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.
How can we be?
Time Crane, Times Literary Supplement, 24 May 2017
We need another starting point. Rather than ask the question, ‘one substance or two?’ we should ask ourselves what we actually know about our psychological or mental lives, and what we know about how they are related to our bodies. We know, with as much certainty as we know anything, that we have conscious thoughts and experiences; we have memories and dreams, we imagine, desire and regret things; we plan our actions and form intentions; we form emotional attachments and structure our lives around them. All of these things are underpinned, in a way that we do not yet understand, by the unbelievable complexity of the brain and its mechanisms, some of which extend into the body. We need to make connections between the knowledge that we have about our minds and the knowledge that we have of our bodies and brains: but we do not yet know how to connect this knowledge in a systematic, illuminating way.
In order to make these connections, we must first accept the irreducible reality of the mental, or the psychological, for what it is. To connect two things, these things must both exist. Psychological reality is not a separate ‘substance’, and it is not just matter either. Our psychological states and processes are as real as anything going on inside us – as real as our weight, our metabolism, our body temperature – and the fact that they are invisible is no more an objection to their existence than the fact that our weights and temperatures are invisible is an objection to theirs.
Some will protest that this is all very well as a way of speaking, but in reality ‘all there is’ to the mind is the brain, and this psychological talk is just that: talk. Sometimes you hear scientists saying that psychological reality is just another ‘level of description’ of the brain. But this is sloppy thinking: our dreams, experiences, thoughts and intentions are not ‘descriptions’. They are events or processes going on in us, as real as the neural activity with which they are correlated.
Inside the minds of IS murderers
Shiraz Maher, New Statesman, 28 May 2017
Is it too late for the West to save itself, I asked him. What if the West simply accepted all of Islamic State’s demands: would that provide respite?
The answer was as emphatic as it was stark: ‘We primarily fight wars due to ppl [sic] being disbelievers. Their drones against us are a secondary issue.’ He went on: ‘Their kufr [disbelief] against Allah is sufficient of a reason for us to invade and kill them. Only if they stop their kufr will they no longer be a target.’
In other words, we are all guilty, and we are all legitimate targets.
British Jihadis: Who are the first generation
of violent extremists?
Jason Burke, Observer, 27 May 2017
Amid the bile, the hate and the prejudice, western Islamic militants fighting in Syria occasionally reveal a less brutal side. In interviews and on social media, they talk about what they miss from their homelands.
A US recruit, the commander of an armoured unit, asked friends to send him packets of Swiss Miss hot chocolate powder. A Belgian jihadi, a baker, perhaps unsurprisingly confessed to missing good bread. And Omar Hussain, a Briton fighting with Islamic State, confessed in a Q&A session with supporters that he missed BirdsEye fish fingers and Jaffa Cakes. The 30-year-old, who said Bhe hoped to die in a drone strike, also complained that Arabs in general do not know ‘where the red line is in giving another brother his space’ or ‘how to queue’.
Hussain’s concerns and desires are of course quintessentially British – as Swiss Miss hot cocoa may be American and good galettes Belgian. They underline a key factor in the evolution of Islamic militancy today: though the ideology structuring the Islamic militant world view is supposed to transcend national concerns and characteristics, the ‘way of jihad’ is pretty parochial in reality. Whether in Baghdad or Birmingham, Mogadishu or Manchester, Islamic militants shed much less of their previous cultural and social conditioning when they embrace ‘the cause’ than they, or the ideologues of jihadism, would like to believe. Even the nom de guerre each one adopts indicates their national origins. Omar Hussain fights for Isis as Abu Sa’eed al-Britani, for example.
The imperial bureau
Chip Giboons, Jacobin, 17 May 2017
Trump’s firing last week of FBI director James Comey has many screaming ‘Nixon.’ That Trump nixed the man heading up an investigation into his activities has troubling implications, whether Comey was in fact closing in on Trump or Trump was merely acting as a ‘petty, tantrum-throwing child’.
Either way, however, the prevailing discussion around Comey’s departure suffers from an extreme ignorance about the basic structure of the FBI. The FBI cannot plausibly be considered a check on the imperial presidency – of Trump or anyone else – for the simple reason that it is, even for an executive agency, the heavy product of unilateral executive power. Its predecessor organization was founded over the objection of Congress. To this day it has no congressional charter. Its internal rules and safeguards are set by – and changed at will by – the attorney general.
Through its one-hundred-plus year history, the FBI’s power has tracked with the ebbs and flows of executive power more broadly. Imperial presidencies have beget imperial bureaus, buttressing and reinforcing one another. If someone’s going to curb Trump’s authoritarian tendencies it won’t be the FBI, an agency that embodies domestic authoritarianism more than any other.
What’s the opposite of post-truth?
It’s not as simple as ‘the facts’
Steven Poole, New Statesman, 18 May 2017
The underlying difficulty of today’s polemics about post-truth is that many well-meaning residents of the reality-based community are talking as though it is always obvious and uncontroversial what is a ‘fact’ and what isn’t. And yet the very idea of a fact is a social construct with an origin. (As the philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre has written: ‘Facts, like telescopes and wigs for gentlemen, were a 17th-century invention.’) Facts are fuzzy and changeable; in scientific practice, matters of truth and evidence are always at issue. The best scientific theories are social constructs. Whether they should be taken as accurately describing reality is still an unresolved debate in quantum physics; and, as the biologist Stuart Firestein has written: ‘All scientists know that it is facts that are unreliable. No datum is safe from the next generation of scientists with the next generation of tools.’
Some of our most eminent scientists argue that too great an obsession with facts can obstruct progress. The Nobel laureate in physics Frank Wilczek has wittily adapted Stephen Colbert’s comic coinage ‘truthiness’ for his own concept of ‘truthifiability’. We should worry not so much about whether an idea is true, Wilczek advises, but whether it is ‘truthifiable’ – whether it can inspire further creative research that would otherwise be shut down by overly aggressive and hasty fact-checking.
By contrast, we should not be surprised if the naive positivism espoused by aggrieved liberals who insist on a simplistic portrayal of ‘the facts’ and ‘the science’ does nothing but reinforce the lines of tribal warfare. As Davis rightly observes, ‘judgement almost always plays a part in our decisions as to what is a fact and what is true’. Trump voters are surely as well aware as anyone else that we all must take most facts on trust – I, for one, have not experimentally verified the idea of anthropogenic global warming – and understandably feel patronised by opponents who deny this is the case. Indeed, to the extent that experts are telling them to shut up and prostrate themselves before an immutable version of the ‘facts’, they are right to have had enough of experts.
Egypt: The new dictatorship
Joshua Hammer, New York Review of Books, 8 June 2017
Some of the country’s leading secular democrats joined Tamarod, a grassroots campaign – allegedly orchestrated by the military – that collected millions of signatures in an effort to force early elections and drive Morsi from office. In the aftermath of Sisi’s seizure of power, Faruqi and Fahmy note in their introductory essay, prominent liberals lined up behind him. Alaa al-Aswany, the popular novelist who had taken part in the protests in Tahrir Square, praised the general as a ‘national hero’; Saad Eddin Ibrahim, one of the Arab world’s most respected pro-democracy reformers, lent ‘his enthusiastic support to the overthrow of Morsi, going so far as to support then General Sisi’s presidential ambitions’; and the respected journalist Ibrahim Eissa, a ‘champion of liberal values,’ transformed himself into a ‘political reactionary’ who applauded ‘the arrest of the April 6th Youth Movement founder Ahmed Maher, questioning the movement’s patriotism.’ Maher would end up spending three years in the notorious Tora Prison, mostly in solitary confinement.
‘There is little doubt that Egypt’s intelligentsia betrayed the revolution that they claimed to celebrate and support,’ writes Khaled Abou El Fadl, a scholar of Islam at UCLA, in a harsh polemic, ‘Egypt’s Secularized Intelligentsia and the Guardians of Truth.’ What they got instead was a police state far worse than any previous regime. Shenker writes:
‘In an effort to shut down Revolution Country, the state pressed Egyptians to turn in on themselves. A microbus passenger turned provocateur spoke of rebellion on a journey; when a fellow traveller agreed with her criticisms of Sisi, she hauled him off the bus and denounced him as a terrorist to the security forces. Schoolchildren were detained for sporting potentially seditious stickers on their pencil cases. A man who named his donkey ‘Sisi’ was thrown into prison.’
Beware the anti-science label
Editorial, Nature, 10 May 2017
True anti-science policies – the early Soviet Union’s suppression of genetics research, for example, and its imprisonment of biologists while trying to revamp agriculture – can wreck lives and threaten progress. But it’s important not to cheapen the term by overusing it. And it’s wrong for researchers and others to smear all political decisions they disagree with as being anti-science. For instance, despite being labelled by many as anti-science, the US Republican Party – for all of its flaws – is not trying to hobble innovation or seeking to dismantle the research enterprise.
In fact, Republicans have historically been strong supporters of science. They led the effort in the 1990s to double the budget of the National Institutes of Health (NIH), and they enthusiastically support space exploration. In March, when President Donald Trump proposed cutting nearly 20% of the NIH’s budget, Republicans on spending committees in Congress were among the first to scoff at the idea.
In no way does this defence of politicians excuse the blatant climate denial, the politically motivated budget cuts and the interference with peer review that all too frequently characterize government. Plenty of politicians, particularly in recent years, have made a habit of choosing certain inconvenient facts and dismissing them entirely. But to claim that this constitutes a strategic war on science is to argue that science is a single, unified entity: that if you are not with science on any given issue, you are against science.
Don’t go to the doctor
Karma Nabulsi, London Review of Books, 18 May 2017
The spaces where such matters can be talked about are disappearing. Local libraries (where they haven’t been closed), playgrounds and town halls are no longer democratic spaces, or even public spaces, for a British Arab, Sikh, Muslim or black Christian (like the man hauled off a plane for texting prayers to a WhatsApp group). One despondent man discussed the possible causes of his insomnia with his GP: ‘It makes me so angry what is happening in Iraq, and Syria, and it makes me so depressed.’ Instead of treatment, he got a visit from the police.
Many of us don’t speak of these things in public anymore. The situation of Palestinian refugees in Gaza or Syria or Jerusalem or Lebanon – a lively and daily topic of conversation in Muslim, Arab, ethnic minority and immigrant communities – is now discussed almost exclusively at home or in a friend’s house. Many parents have stopped talking about these matters in front of their children, worried what they might repeat in the classroom or school corridor. Children warn their parents not to call goodbye to them in Urdu at the school gate.
Linton Kwesi Johnson and Black British struggle
Joe Lowndes, Africa is a Country, 26 May 2017
What is it about poetry that makes it particularly suited to political expression?
All that I know is that I came to politics, I came to poetry through politics. It was as an activist in the Black Panther movement that I discovered something called black literature, books written by black people which I didn’t know anything about before that. And WEB DuBois, The Souls of Black Folk which wasn’t really poetry it was prose but it was very poetic prose, stirred something in me and made me want to write, write verse. So I don’t know but personally speaking I’ve always been attracted to political poetry and there’s some people who would argue this kind of arty-farty notion of art for art’s sake bullshit that politics has no part to play in art which is just a lot of nonsense. I don’t know if it’s because poetry is really about language and how one uses language in a kind of a succinct kind of a way. And you know there’s a musical dimension to it. I don’t know I really can’t answer that question but I’ve always been attracted to political poetry and lyrical poetry and if you look at the canon of British poetry, it’s full of political stuff from Alexander Pope, Shakespeare, Shelley.
Can you just say what your involvement was in the English Black Panthers and where it was operating from?
I was a member of the Brixton branch of the Black Panthers movement, we had branches in West London, North London and South London and I was in the Black Panthers in South London. And our leader was a remarkable woman called Althea Jones-Lecointe who is a consultant gynecologist or something now in some big hospital. In those days she was doing a PhD in biochemistry, brilliant woman. She came to my secondary school and gave a talk and I think that’s what made me curious about the Black Panthers and I started going to their meetings and asking questions and so on. And I thought well, I want to be a part of this movement. My activities included going from door to door to try and get people interested in the organization, I would kind of campaign and we had campaigns as well, for example, a man called Joshua Francis was beaten up, badly brutalized by the police and there was a campaign for justice going on. I would be involved in those campaigns, attending demonstrations. Saturday afternoons or Saturday mornings I would be either in Brixton market, Balham market or Croydon market selling our newspaper, the Black Panther paper. We had direct links with the American Black Panthers we used to sell their papers too. In fact Angela Davis came over and visited us at one stage. And I got my political education in the Black Panthers, you know? We studied books like C.L.R James’s ‘The Black Jacobins’ – a history of the Haitian revolution lead by Toussaint L’Ouverture, we studied that. We studied books like Eric Williams’ ‘Capitalism and Slavery’. We studied books like E.P Thompson’s ‘The making of the English working class’, we studied ‘Black Reconstruction’ by W.E.B Dubois you know some serious education that I wouldn’t have gotten otherwise.
Why we fight wars
Chronicle of Higher Education, 28 May 2017
‘Wars are not barroom brawls writ large,’ wrote Barbara Ehrenreich. She was responding to Francis Fukuyama’s claim in Foreign Affairs magazine that men are mainly responsible for military conflicts because ‘aggression, violence, war, and intense competition for dominance in a status hierarchy are more closely associated with men than women,’ and that ‘statistically speaking it is primarily men who enjoy the experience of aggression.’ Ehrenreich, who earned a Ph.D. in cellular immunology before turning to journalism and politics, rejected Fukuyama’s belief that men’s warlike practices were ‘rooted in biology,’ ‘hard-wired,’ ‘genetically determined,’ or ‘bred in the bone.’ Unlike the lethal violence of the chimpanzees who provided the hook for Fukuyama’s article, warfare is organized, institutionalized, and socially sanctioned violence. If we seek to explain it – and not only its gendered dimensions – evolutionary biology is not the place to look.
Two new books on war, one focused particularly on ethnic violence, try to offer alternatives to the primal-aggression argument, but both fall short. In War: An Enquiry (Yale University Press), A.C. Grayling summarizes the violent history and state of the world but then throws up his hands at the difficulty of distilling the evidence and drawing a conclusion. In Killing Others: A Natural History of Ethnic Violence (Cornell University Press), Matthew Lange blames ethnic conflicts on nationalist and religious pot-stirring by the last two centuries’ evolving nation-states. Both books are inconsistent in their logic, and neither is able to resist the pull of biological arguments – at any rate, they spend a lot of time outlining them. Beyond that, both authors ignore the more-pertinent evidence, which suggests that meddling, self-interested outsiders, in conjunction with ill-advised neoliberal austerity programs, bear much of the blame for the ugliest conflicts of at least the last few decades.
Civil Rights Movement is a reminder that
free speech is there to protect the weak
Jay Stanley, ACLU, 26 May 2017
We at the ACLU are often criticized for our unyielding defense of free speech rights. Even our closest allies complain when we defend the free speech rights of Klansmen and assorted other racists, misogynists, online haters, fake news creators, and other toxic speakers. In particular, we hear that such defenses of free speech rights serve not to protect the weak but to protect the powerful in their attacks on the vulnerable.
Recently I’ve been re-reading Taylor Branch’s Pulitzer Prize-winning book ‘Parting the Waters: America in the King Years,’ a history of the civil rights movement with a focus on the life of Martin Luther King. I’d forgotten what a fantastic telling of the civil rights story it and its two sequels are. But also, rereading the story in light of my work at the ACLU, I’ve been struck by the injustice not only of segregation, ‘separate but equal,’ and the deprivation of voting rights, but the key role that egregious violations of free speech rights played in Southern officials’ opposition to the movement. It’s a reminder that when you mess with First Amendment rights, it’s ultimately the weak and powerless who lose out the most, even when those rights do sometimes protect the powerful.
Behold, the jihad of freedom
Andrew J Bacevich, Commonweal, 10 May 2017
By World War II, U.S. interests in the Middle East had grown and increasingly centered on oil-rich Saudi Arabia. Efforts to professionalize regional expertise now fell principally to the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), wartime forerunner of the CIA. In a crash effort to build a cadre of Middle East hands, the OSS recruited Ivy League faculty and various bluebloods, leading critics, Khalil writes, to charge that OSS actually stood for ‘Oh-So-Special.’ Within the organization’s high-toned ranks, Orientalism and American Exceptionalism came naturally. So too did yet more fumbling amateurism. By way of an example, Khalil cites a speech by President Franklin Roosevelt, delivered after U.S. forces had landed in North Africa and then rendered into Arabic by an OSS operative intent on maximizing its appeal to Muslims. ‘Behold,’ read the translated text. ‘We the American Holy Warriors have arrived. Our numbers are as the leaves on the forest trees and as the grains of sand in the sea. We have come to fight the great Jihad of Freedom. We have come to set you free.’ As to how the intended recipients of FDR’s exhortation received it, Khalil is silent.
Although World War II did not mark a quantum leap in American understanding of the Middle East, U.S. regional ambitions became larger. According to Khalil, these centered on ‘oil, air bases, and future markets,’ with opposition to Soviet influence soon joining that list. As interests expanded, so too did the level of U.S. engagement. Beginning in the late 1940s, the Middle East became an arena of intense CIA activity.
To improve its ability to understand the region, the U.S. government, with the CIA as lead agency, pursued a more comprehensive approach to creating expertise. In place of wartime expedients, the CIA sought to institutionalize mechanisms for producing both knowledge and individuals able to put that knowledge to work in advancing U.S. national-security objectives. In this effort, the CIA found willing partners in major American universities and foundations. Pursuant to waging the Cold War, the CIA and foundations such as Ford, Rockefeller, and the Carnegie Corporation had money to spend. To expand academic offerings and fund individual research, universities were keen to help with the spending.
Don’t apologise for classical music’s complexity –
that’s its strength
Alan Davey, Guardian, 8 May 2017
Young people’s brains aren’t experiencing a backward evolution. Their ability to articulate points of rhythm, melody and the flow of words in musical genres they have made or developed themselves prove that, as human beings, our urge for musical expression and facility lies deep. Young people are not afraid of things that need to be worked through. Complexity, curiosity and adventure is the new counter-culture.
For decades, the debate about the arts in England has boiled down to a dreary see-saw between ‘is it elitist?’ and ‘is it dumbed down?’ But this new audience of people who love the discovery of the new and the complex simply refuse to see their passions in such binary terms. I believe we’re heading towards a boundary-less age of music, where newer generations happily skate between classical and electronic, rock and pop, jazz and world music. With one bound, they have broken free from the constraints my generation placed upon itself. All they ask in return is authenticity of intention and execution.
Our common ancestor with chimps may be
from Europe, not Africa
Colin Barras, New Scientists, 22 May 2017
Go back 12 or more million years ago and Europe was an ape’s paradise. But, about 10 million years ago, environmental conditions deteriorated and the European apes began to disappear. Apes became largely confined to Africa, splitting there into gorillas, chimpanzees and humans.
At least, that’s what most researchers think happened. But in 2012, Nikolai Spassov at the National Museum of Natural History in Sofia, Bulgaria, and his colleagues reported the discovery of an ape tooth from Bulgaria that was just 7 million years old. It was, they said, the youngest European ape fossil yet found.
Spassov and his colleagues – including Madelaine Böhme at the University of Tübingen in Germany and David Begun at the University of Toronto, Canada – now think the tooth belongs to an ape called Graecopithecus that clung on in eastern Europe long after the other apes had disappeared from the continent. What’s more, the team says, Graecopithecus was no ordinary ape – it was a hominin.
The achievement of Chinua Achebe
Kwame Annthony Appiah, NYR Daily, 22 May 2017
He found a way to represent for a global Anglophone audience the diction of his Igbo homeland, allowing readers of English elsewhere to experience a particular relationship to language and the world in a way that made it seem quite natural—transparent, one might almost say. Achebe enables us to hear the voices of Igboland in a new use of our own language. A measure of his achievement is that Achebe found an African voice in English that is so natural its artifice eludes us.
The voice I am talking about is, first of all, the narrative voice of the novel. Consider the scene, early on, when Okonkwo, a young man whose father has left him no inheritance, has come to ask for the seed yams he needs to begin his career as a farmer. Custom requires a general conversation before Okonkwo can turn to his business, and in the course of it someone tells an amusing story about a palm-wine tapper whose father, like Okonkwo’s, was poor. ‘Everybody laughed heartily’, Achebe writes, ‘except Okonkwo, who laughed un- easily because, as the saying goes, an old woman is always uneasy when dry bones are mentioned in a proverb. Okonkwo remembered his own father.’ The point of view here is Igbo, but Achebe has allowed us to inhabit it.
There’s no such thing as a ‘pure’ European –
or anyone else
Ann Gibbons, Science, 15 May 2017
When the first busloads of migrants from Syria and Iraq rolled into Germany 2 years ago, some small towns were overwhelmed. The village of Sumte, population 102, had to take in 750 asylum seekers. Most villagers swung into action, in keeping with Germany’s strong Willkommenskultur, or ‘welcome culture.’ But one self-described neo-Nazi on the district council told The New York Times that by allowing the influx, the German people faced ‘the destruction of our genetic heritage’ and risked becoming ‘a gray mishmash.’
In fact, the German people have no unique genetic heritage to protect. They—and all other Europeans—are already a mishmash, the children of repeated ancient migrations, according to scientists who study ancient human origins. New studies show that almost all indigenous Europeans descend from at least three major migrations in the past 15,000 years, including two from the Middle East. Those migrants swept across Europe, mingled with previous immigrants, and then remixed to create the peoples of today.
Using revolutionary new methods to analyze DNA and the isotopes found in bones and teeth, scientists are exposing the tangled roots of peoples around the world, as varied as Germans, ancient Philistines, and Kashmiris. Few of us are actually the direct descendants of the ancient skeletons found in our backyards or historic homelands. Only a handful of groups today, such as Australian Aborigines, have deep bloodlines untainted by mixing with immigrants.
Graeme Wood, The Atlantic, June 2017
Among the German ideas he adopted was a concept of race different from the one he and I had been taught in our multicultural workshops in the ’90s. In the modern era, American discussion of race has limited itself, by convention, to a few canonical categories: black, white, Asian, American Indian, Hispanic. ‘Race isn’t just color,’ Spencer told an audience in December. ‘Color is, in a way, a minor aspect of race.’
For Spencer, race is more akin to the German Volksgeist, literally ‘the spirit of a people.’ Volksgeist is associated, historically, with Johann Gottfried von Herder (1744–1803), and Germans became enchanted with it during the 19th century. Some would say the Second World War was the culmination of German devotion to their own Volksgeist. Herder’s followers proposed that each people has an essence that distinguishes it from others. Germans are not French; French are not Zulus; Zulus are not Koreans. The idea was adopted by the black American scholar W. E. B. Du Bois (1868–1963), who traveled to Germany at the same age as Spencer and drank his philosophy of race from the same Teutonic fountains…
Spencer told me the Volksgeist he advocated was that of white Christendom, a group with indistinct geographical borders, but roughly including European peoples, from Iberia to the Caucasus, who were Christian as of a few hundred years ago. I proposed that this understanding of ‘white European culture’ seemed arbitrary. It ignored the divisions that European identity movements found crucial. He suggested that any concept of identity could be knocked down if overanalyzed, and overanalysis would only lead to inaction. ‘I could just sit here masturbating in my own filth,’ he said, probably rhetorically.
The uproar over ‘transracialism’
Rogers Brubaker, New York Times, 18 May 2017
But the Tuvel affair raises issues that go beyond the controversial notion of transracialism. First, it invites reflection on what might be called ‘epistemological insiderism.’ This is the belief that identity qualifies or disqualifies one from writing with legitimacy and authority about a particular topic. Few would argue directly that who we are should govern what we study. But subtler forms of epistemological insiderism are at work in the practice of assessing scholarly arguments with central reference to the identity of the author. Does the often-mentioned fact that Dr. Tuvel is white and cisgender (as am I) disqualify her from raising certain questions? Is her identity relevant to assessing her argument for according more weight to an individual’s racial self-identification and less weight to ancestry?
Epistemological insiderism not only stakes out certain domains as belonging to persons with certain identities; it also risks boxing persons with those identities into specific domains. It risks conveying the patronizing and offensive expectation that members of racial and ethnic minorities will focus their scholarship on race and ethnicity.
The attacks on Dr. Tuvel also raise troubling questions about the regulation of speech in academic settings. As claims to find speech harmful or offensive have proliferated in academia, so have debates about micro-aggressions, trigger warnings, speech codes and campus invitations to controversial outside speakers… Overt threats to academic freedom, like the Hungarian government’s attempt to shut down the Central European University, can be directly challenged. The more insidious danger is that of self-censorship. Will teachers avoid assigning controversial materials or discussing controversial views in class? Will professors stop exploring controversial topics in their research? The risks are much higher for those, like Dr. Tuvel, without the security of tenure. But even tenured faculty may opt to stick with safe topics. Reflecting on the Tuvel affair, the tenured feminist philosopher Chloe Taylor wondered ‘if I should not write or teach on certain topics that make me vulnerable to attack.’
‘They don’t want compassion. They want respect’
Simon Kuper & Joan C Williams,
Financial Times, 11 May 2017
Elite ‘feeling rules’ ordain compassion for ethnic and sexual minorities and ‘perhaps women’, she says, ‘but the white working class are just ‘fat, stupid and ignorant’. So the elites are saying, ‘Oh, my God, we just heard this cri de coeur from the white working class, let’s express sympathy for immigrants!’ Talk about a recipe for Trump’s second term…
Her advocacy for the WWC has angered some progressives. Samir Chopra, philosophy professor at the City University of New York, said her HBR essay merely confirmed his impression that the class were ‘racist and ignorant and resentful and, unsurprisingly, they voted for someone who encapsulated their Know-Nothing resentment’. Frank Rich argued in New York magazine that it is ‘a fool’s errand for Democrats to fudge or abandon their own values to cater to the white-identity politics of the hardcore . . . If we are free to loathe Trump, we are free to loathe his most loyal voters, who have put the rest of us at risk.’
Williams has got used to progressives telling her: ‘You’re defending racist people.’ ‘Yes, I’m defending racist people,’ she responds. ‘White people are racist people. You think the white working class is racist? How about the elite, have you ever looked at who are CEOs?’ She now has a new initiative, Bias Interrupters, to encourage corporations to hire and promote more women, minorities and WWC people.
Who’s afraid of the white working class?
David Roediger, Los Angeles Review of Books, 17 May 2017
‘The white working class’ – as a phrase describing an alleged social group, not as a title for the book in question – burst on the scene at a particular moment. It descended in the wake of Donald Trump’s unexpected victory in the 2016 presidential election. During the campaign itself, as in all other such campaigns, mainstream candidates mentioned the ‘working class’ hardly at all. Even Bernie Sanders directed his avowedly socialist appeals, as trade union officials now also do, primarily to the ‘middle class’ or to ‘working families.’ Indeed Ngram searches through databases of scanned publications tell us that the ‘white working class’ has been absent from US language throughout history — with Tom Edsall’s New York Times columns on the Democrats’ abandonment of the white working class as a noteworthy exception
But after November 8, 2016, invoking the white working class suddenly seemed to explain everything. Joan C. Williams was there at the beginning. As this professor at Hastings College of Law recalls, she began writing urgently on the night of the election to explain Hillary Clinton’s defeat. Her ‘What So Many People Don’t Get about the U.S. Working Class’ appeared electronically from Harvard Business Review within a week. Not surprisingly, the anecdotal loomed large in her explanations.
The article’s title promised to address all US workers, but the analysis so consistently evoked the white working class that the acronym WWC had to be put into service, to save space. Radio interviews followed, explaining what came to be, for Williams and others, a presumed fact: ‘Trump’s overwhelming support from the white working class.’ Claiming well over three million online readers, Williams and Harvard Business Review saw a popular mandate to inflate ‘What So Many People Don’t Get’ into a slight book under the title White Working Class: Overcoming Class Cluelessness in America. The article and book are not the most egregious examples of how race dulls an understanding of class among a sector US liberals and too much of the left. But article and book command attention as particularly symptomatic and revealing examples of this problem.
A defense of the reality of time
George Musser & Tim Maudlin,
Quanta Magazine, 16 May 2017
Why might one think that time has a direction to it? That seems to go counter to what physicists often say.
I think that’s a little bit backwards. Go to the man on the street and ask whether time has a direction, whether the future is different from the past, and whether time doesn’t march on toward the future. That’s the natural view. The more interesting view is how the physicists manage to convince themselves that time doesn’t have a direction.
They would reply that it’s a consequence of Einstein’s special theory of relativity, which holds that time is a fourth dimension.
This notion that time is just a fourth dimension is highly misleading. In special relativity, the time directions are structurally different from the space directions. In the timelike directions, you have a further distinction into the future and the past, whereas any spacelike direction I can continuously rotate into any other spacelike direction. The two classes of timelike directions can’t be continuously transformed into one another.
Standard geometry just wasn’t developed for the purpose of doing space-time. It was developed for the purpose of just doing spaces, and spaces have no directedness in them. And then you took this formal tool that you developed for this one purpose and then pushed it to this other purpose.
Standing up for cinema
Martin Scorcese, Times Literary Supplement, 31 May 2017
‘In a book’, writes Mr Mars-Jones, ‘reader and writer collaborate to produce images, while a film director hands them down.’ I disagree. The greatest filmmakers, like the greatest novelists and poets, are trying to create a sense of communion with the viewer. They’re not trying to seduce them or overtake them, but, I think, to engage with them on as intimate a level as possible. The viewer also ‘collaborates’ with the filmmaker, or the painter. No two viewings of Raphael’s ‘Madonna and Child Enthroned with Saints’ will be the same: every new viewing will be different. The same is true of readings of The Divine Comedy or Middlemarch, or viewings of The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp or 2001: A Space Odyssey. We return at different moments in our lives and we see things differently.
I also disagree with Mr Mars-Jones’s contention that any adaptation of a novel into a film can only amount to a ‘distortion’ or an ‘exaggeration overall’. Of course, in one very important sense, he is correct. Alfred Hitchcock once told François Truffaut that despite his admiration for Crime and Punishment, he would never have dreamed of making a film out of it because in order to do so he would have needed to film every single page (in a sense, this is what Erich von Stroheim tried to do when he adapted Frank Norris’s McTeague as Greed). But sometimes, the idea is to take elements of a novel and craft a separate work from it (as Hitchcock did with Patricia Highsmith’s Strangers on a Train). Or, to take the cinematic elements of a novel and create a film from them (I suppose that this was the case with certain adaptations of Raymond Chandler’s novels). And some filmmakers really do attempt to translate a novel into sounds and images, to create an equivalent artistic experience. In general, I would say that most of us respond to what we’ve read and in the process try to create something that has its own life apart from the source novel.