web 25

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.

A tragedy of manners
Angela Nagle, The Baffler, September 2017

Comments on the bad manners of Donald Trump have come from a wide array of sources, all along the political spectrum. British Burkean conservative Peter Hitchens called him ‘an oaf and a yahoo who has gravely damaged the standards of public life.’ The editors of National Review found themselves fielding the indefatigable rage of Trump’s online army when they contended, in high Buckleyite fashion, that Trump’s own trollish incivility was a first-order threat to the health of our civilization. Marxist philosopher Slavoj Žižek said of the new wave of Trumpian rightists that

They represent the decay of common morality and decency. And I use here the very precise term, Hegel calls it Sittlichkeit. It’s not simple morality, it’s a set of thick unwritten rules which makes our social life bearable. And, paradoxically, I think that progressives should become the voice of common decency, politeness, good manners, and so on.

Of course Žižek was, as is his wont, knowingly using language that would generally make leftists cringe. Beyond the playful counter-intuitive style of Žižek and the more conventional pleas for cultural decency from Hitchens and National Review, most would recoil from using the outmoded, prissy-sounding language of manners today. Such talk seems either hopelessly uptight or ridiculously trivial in a period of such grave political turmoil and upheaval.

Yet the question of manners, if not the naming of it, actually claims unusual pride of place in American political and cultural debate – usually via the debased rhetoric plotting out the battle over ‘political correctness’. In the ongoing war over speech on college campuses, for example – which now increasingly erupts into cruelty, bullying, mob behavior, cursing and screaming, and even riots – the conversation is typically understood through the lens of liberal free speech rights or strategic considerations. Yet in the free speech wars there are usually no rights under attack from the state. In a nation with constitutional free speech protections, such a framework never seems to quite fit the debate. Tactical interpretations of either side’s incremental gains in this or that campus confrontation also feel too instrumental and shallow.

The same basic paradox assails all spheres of political and cultural confrontation in the Trump era: we instinctively abjure reckoning directly with the subject of manners – and yet it goes to the heart of everything that is happening. There’s a culture-wide unease with the discussion of manners – which in turn conceals a larger and far more momentous breakdown in a viable understanding of manners in today’s America.

Read the full article in The Baffler.


Why Europe’s migrant strategy is an illusion
Mirco Keilberth, Peter Müller & Maximilian Popp,
Spiegel Online, 6 September 2017

The plan is virtually impossible to implement. Who would build and operate the reception and selection centers outside the EU? Poor countries like Niger and Chad lack the resources, as does the overloaded United Nations Refugee Agency. This means that European officials would have to be sent to Africa.

But Europe isn’t even capable of quickly processing asylum requests in Greece and Italy. As part of their refugee agreement with Turkey, EU member states pledged to review asylum requests within days. Those whose requests were denied were to be immediately returned to Turkey, while all others would be distributed around Europe. But many Syrians, Afghans and Pakistanis have been stuck on Greek islands for the last year and a half, due to delays in the processing of their requests.

There is nothing to suggest that this process would be any easier in Africa. The numbers would likely grow even larger and thousands of asylum seekers would find themselves stuck on the edge of the Sahara, waiting for their applications to be processed. The EU would be forced to open camps and provide for them. But even if Europeans miraculously managed to establish legal procedures in Africa, what happens after that is still unclear…

Europe’s seemingly attractive plan, in other words, is nothing more than an illusion. In the run-up to German parliamentary elections on Sept. 24, Merkel wants to create the impression that she has the refugee crisis under control. And Macron wants to portray himself as Europe’s savior. But the truth is that Europe has already decided to seal itself off. Italy is pushing ahead with its plan to close down the Mediterranean route and Austria is shutting down the Brenner Pass. Merkel is the main beneficiary of these actions, because they enable her to remain the refugee chancellor, even as borders in the south are being sealed…

In taking these measures, Europe is placing the protection of its external borders in the hands of criminals – a move that is both morally questionable and strategically unwise, because it makes Europe susceptible to blackmail. Most of all, though, the humanitarian situation in which these migrants find themselves is likely to become even more desperate. The vast majority of those who arrive in Libya lack the money necessary for a return journey. What, though, should happen to the people in the camps?

Read the full article in Spiegel Online.


It’s the gap, stupid
Archon Fung, Boston Review, 1 September 2017

In Dream Hoarders, Reeves favors reforms that would ‘share the dream’ of educational and economic opportunity that the top 20 percent now enjoys. But in White Working Class, Williams explains why the dreams of the White Working Class (WWC) are very different from those of Professional Managerial Elites. She argues that those in the WWC don’t want the same things as PMEs, don’t want to be PMEs, and that, in fact, they resent PMEs. Her book elaborates on the ideas of a widely read Harvard Business Review article that was published two days after the 2016 Presidential election. It explicitly contrasts White Working Class culture and values with those of the PME. Her contribution—while overdrawn and overgeneralized – explodes the notion that Americans are just one big middle class.

n one of the book’s most memorable passages, for example, Williams recounts a class-clueless exchange at her husband’s WWC high school reunion. Forgetting his roots and his audience, her husband asked a classmate what he did for a living, a common icebreaker among PMEs.

‘The classmate’s face got very red,’ Williams writes, ‘as… he hissed ‘I sell toilets.’’

WWC people, Williams argues, find dignity and honor in jobs that aren’t enjoyable or fulfilling in themselves, but rather in what the job ‘allows you to buy and whom it allows you to support.’  PMEs, in contrast, organize their lives to prioritize jobs that are not just economically rewarding, but also empowering, collaborative, and socially valued. Along with this difference, there is a rootedness to WWC life that is absent among PMEs who grow up in one place, attend university in another, and pursue careers still other places.

These differences are part of the reason, Williams explains, why the WWC admire the rich – such as Donald Trump – but resent professionals. Being rich is an aspiration glorified in movies and television programs, but the WWC have direct and grating experience with professionals. Oftentimes, professionals are the clueless managers who exercise arbitrary power and condescend. As Alfred Lubrano explains in Limbo: Blue-Collar Roots, White-Collar Dreams (which Williams quotes from), college kids ‘don’t know shit about how to do anything, but are full of ideas about how I have to do my job.’

Read the full article in the Boston Review.


Monks with guns
Micael Jerryson, Aeon, 26 April 2017

When I lecture on these events, people often ask if these are ‘truly’ Buddhists. After all, violence does not fit into the popular narrative of Buddhism being wholly peaceful. But they are indeed ‘true’ Buddhists, and many are monks. The problem is that the ‘peaceful Buddhist’ narrative is erroneous. It prevents us from understanding the causes of violence. Buddhists, after all, have an agency that goes beyond Hollywood stereotypes of mystical monks, Himalayan mountaintops and Shangri-La.

These popular narratives of passivity and victimhood in Western culture are blind to the diversity in Buddhism and its long history of violence. The stories that seem to take root are ones that provide space for Westerners to become the heroes – rescuers of those from the besieged ‘East’. They centre on intrepid voyagers who travel to the East and come back with the exotic mystic arts, as recently portrayed in the Marvel film Doctor Strange (2016).

In these accounts, Buddhism is not so much a full-bodied religion than (merely) a philosophy. Within the United States, the origins of this view can be found in the 1893 World’s Parliament of Religions, in Chicago. On the shores of Lake Michigan, wealthy white US citizens were introduced to the science of Buddhism by Zen Japanese Buddhist priests and Western-educated Sri Lankan monks. Many, like the German-born author Paul Carus, left that conference with a vision of a ‘philosophy’ that was spiritual and in harmony with scientific progress.

After the Second World War, the Buddhist movement found its home in the Beatnik generation through romanticised works such as Jack Kerouac’s The Dharma Bums (1958), the writings of the poet Allen Ginsberg, and those of the ex-Episcopal priest Alan Watts. Later, Robert Pirsig’s philosophical reflections in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance(1974) gained an enthusiastic following among readers dissatisfied with modern life and who wanted more. In 1987, US interest in Buddhism began to assume political implications with the founding of the Free Tibet movement…

In this treatment of Buddhism, there is no space for any Asian or other non-white Buddhists to serve as primary heroes, other than through the caricature of martial-art experts. Nor is there any inclusion of admired Buddhists in their opposition to Western interests. Instead, Asians became the supporters or sidekicks of Western heroes.

Read the full article in Aeon.


hurricane harvey

What Charlie Hebdo can teach us
about the nature of satire

Iona Italia, Areo Magazine, 1 September 2017

Many people have been reading the cover caption as a simple statement of editorial opinion. It’s not. That’s not how satire works. The caption is, in fact, deeply sarcastic, i.e. what it states at face value is the opposite of what its authors really believe. Most of us can detect this type of sarcasm easily in everyday situations. When someone rolls their eyes and says ‘yeah, right’ in response to a remark we don’t take this to mean they wholeheartedly endorse what was said. Satire begins there. But it’s a little more complicated than that.

Here’s some important background to this particular case. As reports of the Houston floodings came in, some commentators on social media expressed the opinion, politely, that there was a ‘dramatic irony’ in Texas being struck by a natural disaster, given that the state voted for Trump, that it is a ‘red’ state or that the Texan legislature refused to vote for additional relief funds after Hurricane Sandy. Some even hinted that perhaps the Houstonians ‘deserved’ it. These opinions, expressed in mealy-mouthed ways, cautiously hedged about with disclaimers, might have sounded speciously correct to an incautious ear. But, in fact, the idea that innocent people ‘deserve’ to suffer a natural disaster is no different, fundamentally, from the rantings of religious maniacs who claim that hurricanes or floods are caused by the legalization of gay marriage or by our ‘ungodly’ liberal lifestyles. This kind of sickening victim-blaming usually comes from the loony religious fringe of the right. It was all the more dismaying to hear it from the mouths of liberals. But it’s the same faeces, lightly perfumed with a different scent. The Charlie Hebdo editors merely lifted the lid of the latrine and showed us how much it stank.

What Charlie Hebdo did was translate what these people were really saying into the starkest of statements, one which revealed their despicable hypocrisy. Satire often does this. As Shakespeare famously puts it, it ‘holds … the mirror up to nature, shows virtue her feature, scorn her own image and the very age and body of the time his form and pressure.’ It reveals human nature in all its grotesquery, stripping away the veneer of civility, removing the fig leaves of euphemism, showing us reflected in all our grinning, naked ugliness. It reveals us to ourselves, at our worst.

Read the full article in Areo Magazine.


How labor scholars missed the Trump revolt
Jefferson Cowie, Chronicle of Higher Education,
1 September 2017

Having grown up in a white, blue-collar, Midwestern household, I was long bothered by the fact that my experiences at home never jibed with the literature I read in graduate school. In dog-eared books, drawn-out grad seminars, and extended conversations in many a bar, I gradually opened my mind to an America that was simultaneously alien and familiar to that of my childhood: a world of working-people’s politics, strikes, coalitions, radicalism, and social movements – almost always mounted to defend some version of the community that I just wanted to leave behind. From the right perspective, my new mentors explained, you could see how the struggles of working-class people had shaped the world.

The working-class universe I knew most intimately was one without romance or agency and with precious little discussion of movements or protest or anything of the sort. We knew that the jobs at the unionized grocery stores were the ones to get – which was, mind you, a very important thing. As the son of a downwardly mobile and politically conservative father who, for most of my life, labored as a nonunion janitor, I found that I intuitively came at the subject from a different angle. Despite my love for the vision of the new labor history, I never felt empowered by my own working-class experience. Little of what I eventually read about the potential of collective action dovetailed with my subjective experience. So I succumbed to a class-based version of impostor syndrome and presumed that all of those smart people I met in the university must know better than I did.

Later, wandering through a used-book shop en route to my Ph., I found a book called The Hidden Injuries of Class (Knopf, 1972), one of the classic contributions to the ’70s explosion in white, blue-collar studies. The title said it all. Class as individualized, tortuous inner struggle – now we were getting somewhere…

Working-class history is often about heroics and radicalism and solidarity at the plant gate and the union hall. But those bright stories should not distract us from the other side: the dark, hard, claustrophobic, insular, racist, angry, fearful, even bitter, social burn of a group of people who have little standing in American civic life.

I wrote a book called Stayin’ Alive: The 1970s and the Last Days of the Working Class (The New Press, 2010). It was about the political and cultural collapse of white, male, working-class identity in the ‘me decade’ after two generations in the political and economic sun. While it got plenty of criticism, few readers took seriously the central message expressed in the subtitle: Our civic life has become a doughnut, with empty calories surrounding a hollow center where questions of class, occupation, pay, and power might once have been debated and expressed. We had become a nation with little legitimate space to express either the external or the internal conflicts of economic inequality – and that is a dangerous and volatile place for any republic to find itself.

While the working class is a fractured multicultural mosaic, white guys remain its most volatile and angry part, even if, objectively, they have a lot less to worry about than working-class women and minorities do. We know, for instance, that those white men are less optimistic about their lives than are minorities, that their longevity is literally decreasing, and that their occupational mainstays are dwindling. They have fallen from grace. And they are explosive.

Read the full article in the Chronicle of Higher Education.


When politics drives scholarship
Henry Farrell & Steven M Teles,
Boston Review, 30 August 2017

We believe that the flaws in Democracy in Chains and the debate it has spurred, lead to three problems. First, while we have political commitments, we are scholars. That means that our core priority is to get the facts right, even when that is politically inconvenient. When we believe others are making profoundly mistaken claims – even if we share deep political values with them—we shouldn’t shut up just because speaking out would be politically awkward. Of course, other scholars can take issue with our criticisms, but those disagreements should primarily focus on the evidence and its interpretation, rather than on whether one is giving succor to the ‘right’ or the ‘wrong’ side.

Second, while a commitment to trying to figure out the truth has to come first, we also believe that, in this particular instance, the mistakes of the book could badly mislead liberals and the left. Democracy in Chains has received laudatory reviews and write-ups in general interest publications such as the Guardian and the New York Times. Reviewers and general readers cannot be blamed for assuming that a book by a renowned historian will be accurate, but, in this case, this has led them to accept a set of claims about the right that have little good evidence to support them. Specifically, as we argued in our article for Vox, the left is liable to overestimate the extent to which the right is operating by a single plan, based on a strategy put forward by a single intellectual. We believe it is more appropriate to understand the variety of actors on the right, their conflicts with each other, and the success of some funders in supporting multiple different projects to explore an ex-ante unobservable landscape of political possibilities. The most serious danger is that the left might look to this mistaken understanding of the right’s success as a model for how it should organize itself….

Third, the sloppiness of the book makes it much easier for right-wing critics to magnify the flaws in ways that are themselves sloppy or misleading.

Read the full article in the Boston Review.


Most experimental drugs are tested offshore –
raising concerns about data

Rebecca Robbins, Scientific American,
10 September 2017

The clinical trial for a herpes vaccine flouted just about every norm in the book: American patients were flown in to the Caribbean island of St Kitts for experimental injections. Local authorities didn’t give permission. Nor did the Food and Drug Administration. Nor did a safety panel.

That’s why the trial – run by a startup that has since received funding from billionaire investor Peter Thiel – prompted widespread alarm and censure when it was reported last week by Kaiser Health News.

But in some respects, the herpes vaccine trial isn’t all that unusual. Nearly all drug makers seeking U.S. approval today rely in part on overseas locations and populations to test their drugs, the result of a decades-long push by industry to try to cut costs and speed recruitment of patients. In fact, a STAT analysis found that 90 percent of new drugs approved this year were tested at least in part outside the U.S. and Canada.

The globalization of clinical trials has brought new treatments to historically neglected populations and generated data more representative of the world’s diversity. But the change has not come without side effects: Companies, researchers, and regulators are increasingly grappling with cultural differences — and more seriously, lapses in ethical and scientific standards – that sometimes arise when trials are conducted in countries without a strong tradition of robust clinical research.

And those lapses can have serious consequences for the data that’s used to support medical decision-making.

Read the full article in Scientific American.


The Yellow Danger by MP Shiel

The first Mexican border wall was actually
to keep out Chinese people

Harmon Leon, Timeline, 4 April 2017

When it comes to securing the United States border with Mexico, the concerns go all the way back to 1882 – but they didn’t involve Mexicans. With the Exclusion Act of that year, the Chinese were actually the first group banned from entering the country, and they became the first immigrants who had to sneak into the U.S. The chief way they did that — at a rate of roughly 2000 a year  – was through Mexico.

In the early 1900s, there were only a few dozen guards on the Mexican border, who actually called themselves ‘Chinese catchers.’ As one of them boasted to the El Paso Herald, ‘Whenever I meet a Chinaman I can tell whether or not I have ever seen him before, and if so, where….It is very easy to detect a newcomer, a Chinaman who has come unlawfully into the country.’

But with every law comes a way around that law. International smuggling rings quickly formed, providing maps, safe houses, and fake identification papers for would-be immigrants who were eager and willing to pay a fee. Despite the tough talk, border inspectors in towns such as Nogales, Arizona were sometimes paid off by smugglers, with the price ranging from $50 and $200 a person. A crackdown in 1901 by special agents for the Treasury Department determined that the whole customs and immigration administration at Nogales was taking payola for being part of the smuggling scheme. (The Canadian border was also used as an entry point for smuggling Chinese immigrants into America — but Canada cooperated with the U.S. in cracking down on the migration; thus Mexico became the more viable illegal gateway.

Read the full article in Timeline.


The ‘underground astronaut’
in search for ancient bones

Genelle Weule, ABC Science, 26 August 2017

‘You don’t ever want to leave anyone behind because sound doesn’t travel all that well, so you need to be very aware of who is in your team and what they’re doing at any given time,’ Elen says. ‘We were pretty conscientious about checking with one another to make sure everyone was doing well getting through the system, particularly the most challenging parts.’

The most challenging part was The Chute. The fissure was so narrow that Elen and her colleagues could not even wear safety harnesses.

When you first go through the opening to the fissure you have to drop in feet first and there’s not enough room that you can see where you’re going,’ Elen says. ‘You feel blindly around with your feet for any possible foothold you could before slowly wriggling your way very carefully down without looking at your feet.’

The sides of the chute was filled with interlocking spurs of stone. ‘They were handy sometimes but at other times they could catch your clothing, catch your jumpsuit and choke you,’ she says.

But at the bottom of this chute was the most stunning thing Elen had ever seen. ‘One of the most treasured experiences I have is walking into that chamber for the first time,’ she says. ‘The ground was covered in white stuff,’ she says, pausing. ‘White stuff!’

‘And it took me a second or two to realise that all the white stuff I was seeing on the ground was bone material. And it was everywhere.’

Read the full article in ABC Science.


Germany’s working poor
Olivier Cyran, The Nation, 6 september 2017

The Hartz IV system went into effect on January 1, 2005. Getting the unemployed into jobs required the creation of a wide range of incentives for employers: the exemption of low wages from taxes; the launch of mini-jobs paying €400, then €450, a month; the removal of restrictions on the use of temporary labor; and subsidies for employment agencies recruiting among the long-term unemployed. Employers, especially in the service industries, got greedy: With a fresh supply of low-wage labor from the JobCenters, they converted regular jobs into precarious ones; those who took them could join the queue at the JobCenters to supplement their earnings. The number of people in temporary employment climbed from 300,000 in 2000 to nearly 1 million in 2016; the ratio of the working poor – those earning less than €979 a month – rose from 18 to 22 percent. The introduction of a minimum wage of €8.50 an hour in 2015, raised to €8.84 this year, hasn’t affected the trend: 4.7 million workers survive on a mini-job paying a maximum of €450 a month. As a result, Germany has converted its unemployed into paupers.

Hartz IV is essentially a compulsory precarious-employment service. ‘Customers’ are in permanent danger of falling into the sanctions trap. Berlin resident Jürgen Köhler, 63, is a self-employed graphic designer. Competition from the big firms has forced prices down, and he doesn’t get enough work to make ends meet, so he registered with the JobCenters. ‘One day I got a letter telling me to report to the employment agency at 4 am the following Monday and Tuesday for a construction job,’ Köhler recalled. ‘It said that I would be paid the same evening, and that I needed to bring a pair of safety boots. Obviously, I don’t have that kind of equipment, and I’ve never worked in construction. I didn’t think it would be a good idea to start at my age.’

As is often the case, there was no time to appeal, so Köhler’s only option was to go to court and hope for a ruling before he was sanctioned, which could have cut his benefits by anywhere from 10 to 100 percent. No worker is safe from these sanctions, not even young people ages 15–17: In return for a monthly allowance paid to the household, the JobCenters can call them in at any time – even if they’re still at school – to ‘advise’ them to look for work in a particular sector with a shortage of labor, and can stop the allowance if they miss an appointment.

As an unemployed member of the service-industries trade union Ver.di, Köhler had access to free legal representation and was lucky enough to get a favorable ruling in time. Sanctions were applied to nearly 1 million people in 2016, with penalties averaging €108 – a considerable savings for Germany’s federal labor agency, to which the JobCenters report. In 2016, some 121,000 complaints were filed against the JobCenters, though 60 percent were dismissed. ‘You get hit with sanctions for such absurd reasons that there’s a good chance of winning if you go about it right,’ Köhler said. ‘But a majority of the unemployed don’t know their rights and can’t defend themselves well. Most don’t even try.’

Read the full article in The Nation


The dog that didn’t bark:
The disappearance of the citizen

Mark Lilla, Eurozine, 18 August 2017

The United States has always been a diverse nation open to immigrants. But it has not always practiced identity politics in the contemporary sense. It is true that with the massive immigration of Europeans in the decades just before the turn of the twentieth century, recent immigrants – Italian-Americans, German-Americans, Polish-Americans – did vote as blocs, especially in the age of machine politics in big cities. But they did so as ordinary interest groups, not to assert their ethnic identities or claim any special privileges or exemptions. The Polish neighbourhood voted for more jobs, the Italians voted for more parks, the Germans voted for more schools. And politicians tried to accommodate these groups in order to win their votes. But at the level of national politics, Italian-Americans, German-Americans and Polish-Americans argued and voted simply as citizens. And when it came to fighting in the two world wars, they served and died as citizens. That was their identity.

Things began to change with the Civil Rights Movement in the 1950s, and for understandable reasons. African-Americans were obviously not ethnic immigrants, they had been slaves. They were not citizens forming a mere interest group, they were not even full citizens enjoying equal protection under the law. African-Americans found it nearly impossible to vote in certain parts of the country, schools were segregated, as were public facilities and businesses throughout the South. European immigrants had been able and eager to downplay their ethnic identities in order to assimilate into a white and largely Protestant America. African-Americans could not shed their identity if they wanted to. And so they were forced to mobilize politically around it to fight for their rights and become equal citizens. But this is the important point: their assertion of identity was not an end in itself. It was a means for achieving citizenship within a liberal democracy. Theirs was a political goal. And in pursuing that goal, African-Americans gave white Americans a lesson in citizenship.

Then things began to unravel, for many reasons: the disaster of Vietnam, the radicalization of protest movements against it, the rise of the counter-culture, which was also what one historian called the ‘culture of narcissism.’ But the most significant transformation was that the liberal left splintered into different identity groups in the 1970s, and then into smaller sub-groups, each demanding not just rights but social recognition. Black radicals broke with the staid, religious leaders of the Civil Rights Movement, preaching a kind of separatism and racial pride: Black is Beautiful. Feminists who felt they were overshadowed in the anti-war movement broke away and demanded rights of their own as citizens, but also recognition of their difference as women. Blacks and lesbians within the feminist movement then broke away, claiming that it was dominated by straight white women and their values. The male gay rights movement followed the same arc, from demands for equal rights, to demands for social recognition and affirmation, and then to internal squabbles over just what it meant to be authentically gay.

This story – of a left fracturing into smaller and smaller factions – is a familiar one in Western political history. But what happened next in the USA was unusual. As America became more conservative and individualistic in the Reagan years, the energy behind these battles over identity was directed away from the political arena, and was invested instead in our colleges and universities, which became theatres for an ersatz politics of identity formation and self-assertion. The primary question for the university left shifted from how to mobilize people sharing a certain identity to defend their rights through the political process – which is the work of citizens. And it became how to determine and assert one’s own personal identity: as white or black, male or female, gay or straight. The formation, cultivation and assertion of the self became the centre of attention in the narcissistic Reagan years. What had begun as a political project turned into a psychological drama – but with pretensions to political seriousness.

Read the full article in Eurozine.



Imagining Toussaint Louverture
Charles Forsdick, Pluto Press blog, 14 August 2017

In parallel to these often mythologizing literary representations of Louverture, a complex historiographic tradition has also evolved. This emerged in earnest in Haiti itself in the middle years of the nineteenth century, in the work of historians including Thomas Madiou and Beaubrun Ardouin, whose interpretations of Louverture contributed to the competing ‘negro’ and ‘mulatto’ legends of Haitian history. The later nineteenth century saw the appearance, in France and the USA, of more hagiographic biographies, by authors such as Victor Schoelcher and Wendell Phillips, who sought to secure the abolitionist legacies of Louverture’s life. At the same time, the Haitian revolutionary leader played a key role in Anténor Firmin’s De l’égalité des races humaines (1885), a retort to Gobineau’s racist tract that foregrounded human inequality and an early statement of what would be later known as Negritude. The US occupation of Haiti (1915-34) turned international attention to the country, triggering a cluster of re-figurings of Louverture, not least in Soviet Russia where Anatolii Vinogradov wrote the major novel The Black Consul and Sergei Eisenstein sought to make an ultimately aborted biopic of the leader of the Haitian Revolution, with Paul Robeson in the lead role. Robeson would eventually play Louverture on the London stage in 1936, in CLR James’s play of the Revolution that would lead, two years later, to the publication of his monumental history, The Black Jacobins.

Although a number of histories of the Haitian Revolution have appeared in recent years – most notably Laurent Dubois’s excellent Avengers of the New World (2004), James’s history continues to be one of the main English-language sources on Toussaint Louverture and the historical struggle that he led. (The Black Jacobins has also been widely translated, and a new edition, with an introduction by James Walvin, appeared with Penguin in 2001). James’s work combines archive-based research with literary flourish to provide an account of the Revolution through the lens of Marxist historiography. Although in later life he speculated on how he might rewrite the book, not least emphasising a history ‘from below’, The Black Jacobins provides a rounded account of Toussaint Louverture, avoiding the hagiography of many previous biographical accounts, emphasising the many ways in which he was ‘made’ by the historical circumstances in which he found himself, and foregrounding the gains of the revolution he led, particularly in terms of emancipation from the brutal system of plantation slavery by which Saint-Domingue was previously regulated…

Two centuries after his death, the representational field around Louverture remains fraught, reflecting the need – described by the Martinican intellectual Edouard Glissant in Caribbean Discourse – to ‘argue around Toussaint’. More visible in an international context than his fellow revolutionaries Henri Christophe and Jean-Jacques Dessalines, Louverture has long served as a vehicle for the contested meanings of the Haitian Revolution. In one of the most useful anthologies of the extensive catalogue of posthumous re-figurings of Louverture, George Tyson states: ‘he has been all things to all men, from bloodthirsty black savage to ‘the greatest black man in history’.’ For creative writers, this translatability verging on malleability can be seen as liberating. Madison Smartt Bell, recent author also of a brilliant literary trilogy on the Haitian Revolution that is essential reading for anyone interested in the period, celebrates the licence this permits: ‘In the case of Toussaint, a certain paucity of biographical detail seemed an advantage, allowing the writer room to manoeuvre – to fictionalise a character who would not be false to the facts. That most of the existing readings of Toussaint’s personality contradict each other in very broad terms also struck me as liberating.’ In the field of historiography, however, the availability of Louverture for conscription to a range of ideological positions has led to his recent deployment in the context of what the late Chris Bayly described in 2010 as ‘the ‘conservative turn’ in the global history of the revolutionary age’. Such a tendency was prefigured in the work of Pierre Pluchon, whose biography of Louverture – published, significantly, in 1989, the year of the bicentenary of the French revolution –  sought to domesticate the revolutionary implications of his subject’s life and present him primarily as an ancien régime figure. More recent evidence of such an approach is found in the work of Philippe Girard, whose Toussaint Louverture: A Revolutionary Life (2016) was marketed as ‘the definitive biography of one of the most influential men of the modern era’. Drawing on rich archival sources, Girard provides a well-documented overview of Louverture’s early years, but seeks to undermine his subject’s reputation as a black nationalist and fighter for universal emancipation by claiming that he was instead a ‘pragmatist’, a ‘social climber’ and a ‘self-made man’. Girard’s Louverture emerges primarily as a would-be member of the bourgeois capitalist class, a reductive take that denies the extent to which the revolutionary leader repeatedly risked his life in the vanguard of a black army of the formerly enslaved fighting under the banner of ‘Liberty or death’ against the French, British and Spanish, struggling against colonial slavery and an imperialist system of white supremacy.

Read the full article on the Pluto Press blog.


The fight over women’s basketball in Somalia
Alexis Akeowo, New Yorker, 11 September 2017

Aisha got her first call from the terrorists when she was fourteen. It was 2013, and she was at home, in Mogadishu, Somalia, when an unknown number appeared on her phone. She picked up. The man on the other end told her that Islam does not allow women to play sports, or to wear shirts and pants. It was immodest and indecent, he said. His voice was harsh and menacing. He told her that he was going to kill her if she didn’t stop playing basketball. The next day, another man called to say the same thing.

Aisha changed her phone number three times, but the calls kept coming, and she became convinced that someone at the mobile-phone company was giving out her contact information. After a while, Aisha began to argue with the callers, telling them that she was going to do whatever she wanted. When they threatened to kill her, she responded that only God was permitted to be in control of people’s souls. She was just a teen-age girl, but even she knew that—unlike these supposedly pious men. Then her mother started getting calls, from men who warned that she was going to lose a daughter. Trying to appeal to her faith, they told her that basketball was haram – forbidden. Her mother was worried, and wanted Aisha to stop playing.

Aisha had first picked up a basketball only recently, but she had taken to it quickly. Her phone filled with photos and videos of the basketball player she most wanted to emulate: a famous American athlete named LeBron James. She had seen James on the Internet and found him mesmerizing. ‘He is black and tall and a really nice player,’ she said. He was powerful and agile, endlessly clever. She wanted to have that kind of magic.

Read the full article in the New Yorker.


Jimmy’s blues
Clifford Thompson, Los Angeles Review of Books,
4 September 2017

Among James Baldwin’s many gifts was that of facing and dealing with truths. Over his three years as a teenage preacher, he came to view the church as an institution founded not on love but on fear, self-protection, and exclusion, as a way of preparing for a world that was assuredly better than this one while remaining unconcerned about the fate of those outside one’s narrow circle. Baldwin had revealed himself by this time as an extremely bright boy and attended the prestigious public high school DeWitt Clinton, where many of his classmates were Jews; the belief that his friends there would suffer eternal damnation because of the accident of their heritage seemed to him both false and wrong. He also saw that the church to which he belonged had no love or use for whites generally, Christian or otherwise. And while Baldwin could have easily remained in a comfortable niche in the church, whose music he loved and whose texts would help inspire the fire and cadence of his writing, he knew that to be true to himself and his own beliefs he had to leave the church. He felt himself to be a writer, not a preacher, and as he often put it, he ‘left the pulpit to preach the gospel.’

Baldwin was similarly honest with himself with regard to other matters, including his sexuality and what awaited him in a country defined by racial animosity. As a young man he dated women but also became involved with men, and he seems never to have made an attempt to hide that – ‘I’ve loved a few men; I loved a few women’ was how he put it. What seems to have been the harder adjustment was the recognition that his father had been right regarding one thing, which Baldwin referred to in Notes of a Native Son as ‘the weight of white people in the world.’ Baldwin left home in his late teens to find work in a defense plant in New Jersey during World War II, and he wrote of simply not believing, initially, how he was treated in the whites-only restaurants and other establishments he encountered. He recalled vividly the bitterness and anger these experiences created in him, particularly on one night, when he became violent in a restaurant where he was told for the umpteenth time, ‘We don’t serve Negroes here.’ After coming perilously close to getting himself killed, Baldwin realized, as he put it, that his life was in real danger, ‘not from anything other people might do but from the hatred I carried in my own heart.’ And it was this realization that led him, with no knowledge of French and nearly no money, to Paris.

By the time he left the United States, in November 1948, Baldwin had begun writing for the literary journals, such as Commentary, that would help make his reputation before the publication of his first novel, but these short pieces did not bring him any fortune. In Paris, Baldwin found personal poverty to rival what he had known in the United States, and once that was relieved somewhat by the publication of his first two novels, he discovered something harder to escape: that as much as Europe was a sanctuary in some ways from the evils of America, he was, in fact, an American. This was brought home to him, in part, by news of the civil rights struggles he was missing in his time overseas. Baldwin could not truly live as a free man in the country of his birth, but in Europe he could not escape the feeling that he was in hiding and was not where he really ought to be.

And so we begin to see the sources of James Baldwin’s blues: being a man without a country, being gay at a time when homosexuality was not only widely decried but could be punished by law, being a despised outsider in his native land, a minority within a minority. These were the blues he set out to sing, in stories, essays, and novels, and as befits the definition of the blues discussed earlier, he did so with great control and with a detachment and wisdom that let him recognize his troubles for what they were, and begin to transcend them. And he attempted to do the same for his native country.

Read the full article in the LA Review of Books.


Our thinking is grounded in false assumptions –
but that’s no bad thing

Kwame Anthony Appiah & Samir Raheem,
Prospect, 1 September 2017

Sameer Rahim: Philosophy is often thought of as the pursuit of truth. But in your new book, As If, you argue that our perceptions are shaped by worldviews that we know to be false – and that that might not be a bad thing.

Kwame Anthony Appiah: I’m not sure I’d put it quite that way. Of course, our perceptions are shaped by our beliefs, and we know some of our beliefs are false. We just don’t know which ones… otherwise, presumably, we’d abandon them. But the point the book makes is a different one: much of our thinking, in the sciences, in philosophy, in everyday life, proceeds with assumptions we know to be not quite right. Hans Vaihinger, the German philosopher whose work inspired me, gave the example of his own religious life. He didn’t believe in the literal truth of the claim that God exists, but he thought there was much to be said for acting morally as if the Christian God were real. And he saw this as pretty much like the way scientists in his day (the turn of the twentieth century) as in ours, use models in which they make assumptions they know are wrong. In his day, for example, when physicists were trying to explain the way temperature and pressure are related in gases, they built models in which a gas was assumed to consist of a collection of tiny perfectly elastic spheres. They knew that atoms really weren’t like that: but if you assumed they were, you got pretty good predictions and a pretty good understanding of why, when you raise the pressure of a gas, the temperature goes up. When we do this sort of thing in physics we call it idealising: in fact the theory was called the ideal gas theory.

You write, ‘an idealisation is a useful untruth’. Is that simply because the world is too complicated to comprehend and we need simple ideas?

I think complexity is one reason why we need idealisations. We need to simplify. But it isn’t the only reason. As I say in the book, Vaihinger’s general thought was that ‘idealisation involves acting in some respects as if what we know is false is true, this is justifiable because it is useful for some purpose, and the purposes in question are various.’ So sometimes we idealise because things are complicated. Other times, though, we do it because the assumption we’re making is close enough to the truth for some purposes that it would be pointless to take that truth into account. So it’s not that it’s too complicated to do, but it’s not necessary. Galileo did a famous experiment in which he calculated the value of the Earth’s gravitational constant, g, by letting balls roll down a surface. In doing the calculation he didn’t take account of the fact that there’s some air-resistance, because it’s so small. If you were to try to calculate the value of g by dropping a feather from a window, you’d get a very bad estimate, because in that case the wind resistance matters. So both things matter: what our purpose is and the nature of the phenomena we’re trying to manage or understand.

Read the full article in Prospect.


Alec Guinness as George Smiley

The glorious return of George Smiley
Josephine Livingstone, The New Republic,
28 August 2017

An indication that le Carré’s relevance survives the Cold War lies in contemporary cinema. Adaptations of le Carré’s own works aside – The Tailor of PanamaThe Constant GardenerTinker Tailor Soldier SpyA Most Wanted Man, and Our Kind of Traitor are all post-2000 – espionage thrillers enjoyed a popular renaissance with the Jason Bourne movies. The Bond franchise has taken on new sophistication in this century, while higher-end thrillers like Syriana complement the satire of Burn After Reading. And this summer sees a new Cold War hero heat up all over again, as Atomic Blonde takes us back to 1989 and the falling Wall.

Why are we so hungry for these stories, now? An uncomplicated interpretation would have us wistful for the tropes of World War II and the fight against Communism, the last time that Americans came together to defend an ideologically coherent position. But le Carré’s legacy sits a little deeper than that. He didn’t define the Cold War espionage thriller; he defined the espionage thriller, but just happened to have been writing in the time of the Cold War. The genre is as much defined by le Carré’s style – a twin focus on technical detail and the subtle workings of the heart and memory – as it is by the historical horizons within which he developed it.

In this light, we take our renewed love for the ‘intelligence’ genre literally: We want our political stories to be more intelligent. Global and domestic politics seem to have simultaneously simplified (in sophistication) and grown more complicated (in that the old order of things has evaporated) in recent years. We wish for more complexity and logic in our politics, so we look to make political art that is logical and complex: a genre defined by John Le Carré. In the words of Magnus Pym in A Perfect Spy: ‘Sometimes we do a thing in order to find out the reason for it.’

Read the full article in The New Republic.


The resegregation of Jefferson County
Nikole Hannah-Jones, New York Times,
6 September 2017

Reeves spent his whole life serving his country and his community, and now, like Clemon, he found himself in his twilight years, doing it again. This fight was not for his family. ‘My duty, as I see it,’ he told the court, ‘is to represent the blacks in Jefferson County.’ The secession, he believed, would be an injustice in a legacy of injustices.

‘I was raised up in a segregated system, and I knew what could happen,’ Reeves told me in July, as we sat in his RV outside the second home he was renovating in his hometown Gadsden. ‘We didn’t get the same education they got, and I didn’t want to see that happen again. I didn’t want these children, any of our children, going through what we went through.’

Reeves said he watched as other white communities left the Jefferson County school district, and now the secession had come to his doorstep with Gardendale’s effort to exclude his community’s children from its schools. ‘I understand you are just trying to make your community better, but why hurt me to make yours better?’ he asked. ‘I could just see it all reverting back. We have to draw a line in the sand and stop it. Somehow.’

Read the full article in the New York Times.


Muslims in Europe: Integrated but not accepted?
Bertelsmann Stiftung, August 2017

Muslims from immigrant families are assimilating with the resident population in the areas of language competence, educational level and gainful employment in all the countries studied, though to a varying degree. However, this is not accom- panied by an equal level of cultural and religious assimilation and social acceptance. On average, Muslims in Europe are more religious than other faith communities and maintain closer ties to their countries of origin. This religious and cultural difference causes uneasiness among the local population. At the same time, it has a nega- tive effect on social participation, as seen in the discrimination against devout Muslims. On the other hand, the survey results regarding readiness to accept Muslims as neighbors demonstrate that personal contact creates trust.

It is possible that social distance is also a practical way to deal with major social diversity, as suggested by the study findings for the United Kingdom. In this ‘old’ immigration country with a high level of plurality, there tend to be fewer contacts between the individual social groups and immigrant communities. To put it in positive terms: People live and let live. On the other hand, signs of impending crisis, such as terror attacks and the Brexit vote, give reason to fear that this approach is not sustainable in the long term.

Accordingly, it is not the strong religiousness of an immigrant group or its connection to its country of origin as such that poses a risk to social cohesion; rather, it is how these are addressed. Mainstream society also bears responsibility in this regard.

Read the full article in Bertelsmann Stiftung


A history of American protest music:
When Nina Simone sang what everyone was thinking

Tom Maxwell, Longreads, April 2017

When she heard the news, jazz musician Nina Simone was paralyzed. ‘It was more than I could take’, she remembered, ‘and I sat struck dumb in my den like St. Paul on the road to Damascus: all the truths that I had denied to myself for so long rose up and slapped my face. The bombing of the little girls in Alabama and the murder of Medgar Evers were like the final pieces of a jigsaw puzzle that made no sense until you had fitted the whole thing together. I suddenly realized what it was to be Black in America in 1963, but it wasn’t an intellectual connection…it came as a rush of fury, hatred and determination. In church language, the Truth entered into me and I ‘came through.”

Simone’s initial reaction was less than Christian. ‘I had it in mind to go out and kill someone’, she remembered. ‘I tried to make a zip gun.’

Andy, her husband and manager, intervened. ‘Nina’, he said, ‘you can’t kill anyone. You are a musician. Do what you do.’

An hour later, Nina Simone had composed a song called ‘Mississippi Goddam.’ ‘It was my first civil rights song,’ she recalled, ‘and it erupted out of me quicker than I could write it down.’

‘Mississippi Goddam’ became one of Nina Simone’s most famous compositions. It redirected her career. Crisply honest, it is a pure expression of rage and an indictment of inequality. Stylistically, it leapfrogged the righteous, passive anthems that characterized protest music of the time. It was knowing, biting, and inciting.

It was a step Simone was reluctant to take. ‘Nightclubs were dirty, making records was dirty, popular music was dirty and to mix all that with politics seemed senseless and demeaning’, she wrote in her autobiography I Put a Spell On You. ‘And until songs like ‘Mississippi Goddam’ just burst out of me, I had musical problems as well. How can you take the memory of a man like Medgar Evers and reduce all that he was to three and a half minutes and a simple tune? That was the musical side of it I shied away from; I didn’t like ‘protest music’ because a lot of it was so simple and unimaginative it stripped the dignity away from the people it was trying to celebrate. But the Alabama church bombing and the murder of Medgar Evers stopped that argument and with ‘Mississippi Goddam,’ I realized there was no turning back.’

Read the full article in Longreads.


Hassan Massoudy 2

Reviving Arabic calligraphy: An encounter with
Iraqi-French artist Hassan Massoudy

Stephanie Saldana, Mosaic Stories, 10 March 2017

One day, in making frescoes, he experienced a transformative moment: he discovered color. Massoudy describes his first experiences with colors the way another man might talk about the first time he fell in love. ‘In Baghdad, they taught us how to use the color black,’ he said. ‘Perhaps I was drawn to colors because I was born in Najaf, where there was so much sun – there was nothing there but daylight. The winter was over in a month. Sometimes in a year there would only be a day or two of clouds. The sun was harsh, and everything was colored. Maybe that’s the reason I wanted to use bold colors: red, yellow, blue, black…’ When he learned to paint frescoes, he was required to mix his own paints every morning, a practice that would later become essential to his calligraphy, like ‘cooking in the kitchen.’

At the same time, he was meeting artists working in the movement of lyrical abstraction: abstract paintings using bold colors, often engaging with geometric patterns. The paintings were both radically new, and at the same time strangely reminiscent of the calligraphy he had grown up around in Najaf. He began to wonder if the art he was learning in Paris needed to be entirely separated from the calligraphy he had loved in Iraq. ‘I thought – maybe I can use calligraphy in an artistic way,’ he said. Slowly, at home, he began to experiment, daring to approach a previously uncrossed line. He painted movements in color, and then wrote small sentences in calligraphy next to them. Then one day, he painted calligraphy in color for the first time.

Today it may seem like a small act, but at the time it was an incredibly audacious one. Until then, calligraphy had been governed by strict rules. His decision to merge calligraphy with abstract painting and bold colors was nothing short of revolutionary.

Read the full article in Mosaic Stories.


Filling a weak spot in women’s tennis: The serve
Ben Rothenberg, New York Times, 3 September 2017

‘The idea is, Why is the serve so much less of a weapon in the women’s game than it is in the men’s game?’ Kibler said. ‘We looked many factors of the mechanics of the serve, and we did show significant differences in how the serve, mechanically, worked between males and females. So then we started looking at why that was, what were the differences.’

Studying videos of 150 female players and 50 male players, Kibler and his associates devised a rubric for grading the soundness of serve technique, awarding one point for satisfying each of nine components of an ideal service motion with scores ranging from 0 to 9.

The criteria are foot position, a knee bend of more than 15 degrees, hip counter-rotation, hip tilt, leaning, the angle of the back, trunk rotation, shoulder alignment and leg push.

‘This doesn’t mean that everybody who has a score of 7 is going to win every tournament, or a 2 isn’t going to win some,’ Kibler said. ‘But as an evaluation tool, it can be helpful.’

Kibler said he was not allowed to reveal individual players’ scores, but in the study, completed in December, the scores awarded to serving prowess strongly correlated to a player’s WTA ranking: 77 percent of top-25 players studied scored a 5 or higher; 50 percent of players ranked 26th-60th scored a 5 or higher; and only 12 percent of players ranked 61st-120th scored 5 or higher.

The largest disparity found by Kibler between male and female professionals was in pushing off with their back legs, which 75 percent of the men in the study did effectively compared with only 28 percent of the women.

‘The point is that there are things we know the women are not doing that they are capable of doing,’ Kibler said. ‘And it’s interesting, the women use that back leg really well on their groundstrokes. They’ll kill it. They’ll get on that back leg on the groundstrokes, but not on the serve. And you need to do that, because serve is the only time you have control of your body.’

Read the full article in the New York Times.


‘Never knowingly relevant’:
Melvyn Bragg’s recipe for the success of In Our Time

Matthew Reisz, Times Higher Education Supplement, 31 August 2017

Another golden rule for In Our Time is that, despite the title, the discussion should be ‘never knowingly relevant’. If an episode is devoted to the ancient civilisations of Iraq, for example, it is emphatically not an opportunity to denounce Tony Blair. And, unlike Bragg’s earlier arts broadcasting, there has been a notable avoidance of popular culture, with episodes already devoted to Hadrian’s Wall, the Haitian Revolution and Hannah Arendt but not, for example, the Hollywood musical or hip hop – despite the range of academic expertise on such themes.

In terms of subjects, Bragg is ‘up for doing anything’. Even if, in some specialist fields, his ‘starting point is knowing nothing, by the time I get there on Thursday morning I know enough to ask decent questions’. Although his producers also brief him, Bragg relies largely on the notes that he asks his guests to submit ahead of recording, flagging up ‘the important things to dwell on’.

Those guests who come over well on air are often invited back. They are also asked to suggest up-and-coming stars in their academic fields who might also make good contributors. If this all sounds a bit haphazard, Bragg is delighted that, ‘without trying’, the programme has recently achieved ‘a ridiculously perfect 50 per cent balance between men and women’, with 39 per cent of guests during the past year coming from ‘universities we had never been to before’.

Although many of Bragg’s contributors had never previously appeared even on local radio, they ‘soon got the hang of it’ because ‘they knew it was their programme’.

Read the full article in the Times Higher Education Supplement.



The images are, from top down: Cover of Charlie Hebdo; cover of MP Shiel’s 1898 book ‘The Yellow Danger’; portrait of Toussaint L’Ouverture by Jacob Lawrence; Alec Guinness as George Smiley in the BBC adaptation of ‘Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy’; and calligraphy by Hassan Massoudy.

%d bloggers like this: