The 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.
Scholars behind bars
Jonathan Zimmerman, New York Review of Books, 23 February 2017
Americans also need to acknowledge that some tendencies in liberal education have closed minds rather than liberated them. The freewheeling, take-no-prisoners discussions in Bard’s prison program are in contrast to many campus classrooms, where rules of political decorum inhibit honest conversation. A professor tells Karpowitz that when she teaches students on the Bard campus they often respond to a controversial statement or opinion by announcing that they are ‘uncomfortable’ with it. But her students in the prison program embrace rather than avoid potentially embarrassing topics, which give them intellectual respite from the dull routines of incarceration.
The comparison of the two kinds of discussion tells us a great deal, not just about the mind-deadening quality of prison life but also about the ways that elite campuses can dare constrain minds in the name of protecting them. Witness the growing language of trigger warnings and microaggressions and safe spaces, all anticipating that some students will be offended by a variety of historical references or literary texts and all reflecting the dubious proposition that young psyches need vigilant defense from injury. Many of the BPI students aren’t young, and they have caused or witnessed physical injuries that most of our campus students can only imagine. They’re not put off by controversy, and they never ask professors to shield them from it. One suspects that in many cases they get more out of college than their on-campus peers do, in part because the inmates aren’t afraid to give – or receive – offense. It is astonishing to think that prisoners could have, in effect, more freedom of speech than free citizens in many colleges. But in narrow matters of concern about offensive language, it might also be true.
Germany prepares for turbulence in the Trump era
Max Fisher, New York Times, 6 February 2017
Most nations, facing such threats, would most likely be moving to respond. Germany is unusual. It has secured its place in the world by upholding the liberal order through consensus-building and peacemaking. ‘That’s a nice idea’, Ulrich Kühn, a fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, said of that model. But Germany ‘is being confronted with a reality where we cannot continue that way anymore.’
The idea of Germany as a military power or even European hegemon – likely requirements for taking up the burdens and responsibilities of a leading European power in the Trump era – remains difficult. But Germany may not have the luxury of time to reconcile its contradictory feelings about its place in the world, especially with an intransigent America and resurgent Russia, and a Europe rived by populism.
‘We still don’t really have a clue who we are in the world and who we want to be’, said Jana Puglierin of the German Council on Foreign Relations. That makes it difficult to face increasingly urgent questions, she said, over ‘what role we should play, who Germany is, how dominant do we want to be.’
Whatever happened to the public intellectual?
David Herman, New Statesman, 31 January 2017
The Oxford philosopher Derek Parfit died on New Year’s Day. He was one of the leading thinkers of his generation, yet his death was not widely reported outside the obituary pages of the broadsheets. The contrast with the response to John Berger’s death the following day is striking. Soon after Berger died, a number of pieces appeared on the Guardian and New Statesman websites, and there were tributes on the BBC’s News at Ten, Newsnight and Today programmes.
Parfit was an outstanding philosopher. However, few people outside academic philosophy could name one of his books. Perhaps more telling, how many could name any British academic philosopher?
It has not always been like this. The reaction could hardly have been more different when another leading Oxford philosopher, Isaiah Berlin, died in November 1997. BBC2 showed two hour-long programmes about him on consecutive days, and Radio 3 broadcast a two-and-a-half-hour tribute the following month. Berlin’s death was reported on the front page of the New York Times and memorial services were held in three countries. In less than two decades something fundamental has changed. Has academic philosophy lost its place in mainstream British culture? If so, who is to blame? Is it the fault of academic philosophers themselves, or the media, or are there other changes going on in British culture?
Rick Perlstein, Mother Jones, Jan/Feb 2017
Still, Peter’s thinking might help us frame a central debate on the left about what to make of Trump’s victory. Is it, in the main, a recrudescence of bigotry on American soil—a reactionary scream against a nation less white by the year? Or is it more properly understood as an economically grounded response to the privations that neoliberalism has wracked upon the heartland?
Peter knows where he stands. He remembers multiple factories and small businesses ‘shutting down or laying off. Next thing you know, half of downtown’ in the bigger city eight miles away ‘became vacant storefronts’. Given that experience, he has concluded, ‘for those people who have no political voice and come from states that do not matter, the best thing they can do is try to send in a wrecking ball to disrupt the system.’
When Peter finished with that last line, there was a slight gasp from someone in the class -then silence, then applause. They felt like they got it.
I was also riveted by Peter’s account, convinced it might be useful as a counterbalance to glib liberal dismissals of the role of economic decline in building Trumpland. Then I did some research.
Not ‘lone wolves’ after all:
How ISIS guides world’s terror plots from afar
Rukmini Callimachi, New York Times, 4 February 2017
While the trail of many of these plots led back to planners living in Syria, the very nature of the group’s method of remote plotting means there is little dependence on its maintaining a safe haven there or in Iraq. And visa restrictions and airport security mean little to attackers who strike where they live and no longer have to travel abroad for training.
Close examination of both successful and unsuccessful plots carried out in the Islamic State’s name over the past three years indicates that such enabled attacks are making up a growing share of the operations of the group, which is also known as ISIS, ISIL or Daesh.
‘They are virtual coaches who are providing guidance and encouragement throughout the process – from radicalization to recruitment into a specific plot’, said Nathaniel Barr, a terrorism analyst at Valens Global, who along with Daveed Gartenstein-Ross of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies in Washington wrote one of the first articles discussing the virtual plotters.
Experiment reaffirms quantum weirdness
Natalie Wolchover, Quanta Magazine, 7 February 2017
In the first of a planned series of ‘cosmic Bell test’ experiments, the team sent pairs of photons from the roof of Zeilinger’s lab in Vienna through the open windows of two other buildings and into optical modulators, tallying coincident detections as usual. But this time, they attempted to lower the chance that the modulator settings might somehow become correlated with the states of the photons in the moments before each measurement. They pointed a telescope out of each window, trained each telescope on a bright and conveniently located (but otherwise random) star, and, before each measurement, used the color of an incoming photon from each star to set the angle of the associated modulator. The colors of these photons were decided hundreds of years ago, when they left their stars, increasing the chance that they (and therefore the measurement settings) were independent of the states of the photons being measured.
And yet, the scientists found that the measurement outcomes still violated Bell’s upper limit, boosting their confidence that the polarized photons in the experiment exhibit spooky action at a distance after all.
Nature could still exploit the freedom-of-choice loophole, but the universe would have had to delete items from the menu of possible measurement settings at least 600 years before the measurements occurred (when the closer of the two stars sent its light toward Earth). ‘Now one needs the correlations to have been established even before Shakespeare wrote, “Until I know this sure uncertainty, I’ll entertain the offered fallacy”‘, Hall said.
Murderous Manilla: On the night shift
James Fenton, New York Review of Books, 9 February 2017
An extra judicial killing I covered went like this. It was the middle of the night and the family was asleep. Masked men barged in. ‘Where is Fernando?’ said an intruder. A woman answered: ‘There’s no one called Fernando here.’ At this point, an eight-year-old girl woke up her father, Ernesto. As he awoke, Ernesto said, ‘Oh.’ He was shot immediately in the middle of the forehead. The intruders escaped.
They nearly always escape. At one such scene in the north of Manila, a man had been shot in a warren of a building, where the passageway was almost too narrow for two people to pass. And there was only one exit, a set of awkwardly constructed steps. I was examining these steps and thinking what confidence it showed on the part of the killers, to choose a place that was so difficult to get out of, for their planned murder. Then I was told what the neighbors had said. They had said: When the shooting began, we all closed our doors.
Of course you would. You would close your doors and wait. And the killers would know you were going to do that.
Inside the trial of Dylann Roof
Jelani Cobb, New Yorker, 6 February 2017
Four months before the shooting, the Equal Justice Initiative issued a report on the history of lynching in the United States after Reconstruction. There were a hundred and eighty-four lynchings in South Carolina. The last occurred in 1947, when a mob beat, stabbed, and shot to death Willie Earle, a twenty-four-year-old black man who had been accused of murdering a white cabdriver from Greenville. Strom Thurmond, who was then the governor, pushed for those responsible to be brought to trial, perhaps worried that the incident would undercut efforts to recast the state’s brutish image. Thirty-one white men were charged; all were acquitted. Richardson, in his opening, seemed to suggest that lynching had not ceased in South Carolina; it had just been on a sixty-eight-year hiatus. Later in the trial, he made that connection explicit, charging that Roof was guilty of ‘a modern-day lynching’.
The man who could make Marine Le Pen President of France
Angelique Chrisafis, Guardian, 31 January 2017
Marine Le Pen and Philippot set about drawing up a new party line for when she would eventually take over from her father. Jean-Marie Le Pen had caused a political earthquake in 2002, when he made it through to the second round of the French presidential election. She remembered watching in dread as hundreds of thousands of demonstrators took to the streets in protest, and later voted for Jacques Chirac, in order to keep her father out of office. She could see his mistakes. She understood the need to distance herself from the antisemitism that had long been a feature of the Front National and knew how important it was to bring the party in from the margins. Her father hadn’t wanted real power. She did.
For Marine Le Pen, the model lay in northern France. Aged 30, she had been elected as a regional councillor in Henin Beaumont, a depressed, former coal-mining town. She recognised that France’s northern industrial belt, which had traditionally voted left, could turn to the Front National if the party stood not just against immigration, which remained its chief selling point, but for the victims of deindustrialisation and the financial crisis. Growing up in the north, albeit in a nice house near a golf course, Philippot also knew of the vast number of potential votes to be won among the working and lower middle-class – people with a job, maybe a house, people who were afraid of losing what they had worked hard to achieve and of slipping down the social scale.
Le Pen and Philippot drew up a programme focused on protectionism, a strong state, price control, retirement at 60 and increases to salaries and pensions. It was a manifesto that the Socialist president François Hollande would later liken to a ‘Communist tract of the 1970s’.
Journeying with James Baldwin
Raoul Peck, Guernica, 1 February 2017
Medgar Evers died on June 12, 1963. Malcolm X died on February 21, 1965. And Martin Luther King, Jr., died on April 4, 1968. Over the course of five years, the three men were assassinated.
They were black, but it is not the color of their skin that connected them. They fought on quite different battlefields. And quite differently. But in the end, all three were deemed dangerous and therefore disposable. For they were eliminating the haze of racial confusion.
Like them, James Baldwin also saw through the system. And he knew and loved these men. He was determined to expose the complex links and similarities among Medgar, Malcolm, and Martin. He planned to write about them. He was going to write his ultimate book, Remember This House…
Baldwin knew how to deconstruct stories and put them back in their fundamental right order and context. He helped me connect the story of a liberated nation, Haiti, and the story of the modern United States of America and its own painful and bloody legacy of slavery. I could connect the dots.
Baldwin gave me a voice, gave me the words, gave me the rhetoric. At his funeral, Toni Morrison said, “You gave me a language to dwell in, a gift so perfect it seems my own invention.” All I knew or had learned through instinct or through experience, Baldwin gave a name to and a shape. I now had all the intellectual ammunition I needed.
Not who we are
Paul A Kramer, Slate, 3 February 2017
Both stories about immigration and America – that there was a glorious past in which America was pure and protected from outsiders, or that Americans have always prized multicultural inclusion – remake the past to score political points in the present. In fact, Trump’s vile exercise in nativism – the xenophobic celebration of the national self—is only the latest maneuver in a series of battles over immigrants’ role in American life and America’s place in the world. Viewed historically, the claim that these anti-immigrant policies are ‘not who we are’, while stirring, does not hold water. American nativist politics have deep roots.
The founders made clear enough who among immigrants they envisioned to be potential citizens, barring naturalization to all but ‘free white persons’ who had been in the country two years. In the mid-19th century, America’s first mass nativist movement directed Protestant nationalist fury against Irish Catholic immigrants suspected of depravity and papal allegiances that would corrupt the United States’ free institutions. In the 1880s, anti-Chinese movements, fired by fears of labor competition and civilizational decline, won the first congressional legislation restricting immigrants on the basis of racialized national origin. Hatred of immigrants as poor and working people – assumed to be lazy, immoral, and given to ‘dependency’ on American largesse – animated US nativism from its birth.
But also from the beginning, anti-immigrant forces had to contend with countervailing traditions. Nineteenth-century Americans took very seriously the notion that the United States – an emerging republic in a world of powerful monarchies – had a duty to offer safety to those escaping political repression elsewhere. If the United States wanted the distinction of being an exemplary and exceptional republic, Americans must hold open their doors for the persecuted.
The ice cream problem
Riccardo Manzotti & Tim Parks,
New York Review Daily, 26 January 2017
Tim Parks: Riccardo, how can one conceive of consciousness if it is not a brain-generated representation of the world outside?
Riccardo Manzotti: Let me offer a premise. I believe we are up against two equally strong, equally commonsensical, but incompatible intuitions. We feel that we, our selves, are located where our bodies are, and very likely inside our bodies. On the other hand, we don’t feel we are made of the kind of stuff we see when we look inside a human body. Our conscious experience is of quite a different nature from these cells, membranes, muscles, fat, and bodily fluids.
Parks: Could that be why we’re so fascinated by movies, paintings, even anatomy drawings that show the body being cut up or taken apart?
Manzotti: I’ve often thought so, yes. The real horror is not what’s there, the gruesome mess, but what’s missing! Rummaging through the body’s innards, we don’t see anything that resembles a self.
The three problems with historical comparisons to Trump
David J Shorten, History News Network, 29 January 2017
A great many political figures have risen to prominence on rising tides of nativism and economic anxiety. That’s why historians have so much trouble defining populism. Cherry-picking two for the sake of comparison leads to what evolutionists call analogous evolution – when two things resemble each other superficially, but do not actually share a common origin, like birds and bats.
The problem, then, at its root, is not with historical analysis, but with historical analogy. To return to the original question, the point of history is to provide a backstory to the problem at hand, not to compare it with something similar.
If professional historical methods teach anything, it’s to look beyond individuals and their temperaments toward the environments that produce their power. Thus, the easiest way to avoid the 3 ‘P’s is to give up on historical comparisons and replace them with historicism -to quit analogizing and start contextualizing. The way we frame history has consequences. One potential consequence is to let present concerns blind us from the rise of countervailing political movements.
Strangers and enemies
Adam King, Jacobin, 25 January 2017
By their own definition, those standing in line are not racist. They don’t use the racist slurs and have no direct animosity toward racial minorities. But, as Hochschild points out, ‘Missing from the image of blacks in most of the minds of those I came to know was a man or woman standing patiently in line next to them waiting for a well-deserved reward.’
Those standing in the line seem to lack a language of class that could pose an alternative explanation to what’s holding up the line. As workers in the book understand it, people who don’t look, pray, or talk like them – people liberals seem most concerned about – are the beneficiaries of an unequal system. Here Hochschild fails to connect the dots.
Reality is not what we can see
Marcelo Gleiser, NPR, 1 February 2017
The nature of reality is a very tricky subject. Can we make sense of it, get to the end of it? Or are we so imprisoned in our own ways that, like the slaves in Plato’s Cave, we can’t break loose of our chains? In my The Island of Knowledge, I traced humanity’s evolving views of the world, also from the pre-Socratics to modern times, focusing precisely on the elusiveness of the very concept of reality and how it depends on our human perspective. To state, or believe, that the science we do brings us closer to a final, underlying truth seems to be as wrong historically as it is naïve philosophically.
As Heisenberg memorably wrote, ‘What we observe is not nature, but nature exposed to our method of questioning.'” The way we see the world shapes our narrative describing it. Even through the objective lens of science, it is still the human view of the world. If science is the best way we have to avoid being fooled by our perceptions, it still reflects those perceptions. The human touch is in everything we create, science included.
To a certain extent, Rovelli’s view reflects this, as he retells the evolution of our answer to the question ‘What is the world made of?’ – what philosophers would call ontology. In Newton’s time, it was space, time and particles. After quantum physics and Einstein, it is spacetime and quantum fields. This is where the tension lies – and where we go to the edge of what we know, without any certainty of what comes next. It is here that hypothetical ideas such as string theory and loop quantum gravity, Rovelli’s favorite answer, appear as the next step into the deeper aspects of physical reality. And it is here that passions and preferred world views often cloud one’s judgement, biasing this or that goal with a sense of purpose that is undeservedly deemed unique or unavoidable. We are most blind at the end of knowledge, the boundary between knowing and not-knowing.
The myth of immigrants’ educational attainment
Emily Duruy, The Atlantic, 8 February 2017
There’s a popular theory that says children raised in immigrant families do better in school than the offspring of comparable native-born Americans, despite language barriers and cultural misunderstandings. The concept even has a name: the “immigrant paradox,” a phrase that has helped spawn the notion that these kids have a remarkable capacity for upward mobility—and that there is perhaps even something subpar about American culture that prevents children whose families have been in the United States longer from advancing as quickly.
But new research from the sociologist Cynthia Feliciano, a professor at the University of California at Irvine, calls that interpretation into question. In a study published this month by the American Sociological Review, Feliciano and a doctoral student named Yader Lanuza found that the reason immigrant families appear so successful is not upward mobility, but the ability to work their way into the same class they occupied in their native country.
What Steve Bannon wants you to read
Eliana Johnson & Eli Stokols, Politico, 7 February 2017
Bannon, described by one associate as ‘the most well-read person in Washington’, is known for recommending books to colleagues and friends, according to multiple people who have worked alongside him. He is a voracious reader who devours works of history and political theory ‘in like an hour’ said a former associate whom Bannon urged to read Sun Tzu’s The Art of War. ‘He’s like the Rain Man of nationalism.’ But, said the source, who requested anonymity to speak candidly about Bannon, ‘There are some things he’s only going to share with people who he’s tight with and who he trusts.’
Bannon’s readings tend to have one thing in common: the view that technocrats have put Western civilization on a downward trajectory, and that only a shock to the system can reverse its decline. And they tend to have a dark, apocalyptic tone that at times echoes Bannon’s own public remarks over the years – a sense that humanity is at a hinge point in history. His ascendant presence in the West Wing is giving once-obscure intellectuals unexpected influence over the highest echelons of government.
The future is here: An interview with Riad Sattouf,
Leah Mirakhor, Los Angeles Review of Books, 31 January 2017
Will you continue to work on this?
I don’t know … In reality, France has become so shocking that I don’t know … When I started Pascal Brutal it was an exaggeration of reality – now reality is so exaggerated that I can’t …
It’s not a satire anymore. It’s reality.
It’s very difficult to invent shocking things, because everything is shocking now. It was a real problem I had when I was drawing the first volume of Pascal Brutal, because I had to find ideas that were more shocking than reality, and I couldn’t.
How Trump’s controversial policy could impact World Cup football
Scott MacIntyre, Four Four Two, 1 February 2017
Amongst all the swirling confusion and anger over the opening days of the new American presidency, there lies the damage Donald Trump’s impromptu travel bans are likely to have on both the United States’ hopes of hosting the 2026 FIFA World Cup and indeed football across the planet, notably in Asia.
More than that it recalls Southeast Asia’s own vexed history – with bans and boycotts based on race and religion that stretch back more than half a century – as some of those same nations now risk getting caught up in any broader US bans…
Though, just as those questions are posed and debated in the light of justifiable outrage across much of the Muslim world and beyond, so too is it important to remember that several Asian nations have a less than pure history on this count.
Most of that historical dissension came against Israel, including even Jewish players on European teams visiting the region.
Look back in anger
Samuel Moyn, New Republic, 31 January 2017
While Mishra long ago recognized the uses of Western thought in understanding the causes of global rage, in his new book, Age of Anger, he turns to intellectual history to counter civilizational or theological explanations for that rage in its more recent forms. After September 11, 2001, a crew of specialists arose to designate Islam the cause of hatred and violence; their essential goal was to immunize our own way of life from blame and scrutiny. Such analysts could never anticipate how their own states and cultures gave rise to a broader discontent – including in Europe and the United States. After votes for Brexit and Donald Trump, it turns out it was not just ‘radicalized’ Muslim youths who resented elites and resorted to violence as a means of revenge.
Instead, Mishra argues that the European past was a dry run for our global present. In the German and Russian populists and terrorists of the nineteenth century, Mishra finds avatars of the Indian prime minister, Narendra Modi, and the Muslim radical preacher Anwar al-Awlaki. In the ‘Frenchmen who bombed music halls, cafés, and the Paris stock exchange’ in the 1880s and ’90s, he sees forerunners of today’s ‘English and Chinese nationalists, Somali pirates, human traffickers, and anonymous cyber-hackers’. Understanding political and economic inequality is vital to understanding these convulsions; but we also have to examine how the ideals we live with – of capitalism and liberalism – have long produced unbearable disillusionment. To grasp the fear and desire behind violent reaction, Mishra contends, we need not just Karl Marx and Thomas Piketty, but also analysts of the psyche and spirit.
The top image is of a spider web sculpture by Tomás Saraceno.
I would argue that it is neither. Or perhaps both … and rather more. First off, Trumpism isn’t an American idiosyncracy. The same currents that drive it can be found in most of the mainstream Western nations. Brexit, Trump, Le Pen, the mounting challenge to Merkel; all, I think, are detritus from the collision between neoliberal mythology and neoliberal reality as delivered by a feckless and self-absorbed political class.
In 2008, the industrial world’s economy teetered on the brink of depression brought on by the excesses of a financial sector that increasingly made its money running elaborate confidence rackets. In America, we elected Barack Obama, liberal to the core, to deliver us from the jaws of disaster into the embracing arms of neoliberal nirvana. Hope and change!
Instead, he put the economy in the hands of the reptilian and unctuous varlet Timothy Geithner, who promptly delivered the financial sector from the threshold of bankruptcy to a soft bed stuffed with cash so it might renew its depredations with a minimum of discomfort. Wall Street quickly returned to six and seven figure bonuses while main street America watched its homes foreclosed upon and its jobs disappear. The neoliberal promise and the neoliberal reality were very, very different.
The ‘change’ that Americans saw was change for the worse. American leadership was ebbing, jobs were moving to other countries, the military was mired in wars that it wasn’t fighting to win, the rich were getting richer and everybody else was getting poorer – if only by comparison. With those realizations, hope turned to despair. As Mr. Obama exited stage left, Mr. Trump entered stage right, trumpeting an older American mythology of the Marlboro Man: tough, frank, an island unto himself; he alone would set things aright.
Mr. Trump gained the White House not because his message resonated with so many, though it certainly resonated with some. He won because the neoliberal promise had been exposed as a neoliberal fairy tale crafted to distract the canaille while the elites got eliter. The Democrats ran a nominee who epitomized this; a woman who had turned a life of public service into a staggering personal fortune yet who continued to recite the neoliberal fairy tale in the most reverent tones. She stole (or had stolen for her) the nomination from a candidate for whom the neoliberal promise was anything but humbug. The only real surprise is that anyone at all voted for her.
The attentive reader will have already recognized that much the same transpired as the conservative party jostled for a standard bearer. A collection of party stalwarts mouthing jaded mendacities in three part harmony and fueled by several hundreds of millions of dollars in the end were no more compelling than yesterday’s porridge. Donald Trump was the only candidate saying something, saying anything different. And so he won. Or, perhaps more accurately, everyone else lost and he was left last man standing.
Again, this is not just an American “thing.” Britons, Frenchmen, Dutch, Germans; all have listened, all have voted, all have been disappointed by the contrast between promise and product. The neoliberal promise can be pronounced dead, slaughtered on an altar of prevarication and greed by its own priests and priestesses. The question now is what will replace it.