The latest (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.
How the education gap is tearing politics apart
David Runciman, Guardian, 5 October 2016
The contest between the educated and the less educated is different. Many of the safeguards that have been put in place to bypass popular politics – above all, the authority that now resides in central banks – have had the effect of empowering a new class of experts, for whom education is a prerequisite of entry into the elite. These are not just the bankers, but the lawyers, the doctors, the civil servants, the technicians, the pundits, the academics. Not all of the educated are winners in this world, but almost all of the winners are educated. It gives the impression that knowledge has become a proxy for influence.
When Gove suggested that the experts should not be trusted because they have a vested interest in what they are saying, that was his point: once knowledge becomes a prerequisite of power, then it no longer speaks for itself. It appears to speak for the worldview of the people who possess it. At that point it ceases to be knowledge and simply becomes another mark of privilege.
The ruthlessly effective rebranding of Europe’s new far right
Sasha Pulakow-Suransky, Guardian, 1 November 2016
These parties have built a coherent ideology and steadily chipped away at the establishment parties’ hold on power by pursuing a new and devastatingly effective electoral strategy. They have made a very public break with the symbols of the old right’s past, distancing themselves from skinheads, neo-Nazis and homophobes. They have also deftly co-opted the causes, policies and rhetoric of their opponents. They have sought to outflank the left when it comes to defending a strong welfare state and protecting social benefits that they claim are threatened by an influx of freeloading migrants.
They have effectively claimed the progressive causes of the left – from gay rights to women’s equality and protecting Jews from antisemitism – as their own, by depicting Muslim immigrants as the primary threat to all three groups. As fear of Islam has spread, with their encouragement, they have presented themselves as the only true defenders of western identity and western liberties – the last bulwark protecting a besieged Judeo-Christian civilisation from the barbarians at the gates. These parties have steadily filled an electoral vacuum left open by social democratic and centre-right parties, who ignored voters’ growing anger over immigration – some of it legitimate, some of it bigoted – or simply waited too long to address it.
It’s time to release the real history of the 1953 Iran coup
Malcolm Byrne, Politico Magazine, 12 October 2016
Specifically, the State Department is declining to publish the relevant volume in its venerable series, Foreign Relations of the United States (FRUS), the ‘official documentary historical record’ of U.S. foreign policy, according to the State Department’s web site. The series has already endured one major public scandal over its Iran coverage. In 1989, the State Department published a volume on the early 1950s that deliberately airbrushed out any trace of American and British authorship of the coup.
Scholars called it a fraud, and Congress was sufficiently outraged to pass legislation requiring FRUS to present a ‘thorough, accurate, and reliable documentary record’ of American policy. The State Department Historian’s Office promised a make-up volume, which it painstakingly compiled several years ago and expected to publish in 2013. In other words, as the Department’s own historical advisory committee noted in its latest annual report, it is finished and ready to go. But it has yet to appear.
It really wasn’t Merkel
Philip Faigle, Karsten Polke-Majewsk & Sascha Venohr
Zeit Online, 11 October 2016
A question is dividing the country: Did Merkel invite hundreds of thousands of refugees to Germany in September of 2015? The debate surrounding the issue has cast a shadow over Merkel’s political future, boosted the right-wing populist Alternative for Germany party in several state elections and poisoned the political climate to such a degree that politicians are routinely insulted as ‘traitors to their people’, even during the recent Day of German Unity celebrations in Dresden.
Those who hold the chancellor responsible for the huge influx of refugees who arrived in Germany late last year point to three events. The first is Merkel’s statement that ‘we can do it’ first uttered during her traditional summer press conference on Aug. 31, 2015. The second is the famous selfie showing Merkel with a refugee, taken during her visit to a hostel in Berlin on Sept. 10. Third, and most important, was Merkel’s decision on Sept 5 to accept thousands of refugees who had set out to walk from Keleti Station in Budapest to Germany.
The trio of welcoming gestures came within the space of just two weeks. Were they enough to trigger a vast wave of refugees? Now, just over a year later, data has become available that can at least partly answer that question. And it shows that the Merkel effect, if there was one at all, can hardly be measured.
There is a blindspot in AI research
Kate Crawfoprd and Ryan Calo, Nature, 13 October 2016
‘People worry that computers will get too smart and take over the world, but the real problem is that they’re too stupid and they’ve already taken over the world.’ This is how computer scientist Pedro Domingos sums up the issue in his 2015 book The Master Algorithm. Even the many researchers who reject the prospect of a ‘technological singularity’ – saying the field is too young – support the introduction of relatively untested AI systems into social institutions…
AI will not necessarily be worse than human-operated systems at making predictions and guiding decisions. On the contrary, engineers are optimistic that AI can help to detect and reduce human bias and prejudice. But studies indicate that in some current contexts, the downsides of AI systems disproportionately affect groups that are already disadvantaged by factors such as race, gender and socio-economic background.
Today’s immigrants are no different
than your immigrant ancestors
Tyler Anbinder, History News Network, 30 October 2016
Many believe that today’s immigrants are more culturally isolated than those from the past. Previous generations of immigrants had to learn English and assimilate, runs this argument. They could not ‘press two for Spanish’ or use satellite TV or the Internet to isolate themselves from American culture.
Yet Irish, German, Italian, Slavic, Scandinavian, and eastern European Jewish immigrants were just as isolated in their ethnic enclaves in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries as today’s immigrants are in theirs. New York’s Kleindeutschland was so German, bragged one of its immigrant residents in the 1850s, that one could hardly tell it apart from Stuttgart. Half a century later, adult Italian immigrants rarely learned much English. ‘I didn’t need it’, one New Yorker explained. ‘Everywhere I lived, or worked, or fooled around there were only Italians…. I had to learn some Sicilian, though.’ When pundits complain that today’s immigrants don’t assimilate like those from the past, they are harking back to a golden era of assimilation that never actually existed.
What a liberal sociologist learned from spending
five years in Trump’s America
Brad Plumer, Vox, 25 October 2016
There’s something hugely important to them that many liberals can’t see. And that something is that they feel like almost like a minority group, forgotten and set aside, displaced. They feel their cultural beliefs are denigrated by the culture at large. They feel that they’re seen as rednecks, that they live in a region that’s being discredited. Many of them are deeply devout, but they see the culture at large becoming more secular. And then they see economically that this trapdoor that used to only affect black people and people one class below them is now opening and gobbling up them and their children too.
So altogether it makes them feel like a forgotten tribe. ‘Strangers in their own land’ is a phrase that kept recurring to me as I spent time there.
David A Ball, The Nation, 2 November 2016
Most serious students of Louverture’s life, including CLR James, have acknowledged the man’s weaknesses. They have criticized the foolhardiness that led him to challenge Bonaparte as boldly as he did, and condemned the constraints he imposed on the freed slaves in his attempt to restart the plantation economy. But Girard’s interpretation is harsher. While trying to maintain a distanced position, he ultimately judges Louverture to be a ‘political shape-shifter’ who took on many roles, including that of revolutionary liberator, but whose loyalty lay above all with himself and his family.
The interpretation is not only ungenerous, but seriously overestimates the extent to which Louverture actually controlled events. He was by any account an extraordinarily talented man, but it is worth remembering what Tolstoy wrote in War and Peace: ‘The historians provided cunningly devised proofs of the foresight and genius of the generals, who of all the blind instruments of history were the most enslaved and involuntary.’ Rarely have the instruments of history been as blind as in the bewildering chaos into which the Haitian Revolution frequently descended.
Jeff Love & Michael Meng,
The Philosophical Salon, 9 October 2016
The genuinely and fearsomely democratic nature of the current presidential contest lies in its disregard for the norms of American democratic politics as they have been worked out over a very long period. Indeed, this presidential contest brings out the radical and fragile nature of democracy itself. The commitment to open political contest seems to devolve into the most extraordinary risk of all – that democracy may be abolished or that the openness of the democratic contest gives the upper hand to those who would undermine it, vulgarizing the process, if not openly profaning it as well. Unfortunately, the latter claim forces one to accept limitations on democracy; it expresses the paradox described in rather different terms by Chantal Mouffe as the undemocratic institution of democracy.
Samuel Moyn, The Nation, 2 November 2016
Psychoanalysis once served as a starting point across the humanities and social sciences, to say nothing of academic psychology. The abandonment of Freud’s speculative penchant has largely meant a return to positivistic theories of human nature. People, in this conventional view, are rational political and economic actors, knowledgeable about their own interests, free to choose them, and – as a default at least – trustworthy in their pursuit. Rational humanity finds itself once again enthroned, its idiosyncrasies sometimes acknowledged as requiring modest tweaks and technocratic palliatives, as if our world did not undermine that optimism at every turn.
Our ongoing history – not least this year’s presidential election – has proven the insufficiency of such approaches. But even beyond today, the intricacy of our personal worlds, and the upheavals of our social and political ones, will not permit such doctrines to rule for much longer. Their intellectual replacements may not resemble psychoanalysis exactly, but a renewed struggle against this view of human rationality – a struggle that no one did more than Freud to sponsor – can provide future inspiration.
CRISPR deployed to tackle sickle cell anaemia
Heidi Ledford, Nature, 12 October 2016
A mutation in a single DNA letter causes a painful and debilitating disease known as sickle-cell anaemia. Researchers have wrestled with this illness for more than 65 years, and have now added CRISPR–Cas9 gene editing to their armoury.
In a paper published 12 October in Science Translational Medicine1, researchers reported some success in correcting the mutation in mice, though they concede that human applications are still years away. The efficiency of the process is also slightly too low for practical use, cautions author Jacob Corn, a biochemist at the University of California, Berkeley. But the advance – and other recent efforts – has given Corn hope that the first treatment to address the cause of sickle-cell anaemia could be only a few years away. ‘We now finally may have some paths to address the cause of the disease rather than the symptoms’, he says.
The deflationary mind
David Sessions, Jacobin, 27 October 2016
The deflated intellectual worldview of the 1990s has apparently left one of our most erudite intellectuals with nothing to offer but empty, cranky clichés. Political hope, whether it belongs to the workers of the twentieth century or to the precariat of the twenty-first, represents nothing more than the childish delusions of those demanding heaven on earth. Never one to bother with the particulars of history, Lilla cannot see how often the achievement of the most basic and realistic political goals depended on the credible threat of utopian revolution. Radicalism has so often been the byproduct of realism.
When the world looked away as Jews died in Europe
History New Network, 30 October 2016
The Jewish underground had smuggled Karski -codenamed Withold – into the Warsaw ghetto. Then it snuck him, disguised as a Ukrainian guard, into Izbica Lubelska, a concentration-transit camp for Jews in Eastern Poland. With the accuracy and coldness of a camera lens, Karski described to Roosevelt the terrible atrocities he had witnessed. According to his memoir and my interviews with him, Karski told the president: ‘I am convinced that there is no exaggeration in the accounts of the plight of the Jews. Our underground authorities are absolutely sure that the Germans are out to exterminate the entire Jewish population of Europe.’
After stalling Sweden for five months, the State Department made a face-saving counterproposal: The United States would accept the Swedish plan only if it would include among the 20,000 Jewish children some Norwegian, non-Jewish orphans. The United States government, in fact, was worried about an anti-Semitic American outcry – our soldiers are dying just to save Jews.
Giant genetic map shows life’s hidden links
Veronique Greenwood, Quanta Magazine, 25 October 2016
It’s a curious fact of biology: In yeast, only one in five genes is essential. If any of the approximately 1,200 critical genes are destroyed (out of 6,000), the result is death. Remove one of the others, and the yeast soldiers on.
The same is not always true, however, if a pair of nonessential genes is removed – sometimes, death comes quickly. In these cases, it’s likely that the genes have similar roles. They might both take out the cell’s garbage, for instance, or fix damaged DNA. The loss of one might not be deadly – the other could pick up the slack. But the loss of both is catastrophic.
Destined to disappear
Susan Pedersen, London Review of Books, 20 October 2016
International relations was supposed to figure out how to preserve white supremacy in a multiracial and increasingly interdependent world. Segregation and Jim Crow had done the trick at home, where non-white populations were in the minority, but how could white America govern its newly annexed and overwhelmingly non-white territories without losing its republican soul? A few white scholars thought the task impossible. Indeed, one of the most famous – John Burgess, founder of Columbia’s School of Political Science and of the Political Science Quarterly – opposed President McKinley’s imperial adventuring precisely because it threatened the democratic institutions he thought suited to ‘Teutonic’ peoples alone. ‘American Indians, Asiatics and Africans cannot properly form any active, directive part of the political population which shall be able to produce modern political institutions,’ he warned. Unless it wanted to go the way of Rome, America should leave empire alone.
Most American political scientists disagreed. The Wilsonian moment gave them the chance to prove their new field’s worth. True, there were those, like the repellent T. Lothrop Stoddard (PhD Harvard 1916), who met anti-imperialist appeals with hysterical jeremiads about the threat to white supremacy; and in the Year of Trump, we shouldn’t be surprised that Stoddard’s incendiary trilogy – The Rising Tide of Colour (1920), The New World of Islam (1921), Revolt against Civilisation (1922) – proved wildly popular. But the bulk of the profession – what Vitalis calls the hump of the bell curve – were confident that they could develop institutions that would enable non-white races to progress without upsetting fundamental hierarchies. Their racial paternalism dovetailed perfectly with the work of the new League of Nations, which was building an oversight regime that would guarantee the ‘well-being and development’ of colonised peoples while keeping them in imperial hands.
Treasure trove of ancient human footprints found near volcano
Michael Greshko, National Geographic, 10 October 2016
The Engare Sero site – and the researchers who excavated it – owe a great deal to Ol Doinyo Lengai, the volcano that looms over Lake Natron. The 7,650-foot-tall peak, known for its bizarrely thin, silvery lava, is a place of pilgrimage for the pastoralist Maasai, who travel there to entreat their god Engai for rain, cattle, and children.
Fittingly, the modern pilgrimage site also captured the wanderings of ancient humans. Liutkus-Pierce and her team think that the ash-rich mud containing the footprints originally washed off Ol Doinyo Lengai’s flanks, making its way downhill to form the mudflats.
In a matter of hours to days, the mud’s surface dried out, preserving the prints in a cracked crust. Another flow of debris then buried the footprints at least 10,000 to 12,000 years ago, entombing them for millennia.
Reinventing linguistics – again
Tecumseh Fitch, Inference Review, September 2016
Noam Chomsky is one of the most influential – and controversial – intellectuals of our time, and his writings have had enormous impact in linguistics, cognitive science, philosophy of mind, and political discourse. If the breadth of these contributions is remarkable, the depth of his insights in each of these fields is formidable and daunting. This scope, combined with the fact that much of his scholarly writing is highly technical, sometimes makes the unity of his thinking difficult to discern. Indeed, until I read this short and accessible volume, I always found it difficult to reconcile Chomsky the linguist/philosopher with Chomsky the political critic – his focus on innate limitations in language and mind seemed at odds with his steadfast political championing of individual freedom against oppressive forces. This recent book, in refreshingly clear if sometimes still challenging prose, provides the answer, and reveals an underlying unity in Chomsky’s perspective and thought on these topics.
The fossil that rewrote human prehistory
Jason Heaton, Travis Rayne Pickering & Dominic Stratford, 19 September 2016
At the time, the only other example of an ape-man was the “Taung Child” skull. Due to its developmentally young age, the scientific community had been reluctant to embrace the fossil as a legitimate human ancestor, because the bones of juvenile apes and humans look more alike than their adult counterparts.
Eighty years ago, on September 19, 1936, Broom published his findings, which would reshape our knowledge of our earliest ancestors. The fossils began to suggest that Africa was the ancestral homeland of our lineage, and not Europe or Asia as was previously believed. Now called the ‘Cradle of Humankind’, the rolling hills between Johannesburg and Pretoria have since advanced our knowledge far beyond Broom’s initial revelation and continue to further academic knowledge to this day.