Archive

Posts Tagged ‘New Yorker’

The End of Federer (As We Know Him)

June 30th, 2010 No comments

Roger Federer has just crashed out of Wimbledon, losing to the clobberin’ Czech, Tomas Berdych. After reaching 23 straight semi-finals or better in Grand Slam tournaments, Federer has now lost in two consecutive quarterfinals. And this one was at Wimbledon, where he’d reached seven straight finals(!), winning six of them.

By now, we can discern a pattern: Federer, from now until the end of the career, will likely lose more than he’ll win against super heavyweight hitters like Berdych, Juan Martin DelPotro (who overpowered him in the US Open Final last year), and Robin Soderling (who torched him at the recent French Open). Today’s defeat, I saw coming down Broadway. Berdych beat Federer earlier this year, and the big Czech isn’t the same mental case he was until quite recently.

What’s going on? Some combination, probably, of an otherwise imperceptible decline in Federer’s great skills, and the emergence of this new generation of ball-whackers. They’re not especially young in tennis terms, but they’ve all come into their own at about the same time.

Federer will probably win another major or two, but he’s not likely to regain the No. 1 position, and will therefore fall one week short of Pete Sampras’s record for most total weeks on top. And I wonder how much he cares, really: There’s not much else he needs to accomplish in tennis, and he might be content to spend the back-end of his career (which might be quite a few years) as a Top Five player whose best shots still elicit gasps, but who can no longer be counted on to be standing at the business end of tournaments. (Indeed, after winning the Australian Open in January, Federer hasn’t won another tournament this year.)

There’s a nice piece on Federer in this week’s New Yorker (not available on line). Here’s a line from the Calvin Tomkins article that might console some of his fans. It did me:

“For five years, his more besotted admirers have counted on him to [win every tournament], and our expectations, as I’m coming to realize, have interfered with the unique pleasure of watching him play. Whether he wins Wimbledon or not this year, he will us…moments…when a ball in flight becomes more than a signifier of victory or defeat.”

Tearing Down Robert P. George’s Scaffold (Part One)

December 23rd, 2009 9 comments

The puff piece on Robert P. George in last Sunday’s NY Times Magazine was one of the more infuriating things I’ve passed my eyes over in some time. At many points I found myself wishing for the kind of critical perspective that a similar, personality-based piece would have gotten in, say, the New Yorker or the Atlantic. Instead, David Kirkpatrick’s article was a weird mixture of amanuensis-like reporting of George’s point of view and unexpected instances of the writer’s occasional, startling snarkiness at his subject. (Example: “I met George 20 years ago, when I was a Prince­ton student and he was praying for tenure.”) There was so much to dig into, but Kirkpatrick barely lifted a spade.

And surprisingly, still there’s been but little written in opposition to the positions that George put forward. (Here‘s one game effort at deconstructing his arguments, from Kathleen Reeves.) But there’s so much wrong with what he’s saying that I can’t sit by idly and let this go unanswered. It’s clear that George is providing an intellectual scaffold to prop up a host of right-wing views and talking points. But the support he provides is rickety.

So, as my last serious work before taking a short Christmas break, I’ll have a go at George’s views (with a focus on marriage) and their intellectual pedigree. This will require more than one post.

Let’s start with the purported distinction between Humeans and Aristotelians that George (via Kirkpatrick) describes, and that is vital to his world-view. After setting forth Hume’s view that the emotions are the seat of decision-making, and Aristotle’s preference for an objective moral order that  can be known through the rational mind, George casts himself as a neo-Aristotelian whose mission is to restore the primacy of reason to moral (and political) decision-making. For George, it’s one or the other: emotions or reason.

Unfortunately, this simple “either-or” disregards increasingly well-accepted findings from the field of neuroscience. If you’ve never read Antonio Damasio’s ground-breaking yet accessible work, Descartes’ Error, promise yourself to correct this omission in 2010. Damasio’s work with brain-injured patients showed this: Those whose emotional capacities had been shut down could not make rational decisions. It turns out that we need emotions to bring our otherwise potentially endless ratiocination to some kind of conclusion — for us to get up and do something. The always-curious David Brooks further popularized this insight in a column last year:

Over the past several years, the momentum has shifted away from hard-core materialism. The brain seems less like a cold machine. It does not operate like a computer. Instead, meaning, belief and consciousness seem to emerge mysteriously from idiosyncratic networks of neural firings. Those squishy things called emotions play a gigantic role in all forms of thinking. Love is vital to brain development.

[P]eople seem to have deep instincts for fairness, empathy and attachment.

So this Aristotelian-Cartesian idea that truth can be known purely through reason is so yesterday.1 The purportedly syllogistic logic that leads George to his definition of marriage (one that — surprise! — ends up walling out same-sex couples) is driven by complex emotions that neither George nor sophisticated neuroscientists as yet fully understand.

This isn’t to give up the project of judging arguments grounded in logic and reason, but to provide context for them: The arguments we choose to make, and the ways we present them, aren’t the products of pure reason, because…there’s no such thing. And once we get into the specifics of George’s natural-law position on marriage — which by the way is nothing new — we can see how his complex construction is anchored in a biological, reductive model of humanity  that is hardly the product of “reason” at all. It’s an article of emotion or of faith; take your pick, because they amount to the same thing.

In my next post, I’ll pursue this natural law argument further.

Update: The second post on this topic, which will address Andrew Sullivan’s response to George as well as George’s natural law arguments, will be up early tomorrow.

  1. But  yesterday is, of course, where George proudly abides. From the Kirkpatrick piece: “George’s admirers say he is revitalizing a strain of Catholic natural-law thinking that goes back to St. Thomas Aquinas.”

Iran Comes Apart

June 14th, 2009 No comments

After a weekend of thought about the whole DOMA/DOJ fiasco, I’d planned on writing a short summation, and the text of a speech Obama should — but won’t — give that might do for gay and straight relations what his Philadelphia race speech did for race relations .

That’s still in the works, but I’m pushing it back to tomorrow. (Look for it late in the day.) For tonight, though, I think this blog needs to show respect to the millions of Iranians who are fighting and dying in a probably doomed effort to prevent their election from being stolen. Here are few recommendations for different kinds of news sources that have been doing a great job of keeping up with the issue. These will lead you to many more, without practical end. Read as much as you can bear.

Juan Cole, an expert on Mideast relations (and  Prez of the Global Americana Institute), offers incisive and frequently updated commentary.

This New Yorker blog entry by Laura Secor makes a clear and convincing case that the election was stolen, done in the sober and persuasive style that’s the magazine’s hallmark.

Over at the Daily Dish, Andrew Sullivan has been a blogging madman for the last two days (even by his hyper-prolific standards), focusing almost exclusively on Iran. This blog is more in the style of “all comers,” where Sullivan reports and tries to make sense of the news, from an astounding multiplicity of sources, as it comes over the transom. The Dish imparts the chaos of the unfolding situation, chillingly. He and his staff must be exhausted by now.

The New York Times’s coverage explains how it can get away with charging $2/paper ($6 for  the Sunday Times). Both the “mainstream” and blog (“The Lede“) stories have been predictably first-rate.

There are many more.

In the long arc of history, this situation is a good thing. But people being beaten and killed might have trouble keeping that in mind. We should salute their courage.