Tag Archives: The Atlantic magazine

Testing the meaning of tolerance


Irony is, after all, its stock in trade.

How surprising is it, then, to learn that, just before the fatal attacks on 12 of its staffers last week, the French satirical organ, Charlie Hebdo, was well on its way to organ failure – the victim of falling sales and dwindling readership?

Now, it will live forever, not so much as a worthy compendium of political commentary and provocative humour, but as a symbol of French resistance to tyranny. (Not exactly what the gang of murderous thugs, brandishing kalashnikovs and invocations to the prophet Muhammad, was hoping to achieve).

Then, of course, around the world there were organized marches in memoriam for the dead and in solidarity for the principles of free speech. In the City of Lights, alone, gathered a throng of 1.5 million comprising people from all walks of life – some deserving to attend; some, in the opinion of many, not so much.

According to a piece in the Guardian online, “Press freedom campaigners condemned the presence of world leaders attending the unity rally in Paris on Sunday who have poor records on human rights and the free press in their home countries. Reporters without Borders singled out leaders from Egypt, Turkey, Russia, Algeria and the United Arab Emirates (UAE), as being responsible for particularly harsh environments for journalists. These countries rank respectively 159th, 154th, 148th, 121st and 118th out of 180 countries in terms of press freedom in a league table compiled by the group.

“‘We should show solidarity with Charlie Hebdo without forgetting the world’s other Charlies,’ said Christophe Deloire, secretary general of the campaign group. ‘It would be intolerable [if] representatives from countries that reduce their journalists to silence profit from this emotional outpouring to. . .improve their international image. . .We should not allow the predators of the press to spit on the graves of Charlie Hebdo.’”

Naturally, this said nothing about the quality of the publication’s satire, itself – a topic that has, understandably, garnered little attention ever since Paris conferred honorary citizenship on the magazine, the national government announced a bail-out fund of one million euros so it can, in the words of French Culture Minister Fleur Pellerin, “continue next week and the week after that and the week after that.”

Indeed, reported Reuters, “Albert Uderzo, the 87-year-old who created the famed French comic character Asterix, announced he would come out of retirement to help illustrate the irreverent weekly, which plans to print a million copies of its next edition next Wednesday.”

All of which may have irked Atlantic magazine writer Scott Sayare into penning a rare online screed. “Charlie’s hope, according to its editors, is to show believers the folly of their faith,” he writes. “This can hardly be called an undertaking of tolerance, that other virtue of liberal democracy.”

In fact, he jabs, “the impulse to consecrate Charlie Hebdo in a moment of horror and anger – an impulse felt far beyond France – is eminently comprehensible. But one may mourn the dead and condemn their senseless slaughter, and hail their courage in carrying out a mission in which they deeply believed, without celebrating the magazine for virtues it did not espouse.”

Frankly, he notes, “until the killings, Charlie Hebdo was not much celebrated or even particularly valued – publicly, at any rate – by the French, though the many slander cases brought against it came with a certain amount of publicity; as of 2012, its weekly print run was about 60,000 copies, about a tenth of what the country’s most popular news weeklies sell. . .Charlie Hebdo is not a racist publication. . . The magazine is, however, intolerant of religion and believers of all sorts, and smug in those anticlerical convictions. Dialogue with its opponents was never of much interest, and it has repeatedly chosen to target some of France’s most vulnerable inhabitants for provocation. . .It is a publication that champions its speech rights with all the crude prurience and vitriol and rhetorical excess the law permits.”

And yet, one could argue persuasively, that it is precisely such coarseness – once, not very long ago, dismissed and derided by the French establishment – that has galvanized, through tragedy, a nation and much of the western world.

How brutally ironic, indeed.

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Belly-button-peering boomers don’t worry, be happy

Who says I'm not happy?

Who says I’m not happy?

As the days trundle by like rocks, gathering speed, rolling down a hill, my thoughts frequently turn inward; and from such reverie a question inevitably arises: Am I happy?

I don’t mean contented or merely satisfied with my lot – my spiffy, little car that still drives, after three years, the way my bank balance hoped it would; my fine ramshackle of a house in Moncton’s gracious Old West End whose basement doesn’t always begin leaking at the merest mention of rain; my cellar stocked with holiday wine and spirits, including a not-quite sufficient supply of New Brunswick-distilled Gin Thuya, the undisputed ambrosia of all such heady elixirs.

By these standards, I would have to conclude that, yes, I am, indeed, happy (especially on Friday and Saturday nights when I’m likely to be found vigorously explaining to one or more hapless family members why James Bond was utterly correct: A martini must be shaken, not stirred).

But these aren’t the benchmarks of bliss an extensive exercise in mid-life naval-gazing in the December issue of The Atlantic magazine deems authentic.

Happiness, writes contributing editor Jonathan Rauch, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institute, is not about stuff or loot or even the absence of serious injury and life-threatening infirmity. It’s about something called the “U-curve” and for many, if not everyone, it is as inescapable as aging, itself.

In fact, that’s kind of the point.

“In the 1970s, an economist named Richard Easterlin, then at the University of Pennsylvania, learned of surveys gauging people’s happiness in countries around the world,” Mr. Rauch reports. “Intrigued, he set about amassing and analyzing the data, in the process discovering what came to be known as the Easterlin paradox: beyond a certain point, countries don’t get happier as they get richer.”

Flash forward 20 years or so and, “happiness economics” re-emerges. “This time a cluster of labor economists, among them David Blanchflower of Dartmouth and Andrew Oswald of the University of Warwick, got interested in the relationship between work and happiness,” Mr. Rauch explains. “That led them to international surveys of life satisfaction and the discovery, quite unexpected, of a recurrent pattern in countries around the world.”

“‘Whatever sets of data you looked at,’ Blanchflower told me in a recent interview, ‘you got the same things’: life satisfaction would decline with age for the first couple of decades of adulthood, bottom out somewhere in the 40s or early 50s, and then, until the very last years, increase with age, often (though not always) reaching a higher level than in young adulthood. The pattern came to be known as the happiness U-curve. . .which emerges in answers to survey questions that measure satisfaction with life as a whole, not mood from moment to moment.”

All of which suggests that human evolution favors the cheerful – or, at least, those who enjoy enough time, leisure, money and job security to ask an existential question or two and, in Mr. Rauch’s case, get paid for running a few answers up the experiential flagpole.

Notably absent from this particular investigation, of course, is any shred of anecdotal evidence from people who might evince real and just cause to feel thoroughly horrible about their lives. Mr. Rauch (who is 54) interviewed people whose mien – baby-boomerish, affluent, employed. . .whiny – resembles his own.   

How happy, one wonders, will the victims of the Central Intelligence Agency’s systematic water-boardings, “rectal feedings”, beatings, and sleep-depriving isolation sessions find themselves as they cross into their 50s and 60s, a period when the “research” says they should start feeling perfectly marvelous about themselves?

How beatific is U.S. Senator Dianne Feinstein, chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee, these days? Her report – the first of its kind from any chamber of American government – outlines in devastating detail the horrific crimes against basic decency CIA perpetrated against its prisoners in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks.

Said Senator Feinstein: “History will judge us by our commitment to a just society government by law and the willingness to face an ugly truth and say ‘never again.’”

Am I happy?

Let’s just say that life could be worse, as it evidently is for the millions who haven’t had the pleasure of pondering their own navels at the behest of the latest issue of The Atlantic magazine.

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