson.

The dispute between John Adams and Edmund Burke can illuminate today’s differences between American and European conservatives.

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Government

Good Government, Bad Government by Francis Fukuyama.

Why did the euro crisis start in Greece, which couldn’t control its public spending during the boom years prior to 2010, while Germany was able to maintain budget discipline? Careful comparative study of the dynamics of state building and public-sector modernization shows that while some developed countries (defined as those beyond a standard threshold of per capita income) managed to enter the 21st century with reasonably effective and uncorrupt governments, others continue to be plagued by clientelism, corruption, poor performance, and low levels of trust both in government and in society more broadly. If we can explain this variance, it may provide some insight regarding strategies that contemporary developing countries might use to deal with problems of corruption and patronage today.

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Rebirth

The Rebirth of Tijuana by Sam Quinones.

Tijuana is not pretty. A city of 1.3 million people, it is chaotic, grimy, unplanned, loud, and it smells bad. It possesses none of the colonial architecture or history of Morelia, Oaxaca City or Zacatecas, across Mexico’s interior. On the contrary, most of its neighborhoods, stacked across alarmingly steep hills, are less than 40 years old.

But Tijuana’s beauty lies deeper, and has to do with why the town is flourishing now.

More at the NYT.

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Sermons

Retirement Home Christianity by Richard J. Mouw.

When, back in the mid-1980s, I told a retired Calvin College colleague that I was moving to Fuller Seminary, he responded: “I hope you will make a case there for more appropriate sermons preached at retirement communities!” He went on to explain: “Last week at the weekly worship service sponsored by our community, a visiting preacher warned us against a modalist conception of the Trinity, while also urging us to avoid tri-theism. But that was not as bad as the week before, when a seminarian—addressing a congregation where at least a dozen of us were sitting in wheelchairs—exhorted us to stand up for Christ in an increasingly secular society!

I have often wished since then that I had asked him about what he would consider to be a good sermon for that kind of community. But as I get closer to his age I think I could come up with some helpful answers of my own. Many of us have been giving considerable attention in recent decades to the importance of cultural context: you can’t preach exactly the same sermon in a suburban Omaha church as you would to a congregation in rural Thailand. But that kind of emphasis has to do with “macro-“ cultural factors. There is also the “context” of different stages of an individual life. What I found exciting and helpful about Christianity in my twenties differs significantly from my present life as a septuagenarian.

More at FT.

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Operative

New Ebola Czar Ron Klain Is A Long-Time Lobbyist, Democratic Operative by Sean Davis.

Earlier today, President Barack Obama announced that he would be appointing Ron Klain as an additional Ebola czar (he already had one before today). If Ron Klain sounds familiar to you, it’s because he has a long political pedigree. He has no medical, scientific, or federal agency administrative expertise, but he has a whole lot of political experience.

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Related: Who Do They Think We Are? by Peggy Noonan.

The administration’s handling of the Ebola crisis continues to be marked by double talk, runaround and gobbledygook. And its logic is worse than its language. In many of its actions, especially its public pronouncements, the government is functioning not as a soother of public anxiety but the cause of it.

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Tips

5 Tips for Making Relationships Last by Robert Taibbi.

So what’s the secret to keeping a relationship going for the long term? There’s plenty of research out on this both from professionals and those who have mastered the art of relationships.

More at PT.