My latest collection of recent essays and stories from around the web that have caught my eye and are worth plucking out to be re-read.
Stop calling everything ‘fake news’
Will Oremus, Slate, 6 December 2016
As the term has entered the national discourse, it has turned out to be a handy cudgel for people who want to criticize the media for a wide range of failings. First, some in the liberal and mainstream media began to carelessly blur the lines between fabricated news, conspiracy theories, and right-wing opinion by lumping them all under the fake news banner. When Trump tweeted that he had prevented a Ford plant from moving to Mexico, critics were quick to label it ‘fake news’. As it turned out, the tweet was misleading, but it was based in reality. Even if it were fabricated, a false claim by a politician isn’t “fake news.” It’s just a false claim—or a lie, if the falsehood was intentional. A subsequent tweet by Trump, based on an unsubstantiated report from the conspiracy site Infowars, prompted Quartz to call him ‘editor-in-chief of the fake news movement’. Fact-check: He isn’t.
Meanwhile, an academic’s list of ‘false, misleading, clickbait-y, and/or satirical “news” sources’ went viral, and many in the media framed it as an authoritative list of ‘fake news sites’. The list, compiled by Merrimack College communication professor Melissa Zimdars, presented actual fake news sites such as Abc.com.co alongside openly satirical sites such as the Onion and, most damagingly, conservative blogs such as Breitbart and even Red State, an influential source of political commentary…
Spying an opportunity, right-wingers stopped ignoring the fake news discussion and began to co-opt the phrase as a synonym for liberal bias. A Twitter search for the term “fake news” on Tuesday suggested that it has by now crossed over from a liberal rallying cry to a conservative one.
A short history of anti-democracy
Mick Hume, Spiked Review, November 2016
The middle-class horror at such radical ideas as universal male suffrage was not confined to conservatives. Liberal society also recoiled in fear. Amid the riotous agitation in the run-up to the 1867 reform act, liberal author George Eliot (real name Mary Ann Evans) published her novel Felix Holt, the Radical about the unrest that accompanied the first reform act of 1832 in a Midlands town. It is essentially a warning about the dangers of unleashing democracy when the uneducated masses can be misled by demagogues and political agents seeking to buy their vote with beer. Felix Holt, the alleged ‘radical’, is opposed to giving the vote to the nearby mining community, believing that ‘extension of suffrage… can never mean anything for [working men] but extension of boozing’. Instead, he wants a programme of education and moral improvement to make the masses respectable citizens worthy of society. Such was what passed for ‘radical’ views in the liberal England of the mid-19th century.
More telling was the attitude towards democracy espoused by John Stuart Mill MP, the greatest British philosopher of the Victorian age. To those of us who defend freedom of speech against all-comers today, Mill is a hero of history, a giant on whose shoulders we try to stand, his masterwork On Liberty (1859) an unmatched source of inspiration. Yet the flipside of Mill’s defence of individual liberty was his fear of ‘the tyranny of the majority’. While accepting the principle of democratic reform, Mill essentially shared the prejudice of Plato. He wrote in 1835 that ‘The best government (need it be said?) must be the government of the wisest, and these must always be a few’. Mill later recalled how his wife Harriet Taylor (a champion of women’s suffrage) and he had growing doubts about universal democracy because they ‘dreaded the ignorance and especially the selfishness and brutality of the mass’.
The death strip at the Turkish-Syrian border
Riham Alkousaa & Maximilian Popp,
Spiegel Online, 7 December 2016
The German government claims that the Turkey deal stemmed the refugee crisis. In truth, though, the crisis has just been diverted. The wall on the German border that Chancellor Angela Merkel wanted to avoid at all costs has been erected instead by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on his country’s border with Syria: A three-meter (nearly 10 feet) tall cement barricade that extends for hundreds of kilometers and prevents refugees from entering the country. People may no longer be drowning in the Aegean Sea, where the number of boats embarking from the Turkish coast to the Greek islands dropped significantly as a result of the deal. Instead they are dying at the Turkish-Syrian border.
How Trump took middle America
Gary Younge, Guardian, 16 November 2016
For the past six months, the idea of the ‘real people’ out there has been the preoccupation of most journalists. First during Britain’s EU referendum campaign, and then as Donald Trump ran away with the Republican primaries, commentators opined from the metropolis while reporters ventured to the parishes to anthropologise the white working class. Editors charged their employees with finding out why ‘they’ are so angry; what has made ‘them’ so disaffected; what is driving ‘their’ erratic electoral behaviour.
But the real problem is baked into the premise: ‘they’ are not ‘us’. ‘We’ don’t know ‘them’. ‘Their’ views are not often heard in newsrooms and ‘they’ know it. And so the journalist swoops in for a day or two, armed with polls, reports and expectations and finds the angry and disaffected people they are looking for. The reporters question their subjects on the holy trinity of identities – race, sex, and class, but only one at a time – and then they find some local colour (but rarely people of colour) and hurry back to the office.
The year in faux-protests
Sarah Jones, The New Republic, 14 December 2016
A moment of silence for 2016, the year liberals failed to stop an authoritarian from becoming president. Too often, instead of offering voters progressive solutions for their grievances, the Democratic Party gave us a campaign deeply saturated in superficial celebrity and pop culture. As the party dithered, its supporters grasped for an appropriate response to Trump. They didn’t come up with much; but they did buy a hell of a lot of branded swag. This was the year that many liberals turned to forms of protest that were convenient and often social media–based, but ultimately ineffectual: Drumpf hats, safety pins, and thinkpieces about Harry Potter. They’re each deeply narcissistic gestures that put the individual front and center.
By the numbers: Barack Obama’s contribution
to the decline of American democracy
John Weeks, Open Democracy, 26 November 2016
As America entered the twenty-first century, four decades of increasing inequality caused falling working class incomes and stagnation for the middle classes. Loss of hope in fulfilling ‘the American dream’ increasingly undermined faith in US democracy. In 1932 an analogous crisis brought Franklin Roosevelt to the presidency to execute economic and social reforms that arrested the growth of inequality and, facilitated working class power through trade unions. In doing so Roosevelt ‘saved US capitalism’.
In 2008 a similar task fell to Barack Obama, to propose and implement the reforms that would preserve popular support for globalization capitalism. America’s first African-American president chose instead to intensify the economic forces undermining that support.
Put away your machine learning hammer,
criminality is not a nail
Katherine Bailey, Backchannel, 29 November 2016
Earlier this month, researchers claimed to have found evidence that criminality can be predicted from facial features. In ‘Automated Inference on criminality using Face Images’, Xiaolin Wu and Xi Zhang describe how they trained classifiers using various machine learning techniques that were able to distinguish photos of criminals from photos of non-criminals with a high level of accuracy.
The result these researchers found can be interpreted differently depending on what assumptions you bring to interpreting it, and what question you’re interested in answering. The authors simply assume there’s no bias in the criminal justice system, and thus that the criminals they have photos of are a representative sample of the criminals in the wider population (including those who have never been caught or convicted for their crimes). The question they’re interested in is whether there’s a correlation between facial features and criminality. And given their assumption, they take their result as evidence that there is such a correlation.
But suppose instead you start from the assumption that there isn’t any relationship between facial features and criminality. In place of this question, you are interested in whether there’s bias in the criminal justice system. Then you’ll take Wu and Zhang’s result as evidence that there is such bias — ie, that the criminal justice system is biased against people with certain facial features, thus explaining the difference between photos of convicted criminals and photos of people from the general population.
Why the Nazis studied American race laws for inspiration
James Q Whitman, Aeon, 13 December 2016
Why would the Nazis have felt the need to take lessons in racism from anybody? Why, most especially, would they have looked to the US? Whatever its failings, after all, the US is the home of a great liberal and democratic tradition. Moreover, the Jews of the US – however many obstacles they might have confronted in the early 20th century – never faced state-sponsored persecution. And, in the end, Americans made immense sacrifices in the struggle to defeat Hitler.
But the reality is that, in the early 20th century, the US, with its vigorous and creative legal culture, led the world in racist lawmaking. That was not only true of the Jim Crow South. It was true on the national level as well. The US had race-based immigration law, admired by racists all over the world; and the Nazis, like their Right-wing European successors today (and so many US voters) were obsessed with the dangers posed by immigration.
The US stood alone in the world for the harshness of its anti-miscegenation laws, which not only prohibited racially mixed marriages, but also threatened mixed-race couples with severe criminal punishment. Again, this was not law confined to the South. It was found all over the US: Nazi lawyers carefully studied the statutes, not only of states such as Virginia, but also states such as Montana. It is true that the US did not persecute the Jews – or at least, as one Nazi lawyer remarked in 1936, it had not persecuted the Jews ‘so far’ – but it had created a host of forms of second-class citizenship for other minority groups, including Chinese, Japanese, Filipinos, Puerto Ricans and Native Americans, scattered all over the Union and its colonies. American forms of second-class citizenship were of great interest to Nazi policymakers as they set out to craft their own forms of second-class citizenship for the German Jewry.
The challenge of consciousness
Riccardo Manzotti & Tim Parks,
New York Review Daily, 8 December 2016
Manzotti: Well, consider this: If we didn’t know that human beings experience the world, that they feel things, would we be able to deduce it from what we know about neurophysiology? Really, no. There is nothing about the behavior of neurons to suggest that they are any different with respect to consciousness than, say, liver cells or red blood cells. They are cells doing what cells do best, namely, keeping entropy low by generating flows of ions such as sodium, potassium, chloride, and calcium and releasing neurotransmitters as a consequence. All of that is wonderful but far removed from the fact that I experience a light blue color when I watch the morning sky. That is, it’s not easy to see how the physical activity of the neurons explains my experience of the sky, let alone a process like thinking.
Parks: So we might say that consciousness is the word we use to refer to the fact that rather than just physiological activity, mute like any other physical event—the sky in the morning, a cloud crossing the sun – we have experience, we have a feeling of that event?
The color of consciousness
Riccardo Manzotti & Tim Parks,
New Work Review Daily, 8 December 2016
Parks: So while in our first dialogue you suggested that consciousness is a challenge for our present scientific model of reality, in that nothing in science predicts the existence of consciousness, now it seems you are going a step further and suggesting that consciousness is a kind of battleground between science and the lay community—with science telling us that conscious experience, color for example, is a brain-based illusion, while for the layman it is reality itself.
Manzotti: Right. You could say that going right back to its origins, science has struggled to keep the lay observer at bay, since his experience—in this case color—stains the purity of science’s mathematical description of reality (remember that for Plato, and indeed for Newton, a natural law was a divine law). “Our perception of reality,” says Eagleman, “has less to do with what’s happening out there, and more to do with what’s happening inside our brain.” In short, our experience is a kind of hallucination. The world is colorless. The yellowness of your banana is a fantasy. More than that, you…
Ezra Glinter, Boston Review, 12 December
It seems inevitable now that a Jewish state means a Hebrew-speaking country in the Middle East. It was not always so obvious. In his 2007 novel The Yiddish Policemen’s Union, Michael Chabon describes an alternative history in which Israel was destroyed immediately after it was founded, leaving a Yiddish-speaking territory in Alaska as the world’s only Jewish state. Fast-forward to the present day and the settlement in Sitka is still home to a Jewish micronation, the setting for Chabon’s noir-flavored detective novel.
The idea of a Yiddish colony in Alaska might seem outlandish, but since the early nineteenth century, Jewish activists dreamed of establishing a country somewhere in the world, and not necessarily in Palestine. Even Alaska was once on the table. In 1940 the United States Department of the Interior proposed the territory as “a haven for Jewish refugees from Germany and other areas in Europe.” The scheme was never implemented, to the detriment of European Jews who were at that moment being murdered in the Holocaust. But it was just one episode in the long history of Territorialism, a movement whose aspirations for Jewish statehood stretched from Alaska to Australia, Siberia to Suriname.
Black lives mattered
Ari Kelman, TLS, 7 December 2016
Sinha has produced a study that may prove as useful for contemporary students of the past as the mythologized Harriet Beecher Stowe was for interested onlookers approximately a century ago. At that time, the nation’s wounds from the Civil War were still healing; it was a process of reconciliation that demanded collective amnesia as often as it did collective memorialization. It was better, many Americans believed, to forget the root causes of the war – especially the centrality of slavery to the nation’s political economy – than to begin fighting anew. The story of abolition needed the right protagonist: a white woman; a loyal wife, mother, sister and daughter; a relatively safe hero who could reassure audiences about the respectability of the movement while playing down its radicalism. But today the unfulfilled promise of Reconstruction festers like an open sore. Dreams deferred threaten to become dreams forever denied. It may now be time to reconsider how we remember the road to disunion and the destruction of slavery. In this context, Manisha Sinha’s book offers us a glimpse of a usable past: a diverse and inclusive story of abolitionism.
Why schools should not teach general critical-thinking skills
Carl Hendrick, Aeon, 5 December 2016
Since the early 1980s, however, schools have become ever more captivated by the idea that students must learn a set of generalised thinking skills to flourish in the contemporary world – and especially in the contemporary job market. Variously called ‘21st-century learning skills’ or ‘critical thinking’, the aim is to equip students with a set of general problem-solving approaches that can be applied to any given domain; these are lauded by business leaders as an essential set of dispositions for the 21st century. Naturally, we want children and graduates to have a set of all-purpose cognitive tools with which to navigate their way through the world. It’s a shame, then, that we’ve failed to apply any critical thinking to the question of whether any such thing can be taught.
The great AI awakening
Gideon Lewis Krauss, New York Times, 14 December 2016
It is, in fact, three overlapping stories that converge in Google Translate’s successful metamorphosis to A.I. — a technical story, an institutional story and a story about the evolution of ideas. The technical story is about one team on one product at one company, and the process by which they refined, tested and introduced a brand-new version of an old product in only about a quarter of the time anyone, themselves included, might reasonably have expected. The institutional story is about the employees of a small but influential artificial-intelligence group within that company, and the process by which their intuitive faith in some old, unproven and broadly unpalatable notions about computing upended every other company within a large radius. The story of ideas is about the cognitive scientists, psychologists and wayward engineers who long toiled in obscurity, and the process by which their ostensibly irrational convictions ultimately inspired a paradigm shift in our understanding not only of technology but also, in theory, of consciousness itself.
Meet Chewie, the biggest Australopithecus on record
Ewan Callaway, Nature, 14 December 2016
The sound was more like a squish than a thud, as the tall male australopith strode across the East African savannah. A volcanic eruption had left a patina of grey ash underfoot, while rainstorms that followed transformed the earth into wet cement. Squish, squish. Four smaller individuals walked not far behind. Squish, squish, squish. Later, ash rained down from the sky again, covering their tracks for 3.66 million years.
The first traces of this journey — tracks from three individuals that are the oldest-known footprints of any ancient human relative — were discovered in the 1970s in northern Tanzania by the anthropologist Mary Leakey and her team1. Now, 40 years later, researchers have found more hominin footprints at the world-famous site, called Laetoli. They comprise tracks from two more individuals, including those of a man who would have weighed 48 kilograms and stood 1.65 metres tall, larger than any other Australopithecus in the fossil record. Researchers have named him Chewie, after the 2-metre-tall Star Wars character Chewbacca. (The Swahili word for leopard, chui, is also pronounced in a similar way, they note).
Mexico: The cauldron of modernism
J Hoberman, New York Review Daily, 12 December 2016
In 1929, the Surrealist poet Paul Éluard did away with the United States. In a map of the world attributed to him that year, the American republic (except for a giant Alaska) has been subsumed by Labrador in the north and a sprawling Mexico in the south.
The image of Mexico as the center of the new world—and as what André Breton called “the surrealist country par excellence”—is a take-away from the exhibition “Paint the Revolution: Mexican Modernism 1910-1950,” now showing at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Just as Éluard’s map can be read as an early polemic against Eurocentrism, so “Paint the Revolution” presents a Mexican response to European art that, at least up until World War II, was equal to and in some regards stronger than that of North America.
Finding North America’s lost medieval city
Annalee Newitz, Ars Technica, 13 December 2016
At the city’s apex in 1100, the population exploded to as many as 30 thousand people. It was the largest pre-Columbian city in North America, bigger than London or Paris at the time. Its colorful wooden homes and monuments rose along the eastern side of the Mississippi, eventually spreading across the river to St. Louis. One particularly magnificent structure, known today as Monk’s Mound, marked the center of downtown. It towered 30 meters over an enormous central plaza and had three dramatic ascending levels, each covered in ceremonial buildings. Standing on the highest level, a person speaking loudly could be heard all the way across the Grand Plaza below. Flanking Monk’s Mound to the west was a circle of tall wooden poles, dubbed Woodhenge, that marked the solstices.
Despite its greatness, the city’s name has been lost to time. Its culture is known simply as Mississippian. When Europeans explored Illinois in the 17th century, the city had been abandoned for hundreds of years. At that time, the region was inhabited by the Cahokia, a tribe from the Illinois Confederation. Europeans decided to name the ancient city after them, despite the fact that the Cahokia themselves claimed no connection to it.
Centuries later, Cahokia’s meteoric rise and fall remain a mystery. It was booming in 1050, and by 1400 its population had disappeared, leaving behind a landscape completely geoengineered by human hands. Looking for clues about its history, archaeologists dig through the thick, wet, stubborn clay that Cahokians once used to construct their mounds. Buried beneath just a few feet of earth are millennia-old building foundations, trash pits, the cryptic remains of public rituals, and in some places, even, graves.
The case against dark matter
Natalie Wolchover, Quanta Magazine, 29 November 2016
For 80 years, scientists have puzzled over the way galaxies and other cosmic structures appear to gravitate toward something they cannot see. This hypothetical “dark matter” seems to outweigh all visible matter by a startling ratio of five to one, suggesting that we barely know our own universe. Thousands of physicists are doggedly searching for these invisible particles.
But the dark matter hypothesis assumes scientists know how matter in the sky ought to move in the first place. This month, a series of developments has revived a long-disfavored argument that dark matter doesn’t exist after all. In this view, no missing matter is needed to explain the errant motions of the heavenly bodies; rather, on cosmic scales, gravity itself works in a different way than either Isaac Newton or Albert Einstein predicted.
Fairfax County, USA
Matt Karp, Jacobin, 28 November 2016
Their attitude toward working-class Americans tends to take two forms. On the one hand, a growing contempt for the (white) workers who have slowly drifted away from the Democratic Party; on the other, an essentially philanthropic if not paternalistic concern for ‘the most vulnerable’ (nonwhite) workers who ostensibly remain within the Democratic camp.
This has given us an elite liberal discourse that grows eloquent about questions of ‘privilege’ and ‘empathy’, but cannot seem to imagine a politics of power and solidarity. It has given us a liberalism that adores means-testing and looks askance at universal goods — not because universal goods are too expensive, but because they might benefit someone who isn’t deservingly deprived.
The Clinton campaign carried this brand of liberalism faithfully forward. It represented the apotheosis of a Democratic Party leadership that primarily envisions the working class as a downtrodden group in need of help, rather than a sleeping giant in need of organization. A leadership that views politics as a room where clever experts hash out benevolent policies for the neediest, rather than a field of mass struggle in which everybody’s basic welfare is at stake. A leadership that may be genuinely tolerant, inclusive, and compassionate, but whose own class blinders make it almost impossible for them to think about progressive politics in terms of collective self-interest.