A bumper-edition of my regular collection of recent essays and stories from around the web worth plucking out to be re-read.
Getting in and out
Zadie Smith, Harper’s, July 2017
We have been warned not to get under one another’s skin, to keep our distance. But Jordan Peele’s horror-fantasy – in which we are inside one another’s skin and intimately involved in one another’s suffering – is neither a horror nor a fantasy. It is a fact of our experience. The real fantasy is that we can get out of one another’s way, make a clean cut between black and white, a final cathartic separation between us and them. For the many of us in loving, mixed families, this is the true impossibility. There are people online who seem astounded that Get Out was written and directed by a man with a white wife and a white mother, a man who may soon have – depending on how the unpredictable phenotype lottery goes – a white-appearing child. But this is the history of race in America. Families can become black, then white, then black again within a few generations. And even when Americans are not genetically mixed, they live in a mixed society at the national level if no other. There is no getting out of our intertwined history.
But in this moment of resurgent black consciousness, God knows it feels good -therapeutic! – to mark a clear separation from white America, the better to speak in a collective voice. We will not be moved. We can’t breathe. We will not be executed for traffic violations or for the wearing of hoodies. We will no longer tolerate substandard schools, housing, health care. Get Out – as evidenced by its huge box office – is the right movie for this moment. It is the opposite of post-black or postracial. It reveals race as the fundamental American lens through which everything is seen. That part, to my mind, is right on the money. But the ‘us’ and ‘them’? That’s a cheaper gag. Whether they like it or not, Americans are one people. (And the binary of black and white is only one part of this nation’s infinitely variegated racial composition.) Lobotomies are the cleanest cut; real life is messier. I can’t wait for Peele – with his abundant gifts, black-nerd smarts, comprehensive cinematic fandom, and complex personal experience – to go deeper in, and out the other side.
The Grenfell fire and the destruction
of the British council estate
Sam Wetherell, History & Policy, 16 June 2017
Even the shabbiest council estates were conceived of as totalities by their planners. It is their comprehensiveness that makes estates instantly recognizable. In many estates heat pumped into homes from municipally managed boilers replaced individual coal fireplaces. Centralized waste disposal systems replaced kerbside collections. Water, heat, repairs, rent, gas and electricity were all covered by an undifferentiated “service charge” paid to the council and provided as a public good rather than a metered commodity.
The last forty years has seen the undoing of the collective bedrock of comprehensively planned housing estates. These worlds have been torn to pieces, their forms of provision metered, unbundled, picked apart and privatized. Using a strange mix of evolutionary biology and rational choice theory, criminologists and planners such as Oscar Newman and Alice Coleman argued that public space (rather than poverty) was responsible for crime. Their theories resulted in mazes of waist-high dividing fences and the division of estates into fortified clusters divided by entry phones and thick metal doors. On Channel 4 News one Grenfell resident stated that he was able to help people escape from the back of the block only because he had bought his electronic key to open the security door. Meanwhile, from 1980, residents of council blocks began to purchase their own homes under ‘right to buy’. Estates became split between public and private ownership, with private residents demanding to disconnect from district heating systems and to audit each line of their service charges creating a host of legal problems. Facing unsolvable disputes over heating and public space on part-privatized estates, Leicester’s City Attorney wrote to the government in 1982 to complain that ‘these houses were not built for sale’.
While we do not yet know the causes of the hideous Grenfell fire there are many reasons why the quality of council housing in Britain has so declined. It is certainly not the case that high density apartment buildings go against the grain of human nature – one need only look at New York or Paris or indeed the glass forest of high income London housing that gets thicker with every passing year. Underfunding, neglect and gentrification are a big part of the story. A significant yet overlooked historical arc is the loss of the collective vision that guided such estates. In the eyes of politicians and property developers places like Grenfell are bereft of purpose, strewn wreckage left over from a former political epoch. They are awkward physical reminders of a social past that those in power would rather forget.
Politics by candlelight
Stefan Collini, The Nation, 14 June 2017
This link between his historical work and his contemporary activism was a lived and animating reality for Thompson himself. Yet, in retrospect it may also reveal a tension at the heart of his apparently disparate activities and commitments—a tension likely to be faced in some form by any committed left intellectual. Thompson deployed a broadly Marxist understanding of the centrality of exploitation and class conflict, but he could never accept what he saw as the human passivity assumed by theories of economic determinism. ‘Agency’ was a central category of his thinking about both history and politics, a never-extinguished faith in the creative power of popular energies combined with a principled commitment to acting with and not just for other people.
However, it could be said that, despite this faith, he rarely managed to identify forms of effective political agency in the present. The Communist Party, the New Left, the groups fighting for civil liberties, the various branches of the peace movement—all of these failed to live up to his hope that they could be the beginnings of a truly revolutionary transformation of society, and indeed most of them failed to achieve even more limited or short-term political ambitions. Furthermore, despite being publicly and repeatedly committed to broad cross-class and cross-party alliances, Thompson possessed, it usually turned out, more than his share of the schismatic temperament. Though he extolled the virtues of patient grassroots political work, he was often given to one or another kind of sectarian purity, from which redoubt he would fire volley after volley of witty, indignant, high-toned abuse at all those—and there were many—who fell short of his exacting political or intellectual standards.
Three new discoveries in a month
rock our African origins
John Hawks, Medium, 7 June 2017
Hublin and his coworkers have drawn attention to the humanlike features, but they agree with other anthropologists that the Jebel Irhoud skulls are not modern humans themselves. However, Hublin is proposing a big idea: These skulls, together with the whole population of Africa at the time they lived, was on the road to modern human origins. The paper describing this idea mentions another old fossil with a combination of archaic and modern features, a partial skull from Florisbad, South Africa, also clearly not modern human, but with a few humanlike features.
In Hublin and colleagues’ ‘pan-African’ hypothesis, every African fossil that had parted ways with Neanderthals is part of a single lineage, a stem population for modern humans. They connect the evolution of these early H. sapiens people to a new form of technology, the Middle Stone Age, which was found in various regions of Africa by 300,000 years ago.
So how many other archaic groups were in Africa? Under the Hublin model, there may have been none. Every fossil sharing some modern human traits may have a place within the ‘pan-African’ evolutionary pattern. These were not river channels flowing into the desert, every channel was part of the mainstream. But there may be a problem. Geneticists think there were others.
On Corbyn, book-eating and the future of UK political science
Jonathan Dean, Political Insight, 13 June 2017
This in turn feeds into the perennial question of how and why political scientists undertake public engagement. The key problem here, much commented on and beautifully spoofed by the anonymous @ProfBritPol twitter account, is the emergence of short term punditry as a benchmark of one’s status within the profession. It seems as if a Paul the Octopus style capacity for short-term prediction is increasingly replacing deep, thoughtful scholarship as the key indicator of scholarly esteem. This only serves to sustain the incipient ‘laddishness’ of our discipline: not only are almost all the high profile pundits men, but political science public engagement risks degenerating into a spectacle worthy of football pundits’ trying to outdo each other with their pre-match predictions.
But this turn to punditry should, perhaps, not surprise us: as sociologist Mark Carrigan has pointed out, the neoliberalisation of academia – in conjunction with the impact agenda – generates an ‘accelerated’ culture of short-termism, in which the continuous production of short, fleeting, superficial interventions [yes, dear reader, arguably including this blogpost] takes precedence over deep, reflective and, above all, slow academic analysis.
Finally, there is the problem of objectivity. We are, I would suggest, still driven by the fantasy of the objective political scientist, unencumbered by ideological partisanship. A cursory engagement with, say, feminist or Foucault-inspired work on the complex dynamics of power, selfhood and agency should disabuse the expectant political scientist of this fantasy. But the myth of neutrality persists: rather than have an honest discussion about how our political analyses are shaped by our ideological commitments we just pretend, in public at least, that we don’t have any. And at times we have cynically hid behind the veneer of scholarly objectivity to actively pursue an anti-Corbyn agenda, enthusiastically confirming rather than interrogating kneejerk dismissals of Corbynism in print and broadcast media. If we were more honest with ourselves, we might concede that a lot of us think that the royal road to good, robust, ideologically neutral political science scholarship passes somewhere to the left of Tony Blair and to the right of Angela Eagle.
The racial segregation of American cities
was anything but accidental
Katie Nodjibadem, Smithsonian Magazine, 30 May 2017
Your book aims to turn over misconceptions on how American cities came to be racially segregated. What are some of the biggest misconceptions people have, and how did they influence your research and writing of this book?
There’s one overall misconception. And that is that the reason that neighborhoods in every metropolitan area in the country are segregated by race is because of a series of accidents driving prejudice and personal choices.
Income differences, private discrimination of real estate agents, banks and all of these come under the category of what the Supreme Court called, and what is now generally known as, de facto segregation, something that just happened by accident or by individual choices. And that myth, which is widespread across the political spectrum, hobbles our ability to remedy segregation and eliminate the enormous harm that it does to this country.
The truth is that segregation in every metropolitan area was imposed by racially explicit federal, state and local policy, without which private actions of prejudice or discrimination would not have been very effective. And if we understand that our segregation is a governmentally sponsored system, which of course we’d call de jure segregation, only then can we begin to remedy it. Because if it happened by individual choice, it’s hard to imagine how to remedy it. If it happened by government action, then we should be able to develop equally effective government actions to reverse it.
How the Muslim world was invented
Anver M. Emon & Daniel Steinmetz-Jenkins,
Foreign Affairs, 2 June 2017
If Western ideas served as foils for Muslim thinkers, so did they provide a kind of intellectual framework. Westerners such as the French scholar Ernest Renan, the American political scientist Samuel Huntington, and the British historian Arnold Toynbee, Aydin argues, shared a ‘template of a racial, civilizational, and geopolitical Muslim world distinct from the West’ that Muslim intellectuals downloaded to construct identities along similar lines. So too did Muslim political leaders, such as the Ottoman Sultan Abdulhamid II, the Palestinian Haj Amin al-Husseini, King Faisal of Saudi Arabia, and Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini of Iran, all of whom grounded their political projects in the idea of Muslim nationhood.
Aydin’s challenge is to pinpoint when and how this transfer happened. Consider his discussion of how Toynbee’s ideas were received by Muslim writers during the Cold War. Disillusioned by the ravages of World War II, Toynbee argued that the West was suffering from degeneration, and he exhorted other societies to resist its materialism and destructiveness. Islamic civilization, Toynbee claimed, was best suited for that role because its cultural, philosophical, and theological values were fundamentally at odds with those of the secular West. ‘Among Toynbee’s biggest fans’, observes Aydin, ‘were the kinds of thinkers who later were known as Islamists.’ The Turkish writer Sezai Karakoç, who was drawn to Toynbee’s attempt to promote Islamic revival as an alternative to socialism and capitalism, is one example. The result of these affinities was that some Muslim intellectuals embraced ideas that were in reality ‘an insult to their religious and cultural heritage’. Instead of seeing anything within Islam that might be compatible with secularism or socialism, argues Aydin, Islamists viewed attempts to reconcile their religion with those political projects as bids to imitate the values of the Islamic world’s Western enemies. Apart from providing a few passing examples, however, Aydin does little to substantiate his claims about Toynbee’s influence: readers are mostly left to assume that Toynbee affected contemporary Islamists because of the similarities between their ideas.
More generally, by playing up the influence of European thought on Muslim intellectuals, Aydin makes those thinkers captive to a version of history in which Muslims did not create unifying identities on their own terms before the imperial expansions of the nineteenth century. The upshot is that Aydin downplays the significance of premodern instances of Islamic political-identity formation. Yet within the Muslim-majority territories of the premodern era, notions such as umma (the Muslim community), caliphate (a political community headed by a caliph), and imamate (a Shiite political community led by an imam) played important roles in calls for political unity. In the West, too, the idea of the Muslim world had some roots in precolonial encounters, such as the medieval interactions between Christians in the Latin West and Muslims in North Africa and Spain. The eleventh-century epic poem The Song of Roland, for instance, recast the 778 defeat of Charlemagne’s soldiers at the Battle of Roncevaux as a mythical struggle between Christians and Muslims—and between good and evil. Even if the idea of the Muslim world took distinctive shape in the nineteenth century, as Aydin suggests, some terms historically associated in the West with that formation – ‘Arab’ or ‘Saracen’, for example—appeared earlier, helping erect a longstanding binary in which Islam and the Muslim world would come to serve as homogenizing, negative referents.
What if (almost) every gene affects (almost) everything?
Ed Yong, The Atlantic, 16 June 2017
More specifically, it means that all the genes that are switched on in a particular type of cell—say, a neuron or a heart muscle cell—are probably involved in almost every complex trait that involves those cells. So, for example, nearly every gene that’s switched on in neurons would play some role in defining a person’s intelligence, or risk of dementia, or propensity to learn. Some of these roles may be starring parts. Others might be mere cameos. But few genes would be left out of the production altogether. This might explain why the search for genetic variants behind complex traits has been so arduous.
For example, a giant study called… er… GIANT looked at the genomes of 250,000 people and identified 700 variants that affect our height. As predicted, each has a tiny effect, raising a person’s stature by just a millimeter. And collectively, they explain just 16 percent of the variation in heights that you see in people of European ancestry. That’s not very much, especially when scientists estimate that some 80 percent of all human height variation can be explained by genetic factors. Where’s that missing fraction?
Pritchard’s team re-analyzed the GIANT data and calculated that there are probably more than 100,000 variants that affect our height, and most of these shift it by just a seventh of a millimeter. They’re so minuscule in their effects that it’s hard to tell them apart from statistical noise, which is why geneticists typically ignore them. And yet, Pritchard’s team noted that many of these weak signals cropped up consistently across different studies, which suggests that they are real results. And since these variants are spread evenly across the entire genome, they implicate a ‘substantial fraction of all genes’, Pritchard says.
Decades after earliest Quran was discovered,
scholars to share full text of the Sana’a manuscript
Praveen Swami, Indian Express, 18 June 2017
Even as this incredible academic story nears its climax, darkness shrouds the manuscript itself. In 2015, as Saudi Arabia began bombing Yemen, the manuscript’s caretakers in Sana’a fled, locking the manuscript in a secret safe that can only be opened if all of them gather again. The longer the manuscript remains in the safe, the more rapidly it will deteriorate: climate control is essential to its preservation.
Five thousand kilometres from the Grand Mosque in Sana’a, the Corpus Coranicum, a project of the Berlin-Brandenburg Academy of Humanities and Sciences, is housed in a nondescript building in Potsdam — a city itself horribly bombed in April, 1945, by the Royal Air Force, in raids that claimed the lives of over 7,000 civilians. Inside, scholars have been using state-of-the-art digital tools to reconstruct the Sana’a manuscript. Each character has had to be retraced by hand, sometimes using ultraviolet imaging to render the washed-away lower text visible.
Though Islamic tradition refers to variant readings of the Quran, these scholarly disputations have been erased from popular imagination by a rising tide of literalism. Historians and textual scholars will make the full text of the Sana’a manuscript available to the world for the first time, in a study to be published under the Corpus Coranicum. But in recovering the words of God, the scholars also hope to rediscover something more precious: the world in which those words were born and first gained meaning.
A world of shared ecstasy
Adam Shatz, Paris Review, 19 June 2017
In the taqsim, he discovered a kind of Arab jazz in which a soloist could improvise freely within a maqam, or modulate to other maqam’at, provided she returned to the original one. (Maqam’at are made up of seven notes that repeat at the octave.) He loved the ‘openness of time’, the taqsim’s elastic way of moving between the rhythmic drive of the tune and improvisations rich in melodic embellishments, slides, and tremolos. Aspiring to recapture the sound and feel of the taqsim without simply reproducing it on Western instruments, King wondered how the taqsim would sound if he combined it with the intricate harmonies, counterpoint, and canonic imitation of the string quartet music he loved, as well as such extended techniques as as col legno, in which the string is struck by the stick or the wood of the bow. He began to write the music on Free Palestine as a way of answering that question.
Each of the fifteen pieces on the album has a split title. The first part refers to the predominant maqam used; the second is the name of a Palestinian village or city that has been ravaged by war or literally erased from the map in 1948, when some four hundred Palestinian villages were razed by Israeli forces. While King was writing Free Palestine, the 2014 war in Gaza between Israel and Hamas broke out. More than two thousand Palestinians were killed, the vast majority of them civilians. (More than seventy Israelis were killed, too, all but seven of them soldiers.) King, who had been educating himself on the history of the conflict by reading Said, Mahmoud Darwish, and Hannah Arendt, says he felt moved to commemorate the “de-populated” villages of Palestine. These places, he writes in his composer’s note, “are significant historically for what happened to the people who lived there as well as the ongoing conditions of apartheid, occupation and dispossession in both the 1948 and 1967 territories of historic Palestine.” The music on Free Palestine, however, is neither programmatic nor didactic. It invites us to reflect on the destruction of pre-1948 Palestine, the Nakba, or catastrophe, without telling us how to think about it…
In his effort to combine Western and Arabic music, King runs up against an old and still powerful set of prejudices… Roulette, the Brooklyn performance space where the music was first performed in 2014, received a number of angry calls about the inclusion of a pro-Palestinian work on its program, moving them to publish a statement emphasizing that King’s composition was not a defense of ‘terrorism’. (At the album’s launch in early June at the Public Theatre, a team of fifteen policemen was enlisted as ‘protection’.) But the objections to Free Palestine are just as likely to come from opponents of cultural appropriation on the identity-politics left, who may ask what a white guy from Minneapolis is doing making Arabic-style music about Palestine. For these critics, the right to represent an oppressed group, to tell their story, to play their music, even to cook their food, belongs exclusively to that group. Almost any borrowing by a nonnative can be cast as an illegitimate act of exploitation.
What the ‘Conceptual penis’ hoax does and does not prove
Alan Sokal, Chronicle of Higher Education, 14 June 2017
It indeed seems likely that, at Cogent Social Sciences, the flattery of the editors’ moral and ideological preconceptions helped to dull their critical faculties and smooth the way to publication of a grossly deficient manuscript. To be sure, Boghossian and Lindsay did not carry out a controlled experiment, but suppose that they had: Imagine that they had selected a sample of lower-tier sociology or gender-studies journals and then sent, to a randomly chosen half of them, an article contending, with equally flimsy arguments, that toxic hyperfemininity is the conceptual driver behind much of climate change…
Would the modified article have fared as well as the original? I doubt it.
On the other hand, Boghossian and Lindsay’s experiment also shows that flattery of the editors’ moral and ideological preconceptions is not always sufficient to win publication. After all, they originally submitted the article to NORMA: International Journal for Masculinity Studies — a not particularly prestigious journal of gender studies – which rejected it as ‘unsuitable for publication in NORMA’. By contrast, Cogent Social Sciences – whatever one may conclude about its overall merit – is a generalist social-sciences journal, not a journal of gender studies.
Finally, it seems even less likely that this paper would have been accepted at a more prestigious gender-studies journal, such as Gender & Society, Feminist Theory, Signs, Feminist Studies, or Men and Masculinities. The bias toward articles presupposing a particular moral and ideological orientation – and the associated dulling of the editors’ capacities for critical thinking – may well persist at this higher tier, but its effects will be more subtle than a hoax like this could demonstrate.
Plurality on campus
Roger Berkowitz, Medium, 11 June 2017
Freedom of speech is not simply an abstract constitutional constraint; the freedom to speak one’s opinion guarantees that each of us will encounter divergent and opposed opinions that remind us of the basic plurality of the world. Free speech reminds us that our own view of the world is partial; it compels us to listen to the opinions of others and protects the opinions of the majority from uncritical acceptance. That is why free speech is the foundation of all expansive and right thinking. ‘Only in the freedom of our speaking with one another does the world, as that about which we speak, emerge in its objectivity and visibility from all sides.’ The world is not something that can be true or false; the human and political world is plural in its essence and must be enjoyed and also preserved in that plurality. Freedom of speech is what defends that plurality.
The second reason that free speech matters is that politics is not about truth. Politics is about opinions. There is never one truth to which politics strives. Instead, politics is the activity of free and equal citizens who together must build a common world, a world in which they can live together amidst their real and important differences. Politics does not aim at truth; it aims, instead, to allow unique and distinct peoples live together as they pursue their particular truths.
Arendt did not believe that free speech is justified because it would lead to the embrace of truth. The world is not something that can be true or false; it is plural and must be enjoyed and also preserved in that plurality. Freedom of speech is what defends that plurality.
Facing facts, facing reality
Jacqueline Ardam, Los Angeles Review of Books, 8 June 2017
A significant amount of recent feminist scholarship in fields such as literature, history, cultural studies, and gender and sexuality studies, has focused on affect and emotion, and Nelson explains that Tough Enough ‘marks a border territory of affect studies’. At a time when we are thinking in new and exciting ways about not just the existence but about the value of affect and emotion in texts, writers, and readers, Nelson’s book marks an important intervention in the field. In a culture that often derides women, both private and public, for expressing and engaging seriously with feelings, the six women discussed in Tough Enough have, to varying degrees, been accused of the opposite, their work being too austere, too cold, too unfeeling. In reading several limit cases of affect among women writers, intellectuals, and artists, Tough Enough reveals the ways in which refusals of sentimentality, by those most likely to be accused of it, constitute a deliberate and powerful ethical stance…
What links these women together is not just their formal or aesthetic coldness, but a particularly non-expressive, unemotional response to reality; ‘facing reality’ is one of Nelson’s most frequently used phrases in Tough Enough. Their work, Nelson demonstrates, was categorized as ‘cold’ not only because of the crispness of their prose, but also because of the lack of sentiment in their representation and consideration of trauma. Susan Sontag, for example, responded to the September 11 terrorist attacks in The New Yorker just days later not with a cry of pain or call for unity, but with a scathing assessment of the political right’s actions. In one of the most controversial pieces of her celebrated career, Sontag critiqued the political establishment’s ‘sanctimonious, reality-concealing rhetoric […] unworthy of a mature democracy’ and, while acknowledging that we might all ‘grieve together’, admonished us ‘not [to] be stupid together’. Nelson reads Sontag’s “stupid” through its etymological roots and, paraphrasing Sontag, understands the term to imply an injunction against having ‘our faculties deadened or dulled […] stunned with surprise and grief’. She goes on to argue that Sontag here demands that the reader ‘remain attuned, even sensitive, to reality in this most extreme state of emotional distress’ as a way of facing a traumatic reality. Attuned and sensitive, but not sentimental; this distinction is vital to both Sontag and Nelson.
Nelson traces a similar reaction to painful reality in her other subjects, most powerfully in her reading of Hannah Arendt’s Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil (1963). The book was controversial for a number of reasons: for its claims that Nazi Adolf Eichmann was not a monster or sociopath but rather ‘terribly and terrifyingly normal’, and for its unemotional, matter-of-fact, often ironic tone. That Arendt herself was a German Jew who fled from the Nazis seems incongruous with Eichmann’s argument and aesthetic. But Nelson closely reads a number of passages of the text and traces the ways in which Arendt’s rhetoric – particularly her irony and ‘abrupt understatement’ – undercuts Eichmann’s account of his actions during the Holocaust. ‘It is not that Arendt denies this story its horror’, Nelson observes, ‘but rather that she attempts to suggest its horror by not dwelling on it, instead letting the rhythm of her prose convey the weight of the evidence.’ By focusing on evidence over feelings, on facts over emotions, Nelson finds that Arendt ‘insist[s] on facing painful reality as the price not only of sharing the world with others in their plurality but of having any world at all left to share’. For Arendt, it is not Eichmann’s lack of emotion, but his lack of thought that enabled his many crimes. To face facts, to face reality – the only ethical response to the Holocaust for Arendt – requires critical thinking, questioning, and judgment. Without these, we are no better than Eichmann.
When neurology becomes theology
Robert A Burton, Nautilus, 15 June 2017
Over my career, I’ve gathered a neurologist’s working knowledge of the physiology of sensations. I realize neuroscientists have identified neural correlates for emotional responses. Yet I remain ignorant of what sensations and responses are at the level of experience. I know the brain creates a sense of self, but that tells me little about the nature of the sensation of ‘I-ness’. If the self is a brain-generated construct, I’m still left wondering who or what is experiencing the illusion of being me. Similarly, if the feeling of agency is an illusion, as some philosophers of mind insist, that doesn’t help me understand the essence of my experience of willfully typing this sentence.
Slowly, and with much resistance, it’s dawned on me that the pursuit of the nature of consciousness, no matter how cleverly couched in scientific language, is more like metaphysics and theology. It is driven by the same urges that made us dream up gods and demons, souls and afterlife. The human urge to understand ourselves is eternal, and how we frame our musings always depends upon prevailing cultural mythology. In a scientific era, we should expect philosophical and theological ruminations to be couched in the language of physical processes. We argue by inference and analogy, dragging explanations from other areas of science such as quantum physics, complexity, information theory, and math into a subjective domain. Theories of consciousness are how we wish to see ourselves in the world, and how we wish the world might be.
The perennial dictator
Anjam Sundamram, Africa is a Country, 16 June 2017
Rwanda’s constitution was changed last year to allow Kagame to stay in power until 2034. Like many authoritarian leaders – in Iraq, Libya and Syria, as well as the Rwandan regime leading up to the 1994 genocide – Kagame justifies his rule with statistics about how many schools and hospitals his government has built and the pace of his country’s economic growth. Like many of those dictators, Kagame is praised for maintaining stability in Rwanda.
But each year that Kagame stays in power more Rwandan politicians are killed, jailed or forced into exile. Journalists are murdered and imprisoned. And institutions essential for long-term peace, such as an independent parliament and judiciary, are corrupted. His political party all but controls the economy, seizing businesses at will and monopolizing sectors. Kagame allows no rivals to his power. He has not even engineered a ‘Putin’, by installing a puppet president at this year’s election. And as he clings to power he raises the likelihood of violence in Rwanda.
Yet, Kagame pontificates on leadership, democracy and good governance at Davos, Yale and Harvard. World leaders and global corporations seem enamored by Kagame’s narrative of Rwanda’s rise from the ashes of genocide to become a democratic nation, a global leader in women’s rights, and an attractive destination for foreign investment.
Between the black body and me
RL Stephens, Jacobin, 31 May 2017
In a widely replicated gesture, Coates locates the experience of racism in the body, in a racism that ‘dislodges brains, blocks airways, rips muscle, extracts organs, cracks bones, breaks teeth’. In the slim volume, fewer than two hundred pages, the word ‘body’ or ‘bodies’ appears more than three hundred times. ‘In America’, he writes, ‘it is traditional to destroy the black body’. Another brooding passage dwells on the inevitability of this violence. It had to be blood. It had to be nails driven through a tongue and ears pruned away. It had to be the thrashing of a kitchen maid for the crime of churning the butter at a leisurely clip. It could only be the employment of carriage whips, tongs, iron pokers, handsaws, stones, paperweights or whatever might be handy to break the black body.
Yet Coates’s descriptive language and haunting narrative are not mere metaphors. They act as a kind of ontological pivot, mystifying racism even as it is anchored in its physical effects.
Metaphor has long been used to capture racism’s almost unimaginable brutality. Lynching became ‘strange fruit’ in Abel Meerpool’s song, made famous by Billie Holiday. In a wry, tragic innuendo, rape was referred to in Black communities as ‘nighttime integration’. The use of metaphor is not in itself an obfuscation. But Coates wields metaphor to obscure rather than illuminate the reality of racism.
What we find all too often in Coates’s narrative universe are bodies without life and a racism without people. To give race an ontological meaning, to make it a reality all its own, is to drain it of its place in history and its roots in discrete human action. To deny the role of life and people – of politics – as Coates does is to also foreclose the possibility of liberation.
Édouard Louis’s novel of the French working class
Sam Metz, The New Republic, 8 June 2017
The way Louis writes of Eddy’s humiliation as a queer is especially intriguing because of how similar it is to the way Louis writes about the humiliation laid upon Hallencourt’s working poor. To contextualize being attacked and called ‘faggot’, Eddy says, ‘the schoolyard obeyed the same rules as the rest of the world: the big guys kept away from the little ones … [his] mother would say much the same thing when speaking about workers.’ In both instances, there’s hurt, shame, and, more often than not, physical injury. One time, after getting beat up, Eddy says, ‘I thought that in the end I would get used to the pain. There is a way in which people do grow accustomed to pain, the way workers get used to back pain.’ The poverty of Hallencourt is a reference point in explanations of Eddy Belleguele’s individual trials, vice versa: Louis’s sensitivity in describing how a gay teenager navigates the straight world lends itself to a specifically queer sensitivity in describing how working class people navigate a world in which wealth dominates.
The End of Eddy takes a fatalistic approach to the circumstances of Hallencourt’s workers. They’re inescapable… The shame shared among Mrs. Belleguele and the rest of the people of Hallencourt stems from the fact that they see their lives as defined by mistakes of their own making, rather than by a society that has destined ‘pretty much everyone’ to be humiliatingly powerless. Mrs. Belleguele is proud. Like her alcoholic husband, when forced to confront the torment of day-to-day life, she leans into knowing how to ‘have a good laugh’ which, according to Eddy, ‘was a point of pride for her’. ‘I am what I am, ordinary’, she tells Eddy to which he reflects, ‘as if pride were not the first manifestation of pain’.
And if Qatar folds?
Gilbert Achcar, al-Quds al-Arabi/ The Arabist, 7 June 2017
Qatar’s role during the reign of Emir Hamad was not limited to cultivating good relationships with different parties in the Kuwaiti sense, which is neutral and negative, but it also used its substantial wealth to play an active role in regional politics by supporting the Muslim Brotherhood. When Saudi Arabia renounced the Brotherhood, after sponsoring it since its inception in 1928, due to its opposition to American intervention in Kuwait in 1990, the weight of Qatar’s political role greatly increased with the establishment of Al-Jazeera, which resonated with Arab society by welcoming Arab voices of opposition, in particular the Muslim Brotherhood.
So when the volcano of the Great Arab Uprising erupted in 2011, Qatar was able to play a significant role through its sponsorship of both the Muslim Brotherhood and Al-Jazeera. As a result, the two axes of conflict that had dominated the Arab world – the old establishment and the fundamentalist opposition led by the Muslim Brotherhood – found support in the Gulf Cooperation Council. But while Saudi Arabia supported the old establishment throughout the region – with the exception of Libya where it remained neutral and Syria where sectarianism produced an alliance (between the Assad regime and) Iran – Qatar supported the uprisings, especially where the Brotherhood was involved, with the exception of Bahrain for obvious reasons. The conflict between the Emirate and the Kingdom since the onset of the ‘Arab Spring’ was evident by Qatar’s support for the Tunisian uprising, while Saudi Arabia granted asylum to deposed Tunisian President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali.
Moreover, the Obama administration saw Qatar as a means to ward off the danger of Arab uprisings that might take root in a way that would threaten US interests. So it played both sides, at times supporting the old establishment with Saudi Arabia (as in Bahrain), and at others, trying to contain the uprisings with Qatar through the Muslim Brotherhood and its affiliates (like in Tunisia and Egypt). But Qatar’s role urging Washington to adopt a policy of keeping pace with the uprisings was a cause of Saudi indignation, and outraged the United Arab Emirates, which had designated the Muslim Brotherhood public enemy number one. The pressure the two Gulf countries placed on Qatar continued to build after Qatari bets on the Muslim Brotherhood failed to pay out when the Egyptian army overthrew President Mohammed Morsi and violently suppressed the Brotherhood. That was followed by Emir Hamad’s decision to step down in place of his son, the current Emir, Tamim, only to see Gulf pressure reach its first peak in 2014, forcing the new emir to change course.
History by lawsuit
Joe Mullan and Cyrus Farivar, Ars Technica, 13 June 2017
History is not fixed; like memory itself, it is an act of reconstruction. Shiva Ayyadurai understands this. Ayyadurai has spent nearly six years publicly proclaiming himself the ‘inventor of e-mail’. But this claim about e-mail—as everyone but Ayyadurai’s supporters understand the term ‘e-mail’—isn’t true.
Ayyadurai did write a program called ‘EMAIL’ for use by the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey (now a part of Rutgers). He copyrighted the code in 1982. But Ayyadurai today makes the far more significant claim that he invented ‘the electronic mail system as we know it today’, even though his code had little impact beyond the university. Mainstream tech history books don’t even mention Ayyadurai – unless you count the several books Ayyadurai has written about himself…
Yet Ayyadurai is closer than ever to creating a world in which his version of history rules. In 2016, Ayyadurai sued Gawker, which had published a biting and widely read article critical of his claims. Several months later, with Gawker in bankruptcy proceedings after losing a defamation lawsuit brought by former pro wrestler Terry ‘Hulk Hogan’ Bollea, the site agreed to pay Ayyadurai $750,000. Two articles about Ayyadurai were deleted.
Mini particle accelerators make cancer treatment
safer for everyone
Sophia Chen, Wired, 12 June 2017
The Korle Bu Teaching Hospital in Accra, Ghana -the third largest hospital in Africa – houses two radiation machines for treating cancer patients. Both are relatively new, purchased by Ghana’s Ministry of Health in the last few years. Both produce powerful X-rays that can penetrate your skin to kill tumor cells in your body. People from all over Ghana, even outside the country, come to the hospital to use the machines for cancer therapy. ‘We have patients from Nigeria, Togo, and the Ivory Coast coming to us for treatment’, says Joel Yarney, an oncologist at the hospital.
One machine produces X-rays by accelerating electrons close to the speed of light through an intricately built copper pipe, then slamming them into a heavy metal target. It’s called a linear accelerator, or linac for short, and it’s a cousin of the Higgs boson-discovering Large Hadron Collider. The other, known as an isotopic teletherapy machine, produces X-rays as silvery cobalt-60 chunks inside a small canister eject X-rays and transform into nickel through radioactive decay. Doctors then direct the X-rays toward a patient’s tumor. The isotopic technology saves lives. But it’s also responsible for some of the most serious radiation accidents in history aside from the nuclear reactor meltdowns at Chernobyl and Fukushima.
Invented more than 60 years ago, these radioactive material-based machines soon became a fundamental tool for cancer treatment. They usually use cobalt-60 as a radioactive source, although some versions use a compound of cesium-137, cesium chloride. Around 40 years ago, American hospitals started to replace them with linacs, whose X-ray beam is much easier to shape – and today, US hospitals use them pretty much exclusively. ‘All else being equal, a doctor would prefer to have a linac than a cobalt machine because it’s better cancer treatment’, says Miles Pomper of the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies. But hospitals throughout the developing world still use isotope therapy to treat their sick. It’s not just Ghana, but Mexico, India, China – the list goes on.
Is philosophy simply harder than science?
David Papineau, Times Literary Supplement, 1 June 2017
The real difference between philosophy and science is not subject area, but the kind of problem at issue. Philosophical issues typically have the form of a paradox. People can be influenced by morality, for example, but moral facts are not part of the causal order. Free will is incompatible with determinism, but incompatible with randomness too. We know that we are sitting at a real table, but our evidence doesn’t exclude us sitting in a Matrix-like computer simulation. In the face of such conundrums, we need philosophical methods to unravel our thinking. Something is amiss, but we aren’t sure what. We need to catalogue our assumptions, often including those we didn’t know we had, and subject them to critical analysis.
One of the great scandals of modern intellectual life is the way that physicists brushed the problems of quantum mechanics under the carpet throughout the twentieth century. Led by Niels Bohr and his obscurantist ‘Copenhagen interpretation’ of quantum mechanics, they told generations of students that the glaring inconsistencies apparent in the theory were none of their business. ‘Shut up and calculate’ was the typical response to any undergraduate who had the temerity to query the cogency of the theory. (This slogan has been variously attributed to Paul Dirac, Richard Feynman and others. The indeterminacy of the attribution is itself a testimony to the prevalence of the attitude.)
If you ask me, the relative inconclusiveness of philosophical debate does nothing to discredit the discipline. It is the natural upshot of the task facing philosophy. Most people don’t enjoy banging their heads against nasty paradoxes. It’s a dirty job, but someone has to do it. Given this, it is unsurprising that philosophical problems aren’t easy to settle. The difficulty of philosophy doesn’t stem from its peculiar subject matter or the inadequacy of its methods, but simply from the fact that it takes on the hard questions.
Greece: Between deterrence and integration
Daniel Howden, Refugees Deeply, May 2017
Two competing priorities informed the response to the more than 50,000 refugees and migrants suddenly stranded within Greece’s borders – deterrence and integration. At one end of an unbalanced scale, policies were adopted that segregated the refugees from the host population, effectively turning them into a deterrent to future migrants. At the other end lesser efforts were made at integration.
Neither of the refugees’ legal routes out of Greece are functioning as anticipated: The scheme to relocate people to other member states failed to meet one-tenth of its target and has been scaled back; reunification with family elsewhere in Europe proceeds slowly; returns to Turkey have no more than trickled after legal challenges; while voluntary returns to countries of origin have so far had only modest takeup…
‘In the minds of Greeks and the Greek state these people do not want to be here and sooner rather than later they will leave’, Takis said. ‘Combined with the slow pace of relocation this is a disincentive to implement any effective integration scheme.’ It is this cynicism that really governs Greece’s response to finding itself as the main entry point to an unprecedented number of people trying to reach the European Union, Takis asserted. The plan that underpins the state’s apparently chaotic actions is that ‘by buying time the problem will vanish by itself’, he said.
First he became a US citizen – then he joined ISIS
Seamus Hughes & Bennett Clifford, The Atlantic, 25 May 2017
Pazara was just 16 years old when civil war tore Yugoslavia apart. In April 1992, the ethnic-Serb paramilitary force in Bosnia, known as Vojska Republika Srpska, or VRS, demanded that Teslic’s Bosnian-Muslim residents swear allegiance to the VRS and relinquish their weapons. Some complied, but most refused. In the following months, the VRS began a campaign of ethnic cleansing in the Teslic region, including setting up camps for Bosnian Muslims and Croats, engaging in mass raping and killing, and shelling Bosnian-Muslim villages around Teslic.
It appears that Pazara may have helped them. Multiple reports by Bosnian news outlets assert that he fought for the VRS. In February 2015, the online newspaper Sloboda Bosna claimed it had found military records that proved Pazara was a soldier in the VRS from 1993 to 1994. These reports were bolstered by Bosnian political analyst Dzevad Galijasevic, who said an official inside the Republika Srpska confirmed to him that the government had records on Pazara from his time in the VRS. Dr. Vlado Azinovic, a Bosnian political analyst and expert on Bosnian foreign fighters, also confirmed the existence of records of Pazara’s service in the VRS. According to these records, Pazara apparently joined the VRS at the age of 17 alongside his father and fought in the Pelagicevo region and in the towns of Majevica and Bihac. During the height of the war, in 1994, Pazara served as a sniper for a VRS unit fighting in the Bosnian-Croatian border town of Orasje. In other words, this future jihadist may have begun his career in combat by helping Serbs slaughter Muslims.
Wanted: More data, the dirtier the better
Esther Landuis & Purvesh Khatri,
Qanta Magazine, 6 June 2017
I don’t quite get how your approach differs from traditional meta-analysis. What’s fundamentally different?
The biggest difference is that our group ignores heterogeneity across data sets, whereas in traditional meta-analysis we are taught to reduce heterogeneity. People say, for example, ‘I’m not going to use this sample because that patient had a different drug treatment. Or maybe these patients were early post-transplant whereas this other data set is late, five years after transplant, so I’m not going to use that data.’ In bioinformatics, we have learned to take data sets and select samples making sure there is no noise, no confounding factors.
But when we do this, it does not capture the heterogeneity of the disease. We know that. That’s why we have to replicate the findings in other cohorts. What I’m saying is, don’t worry about the heterogeneity. Using dirty data allows you to account for clinical heterogeneity.
But to be sure that heterogeneity wasn’t going to screw up my results, I set stringent criteria for validating that statistical associations we found between genes and medical conditions were not flukes. Validation had to be done in an independent cohort that was not part of the discovery set. In other words, if a lab had more than one data set published, I made each data set either a discovery or a validation cohort a priori.
Blood from the sky: Zipline’s ambitious
medical drone delivery in Africa
Jonathan W Rosen, Technology Review, 8 June 2017
This hilltop site, erected on a former maize field, is now known as the nest: a fenced-in plot consisting of a white circus-style tent housing a blood storage facility, 13 drones (nicknamed ‘zips’), and a small staff of young Americans and Rwandans. On one side of the tent, two stainless-steel launchers, facing opposite directions to account for changing winds, employ a system of bungee pulleys to catapult the 12-kilogram drones into the air at 84 kilometers per hour. On the other, two brown inflatable mats cushion the zips’ landing on return. Once the drones are airborne, cruising over an undulating landscape dotted with banana trees, cassava fields, and tin-roofed houses, an operator monitors their path on an iPad, staying in constant touch with air traffic control in Kigali. All routes, developed using a 3-D satellite map followed by detailed manual ground surveys, are pre–programmed using real-time kinematic satellite navigation, which – along with an inertial navigation system—enables the payload to drop within a target area five meters in diameter. ‘Accuracy is extremely important’, says Hetzler, adding that if the drops were less precise, packages could end up on roofs, in trees, or in other inaccessible spots that could destroy the operation. He says the company is developing technology that will automate the ground surveying process.
Zipline’s plans for Rwanda include scaling up to a wide range of medical products, including emergency rabies vaccines; drugs to treat HIV, tuberculosis, and malaria; contraceptives; and diagnostic test kits.
Yet blood represented a natural starting point. After all, it has a shelf life of only 42 days, must be kept refrigerated, and is frequently needed on an urgent basis.
Truly modern Muslims
Thomas Small, Times Literary Supplement, 7 June 2017
This part of the book, on which Ahmed’s whole argument hinges, is immensely frustrating. In addition to all those Islamic languages, he was equally fluent in the tortuous idiolect of post-structuralism that still infects the humanities, so getting to grips with his argument is no mean feat. Fighting your way through the jargon and the neologisms is worth it, however, for though many academics employ that kind of convoluted language to mystify the reader, hoping to deflect attention away from the fact that there’s nothing really there, in Ahmed’s case, he really does have something to say. Which is that revelation is much, much bigger than just the Qur’an, the Hadith and the sharia – but because Muslims lack clear, easy answers about where revelation begins and ends, they are forced to undertake what Ahmed calls ‘hermeneutical engagement’ with revelation in all three dimensions.
This is what ‘being Islamic’ is, constantly struggling to define and understand revelation, endlessly wrestling with all its possible meanings, some by writing legal treatises, others by painting exquisite miniatures, still others by drinking wine and reciting love poetry. So ‘being Islamic’ is not so much a matter of doing or not doing certain things, thinking or not thinking certain things. It is, rather, a way of doing and thinking whatever it is you’re doing or thinking, a way of not doing and not thinking them. Muslims, when they don’t drink, are ‘not drinking’ in an Islamic way; equally, when they do drink, they do so as Muslims, in the same Islamic way, accommodating each thought, activity, or desire to their own interpretation of revelation in all its forms. Certainly, the resulting spectrum of doctrines and practices includes contradictions, but these contradictions aren’t incoherent; their coherence lies in the fact that they result from a single activity, ‘being Islamic’, which Ahmed also calls ‘meaning-making for the self’, a rather elliptical expression indicating something like ‘communal self-exploration’. He’s insistent on this point, that at heart, Islam is primarily focused on providing Muslims with tools for plumbing the depths and scaling the heights of inner experience, and even more than that, that Islam actually is ‘the reality of inner experience itself’.
Now, if you’re thinking that the pious Muslims you’ve met don’t seem to be doing that, then you’re in good company. Ahmed’s continual refrain is an almost tetchy insistence that very few Muslims consciously understand what being Islamic truly means – especially Salafists and their wealthy backers in the Arabian Gulf. Non-Muslims also don’t get it, especially those disenchanted academics. In fact, despite his radically postmodern writing style, what Ahmed is advocating is basically conservative, if not reactionary. Since secularist and fundamentalist readings both reduce revelation to just the text, flattening out what should be a vertically stratified, multi-spectrum reality, Ahmed opposes both. Keen to defend tradition from vulgar, reformist agitation, he considers egalitarianism and mass literacy (which liberals and puritans alike idolize) existential threats to mature Islam, based as it is on intellectual initiation and spiritual hierarchy: as you move higher up this hierarchy, your proficiency in ‘being Islamic’ rises. And in the Balkans-to-Bengal complex, this spiritual hierarchy was reflected, however obscurely, in the social hierarchy. At the top, the sultan presided over all, allowing everyone else to practise ‘being Islamic’ to the best of their abilities. Sufi orders, legal schools and study circles were everywhere, and everyone was attached to them in one way or another. The wisdom attained by the few, codified in metaphysical treatises and disseminated via mystical folk poems and songs, eventually trickled down to the many.
Implicit bias: Is everyone racist?
BBC Magazine, 5 June 2017
However, pretty much everything about implicit bias is contentious, including very fundamental questions. For example, there is disagreement about whether these states of mind are really unconscious. Some psychologists believe that at some level we are aware of our prejudices.
Then there’s the IAT itself. There are two main problems with it. The first is what scientists call replicability. Ideally a study which produces a certain result on a Monday should produce the same result on Tuesday. But, says Greg Mitchell, a law professor at the University of Virginia, the replicability of the IAT is extremely poor. If the test suggests that you have a strong implicit bias against African Americans, then ‘if you take it even an hour or so later you’ll probably get a very different score’. One reason for this is that your score seems to be sensitive to circumstances in which you take it. It’s possible that your result will depend on whether you take the test before – or after – a hearty lunch.
More fundamentally, there appears to a very tenuous relationship between the IAT and behaviour. That is to say, if your colleague, Person A, does worse in the IAT than another colleague, Person B, it would be far too hasty to conclude that Person A will exhibit more discriminatory behaviour in the workplace. In so far as there is a link between the IAT and behaviour generally, it is shaky.
A child of the place
Andre Naffis-Sahely & Deepak Unnikrishnan, Los Angeles Review of Books, 3 June 2017
One of my favorite stories (or chapters) in Temporary People is entitled ‘Moonseepalty’. Anand and his friends are the children of Indian migrants and they are devoted fans of soccer. After Anand’s bicycle is stolen, and his complaints to a passing policeman fall on deaf ears, Anand witnesses an Arab boy sweet-talk the policeman into letting him and his friends play soccer where they technically shouldn’t, thus exerting their Arab privilege via language. When Anand decides to take matters into his own hands, his friends leave him behind, frightened of the possible repercussions. I felt that this story perfectly encapsulates the neuroses of the children of migrant workers in the UAE – children who grow up painfully aware that they should always be on their best behavior in order not to jeopardize their parents’ ability to remain in the country and thus provide for the family. How did you deal with that neurosis?
My parents – especially my father – taught me to be so paranoid that everything was internalized. That said, the reason I think the way I do is because of the place itself, and that needs to be acknowledged; and I’m not finding that in the narratives that are coming out of the West, because it’s as though the place has been already judged and branded. My hope with the book, at least when I was writing it, was that it would be a kind of document where I could test the narratives I was hearing from the West, test the stories my parents weren’t talking about, test the stories that my generation actually wanted to investigate or examine, and actually look at it and open up a conversation. Whatever impermanence is there, it grows within you, it’s a part of you. There are certain things that I do because of Abu Dhabi – attachments/detachments, the way I am with people. Relationships frighten me. There is still a suitcase somewhere that hasn’t been unpacked.
‘Last secret’ of 1967 War:
Israel’s Doomsday planfor nuclear display
William A Broad & David J Sanger,
New York Times, 3 June 2017
On the eve of the Arab-Israeli war, 50 years ago this week, Israeli officials raced to assemble an atomic device and developed a plan to detonate it atop a mountain in the Sinai Peninsula as a warning to Egyptian and other Arab forces, according to an interview with a key organizer of the effort that will be published Monday.
The secret contingency plan, called a ‘doomsday operation’ by Itzhak Yaakov, the retired brigadier general who described it in the interview, would have been invoked if Israel feared it was going to lose the 1967 conflict. The demonstration blast, Israeli officials believed, would intimidate Egypt and surrounding Arab states – Syria, Iraq and Jordan – into backing off.
Israel won the war so quickly that the atomic device was never moved to Sinai. But Mr. Yaakov’s account, which sheds new light on a clash that shaped the contours of the modern Middle East conflict, reveals Israel’s early consideration of how it might use its nuclear arsenal to preserve itself.
‘It’s the last secret of the 1967 war’, said Avner Cohen, a leading scholar of Israel’s nuclear history who conducted many interviews with the retired general.
Twitter and Facebook help spark protest movements. Then they undermine them.
Carlos Lozada, Washington Post, 25 May 2017
The author contrasts today’s efforts with the American civil rights movement of the mid-20th century, whose participants and organizers could not rely on a Facebook call-out to launch, for example, the Montgomery bus boycott or the March on Washington. But it was precisely the early, painstaking work of planning and coordinating and recruiting that helped the movement endure. ‘After both long-term organizing and working together during the boycott to take care of a myriad of tasks’, Tufekci writes, ‘the movement possessed a decision-making capability that saw it through challenges as they came up, and one that was strong enough to survive outside pressures and internal strife’. In this light, the 1963 March on Washington wasn’t significant just because of what was done and said that day, ‘but for the means through which it came to be – a manifestation of the vast organizing capacity that the civil rights movement had built over many years.’
Compare that with the movement that spread across Turkey in 2013, sparked by authorities’ plans to bulldoze Istanbul’s Gezi Park in favor of commercial and residential construction. The government and compliant media outlets sought to minimize the initial backlash, but Facebook and Twitter spread the news, along with images of clashes between police and protesters in the park, and the movement grew in numbers and in international notoriety. Tufekci was there, of course, and her stories of solidarity among those setting up tents, providing medical care, cooking meals and incessantly updating social media are among the book’s most compelling moments. She shows how protests are not just efforts to change policies, but a way for participants to battle their own alienation and build ‘communities of belonging’, often among wildly disparate individuals and groupings. (Don’t miss Tufekci’s description of the debates between Turkish soccer fans and LGBT protesters over inclusive chants.)
But the ‘collective effervescence’ of crowds, as Emile Durkheim called it, has practical limits. ‘The Gezi Park moment, going from almost zero to a massive movement within days, clearly demonstrates the power of digital tools’, Tufekci writes. ‘However, with this speed comes weakness, some of it unexpected. First, these new movements find it difficult to make tactical shifts because they lack both the culture and the infrastructure for making collective decisions. Often unable to change course after the initial, speedy expansion phase, they exhibit a ‘tactical freeze.’ Second, although their ability (as well as their desire) to operate without defined leadership protects them from co-optation, or ‘decapitation,’ it also makes them unable to negotiate with adversaries or even inside the movement itself. Third, the ease with which current social movements form often fails to signal an organizing capacity powerful enough to threaten those in authority.’ They saved the park, but protesters later told the author that momentum toward their broader goals, such as more representative democracy and less media censorship, soon fizzled.
Philosophy in the Islamic world
Peter Adamson & Nigel Warburton, Five Books, 30 May 2017
Was there nothing risky in this period about Christian philosophers paying homage to Islamic philosophers? Was there nothing sacrilegious, nothing blasphemous in doing that?
No, or at least they don’t seem to have felt that it was worse than using Aristotle. They knew that Aristotle wasn’t a Christian, and they also knew that he taught some problematic things–for example that the world was eternal. Interestingly, even though Aquinas had some very rude things to say about the prophet Mohammed, neither he nor other medieval philosophers in the Christian tradition seem to found it particularly problematic to use ideas from Muslims or Jews. If there was a problem, the problem was using ideas from non-Christians generally or even just using ideas that weren’t in the Bible. That definitely was a source of contention and debate.
Still, even as concerns the general question, ‘Can we use pagan or non-Christian philosophers?’ it’s clear that there was a powerful agreement across the whole scholastic world that this was a good thing to do. The only real problem was what you were supposed to do if one of these people like Aristotle or Averroes or Avicenna taught something unacceptable. They would distinguish very carefully between teachings of these figures that weren’t okay and the rest.
Modernism or barbarism
Benjamin Balthaser, Jacobin, 25 May 2017
It is continually heartbreaking that Berman is not alive to offer commentary on the Donald Trump era. In response to the miseries brought by the bourgeois modernity of a globalized elite, the answer increasingly comes in shape of demagogues who would drag us back into the past, to the isolating languages of tribe and race; the modernity of a high-tech prison or a giant border wall.
Trump, Marine Le Pen of France, Geert Wilders of the Netherlands, and other far-right politicians offer solutions to the modern world designed precisely to stop the chance encounters such as Baudelaire describes in Paris, or Berman tracks with the rise of hip-hop out of the ashes of the Bronx. They promise us all the ruin of modernity with none of the possibility.
If Berman were still alive today, his response to Trump’s ‘American carnage’ would not be an insistence that ‘America is Already Great’, but rather that the solution to America’s miseries can be found literally in the gears of the crisis.
The images are, from top down: One of architect Santiago Calatrava’s sets for New York City Ballet; one of Pouran Jinchi’s ‘Blind Owl’ series; Image by Betty Lee, of the Laboratory of Neuro Imaging, UCLA, of white matter fibre tracts, a winner of the 2011 Brain Art competition; Raphael’s ‘The School of Athens’ in the Apostolic Palace, Vatican; A phrenological image of the human head from Samuel Wells’ ‘How to Read Character: A New Illustrated Hand-book of Phrenology and Physiognomy’ (1891).