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 climate scepticism turned
into something more dangerous
David Runciman, Guardian, 7 July 2017
Post-truth politics also poses a problem for scepticism. A healthy democracy needs to leave plenty of room for doubt. There are lots of good reasons to be doubtful about what the reality of climate change will entail: though there is scientific agreement about the fact of global warming and its source in human activity, the ultimate risks are very uncertain and so are the long-term consequences. There is plenty of scope for disagreement about the most effective next steps. The existence of a very strong scientific consensus does not mean there should be a consensus about the correct political response. But the fact of the scientific consensus has produced an equal and opposite reaction that squeezes the room for reasonable doubt. The certainty among the scientists has engendered the most intolerant kind of scepticism among the doubters.
Not all climate sceptics are part of the ‘alt-right’. But everyone in the alt-right is now a climate sceptic. That’s what makes the politics so toxic. It means that climate scepticism is being driven out by climate cynicism. A sceptic questions the evidence for a given claim and asks whether it is believable. A cynic questions the motives of the people who deploy the evidence, regardless of whether it is believable or not. Any attempt to defend the facts gets presented as evidence that the facts simply suit the interests of the people peddling them.
An oasis of horror in an Internet of boredom
Angela Nagle, The Baffler, 29 June 2017
Those who claim that the new right-wing sensibility online today is just more of the same old right, undeserving of attention or differentiation, are wrong. Although it is constantly changing, in this important early stage of its appeal, its ability to assume the aesthetics of counterculture, transgression, and nonconformity tells us many things about the nature of its appeal and about the liberal establishment it defines itself against. It has more in common with the 1968 left’s slogan ‘It is forbidden to forbid!’ than it does with anything most recognize as part of any traditionalist right. Instead of interpreting it as part of other right-wing movements, conservative or libertarian, I would argue that the style being channelled by the Pepe meme–posting trolls and online transgressives belongs to a tradition that can be traced from the eighteenth-century writings of the Marquis de Sade, surviving through to the nineteenth-century Parisian avant-garde, the Surrealists, the rebel rejection of feminized conformity of post-war America, and then to what film critics called 1990s ‘male rampage films’ like American Psycho and Fight Club. In these, as in the rightist chan culture, interpretation and judgment are evaded through tricks and layers of metatextual self-awareness and irony.
The cult of the moral transgressor as a heroic individual is rooted in Romanticism. The psychopath, like the artist, privileges id over superego, and desire over moral constraints. Dostoyevsky’s anti-hero in Crime and Punishment, Raskolnikov, asserts his own right to transcend the morality of the lesser masses when he kills a ‘worthless’ old woman. Echoed in the style of contemporary transgressive anti-moral cultures like 4chan that later fused with the alt-right, is French writer Maurice Blanchot’s dictum that ‘the greatest suffering of others always counts for less than my pleasure.’
The myth of cultural appropriation
Walter Benn Michaels,
Chronicle of Higher Education, 2 July 2017
It’s in this context that the innumerable recent battles not just over who can tell which stories but also over who can and cannot have campus buildings named for them, whose speech is offensive but protected and whose speech is just hate — all the skirmishes of the current culture wars — should be understood. The students at elite American universities come overwhelmingly from the upper class. The job of the faculty is to help them rise within (or at least not fall out of) that class. And one of the particular responsibilities of the humanities and social-science faculty is to help make sure that the students who take our courses come out not just richer than everyone else but also more virtuous. (It’s like adding insult to injury, but the opposite.)
Identity crimes — both the phantasmatic ones, like cultural theft, and the real ones, like racism and sexism — are perfect for this purpose, since, unlike the downward redistribution of wealth, opposing them leaves the class structure intact. Thus, for example, one can completely support (as I do) the actions of Middlebury College students in demonstrating their opposition to what they called Charles Murray’s ‘white nationalism’ while at the same time noting that it’s not white nationalism that’s making poor people poorer; it’s capitalism. And when it comes to fighting capitalism, the Middlebury student body (median family income $244,300; about a quarter of Middlebury students come from the top 1 percent; three-quarters come from the top 20 percent) is not exactly in the revolution’s vanguard.
The problem is not that rich people can’t feel poor people’s pain; you don’t have to be the victim of inequality to want to eliminate inequality. And the problem is not that the story of the poor doesn’t belong to the rich; the relevant question about our stories is not whether they reveal someone’s privilege but whether they’re true. The problem is that the whole idea of cultural identity is incoherent, and that the dramas of appropriation it makes possible provide an increasingly economically stratified society with a model of social justice that addresses everything except that economic stratification.
How power operates in modern Britain:
with absolute contempt
Aditya Chakorbortty, Guardian, 3 July 2017
Contempt is the thread that runs through much of the worst barbarism in today’s Britain. When Grenfell Tower burned down, killing at least 80 men, women and children, one campaigner told the Financial Times: ‘It was not that we stayed silent, but that they never responded. It was not just that they ignored us, but that they viewed us with contempt.’
Contempt is the Tenant Management Association being warned again and again by residents that their homes are a deathtrap, but not lifting a finger. It is a local authority watching its tenants burn to death, then mounting a response so pitiful its leader is forced to resign. It is elected councillors holding the first meeting after the Grenfell tragedy to which they could have invited the survivors, but instead locking them out, citing ‘the risk of disruption’.
When one group of people is deemed unworthy of the place in which they live, the product is inevitably contempt. That applies to the security guards and nursery workers dying in Kensington just as much as it does to disabled people impoverished by the benefit cuts of austerity Britain.
Contempt doesn’t belong solely to one neighbourhood or political party. Ask Sam Leggatt, who lives on the other side of London from Grenfell, in the north-eastern borough of Haringey. Tonight the Labour-run council, for which she has always voted, is likely to approve plans to privatise her entire housing estate. If that happens, her home will probably be demolished. Yet neither she nor any of her neighbours have been told this by officials. When I put these and other allegations to Haringey council, it said that ‘no decision has been made on the future’ of Leggatt’s estate – but that it is among the first earmarked for privatisation, with ‘regeneration’ to follow. A friend told her last night, and now she keeps having ‘little wobbles’. ‘We’re not worth anything, are we?’ she says. ‘We’ve been treated with utter contempt.’
The ghettoization of genetic disease
Laura Hercher, Genome, 5 July 2017
The fact is that populations vary tremendously in their access to and their use of prenatal genetic testing. The proportion of women who choose to end a pregnancy after a fetal diagnosis of Down syndrome is often quoted as 90 percent, but this is an unreliable and discredited figure that is based on a single, small, unrepresentative study done decades ago. A meta-analysis of U.S. data published in Prenatal Diagnosis in 2012 identified the mean termination rate as 67 percent, but more importantly, the authors noted that ‘Heterogeneity across studies suggests that a summary termination rate may not be applicable to the entire U.S. population.’ In other words, it depends.
Anecdotally, genetic counselors across the country will tell you that decisions about what to do when a fetus has a chromosome abnormality vary widely — they vary by region, by ethnicity, by socioeconomic status, and by religious affiliation. These decisions reflect personal choices and local norms, but they may also reflect differences in access to prenatal care, prenatal testing, and abortion. A recent study by Caitlin Cooney, one of my graduate students, found that genetic counselors working in regions where multiple new laws restricting abortion had come into effect were significantly more likely to report changes in practice that negatively affected patient care and that limited access to second trimester abortions from 2011 to 2013.
If current social, legal, political, and technological trends continue, the result may be the ghettoization of genetic disease: It will be confined to discrete areas delineated by geography or culture or socioeconomic status. Whatever the impact on the absolute number of cases, this represents a fundamental re-ordering of our relationship with what it means to say something is genetic. Genetic disease has always been our shared vulnerability. When one part of society can opt out of risk, will they continue to feel the same obligation to provide support and resources to those who remain vulnerable, especially if at least some of them have deliberately chosen to accept the risk?
Flexible employment and casual labour:
a historical perspective on labour market policy
Noel Whiteside, History & Policy, 27 June 2017
One million workers in the UK are on zero hour contracts and a further five million are ostensibly self-employed, often casual workers supplementing an existing income… The end product is poverty (the population living on less than two-thirds of median income) which now embraces nearly 13 million people living in the UK. In a climate of constant austerity, low job security widens income inequalities. While self-employed barristers and management consultants protect themselves against lost income if ill or on parental leave, those working solely in the gig economy have no such security. Growing inequality and job insecurity may help explain the rising tide of nationalist populism and anti-immigrant feeling, as displayed in the election of President Trump in the USA, the Brexit vote to take the UK out of the European Union and the growth of nationalist politics across Europe. It also explains the soft words of Prime Minister May, expressing concern for those ‘barely managing’ in the current climate. In October 2016, Matthew Taylor was appointed to review these ‘new forms of work’ that undermine workers’ rights to the national minimum wage, annual paid leave, parental leave and sick pay. Improving the quality of work, Taylor claims, should be a national goal.
However, the issue is neither as novel nor as simple as it initially appears. Over a century ago, the founding fathers of British social statistics investigated the causes of destitution among Britain’s labouring poor. Irregular and insecure work (termed ‘casual’), then as now, proved a fundamental cause of poverty and social dependency. However, unlike today, it was also understood to threaten future prosperity. Economic and social fears combined to promote a politics of ‘decasualisation’. The earliest UK labour market reforms sought to achieve this goal. These reforms were not promoted by the early Labour Party, but by the Liberals aligned, as that party had been from its origins, to the interests of British industry and commerce.
How Paul Robeson found his political voice
in the Welsh valleys
Jeff Sparrow, Observer, 2 July 2017
In African American life, the black church had mattered so much because religion provided almost the only institutional stability for people buffeted by racial oppression. In particular, because Jim Crow segregated the workplace, black communities struggled to form and maintain trade unions. Wales, though, was different. The miners found consolation in religion, with every village dotted with chapels. But they believed just as fervently in trade unionism.
The Gresford disaster showed why. In an industry such as mining, you relied on your workmates – both to get the job done safely and to stand up for your rights. The battle was necessarily collective. A single miner possessed no power at all; the miners as a whole, however, could shut down the entire nation, as they’d demonstrated in 1926.
In particular, the cooperation mandated by modern industry might, at least in theory, break down the prejudices that divided workers – even, perhaps, the stigma attached to race. That was the point Robeson dramatised in The Proud Valley, a film in which the solidarity of the workplace overcomes the miners’ suspicion about a dark-skinned stranger. ‘Aren’t we all black down that pit?’ asks one of the men.
‘It’s from the miners in Wales,’ Robeson explained, ‘[that] I first understood the struggle of Negro and white together.’
What does ‘community’ mean?
Megan Garber, The Atlantic, 3 July 2017
For much of the 20th century, if you asked someone to define ‘community,’ they’d very likely give you an answer that involved a physical location. One’s community derived from one’s place – one’s literal place – in the world: one’s school, one’s neighborhood, one’s town. In the 21st century, though, that primary notion of ‘community’ has changed. The word as used today tends to involve something at once farther from and more intimate than one’s home: one’s identity. ‘A body of people or things viewed collectively,’ the Oxford English Dictionary sums it up. Community, in this sense, is not merely something that one fits into; it is also something one chooses for oneself, through a process of self-discovery. It is based on shared circumstances, certainly, but offers a transcendent kind of togetherness. It is active rather than passive. The LGBTQ community. The Latino community. The intelligence community. The journalism community.
For Bill Bishop, the author of The Big Sort:Why the Clustering of Like-Minded America Is Tearing Us Apart, that semantic shift speaks to a much broader transformation in American life. It speaks to the rise of the individual as a guiding force in culture; it speaks as well to the declining power of institutions to offer that guidance. As Bishop told a group at the Aspen Ideas Festival, co-sponsored by the Aspen Institute and The Atlantic: ‘It used to be that people were born as part of a community, and had to find their place as individuals. Now people are born as individuals, and have to find their community.’
The 1000-year-old lost Arab poetry
that lives on in Hebrew
Benjamin Ramm, BBC Culture, 29 June 2017
On 9 December 1499, the citizens of Granada awoke to a scene of devastation: the smouldering remains of over a million Arabic manuscripts, burnt on the orders of the Spanish Inquisition. The scale of cultural desecration is difficult to comprehend – it stands alongside the burning of the Mayan codices by Conquistadors 60 years later, and the destruction of the library at Alexandria…
Al-Andalus was characterised by cultural hybridity and a spirit of openness, attracting scholars and merchants with spices from India and China and songs from Iraq and Syria. The translation of long-neglected Greek works of philosophy helped lay the intellectual foundations of the Renaissance, and made Al-Andalus the cultural capital of Europe for over 300 years.
The legacy of Al-Andalus is evident in our own vocabulary, from discoveries in mathematics (algebra) to chemistry (alkali). Córdoba, home to the largest library in Europe, was described by a Christian poet as ‘the ornament of the world’. It was the birthplace of the Jewish theologian Maimonides and the Muslim polymath Ibn Rushd (known to Christians as Averroes), and a meeting place for the Sufi mystic Ibn Arabi…
Among the Muslim poets of Al-Andalus, there was a concerted attempt to rediscover and reinvent the literary forms of Arabic, sophisticated and lyrical, rooted in the concept of fasaaha (clarity, elegance). The fire in Granada destroyed part of this heritage, but it survives in an unexpected form – in an imaginative body of Hebrew poetry, which illustrates the extent of cross-cultural exchange.
Facebook’s secret censorship rules protect white men
from hate speech but not black children
Julia Angwin & Hannes Grassegger,
ProPublica, 28 June 2017
One Facebook rule, which is cited in the documents but that the company said is no longer in effect, banned posts that praise the use of ‘violence to resist occupation of an internationally recognized state.’ The company’s workforce of human censors, known as content reviewers, has deleted posts by activists and journalists in disputed territories such as Palestine, Kashmir, Crimea and Western Sahara.
One document trains content reviewers on how to apply the company’s global hate speech algorithm. The slide identifies three groups: female drivers, black children and white men. It asks: Which group is protected from hate speech? The correct answer: white men.
The reason is that Facebook deletes curses, slurs, calls for violence and several other types of attacks only when they are directed at ‘protected categories’—based on race, sex, gender identity, religious affiliation, national origin, ethnicity, sexual orientation and serious disability/disease. It gives users broader latitude when they write about ‘subsets’ of protected categories. White men are considered a group because both traits are protected, while female drivers and black children, like radicalized Muslims, are subsets, because one of their characteristics is not protected.
Inside Israel’s secret program
to get rid of African refugees
Andrew Green, Foreign Policy, 28 June 2017
By the time Benjamin Netanyahu secured a third term as prime minister in 2013, the tensions had hardened into outright hostility. That year, Israel sealed off its border with Egypt and implemented a raft of policies aimed at making life more difficult for asylum-seekers already in Israel. Then it began secretly pressuring Eritreans and Sudanese to leave for unnamed third countries, a shadowy relocation effort in which Semene and thousands like him are now ensnared.
Israeli officials have kept nearly everything else about this effort secret, even deflecting requests for more information from UNHCR, the U.N. refugee agency. But a year-long investigation by Foreign Policy that included interviews with multiple Eritrean and Sudanese asylum-seekers as well as people involved at various stages of the relocation process – including one person who admitted to helping coordinate illegal border crossings – reveals an opaque system of shuffling asylum-seekers from Israel, via Rwanda or Uganda, into third countries, where they are no longer anyone’s responsibility.
It begins with furtive promises by Israeli authorities of asylum and work opportunities in Rwanda and Uganda. Once the Sudanese and Eritrean asylum-seekers reach Kigali or Entebbe, where Uganda’s international airport is located, they describe a remarkably similar ordeal: They meet someone who presents himself as a government agent at the airport, bypass immigration, move to a house or hotel that quickly feels like a prison, and are eventually pressured to leave the country. For the Eritreans, it is from Rwanda to Uganda. For Sudanese, it is from Uganda to South Sudan or Sudan. The process appears designed not just to discard unwanted refugees, but to shield the Israeli, Rwandan, and Ugandan governments from any political or legal accountability.
Competence without comprehension
Times Literary Supplement, 28 June 2017
Some of this attention is no doubt due to the arresting claims made in the new book. For a start, Dennett maintains that consciousness is an illusion. Our conscious life is no more real than the virtual realities conjured up by computer imagery. Taking consciousness to be real, says Dennett, is like taking the icons on your computer screen to be genuine folders. Scarcely less striking are Dennett’s claims about the development of modern culture. Very little of it is deliberately directed, says Dennett. As he sees it, the technological wonders of the modern world have little to do with people understanding how certain means will achieve certain ends. Rather the social world, just like the biological world, is shaped by the blind forces of natural selection, not intelligent design.
Dennett likes to present his views as forced on us by science. If only we would free ourselves from outmoded myths, and open ourselves to the latest discoveries, he repeatedly assures us, we would be able to see things as he and his scientific allies do. Readers should be wary of this rhetoric. In truth Dennett’s distinctive views are by no means common currency among the scientific experts. Most cognitive scientists have no doubt that consciousness is real, and most social scientists accept that advanced human culture rests crucially on means-end understanding. This is not to say that Dennett’s theses are pulled out of thin air. They have the backing of a developed theoretical framework. But this framework owes far more to Dennett’s long-standing philosophical commitments than to his familiarity with the latest science.
Prozac nation is now the united states of Xanax
Alex Williams, New York Times, 10 June 2017
Anxiety has become our everyday argot, our thrumming lifeblood: not just on Twitter (the ur-anxious medium, with its constant updates), but also in blogger diaries, celebrity confessionals (Et tu, Beyoncé?), a hit Broadway show (‘Dear Evan Hansen’), a magazine start-up (Anxy, a mental-health publication based in Berkeley, Calif.), buzzed-about television series (like ‘Maniac,’ a coming Netflix series by Cary Fukunaga, the lauded ‘True Detective’ director) and, defying our abbreviated attention spans, on bookshelves…
With two new volumes analyzing the condition (‘On Edge: A Journey Through Anxiety,’ by Andrea Petersen, and ‘Hi, Anxiety,’ by Kat Kinsman) following recent best-sellers by Scott Stossel (‘My Age of Anxiety’) and Daniel Smith (‘Monkey Mind’), the anxiety memoir has become a literary subgenre to rival the depression memoir, firmly established since William Styron’s ‘Darkness Visible’ and Elizabeth Wurtzel’s ‘Prozac Nation’ in the 1990s and continuing today with Daphne Merkin’s ‘This Close to Happy’.
While to epidemiologists both disorders are medical conditions, anxiety is starting to seem like a sociological condition, too: a shared cultural experience that feeds on alarmist CNN graphics and metastasizes through social media. As depression was to the 1990s — summoned forth by Kurt Cobain, ‘Listening to Prozac,’ Seattle fog and Temple of the Dog dirges on MTV, viewed from under a flannel blanket — so it seems we have entered a new Age of Anxiety. Monitoring our heart rates. Swiping ceaselessly at our iPhones. Filling meditation studios in an effort to calm our racing thoughts.
In defense of the high-rise
Owen Hatherley, Jacobin, 25 June 2017
Looked at today, some of the anti-tower rhetoric of the ’70s and ’80s sounds hysterical, extrapolating from wholly contingent problems into sweeping generalizations about totalitarianism and sinister architects using council tenants as guinea pigs.
Towers were built less and less from the early 1970s on, only returning in the early 2000s. What was most damaging about this debate was the fact that the really guilty parties of Ronan Point and its ilk — Taylor Woodrow, and companies like it — were not only exonerated, but almost totally ignored. They continued to profit and thrive, and began to maintain lengthy blacklists of trade unionists who might blow the whistle on their dubious practices.
The history of towers since then is one of consolidation and gentrification. Towers had become unpopular compared with low-rise stock when council housing was incrementally privatized through the ‘Right to Buy’ brought in by Thatcher in 1981. Councils spent much of the 1980s and 1990s demolishing the towers (never the majority) that were proven to be unsafe in the post-Ronan Point investigations, and when Labour were re-elected there was a publicly funded program of renovations, ‘Decent Homes.’
One result of this was that towers looked better on a superficial level — shinier, often clad with indistinct new materials on top of the original concrete, mostly for reasons of thermal insulation; another was that the strings attached to the program — the imperative for elected councils to either offload their housing onto charitable housing associations, or to housing quasi-autonomous non-governmental organizations known as Arms-Length Management Organizations (ALMOs) — made who actually owns and runs what was now called ‘social housing’ increasingly opaque and unaccountable.
The myth of an apolitical Montaigne
Robert Minto, Los Angeles Review of Books, 3 July 2017
At many points, Desan is boldly revisionary. He contests Montaigne’s reputation for tolerance, his characterization of his famous friendship with La Boétie, and his claim to have met and interviewed cannibals at Rouen. And though it is often said that Montaigne was censored by the Inquisition, Desan shows that he had actually submitted his book to the Inquisition, received a list of potentially problematic passages, responded to it effectively through argument and revision, and received the benediction of the church. His ‘censorship’ was not evidence of independent thinking, but a savvy publication strategy designed to preempt controversy. In short, the Montaigne who emerges from Desan’s pages is a smaller, more vulgar man than the one we tend to imagine. But I don’t think this disillusion is cause for disappointment.
What sets essaying apart from asserting is failing. Diversion, digression, ambiguity, uncertainty — these are essential, not inimical, to the form. But an essayist who aims for uncertainty is unsatisfying. In good essays, we witness writers grappling genuinely with unanswerable questions, trying to answer and failing, coming by their uncertainty in an honest manner. It is appropriate that the story of the first self-conscious essayist and his times should also be the story of an honest failure: ‘In the early 1580s, politics looked very much like the form of the essay. Everything was in movement and contested.’
Should we build a wall around North Wales?
Daniel Trilling, London Review of Books, 13 July 2017
Europe is trying to exert control beyond its borders too. Its deal with Turkey, which came into force in March 2016, has all but halted the passage of boats across the Aegean. Turkey agreed to stop the boats in return for €6 billion in aid, visa-free travel in Europe for its citizens and new talks on EU membership. The deal represents ‘a disturbing disregard for international law covering the rights of refugees, asylum seekers and migrants’, Human Rights Watch said in a report published in March. Last year the EU also made available €62 billion in investment and aid to countries in the Middle East and Africa in return for help in reducing the number of migrants entering Europe. It is also using coercion: in September, Afghanistan was told its EU aid would be cut unless it accepted eighty thousand Afghan deportees. There has been talk of similar deals with Sudan and Eritrea, despite their widely documented human rights abuses. And if the EU isn’t able to deport migrants to their countries of origin, it proposes to send them to another one further down the migration route: Niger, Lebanon, Ethiopia, Nigeria, Libya. Last July, it was revealed that the European Commission planned to divert some of its budget for development and ‘peace building’ to military equipment and training for armed forces in Africa and the Middle East. In March, an independent commission warned that the £10 million in aid given by the UK government to Libya each year was propping up a system of ‘indiscriminate and indefinite detention’; local officials were involved in ‘people smuggling and trafficking, and in extortion of migrants’. Border defence, not the protection of life, remains the priority at Europe’s frontiers. There were more deaths than ever in the Mediterranean in 2016, with nearly five thousand people – most of them from sub-Saharan Africa – reported drowned or missing. In February, the head of the EU’s border agency, Frontex, said that when NGOs rescued migrants from the sea off the coast of Libya, they were effectively helping people smugglers.
Border policies, whether made by the EU or by individual states, are usually justified on the grounds of safety and security. They protect the public from terrorism, or from threats to identity and culture. They protect migrants from unscrupulous smugglers and risky journeys. Or they protect Europe from itself by keeping far-right political movements, which have been trying to exploit the chaos, out of power. But rather than protecting people from violence, Reece Jones argues in Violent Borders, such policies are in fact a cause of it. The central problem, as he sees it, is that in an age when barriers – to the movement of goods, capital, communication etc – have been coming down, the physical defences between states have been going up. According to his own research, in 1990 just 15 states had walls or fences at their borders; by 2016, nearly seventy did. In the past such defences were set up principally because of conflict between neighbouring states (North and South Korea, for instance, or India and Pakistan), but today’s border defences are primarily focused on civilians, aimed at stopping unwanted or ‘irregular’ migration. It isn’t just in the West: barriers proliferate in Asia and Africa too. These defences, supported by a military infrastructure of patrols and surveillance, come at a price. According to the International Organisation for Migration, forty thousand people died attempting to cross a border between 2005 and 2014.
Who’s getting killed today?
Clive Stafford Smith,
Times Literary Supplement, 28 June 2017
Few people are aware that every week the White House observes ‘Terror Tuesday’, where the US President personally approves people for death without any legal process at all. Indeed, if one trait has marked the so-called War on Terror, it is the unthinking abnegation of various long-settled human rights rules – among them, the right to due process and a fair trial – by politicians who seem immune to the lessons of history. Liberty is initially eroded at the margins, but in recent years long-developed principles have been washed away in the neap tide of populism.
Thus it was that we turned our collective back on the 1984 UN Convention Against Torture. Decades (or centuries) of evolving law were tossed aside by George W. Bush’s administration on the assumption that ‘Enhanced Interrogation Techniques’ (EHT) would somehow obtain useful intelligence. The same methods had, of course, been used 500 years ago to induce women to confess that they were witches. Indeed, a reminder of what current ‘EHT methods’ were called by the Inquisition can be revealing. While neither George W. Bush nor Donald J. Trump appears to believe that waterboarding, for example, qualifies as torture, the Inquisition was more honest, calling it tortura del agua (water torture). It was the Gestapo that called it verschärfte Vernehmung, which translates as ‘enhanced interrogation’. The right to due process and a fair trial, meanwhile, went overboard on the coast of Cuba, in Guantánamo Bay, and the idea that someone should legally be extradited from one country to another was overridden with a novel phrase – ‘extraordinary rendition’ – which translates roughly as ‘transnational kidnapping’. And so forth.
But it is Terror Tuesday that has been my particular concern lately, with the suggestion that we are returning to the era of the Borgias, taking to assassination as a solution to our problems. It is especially troubling that this policy was adopted in 2010 by Barack Obama, the constitutional law professor turned President. He said he opposed rendition, and wished to close Guantánamo Bay, yet rather than kidnap people and hold them without trial, he chose to execute them without any legal process at all.
Culture of encounter: Sanskrit at the Mughal court
Edmond Smith, Reviews in History, June 2017
In Audrey Truschke’s superb book we are presented with an innovative, thought provoking re-assessment of cultures of power in the Mughal court. Rather than focussing on relations with other states, Culture of Encounters provides a detailed, stimulating analysis of the ways in which the Mughal administration used language, literature and art as a means of managing relationships with its new subjects. She argues that the traditional focus on Persianate elements in Mughal role have ‘obscured the close imperial relationship with the Sanskrit cultural world as well as the multicultural nature of Mughal power’ (p. 3). In doing so, these cross-cultural contributed to the construction of authority and ‘their dynamic interweaving of politics and culture can be identified as the solid bedrock on which they built their empire’ (pp. 4–5). By patronising Sanskrit at court the Mughal elite sought to understand what it meant to be rulers of India. Rather than seeking to win over Indian communities with their interest in Sanskrit, Mughal rulers saw these texts as ‘a particularly potent way to imagine power and conceptualise themselves as righteous rulers’ (p. 18).
Focussing on the period from the rule of Akbar onwards (r. 1556–1605), Truschke’s analysis rests on an array of material produced by a Mughal court that supported the production of Sanskrit texts and the translation of Sanskrit material into Persian. Additionally, through this engagement with Sanskrit literati and texts the ruling elite encouraged similar practices in regional centres. Carefully reading original and translated material, predominantly in Persian and Sanskrit, Truschke approaches these centres of translation from a variety of contexts and her interpretation is embedded with a deep understanding of the particular local circumstances of a text’s creation. In doing so she ‘exposes the flaws in monolingual analyses of early modern India when contacts between cultures were more often pivotal rather than peripheral’ and enables her nuanced interpretations of texts that might otherwise be quite familiar (p. 17).
As she points out, ‘few academics value (or find the time to pursue) the painstaking work of reading a translated text, alongside its original where possible’, yet in doing exactly that Truschke is able to dramatically alter our perspective of both these texts and the wider history of the Mughal court (p. 103). In addition to enabling a new reading of texts, this approach allows Truschke to present Sanskrit as a frontier within India and build on connected histories of the region.
The ethereal genius of Craig Taborn
Adam Shatz, New York Times Magazine, 22 June 2017
Taborn, who is 47, is used to attracting attention he’d prefer to avoid, and not just because of his extraordinary musicianship. He is an African-American man from Minnesota with features that often draw curious looks: a very pale complexion, reddish-blond curls and hazel eyes. ‘I have never had a day when someone does not look at me with an openly questioning gaze, sometimes remote and furtive, sometimes polite, sometimes in admiration or awe and sometimes with disgust,’ he told me. ‘It comes from appearing as I do, and not fitting into anyone’s preconceived category.’
Taborn’s music, too, has an elusive aura, both in its spectral, moody textures and in its proud refusal to cater to expectations about what jazz, or even music, should be. A lot of advanced jazz today has the feel of a self-conscious hybrid, combining (take your pick) punk rock, hip-hop, Indian rhythms or Middle Eastern modes. Taborn is a musical omnivore, too, but his explorations of other forms never sound willful: He has so fully absorbed his influences as to camouflage them, in a musical language of casual authority. The beauty of his art resides in large part in his ability to discover new sounds in the piano, from the keys to the strings; his playing inspires something rare in music today, a sense of wonder. Taborn is revered by other pianists and considered by many to be one of jazz music’s few contemporary innovators – a judgment likely to be reinforced by his stunning recent album, ‘Daylight Ghosts.’ Yet he is not widely known even among jazz aficionados. A resident of Brooklyn for the last two decades, Taborn still has the unassuming, somewhat bashful demeanor of a native Midwesterner, and a Midwesterner’s discomfort with self-advertisement. He does not have a website, handles his own bookings in the United States and is barely present on social media. He admires his better-known pianist friends like Vijay Iyer, who started a doctoral program at Harvard, and Jason Moran, who presides over jazz programming at the Kennedy Center, but says he has no desire to shape an institution, being ‘leery of the impact this would have on my creativity.’
How genetics is settling the Aryan migration debate
Tony Joseph, The Hindu, 19 June 2017
The thorniest, most fought-over question in Indian history is slowly but surely getting answered: did Indo-European language speakers, who called themselves Aryans, stream into India sometime around 2,000 BC – 1,500 BC when the Indus Valley civilisation came to an end, bringing with them Sanskrit and a distinctive set of cultural practices? Genetic research based on an avalanche of new DNA evidence is making scientists around the world converge on an unambiguous answer: yes, they did.
This may come as a surprise to many — and a shock to some — because the dominant narrative in recent years has been that genetics research had thoroughly disproved the Aryan migration theory. This interpretation was always a bit of a stretch as anyone who read the nuanced scientific papers in the original knew. But now it has broken apart altogether under a flood of new data on Y-chromosomes (or chromosomes that are transmitted through the male parental line, from father to son).
Until recently, only data on mtDNA (or matrilineal DNA, transmitted only from mother to daughter) were available and that seemed to suggest there was little external infusion into the Indian gene pool over the last 12,500 years or so. New Y-DNA data has turned that conclusion upside down, with strong evidence of external infusion of genes into the Indian male lineage during the period in question.
The reason for the difference in mtDNA and Y-DNA data is obvious in hindsight: there was strong sex bias in Bronze Age migrations. In other words, those who migrated were predominantly male and, therefore, those gene flows do not really show up in the mtDNA data. On the other hand, they do show up in the Y-DNA data: specifically, about 17.5% of Indian male lineage has been found to belong to haplogroup R1a (haplogroups identify a single line of descent), which is today spread across Central Asia, Europe and South Asia. Pontic-Caspian Steppe is seen as the region from where R1a spread both west and east, splitting into different sub-branches along the way.
What Gershom Scholem and Hannah Arendt
can teach us about evil today
George Prochnik, Los Angeles Review of Books, 1 June 2017
Scholem was thrilled with Arendt’s assessment of his work’s significance, calling her review one of just two ‘intelligent criticisms’ the book had received. But the questions of human agency and of hapless victimhood raised by his study — questions of good, evil, and historical responsibility toward the dead and the future — would resurface in the controversy that ensued 15 years later over Arendt’s book about Adolf Eichmann’s trial in Jerusalem. And on this latter occasion, the split in their positions on these topics was so bitter that it destroyed their friendship. Ultimately, Scholem and Arendt were wrestling with the problem of how a person of conscience should address the unconscionable. The argument between them over the mindset of the evildoer continues to be relevant as we struggle to make sense of — and resist — the executors of cruel policy in our own time.
Hannah Arendt’s coverage of Eichmann’s 1961 trial began as a series of articles for The New Yorker, and was subsequently published in book form with the provocative subtitle, ‘A Report on the Banality of Evil.’ For some readers, the work was a paragon of unsentimental truth-telling that revealed how ordinary people could commit atrocities after surrendering their individuality to the faceless bureaucratic mechanisms that typified modernity. But the work has also been vehemently critiqued for allegedly downplaying the enormity of Eichmann’s monstrousness (the terms banality and genocide don’t comfortably mesh) and for the prominent attention Arendt gave to Jewish complicity in the Nazi program through — most glaringly — the work of Jewish Councils in overseeing or otherwise abetting the selection process for deportation to the concentration camps.
The shocked outrage Scholem felt on reading this work by a friend whom he’d formerly described as ‘one of the best minds’ to flee Europe shared features with the larger mainstream Jewish intellectual repudiation of Arendt’s project. But there was another dimension to Scholem’s critique that has received less notice, yet which merits consideration in our current predicament. This particular aspect may also be indebted to moral perspectives Scholem absorbed from the Kabbalah for which, he once wrote, ‘the metaphysical cause of evil is seen in an act which transforms the category of judgement into an absolute.’
The time of our lives
Raymond Tallis, The New Atlantis, Winter 2017
This feeling of suppressed panic has prompted me to think systematically about time, perhaps in the hope that, by cultivating a special kind of attention to it, I might slow it down or (if the expectation of having such an impact on the universe was unrealistic) slow my own passage to oblivion. Of course, most thinking about time, especially in the last century or so, has been done by physicists. But if thinking about time is an indirect way of meditating on our mortality, then we need to focus on time as it is lived. This means rescuing time from the jaws of physics — challenging the increasingly prevalent assumption that physics has the last word on the nature of time.
To do so, however, is to risk being classified with the kind of individual who, writing to Professor Einstein from a park bench (with a crayon in one hand and a methylated spirits spritzer in the other), points out the errors in his Theory of Relativity. So it is important to make clear that my aim is not to correct the physics of time but only to say why and how physics has little or nothing to say about much that truly matters about time. In an important sense it ‘loses’ time — something that some physicists might welcome, given that aspects of it seem to have no place in a physical world whose laws seem to be time-reversible, or invariant with respect to temporal reversal, and hence indifferent to the unfolding of time.
But it is the unfolding of time, and its apparent ‘unidirectionality’ — always moving (or so we are inclined to say) from earlier to later — that matters most in our experience of time. The attempts of physicists to explain this feature of time have on the whole been thoroughly inadequate, including the attempt, which we will discuss later in this essay, to define the direction of time in terms of an accumulation of information. The idea of time as an ‘arrow of information,’ as it is sometimes called, shows the general inability of physics to accommodate the conscious observer that makes physical science possible — the inability, that is, to connect an objective explanation of time, understood as a feature of material events, with a person’s subjective experience of time. It is the role of philosophy to try to make this connection, to examine the relationship between what the philosopher Wilfrid Sellars characterized as the ‘scientific image’ and the ‘manifest image,’ and to seek something that encompasses them both.
Histories of violence, landscapes of violence
John Akomfrah & Bead Evans,
Los Angeles Review of Books, 5 June 2017
Do you see the artist therefore as having a crucial role in combating political amnesia and the erasure of certain oppressive histories?
There are a number of reasons why I am interested in recycling archive footage, music, artifacts, and narratives. Part of my project is to make explicit what is already happening in most societies: to reveal the coexistence of historical traces in the present and to draw attention to the alternative memories that exist in a coterminous relation to the present.
All moving images reference the past. There is always a present-tense commentary that historical images provide in the present. My ambition is always to draw out what I think is the value of that commentary, in this present. In a broader sense, I am concerned with making work in which seemingly fixed boundaries between the two (the past and the present) are questioned and ultimately blurred.
For almost all of us, the boundaries that separate past and present are fictions. Why? Because the overlaps between the two are such that in most of our lives it’s impossible to insist upon an absolute break between them. Narrative fictions insist on this separation but, in truth, most of us don’t live our lives that way.
Quantum common sense
Phillip Ball, Aeon, 21 June 2017
Quantum theory contradicts common sense. Everyone who has even a modest interest in physics quickly gets this message. The quantum view of reality, we’re often told, is as a madhouse of particles that become waves (and vice versa), and that speak to one another through spooky messages that defy normal conceptions of time and space. We think the world is made from solid, discrete objects – trees and dogs and tables – things that have objective properties that we can all agree on; but in quantum mechanics the whole concept of classical objects with well-defined identities seems not to exist. Sounds ridiculous? The much-lauded physicist Richard Feynman thought so, yet he implored us to learn to live with it. ‘I hope you can accept Nature as She is – absurd,’ he said in 1985.
Except that much of the popular picture is wrong. Quantum theory doesn’t actually say that particles can become waves or communicate in spooky ways, and it certainly does not say that classical objects don’t exist. Not only does it not deny the existence of classical objects, it gives a meaningful account of why they do exist. In some important respects, the modern formulation of the theory reveals why common sense looks the way it does. You could say that the classical world is simply what quantum mechanics looks like if you are six feet tall. Our world, and our intuition, are quantum all the way up.
Why, then, is it still so common to find talk of quantum mechanics defying logic and generally messing with reality? We might have to put some of the blame on the Danish physicist Niels Bohr. He was probably the deepest thinker about the meaning of quantum theory among its founding pioneers, and his intuitions were usually right. But during the 1920s and ’30s, Bohr drove a lasting wedge between the quantum and classical worlds. They operate according to quite different principles, he said, and we simply have to accept that.
A look inside James Baldwin’s 1884-page FBI file
William J Maxwell, Literary Hub, 12 June 2017
FBI headquarters urged the New York field office, also the FBI’s consulate in the capital of the US book trade, to consult the grapevine about The Blood Counters. Tactful checks should be made ‘among its publication sources,’ the office was instructed, and agents should ‘remain alert to any possibility of securing galley proofs for the Bureau for review purposes.’ Possible exposure of Baldwin’s book in The New Yorker made the hunt urgent: ‘Over the years,’ wrote M.A. Jones of Crime Records, the magazine’s careful urbanity had tolerated ‘irresponsible and unreliable… references concerning the Director and the FBI.’
The FBI’s pilfering and pre-reading of Baldwin’s book was not needed: as the introduction discussed, The Blood Counters was never completed, nor was it necessarily meant to be. But its rumored appearance was enough to send Hoover to the mattresses. ‘Isn’t Baldwin a well known pervert?,’ the director asked in the lower right margin of this July 17th memo. Three days later, M. A. Jones answered both yes and no in a bravura critical performance also discussed in the introduction. ‘While it is not possible to state that [Baldwin] is a pervert,’ Jones concluded, ‘he has expressed a sympathetic viewpoint about homosexuality on several occasions, and a very definite hostility toward the revulsion of the American public regarding it.’ If Baldwin had intended the prospect of The Blood Counters to unhinge the very top of the Bureau, it succeeded flawlessly.
The images are, from, top down: Addressing the National Eisteddfod of Wales, Ebbw Vale, 1958 (from the Guardian, photographer unknown); Angela Palmer, Self-portrait; Shah Jahan on Horseback: Leaf from the Shah Jahan Album, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; Salvador Dali, The Persistence of Memory.