The latest (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.
Academe’s poisonous call out culture
Suzanna Danute Walters,
Chronicle of Higher Education, 5 May 2017
As a feminist journal editor, I am not only shocked by the policing move of the signatories and their weak, vague, and easily refutable argument. I am astonished by the immediate and hyperbolic apology by the associate editorial board of the journal, an apology that the editor herself did not sign and has in fact rebutted. Indeed, the apology doubles down on the notion of the ‘harms’ caused by the publication of the article. Nowhere does this apology challenge the inaccuracies and empty accusations made by Tuvel’s critics. It simply reiterates them as if they were fact. And nowhere, but nowhere, does this ‘majority’ of the associate editorial board defend the right of a junior feminist philosophy professor to make an argument.
Not only do the board members insult Tuvel; they undermine the whole process of peer review and the principles of scholarly debate and engagement. Hypatia presumably followed its rigorous and standard review process here. No one is claiming that they didn’t. To state, as the apology does, that ‘clearly, the article should not have been published’ indicts the good-faith labor of peer reviewers and the editorial decision-making of the journal itself. I can’t recall a similar capitulation. Do the signatories really believe that this article shouldn’t have been published because some readers contest it? I thought edgy, challenging, thoughtful work that elicits debate was exactly what feminist journals should be publishing.
If this is feminism…
Kelly Oliver, Philosophical Salon, 8 May 2017
In response to my comments on social media about philosophical engagement, some argued it was unnecessary because the issues raised in Tuvel’s article were discussed ‘decades ago.’ That seems unlikely given that the main theme in Tuvel’s article was the 2015 media response to Jenner and Dolezal. Even so, it’s not harmful to ask to see those arguments applied specifically to Tuvel’s article. To the contrary, it should give scholars an opportunity to renew their positions with more vigor, especially given the current spotlight on Tuvel’s essay. Some suggest they don’t want to ‘dignify’ the article with a response. They’d rather just express their outrage at its very existence. My point here isn’t to defend the arguments in Tuvel’s article, but rather to defend the possibility of an open dialogue and debate, and to try to diagnose the outraged response to that idea—the idea upon which the discipline of philosophy, and the academy more generally, if not also democracy itself, are based.
We live in an era of outrage—let’s call it the Trump era. That’s how Trump got elected, by voicing outrage. His most ardent disciples uncritically and unthinkingly believe everything he says because it is expressed with anger and zest. Civility is suspected of being ‘political,’ which has become a dirty word. It’s hard to argue with outrage, and that’s precisely the problem. Outrage has become the new truth. At one extreme, we have Trump and his supporters proudly embracing political incorrectness, and at the other, we have the political correctness police calling for censorship of a scholarly article written by someone working for social justice. On both sides, we have virulent intolerance fueled by hatred. The feminist thought police are the flip side of the alternative facts machine. And both are threats to the open dialogue that is so vital for critical thought inside and outside the academy.
Don’t tell me that working-class people can’t be articulate
Lisa McInerney, Guardian, 5 May 2017
Last summer, about a year after my first novel The Glorious Heresies was published, I led a workshop for aspiring writers. In the session, we referred to my experience writing Heresies – lessons I’d learned or techniques I found useful. One of the attendees had read the book in preparation for the session and had an issue with my take on dialogue. He believed my characters’ speech, and each narrative voice I employed, was far too complex. He maintained that a writer writing a working-class story should not use sophisticated words or inventive phrasing, even in third person. He was adamant my vernacular wasn’t the vernacular: a working-class story should be told through simple prose and working-class characters should have a limited vocabulary, or else they are not authentic.
I was finishing the last round of edits of The Blood Miracles at the time, and so was (very sensibly) sensitive to criticism. I went back through the text, looking for phrases unsuited to its characters. Its protagonist, Ryan, is a 20-year-old drug dealer from a council estate who did not finish second-level education. He swears habitually and doesn’t make time to read. On that basis he sounds like the kind of young man most likely to communicate in grunts, but then, he has managed to make a comfortable living selling drugs, something that’s next to impossible if you can only express yourself through expectorating and blasphemy. Wait, I told myself. Cop on. The more I thought about it, the more indignant I became. Why shouldn’t Ryan be eloquent? Is eloquence not actually a necessity for disadvantaged dealers who don’t want to end up doing 10-year stretches, or quietly decomposing in some remote patch of Irish forestry?
Yet I’m sometimes asked if it’s terribly difficult writing dialogue for working-class characters because working-class people, particularly men, don’t converse. It’s galling the number of people who buy into this idea of class determining articulacy, a Blytonesque estimation that patois is intrinsically moronic and that the working classes communicate in dropped syllables, slang and scratching. That we are thick-tongued as Wuthering Heights’ Joseph, or stubbornly simple as Animal Farm’s Boxer, or as proud of our savagery as Lionel Asbo himself. I’ve seen people who should be angered by this theory subscribe to it instead, and how frustrating it is watching people react defensively to others’ knowledge – to the very idea of knowledge – without recognising their own.
Enemies of the people
Angela Nagel, The Baffler, March 2017
In her 2011 book Demonic, which explained how ‘the liberal mob is endangering America,’ Coulter praised the work of Gustave Le Bon, the first Frenchman to set about measuring the craniums of Nepalese peasants in an effort to lend pseudoscientific credence to elite European imperialist and economic projects. Le Bon’s influential 1895 book The Crowd drew admiring praise from Hitler and has been a reliable touchstone for misanthropes and eugenicists since. In fact, the whole anti-immigration discourse, marked recently by Trump’s ‘build the wall’ rallying cry, is steeped in the legacy of Le Bon and those who have always feared the teeming masses and the great unwashed, whether foreign or homegrown. Their alarmist outcries were typically first deployed upon the toiling white masses within Western societies, and then would find a new subject in new foreign ethnic minorities.
In both settings, the rhetoric is remarkably consistent: There are too many of them. They breed too much. They’ll swamp our limited resources. There isn’t enough room. They’ll destroy and vulgarize our culture. But what’s striking in our own new political order is how ideologically fungible such sentiments are becoming before our eyes. Put another way: if Hillary had won—or Brexit had been resoundingly voted down—we would be hearing more populism from the liberals and more misanthropy from the right.
More confusing still, in the web-native invective of the overtly white-separatist subculture of the new online right – the self-styled ‘alt-right’ -anyone who does not carry into adulthood the strangely adolescent impulse to distinguish herself from the hated mainstream of society is derisively called a Normie or a Basic Bitch, as though white separatism were an obscure punk genre. A common thread of masses-deriding misanthropy runs through the writing and rhetoric of the online white-nationalist right. Indeed, the longer you look at all the forces of reaction marshaled behind the billionaire president, the more opportunistic his populist turn seems.
The Mississippi college students who tried to join ISIS
Emma Green, The Atlantic, 1 May 2017
Details from court documents submitted by the FBI allege Jaelyn and Moe talked about ISIS in disturbingly casual ways—a sign either that they were fully aware of what they were getting themselves into, or that they were living in a total state of unreality. Some of Jaelyn’s comments sound like a sorority girl planning her dream home rather than a terrorist plotting destruction. God willing, she told an undercover FBI employee, she would soon be overseas where she could ‘raise little Dawlah cubs.’
As innocent and maternal as that may sound, it may also reveal the extent of her commitment: ISIS propaganda has featured children executing prisoners in the style of a video game, and refers to boys groomed to be fighters as ‘cubs.’ There were signs that Jaelyn understood the horrific violence of the group she longed to join. After a sailor and four Marines were murdered in July in Chattanooga, Tennessee, she celebrated. Praise be to God, she said, ‘the numbers of supporters are growing.’
In fact, the pair seemed frustrated about the way ISIS was portrayed in the United States, including stories about ISIS taking sex slaves. ‘I cannot wait to get to Dawlah so I can be amongst my brothers and sisters under the protection of Allah,’ Jaelyn allegedly said. Moe said he wanted to be a mujahid, or soldier engaged in jihad. ‘I am willing to fight,’ he allegedly wrote. ‘I want to be taught what it really means to have a heart in battle!’
You are not an experience
Roger Berkowitz, Medium, 30 April 2017
The freedom to speak one’s opinion is the root of politics and right thinking. This is true not because free speech leads to truth, but because it expands our understanding and forces us to confront the real plurality of the world. What Arendt understood is that free speech is not simply about a right to express oneself. And it is not to be defended on the metaphor of the ‘marketplace of ideas.’ Free speech doesn’t necessarily weed out false ideas and confirm true ideas. Rather, free speech is important because only in listening to others with whom one disagrees does one come to expand one’s own understanding and love for the world.
Too often today defenders of free speech fall back on arguments from tactics. There is indeed a good tactical argument for hearing uncomfortable and dissenting views. We must always remember that you don’t win an argument when you and your friends are convinced that you’re right. We win an argument when we convince those who have meaningfully disagreed with us. If we want to change the world, we need to learn how to argue with and persuade others. If we give up and protect ourselves in gated communities of liberal purity, we will lose. But as rational as tactical arguments may be, they won’t win the day if we don’t also seek to persuade others that freedom of speech, academic freedom and intellectual openness are values important in themselves. Arendt’s argument that free speech is necessitated by plurality reminds us that there are essential political and intellectual values that can only be upheld in a world where we encounter and seek out dissenting views.
After Islamic State
Jason Burke, Prospect, 12 April 2017
Which leads us to a fifth consequence of the collapse of the caliphate: the return of al-Qaeda. While the world has been focused on IS, al-Qaeda veterans have been doing worryingly well. Partly in a deliberate bid to distance themselves from their upstart rivals, they have downplayed sectarian strife and stressed a desire to minimise Muslim civilian casualties. The strategy has paid dividends and al-Qaeda’s affiliates in Somalia, Yemen and, above all, in Syria are thriving. This new al-Qaeda appears to be focused on building long-term support in the Islamic world. This may change. No one has forgotten how 9/11 grabbed global attention. If al-Qaeda decides to target the ‘far enemy’ – the west – rather than Islamic opponents, it will be well placed.
Will we ever see the end of these successive waves of jihadi militancy? Not any time soon, and yet we can mitigate the threat. Many lessons have been learned since 9/11. The momentum generated by that attack, further fuelled by the Iraq invasion, was first braked and then reversed as Muslim populations came to see al-Qaeda as violent criminals. Such distaste should continue to check the growth of militant ideologies in years to come. Also, western security agencies have become sharper, with the physical elimination of many leading terrorists overseas, as well as more effective counter-terrorist strategies domestically. Western powers have, finally, adopted more sensible policies, avoiding embroilment on the ground in the Islamic world. Western leaders moderated their rhetoric and avoided statements implying collective Muslim responsibility, or complicity, with terrorism. Though with Trump in power, this appears to be changing.
One lesson remains half learned – militancy reflects local culture and circumstance in the west as much as in the Islamic world. Europe’s own failings are reflected in its jihadis. European jihadi culture is ‘street,’ with an over-representation of criminals and converts. Its hallmarks include its sartorial code, a vocabulary that draws heavily on gangster rap, and a deep ignorance of Islam. This is a vulnerability that can be exploited. Europe, the UK and the US will inevitably develop their own jihadi traditions in the years ahead. These will outlast IS and sustain activists after its collapse. But these traditions remain half-formed, fractured and weak – mere works in progress. We need to keep them that way.
Did this mysterious ape-human once live alongside our ancestors?
Michael Greshko, National Geographic, 9 May 2017
Around 230,000 to 330,000 years ago, there weren’t just precursors to anatomically modern humans on the landscape: There would have been Neanderthals in Europe and Asia, Denisovans in Asia, potentially some Eurasian pockets of our ancestors Homo erectus, as well as the forerunners of H. floresiensis. Amid this pantheon, H. naledi would be the first known that lived in Africa at that time, other than some scattered evidence of archaic forms of H. sapiens.
It’s still unclear, though, how H. naledi fits onto humankind’s tree. Most researchers agree that the immediate ancestor of Homo sapiens was H. erectus, which first appeared 1.8 million years ago. But one analysis performed by Berger and his colleagues suggests that, in spite of the more recent age for the known H. naledi remains, its morphology suggests that it could in fact be a better candidate for our most recent ancestor, surviving millions of years in tandem after giving rise to the branch leading to modern humans.
Other scientists believe it more likely that the Rising Star remains represent an offshoot lineage that survived in a continental cul-de-sac, much like H. floresiensis did on its island refuge.
Free speech, but not for all?
Ted Gupp, Chronicle of Higher Education, 27 April 2017
The absolutist approach to free speech, to be sure, has its flaws. But for all its offenses, for all the broken china, for all the divisiveness and trauma it has caused, it remains the best and only instrument for insuring a free intellect and a more just society. It is not a matter of equality versus liberty, but as Owen Fiss, the Yale scholar of the First Amendment and outspoken champion of free speech, has argued, equality through liberty. Fiss observes that when speech has been curtailed, it has historically been the unheard, the underrepresented, and the deprived who have paid the steepest price. The lesson then is not to turn the quest for equality into a cudgel to be wielded against those whose values or positions one does not share.
For every Ulrich Baer, altruistic though he may be, there is an alt-right advocate who embraces the same credo — that the marginalized must be shielded, that those left behind ought not bear the burden of unfettered speech. It is a frighteningly slippery slope between the suppression of speech in the name of social justice and the fatwas issued against those accused of blasphemy and desecration. Wherever speech has been controlled in the name of some higher purpose, that very purpose is at risk. Speech is not a property of the few or the many, but belongs to all equally. The fact that many Americans have not had equal access to speech, or to the political, economic, or social power it represents, cannot be remedied by its curtailment.
Free speech is the greatest single ally of social justice and, even at its most noxious and repulsive, is often a catalyst for reflection and remediation. It is easy to mistake it for a tool of repression when, in fact, it is the antidote. Racism, homophobia, xenophobia, sexism do not respond to verbal anodynes. They must be addressed at their roots. Argument, reason, confrontation, and direct exposure to the psyche of bigotry remain the best hope.
Conventional wisdom may be contaminating polls
Nate Silver, FiveThirtyEight, 9 May 2017
Despite their vastly different polling, however, Trump, Brexit and Le Pen had all been given a 10 to 20 percent chance by betting markets — a good proxy for the conventional wisdom — on the eve of their respective elections. Experts and bettors were irrationally confident about a Clinton victory and a ‘Remain’ victory — and irrationally worried about a Macron loss. In each case, the polls erred in the opposite direction of what the markets expected.
My purpose here isn’t to settle scores between pundits and pollsters and prediction markets, however.3 Instead, it’s to raise a concern that pollsters are being influenced by the conventional wisdom and issuing less accurate polls as a result…
What was that about the pollster being influenced by the conventional wisdom? Aren’t pollsters supposed to be objective? Well, yes, they’re supposed to be. And the best pollsters trust their data even when it comes to an unpopular conclusion. (By ‘unpopular,’ I mean a conclusion that differs from what journalists and other elites expect.) But pollsters also have a lot of choices to make about which turnout model to use, how to conduct demographic weighting, what to do with undecided voters, and so forth. This can make more difference than you might think. An exercise conducted by The New York Times’s Upshot blog last year gave pollsters the same raw data from a poll of Florida and found that they came to varied conclusions, showing everything from a 4-point lead for Clinton in Florida to a 1-point lead for Trump.
The case for Black English
Vinson Cunningham, New Yorker, 15 May 2017
The most energetic but also the most frustrating section of ‘Talking Back’ is a short treatise on the word ‘nigga.’ McWhorter takes the customary care in distinguishing the word from its uglier, older cousin, ‘nigger,’ but he pushes the distinction further than most: for McWhorter, these are not simply two separate English words, let alone two pronunciations of the same word; they are, rather, words that belong to two different dialects. ‘Nigger is Standard English and nigga is Black English,’ he writes, matter-of-factly. ‘Nigga means ‘You’re one of us.’ Nigger doesn’t.’
This interpretation helps to explain the odd power that ‘nigga’ wields over blacks and whites alike when said aloud. Richard Pryor’s use of it in his standup act in the seventies was radical not simply because street lingo had made its way onto the stage: Pryor had swung open the door between alternate cultural dimensions. Blacks suddenly felt at home – ’up in the comedy club,’ somebody might have said – and whites relished the brief peek into a room they rarely saw. Something similar happened, and keeps on happening, with hip-hop, many of whose practitioners use the N-word as a kind of challenge to white enthusiasts. It’s become a familiar joke: when the music’s loud, and emotions are high, who dares recite, in full, the lyric that eventually alights on ‘nigga’?
That ‘nigga’ is not only one of our most controversial words but also one of our funniest is revealing, and worth puzzling over. McWhorter doesn’t allow himself the pleasure. The word’s power – and therefore its coherence, its licitness as language – is impossible to understand without a glance at the history of race-rooted subjugation in America. The emergence of Black English is owed in part to straightforwardly linguistic factors: McWhorter convincingly cites the phenomenon of recently enslaved adults straining to learn a new language, plus a syncretistic importation of vocal gestures picked up along the trail of forced migration. But it also developed as a covert, often defiant response to the surveillance state of slavery. Grammatical nuance, new vocabulary, subtleties of tone – these were verbal expressions of racism’s mind-splitting crucible, what WEB Du Bois called ‘double consciousness.’ As Henry Louis Gates, Jr., has written, black vernacular is a literary development as well as a linguistic one. ‘The black tradition’ – from ring shouts to Ralph Ellison – ‘is double-voiced,’ Gates writes, in the introduction to his seminal study, ‘The Signifying Monkey,’ echoing Du Bois. The humor associated with black language play – with jokers like Pryor and Bernie Mac – directly descends from this multivocal tradition, and from the trouble that made it necessary.
From white trash to the whitelash:
what do white people want?
Helen Lewis, New Statesman, 29 April 2017
A few weeks after the election of Donald Trump, a veteran British politician told me about visiting a multi-ethnic primary school. He watched a lesson where the pupils were asked to draw something that represented ‘their culture’. Everyone got to work, except one kid – a white boy. When asked what was wrong, he replied: ‘Miss, I haven’t got a culture.’
The story encapsulated something that has bubbled beneath many of the political conversations of the moment. We are now comfortable with hyphenated and minority identities – black British, Asian-American, disabled, Welsh, gay – but instinctively uncomfortable about majority perspectives.
Yet you have only to look at popular culture, in which ‘white people problems’ are mocked on Saturday Night Live and where ‘stuff white people like’ (Banksy, camping, Moleskine notebooks) spawns a whole website, to know that whiteness is more than a purely racial identity. The trouble is, as these examples suggest, that ‘white people’ has become a byword for privilege, and usually for wealth. (It also implies unfashionability, or being ‘basic’; yoga is classic ‘stuff white people like’ because it gives them a taste of exoticism otherwise absent from their dull, bland lives.)
White people are the butt of the joke, which is no problem if you’re shielded by status and wealth. You can afford to laugh it off. But where does that leave those who are not rich and who don’t feel privileged? By the rules of polite society, they are certainly not allowed to be proud of being white. They can’t complain, either, because the general belief is that they are holding an ace.
The quantum thermodynamics revolution
Natalie Wolchover, Quanta Magazine, 2 May 2017
Over the past decade, Popescu and his Bristol colleagues, along with other groups, have argued that energy spreads to cold objects from hot ones because of the way information spreads between particles. According to quantum theory, the physical properties of particles are probabilistic; instead of being representable as 1 or 0, they can have some probability of being 1 and some probability of being 0 at the same time. When particles interact, they can also become entangled, joining together the probability distributions that describe both of their states. A central pillar of quantum theory is that the information — the probabilistic 1s and 0s representing particles’ states — is never lost. (The present state of the universe preserves all information about the past.)
Over time, however, as particles interact and become increasingly entangled, information about their individual states spreads and becomes shuffled and shared among more and more particles. Popescu and his colleagues believe that the arrow of increasing quantum entanglement underlies the expected rise in entropy — the thermodynamic arrow of time. A cup of coffee cools to room temperature, they explain, because as coffee molecules collide with air molecules, the information that encodes their energy leaks out and is shared by the surrounding air.
Understanding entropy as a subjective measure allows the universe as a whole to evolve without ever losing information. Even as parts of the universe, such as coffee, engines and people, experience rising entropy as their quantum information dilutes, the global entropy of the universe stays forever zero. Renato Renner, a professor at ETH Zurich in Switzerland, described this as a radical shift in perspective. Fifteen years ago, ‘we thought of entropy as a property of a thermodynamic system,’ he said. ‘Now in information theory, we wouldn’t say entropy is a property of a system, but a property of an observer who describes a system.’
Baldwin the prophet vs Baldwin the writer
Phillip Lopate, American Scholar, 28 April 2017
Baldwin is as ever a kinetic, charismatic presence onscreen, his mobile facial expressions signaling shades of intelligence, qualification, and nuance as he fields the questions by denser interviewers or eloquently rebuts statements by blustering fellow panelists. His dark suit, white shirt, and thin black tie (the preferred uniform of ’60s jazz musicians) have an elegance and dignity that complement his half-boyish, half-worldly grin or smoldering looks of outrage. That’s the given. The problem, for me, is that Jimmy the public figure begins to subsume Baldwin the writer. As he became famous, he was sought out to explain to white audiences the reasons why blacks were fed up or rioting, and he gave in to a pundit’s warnings and prognostications. By juxtaposing Baldwin’s rhetorical pronouncements with footage of recent police carnage and African-American unrest, Peck is freezing him in the role of prophet and making him the posthumous ‘witness’ and spokesman for our current racial malaise.
Yet how good a prophet was he, in fact? And what effect might this public persona have had on the quality of his writing in the second half of his life? In addressing the first question, I find many of his predictions overblown. The apocalypse of radical revolution he predicted in The Fire Next Time did not come to pass, nor—given the resiliency of the American capitalist system, like it or not—is it apt to occur now. He also tended to make dubious negative statements, such as accusing whites of being responsible for the death of Malcolm X, or saying that they are lacking in the sexuality-spontaneity department, to which I would respectfully demur. We do him no favors as a thinker to accept unquestioningly every statement he made. He has certainly become a useful heroic symbol for expressing our contemporary dismay at the persistence of racism, and a corrective to American complacency, and perhaps that should be enough. But being preoccupied with the essay form, I can’t help wanting to understand better his arc as an essayist. The film, by running together quotes from different stages of his life, without distinguishing their dates of composition, makes Baldwin out to be always in command, a consistent oracular figure, not subject to the vicissitudes and blockages of every writer.
The Baghdad road
Ghaith Abdul-Ahad, London Review of Books, 4 May 2017
‘I have to be honest,’ he added. ‘When the Islamic State first entered Mosul everyone was happy. People started clapping for them. They allowed us to remove the concrete blocks the army had installed to close the neighbourhoods. Before, it would take an hour to go from one area to the other, afterwards the roads were open and we felt free. They let the people alone and didn’t mind if people smoked, if people prayed or not. You could go anywhere, do anything you wanted, as long as it didn’t hurt them. I would go to the woods with a friend, sit in a café, smoke a nargileh, and they would turn up. Tall, muscled and mostly foreigners, they wouldn’t dare say a word to you. In the early days we said this was the life.’
Unlike their previous incarnations, the jihadis didn’t just promise the people of Mosul a Sunni resistance to the injustices inflicted on them by the American invasion or the sectarian politics of the Shia government in Baghdad. They went further: they promised a state, a just state based on the principles of Sunni Islam, military strength and effective bureaucracy. In their literature and sermons the jihadi ideologues used different names: the Caliphate, the Islamic State in Iraq and al-Sham, the Islamic State. All these names were eventually superseded and one name remained: the State, al-Dawla. It signified to the people of Mosul the nature of the new rulers, who were going to provide them with a strong, non-corrupt and functioning administration, just like the one they had before the Americans came and messed everything up.
‘They conned the people,’ Ahmad said. ‘They brought prices down and reimposed order. People from the heart of Mosul, from its oldest houses, would join them because they said this was the true Islam. Doctors and university professors joined them, my son’s teacher became a preacher for them, carrying a pistol and grenades on his belt. The whole city joined them.’
Out of sight, out of mind
Adam Shatz, London Review of Books, 4 May 2017
The racial obstacles to white compassion were on distressing display during Obama’s second term. The deaths of Eric Garner in Staten Island, Michael Brown in Ferguson, Freddie Gray in Baltimore, Tamir Rice in Cleveland, Walter Scott in North Charleston and Philando Castile in Minneapolis were grisly evidence that the use of lethal force by the police against black people was a national problem. As Franklin Zimring demonstrates in a careful statistical study, When Police Kill, police are less at risk of death in the line of duty, thanks to the growing sophistication of police armour, but killings by the police have not declined, and the ‘kill ratio’, once 3.8 for every officer killed, now stands at 15 to 1. 4 Blacks make up only 12 per cent of the US population, but about 26 per cent of those killed by police. Black Lives Matter was founded to protest against these killings, many of them captured on cell phones. Yet even this irrefutable form of proof left little impression on conservative whites; in fact, Black Lives Matter was denounced by Trump supporters and by Blue Lives Matter as a racist, even a ‘terrorist’ organisation. Whites weren’t roused to protest even by the killings of young black men such as Trayvon Martin by ‘armed civilians’ invoking stand-your-ground laws.
If this were another country, without a history of racial domination, one could imagine a different response to police killings, even a multi-racial alliance against warrior policing and mass incarceration. After all, more whites than blacks – 55.7 per cent of the total – are killed each year in confrontations with the police, just as more whites are behind bars. But, according to a 2014 Gallup poll, whites hold the police in higher esteem than any profession other than the military and small business. Their admiration is rooted in the history of race and policing. In his acute study The Condemnation of Blackness (2010), Khalil Gibran Muhammad showed that after Reconstruction white sociologists invented a new category: black criminality. Black crime was understood to be different from, and more intractable than, crime by poor whites or immigrants, whose misbehaviour could be explained in terms of social causes. ‘White criminality was society’s problem,’ and could be reduced through government policy, while ‘black criminality was black people’s problem,’ reflective of their ‘culture’, if not their biological make-up, and largely impervious to remedy. Black criminality, according to Muhammad, became a ‘tool to measure black fitness for citizenship’, and to ‘shield … white Americans from the charge of racism, helping to determine the degree to which whites had any responsibility to help black people’.
The intellectual masses
John Carey & Tim Black, spiked review, May 2017
Carey’s vocation, his desire to render great literature accessible, to demonstrate its value (potentially) to all, has its origins, in part, in his own life story, recorded wittily and movingly in The Unexpected Professor (2014). There we first encounter a young Carey as an ‘abnormally self-contained, self-absorbed little boy’, from a modest, middle-class family – his father, was an accountant on his uppers, his mother a housewife. No one in the Carey family had been to university before. And his childhood enthusiasms consist of the Beano, Enid Blyton, and occasionally Hotspur and Champion. But grammar school was to raise Carey’s sights. Thanks, he suggests, to both the academic competitiveness engendered in him at Richmond and East Sheen Grammar School for Boys, and the teachers ‘who made you want to be like them – to know the things they knew and value the things they valued’, he drove himself, a lower-middle-class boy from the suburbs, into the heart of learning, of culture and, for too long, of privilege. And in doing so, he encountered resistance, snobbery and the disdain of academics, like that of the economist Sir Roy Harrod who referred to him as a ‘nobody’ to a college guest.
He writes of feeling like an ‘intruder’ while an undergraduate at St John’s in the mid-1950s; of his anger at the unabashed window-smashing snobbery of Christ Church while teaching; of his active undermining of the public-school-favouring admissions policy at Keble while a tutor. And yet, despite his sense of being a class outsider, he was able, ultimately, to gain access to this world, to become Merton Professor, to become a highly respected reviewer, and to sit on assorted book-judging panels, including the first ever Man Booker International Prize in 2005.
In a sense, then, his critical and academic desire to open the doors to literature, to make the canonical accessible, is born of his own experience of and struggle against those who would restrict access, who would treat the cultural sphere as little more than a means to affirm and mark out their distinction from those they deem ought to be beneath them.
A matter of life and death
William Boyd, Guardian, 6 May 2017
Brendan Moran is a world-famous colorectal surgeon, or a ’cancer surgeon’, as he more straightforwardly terms it. He has been a practising surgeon for more than 30 years, and has completed well over 2,000 major operations. Colorectal cancers are known as below-the-belt cancers and usually involve significant surgical procedures. Atul Gawande succinctly describes what is the norm in this field: ‘We made a fast, deep slash down the middle of his abdomen, from his rib cage to his pubis. We grabbed retractors and pulled him open.’ Here is Gabriel Weston: ‘We cut the woman open from breastbone to pubis and cleared her gut out with one deep sweep.’
At this point the faint-hearted reader reels away, eyes watering, wondering how anyone can do this as a matter of course on a near-daily basis and remain a happy, functioning human being. Brendan Moran is very aware of the perceived abnormality of the profession, to those who’ve never been inside an operating theatre. ‘Surgery is legalised assault, from one point of view,’ he says: just as you can’t make an omelette without breaking eggs, you can’t be a surgeon without cutting people open with sharp knives. But my fundamental question – what is it actually like to do this thing? – is one that all the surgeons seem to find a bit baffling.
What happens when authors are afraid to stand alone
Jason Guriel, The Walrus, 9 May 2017
But while no one is truly isolated, writers have become more entangled than ever. Workshops, readings, book launches, conferences, artists’ colonies, and other glorified mixers increasingly press literary types upon one another. Creative writing instructors urge their charges to get out there and network. Social media ensures we’re always connected. The contemporary acknowledgements page is a goblet that runneth over. (The fine poet Michael Prior thanks more than 60 people in his recent debut.) It’s now almost unthinkable not to run your manuscript by a long receiving line of applauding peers.
But be careful: those same peers might one day boo and jeer. Literary controversies are now less about aesthetic feuds and more about group outrage. ‘The left is in shambles in North America,’ writes Carmen Aguirre in a recent essay for this magazine. ‘It has become the new puritanical church, shaming, bullying, condemning, and expelling anyone in its ranks who is seen as taking a misstep.’
Similarly, if you break with orthodoxy in the literary world, you will find yourself branded a heretic. Last spring, when I suggested that critics should reference themselves a little less in their reviews and essays—brilliant advice I’m clearly forgoing—I might as well have draped myself in ‘Make America Great Again’ bunting or throttled a sloth on YouTube. Writers I was once friendly with disappeared. Writers I’d never met fumed on social media. The whiff of scorched bridge practically wafted through the WiFi.
A spectacular hymn to human survival
Jonathan Jones, Guardian, 8 May 2017
Midway through this exhibition, emotion hits you like a blast of heat from a furnace. The chill of irony thaws. The intellectual and erotic games are over. There is only one thing worth making art about, Alberto Giacometti has decided, and that is our common humanity.
What a slender thread humanity must have seemed in Europe in the 1940s. The thin figures that emerged like wisps of smoke out of Giacometti’s conscience in the second part of that murderous decade seem barely to exist. They are not so much statues as mirages of people glimpsed far away, shimmering on a horizon of ash. The human form, starved, bereft, but somehow standing tall.
Tate Modern has created a truly great exhibition of an artist whose compassion and honesty matter more now than ever. Giacometti was one of the most sensually gifted sculptors of the modern age, up there with Rodin, Brancusi and Picasso as a manipulator of form. Yet in the final quarter-century of his life he set aside his ingenuity to concentrate on something more urgent: the truth. As Paul Gauguin once asked in the title of a painting, Where do we come from? What are we? Where are we going? Gauguin pondered these questions in the age of Oscar Wilde; Giacometti asked them in the shadow of the Holocaust.