Sunday, February 8, 2015

Sunday Reading

The Truth Hurts — Ta-Nehisi Coates explains why the president’s speech at the prayer breakfast touched so many right-wing nerves.

People who wonder why the president does not talk more about race would do well to examine the recent blow-up over his speech at the National Prayer Breakfast. Inveighing against the barbarism of ISIS, the president pointed out that it would be foolish to blame Islam, at large, for its atrocities. To make this point he noted that using religion to brutalize other people is neither a Muslim invention nor, in America, a foreign one:

Lest we get on our high horse and think this is unique to some other place, remember that during the Crusades and the Inquisition, people committed terrible deeds in the name of Christ. In our home country, slavery and Jim Crow all too often was justified in the name of Christ.

The “all too often” could just as well be “almost always.” There were a fair number of pretexts given for slavery and Jim Crow, but Christianity provided the moral justification. On the cusp of plunging his country into a war that would cost some 750,000 lives, Confederate Vice President Alexander Stephens paused to offer some explanation. His justification was not secular. The Confederacy was to be:

[T]he first government ever instituted upon the principles in strict conformity to nature, and the ordination of Providence, in furnishing the materials of human society … With us, all of the white race, however high or low, rich or poor, are equal in the eye of the law. Not so with the negro. Subordination is his place. He, by nature, or by the curse against Canaan, is fitted for that condition which he occupies in our system. The architect, in the construction of buildings, lays the foundation with the proper material-the granite; then comes the brick or the marble. The substratum of our society is made of the material fitted by nature for it, and by experience we know that it is best, not only for the superior, but for the inferior race, that it should be so.

It is, indeed, in conformity with the ordinance of the Creator. It is not for us to inquire into the wisdom of His ordinances, or to question them. For His own purposes, He has made one race to differ from another, as He has made “one star to differ from another star in glory.” The great objects of humanity are best attained when there is conformity to His laws and decrees, in the formation of governments as well as in all things else. Our confederacy is founded upon principles in strict conformity with these laws.

Stephens went on to argue that the “Christianization of the barbarous tribes of Africa” could only be accomplished through enslavement. And enslavement was not made possible through Robert’s Rules of Order, but through a 250-year reign of mass torture, industrialized murder, and normalized rape—tactics which ISIS would find familiar. Its moral justification was not “because I said so,” it was “Providence,” “the curse against Canaan,” “the Creator,” “and Christianization.” In just five years, 750,000 Americans died because of this peculiar mission of “Christianization.” Many more died before, and many more died after. In his “Segregation Now” speech, George Wallace invokes God 27 times and calls the federal government opposing him “a system that is the very opposite of Christ.”

Now, Christianity did not “cause” slavery, anymore than Christianity “caused” the civil-rights movement. The interest in power is almost always accompanied by the need to sanctify that power. That is what the Muslims terrorists in ISIS are seeking to do today, and that is what Christian enslavers and Christian terrorists did for the lion’s share of American history.

That this relatively mild, and correct, point cannot be made without the comments being dubbed, “the most offensive I’ve ever heard a president make in my lifetime,” by a former Virginia governor gives you some sense of the limited tolerance for any honest conversation around racism in our politics. And it gives you something much more. My colleague Jim Fallows recently wrote about the need to, at once, infantilize and deify our military. Perhaps related to that is the need to infantilize and deify our history. Pointing out that Americans have done, on their own soil, in the name of their own God, something similar to what ISIS is doing now does not make ISIS any less barbaric, or any more correct. That is unless you view the entire discussion as a kind of religious one-upmanship, in which the goal is to prove that Christianity is “the awesomest.”

Obama seemed to be going for something more—faith leavened by “some doubt.” If you are truly appalled by the brutality of ISIS, then a wise and essential step is understanding the lure of brutality, and recalling how easily your own society can be, and how often it has been, pulled over the brink.

The Pain is Exquisite — John McQuaid at Salon explains why chili makes the taste buds dance.

Chili heat is painful, yet enjoyable; fiery, with no rise in temperature. In 1953, T. S. Lee, a biologist at the National University of Singapore, tried to unravel the physiology behind this reaction. He asked a group of forty-six young men to eat chilies, and monitored their sweating. Perspiration is a physiological reaction to heat. Rising body temperature, whether from the surroundings or from muscles warming during exercise, triggers a reaction in the hypothalamus. Via a series of feedbacks between the brain and the body, sweat glands go to work. Sweat evaporating off the skin cools the body; when its temperature drops back to normal, it stops.

Lee had the volunteers dress in cotton trousers only, then painted their faces, ears, necks, and upper bodies with a solution of iodine and dusted them with dry cornstarch—a combination that makes sweat turn blue. Lee used peppers common in Asian cuisine, from the species Capsicum annuum. Their tapered red fruits are about ten to twenty times hotter than jalapenos. For the sake of comparison, at a different time Lee’s subjects also taste-tested solutions of cane sugar, bitter quinine, acetic acid, potassium alum (an astringent that makes the lips pucker), ground black pepper, mustard paste, and hot oatmeal. Some also gargled with hot water, chewed rubber, or swallowed feeding tubes.

In one experimental run, after eating chilies for five minutes straight, the subjects flushed red in the face, then all but one began to sweat. The areas around their noses and mouths turned blue, followed by their cheeks. Lee did another trial with seven participants, feeding them one pepper, then another: five continued to sweat, two profusely. Among the controls, only the acid and ground pepper made the volunteers sweat.

Eating chilies doesn’t raise body temperature, so there is no physical need for cooling. Yet in Lee’s experiment, the subjects sweated as if they had run a mile on a hot afternoon. To verify that the reactions to chili heat and genuine heat were equivalent, Lee had some volunteers put their legs in hot water. As their temperatures rose, the patterns of sweating on their faces were identical to those produced by eating peppers. Lee had already deduced that chili heat could not be a taste, because people felt its burn on their lips, where there are no taste receptors. His experimental results indicated another body system was at work: the one that registers discomfort from burning. The chili burn was a form of pain. But it differs in one important respect: touch boiling water, and the pain intensifies until the hand is withdrawn. Start eating a Carolina Reaper, and the heat builds for several minutes, becoming overwhelming. But continue, and the heat recedes, leaving the mouth numb to chili’s effects. Capsaicin causes pain, then blocks it.

[…]

The chili culture is all about pushing limits. Ed Currie believed embracing it had helped him overcome his own weaknesses. He had organized his life around a single, powerful sensation, and it had worked: Guinness named Smokin’ Ed’s Carolina Reaper the world’s hottest pepper in 2013. But success depended on staying ahead of the competition; the race would eventually take chili heat higher and higher, past two million Scoville units, into realms of pungency never tasted before. How far could he go, and who would follow?

Pleasure is never very far from aversion; this is a feature of our anatomy and behavior. In the brain, the two closely overlap. They both rely on nerves in the brainstem, indicating their ancient origins as reflexes. They both tap into the brain’s system of dopamine neurons, which shapes motivation. They activate similar higher-level cortical areas that influence perceptions and consciousness. Anatomy suggests these two systems interact closely: in several brain structures, neurons responding to pain and pleasure lie close together, forming gradients from positive to negative. A lot of this cross talk takes place in the vicinity of the hedonic hotspots—areas that bridge basic reflexes and consciousness.

He’s Back — Andy Borowitz reports on the return of Jonas Salk.  And boy is he pissed.

WASHINGTON (The Borowitz Report)—The reanimated corpse of Dr. Jonas Salk, the medical researcher who developed the first polio vaccine, rose from the grave Friday morning on what authorities believe is a mission to hunt down idiots.

The zombie version of Salk, wearing a tattered white lab coat and looking “incredibly angry” according to one eyewitness, was seen advancing on the U.S. Capitol building at approximately 11 A.M.

While Senator Rand Paul, of Kentucky, hid in the Senate cloakroom, armed security forces repelled the zombie virologist, who, seemingly unharmed, moved on in search of new prey.

According to law enforcement, the reanimated Salk then stole a car and headed off in the direction of Trenton, New Jersey.

“We have reason to believe he’s coming for Governor Christie,” said a staff member from Chris Christie’s office. “Fortunately, the Governor is never here.”

With both Disneyland and Marin County on high alert, a spokesman for the Department of Homeland Security warned that, as long as the rampaging vaccine pioneer was at large, law enforcement would be stretched thin.

“Unfortunately, we do not possess the resources to protect every idiot in this country,” the spokesman said.

Doonesbury — Office gossip.