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.
The fake news fallacy
Adrian Chen, New Yorker, 4 September 2017
Not so very long ago, it was thought that the tension between commercial pressure and the public interest would be one of the many things made obsolete by the Internet. In the mid-aughts, during the height of the Web 2.0 boom, the pundit Henry Jenkins declared that the Internet was creating a ‘participatory culture’ where the top-down hegemony of greedy media corporations would be replaced by a horizontal network of amateur ‘prosumers’ engaged in a wonderfully democratic exchange of information in cyberspace—an epistemic agora that would allow the whole globe to come together on a level playing field. Google, Facebook, Twitter, and the rest attained their paradoxical gatekeeper status by positioning themselves as neutral platforms that unlocked the Internet’s democratic potential by empowering users. It was on a private platform, Twitter, where pro-democracy protesters organized, and on another private platform, Google, where the knowledge of a million public libraries could be accessed for free. These companies would develop into what the tech guru Jeff Jarvis termed ‘radically public companies,’ which operate more like public utilities than like businesses.
But there has been a growing sense among mostly liberal-minded observers that the platforms’ championing of openness is at odds with the public interest. The image of Arab Spring activists using Twitter to challenge repressive dictators has been replaced, in the public imagination, by that of isispropagandists luring vulnerable Western teen-agers to Syria via YouTube videos and Facebook chats. The openness that was said to bring about a democratic revolution instead seems to have torn a hole in the social fabric. Today, online misinformation, hate speech, and propaganda are seen as the front line of a reactionary populist upsurge threatening liberal democracy. Once held back by democratic institutions, the bad stuff is now sluicing through a digital breach with the help of irresponsible tech companies. Stanching the torrent of fake news has become a trial by which the digital giants can prove their commitment to democracy. The effort has reignited a debate over the role of mass communication that goes back to the early days of radio.
The debate around radio at the time of ‘The War of the Worlds’ was informed by a similar fall from utopian hopes to dystopian fears. Although radio can seem like an unremarkable medium—audio wallpaper pasted over the most boring parts of your day—the historian David Goodman’s book ‘Radio’s Civic Ambition: American Broadcasting and Democracy in the 1930s’ makes it clear that the birth of the technology brought about a communications revolution comparable to that of the Internet. For the first time, radio allowed a mass audience to experience the same thing simultaneously from the comfort of their homes. Early radio pioneers imagined that this unprecedented blurring of public and private space might become a sort of ethereal forum that would uplift the nation, from the urban slum dweller to the remote Montana rancher. John Dewey called radio ‘the most powerful instrument of social education the world has ever seen.’ Populist reformers demanded that radio be treated as a common carrier and give airtime to anyone who paid a fee.
Read the full article in the New Yorker.
In Europe, hate speech laws are often used
to suppress and punish left-wing viewpoints
Glenn Greenwald, The Intercept, 29 August 2017
Many Americans who long for Europe’s hate speech restrictions assume that those laws are used to outlaw and punish expression of the bigoted ideas they most hate: racism, homophobia, Islamophobia, misogyny. Often, such laws are used that way. There are numerous cases in western Europe and Canada of far-right extremists being arrested, fined, or even jailed for publicly spouting that type of overt bigotry.
But hate speech restrictions are used in those countries to suppress, outlaw, and punish more than far-right bigotry. Those laws have frequently been used to constrain and sanction a wide range of political views that many left-wing censorship advocates would never dream could be deemed ‘hateful,’ and even against opinions which many of them likely share.
France is probably the most extreme case of hate speech laws being abused in this manner. In 2015, France’s highest court upheld the criminal conviction of 12 pro-Palestinian activists for violating restrictions against hate speech. Their crime? Wearing T-shirts that advocated a boycott of Israel — ‘Long live Palestine, boycott Israel,’ the shirts read — which, the court ruled, violated French law that ‘prescribes imprisonment or a fine of up to $50,000 for parties that ‘provoke discrimination, hatred or violence toward a person or group of people on grounds of their origin, their belonging or their not belonging to an ethnic group, a nation, a race or a certain religion.’
Read the full article in The Intercept.
Eyes off the prize
Jim Sleeper, Democracy, 17 August 2017
Lilla does occasionally lament market forces’ emptying, atomizing effects on democracy. In a chapter titled ‘A Word From Marx,’ he acknowledges that material conditions often shape what people are willing to believe and fight for. And he does recognize, at one point, that the economic premises and policies of the ‘Reagan Dispensation’—along with its sentimental misappropriations of Roosevelt’s New Deal ethos—have drained civic solidarity and justice, most often at the expense of Reagan’s own supporters, and, now, of Trump’s: ‘Most Americans now recognize that Reagan’s ‘shining city upon a hill’ has turned into rust-belt towns with long-shuttered shops, abandoned factories invaded by local grasses, cities where the water is undrinkable and where guns are everywhere.’
But it isn’t such betrayals and delusions that animate this book. Haunted perhaps by his long interest in ‘philotyrannical’ European intellectuals, and immersed as he is in academic and other controversies that most Americans consider rarefied, Lilla pays far more attention to the depredations of ivory tower iconoclasts than to the assiduous under-regulation of the powerful engines I’ve mentioned—and to the conservative movement’s equally assiduous promotion of these market premises and practices that have empowered them, especially since Reagan’s time. He’s preoccupied with condemning identity liberals for adding insults to the economic injuries that Reagan and Trump supporters have suffered at the hands of their own conservative champions…
Not only does Lilla gloss over this; he explicitly, even vehemently, denies that our finest advances toward full citizenship and justice have been won only when labor, suffragist, civil-rights, and other social movements have waged long, ecumenical struggles against both Democrats’ and Republicans’ accommodations to the concentrations of wealth and power that foment and feed on our divisions. Although he acknowledges that the civil rights movement was ‘essential’ in its time and place, he’s more intent on exposing the puerile posturing of naïve, neurotic so-called social justice warriors whom conservatives already spotlight and lampoon.
Read the full article in Democracy.
Charlottesville and the politics of left hysteria
Lee Jones, The Current Moment, 26 August 2017
The left’s particular inability to gauge the threat posed by the right reflects its obsession with symbolic politics. The defeat of class-based political organising – never that strong in the US – in the 1980s means most leftist agitation has focused on identity-based campaigning. This has noble roots in the Civil Rights Movement, and early feminist and gay liberation struggles, some of which also involved a strong focus on material redress. But in contrast to these early movements, which had universalistic goals of equal treatment, identity politics has come to fetishize differences based on sex, sexuality, ethnicity and religion in an extremely divisive and moralistic manner, with the vigorous policing of public language, symbols, and private beliefs.
Accordingly, the analytics of political economy have been replaced with an analytics of identity. Once, the left understood socio-economic and political inequality to stem predominantly from gross inequalities in wealth, maintained by circuits of capital, ideology and state coercion. Today’s identitarian left attributes it to the uneven ‘privilege’ of different identity groups, which is assumed to flow from continued prejudice (even if it now lurks ‘implicitly’ in the subconscious). This leads to attacks on ‘privileged’ groups – notably ‘cisgender’ white men – and a politics of ‘calling out’ prejudicial behaviour. That ‘whiteness’ masks enormous disparities in wealth and power is disregarded. Those dedicated to the cause, particularly in the oppressor ‘white’ category, must practice the virtue-signalling rituals of ‘wokeness’, declaring their privileges and implicit prejudices and pledging to continuously work to improve. Those who do not are deeply suspect; a refusal to admit one’s racism is seen as proof thereof. In the last decade, the movement has acquired a strongly authoritarian streak, particularly on university campuses, with growing demands to shut down speakers and movements whose views do not conform with the new orthodoxy.
The alt-right is merely the mirror image of this. Right-wing, white nationalism has been around for centuries, but identity politics has given it an important filip by encouraging some to embrace ‘whiteness’ not as a spur for shame and ‘wokeness’, but as a positive source of identity. The scenes in Charlottesville of the two sides alternately screaming ‘black lives matter’ and ‘white lives matter’ at one another signifies this most clearly. Others on the ‘alt-right’ are less interested in white nationalism than simply needling campus radicals by tweeting ‘dank memes’ from their parents’ basements.
Read the full article in The Current Moment.
Fairness for all students under Title IX
Elizabeth Bartholet, Nancy Gertner,
Janet Halley & Jeannie Suk Gersen
Digital Access to Scholarship at Harvard, 21 August 2017
Definitions of sexual wrongdoing on college campuses are now seriously overbroad. They go way beyond accepted legal definitions of rape, sexual assault, and sexual harassment. They often include sexual conduct that is merely unwelcome, even if it does not create a hostile environment, even if the person accused had no way of knowing it was unwanted, and even if the accuser’s sense that it was unwelcome arose after the encounter. The definitions often include mere speech about sexual matters. They therefore allow students who find class discussion of sexuality offensive to accuse instructors of sexual harassment. They are so broad as to put students engaged in behavior that is overwhelmingly common in the context of romantic relationships to be accused of sexual misconduct. Overbroad definitions of sexual wrongdoing are unfair to all parties, and squander the legitimacy of the system.
Though OCR did not require schools to treat accused students unfairly in the investigation and adjudication process, its tactics put pressure on them to stack the system so as to favor alleged victims over those they accuse. The procedures for enforcing these definitions are frequently so unfair as to be truly shocking. Some colleges and universities fail even to give students the complaint against them, or notice of the factual basis of charges, the evidence gathered, or the identities of witnesses. Some schools fail to provide hearings or to allow the accused student’s lawyer to attend or speak at hearings. Some bar the accused from putting questions to the accuser or witnesses, even through intermediaries. Some schools hold hearings in which the accuser participates while remaining unseen behind a partition. Some schools deny parties the right to see the investigative report or get copies for their lawyers for preparing an appeal. Some schools allow appeals only on very narrow grounds such as new evidence or procedural error, providing no meaningful check on the initial decisionmaker.
Moreover, many schools improperly house the functions of investigation and adjudication in dedicated Title IX offices. These are compliance offices with strong incentives to ensure the school stays in OCR’s good graces to safeguard the school’s federal funding. Title IX officers have reason to fear for their jobs if they hold a student not responsible or if they assign a rehabilitative or restorative rather than a harshly punitive sanction. Many Title IX offices run all the different functions in the process, acting as prosecutor, judge, jury, and appeals board. Appeals are to an administrator in the institution’s Title IX apparatus, rather than to a person who is structurally independent and not invested in the outcome. Some Title IX officers even take on the role of advisor to an accuser through the process of complaint, investigation, adjudication, or appeal, which means they are not neutral. They do so, moreover, without providing analogous support to the accused.
Read the full article in DASH.
Freud the philosopher
David Livingstone Smith, Aeon, 10 August 2017
From 1895 onwards, Freud uncompromisingly rejected the philosophical orthodoxy of his day – the twin assumptions of body-mind dualism and the equation of mentality with consciousness. In place of the former, he argued that our mental processes are processes within a physical organ – the human brain – rather than a non-physical mind. This physicalist stance was, although not entirely unheard of at the time, certainly bold and unusual. Freud also rejected the view that we can investigate the mind through introspection, because ‘it follows, from the postulate of consciousness providing neither complete nor trustworthy knowledge of the neuronal processes that these are … to be regarded as unconscious and are to be inferred like other natural things’.
If consciousness doesn’t give us a window into the mind’s inner working, then what is it? Freud used a procedure that present-day cognitive scientists call ‘functional decomposition’ to sketch out the architecture of the human mind. This procedure consists of looking at what a system does, and breaking down its activities into different kinds of tasks that are performed by different components of the system. Freud’s decomposition of the human mind suggested that cognition and consciousness are functionally distinct. In other words, the part of the mind-brain that’s responsible for thinking is not the same as the part that’s responsible for producing consciousness.
These considerations led Freud to what is perhaps the most misunderstood aspect of his theory of mind. Most descriptions of psychoanalytic theory claim that Freud held that there are two kinds of thinking: conscious thinking and unconscious thinking. Furthermore, psychologists often claim that they embrace a cognitive conception of the unconscious mind, in contrast to Freud’s view that the unconscious mind is chock-full of instinctual drives and emotions. However, both these claims are incorrect. Freud believed that all cognitive processes are unconscious. What we call ‘conscious thought’ is just the brain’s way of displaying the output of unconscious cognitive processing to itself. To use a familiar analogy, cognitive processes are like the central processor of a computer, and consciousness is like the monitor where the outputs from the processor are displayed. And as far as the psychologists’ claim about the ‘cognitive unconscious’ goes, Freud explicitly repudiated the idea that emotions and instinctual drives can be unconscious. In his view, all cognitive processes are unconscious, and all unconscious mental processes are cognitive.
Read the full article in Aeon.
Wolfenden: not so liberal on homosexuality after all
Peter Tatchell, Guardian, 20 August 2017
The 60th anniversary of the Wolfenden report, which recommended an end to the ban on male homosexuality, will fall on 4 September. Although it was groundbreaking and led to subsequent gay law reform in 1967, it was also flawed.
John Wolfenden, who chaired the committee that produced the report, is often hailed as a great liberal reformer. But he opposed homosexual equality and obstructed fellow committee members who proposed a more far-reaching decriminalisation. A cautious conservative, he described homosexuality as ‘morally repugnant’ on a BBC TV programme and wanted only small changes in the law. His opinions dominated the committee’s deliberations, which suggested that homosexuality was partly a matter of self-control, comparable to ‘the extent to which coughing can be controlled’. Such attitudes contributed to the subsequent half-baked, partial decriminalisation of sex between men 10 years later…
Wolfenden argued, commendably, that what is deemed by many people to be immoral (homosexuality) should not necessarily be criminal; that the law should not dictate private morality. He proposed that homosexual behaviour should not be prosecuted, providing it took place in private, with consent and involved no more than two men, both aged 21 or over. There was never any question of legalising same-sex acts.
The report did not urge the repeal of anti-gay laws, merely a policy of non-prosecution in certain circumstances. The existing, often centuries-old laws were to remain on the statute book under the heading ‘unnatural offences’. This advocacy of limited decriminalisation was a de facto reiteration of support for anti-gay discrimination in law.
Read the full article in the Guardian.
Should Nelson’s column come down?
James Heartfield, spiked, 24 August 2017
Monuments are in their nature conservative, honouring past deeds for us in the present. If one believes that history tends towards a better future, then it must be the case that all history is the history of people with more primitive or reactionary attitudes. But to project our judgments drawn from the present on to the past is surely a mistake. Hirsch objects that by the time Nelson was influential, many people could see that slavery was wrong. Many, it is true, but by no means all. Still, it is a mistake to demand that the past conform to our present-day beliefs.
Hirsch is surely right to say that history is made of good and bad, and that we should acknowledge that. Which is a good argument for not censoring the past but rather enriching our knowledge of it. Evil, as Hegel said, is as much a force for historical change as good. To put forward a version of history that can be manipulated to suit the present, prettified at a whim, seems powerful, but it is ultimately enfeebling, and a celebration of stupidity…
Hirsch thinks William Wilberforce a better hero than Nelson, which on the question of slavery he surely was. But there are other questions. After the cavalry charged 60,000 parliamentary reform protesters near Manchester — carrying out the Peterloo Massacre of 1819 — Wilberforce supported repressive acts against further protests. He blamed ‘noxious doctrines’ for the ‘discontents of the people in Lancashire’ and deplored ‘the spirit of blasphemy and disaffection, which was at present unhappily so prevalent’. He would ‘make no concession likely to give power to those who appeared to seek nothing less than the subversion of the constitution.’ Even the greatest hero, it seems, might have feet of clay.
Trade unionists and democrats might say that statues of Wilberforce should be brought down, outraged at his hostility to the campaign for the vote for working people. But what kind of a message would that be? No. Trade unionists and Chartists since then have happily ignored his Tory hostility to the vote and honoured his history as an abolitionist. (Indeed, the harshest criticisms of Wilberforce were made by hardline anti-slavery campaigners, like Thomas Clarkson and Joseph Sturge, who decried his moderate approach.)
Read the full article in spiked.
Don’t blame climate change for the
Hurricane Harvey disaster – blame society
Ilan Kelman, The Conversation, 29 August 2017
Weather and climate don’t cause disasters – vulnerability does. Perhaps counter-intuitively, this means that the widespread discussion as to whether the Hurricane Harvey disaster was caused by climate change or not becomes a dangerous distraction.
The hurricane was born off the coast of South America in mid-August and then tracked through the Gulf of Mexico, making landfall in the US on August 25. The storm surge and winds devastated coastal settlements, after which the storm stalled, dumping immense rainfall over Houston. At the time of writing, the confirmed death toll had just reached 14 and there are expectations that this will soon rise.
A disaster involving a hurricane cannot happen unless people, infrastructure and communities are vulnerable to it. People become vulnerable if they end up lacking knowledge, wisdom, capabilities, social connections, support or finances to deal with a standard environmental event such as a hurricane.
This can happen if lobbyists block tougher building codes, planning regulations, or enforcement procedures. Or if families can’t afford insurance or the cost of alternative accommodation if they evacuate. Or if limited hurricane experience induces a sense of apathy.
Read the full article in The Conversation.
Neoliberalism: the idea that swallowed the world
Stephen Metcalfe, The Guardian, 18 August 2017
Thirty years on, and it can fairly be said that Hayek’s victory is unrivalled. We live in a paradise built by his Big Idea. The more closely the world can be made to resemble an ideal market governed only by perfect competition, the more law-like and ‘scientific’ human behaviour, in the aggregate, becomes. Every day we ourselves – no one has to tell us to anymore! – strive to become more perfectly like scattered, discrete, anonymous buyers and sellers; and every day we treat the residual desire to be something more than a consumer as nostalgia, or elitism.
What began as a new form of intellectual authority, rooted in a devoutly apolitical worldview, nudged easily into an ultra-reactionary politics. What can’t be quantified must not be real, says the economist, and how do you measure the benefits of the core faiths of the enlightenment – namely, critical reasoning, personal autonomy and democratic self-government? When we abandoned, for its embarrassing residue of subjectivity, reason as a form of truth, and made science the sole arbiter of both the real and the true, we created a void that pseudo-science was happy to fill.
The authority of the professor, the reformer, the legislator or the jurist does not derive from the market, but from humanistic values such as public spiritedness, conscience or the longing for justice. Long before the Trump administration started demeaning them, such figures had been drained of salience by an explanatory scheme that can’t explain them. Surely there is a connection between their growing irrelevance and the election of Trump, a creature of pure whim, a man without the principles or conviction to make for a coherent self. A man without a mind, who represents the total absence of reason, is running the world; or at least ruining it. As a Manhattan real estate wiseguy, though, Trump, hey – he knows what he knows: that his sins have yet to be punished in the marketplace.
Read the full article in the Guardian.
Rhodri Lewis, Los Angeles Review of Books, 18 July 2017
But how new is post-truth culture? Is it a uniquely postmodern malady: the product of the internet, or dollar store totalitarianism, or critical theory as taught on college campuses in the 1980s and ’90s? There’s no question that it can be tempting to insist that things are unprecedentedly bleak. Doing so offers an objective (well, a putatively historical) correlative for the anger, bewilderment, and frustration that so many of us currently feel. Even so, the temptation should be resisted: our post-truth moment has a history that is longer, deeper, and more complex by far. It’s a history that runs through many of the West’s most cherished cultural monuments, and in which all of us are deeply implicated.
‘What is truth? said jesting Pilate; and would not stay for an answer.’ So begins Francis Bacon’s essay ‘Of truth,’ first published in 1625. In the account of the gospels, Pontius Pilate, the Roman prefect of Judaea, is called on to judge the allegedly seditious conduct of a young Jew, Jesus of Nazareth. Pilate interviews Jesus in the attempt to determine his guilt, and Jesus claims to have borne witness to the truth. Pilate is nonplussed, and rather than allowing himself to get tangled up in the political or theological implications of Jesus’s words, cedes his prisoner’s fate to the will of the Jerusalem mob. The moment is a justly famous one, and in addition to Bacon, has fired the imaginations of writers as diverse as Friedrich Nietzsche, Mikhail Bulgakov, and the Oxford philosopher J.L. Austin. The last of these saw Pilate as someone ‘in advance of his time’ for understanding that ‘truth’ is no more than ‘an abstract noun, a camel … of a logical construction, which cannot get past the eye even of a grammarian.’
Pilate, though, was not in advance of his time at all. He was instead, as Bacon well understood, the embodiment of a Roman rhetorical culture that valued civic order and the persuasive (rather than the representative) qualities of language above everything else. For the Romans, the stubborn determination to strain at abstract truth was one of the pathologies that had led to the decline of Greek civilization. They inoculated themselves against it with pragmatc vim: conquer, then pacify, and then — perhaps — try to figure out what any of it means. Repeat as necessary. If the Jews are determined to kill one of their own in a fit of unfathomably superstitious rage, Pilate will not risk an uprising in his province by standing in their way. He shrugs, and washes his hands.
Read the full article in LARB.
The bit bomb
Rob Goodman, Aeon, 30 August 2017
Just what is information? For such an intuitive idea, its precise nature proved remarkably hard to pin down. For centuries, it seemed to hover somewhere in a half-world between the visible and the unseen, the physical and the evanescent, the enduring medium and its fleeting message. It haunted the ancients as much as it did Claude Shannon and his Bell Labs colleagues in New York and New Jersey, who were trying to engirdle the world with wires and telecoms cables in the mid-20th century.
Shannon – mathematician, American, jazz fanatic, juggling enthusiast – is the founder of information theory, and the architect of our digital world. It was Shannon’s paper ‘A Mathematical Theory of Communication’ (1948) that introduced the bit, an objective measure of how much information a message contains. It was Shannon who explained that every communications system – from telegraphs to television, and ultimately DNA to the internet – has the same basic structure. And it was Shannon who showed that any message could be compressed and transmitted via a binary code of 0s and 1s, with near-perfect accuracy, a notion that was previously pegged as hopelessly utopian. As one of Shannon’s colleagues marvelled: ‘How he got that insight, how he even came to believe such a thing, I don’t know.’
These discoveries were scientific triumphs. But in another way, they brought the thinking about information full-circle. Before it was the province of natural scientists, ‘information’ was a concept explored by poets, orators and philosophers. And while Shannon was a mathematician and engineer by training, he shared with these early investigators a fascination with language.
Read the full article in Aeon.
How concrete cemented its place in history
Tim Harford, City Lab, 28 August 2017
Architecturally, concrete implies lazy, soulless structures: ugly office blocks for provincial bureaucrats; multistory parking garages with stairwells that smell of urine. Yet it can also be shaped into forms that many people find beautiful—think of the Sydney Opera House, or Oscar Niemeyer’s cathedral in Brasilia.
Perhaps it’s no surprise that concrete can evoke such confusing emotions. The very nature of the stuff feels hard to pin down. ‘Is it Stone? Yes and No,’ opined the great American architect Frank Lloyd Wright in 1927. He continued. ‘Is it Plaster? Yes and No. Is it Brick or Tile? Yes and No. Is it Cast Iron? Yes and No.’
That it’s a great building material, however, has been recognized for millennia—perhaps even since the dawn of human civilization. There’s a theory that the very first settlements, the first time that humans gathered together outside their kinship groups—nearly 12,000 years ago at Gobekli Tepe in southern Turkey—was because someone had figured out how to make cement, and therefore concrete. It was certainly being used more than 8,000 years ago by desert traders to make secret underground cisterns to store scarce water; some of these cisterns still exist in modern-day Jordan and Syria. The Mycenaeans used it over 3,000 years ago to build tombs you can see in the Peloponnese in Greece.
The Romans were serious about concrete. Using a naturally occurring cement from volcanic ash deposits at Puteoli, near Pompeii and Mount Vesuvius, they built their aqueducts and their bathhouses. Walk into the Pantheon in Rome, a building that will soon celebrate its 1,900th birthday. Gaze up at what was, for centuries, the largest dome on the planet. You’re looking at concrete. It’s shockingly modern.
Read the full article in City Lab.
Another book gets banned
Salil Tripathi, Live Mint, 24 August 2017
The stories offer a glimpse of an India in transition, where its diverse communities attempt to figure out how the other lives and make adjustments in lives at a time of rapid social, cultural, and economic transition. It is prescient about what is becoming of India, and the stories are witness to the transformation that uproots lives pitilessly. Meat-eating outsiders struggling to settle in a vegetarian Vadodara; Adivasi boys learning the way the ‘sophisticated’ world operates; a woman compelled to trade her body for food; the matter-of-fact trafficking of tribal women; the desperation to which women are driven; a woman trying to establish her identity, and branded as a witch; the hapless life of a sex worker; and the desperate defiance of a musician, disheartened by his community’s dispossession and betrayals, who refuses to perform before the president of India.
These stories are not meant to offer comfort or entertain. They present reality as Shekhar sees it. It is fiction, but drawn from the reality Shekhar encounters daily. Shekhar’s stories focus on the vulnerable and the marginalized, and show how perplexed they are in the wider world, where they possess little and get less. He is not the first to tell such stories—how urban India sees tribal India as exotic is a story told before. In the case of the Santhals, in Satyajit Ray’s powerful film Aranyer Din Ratri (Days And Nights In A Forest); in the case of a poor woman exchanging sexual favours for food, in Ray’s Ashani Sanket (Distant Thunder).
To be sure, merely because a book has won an award does not mean readers have to like it. Readers can avoid the book, express their disapproval by writing about it or telling other people, and writers aggrieved about an unfair portrayal of their community can write their own stories to offer their interpretation. If you don’t like a book, shut it, or argue with it, as Salman Rushdie, himself no stranger to controversies, once said.
Read the full article in Live Mint.
When the Harlem Renaissance
went to communist Moscow
Jenifer Wilson, New York Times, 21 August 2017
‘I feel like a human being for the first time,’ Robeson told reporters after he arrived in Russia. Of all the African-American artists and activists who traveled there, none developed as enduring a relationship with the Soviet Union as Robeson. Upon his arrival, he was received ecstatically by the Soviet theatrical establishment, which invited him to sing an aria onstage from Modest Mussorgsky’s opera ‘Boris Godunov.’ Despite Soviet atheism, he was asked to sing Negro spirituals over the radio and at government parties. His song ‘Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child’ became newly emblematic of his relationship to his home country; the Soviets had put his recording of the song over an animated short film about racism and labor exploitation in the American sugar industry.
But by the time Robeson was beginning his great romance with the Soviet project, McKay and many African-Americans (including the novelist Richard Wright) were moving away from it. McKay, like many of the Russian artists he collaborated with in Moscow, would have a falling out with communism. The instigating event, for him, was Soviet Russia’s failure to cease trade with Italy even after Mussolini had invaded Ethiopia, then ruled by Haile Selassie. The invasion was widely seen as an affront to the very idea of black sovereignty. McKay would turn his political disillusionment into ‘Amiable With Big Teeth: A Novel of the Love Affair Between the Communists and the Poor Black Sheep of Harlem.’
Wright would soon join McKay in his disillusionment. In 1944 he wrote an article for The Atlantic Monthly called ‘I Tried to Be a Communist.’ Frustrated by the American Communist Party’s tepid response to his novel ‘Native Son,’ Wright wrote to a friend that the party ‘encourage[s] the creation of types of writing that can be used for agitprop purposes,’ but had ‘a tendency to sneer at more creative attempts.’
Read the full article in the New York Times.
Nothing like the truth
Sam Leith, Times Literary Supplement, 16 August 2017
To return to rhetoric, though none of the authors here makes much of Aristotle, his triad of persuasive appeals – ethos, pathos and logos – remains a very useful prism through which to analyse the post-truth era; not only in its features but in the continuities with the ‘truth era’ that the prefix still, pace Oxford Dictionaries, implies. Logos – the appeal to which stubborn old facts belongs – has ever come limping into third place in terms of its rhetorical effectiveness. And even logos is, as Aristotle noted, fuzzy – it doesn’t proceed by syllogisms but by enthymemes, syllogisms with suppressed premisses or probabilistic rather than absolute axioms. Bullshit is baked into rhetoric from its origins.
Far greater than the effect of logos and even pathos (the emotions) is ethos: the way in which a communicator constructs his or her relationship with the audience. As Davis puts it: ‘Sell yourself, not your product’. Recent studies have told us that a huge number of Trump voters continue to support him while also being quite prepared to believe that he’s a liar: the fact that he appears to be on their side matters more than the factual content of the statements he makes. The signalling value of appearing to be concerned with immigration, for instance, is far more important than the question of whether what you say about immigration is actually true.
Here is where social media, especially, comes in. Facebook is powerful in spreading messages not just because of its reach – Ball’s statistics contrast the BBC’s News at Ten (4.5 million daily viewers), ABC and CBS (9 million each) and MailOnline (15 million users a day) with Facebook’s 1.2 billion daily users; eighty times as many as those of the Mail – but because of its nature. Its logic is social: users are more likely to respond to what’s served to them by friends, family and members of their own filter-bubble in-group. As Ball wanly notes, links are often shared and retweeted by people who have not even read beyond the (often misleading) headline; and how often do most of us check the facts on something with which we’re already predisposed to agree?
That is why I’m sceptical of the idea that this phenomenon might all have started with arcane French philosophers. The success of bullshit and post-truth is not about epistemology. It is about identity: the power of a brand; the prioritizing of a ‘friendly’ or in-group source; the signalling content of a claim rather than its factual accuracy; the force of an established narrative, and so on. Foucault and co recognized the way in which competing narratives about, or constructions of, reality are involved with political power (or ‘Power’, as they’d capitalize it) – but that was to identify the problem rather than to cause it.
Read the full article in TLS.
Review of Leigh Montville’s ‘Sting Like a Bee: Muhammad Ali vs. the United States of America, 1966-1971’
Luther Spoehr, History News Network, 31 July 2017
Ali was always hip-deep in controversy, but the forthrightness of his stand against the draft, his relentless victimization by the boxing and government authorities, and changing public opinion about the war made him an increasingly sympathetic figure. He moved away from the extremism of the Honorable Elijah Muhammad. His personal charm—yes, one can certainly call it ‘charisma’—did the rest. It is impossible to recapture all of that charisma in print. His energy, wit, talent, and unpredictability were magnetic. With Ali, there was almost always a twinkle in his eye—and his eye was always on his audience. The boxer as comic poet: ‘Float like a butterfly, Sting like a bee.’ Predicting the round for his knockouts. Threatening to put the glowering Sonny Liston into orbit, causing a ‘total eclipse of the Sonny’ (a line that Belinda may well have supplied).
By the 1960s, boxing–tawdry and bedeviled by stories of fixes, mob influence, and worse–had already been in decline for decades. Ali made it matter to the public again. Since his days in the sun, it has resumed its inexorable and largely unlamented decline. (Can you name the current heavyweight champion? Didn’t think so. Do you care? Didn’t think so. That’s probably for the best.) By the early 1970s, Ali had transcended all of that. He was almost certainly the most famous person in the world and well on his way to becoming one of the most admired. No longer the ‘Louisville Lip,’ he was the ‘People’s Champion.’ I don’t claim to have read everything in the Ali oeuvre, but I can say Montville’s book belongs on the same shelf with the likes of David Remnick’s superb King of the World (1998), Dave Kindred’s Sound and Fury (2006, about Ali and sportscaster Howard Cosell), and Thomas Hauser’s collection of interviews, Muhammad Ali: His Life and Times (1992).
Read the full article in HNN.
In global popularity contest,
US and China – not Russia – vie for first
Margaret Vice, Pew Research Centre, 23 August 2017
The US and China engender roughly the same level of goodwill. China is particularly well-liked in Latin America and the Middle East, while the U.S. fares better in Europe and the Asia-Pacific region.
However, America’s weakening image in many nations has taken a toll on the country’s once-solid lead over China. And China’s own favorability has strengthened in recent years in Canada, Australia, Lebanon and Turkey.
Since the most recent year Pew Research Center polled in 36 nations – 2014, 2015 or 2016, depending on the country – the number of nations in which the U.S. holds a competitive advantage in favorability over China has halved, from 25 to 12.(Differences of less than 6 percentage points are considered ties.) Whereas the U.S. once had a 12-point lead over China in terms of a global median, that lead has shrunk in 2017 to 2 points. In six nations – Spain, Mexico, Turkey, Australia, Peru and Senegal – the dynamic between the two superpowers has flipped, with China overtaking the U.S. in favorability. And the United States’ once-significant lead over China in popularity has fallen to a virtual tie in another seven countries: Kenya, Germany, France, Brazil, Sweden, the UK and Canada.
Read the full article in Pew Research Centre.
Don’t fall for Babylonian trigonometry hype
Evelyn Lamb, Scientific American, 29 August 2017
Plimpton 322, the tablet in question, is certainly an alluring artifact. It’s a broken piece of clay roughly the size of a postcard. It was filled with four columns of cuneiform numbers around 1800 BCE, probably in the ancient city of Larsa (now in Iraq) and was removed in the 1920s. George Plimpton bought it in 1922 and bequeathed it to Columbia University, which has owned it since 1936. Since then, many scholars have studied Plimpton 322, so any picture you might have of Mansfield and Wildberger on their hands and knees in a hot, dusty archaeological site, or even rummaging through musty, neglected archives and unearthing this treasure is inaccurate. We’ve known about the artifact and what was on it for decades. The researchers claim to have a new interpretation of how the artifact was used, but I am skeptical.
Scholars have known since the 1940s that Plimpton 322 contains numbers involved in Pythagorean triples, that is, integer solutions to the equation a2+b2=c2. For example, 3-4-5 is a Pythagorean triple because 32+42=9+16=25=52. August 15 of this year was celebrated by some as ‘Pythagorean Triple Day’ because 8-15-17 is another, slightly sexier, such triple.
The far right column consists of the numbers 1 through 15, so it’s just an enumeration. The two middle columns of Plimpton 322 contain one side and the hypotenuse of a Pythagorean triangle, or a and c in the equation a2+b2=c2. (Note that a and b are interchangeable.) But these are a little brawnier than the Pythagorean triples you learn in school. The first entries are 119 and 169, corresponding to the Pythagorean triple 1192+1202=1692. The far left column is a ratio of squares of the sides of the triangles. Exactly which sides depends slightly on what is contained in the missing shard from the left side of the artifact, but it doesn’t make a huge difference. It’s either the square of the hypotenuse divided by the square of the remaining leg or the square of one leg divided by the square of the other leg. In modern mathematical jargon, these are squares of either the tangent or the secant of an angle in the triangle.
We can interpret one of the columns as containing trigonometric functions, so in some sense, it is a trig table. But despite what the headlines would have you believe, people have known that for decades. The mystery is what purpose the tablet served in its time. Why was it created? Why were those particular triangles included in the table? How were the columns computed? In a 1980 paper titled ‘Sherlock Holmes in Babylon,’ R. Creighton Buck implied that through mathematics and cunning observation, one could sleuth out the meaning of the tablet and offered an explanation he thought fit the data. But Eleanor Robson, in ‘Neither Sherlock Holmes nor Babylon,’ writes, ‘Ancient mathematical texts and artefacts, if we are to understand them fully, must be viewed in the light of their mathematico-historical context, and not treated as artificial, self-contained creations in the style of detective stories.’ It’s arrogant and will probably lead to incorrect conclusions to look at ancient artifacts primarily through the lens of our modern understanding of mathematics.
Read the full article in Scientific American.
Documenting the art deco riches of Mumbai
Charukesi Ramadurai, City Lab, 28 August 2017
While aficionados of Art Deco architecture swoon over New York’s Chrysler Building, Paris’ Théâtre des Champs-Élysées, and Miami’s South Beach, the Art Deco gems of another metropolis have remained largely unsung for decades: Mumbai, India, is believed to have the second-largest number of Deco structures in the world, after Miami. Experts estimate the number at more than 200.
Every day, thousands of Mumbaikars walk past elegant façades like those of the Eros and Regal cinemas, the Empress Court Apartments, and the New India Assurance building without a second glance at their rounded corners, geometric decorations, and colorful stucco—features that define the Art Deco style.
Art Deco originated in Paris in the mid-1920s and rapidly spread to other European countries, the U.K., and beyond. Residents of the prosperous communities of south Mumbai (then Bombay), who travelled to England for education and business, brought the style back with them and made it popular over the next two decades.
It soon became a symbol of status and prosperity. Savvy architects gave the style a local twist that has come to be known as Bombay Deco, which included nautical themes such as portholes and waves; images of Hindu deities like Lakshmi, the goddess of wealth; and floral motifs, especially the sacred lotus flower.
Read the full article in City Lab.
Why I became a jihadist poetry critic
Alex Marshall, BBC News Magazine, 29 August 2017
‘I started hunting around bookshops, and you wouldn’t get the stuff easily,’ she says. ‘It was difficult to know what terminology to use. ‘Poetry about jihad?’ That didn’t work. It turned out to be ‘Enthusiastic poetry’, ‘Poetry for a cause’. I’d say that and, ‘Ah!’, a backdoor would open and there you go.’
She also surveyed Yemeni tribespeople on poetry (among many other topics), to check it was important to their daily lives – some 84% of men and 69% of women said it was – and while travelling around sometimes played her minders jihadist songs from her phone just to gauge their reactions.
‘Once, one turned around and went: ‘Doctor, this is rubbish! If you want good jihadi poetry, we’ll find you good jihadi poetry.’‘
Kendall gives regular talks on the subject and if you hear one you could be startled. At an event in London earlier this year, she happily read excerpts from one of her ‘favourites’, and later said, of two al-Qaeda poets, that ‘these guys were so talented, even I felt a pang of regret when they got droned.’
Read the full article in BBC News Magazine,
The images are, from top down: from Gabriel Dawe’s installation ‘Eye II’; René Magritte’s ‘The Lovers’; Katsushika Hokusai’s ‘The Great Wave off Kanagawa’; Giovanni Paolo Panini’s Interior of the Pantheon, Rome; Photo of Muhammad Ali by Thomas Hoepker/Magnum.