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.
The Anti-Democratic Urge
Astra Taylor, The New Republic, 18 August 2016
In reality, our political system is far less democratic than it was a generation ago. Over the past 40 years, we’ve seen unions crushed, welfare gutted, higher education defunded, prisons packed to overflowing, voting rights curbed, and the rich made steadily richer while wages stagnated. It’s not the frustration of the people that should terrify us, but rather the legitimate sources of their frustration, which have so long gone unaddressed. Regular citizens struggling to make ends meet have almost nowhere to turn, nothing to join. We shouldn’t wonder that so many voters have seized on this election to make a statement, even a nihilistic one. To insist that the only solution is for the people to get back in line is to refuse to acknowledge that the ‘establishment’ bears any responsibility for the conditions that created the public’s outrage in the first place.
There’s a Bigger Problem At the Border
Than Trump’s Proposed Wall
Todd Miller, The Nation, 23 August 2016
Twenty-one years before Trump’s wall-building promise (and seven years before the 9/11 attacks), the US Army Corps of Engineers began to replace the chain link fence that separated Nogales, Sonora, in Mexico from Nogales, Arizona, in the United States with a wall built of rusty landing mats from the Vietnam and Persian Gulf wars. Although there had been various half-hearted attempts at building border walls throughout the twentieth century, this was the first true effort to build a barrier of what might now be called Trumpian magnitude.
That rusty, towering wall snaked through the hills and canyons of northern Sonora and southern Arizona forever deranging a world that, given cross-border familial and community ties, then considered itself one. At the time, who could have known that the strategy the first wall embodied would still be the model for today’s massive system of exclusion.
The Pursuit of the African Dream
Ty McCormick, Foreign Policy, 19 August 2016
As Europe confronts its biggest wave of migration since World War II, there is a sense that the world’s dispossessed have suddenly uprooted themselves en masse to knock at the doors of developed nations. The images are ubiquitous: desperate Africans and Middle Easterners packed into sinking boats, risking everything to escape calamity and war. That picture has rightly jolted the world to attention. But it has also given a false sense that Europe is at the heart of the global migration crisis.
Thousands of miles from the chaotic detention facilities of Lampedusa, Italy, and Calais, France, there is another, much larger migration crisis that is taking place entirely within Africa. Like Mishamo and his brother Abraham, the vast majority of African migrants aren’t traveling to Europe but to another country on the continent. In 2000, the last year for which the World Bank’s Global Bilateral Migration Database has numbers, fully 75 percent of African migrants lived in another African country while only 16 percent lived in Europe….
Already, irregular migration to South Africa has carved a deep channel of abuse and corruption down the spine of East Africa. Dozens of migrants have died of asphyxiation in the backs of trucks or perished in boat accidents in the Indian Ocean and on Lake Malawi. Hundreds and perhaps thousands more — there is no official tally — languish in jail in transit countries along the way, guilty of the crime of believing they deserve more than their impoverished countries have to offer.
The Original Underclass
Alec MacGillis, Atlantic, September 2016
Talk with those still sticking it out, the body-shop worker and the dollar-store clerk and the unemployed miner, and the fatalism is clear: Things were much better in an earlier time, and no future awaits in places that have been left behind by polished people in gleaming cities. The most painful comparison is not with supposedly ascendant minorities – it’s with the fortunes of one’s own parents or, by now, grandparents. The demoralizing effect of decay enveloping the place you live cannot be underestimated. And the bitterness – the ‘primal scorn’ – that Donald Trump has tapped into among white Americans in struggling areas is aimed not just at those of foreign extraction. It is directed toward fellow countrymen who have become foreigners of a different sort, looking down on the natives, if they bother to look at all.
What No New Particles Means for Physics
Natalie Wolchover, Quanta Magazine, 9 August 2016
Physicists at the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) in Europe have explored the properties of nature at higher energies than ever before, and they have found something profound: nothing new.
It’s perhaps the one thing that no one predicted 30 years ago when the project was first conceived… Some theorists argue that the time has already come for the whole field to start reckoning with the message of the null results. The absence of new particles almost certainly means that the laws of physics are not natural in the way physicists long assumed they are. ‘Naturalness is so well-motivated’, Sundrum said, ‘that its actual absence is a major discovery.’
Germany’s Potential Burqa Ban Has a Problem:
Where Are the Burqas?
Adam Taylor, Washington Post, 19 August 2016
German reporter Fabian Köhler decided to look closely at how many women wore the burqa in Germany… Köhler sent out a call on social media: If you’ve seen a burqa in Germany, let me know. Most people responded by sending him pictures of niqabs and hijabs. A picture of a woman quite clearly wearing a burqa in a Berlin subway stop turned out to be a red herring: It was a reporter for Bild, wearing the garment for a story. He later received another false lead: Two women wear the burqa, but they are very non-Muslim mistresses at an S&M club.
Islamic experts told him they doubt there are any burqas in Germany. Even the staff from Afghan Embassy told him they’ve never seen one. Prominent anti-burqa campaigners seemed unable to help him either; some wouldn’t even talk to him. After all his research, Köhler came to the conclusion that there might be around 300 wearers of the niqab in Germany. He has found no evidence of anyone wearing a burqa in Germany.
The Legacy of Lynching, On Death Row
Jeffrey Toobin, New Yorker, 22 August 2016
Jordan Steiker, the professor who convened the meeting, told me, “In one sense, the death penalty is clearly a substitute for lynching. One of the main justifications for the use of the death penalty, especially in the South, was that it served to avoid lynching. The number of people executed rises tremendously at the end of the lynching era. And there’s still incredible overlap between places that had lynching and places that continue to use the death penalty.” Drawing on the work of such noted legal scholars as David Garland and Franklin Zimring, Steiker and his sister Carol, a professor at Harvard Law School, have written a forthcoming book, ‘Courting Death: The Supreme Court and Capital Punishment’, which explores the links between lynching and state-sponsored executions. The Steikers write, ‘The practice of lynching constituted “a form of unofficial capital punishment” that in its heyday was even more common than the official kind.’
Lynchings, which took the form of hangings, shootings, beatings, and other acts of murder, were often public events, urged on by thousands, but by the nineteen-thirties the behavior of the crowds had begun to draw criticism in the North. ‘The only reason lynchings stopped in the American South was that the spectacle of the crowds cheering these murders was becoming problematic’, Stevenson told me. ‘Local law enforcement was powerless to stop the mob, even if it wanted to. So people in the North started to say that the federal government needed to send in federal troops to protect black people from these acts of terror. No one in power in the South wanted that—so they moved the lynchings indoors, in the form of executions. They guaranteed swift, sure, certain death after the trial, rather than before the trial.’
The Hormone Games
Alice Dreger, 17 August 2016
So while the court acknowledges that Chand and women like her are women, while it acknowledges that testosterone is as much a woman’s hormone as a man’s, while it acknowledges Chand’s testosterone level represents an inborn genetic advantage – far more ‘natural’ than the significant social advantages accrued to athletes from wealthier nations—it still concludes that the IAAF might someday convince them testosterone should function as the thing that divides women’s sport from men’s!
Illogical, if you ask me. The IAAF and IOC did just that – asked me – a couple of years ago, and I told them the same then. As an historian, I believe we will look back on this regulation, and now this ruling, as being just as illogical and unfair as what happened when Martínez-Patiño was banned for her Y chromosome.
If the IAAF, IOC, and the Court really believe what they’re saying – that this isn’t supposed to be a ‘gender verification test’ or ‘sex testing’ – then they’re eventually going to have to conclude that what makes you a woman is just being in the world as a woman. All the rest will have to be understood as allowable variation, or you really are deciding who counts as a woman on the playing field.
Refugees: A Small and Relatively Stable
Proportion of World Migration
Hein de Haas, 22 August 2016
The total number of refugees as a share of all migrants in the world is rather limited, and has remained remarkably stable if we look at long term trends. According to official figures compiled by the UNHCR there are currently about 16.1 million refugees under their mandate. This figure would rise to 21.1 million if we include Palestinian refugees, who do not fall under UNHCR’s mandate.
This is less than 0.3 percent of the total world population (7.4 billion people), and about 10 per cent of the total estimated number of international migrants, which currently hovers around 220-230 million (excluding refugees). While the international migrant population counted as a percentage of the world population has remained remarkably stable on levels of around 3 percent of the world population since 1960, refugee numbers have shown more fluctuations, mainly depending on the level of conflict in origin areas.
Why Capitalism Has Turned Us Into Narcissists
Terry Eagleton, Guardian, 3 August 2016
Men and women can only flourish in certain social conditions. Happiness is bound up with our activity, rather than being a private mental state. We are practical agents, not walking states of consciousness. A slave who is regularly beaten black and blue may claim that he is blissfully content, but this is probably because he knows of no other situation. In this sense, happiness is not an entirely subjective affair. You can believe that you are happy but be the victim of self-deception. Neither, however, is it objective in the sense of being a patch of stuff in the brain, as some neuroscientists seem to imagine. What they forget, as Davies asserts, is that ‘mental processes’ are bound up with the actions of human beings embedded in social relations, guided by purposes and intentions which need to be interpreted.
Happiness for the market researchers and corporate psychologists is a matter of feeling good. But it seems that millions of individuals don’t feel good at all, and are unlikely to be persuaded to buck up by technologies of mind control that induce them to work harder or consume more. You can’t really be happy if you are a victim of injustice or exploitation, which is what the technologists of joy tend to overlook. This is why, when Aristotle speaks of a science of well-being, he gives it the name of politics. The point is of little interest to the neuroscientists, advertising gurus or mindfulness mongers, which is why so much of their work is spectacularly beside the point.
The Perilous Lure of the Underground Railroad
Kathryn Schultz, New Yorker, 22 August 2016
‘We could see no spot, this side of the ocean, where we could be free’, Frederick Douglass wrote in his autobiography: fugitives themselves knew that they were only marginally better off in the ostensibly free state of Ohio than across the border in Kentucky, only marginally safer in Maine or Michigan or Wisconsin than in Maryland and North Carolina and Washington, DC. Outside of scattered pockets in upstate New York, Massachusetts, and the Midwest, moral opposition to slavery was not the norm above the Mason-Dixon Line, and fugitives were not exactly welcomed with open arms. In 1858, an editorial in a Vermont newspaper demanded that ‘a log must be laid across the track of the underground railroad’, and went on to argue, in terms that echo today’s debates over refugees, for the immediate cessation of ‘the illegal introduction of colored persons in the free states’ to ‘prevent a large yearly increase of that class of population which is hanging like a millstone around the neck of our industrial progress.’ Several ostensibly free states, including Illinois and Indiana, did just that, passing laws that prohibited free blacks from settling inside their borders. On the eve of the Civil War, the mayor of New York proposed that the city secede from the Union to protect its economic relationship with the South.
We should not be surprised, then, that most people who slipped the bonds of slavery did not look north. In fact, despite its popularity today, the Underground Railroad was perhaps the least popular way for slaves to seek their freedom. Instead, those who fled generally headed toward Spanish Florida, Mexico, the Caribbean, Native American communities in the Southeast, free-black neighborhoods in the upper South, or Maroon communities – clandestine societies of former slaves, some fifty of which existed in the South from 1672 until the end of the Civil War. Together, such runaways likely outnumbered those who, aided by Northern abolitionists, made their way to free states or to Canada.
Head to Head: Should We Allow a Doping Free-For-All?
Julian Savelescu & Robert Sparrow,
Nautilus, 18 August 2016
Savulescu: You could allow a completely libertarian, laissez-faire form of sport where there are no rules. Take ultimate fighting. This is an example where you’ve got rid of the rules that protect people from injury.
Sparrow: But they can’t bring knives.
Savulescu: No, that’s right. You can set some rules. Obviously, to run the 100 meters, you can’t come with a motorbike. You could say, ‘You’re allowed to take any substance that enables your natural legs to run faster’. If you want to take amphetamines, cocaine, alcohol, or steroids, you can take anything you want.
Sparrow: Let’s be honest here. This is not a sport without rules. The moment you say you can’t be on a motorbike, you’ve got rules.
Savulescu: Of course. You can’t have a sport without rules because it’s got to define the behavior that is meant to be the test of their physical excellence or skill. Sport requires rules. The question is what sort of rules. Could you allow any sort of performance-enhancing substance, no matter how dangerous? You could. You could have an Olympics that test the effectiveness of bionic limbs, so that healthy athletes amputated their legs and ran as fast as they could on bionic ones. What do I think about that? If people want to have their limbs amputated to compete in a sporting event, and they’re fully competent, and they don’t have a psychiatric illness—in my view, that’s a choice. In fact, I had to write for a disability journal about precisely this case. A woman, who was a paraplegic in the disabled Olympics, wanted both of her legs amputated so she’d be lighter, to perform better. The question was, ‘Was this performance-enhancing?’
The Last Word
Mark Roseman, TLS, 10 August 2016
Cesarani seeks to challenge the popular sense that has arisen that the “Holocaust” was a single, coherent historical phenomenon rather than a post hoc label for complex, disparate and unpredictable events. “Final Solution” may have seemed a fitting title for the book not only because the “Final Solution of the Jewish Question” was an authentic Nazi term, rather than a post-war gloss, but also because its meaning evolved radically from the late 1930s to the early 1940s.
Alongside the general imponderable of how such a thing could happen at all, the Holocaust has long challenged us with its strange mixture of intent and improvisation. Hitler’s rhetoric in the 1920s is so charged with blood and destruction as to make Auschwitz appear simply Mein Kampf rendered in concrete and barbed wire. Yet viewed in another light, Nazi Jewish policies in peacetime were clearly utterly different from those of the wartime years. In the 1930s the goal was to uproot German Jews and dispatch them to whichever part of the globe they would go, beyond German reach. In the 1940s, it was to contain, concentrate and eliminate European Jewry. The shifting, often unanticipated, and improvised character of anti-Jewish policies is one of Cesarani’s principal themes.
Some Early Uses of the Term ‘Missing Link’
John Hawks, 9 August 2016
From the beginning, ‘missing link’ was a metaphor that cut both ways. Darwin claimed that species share common origins, and that demands that there must have once been intermediates between today’s species and their distant common ancestors. This was very easy to believe in cases where forms still exist today that are intermediates between two different species. Darwin used many such forms as arguments in favor of the general idea of evolutionary transformation. But for species like humans, there are no living forms that are apparent intermediates between us and our closest living relatives, the great apes.
During the initial years after Darwin’s Origin of Species, some of the more learned critics of Darwin used the term “missing link” in a derisive sense, noting that intermediates bridging the apparent gap between humans and other animals had never been found. But it was not only used by critics of Darwin, the term “missing link” was a widely-understood metaphor for something anthropologists should be seeking out; an evolutionary forerunner of humans that must have shared many characteristics of apes.
The End of the Beginning
Matthew Buckley, Boston Review, 9 August 2016
We have solid theoretical reasons to expect that new physics does exist—though in what form we cannot say with any certainty—and that the new physics exists at an energy scale that can be probed at the LHC… But these arguments suggested that new physics would be visible at the LHC already… We are already reaching a point where many of our cherished models, developed in the decades following the theoretical construction of the Higgs mechanism and before the discovery of the Higgs boson, seriously conflict with the data. If those models are to survive, discovery of a new particle ‘must’ happen soon.
Massive Attack’s Blue Lines Just Turned 25,
But It Still Feels Ahead of Its Time
Frank Guan, Vulture, 11 August 2016
It isn’t hard to draw a link between the unsettled spirit of Blue Lines and the biographies of its artists, all of whom are the children of recent British immigrants and nearly all of whom are black. (Del Naja is the son of an Italian immigrant.) The genius of the album lies in the casual precision with which it discovers lyrical and sonic counterparts for the experience of socially marginal second-generation immigrants — for their displacement and bewilderment, to be sure, but also for the curiosity that emerges from displacement and for the perceptiveness at the core of bewilderment. Unlike American hip-hop, which could and did draw from the deep wells of prior black American music and a rich, hugely influential, long-established, autonomous black culture, the hip-hop of black British artists had no native antecedents: Much as was the case with immigrants of color in Canada and continental Europe, their economic deprivation and social alienation was compounded by cultural invisibility. With its splicings of soul, reggae, and hip-hop (and its implicit reference to the blues), Blue Lines is clearly an extension of global black music, but it also marks the foundation of a new mode of music, black and British in equal measure, to represent a population that had never before had a serious presence in mainstream British culture
A Massive New Study Debunks A Widespread Theory
for Donald Trump’s Success
Max Ehrenfreund & Jeff Guo,
Washington Post, 12 August 2016
According to this new analysis, those who view Trump favorably have not been disproportionately affected by foreign trade or immigration, compared with people with unfavorable views of the Republican presidential nominee. The results suggest that his supporters, on average, do not have lower incomes than other Americans, nor are they more likely to be unemployed.
Yet while Trump’s supporters might be comparatively well off themselves, they come from places where their neighbors endure other forms of hardship. In their communities, white residents are dying younger, and it is harder for young people who grow up poor to get ahead.
Is Terrorism Getting Worse?
Margot Sanger-Katz, New York Times, 16 August 2016
In the United States, the terrorism threat is even smaller than it is in the West generally. With the exception of the huge Sept. 11 and Oklahoma City attacks, there is no year since 1970 when terrorism killed more than 50 people in the United States. Last year, the number was 44, according to the Global Terrorism Database. That means that terrorism typically kills about as many Americans as lightning strikes do.
The vast majority of terrorist events in the world occur in a handful of countries experiencing civil unrest. More than three-quarters of all terrorism fatalities over the last five years took place in six countries: Afghanistan, Iraq, Nigeria, Pakistan, Syria and Yemen.
The Tolerant Philosopher: Why Pierre Bayle
Is the Forgotten Figure of the Enlightenment
Anthony Gottleib, New Statesman, 13 August 2016
Pierre Bayle, a French thinker who died in Rotterdam in 1706, is the forgotten hero of the Enlightenment. His name sometimes rings a bell for historians of philosophy, but apart from them I cannot remember when I last met anyone who had heard of him. In the 18th century, however, Bayle’s admirers included Frederick the Great, Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin and Voltaire. They revered him for his defence of religious liberty and his genius for undermining conventional ideas. Voltaire said that the “immortal” Bayle was the greatest reasoner who ever set pen to paper.
Thomas Meaney, TLS, 3 August 2016
He begins by picking a quarrel with the ancient cynic Diogenes, who didn’t care what happened to his corpse and asked his followers to throw it to the dogs. For Diogenes to deliberately court this kind of end was saying something. The ancient Greeks tended to believe the ‘self’ of the person was contained in the body, not the insubstantial soul that peeled away from it in death (Achilles re-joined and won the Trojan War in part in order to avoid watching his friend Patrocles’s corpse be mauled by dogs). But for Laqueur there is a trans-historical truth that Diogenes cannot get around. ‘It appears to be impossible to live for long with the stark sophism of Diogenes, whatever one might believe’, he writes. Or as the literary scholar Robert Pogue Harrison has put it, ‘To be human means, above all, to bury’. For as long as there have been human cultures – even human settlements – we have buried our dead. Lacquer offers an intricate historical narrative about the place the dead occupy in our lives, but he also has an anthropological, unabashedly universal argument about how the dead have always mattered, often in recurring ways that are often already available in the present. Consider, for example, that many of the families of the victims of 9/11 could not begin any form of grieving until they had been reassured that they had obtained at least some trace, some set of molecules that once belonged to their loved one. Achilles would have understood.