The 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.
A Different Kind of Safe Space
Ted Gup, Chronicle of Higher Education, 30 August 2016
In my class, if students say something offensive, even remotely or overtly racist (the ‘overtly’ has yet to occur), then they must take ownership of their words, be prepared to defend them, and be willing to accept the storm that might follow. I may, if necessary, mediate, but I will neither raise the out-of-bounds flag nor come to anyone’s rescue. That is the nature of democracy and of free speech, which is itself a misnomer given that speech often comes with an exorbitant price tag.
Imposing limits on words both compromises art and undermines democratic principles. We who stand at the front of the class are, wittingly or not, modeling democracy. It is the meta-lesson of every class. How we conduct ourselves, what strictures we impose, what manner and methods we adopt, how we respond to controversy, insubordination, and challenge — all are part of a lesson that does not appear in any syllabus or learning objective, but its significance is greater than both. As every parent learns too late, the young absorb and replicate not merely what we say, but our demeanor, gestures, and conduct, for those express what we value most. We telegraph subliminally more than we imagine. If we behave as if words are to be feared, they surely will be.
I Spent Five Years With Some of Trump’s Biggest Fans.
Here’s What They Won’t Tell You.
Arlie Russell Hochschild, Mother Jones, September 2016
What the people I interviewed were drawn to was not necessarily the particulars of these theories. It was the deep story underlying them—an account of life as it feels to them. Some such account underlies all beliefs, right or left, I think. The deep story of the right goes like this:
You are patiently standing in the middle of a long line stretching toward the horizon, where the American Dream awaits. But as you wait, you see people cutting in line ahead of you. Many of these line-cutters are black—beneficiaries of affirmative action or welfare. Some are career-driven women pushing into jobs they never had before. Then you see immigrants, Mexicans, Somalis, the Syrian refugees yet to come. As you wait in this unmoving line, you’re being asked to feel sorry for them all. You have a good heart. But who is deciding who you should feel compassion for? Then you see President Barack Hussein Obama waving the line-cutters forward. He’s on their side. In fact, isn’t he a line-cutter too? How did this fatherless black guy pay for Harvard? As you wait your turn, Obama is using the money in your pocket to help the line-cutters. He and his liberal backers have removed the shame from taking. The government has become an instrument for redistributing your money to the undeserving. It’s not your government anymore; it’s theirs.
I checked this distillation with those I interviewed to see if this version of the deep story rang true. Some altered it a bit (‘the line-waiters form a new line’) or emphasized a particular point (those in back are paying for the line-cutters). But all of them agreed it was their story. One man said, ‘I live your analogy.’ Another said, ‘You read my mind.’
Between Rojava and Washington
Djene Bajalan, Jacobin, 15 September 2016
Despite these shortcomings, the achievements of the Rojava revolution are undeniable. The 2014 Rojava ‘Social Contract’ enshrined the principles of inter-ethnic cooperation, religious tolerance, popular democracy, and gender equality. Indeed, on the issue of gender equality, the Syrian Kurdish revolutionaries have made enormous strides.
While many so-called secular regimes throughout the Middle East have paid lip service to ‘women’s rights’, the PYD has enforced concrete measures to ensure the emancipation of women. The PYD’s decision-making bodies implement gender parity and executive positions are held by male and female co-leaders. The PYD’s military structure also includes an all-female division known as the Women’s Protection Units (YPJ). Women are active participants in the Rojava revolution, not passive observers.
For these reasons, despite its many shortcomings, the Rojava revolution is worthy of support from the political left, if only because it demolishes the myth that secular military dictatorships and authoritarian Islamist theocracies constitute the only political alternatives in the Middle East. Yet after two years of military and political success, the Rojava revolution is in danger.
On the Borders of Solidarity
Phillip Cole, Eurozine, 12 August 2016
The exercise of coercive power by a democratic state is made legitimate by the opportunities of those subject to that power to participate in political decision-making – those subject to the law have had the opportunity to shape that law. Any other exercise of power is illegitimate. Immigration controls are coercive laws enacted against people who have had no such opportunity, and therefore immigration controls are illegitimate. Of course, in a legitimate democracy we may end up being subjected to laws which we object to, but would-be immigrants are not on the losing side of a democratic process – they are excluded from that process altogether. That men wielded political power over women in the United Kingdom before 1918 was a profound injustice, as was the fact that the white population of South Africa exercised political power over the black population until 1994. And the injustice here was not the exclusion of those parties from the franchise, but the enactment of law and therefore coercive power over the excluded, with no opportunity for them to participate as equals in the formation of that law. And the scale of that injustice is profoundly accentuated when we realise that the purpose of those laws was to determine the political status of the excluded, to deprive them of political membership as such.
Genetic Engineering to Clash With Evolution
Brooke Borrel, Quanta Magazine, 8 September 2006
Gene drives can force a trait through a population, defying the usual rules of inheritance. A specific trait ordinarily has a 50-50 chance of being passed along to the next generation. A gene drive could push that rate to nearly 100 percent. The genetic dominance would then continue in all future generations. You want all the fruit flies in your lab to have light eyes? Engineer a drive for eye color, and soon enough, the fruit flies’ offspring will have light eyes, as will their offspring, and so on for all future generations. Gene drives may work in any species that reproduces sexually, and they have the potential to revolutionize disease control, agriculture, conservation and more. Scientists might be able to stop mosquitoes from spreading malaria, for example, or eradicate an invasive species.
The technology represents the first time in history that humans have the ability to engineer the genes of a wild population. As such, it raises intense ethical and practical concerns, not only from critics but from the very scientists who are working with it.
Merkel Doesn’t Blame the Voters
George Friedman, Geopolitical futures, 8 September 2016
But while this is becoming visible outside of the establishment parties, the establishment is oblivious that they are failing. In their minds, there have been minor difficulties that need to be worked out over time, and the increasing noise from outside their framework is first a nuisance and then a hindrance to their prudent management of the situation.
As the public becomes more alarmed and frustrated at the inability of the establishment parties to grasp that there is something terribly wrong, two things happen. First, the voters are blamed for their immaturity and there is increasing alarm that the irresponsibility of the public will disrupt the management of the system. Second, leaders arise who share or (in the case of politicians) exploit the increasing fear. The mainstream parties invent the idea that it is these new politicians, inappropriate by tenor and character of governing, who are creating a crisis. This is important: the perception is that the new politicians are creating the crisis, not the other way around.
This Small Indiana County Sends More People to Prison Than San Francisco and Durham NC Combined. Why?
Josh Keller & Adam Pearce,
New York Times, 2 September 2016
Just a decade ago, people in rural, suburban and urban areas were all about equally likely to go to prison. But now people in small counties are about 50 percent more likely to go to prison than people in populous counties.
The stark disparities in how counties punish crime show the limits of recent state and federal changes to reduce the number of inmates. Far from Washington and state capitals, county prosecutors and judges continue to wield great power over who goes to prison and for how long. And many of them have no interest in reducing the prison population…
The divide does not appear to be driven by changes in crime, which fell in rural and urban areas at roughly equal rates, according to the F.B.I. Instead, it reflects growing disagreement about how harshly crime should be punished, especially drivers of the criminal justice system like theft, drugs, weapons and drunken driving.
Taking Stock One Year After Refugees’ Arrival
Philipp Wittrock & Christina Elmer,
Spiegel Online, 2 September 2016
‘We can do it.’ These are the four words that are dividing Germany. It has now been exactly one year since Chancellor Angela Merkel announced her motto for overcoming the refugee crisis. Even though many of her critics can no longer stand to hear her ‘approach to tackling the problem’, as she recently described it in an interview with the Süddeutsche Zeitung, the chancellor isn’t backing down.
Germany has achieved a lot, Merkel says today, but there is also much left to be done. So where do we stand? What have we achieved? And where have we fallen short?
Charged With Murder,
But They Didn’t Kill Anyone – Police Did
Alison Flowers & Sarah Macaraeg,
Chicago Reader, 16 August 2016
Today, almost every state has some form of felony murder liability. The laws vary as to which felonies can give rise to murder charges and how directly the arrestee must be involved in the death in order to be charged. Many felony murder laws—including those in California, Pennsylvania, and Maryland—contain a separate rule that requires the killer to be a participant or ‘agent’ in the felony. Other states, such as New York and Kansas, have a ‘protected person’ rule that prevents an arrestee from being liable for the death of a co-arrestee.
But in Illinois and other states, the felony murder rule features an even more controversial component: If death is a foreseeable result of the crime, then a participant in the felony can be liable for any death—even if the bullets were fired by the police, and even if the victim is the accused’s partner.
Evidence Rebuts Chomsky’s Theory
of Language Learning
Paul Ibbotson & Michael Tomasello,
Scientific American, 7 September 2016
The idea that we have brains hardwired with a mental template for learning grammar – famously espoused by Noam Chomsky of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology – has dominated linguistics for almost half a century. Recently, though, cognitive scientists and linguists have abandoned Chomsky’s “universal grammar” theory in droves because of new research examining many different languages – and the way young children learn to understand and speak the tongues of their communities. That work fails to support Chomsky’s assertions.
The research suggests a radically different view, in which learning of a child’s first language does not rely on an innate grammar module. Instead the new research shows that young children use various types of thinking that may not be specific to language at all – such as the ability to classify the world into categories (people or objects, for instance) and to understand the relations among things. These capabilities, coupled with a unique human ability to grasp what others intend to communicate, allow language to happen. The new findings indicate that if researchers truly want to understand how children, and others, learn languages, they need to look outside of Chomsky’s theory for guidance.
Don’t Believe the Rumours.
Universal Grammar Is Alive and Well
Dan Milway, Medium, 10 September 2016
The picture of Universal Grammar’s history, as painted by the Scientific American article is one of Chomsky coming up with a nice theory of language based on a handful of English sentences and passing that theory down to the academics who accept it without question or debate. The academics, then, play around with his theory and make grander and more absurd claims, all without leaving the safety of their ivory towers. Meanwhile the real linguists are out in the world collecting data from languages all over the globe, data which is devastating to UG and therefore stifled by Chomsky and his acolytes, the generative linguists.
This picture is false on two counts. First, Chomsky and UG have always faced strong and vocal opposition. The philosophers and linguists who were Chomsky’s contemporaries in the 50’s and 60’s objected to the very notion that language could be used to scientifically investigate the mind. Many of his earliest students developed competing theories of grammar which are still worked on today. And that’s not even counting the linguists who largely agree with Chomsky’s picture of language but disagree with some of the technical details he proposes.
Second, far from being hostile to language data gathered by fieldwork (or experimental work, or corpus work) generative linguists often seek out new language data to test predictions made by their theories. Some generative linguists, such as Keren Rice and the late Ken Hale, are known not only for their contributions to generative linguistics but also for their commitment to fieldwork and advocacy on behalf of the marginalized communities in which they do/did their fieldwork. And the interest in a wide variety of languages extends beyond fieldworkers. A glance at the program for virtually any generative linguistics conference will demonstrate that. Because UG is such a solid theory, throwing language data at it doesn’t kill it, but makes it better.
Are We Really So Modern?
Adam Kirsch, New Yorker, 5 September 2016
As Gottlieb points out, much of the Western philosophy that still matters to us is the product of just two such eras: Athens in the fifth and fourth centuries B.C. and Western Europe in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries A.D. It is hard for us to comprehend how totally Western consciousness was transformed during the second of these two periods, precisely because we live in its aftermath. In just a few generations preceding it, every fixed point that had oriented the world for thousands of years began to wobble. The discovery of America destroyed established geography, the Reformation destroyed the established Church, and astronomy destroyed the established cosmos. Everything that educated people believed about reality turned out to be an error or, worse, a lie. It’s impossible to imagine what, if anything, could produce a comparable effect on us today. Even the discovery of alien life in the universe wouldn’t do it, since we have long learned to expect such a discovery, whereas medieval Europeans could never have anticipated the existence of America, or of electricity.
Votes of No Confidence
Jedediah Purdy, Bookforum, September 2006
An epistocracy is not a way out of politics, because it will always have a politics of its own. Who will set up the standards of knowledge? Which aspects of economics, or constitutional law, will be treated as uncontroversial? And unless the competency test focuses on highly apolitical areas like mathematics or the natural sciences (a possibility Brennan notes, although he prefers “basic facts” and “largely uncontested social scientific claims”), the people with the requisite knowledge will almost certainly be erudite hooligans, who care enough about politics and policy to know the ins and outs. Anyone who spends time with law professors and political theorists, who would likely be well represented on epistocratic councils, knows that they are not less partisan, or even less tribal, than others; they simply have more time to work on their arguments. In other words, epistocracy has the same problems as democracy, but lacks the countervailing virtue of treating people as equal citizens and the authors of their own laws.
Inside the Detention Industry
Phil Miller, New Humanist, 25 July 2016
Most of the staff are small cogs in a big machine but some play a central role in creating and shaping that machinery. The most striking finding from surveying LinkedIn was how many senior UK staff went to work in Australia, helping to set up that country’s controversial asylum system. At least ten UK detention centre managers were transferred to Australia between 2009 and 2011, when the country escalated its use of detention, partly in response to Tamil refugees fleeing Sri Lanka en masse by boat. Jane Healy, a refugee advocate in Sydney, told me that she has noticed “a high proportion of British ex-military in positions of authority” in Australia’s detention system.
When migration crosses borders, so does the detention industry and its staff, trapping displaced people wherever they turn. People try to paint Australia’s immigration system as more brutal than Britain’s. Sometimes it is. In reality, it is more of a mirror, reflecting what Britain has become. In April, a report emerged that suicide attempts in UK detention centres were at an all-time high.
Is Artificial Intelligence Permanently Inscrutable?
Aaron M Bornstein, Nautilus, 1 September 2016
Even governments are starting to show concern about the increasing influence of inscrutable neural-network oracles. The European Union recently proposed to establish a ‘right to explanation’, which allows citizens to demand transparency for algorithmic decisions. The legislation may be difficult to implement, however, because the legislators didn’t specify exactly what “transparency” means. It’s unclear whether this omission stemmed from ignorance of the problem, or an appreciation of its complexity.
In fact, some believe that such a definition might be impossible. At the moment, though we can know everything there is to know about what neural networks are doing—they are, after all, just computer programs—we can discern very little about how or why they are doing it.
Eighty Years of James Agee
Christopher Knapp, LA Review of Books,
1 September 2016
An early section headed “Money” gives a stark portrait of the structures that perpetuate rural poverty. He explains, for example, that Gudger owns almost nothing, renting his home, land, farming equipment, and all of his livestock from his landlord, Chester Boles. In plain, direct terms, Agee describes the cycle of debt, backbreaking labor, and repayment that leaves Gudger with only half of his crops from which to pay back “the rations money, plus interest, and his share of the fertilizer, plus interest, and such other debts, plus interest, as he may have incurred.” What remains, after settling doctors’ bills, are earnings that only in rare years amount to a positive number. Such collections of facts are among the most affecting and morally forceful parts of the book. That Agee reserves this moral force for his protagonists — Southern whites living in poverty — can’t be entirely excused by the narrowness of his original assignment. In one of the most active lynching states in the country, how hard would it have been, for example, to explicitly connect the scene with the startled couple to the broader context of their fear, or even to the casual, unrepentant racism he’s only just finished describing without comment in the preceding chapter.
A Critic’s Lonely Quest:
Revealing the Whole Truth About Mother Teresa
Kai Schultz, New York Times, 26 August 2016
Dr. Chatterjee worked as a foot soldier for a leftist political party in the late 1970s and early 1980s, while he was studying at Kolkata Medical College, campaigning and sleeping in nearby slums. During a year as an intern, he also regularly saw patients from one of the city’s oldest and ‘most dire’ red-light districts.
‘We used to see very serious abuse of women and children quite often’, he said, noting that the city was still struggling to absorb an influx of refugees after the civil war in what was East Pakistan, now Bangladesh.
‘I never even saw any nuns in those slums that I worked in’, he said. ‘I think it’s an imperialist venture of the Catholic Church against an Eastern population, an Eastern city, which has really driven horses and carriages through our prestige and our honor.’ ‘I just thought that this myth had to be challenged’, he added.
How DNA Could Store All the World’s Data
Andy Extance, Nature, 31 August 2016
It was Wednesday 16 February 2011, and Goldman was at a hotel in Hamburg, Germany, talking with some of his fellow bioinformaticists about how they could afford to store the reams of genome sequences and other data the world was throwing at them. He remembers the scientists getting so frustrated by the expense and limitations of conventional computing technology that they started kidding about sci-fi alternatives. ‘We thought, “What’s to stop us using DNA to store information”’
Then the laughter stopped. ‘It was a lightbulb moment’, says Goldman, a group leader at the European Bioinformatics Institute (EBI) in Hinxton, UK. True, DNA storage would be pathetically slow compared with the microsecond timescales for reading or writing bits in a silicon memory chip. It would take hours to encode data by synthesizing DNA strings with a specific pattern of bases, and still more hours to recover that information using a sequencing machine. But with DNA, a whole human genome fits into a cell that is invisible to the naked eye. For sheer density of information storage, DNA could be orders of magnitude beyond silicon — perfect for long-term archiving.
Checkmate For a Broken Republic:
On Benjamin and Brecht
Gavin Jacobson, New Statesman, 28 August 2016
It is obvious that Brecht’s poetry captivated Benjamin. It was Benjamin who first asked to meet Brecht, and who tirelessly hyped Brecht’s work, pitching it to journals as a literary agent might. Wizisla notes that unlike in Benjamin’s ‘ordinary’ style – that is to say, his own texts were composed without the invention of plot, or poetic devices such as meter or rhyme scheme – Benjamin ‘saw something original in the link between political intention and creative presentation to which Brecht aspired’.
But Brecht encountered in Benjamin, as Arendt described him, ‘the most important critic of the time’: someone who supported his efforts and recognised his originality within the exiles’ broken republic of letters. Benjamin was the first to encourage Brecht to amplify the political, anti-fascist core of his poetry. He was also a valued reader of the manuscripts that Brecht made available to him and a touchstone of knowledge and opinion who proved vital to his development as a poet and playwright.
Underneath the Darkness
Aaron Bady, Boston Review, 13 September 2016
As Makina crosses the border between Mexico and the United States, she passes through nine levels and challenges and her life, as it had been, is rubbed away, piece by piece. This, we could say, is Herrera’s vision of greater Mexico, a shifting and unsteady palimpsest of indigenous, Mexican, and norteamericano signs, rubbing like tectonic plates and signaling an apocalyptic rebirth. By the evocative and ambiguous end of the novel—which finally takes its leave of literary realism—Makina discovers an undiscovered country and is reborn. The first words of the novel (“I’m dead”) turn out to have been prophetic. But in this context of Herrera’s apocalyptic Mexica mystical text, Makina’s death is just the flip side of her rebirth: it might look like noir from here, but from the other side of the border, it looks like the Mexican creation story it also is.
Herrera’s achievement is that he mixes these genres in order to remake them: on the border, noir becomes mythology and mythology becomes noir, or both become something else altogether new. Between life and death, between nations, between persons: borders are the point where everything changes into whatever it isn’t. And so, while our cynical protagonist begins the novel laser-focused on the material of everyday life, the here and now is just the crust covering the open wound of the past, wounds which sometimes break open to reveal the bloody depths beneath.
Herrera’s book is anything but a faithful return to lost mysticism; his concern is with what the past can become, with what burying it can allow it to resurrect as.