My latest monthly (and somewhat random) collection of recent essays and stories from around the web that have caught my eye and are worth plucking out to be re-read.
Donald Trump and the Myth of Mobocracy
Robert Zaretsky, Atlantic, 27 July 2016
Terrorist bombs shattering lives and buildings. Waves of immigrants stirring popular fears and anxieties. Corruption and scandal staining the reputation of politicians. Commerce and industry convulsing amid dizzying and divisive change. Ambitious men with no political experience casting themselves as providential leaders. The sense—elusive but real—that the people are morphing into the crowd, democracy mutating into mobocracy.
These trends would seem to characterize the current political season. Particularly striking have been the images of crowds at the Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump’s campaign stops and at last week’s Republican National Convention in Cleveland, where he nurtured and indulged a nightmare vision of an America overrun by immigrants and terrorized by the murderous Other. Time and again, a strong leader who praises acts of violence and scorns the rule of law has galvanized the crowds. ‘I am your voice’, Trump announced in Cleveland—a voice, it seems, that can meld the many into one, and people into a mob.
These same trends, however, also lead back to late 19th-century France. In fact, the ‘crowd’—the concept, more so than the reality—was born in fin-de-siècle Paris.
Against Muslim Unity
Faisal Devji, Aeon, 12 July 2016
The ideal of unity is inherently anti-political. The Deobandi cleric was right in identifying the political as the sphere offering the only real potential for peaceful accommodation of differences and disputes. Posturing about an illusory ‘Muslim unity’ tends only to alienate Muslims from the political world of nation-states that govern their societies. From this perspective, Muslim militancy, too, is actually a consequence of de-politicisation and not, as is commonly presumed, the reverse.
Whether by Western or Middle Eastern governments, condemnations of terrorism in religious language, in the name of Islam, are losing causes. Real problems will not be solved on theological terrain. When liberals and advocates of tolerance too celebrate or promote moderate Islam, it is another step away from the world of politics and institutions, the world of progress and solutions. The quest for harmony, for unity, is a siren song, and is to be resisted.
How Remain Failed:
The Inside Story of a Doomed Campaign
Rafael Behr, Guardian, 5 July 2016
This was a revolution. But the political establishment has not actually been deposed: the Conservative party will continue governing, only with changed leadership. What was overthrown was a conception of where and how politics is conducted.
The starting premise of the remain campaign was that elections in Britain are settled in a centre-ground defined by aversion to economic risk and swung by a core of liberal middle-class voters who are allergic to radical lurches towards political uncertainty. They could be identified, profiled and targeted by the technical wizardry of professional pollsters. Their anxieties, hopes and priorities could be plotted on charts that would then be translated into simple messages. EU membership might thus be established in the minds of this audience as a proxy for security and continuity – the natural preference of the sensible majority, as reinforced by every institution that carried cultural authority; the experts would be heeded…
No one on the remain side fully anticipated an emotional groundswell of contempt for the very idea of political authority as dispensed from a liberal citadel in Westminster. The remain politicians found themselves besieged by an angry insurrection, channelling grievances that were well known. They stood for a cause that became emblematic of a system that was alien, arrogant and remote – and they had no answer.
How China is Rewriting the Book on Human Origins
Jane Qiu, Nature, 12 July 2016
China has in the past decade stepped up its efforts to uncover evidence of early humans across the country. It is reanalysing old fossil finds and pouring tens of millions of dollars a year into excavations. And the government is setting up a US$1.1-million laboratory at the IVPP to extract and sequence ancient DNA.
The investment comes at a time when palaeoanthropologists across the globe are starting to pay more attention to Asian fossils and how they relate to other early hominins — creatures that are more closely related to humans than to chimps. Finds in China and other parts of Asia have made it clear that a dazzling variety of Homo species once roamed the continent. And they are challenging conventional ideas about the evolutionary history of humanity.
‘Many Western scientists tend to see Asian fossils and artefacts through the prism of what was happening in Africa and Europe’, says Wu. Those other continents have historically drawn more attention in studies of human evolution because of the antiquity of fossil finds there, and because they are closer to major palaeoanthropology research institutions, he says. ‘But it’s increasingly clear that many Asian materials cannot fit into the traditional narrative of human evolution.’
Thinking Public and Private:
Intellectuals in the Time of the Public
Benjamin Aldes Wurgaft,
LA Review of Books, 15 July 2016
The real interest in the term ‘public intellectual’ lies in what its usage can tell us about ourselves: how we imagine the links between politics and prose, thought and action, individual contemplation and social congregation. Why, for example, has the notion of publicness itself become such a high value for some, practically synonymous with benevolence, as if to attach ‘public’ to the name of a discipline grants it a special dignity? Getting un-confused about the term ‘public intellectual’ does not require jettisoning the notion of public engagement altogether, but rather turning these keywords — ‘intellectual’, ‘public’ — over and over, depriving them of the sense of obvious meaning produced by too-frequent use.
Bangladesh’s Crisis of Identity
Salil Tripathi, Prospect, 28 July 2016
Bangladesh is a secular country with Islam as its official religion; it also has a sizeable minority of Hindus, Buddhists Christians and others. The clash between fundamentalism and secularism is at the heart of Bangladesh’s current crisis. But that narrative is intertwined with two other clashes—over Bangladesh’s identity, whether it is a Bengali nation or a Muslim nation, and whether those responsible for war crimes during Bangladesh’s liberation war of 1971 should face justice or not. These three clashes now threaten the stability of the world’s eighth-most populous nation.
Why I’m Not Joining ‘Historians Against Trump’
Chronicle of Higher Education, 18 July 2016
I yield to nobody in my disdain for Donald J. Trump, the presumptive Republican nominee for president. In a half-dozen essays, I’ve decried his bigotry and demagoguery. I’m especially concerned about his corrosive effect upon our civic discourse, which has sunk to almost unimaginable depths over the past year.
But I won’t join Historians Against Trump, which indulges in some of the same polarized, overheated rhetoric used by Trump himself. In a statement released on July 11, the new group warned that Trump’s candidacy represents ‘an attack on our profession, our values, and the communities we serve’. But that claim is itself a repudiation of our professional values, which enjoin us to understand diverse communities instead of dismissing them as warped or deluded.
A Debate Over the Physics of Time
Dan Falk, Quanta Magazine, 19 July 2016
There are a few things that everyone agrees on. The directionality that we observe in the macroscopic world is very real: Teacups shatter but do not spontaneously reassemble; eggs can be scrambled but not unscrambled. Entropy — a measure of the disorder in a system — always increases, a fact encoded in the second law of thermodynamics. As the Austrian physicist Ludwig Boltzmann understood in the 19th century, the second law explains why events are more likely to evolve in one direction rather than another. It accounts for the arrow of time.
But things get trickier when we step back and ask why we happen to live in a universe where such a law holds. ‘What Boltzmann truly explained is why the entropy of the universe will be larger tomorrow than it is today’, said Sean Carroll, a physicist at the California Institute of Technology, as we sat in a hotel bar after the second day of presentations. ‘But if that was all you knew, you’d also say that the entropy of the universe was probably larger yesterday than today — because all the underlying dynamics are completely symmetric with respect to time.’ That is, if entropy is ultimately based on the underlying laws of the universe, and those laws are the same going forward and backward, then entropy is just as likely to increase going backward in time. But no one believes that entropy actually works that way. Scrambled eggs always come after whole eggs, never the other way around.
The Second Amendment’s Second Class Citizens
David A Graham, Atlantic, 7 July 2016
Black Americans again prominently asserted their right to bear arms during the 1960s. In 1964, Malcolm X was famously photographed holding a rifle as he looked out a window. The image was often misinterpreted as a statement of aggression, as though he was preparing a guerrilla assault. In fact, Malcolm was exercising his own right to own a gun for self-defence, concerned that members of the Nation of Islam—which he had recently deserted for Sunni orthodoxy—would try to kill him. (His fear was, of course, vindicated the following year, when Nation members did murder him.)
In 1967, Black Panthers began taking advantage of California laws that permitted open carry, walking the streets of Oakland armed to the teeth, citing threats of violence from white people and particularly white cops. When people were pulled over, Panthers would arrive on the scene – to ensure that justice was done, they argued, or to intimidate the cops, the cops contended. In response, Republican state Assemblyman Don Mulford introduced a bill to ban open carry. The Panthers then decided to go to the state capitol, heavily armed, to exercise their right.
As theater, it was an incredible gesture. As politics, it was a catastrophe. The sight of heavily armed black men brandishing rifles galvanized support for Mulford’s bill, which promptly passed and was signed into law by Governor Ronald Reagan. It set off a spree of gun-control laws that only began to be rolled back years later – leading to the current regime of permissive laws.
The Artist As Revolutionary
Jeff Sparrow, Sydney Review of Books, 8 July 2016
Gerald Horne begins his new book, Paul Robeson: The Artist as Revolutionary with an acknowledgement of Robeson’s excision from public memory, a process that began while the performer still lived. ‘Paul Robeson – activist, artist, athlete – experienced,’ he writes, ‘a dramatic rise and fall, perhaps unparalleled in US history. From consorting with the elite of London society and Hollywood in the 1930s, by the time he died in 1976, he was a virtual recluse in a plain abode in a working-class neighbourhood of Philadelphia.’
Horne holds the John J and Rebecca Moores Chair of History and African American Studies at the University of Houston. His previous works include studies of the African American communists William Patterson and WEB du Bois. In this excellent new book, he identifies Robeson as a neglected precursor to the modern Civil Rights movement. ‘[Y]ou cannot fully appreciate how the Jim Crow system came to an end without an understanding of the life of Paul Robeson,’ he argues. ‘[I]t was only with Robeson’s fall that King and Malcolm could emerge as they did; the undermining of Robeson created a vacuum that these two leaders filled.’
Measuring the Backlash against the Muslim Backlash
Shibley Thelhami, Politico Magazine, 11 July 2016
Something remarkable has happened in the middle of an American presidential campaign noted for its inflammatory rhetoric about Islam and Muslims, and marred by horrific mass violence perpetrated on American soil in the name of Islam: American public attitudes toward the Muslim people and the Muslim religion have not worsened—in fact they have become progressively more favorable, even after the Orlando shooting. That’s what two new polls show, one taken two weeks before Orlando, the other two weeks after.
When (Quantum) Worlds Collide
Matthew Buckley, Boston Review, 12 July 2016
If you want to study how particles behave, you can’t do much better than to smash them together to see what results. For that we need particle accelerators, and the higher the energy you can get those particles moving, the better. Today the most energetic particle collisions we can achieve are at the LHC, where we smash together protons that carry kinetic energy 6,500 times the rest energy of the proton. It is here that we discovered the Higgs boson, and it is here that the attention of particle physicists (both experimental and theoretical) is currently focused, as we await new results later this summer.
However, the LHC is not a do-anything machine. And the massive detectors that we use to measure the products of these particle collisions are not the see-anything sensors from Star Trek. These instruments were designed in light of the Standard Model and optimized for certain searches. When theorists think about LHC results, we must deal with the fine details of these technologies: how they work, what they can measure, and what they cannot do. Even simple questions like “How many protons did you collide today?” can only be answered through the hard work of many experimental physicists. I am a theorist, and I have spent the last few articles in this series explaining quantum field theory and the Standard Model, but now I will look closely at the experiments—how the LHC works and how the LHC detectors work—to give you an idea of not just what we can measure and how, but of the immense efforts by thousands of experimental scientists over decades. This is the work that allows us to tell deep stories about the Universe.
Race and the American Creed
Aziz Rana, n+1, Winter 2016
The emphasis on structure speaks to a remarkable development in American public discourse. Today, the ‘creedal’ story of national identity—according to which the United States has been committed to the principle that ‘all men are created equal’ from the time of its founding, and our history can be viewed as a steady fulfillment of this idea—finds itself in profound crisis. This story has been unmasked, not for the first time, by the problem of race. So has the vision for reform with which it is associated—the steady opening of equal opportunity to all. The creed is so central to American identity that it has become difficult to imagine an alternative, similarly grounded in a strong political tradition. Finding and defending such a tradition is the difficulty of the present moment, but also its promise.
The Many Ways to Map the Brain
Greg Miller, Atlantic, 14 July
I think of the latest high-tech maps – like Google’s maps for automated cars and the new brain map from the Allen Institute – as maps for machines. They’re so packed with information that they’re nearly impossible to comprehend just by looking. Only computers can really work with them.
Maps for machines will no doubt play a role in our future. These maps will (fingers crossed!) keep our robot cars on the roads, our planes in the sky, and help us finally understand our own brains. But we’ll always need maps for humans, too. It’s these maps that inspire us to take a trip in the first place, or at least wonder for a moment what’s over there.
Review of Nancy Isenberg’s White Trash:
The 400-Year Untold History of Class in America
Dabiel Lazare, History News Network, 14 July 2016
It not only takes aim at the notion of America as a place of endless progress, but at a sub-myth as well, that poverty is a problem limited to blacks, Hispanics, and other racial minorities.
To the contrary, Isenberg argues that America since its inception has seen the growth of a white underclass that is every bit as impoverished as such groups, if not more so. The classic example, she writes, is Bob Ewell, the white bigot in Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, who accuses a black man of raping his daughter and then tries to kill Atticus Finch’s two children after Atticus defends him in court. Lee describes Ewell and his family as a creature of the margins: ‘No truant officer could keep their numerous offspring in school; no public health officer could free them from congenital defects, various worms, and diseases indigenous to filthy surroundings.’ Ewell, Lee adds, lives in a run-down shack that was ‘once a Negro cabin’. Garbage is everywhere, and no one knows how many kids he has – some say six, some nine. All they know is that they’re the ‘dirty-faced ones at the windows when anyone passed’. These were the monsters that middle-class America tried to repress from mid-century on.
Ugliness, in the Cry of the Beholder
Ian Ground, TLS, 29 June 2016
The ugly is a very intractable concept: as anomalous, messy, irregular, unsettling and ultimately unsurveyable as the phenomena it characterizes. The ugly sits squat and tumorous at some hidden place in our body conceptual, reaching out to unexpected points while conspicuously absent in more expected places. It touches sensitive places in our psyche and culture, for example in its connection with issues of deformity, otherness and gender. It is a concept horribly well connected, as Mojca Küplen points out, with ideas such as ‘alienation, estrangement, dehumanization, destruction, degeneration, disconcertion, absurdity, and with emotions evoking terror, horror, anxiety and fear.
What’s behind the Science vs Philosophy Fight?
Jag Bhalla & Rebecca Newberger Goldstein,
Big Think, 26 July 2016
I think that underneath what seems to be the failure of imagination of philosophy-jeerers in dismissing any form of useful intellectual work other than their own is (to give them the benefit of the doubt) an argument along these lines: Given that (1) all that there is is physical reality, and that (2) science is our best means for learning the nature of physical reality, it follows that (3) the only kind of substantive intellectual work there can be is scientific. This is a fallacious argument. Even granting the two premises, the conclusion doesn’t follow. What philosophers have failed to make clear is the nature of the invalidity of this argument, which is also to say that they’ve failed to make clear what this other kind of intellectual work that they do is, and why it’s work that’s so necessary that even the philosophy-jeerers must engage in it in order to make their philosophy-jeering arguments.
Migrant Smugglers Helping Refuges Return to Turkey
Riham Alkousaa & Maxmillian Popp,
Spiegel Online, 30 June 2016
For a long time, the stream of refugees flowed in a single direction — from Turkey, through Greece and the Balkans and on to central and northern Europe. But now that one European Union member state after another has closed its borders, many migrants are stuck. In Greece, nearly 60,000 asylum seekers are waiting to travel north. Some of them have already begun heading back to Turkey of their own free will — out of frustration and despair.
The refugees’ retreat is illustrative of the failure of European asylum policy. The EU has not offered those stranded in Greece adequate protection. Those who decide to return to Turkey make their way back across the border with the help of smugglers because no legal pathway has been established. Greek police officers estimate that in recent weeks, between 30 and 40 refugees have crossed the Evros back into Turkey every day. Many of them are fathers from Syria who lived in Germany but whose wives and children weren’t allowed to join them. The German government made it more difficult for refugees to send for their families earlier this year.
We Are Not Living in a ‘Video Game Simulation’
Justin E Smith, 13 June 2016
It is certainly possible that we are living in a simulation, if by this we mean that things are not as they appear, that reality is not just brute stuff sitting there on its own. This is a possibility that has been contemplated in various ways by great minds for quite some time now, and that has provided fuel for the wild speculations of not-so-great minds for just as long. What is new is the way in which one manoeuvres into the appearance of expertise by doing nothing more than being very wealthy and deciding to take up the social role of a visionary. What Musk has done is to update an ancient possibility, to cause it to appear as something never-before-thought when in truth it is only a repackaging and a re-enchantment.
The particular form the new version takes offers a vivid case study in the consequences of historical and anthropological ignorance. How self-congratulatory and parochial does a member of a given culture, at a given moment, have to be, to suppose that reality itself takes the form of a particular technology developed within that very culture in the course of one’s own lifetime? Consider the familiar claim that ‘the brain is like a computer’, or, switching the comparative ‘like’ for the stoner one, that ‘the brain is, like, a computer’. Is this not effectively to say that this thing that has been around in nature for hundreds of millions of years turns out to in fact have been, all along, this other thing that we ourselves came up with in the past few decades?
The Concrete Buildings of Brutalism are Beautiful
Barnabas Calder, Aeon, 15 June 2016
The exceptional brilliance of 1960s architecture comes partly from technical improvements. In its versatility and strength, reinforced concrete was vastly superior to any earlier building technology, freeing architects to make the shapes they judged most useful and beautiful. It killed off the millennia-long design tyranny of the loadbearing facade – a structurally necessary vertical plane that left architects little more to decide on than where to put the windows and how to decorate them. With concrete, the load could be carried on a few columns, and decks of accommodation could float where the designer and client wanted them, not where gravity insisted they be placed. There could be more outdoor space, more light, external pedestrian routes at any height, or luxuriantly planted terraces halfway up buildings. With newer, better heating options than open fireplaces, windows could be bigger, and rooms could reach sizes that would in earlier centuries have been unendurably drafty. Architects of the 1960s had a vastly richer palette with which to paint.
Concrete was beautiful, too. It followed the stone of medieval Gothic cathedrals in being a complete system in one material: structure, surface and decoration all arising from how the buildings were made and what they were made from. Gothic stonework, however, was stuck with the shapes imposed by the physics of arches. The best masons did a phenomenally beautiful and clever job of turning this restrictive palate into superb art but, however magnificent their achievement, it was narrow: stunning churches, but relatively little else. Concrete could be turned to any use. Nor would it, like most older buildings, require regular repainting, endless re-attachment of roof tiles after each windy day, or expensive replastering. It would take the knocks of city life with sturdy resilience and rough dignity.