Cyrus Habib: Hic Rhodes, Hic Saltus

Below is a fascinating interview of Cyrus Habib by Chesa Boudin; I am reprinting it from The Rhodes Project. I am proud to count Cyrus as a friend, and I have also had the pleasure of meeting Chesa on a few occasions. Apologies for my obscure Hegelian pun in the title of this post.

Chesa Boudin earned two master’s degrees from Oxford on a Rhodes Scholarship (Illinois, Merton and St. Antony’s, 2003). In April 2009, Scribner published his latest book, Gringo: A Coming of Age in Latin America. He is currently in his second year at the Yale Law School.

Cyrus Habib (Washington and St. Johns, 2003) an interview

Chesa Boudin

At the Bon Voyage Weekend in September 2003, my class of newly-selected Rhodes Scholars descended on the Jury’s Hotel in DuPont Circle. Cyrus Habib (Washington and St. Johns) was easily the best dressed member of the group. His Armani tie complimented his tailored shirt and crisp pinstripe suit. He had a penchant for details – manicured fingernails, a unique wrist watch, cufflinks, and matching accessories. No matter the setting, he had on perfect designer sunglasses and would often switch between several in the course of a day. This focus on the aesthetic may seem odd for an intellectual powerhouse like Cyrus – or for the introduction to this interview. However, his attention to visual detail is particularly noteworthy because Cyrus is completely blind.

As a child Cyrus was diagnosed with Retinoblastoma, a rare form of cancer that attacks the retina. In his case it struck one eye, and then the other. He was lucky to receive world-class treatment that prevented the cancer from metastasizing to his brain; he was unlucky in that it left him with no eyesight whatsoever and unable even to distinguish light from dark. Unlike someone blind from birth, Cyrus has an abundance of vivid visual memory from before he lost his sight. Since Cyrus lost his vision in 1989, he imagines everyone today with mullet haircuts and plaid polyester pants. While he can no longer see red or green, he has an acute visual image of those colors and knows not to mix and match them except during the Christmas season. And if Cyrus has a conversation about a skyscraper or a forest, he can actually picture the subject in his head, rather than understanding or imagining it through verbal context as someone blind from birth would have to do. These memories, combined with an uncanny sense of physical space allow him to navigate the world so smoothly that on first encounters he often passes as not being blind at all. Yet for the last twenty years his brain has not accumulated any new visual memory, leaving space to develop in other areas – his sense of smell and hearing, his memory, and his ability to master complex information quickly epitomize the word “extraordinary.”

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Frum on Fox

Jeet has twice written thoughtfully herein on David Frum’s recent firing by the American Enterprise Institute (see both here and here), so I’ll limit myself to pointing out a couple of related items. The first is an essay on the topic by the estimable Scott Horton, who argues that the intellectual death of the Republican Party bodes very ill for American democracy, even if it bodes well for Democratic party fortunes in the short term. The second (again via Scott Horton) is a remarkable observation that Frum made to ABC Nightline’s Terry Moran in an interview only a couple of days before his firing (it’s also viewable on YouTube here), on the GOP’s anger-driven strategy for defeating the health care bill:

Moran: “It sounds like you’re saying that the Glenn Becks, the Rush Limbaughs, hijacked the Republican party and drove it to a defeat?”

Frum: “Republicans originally thought that Fox worked for us and now we’re discovering we work for Fox. And this balance here has been completely reversed. The thing that sustains a strong Fox network is the thing that undermines a strong Republican party.”

It has long been a rule of thumb in the partisan media that circulation goes up when the party one aligns with is out of power, and goes down when it is in power — it is more fun, more pulse-racing, to fiercely oppose the actions of a government than to debate the banal details and necessary compromises of real policy-making. So if Fox News and right-wing talk radio will always benefit more when the Republicans are in opposition than when they’re in government, it does seem short-sighted of the GOP to rely on these deeply conflicted institutions to help bring them victory.

What does Fox care about political power? They want ad dollars, and this means viewers — and the angrier and more engaged, the better. A lost cause can be such a sweet thing.

Room without a view

It won. This narrow, simplistic, disappointing little film won the Oscar.

No, I’m not shocked. Nor am I disappointed with the Academy — though it has been on an admirably strong run in this century (No Country for Old Men, Slumdog Millionaire), this is also the group that elevated both Shakespeare in Love and Titanic to the pantheon. But I am annoyed that such a flawed movie has managed to achieve this amount of acclaim, and that The Hurt Locker is, even more gratingly, regarded now as an “important” film. It is not important – not in the way, at least, that great works of art (cinema included) are capable of being.

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Curses From an Old Manse

Winston Churchill: a cool man with a quip.
Winston Churchill: a cool man with a quip.
Sophie Pollitt-Cohen writes:
Teddy Roosevelt stated the problem well when he said, “A typical vice of American politics is the avoidance of saying anything real on real issues.”  Obama got in trouble for saying that the Cambridge Police acted “stupidly” when they arrested Henry Louis Gates, Jr.  You know what’s stupid?  People thinking that Obama was wrong for using the word stupid.  I’m just happy to finally have a president who knows when to use an adverb.  In days of yore, politicians ripped each other apart leaving a path of verbal destruction as far as the monocled eye could see, and people didn’t care.  (However, TR also said “Every immigrant who comes here should be required within five years to learn English or leave the country.”  So maybe sometimes it’s actually better not to say exactly what you think, especially if your opinions are stupid.) 

World’s leading black-studies scholar arrested

Henry Louis Gates Jr., a Harvard University Professor who specializes in African-American studies, has been arrested at his home on dubious charges of disorderly conduct. A statement by Gates and link to the police report are here. Some judicious comments are found in this thread on Crooked Timber (where I found out about it).

Affirmative Action, Buchanan-Style

Rick Perlstein's great book Nixonland.
Rick Perlstein's great book Nixonland.

 

Pat Buchanan, among other conservatives, has been all arage over the nomination of Sonia Sotomayor to be a Supreme Court justice. Sotomayer, Buchanan argues, is an affirmative action hire, selected not because she’s the best qualified candidate but because she’s a Hispanic woman. (For an example of Buchanan in action see this debate he had with Rachel Maddow). 

 

It’s worth reminding ourselves that for conservatives like Buchanan, affirmative action is only bad when its beneficiaries are women or non-whites. There are all sorts of affirmative actions programs that Buchanan supports.

 

In the early 1970s, Buchanan was speechwriter for Richard Nixon. In that capacity he often sent his superiors memos advising them on political strategy. One pet Buchanan idea was that the Republican party should chase after the Catholic vote in a more vigorous way (he also thought that the party was wasting its time trying to get support from blacks and Jews).

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Hidden In Plain Sight

A Day At the Beach With Obama
A Day At the Beach With Obama

Sophie Pollitt-Cohen writes:

Today, we know what important people look like.

 

In the Times the other day, there were two (2) articles about government people on the beach.   In the first, “On Facebook, Future Spy Chief is Revealed (Pale Legs, Too),” Sarah Lyall wrote that Sir John Sawyers, who is about to be head of MI6 (where James Bond works) went on vacation, and his wife posted the photos on facebook.  Naturally, the British thought anyone caring was lame.  Foreign Secretary David Miliband is quoted as “snippily” saying, “It is not a state secret that he wears Speedo swimming trunks.”  Damn right.  English people keep it real and tell it like it is.  Also, they wear teeny tiny bathing suits, which is funny.

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McNamara and the Managerial Revolution

Robert Strange McNamara (1916-2009)
Robert Strange McNamara (1916-2009)

Robert McNamara died earlier today. In 2004, I used the movie The Fog of War to look at the larger meaning of McNamara’s life. Here’s my article:

McNamara as War Manager

Although he was only two years old at the time, Robert McNamara claims he can still remember the spontaneous celebrations that broke out in 1918 when the end of the First World War was announced. The cheering was premature. President Woodrow Wilson had promised a “war to end all wars” but in fact his country would never get far from the shadows of armed conflict. For many crucial years in the subsequent decades, McNamara would be intensely involved in his country’s war-making decisions. As Errol Morris makes clear in his new documentary The Fog of War, McNamara has participated in a large sweep of modern U.S. history.

More than any other person, McNamara embodies the triumph of modern management techniques in modern society, including in military affairs. In McNamara’s career we see both the promise and perils of “managerialism” – the belief that trained technical experts are the folks who are best equipped to govern over large organizations, be it a corporation, a university, a charitable agency, or an army.

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Advanced In Another Direction

Harvey Kurtzman's cover for Two-Fisted Tales #26 (March/April 1952)
Harvey Kurtzman's cover for Two-Fisted Tales #26 (March/April 1952)
In her remarkably incoherent speech announcing that she’s stepping down as governor of Alaska, Sarah Palin misattributed a quote to Douglas MacArthur. As the New York Times reports
But at another point she invoked a military quotation, misattributing it to Gen. Douglas MacArthur, in what seemed to be an effort to wave aside any suggestion that she was abandoning the fight. “He said, ‘We’re not retreating; we are advancing in another direction,’ ” she said. (The remark was actually said by Maj. Gen. Oliver Prince Smith.)
Leaving aside the misattribution, it has to be said that the quote itself seems like a bit of overheated bravado to hide the fact that there actually was a retreat. As long ago as 1952, Harvey Kurtzman slyly called attention to the fake chest-thumping of the statement by showing a very bedraggled soldier retreating while claiming that the Marines “advanced in another direction.”

The pause button

Credit: Chris Hondros/Getty
July 2007: A former insurgent watches a row of coalition military vehicles in the Amariyah neighborhood of Baghdad (Credit: Chris Hondros/Getty)

As far as the bulk of the American — and for that matter, world — press is concerned, the Iraq War ended sometime in early 2008. Casualty rates suffered by American troops had dropped significantly, and this happy circumstance was generally credited to the “surge” of up to 40,000 additional troops deployed to Iraq starting the previous summer. Presidential candidate Barak Obama did his part to move the spotlight away from the Persian Gulf by pointing to Afghanistan as the site of the really important war (a claim underscored by increasing levels of violence in both Afghanistan and neighbouring Pakistan), and the rapidly developing global financial crisis did its part. By January 2009 it seemed likely that the average Beltway pundit would once again have trouble finding Iraq on a map.

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