The Brooklyn Nobody Knows: Greenpoint

william helmreichSociologist William B. Helmreich’s urban walking guide, The Brooklyn Nobody Knows: An Urban Walking Guide details the beauty, diversity and history that combine to make Brooklyn what is arguably New York’s hottest borough. By simply walking around, talking to residents, and absorbing the borough’s rich history, Helmreich captures the essence and unique facets of Brooklyn. The book is filled with detailed facts and vivid imagery that will inspire a deeper look at these popular (and lesser-known) neighborhoods. Over the course of the next several weeks, we will be running features on some surprising facts about each of Brooklyn’s neighborhoods.

Don’t miss Bill Helmreich at the Brooklyn Book Festival this Sunday, September 18! If you visit our booth and tell him your street, he’ll tell you something you didn’t know about it. Our booth is #406 and Bill will be there 11-12:30 (There may even be ice cream.)


Helmreich begins with a look at the neighborhood known as Greenpoint, which sits at the northern-most part of Brooklyn:

Greenpoint was once heavily populated by Polish immigrants, and some of the streets of the neighborhood are lined with Polish stores and restaurants. Although the Polish influence has grown less concentrated, one can still get a sense of the Polish cultural influences.

The area was already home during the (the nineteenth century) for Polish establishments. The Polish-owned establishments are dwindling, slowly receding into the history of the neighborhood as it gentrifies. Yet one still sees Polish men, likely immigrants, trudging home in their work boots, wearing faded shirts and trousers, at the end of the day, and carrying their knapsacks, usually filled with the tools of their trade. Their weather-beaten faces are creased with the lines of hard work and perhaps the assorted worries and even disappointment that have marked their tansition from the old world, an ocean away.

If some parts of Greenpoint look familiar, that may be because parts of the neighborhood have been used in TV shows and movies. While Helmreich was walking, he saw where The Good Wife was currently being filmed.

On nearby Diamond Street, I pass by Blue Bloods Productions. There’s a trailer that’s been driven here all the way from Universal Studios, California. Right now they’re filming The Good Wife. But in a week or a month it could be another series or film. Greenpoint has, in fact, become a popular location for film/TV studios, and there are quite a few scattered throughout the area.

Helmreich takes note of a garden that is full of a variety of flora. What makes this an interesting garden is its location near the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway (BQE). The juxtaposition of the garden’s scenic environment against the expressway contributes a unique feel to the atmosphere of the park.

(Lentol Garden is) named after former assemblyman and state senator Edward Lentol. The garden, surrounded by an eight-foot-high black steel fence, features juniper and holly trees, a Chinese dogwood, roses, tulips, black-eyed Susans, and other flora and fauna. Inviting looking, wooden benches line a landscape path where you pass by a birdfeeder and a birdbath. I notice that one side of the park border is literally attached to the Brooklyn Queens Expressway… It’s an oasis in a metropolis where every inch of green space counts, even if it’s hard against a major expressway.

Along Hausmann Street, Helmreich noticed that every house, exactly 73 of them, had American flags flying in front of them. A woman he met while admiring the homes explains the reason why:

“The flags have been here since after 9/11, honoring those who fell there, especially Catherine Fagan, who lived here. We keep them up until they get dirty and then we replace them. Most of the owners have lived here for many years and they just decided to do it.”

William B. Helmreich is an award-winning author who has written many books including The New York Nobody Knows: Walking 6,000 Miles in the City (Princeton), where he wrote an analysis of all five of New York City’s boroughs. The book won him the inaugural 2014–15 Guides Association of New York Award for Outstanding Achievement in Book Writing. He is the professor of sociology at City  College of New York’s Colin Powell School for Civic and Global Leadership and at CUNY Graduate Center. The Brooklyn Nobody Knows is the first of five planned walking guides, one for each borough of New York City.

An 816 mile walk in Brooklyn, an interview with William Helmreich

HelmreichIn The Brooklyn Nobody Knows: An Urban Walking Guide, William B. Helmreich draws on the hundreds of conversations he had with residents during his block-by-block journey through all 816 miles of Brooklyn. From gentrified neighborhoods to neighborhoods lost in time, the book is filled with fascinating facts and stories, creating an unforgettable chronicle of one of New York’s hottest boroughs. Helmreich recently took some time to answer questions about the various neighborhoods, how they’ve changed, and what he found interesting on his journey.

You’ve walked so many miles, 6,000 for the first book and now another 800 for the Brooklyn volume. How did this idea come about? 

WH: When I was a kid growing up in New York, my father invented a game called “Last Stop.” to keep me occupied. Every weekend we’d take a subway to the last stop. And then we’d walk around whatever neighborhood it was in. When we went to Canarsie, I looked at what was then just marshland and remember how my teacher told me he’d send me to Canarsie if I didn’t behave. And when I saw how desolate the area was in those days I became a more obedient student. In Throgs Neck I saw people pulling fish out of the water. So that’s where they came from. I said to myself. I had assumed they just came from the tank in the fish store. I was a city kid. I went on these trips from the age of 7 until 12. And that’s how I came to love NYC.

Brooklyn has so many varied neighborhoods. DUMBO and Boerum Hill are gentrified and they’re nothing like Gravesend or Flatlands. What unites them? 

WH: One thing that unites them is change. Boerum Hill is gentrifying, with many young people moving in. Flatlands is becoming home to larger numbers of Orthodox Jews and Gravesend has a growing Russian populations. DUMBO has more professionals moving in as opposed to the earlier generation of artists. 
 
Were you afraid when you walked in unsafe areas like East New York or Brownsville?
 
 
WH: Not really. First of all, even areas thought of as dangerous are relatively safe by day. We have 300 murders a year as opposed to the 90s when over 2,000 people were being killed. Also, 80 percent of these murders are at the hands of people who knew each other. Another important reason was my approach. Most people think they have to put on a tough-guy face when they’re in these areas. That’s wrong. You’re not going to scare people. They can see through you. When ever I saw bad-looking types and in general, with anybody, as soon as I made eye contact, I smiled and greeted them with a big hello. “How ya doin?” I’d say. And this was such a counter-intuitive approach that they melted. 
 
How has Brooklyn changed demographically over time?
 
 
WH: In the old days Italians, Jews, and Irish were the major groups. Today, the main groups taking over Brooklyn are Asians, mostly Chinese; Blacks, especially West Indians and Africans; Orthodox Jews, especially Hasidim; Hispanics, most notably Puerto Ricans and Mexicans; and, finally, gentrifiers. 
 
What were some of the most interesting things you saw in Brooklyn? 
 
WH: There were so many things. The man in Bergen Beach who put 1,140 stuffed animals on his tree; the Greenpoint park devoted to plants and trees that produced materials used in industry; the man in Gowanus who kept the grocery store sign in large gold letters in the first floor window of his brownstone out of respect for his Italian grandfather’s struggle to earn a living in America. 
 
Is gentrification good for Brooklyn? 
 
WH: That depends how you look at it and who you are. Let’s say, you’re a black homeowner and you want to make a killing. A white gentrifier offers you 15 times what you paid for it. Suddenly you’re rich and you can buy that farm in North Carolina and retire. But what if you’re a black homeowner living in Bed-Stuy and you want the neighborhood to preserve its history as a center for black history and culture? Then you might feel uncomfortable selling to a white buyer. Gentrification often prices working class-people and the poor out of a neighborhood. But it also results in improved services with respect to sanitation, police patrols, etc. because the gentrifiers have clout. What if new developments have affordable housing units? Is that bad or good and for who? One thing we know nothing about is where those displaced by gentrification went? Did they go to other parts of the same neighborhood? Did they go South or West? Are they in Long Island? We need to know these outcomes if we’re to understand what’s happening here.   

William B. Helmreich  is professor of sociology at the City College of New York’s Colin Powell School for Civic and Global Leadership and at CUNY Graduate Center. He has written numerous books and is an award winning author. He is the author of The New York Nobody Knows: Walking 6,000 Miles in the City, which won the the inaugural 2014–15 Guides Association of New York Award for Outstanding Achievement in Book Writing. The Brooklyn Nobody Knows is the first of five planned walking guides, one for each borough of New York City.

William B. Helmreich on The Brooklyn Nobody Knows

HelmreichThis September, Princeton University Press is thrilled to release The Brooklyn Nobody Knows by William B. Helmreich. You may remember that Helmreich, a professor of sociology, walked every block of New York City to write the award-winning The New York Nobody Knows. Now he’s back, and has re-walked Brooklyn—all 816 miles—to write this one-of-a-kind walking guide to the borough that’s hot with hipsters and rich in history. Drawing on hundreds of conversations he had with the residents of this diverse, booming, ever-evolving borough, The Brooklyn Nobody Knows captures the heart and soul of the unique city blocks that define cool around the world. In the coming weeks, PUP will be featuring blog posts that highlight a number of the neighborhoods in the book. Don’t miss Helmreich at the upcoming Brooklyn Book Festival, where you can tell him your street, and he’ll tell you something you didn’t know. But first, an introduction to our Brooklyn blog series from William Helmreich himself:

Brooklyn is one of the world’s greatest outdoor museums with something to interest everyone. I took an 800 mile walk through the city’s hottest borough and found that even though neighborhoods differed from each other there were certain things they had in common.

The first is self-image, a belief that Brooklyn is a place on the move, one that has become a world destination. This idea has captured the imagination of Brooklynites wherever they live—not only in the trendy neighborhoods of Williamsburg, DUMBO, or Cobble Hill—but the quieter and less well-known communities like Marine Park, Sheepshead Bay, and Gravesend.

Second, Brooklyn is a borough that is constantly changing. Puerto Ricans experience it in South Williamsburg and in Bushwick, when they see gentrifiers moving in. Poles in Greenpoint feel the same when they see gentrifiers arriving on their block. Hasidim and Chinese immigrants get a taste of it as they compete fiercely for homes on the Sunset Park-Borough Park border. Long time residents living in modest ranch homes look on in wonderment as wealthy Russians build McMansions in Mill Basin.

 Third, these changes have resulted in a need for engagement. Groups living near each other are exposed to other peoples’ cultures. Whites become part of the West Indian Parade; Hispanics and whites line up in front of trucks in Red Hook to eat pupusas and quesadillas. Blacks in Crown Heights look on with curiosity as Lubavitcher Hasidim celebrate the joyous holiday of Simchat Torah by dancing in the streets. An African American pokes his head into a Cambodian temple in Flatbush, while an Albanian immigrant in Bensonhurst tries her best to decipher a front lawn filled with statues of American icons—Batman, Al Capone, Iwo Jima, Betty Boop, Elvis Presley, and a photo of Ebbets Field. Of equal importance, Brooklynites meet in the elevators of their buildings, in block associations, churches, in parks, and on beaches. In a crowded city, no man can be an island.

This engagement leads to a fourth aspect of Brooklyn—the incredible diversity of its people. Those who live here come from more than one hundred nations, speaking many different languages. They represent the most of the world’s religions. New Yorkers don’t really have to travel to other countries to experience what’s happening there. Want to know about Russians? Come to Brighton Beach, or as it’s also known, Odessa by the Sea. Want to experience how devout Haitians express themselves religiously? Step into an East Flatbush Church. And if visiting a seaside community is your thing, walk through Gerritsen Beach.

The book I wrote is intended to be a guidebook for those who want to experience Brooklyn in real time. It’s different from other guidebooks in a very important way. It doesn’t focus on the well-known aspects of the borough—famous restaurants or nightclubs, festivals, hotels, bridges, and the like. Rather, its goal is to find the hidden things that people don’t know about.

For example, there’s a man in Bergen Beach who has a tree outside his home from which hang 1,140 stuffed toy animals. In Lefferts Gardens, a man from the Caribbean quietly creates boats, birds, bracelets, and other items from animal horns. He’s a hornsmith, possibly the only one in the country and if you want he’ll tell you about his craft and why it’s special. Stand atop Sunset Park and you’ll see an amazing sunset.

Step into World Class Aquarium on Flatbush Avenue in Marine park and listen as the owner tells you why he loves what he does even if it’s a hard way to earn a living.Travel to East New York and enjoy the delectable cakes and cookies that have been prepared there since 1927.  The place is Mrs. Maxwell’s Bakery and they claim the famous recipe for Junior’s cheesecake was stolen from them. Maybe, maybe not, but their version is pretty good. Watch some of the best handball games in the country on Surf Avenue in Coney Island.

These are only a few of the many discoveries awaiting those wishing to explore Brooklyn from the ground up. The coming blog posts highlighting neighborhoods featured in The Brooklyn Nobody Knows will give you a real taste of what’s out there.

—William B. Helmreich

Digital Keyword: “Algorithm”

digital keywords peters jacketThis post appears concurrently at Culture Digitally.

Tarleton Gillespie demystifies the many uses of the recent keyword algorithm, on loan from Arabic. It is at once a trick of the trade for software programmers, a synecdoche standing in for entire informational systems and their stakeholders in popular discourse, a talisman used by those stakeholders for evoking cultural authority and avoiding blame (e.g., to blame “Facebook’s algorithm” can implicitly shift responsibility away from the company that designed it), and shorthand for the broader sociocultural shift toward, as Gillespie argues, “the insertion of procedure into human knowledge and social experience.”

In rich conversation with Ted Striphas’ essay on culture and Stephanie Ricker Schulte’s essay on personalization, Gillespie clarifies and multiplies the ways the current media environment extends a larger bureaucratic revolution central to modernity.

Tarleton Gillespie: Algorithm

 

This comment may have been adapted from the introduction to Benjamin Peters’ Digital Keywords: A Vocabulary of Information Society and Culture. 25% discount code in 2016: P06197

Katharine Dow on the complex ethics of assisted reproduction

making the good life jacket dowAlthough many don’t know the full scope of current reproductive technologies, opinions and judgments on the ethics involved abound. Katharine Dow explains the intrigue and controversy in Making a Good Life: An Ethnography of Nature, Ethics, and Reproduction. Touching on fears about environmental degradation and the rise of the biotechnology industry, the book offers a new approach to researching and writing about nature, ethics, and reproduction technologies, from IVF to surrogacy. Dow recently agreed to answer a few questions on understanding the impact these technologies have had on our culture.

How did you first become interested in assisted reproductive technologies?

KD: It’s funny because when I first started looking at these issues, during my doctoral studies, a lot of people in my cohort were studying things that they had some personal connection to, and I had no personal experience of IVF, surrogacy or egg or sperm donation. Though, as I discuss in the book, I do have experience of having some rather complicated family relationships like my father’s adoption and discovery of long-lost sisters! I first became interested in assisted reproduction when I was an undergraduate and I had a few lectures on it. I found the thorny philosophical and ethical issues that they raise completely fascinating and so when I came to think about what I would like to research myself, my thoughts turned to assisted reproduction.

Initially, I was particularly interested in surrogacy and I think the reason for that was firstly that it is so obviously to do with gender, which is a perennial interest of mine, and secondly, that it touches on so many taboos and I suppose I’ve always been fascinated with those kinds of things that set off people’s ethical antennae, because then you know you’ve really hit a cultural nerve. I think these sort of taboo subjects can be a great way of digging deeper into how people think. But, as you can tell from the book, I’ve also come to realise that reproduction is often treated as being marginal, yet it is absolutely fundamental to how we think, whether or not we have children – it’s so closely linked with ideas about life, the future, ethical values and even complex concepts like nature, and that’s really one of the overarching points I want to make with the book.

Making a Good Life is unusual in that it looks at what people who are not using assisted reproductive technologies themselves think about these technologies. What do you think that brings to our understanding of assisted reproduction?

KD: Well, first of all, I should make it clear that I think there is enormous value to all the clinic-based ethnographies of assisted reproductive technologies out there, which were instigated early on by feminist theorists wanting to better understand what it was like for people – mostly women – to undergo IVF and so on. That is so important.

Having said that, I am also very aware that most people aren’t personally involved in assisted reproduction, but they are frequently exposed to it through media coverage and public debates and so I felt like a really important part of the puzzle was missing – which is what people think about assisted reproduction and how they respond to it as an ethical ‘problem’. As I say in the book, it’s not that I think patients aren’t objective enough or anything like that, but it’s about recognising that reproduction has very important effects and implications for life more generally and that asking people to really discuss in detail what they think the ethics of assisted reproduction are is a way of getting at some deeper cultural assumptions, which might well be different if you’re not personally invested in the technologies.

So, from an empirical point of view, it’s about filling in a gap in our understanding of these technologies, which are actually crucial to the time we’re living in, in terms of how IVF has provided the platform for a whole biotech industry and what that has done to forms of labour and medical treatments, how they’ve opened up parenthood to gay, lesbian and single parents and so on. But also, it’s questioning the received wisdom about how we social scientists learn about medical technologies. So, I was also interested in playing with the ethnographic method and trying something different.

A sense of place seems to be an important aspect of your book. Can you describe what it was like to do ethnographic research in Spey Bay, this small village in northeast Scotland?

KD: Oh, I often think about Spey Bay, even though it’s quite a few years since I left now. What immediately comes to mind when I think of the place is the look and feel of it – the crunch of pebbles underfoot, the feel of the wind in your face. I think of shared laughter, the scent of woodsmoke and the scrunching sound that Gore-Tex jackets make while you walk. It’s certainly quite different from London, which is where I lived before fieldwork and where I live now.

I started fieldwork as a shy 23-year-old and constantly worried that I wasn’t doing it right. I thought I would hate fieldwork, because it would mean having to be obtrusive and not worrying about whether I looked like a fool if I asked the wrong questions. And of course there were moments like that, but I found an incredibly warm and open group of people there who never seemed to mind me asking them questions or challenged my right to live amongst them. Of course the close – and genuine – friendships I cultivated with people in Spey Bay meant that it was quite difficult to write about them afterwards and I wonder whether they will object to how I’ve represented them, but thanks to them, I really enjoyed fieldwork in the end.

Do you think we are in an age of heightened attention to ethics?

KD: Yes and no. I think we are currently in the midst of a really exciting repoliticisation of public life. I particularly see it amongst students and especially in relation to questions of gender, race and sexuality. In the book, I am writing about people who explicitly think about ethics every day, especially in relation to the environment and I think the ethical living movement has been a really important way of mainstreaming environmental concerns. I accept the criticisms about it not doing enough to challenge capitalism, which is what is really required if we are to prevent catastrophic climate change (as well as ameliorating the myriad inequalities that capitalism is responsible for). But, I also think that there is an ideological move at stake in assuming that a movement or campaign that presents itself as primarily ethical has nothing to do with politics. So I am wary of the idea that an ethical turn is necessarily a turn away from politics. Also, while I’m all for overturning the central assumptions of neoliberal capitalism, I think climate change is tricky because, pragmatically, it requires a global effort and so radicals do have to bring more conservative and moderate people on board and framing the argument in terms of ethics can be a really powerful way of doing that.

So, what’s next for you after completing Making a Good Life?

KD: I’ve been at the University of Cambridge for a couple of years now, where I work in a fantastic research group of people who all work on reproduction and assisted reproductive technologies. In terms of my current research, I’ve been taking some of the themes from Making a Good Life in two different directions. Firstly, I am in the middle of a research project on how the British media represented IVF, particularly focusing on the 1970s and ’80s. It’s been really rewarding to broaden my experience by doing research from more of a cultural studies angle and to do historical and archival research. The public debates about assisted reproduction were a very important backdrop to Making a Good Life, so it’s great to get the chance to look at them in more depth. Secondly, I am working on a new collaborative project with my colleague Janelle Lamoreaux, which looks further at connections between reproduction and the environment. Related to that, I’m currently developing a new multi-sited ethnographic project that looks at informal seed saving and seed swapping in the UK, which I’m really excited about pursuing over the next few years.

Katharine Dow is a research associate in the Reproductive Sociology Research Group at the University of Cambridge. She has written Making a Good Life: An Ethnography of Nature, Ethics, and Reproduction.

Are people getting better? An interview with Webb Keane on ETHICAL LIFE

From inner city America to the Inuit Arctic, from evangelical Christians to ardent feminists, our increasingly diverse and global society means, as Webb Keane puts it, that “everyone’s aware that their values aren’t the only ones in town.” How then, does one exercise the distinctly human tendency to take an ethical stance toward oneself and everyone else? Which values can be said to be universal? Is it innately human to apply ethics, or is it strictly a product of one’s cultural and historical context? Keane, Professor of Anthropology at the University of Michigan, took some time to answer questions about his new book, Ethical Life: Its Natural and Social Histories.

Keane jacketWhat’s new about Ethical Life?

WK: This book brings together research findings across a wide range of fields that rarely communicate with one another. So one thing that’s new is the wide net it casts. It takes in developmental psychology, the microsociology of conversation, ethnographies carried out with everyone from inner city crack dealers and to hunters in the rain forest, and histories of feminism, evangelical religion, and communist revolution. Along the way, it brings philosophers into the conversation, and takes occasional sideglances to cognitive science and neuroscience. Usually when a book covers so much territory, it tries to do one of two things. One approach is to give us a kind of encyclopedia: there’s this, and this, and this. Another is to claim there’s one big explanation, like for example, it all boils down to your DNA. Well this book takes a different tack. It says that each of these different angles on human ethics tells us something that can’t be reduced to, or explained by, the others. But none of them are complete in themselves. So the book explores the borderlands where they meet each other. For instance, psychology shows us that the impulse to seek out other people’s intentions is shared by all humans, and is very deep; philosophy tells us why intention-reading is essential to ethical judgments; ethnography explains why some communities will emphasize intention-reading while others suppress it; and history traces out how it comes to be that one society, at one point in time, ends up finding intentionality fascinating, while another takes it to be a source of anxiety—and what happens when people actively try to change their own ethical system.

Can you explain the title?

WK: I use the term ethical “life” because I think it’s important that ethics isn’t just a set of rules or ideas that you consult from time to time. It’s built into the very flow of everyday life. It’s part of your emotional equipment, your sense of self, and of your ability to have relations to other people, as well as to the words and habits and institutions you get from living in a particular society at a particular time. Notice that this list ranges across all the fields I’ve mentioned: psychology, social interaction, history. “Ethical life” means that an ethics saturates even quite ordinary activities.

Some people say that the foundation for ethics and morality is religion. Isn’t this so?

WK: It follows from the proposition that ethics is built into ordinary life that it’s not based on religion as such. Anthropologist will tell you that even very traditional religious communities always have their village atheists, yet the village atheist also participates in ethical life. And of course many philosophical systems have tried to base ethics on non-religious principles like reason. Still, it’s also true that religions have played a huge role in the development of ethical systems. One chapter of the book looks at examples from Christianity and Islam to show how they construct and inculcate a very distinctive style of morality. But they do so by drawing on raw materials that are already part of everyday life, and then transforming them in certain characteristic ways.

But at least we can say ethics is the specialty of philosophers and theologians, so why would an anthropologist be talking about this?

WK: Anthropologists have two mandates. One is to understand people as they actually are—warts and all–and not as we think they should be, which can sometimes put us in the company of some pretty nasty characters. The second mandate is to begin by trying to see people from their own points of view. Our job doesn’t stop there, but making that our starting point means we have to grapple with ethical intuitions that we may find foreign or even repugnant. As I see it, the traditional role of the philosopher or theologian is not to carry out empirical research to discover what ethical life actually is, but rather to say something about what it should be, and to justify that view. Now certainly there are many philosophers and theologians who are in deep conversation with social scientists, and vice versa—I hope you can see this dialogue going on in my book–but most of us end up observing that division of labor, and work at different sides of the questions. And one of the things this book says, with which many philosophers and theologians may disagree, is that there’s no guarantee that we can find a single set of unifying principles that everyone will agree to, or that history is leading us to converge on a shared ethics.

Is it human nature to be ethical?

WK: Yes and no. One the one hand, ethical life is a dimension of ordinary human existence across the board. It draws on certain capacities and propensities that all children develop early in life, and that all societies respond to and develop in one way or another. The book stresses the very basic elements of ethics, like seeing yourself from your interlocutor’s perspective or having a sense of reciprocity and fairness, which are features of life everywhere. On the other hand, this book also argues that these basics do not amount to a full-fledged ethics until people have some way of recognizing that that’s what they are: that there’s something ethical at stake. And this depends on all sorts of social dynamics which necessarily vary from time to time and place to place. They have a history. Moreover, every community has some values which are likely to conflict with one another, such as freedom and equality, or justice and charity. The balance between them is likely to shift from one context to another. Which is one reason why we’re not likely to end up with a single set of shared ethical principles.

Well, if ethics isn’t just a universal set of rules, is the end result ethical relativism?

WK: The short answer is “no.” This is the other side of the coin in the answer to the previous question: there are limits to how far any ethical system can ignore or go beyond the raw materials with which it’s working. Simply in order to make sense of one another, people have to act in ways that others can interpret, and there are cognitive, linguistic, and sociological constraints on this. Moreover, just recognizing that other people have very different moral intuitions doesn’t exempt me from having certain commitments. If I’m going to play soccer, I have to care about the outcome even if I’m aware that there are people out there who don’t know or care about soccer (but, say, who do care about basketball). But no amount of knowledge about the different games is going to give me an objective basis for declaring that the game I’m playing is the one that should really matter. We can’t expect our scientific knowledge about ethics to provide us with a superior position from which to we can prove to everyone else that our ethical intuitions are the correct ones.

The last section of your book is about historical change. Many of us would like to know, are people getting better?

WK: That really depends on what yardstick you want to use to measure progress. On the one hand, it’s clear that people around the world are more and more likely to have dealings with others from different backgrounds, and to see some connection to people who aren’t right next door. So two things follow. First, everyone’s aware that their values aren’t the only ones in town. And second, the potential scope of their ethical concern is expanding. Alongside this is the rise of universalizing ideals, like the concept of human rights. On the other hand, this doesn’t necessarily mean people are becoming more cosmopolitan—sometimes they just circle the wagons and double down on racial, national, or religious exclusiveness, insisting that some people are not due objects of my ethical concern. So, again, I don’t think we’re going to find any guarantees out there. But it does look like the friction generated when different ethical worlds rub up against one another can charge up new ethical ideas and provoke us to make new discoveries about ourselves.

Webb Keane is the George Herbert Mead Collegiate Professor of Anthropology at the University of Michigan. He is the author of Christian Moderns: Freedom and Fetish in the Mission Encounter and Signs of Recognition: Powers and Hazards of Representation in an Indonesian Society.

Facebook YEAR OF BOOKS live Q&A with authors of “Portfolios of the Poor”

Collins jacketPortfolios of the Poor: How the World’s Poor Live on $2 a Day by Daryl Collins, Jonathan Morduch, Stuart Rutherford & Orlanda Ruthven is a recent choice by Mark Zuckerberg for his Year of Books project. An unusual investigation of the staggering problem of global poverty, the authors conducted year-long interviews with impoverished villagers and slum dwellers in Bangladesh, India, and South Africa. This morning the authors are taking part in a live Q&A on the Year of Books Facebook page to share the surprising and systematic methods these families used to survive on an income that is, for many, unimaginably small.

Mark Zuckerberg announced the book’s selection on his personal Facebook page with the following thoughts:

It’s mind-blowing that almost half the world — almost 3 billion people — live on $2.50 a day or less. More than one billion people live on $1 a day or less.

This book explains how these families invest their money to best support themselves.

I hope reading this provides some insight into ways we can all work to support them better as well.

You can follow the discussion here.

Paul Krugman hosting free discussion at Cooper Union with authors of THRIVE

Thrive jacketTonight, Nobel-prize-winning economist Paul Krugman will host a free public discussion at Cooper Union with Richard Layard & David M. Clark, co-authors of Thrive: How Better Mental Health Care Transforms Lives and Saves Money. Richard Layard discussed the book with Tom Keene on Bloomberg Surveillance here, and both authors answered some questions on mental health policy for the PUP blog here.

Mental illness is a leading cause of suffering in the modern world. In sheer numbers, it afflicts at least 20 percent of people in developed countries. It reduces life expectancy as much as smoking does, accounts for nearly half of all disability claims, is behind half of all worker sick days, and affects educational achievement and income. There are effective tools for alleviating mental illness, but most sufferers remain untreated or undertreated. What should be done to change this? In Thrive, Richard Layard and David Clark argue for fresh policy approaches to how we think about and deal with mental illness, and they explore effective solutions to its miseries and injustices.

Richard Layard is one of the world’s leading labor economists and a member of the House of Lords. He is the author of Happiness: Lessons from a New Science, which has been translated into twenty languages.

David M. Clark is professor of psychology at the University of Oxford. Layard and Clark were the main drivers behind the UK’s Improving Access to Psychological Therapies program.

Paul Krugman is an author and economist who teaches at Princeton, the London School of Economics and elsewhere. He won the 2008 Nobel Prize in economics. He is also an Op-Ed columnist for the New York Times.

 
September 29, 2015 @ 6:30 pm – 9:30 pm
 
The Great Hall
Foundation Building
7 E 7th St, New York, NY 10003
USA
 

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What does the Bible really say about infertility?

Moss jacket“If fertility is a blessing, then infertility ought to be a curse—so goes the logic of Genesis 1 and the creation story” write Candida Moss and Joel Baden, authors of Reconceiving Infertility, in their recent Daily Beast piece. In the secular view, infertility is a medical condition for which there is logical recourse: fertility treatment, adoption, or the decision to remain childless and pursue other means of fulfillment. But from ancient times to today, fertility through a biblical lens has often appeared as a sign of blessedness and moral uprightness, while infertility has been associated with sin and moral failing.

This week, the pope’s message carries the promise of many things: compassion for immigrants, vigilance about global warming, and redemption for those who have become alienated from the Catholic church because of its stance on divorce and other lifestyle choices. And yet, as Baden and Moss note in The Daily Beast:

Beyond the obvious—faceless corporations, greed, capitalistic exploitation, and so on—there is another group that Francis thinks is selfish: childless couples. In fact, during his tenure Francis has directly described those who choose not to have children as “selfish” and as obsessed with material things. He regularly uses sterility as a pejorative metaphor and fruitfulness as the primary image for that which flourishes. In so doing, he appears unaware of how this language alienates those without children and empowers others to negatively judge them.

Judgement of the childless, rooted as it may be in ancient biblical language, has long been a feature of modern life as well. Infertility carries a lingering stigma, and the decision not to procreate, often seen as a calculated choice, has led many to defend their “childless by choice” lifestyles. Yet according to Baden and Moss, biblical views on procreation and infertility were more diverse than we tend to think, particularly when we take into consideration the ancient contexts from which they emerged:

The good news is that the Bible, one of the primary ideological sources for discrimination against women, is in fact more complicated on the issue of infertility than it at first seems. While biological procreation is a perpetual blessing on God’s people, fertility is not always assumed to be the default human state. Certainly by the New Testament, the biblical “family” was less about biology than about a community drawn together by duty and responsibility. Informal adoption, mentorship as family, and concerns for others as a replacement for biological generation are the norm.

Read the rest of The Daily Beast piece here.

Candida Moss is professor of New Testament and Early Christianity at the University of Notre Dame, and is serving as a papal correspondent for CBS this week. Joel S. Baden is professor of Hebrew Bible at Yale Divinity School.

Behind every meal you eat, there is a story

Louise Fresco, president of Wageningen University and Research Centre in the Netherlands and author of Hamburgers in Paradise, talks about that story here:

 

An interview with Louise Fresco on “Hamburgers in Paradise”

Fresco JacketIn Louise Fresco’s new book, Hamburgers in Paradise, the term “Paradise”, in her own words, is “a metaphor that refers to the landscapes on our planet, the collective Garden of Eden which, according to some views, we have irreversibly destroyed through large scale food production.” It is a view shared by many in a world simultaneously plagued by food shortages and GMO fears. In such a climate, is there room for optimism? Fresco looks at our food situation in all its complexity, taking the stance that there is no one perfect way to produce or consume food, and that balance and trade-offs between different goals are central to any long term solution. You can see her TED talk here, and the English subtitled version to a documentary she made about the food industry here. Recently Fresco took some time to answer some questions about her book.

What’s new in this book?

LF: Human history has been one of continuous scarcity. The abundance of food that has emerged for the majority of the world population in the last decades is so unique that we have not yet learnt to deal with it. We are still scared that there will not be enough, and that we will destroy our environment. Scarcity is our default mode, and that of our bodies, hence our difficulties to balance our diets and to reduce our ecological footprint. Abundance is a triumph of science and trade; it allows us to shed our fears of shortages. But the book argues that we require new ways of thinking, to reign in our needs (for example of meat) while producing food sustainably for all, with new methods (for example through recycling or using algae). The book demonstrates in detail that there is not one perfect way to produce and consume food, but that we always have to balance the trade-offs between different goals, such as large scale production (i.e. low food prices) and biodiversity. What is best depends on our goals and our insight in unintended side effects (we may like to see free roaming chickens but they may be more prone to disease that way).

Can you explain the title Hamburgers in Paradise?

LF: The title refers to a thought experiment: if Eve were alive today, what food would she offer Adam as a temptation? Paradise as a metaphor also refers to the landscapes on our planet, the collective Garden of Eden which, according to some views, we have irreversibly destroyed through large scale food production. These semi-conscious images of a pre-Industrial and idealized past are still guiding many of our reactions to modernization. The hamburger, of course, is the iconic food that symbolizes the rise of the modern middle class, from suburban America to places like Moscow or Mumbai, as well as the critical counterforces: slow food, vegetarian and organic products. The hamburger illustrates also the adaptation to new demands: fat and salt contents have been lowered, information on calories and nutritional values are published, wrappings are made of recycled materials and advertising to children is limited. In the most recent twist of history, the hamburger becomes popular once again in upper class restaurants, dipped in liquid Nitrogen, or in a vegetarian reincarnation.

Food is the source of much confusion today, we hear so many, contradictory stories about what we must or mustn’t eat and why. What is the reason for this confusion?

LF: Food and agriculture are the basis human survival. Food conjures up strong feelings, based on individual memories, strict convictions and long traditions, especially in times of rapid modernization. Many people, even in rural areas, are hardly aware of how food is really produced and how it lands on their plates. Nearly all of us rely on others, often far away, to feed us. Ignorance and dependency make us feel vulnerable and worried about food.

But we can also turn this around: behind every meal there is a story, one that is nearly always fascinating and often complex, but always worth telling. Food connects us with the past and the future.

Is there room for optimism?

LF: With current knowledge, we can feed nine or ten billion people quite easily. This doesn’t mean that there is no world food problem. Even if enough food can be produced this is not easy and more production does not mean food reaches people automatically. The current gap between actual and attainable yields is still enormous. At the same time, agricultural research and innovation continue to be needed to tackle specific problems of animal and plant diseases, poor soils and climate variation. The application of existing knowledge is hampered by poor infrastructure, unavailability of irrigation or fertilizer, dysfunctional markets and policy.

Food shortage is more a matter of distribution than just production. Hunger is caused by poverty, so creating employment is essential. The great improvements in agricultural production since the 1970s have benefitted the urban poor more than the rural poor. These improvements involve higher yields, through better agricultural techniques such as irrigation, leading to lower food prices that benefit those who buy food (those living in cities), while farmers selling foods are at a disadvantage. Today more than 850 million people go hungry and perhaps as many as 2 billion may lack balanced nutrition. Most of the hungry live in areas of civil war or frequent natural disasters, so peace and resettlement are priorities.

There seems to be much concern about Genetically Modified Organisms, is this concern justified?

LF: This is a very complex issue about which it is impossible to generalize and about which there are many misunderstandings. For example, if cows are fed genetically modified soy bean, their milk does not become genetically modified, even if some people fear this. The modified genes and cells do not survive the gut. What the effects and risks are depends very much on what crop or animal, what genes are used for what purpose and where. Certain problems, for example diseases in banana, can only be tackled with biotechnology, a large toolkit which does not necessarily result in GMOs. There are two types of risk, for human and animal health. While we need to continue to monitor the situation, there are no indications that GM crops lead to additional food related risks in human beings or animals. So far, there are no indications of environment effects (such as insect mortality or genes “escaping “), but ecosystems are complex and difficult to monitor. Finally, there is also the issue of intellectual property rights: while a fair reward is needed for the companies developing the biotechnology or GMOs, we must also make sure that farmers and scientists and breeders elsewhere can keep access to varieties or breeds. Here the U.S. and EU legislation and traditions do not coincide.

What about chemical inputs such as fertilizer. Are we not destroying the land?

LF: Plants and animals need food just as we do. These nutrients come nearly exclusively from the soil (and through water, transported from soils elsewhere). Only very few soils can sustain production for long periods and their nutrient reserve needs to be built up through other sources of nutrients. Whilst manure from animals can be used for this, this does not solve the problem, it just means that animals have to graze somewhere from where they take up the nutrients. Almost without exception agriculture requires fertilizer to be sustainable. Fertilizer has a bad name mainly because it has been overused in the past with detrimental effects on surface water, but in itself, if wisely used, it is a blessing. More land is depleted through lack of fertilizer than is affected through its use.

Is fast food the source of all evils?

LF: Fast food is part of a complex process of transformation of society: greater mobility, work pressures, urbanization, diversification through trade, smaller and singe households, greater affluence of young, ubiquitous equipment like microwaves and fridges people all lead to out of home eating and pre-packed meals. As with all foods, it is not the individual item that is “bad” but the pattern. Eating fast food from time to time is acceptable in an otherwise healthy lifestyle. However, fast food often contains too many calories and we should be concerned if there are no other options, In so-called food deserts, neighbourhoods devoid of shops selling vegetables, fast food is often the recourse for single parents.

What type of agriculture is most sustainable?

LF: There is no blueprint for an agricultural model that fits all situations. Agriculture is the art of the location-specific and always depends on soils, climate, geography, culture and economics. Agriculture is forever changing, adapting to new consumer demands and new technology. However, using resources as efficiently as possible is essential to avoid wasting labour, water, land, fertilizer, seeds or animals as well as reducing post harvest losses in the entire value chain. Efficiency is often misunderstood as large-scale and anonymous, but it applies at all scales. No farmer can afford to waste resources, nor can we as humanity. The World will need 50% more calories in 2030.

Would the world be better off if all meat would be prohibited?

LF: No, meat is necessary for certain groups such as pregnant and lactating women, children, the elderly and sick and of course the malnourished. Meat is not only a source of proteins but also of essential nutrients such as iron and certain vitamins (B12). Humans evolved as omnivores; vegetarians, even in India, have always been a small minority. Also, there are areas in the world where nothing else can be produced but grazing land and animals. The growth in demand for meat and fish is expected to increase faster than the growth in population, especially in Asia and Africa.

However, there are major problems associated with meat production: environmental (water, emissions, production and transportation of feed) veterinary public health, human health (diseases associated with high red meat intake and overuse of antibiotics) as well as animal welfare. These can all be solved with adequate research and regulation. Reducing meat consumption through substitution of animal proteins in healthy individuals in affluent societies is part of that.

Louise O. Fresco is president of Wageningen University and Research Centre in the Netherlands. The author of several books, she is a member of the Council of Advisors for the World Food Prize and has worked extensively in developing countries for many years. She lives in Amsterdam.

Introducing the new video trailer for PHISHING FOR PHOOLS by Robert Shiller & George Akerlof

Phishing for Phools jacketDo you have a weakness? Of course you do. Which means, according to Nobel Prize-winning economists George Akerlof and Robert Shiller, you have probably been “phished” for a “phool.”

We tend to think of phishing as the invisible malevolence that led our grandparents to wire money to Nigeria, or inspired us to click on a Valentine’s day link that promised, “someone loves you,” and then promptly crashed our hard drive. But more generally understood, “phishing” is inseparable from the market economy of everyday life. As long as there is profit to be made, psychological weaknesses will be exploited. For example, overly optimistic information results in false conclusions and untenable purchases in houses and cars. Health clubs offer overpriced contracts to well-intentioned, but not terribly athletic athletes. Credit cards feed dramatic levels of debt. And phishing occurs in financial markets as well: Think of the legacy of mischief at work in the financial crises from accounting fraud through junk bonds and the marketing of derivatives.

Ever since Adam Smith, the central teaching of economics has been that the invisible hand of free markets provides us with material well-being. In Phishing for Phools, Akerlof and Shiller challenge this insight, arguing that markets are far from being essentially benign and don’t always create the greater good. In fact, markets are inherently filled with tricks and traps.

We are thrilled to introduce this new video trailer in which Robert Shiller talks about his new book with George Akerlof, Phishing for Phools: