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.
European priorities, Libya realities
Daniel Howden, Refugees Deeply Quarterly, October 2017
The horrific abuses suffered inside Libya’s migrant prisons range from rape and torture to forced labor. The IOM and UNHCR have limited access to the detention centers and must apply in writing before visiting – they cannot conduct spot inspections. The Danish Refugee Council and MSF also monitor conditions but the number of centers they can access has been reduced in the past year.
The prisons where international agencies have greatest access, in and around Tripoli, have seen incremental improvements over the past year with IOM building or renovating toilet blocks as well as providing generators. Access to prisons outside the capital, particularly along the coast to the west, is minimal thanks to militia checkpoints, clashes between armed groups and a thriving kidnap industry.
Inmates at the migrant centers are routinely rented out to local employers, with DCIM officials or local militia profiting. Detainees are also bought and sold by militias who extort ransom payments from their families. The arrival of international funding into the prison system has created additional incentives for armed groups to seize control of DCIM centers in search of money and legitimacy.
In an open letter on September 2017 Joanne Liu, the head of MSF, denounced the detention system in Libya as ‘rotten to the core’. She wrote, ‘It must be named for what it is: a thriving enterprise of kidnapping, torture and extortion,’ adding, ‘European governments have chosen to contain people in this situation. People cannot be sent back to Libya, nor should they be contained there.’…
At this year’s international economic conference in Cernobbio, sometimes dubbed Italy’s answer to Davos, Italy’s foreign minister, Angelino Alfano, boasted ‘we implemented a quintessentially Italian solution’ to the migrant crisis.
Aref Ali Nayed, who has experienced firsthand the pitfalls of trying to stabilize Libya, is critical of Italy’s dealings. After the toppling of Gadhafi in 2011 Nayed led a stabilization team for the Transitional National Council, one of the first of several ill-fated efforts to govern the former dictatorship. He argues that EU and Italian actions over migration are making a durable peace harder to find, and said Europe’s rush to recognize the Serraj administration had saddled Libya with a government of ‘questionable legitimacy’ in order to combat migration flows. ‘Some of the deals we’re seeing are tactical deals with smugglers and militias under the rubric of the (Italian) interior ministry,’ said Nayed, who until recently was Libya’s ambassador to the United Arab Emirates.
Nayed, who is affiliated with the Tobruk parliament, which does not recognize the Serraj administration, said such deals will rebound on Europeans. ‘What we’re seeing is a shifting of Europe’s problems to become Libya’s problems,’ he said. ‘Europe can do it now because we’re weak, but it risks creating real bitterness.’
EU officials have not questioned Italy’s methods, however, and have assigned $55 million from the emergency trust fund for Africa to Italy’s interior ministry in order to manage Libya’s borders. The reduction in sea crossings has been greeted with elation in Brussels and other European capitals. In a speech to the European Parliament on September 13, the president of the European Commission, Jean-Claude Juncker, saluted Italy’s ‘tireless and noble’ efforts.
Read the full article in Refugees Deeply Quarterly.
How Ta-Nehisi Coates gives whiteness power
Thomas Chatterton Williams, New York Times, 6 October 2017
I have spent the past six months poring over the literature of European and American white nationalism, in the process interviewing noxious identitarians like the alt-right founder Richard Spencer. The most shocking aspect of Mr. Coates’s wording here is the extent to which it mirrors ideas of race — specifically the specialness of whiteness — that white supremacist thinkers cherish.
This, more than anything, is what is so unsettling about Mr. Coates’s recent writing and the tenor of the leftist ‘woke’ discourse he epitomizes. Though it is not at all morally equivalent, it is nonetheless in sync with the toxic premises of white supremacism. Both sides eagerly reduce people to abstract color categories, all the while feeding off of and legitimizing each other, while those of us searching for gray areas and common ground get devoured twice. Both sides mystify racial identity, interpreting it as something fixed, determinative and almost supernatural. For Mr Coates, whiteness is a ‘talisman,’ an ‘amulet’ of ‘eldritch energies’ that explains all injustice; for the abysmal early-20th-century Italian fascist and racist icon Julius Evola, it was a ‘meta-biological force,’ a collective mind-spirit that justifies all inequality. In either case, whites are preordained to walk that special path. It is a dangerous vision of life we should refuse no matter who is doing the conjuring.
This summer, I spent an hour on the phone with Richard Spencer. It was an exchange that left me feeling physically sickened. Toward the end of the interview, he said one thing that I still think about often. He referred to the all-encompassing sense of white power so many liberals now also attribute to whiteness as a profound opportunity. ‘This is the photographic negative of a white supremacist,’ he told me gleefully. ‘This is why I’m actually very confident, because maybe those leftists will be the easiest ones to flip.’
Read the full article in the New York Times.
Take back the ivory tower
Alice Dreger, Chronicle of Higher Education, 1 October 2017
Democracy depends on having a public capable of thinking, not merely being. And the academy is the last organized place we have to teach millions of adults to doubt authority, to look things up, to weigh ideas and evidence, to argue in a nonviolent fashion, to do the hard work of changing their own minds. This is not work the government or religious institutions or the media is going to do. Democracy depends on a large public capable of at least occasionally being moved by principle and mind, not only tribe and gut, and a healthy academy functions as a model and fomenter of that attitude.
The academy is also the last place — besides a small handful of nonpartisan nonprofit organizations — where truly independent research can be conducted in a sustained fashion by large numbers of people. It is not difficult to look at research in agriculture, medicine, ecology, and history and see the profound contributions of the academy to contemporary life. Consider work done at West Virginia University that caught Volkswagen subverting emission testing, or the findings of various ‘innocence projects’ in colleges of law and journalism. If we allow the scope of academic research to continue to be narrowed to fit the wants of industries and politicians, what we will have is a nation built on narrowly focused, relatively unsustainable, wasteful, even dangerous policy — in education, criminal justice, climate, health care, and many other areas that shape our lives and deaths.
Thomas Paine said famously, in Common Sense, ‘The cause of America is in a great measure the cause of all mankind.’ It’s not an exaggeration today to suggest that the cause of the academy is in a great measure the cause of all mankind.
Except one is not supposed to say ‘mankind’ on campus anymore, and, as I’ve learned, saying what you’re not supposed to say on campus these days can be risky.
Read the full article in the Chronicle of Higher Education.
Orbán wins the migration argument
Jacopo Barigazzi, Politico, 15 September 2017
The Hungarian prime minister may be much maligned in European capitals for his anti-immigrant rhetoric, his opposition to the EU’s refugee relocation policy, and for building a border fence. But look closely at how EU leaders now talk about the issue and the policies they’ve adopted since the 2015 crisis, and it’s clear Orbán’s preference for interdiction over integration has somehow prevailed.
There was an echo of Orbán’s long-standing call for tougher border controls in Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker’s claim in his State of the Union speech this week that ‘We are now protecting Europe’s external borders more effectively.’
At other points in the speech, it could easily have been the Hungarian premier speaking, as Juncker emphasized efforts to stop migrants before they leave Africa and return those who reach Europe’s shores. ’When it comes to returns: People who have no right to stay in Europe must be returned to their countries of origin,’ said Juncker.
While Hungary and Slovakia recently lost their fight against the EU’s relocation scheme at the European Court of Justice, the facts on the ground show that the legal victory for Brussels was hollow.
‘Nobody will admit it in this town, but yes, Orbán’s narrative is prevailing,’ a senior EU official said.
Read the full article in Politico.
Taking political differences seriously
Jeffrey C Issac, Public Seminar, 20 September 2017
The basic reason is simple: there are political scientists who share Yoo’s views on the US Constitution, and on other aspects of the so-called ‘war on terror.’ This should come as no surprise. Indeed, as many of the protesters well know, there is a rather substantial body of literature in political theory on the themes of ‘just war’ and ‘dirty hands.’ There are indeed many people on the left who have argued that in certain circumstances it is justifiable to repress, detain, attack, or even kill ‘enemies.’ I would be very loath to support prohibiting anyone who holds these views from participating in APSA. I would not expect groups like Caucus for a New Political Science or the Socialist Scholar’s Conference to welcome people like Yoo. But APSA is a professional and not a politically-defined scholarly organization, and a ban on Yoo would also likely be a ban on all of those who have publicly expressed similar views and certainly on all of those who wish to interact with him or to hear him speak because they consider his views important. I have little regard for such people. I would never invite Yoo to participate on any panel I might organize. I would not agree to participate on a panel with him. He is intellectually and personally distasteful to me. But I cannot support the claim that his ‘torture memos’ — his reprehensible legal briefs justifying what he called ‘enhanced interrogation’ — constitute a reason to prevent him from participating on an APSA panel if a group of APSA political scientists, or an organized or affiliated section of APSA, choose to invite him.
I would feel differently if APSA were to bestow a public service award on Yoo, or in some other way to honor him as an association. But for APSA to allow him to be a participant on a panel organized by its members seems completely consistent with the professional purpose of APSA. And that does not constitute ‘giving him a platform.’ It simply involves allowing an affiliated group the right held by all affiliated groups, to organize some panels as they choose.
I confess, if I believed that Yoo were literally the modern-day equivalent of Eichmann, then I might feel differently. But I do not believe this, just as I do not believe that the contemporary US government is a totalitarian dictatorship, or that the ‘war on terror’ is a form of genocide, even though I acknowledge its harms. I strongly disagree with Yoo. I object morally and politically to what he has done. But I doubt that he is a ‘war criminal,’ in the same way that I doubt that the authors of The Pentagon Papers, or others involved in justifying or supporting the Vietnam War, or other destructive and murderous wars, are thus people who committed ‘war crimes.’ Many political scientists worked for Bush II, or Bush I, or Nixon, or Clinton, or Obama, and were involved in planning or justifying things that might be considered morally objectionable. Does the articulation of objectionable views about the Constitution constitute a form of criminal malfeasance equivalent to psychologists — or physicians or perhaps even political scientists — who actually participate in the torture of individuals? Where do we draw the line?
Read the full article in Public Seminar.
Abortion, contraception, pregnancy:
how women’s bodies became a battlezone
Sophie Cousins, Mosaic, 12 September 2017
In fact, as of 1 August 2017, 53 state-level abortion restrictions have been enacted in the US, according to the Guttmacher Institute, a research and policy centre in Washington that supports abortion rights. More than 300 have been enacted since 2011.
Elizabeth Nash, senior state issues manager at Guttmacher, says the goal of implementing more restrictions – which are concentrated in the southern and Midwestern states – is to completely rid states of abortion providers. ‘Many legislators are motivated by wanting to eliminate access to abortion entirely,’ she says. ‘If they could they would pass abortion bans but they can’t.
‘Instead they adopt smaller restrictions which make it difficult, if not impossible, for a woman to get to a clinic and for clinics to keep their doors open.’
One of the most controversial new restrictions requires abortion providers in Texas to bury or cremate aborted fetal tissue so that it has a ‘dignified disposition’, rather than disposing of it as medical waste.
The idea, Nash argues, is to get the public to view the tissue as ‘more valuable’. She believes the law, which came into effect on 1 September, will have a big impact on providers, who will have to arrange funeral homes for the tissue. But in a state like Texas, which is strongly anti-abortion, she fears clinics will face insurmountable challenges in finding funeral homes that agree to be associated with abortion.
As the US continues to clamp down on abortion, India is working – albeit slowly – to extend women’s access to it. Amendments to the 1971 MTP Act that are waiting to be tabled in Parliament include allowing women to abort at up to 24 weeks, and replacing the term ‘married women’ with ‘all women’ in the contraceptive failure clause.
‘Unlike America, the MTP Act is liberal. We didn’t even have to fight a battle’, says Poonam Muttreja, executive director of the Population Foundation of India, a national NGO that advocates for gender-sensitive health policies. ‘I think we were very fortunate to have it so easily.’
But while the policy may look good on paper, the reality for many women is different. Most abortions in India – two-thirds, according to a 2008 government estimate – are carried out by ‘unauthorized, often unskilled providers’.
Read the full article in Mosaic.
Myanmar: The invention of Rohingya extremists
Joseph Allchion, NYR Daily, 2 October 2017
Myanmar’s government has faced numerous ethnic insurgent movements. For example, in the north of the country, the Kachin Independence Army is fighting a far better-equipped insurgency in the borderlands near China. Yet the Kachin people, who are often Christian, have faced no such comprehensive campaign of ethnic cleansing or accusations of being terrorists because of their faith. The difference is that the Rohingya people are mostly Sunni Muslim.
Myanmar’s military rulers have long sought to portray the Rohingya as a fifth column of dangerous Islamist extremists with links to al-Qaeda.
The demonization of this Muslim minority as ‘extremists’ or ‘terrorists’ has proved effective for nationalist politicians with Myanmar’s Buddhist majority. But this othering of the Rohingya now risks dangerous secondary effects. Chiefly, that the government’s conjuring of the specter of a jihadist insurgency may prove self-fulfilling, with an embittered, radicalized Rohingya diaspora forced over the border at bayonet point into Bangladesh, where a coterie of Islamist groups like Hizb-ut-Tahrir are using the Rohingya cause to whip up popular sentiment for their own political purposes.
But there was no evidence that any Rohingya group had successfully developed connections with al-Qaeda for operations in Myanmar. One of the purported Rohingya acquaintances of Osama Bin Laden, an activist named Salim Ullah, told me that when a Muslim picks up a gun in Myanmar, he is labeled a terrorist; when a Buddhist does so, he is making a cry for liberty. Prejudice against the Rohingya has become ingrained within a majority of the Buddhist population, including among many who have supported other ethnic armed groups. Even many former pro-democracy campaigners have adopted the military’s labeling of the entire Rohingya population as terrorists.
The tension between the majority population and the Muslim minority has been further whipped up by Myanmar’s ultra-nationalist monks. This hostility has elicited a growing online response from foreign Islamists. Groups affiliated with al-Qaeda and other jihadist movements are now using the plight of the Rohingya to promote their own narratives of Muslim persecution.
Until recently, most of this propaganda saw the ‘liberation’ of Arakan State in Myanmar, where most Rohingya Muslims traditionally live, as a notional aim, something to be done once neighboring Bangladesh had been ‘conquered’ and a caliphate installed there. But now, groups like al-Qaeda seem to have more directly taken up the cause of the Rohingya. In mid-September, an al-Qaeda communiqué called for ‘all mujahid brothers in Bangladesh, India, Pakistan, and the Philippines to set out for Burma [Myanmar] to help their Muslim brothers.’
Read the full article in NYR Daily.
How the Rohingya crisis is changing Bangladesh
Tom Felix Joehnk, New York Times, 6 October 2017
The crisis is also stoking divisions along pro- and anti-India lines within the government and between some government factions and the army. Principally, it is bringing out distrust of India, Ms. Hasina’s main foreign backer, in the Bangladeshi Army and so complicating civilian-military relations in Bangladesh.
The ruling Awami League traditionally has had warm ties with India, especially when the Congress party was in power. But India’s current Hindu-nationalist government squarely backs Myanmar. It fears that Muslim refugees entering Bangladesh will find their way to India; in fact, it has already said that it wants to expel the 40,000 or so Rohingya who live there now, some of whom are in its conflict-riven state of Kashmir. The Indian government also needs the Myanmar government’s cooperation to combat insurgents in India’s remote northeastern states, who use Myanmar as a base.
And so, much like the BNP’s full-throated support for Rohingya refugees and even Hefazat’s threat of retaliation make it politically hairy for the Hasina government to do anything other than accommodate the exodus, India’s stance — among other things — means that the administration must not appear to be too welcoming either.
This is a tenuous position to hold, however, and it is causing rifts within the ranks of the Awami League. Bangladesh’s finance minister, AMA Muhith, recently said, ‘In a sense, Myanmar has declared war by sending the Rohingya to Bangladesh. They are trying to jeopardize our economy by sending people from their country.’ With this, Mr. Muhith seemed to sidle up to the Bangladeshi Army, which has long been distrustful of India.
The Awami League slowly seems to be moving away from its original tenets — secular, pro-India, not overly nationalist, opposed to radical Islamism — and inching its way closer to positions endorsed by the B.N.P. The shift is problematic because it threatens to further shrink the political space available to minority views and dissenting voices.
Read the full article in New York Times.
Face to Face
Barry Schwabsky, The Nation, 26 September 2017
For Giacometti, it was the encounter with the other person that was primary. He somehow made us see – or rather, experience – the presence of another, the effort involved in seeing and representing that person, and the space between the perceiver and the perceived. The viewer’s encounter with the resulting sculpture or painting, it seems, is modeled on that tripartite articulation. To live this encounter with the other, to see and be seen seeing, was to live life itself—because, as Giacometti believed, ‘without a doubt, what makes the living person is his gaze.’ But that which makes the living person is not what individuates him; on the contrary, ‘the more it is you, the more you become anyone at all.’ And finally: ‘I no longer recognize people from seeing them so much.’ He claimed that even his own wife or brother became unrecognizable once he started to paint them. This erosion of recognition became the essence of his art. Consider one more quotation, not from the artist but from the person who was closer to him than any other, his brother Diego Giacometti: ‘I saw Alberto die. I was seated at his bedside holding his hand. Alberto was looking at me, or rather scrutinizing the contours of my face, drawing me with his eyes like he drew with his eyes and transposed into drawing everything he looked at. He was not seeing a brother at his deathbed, but rather seemed to try to understand how the face of the model in front of him was made.’…
Alice Neel’s portrait subjects are indelibly present in her paintings, too. But for her, their presence was inextricably bound up with their social identity and individual character—ethnicity included. ‘Alice Neel, Uptown,’ a survey of her paintings from the 1940s through the ’70s, puts the accent on the artist’s response to her milieu, which—at least until she started to become successful in the ’60s—wasn’t that of the mainstream art world, but rather of her neighbors and friends in upper Manhattan: first in Spanish Harlem, where she moved in 1938, and then, from 1962 onward, on the Upper West Side. Curated by the writer Hilton Als, the exhibition was first shown in New York, where it was enthusiastically received. I was lucky enough to see it again this summer at the Victoria Miro gallery in London. The show has since moved on to Miro’s recently opened outpost in Venice, presumably in a reduced version (though the gallery’s website promises ‘a number of previously unexhibited paintings and works on paper’).
lthough Neel and Giacometti both emerged from a left that was aligned with communism, neither one produced anything in a social-realist vein. It would also be wrong to see their insistence on portraiture as an acceptance of individualism. Both artists approached it as a sort of interpenetration of two (rarely more) ‘alonenesses’, to repurpose Krauss’s word. But for Neel, the space between artist and subject did not magnify itself the way it did for Giacometti, threatening to swallow the sitter whole as it sometimes seems to have done in his work. Her people sit at a conversational distance, and the figures take up much more of the frame than Giacometti’s do. They are no less vulnerable than the people Giacometti painted, but Neel is more interested in the particular strategies they invented for circumventing or dissembling their vulnerability than she is in the vulnerability itself, which is universal. Als articulates it beautifully in assessing Neel’s elegant 1971 portrait of graphic designer Ron Kajiwara. As he explains, she recorded Kajiwara’s ‘style as a way of being…inherently queer, bristling with attitude and dandy distance and an almost feminine softness or yearning behind the pretend armor.’
Neel’s almost reportorial focus on particularity – the way her work transcribes ethnic and other specificities that Giacometti obscures – is part of what makes her work seem more timely today than his, just as it might have made her kind of painting look dated or provincial in 1960. But it would be a mistake to think her work operates as anything like what we now call ‘identity politics’—a mistake that Als never makes, by the way.
A Giacometti portrait is a mass of approximations, each line a seemingly failed stab at certainty. And yet their sum total becomes an irrefutable reckoning with a single human consciousness. Each portrait’s lack of finish is evidence of something that can’t be finished. Neel’s art crosses Giacometti’s, traveling in the opposite direction—from particularity toward universality. In Neel’s paintings, at least from the ’60s on, the bare canvas and petering out of color and line proclaim what needn’t be finished. Decisively awkward outlines carve out the form, inside which a person copes with all the identities that are defined, in part, by other people’s perceptions. Still, Neel’s portraits leave room for the sitter’s sense of self that survives all the designations of an individual’s place in society – for what in the living person makes the living person, as Giacometti also knew. There were other great portraitists in the 20th century, but none reckoned more profoundly with the force of the gaze than these two. They show us, in different ways, not the face, but how the face is made.
Read the full article in The Nation.
Highway through hell
Ty McCormick, Foreign Policy, 4 October 2017
The new routes are both longer and more dangerous, according to nearly a dozen drivers I interviewed in Agadez. Some pass through mountainous regions outside the city before crossing vast stretches of desert. Some hug the border with Chad. One area where many of the new routes converge is in a desolate region some 20 miles outside of Dao Timmi, an old military installation in the far north of the country. Here, the trucks slow to a crawl and pass single file through a minefield that dates back to an uprising by ethnic Toubous in the 1990s. Used for years by weapons and drug smugglers because authorities stayed away, the route is now commonly taken by migrants. ‘They made it a crime, so now it follows the criminal routes,’ Hamani said.
Ali, who like most of the smugglers I spoke with asked to be identified by only his first name, started taking the road through the minefield soon after the crackdown started last year, a few months before his deadly nighttime crash. So did Laminou, a muscle-bound 25-year-old with short dreadlocks. Laminou deals in cars, specifically stolen cars from Libya that he smuggles in without papers. One day, he came upon a nightmarish scene: the obliterated remains of a pickup truck surrounded by the dead bodies of multiple migrants. ‘We couldn’t tell them apart. It’s one man’s leg, one man’s arm — all black,’ he said. He and another driver did their best to bury the remains. Then they prayed together and set off again in their trucks.
No one knows how many migrants have died in the desert. Trucks get lost, break down, or are attacked by bandits all the time. Often, nobody finds out until another driver happens upon the human remains. ‘We know that many people are dying in the Mediterranean. But many are dying in the desert as well, and we have not many statistics,’ Paula said…
New routes pose new risks for those who attempt to ply them. But just as dangerous is the climate of fear that has settled over the Sahara in the wake of the crackdown. Ali blames himself for the deaths of the two migrants killed in the crash. But he also feels resentment toward the EU for having forced him to drive with his headlights off. ‘When they arrest you, that’s not a law coming from here,’ Ali said. ‘That’s a law coming from Europe.’
When faced with the choice between ensuring their own freedom and saving their human cargo, many drivers choose freedom. Sometimes that means leaving migrants behind in the middle of the desert and speeding off to avoid a military patrol. According to Azaoua Mahaman, an IOM official based in Agadez, more and more migrants are being abandoned in this way. Since the beginning of the year, he said in May, IOM had worked with Nigerien authorities to facilitate nearly a dozen rescue operations. ‘The main reason we see abandoned migrants is because of the patrols,’ he told me. ‘[The smugglers] are afraid of going to prison, so they drop the migrants and flee.’
This is hardly an irrational response. Unverified reports that the military has opened fire on migrant vehicles have circulated widely. Three different drivers told me that they knew of such incidents, though none had been present when they occurred.
Read the full article in Foreign Policy.
In Catalonia’s ‘red belt’ leftwing veterans distrust the separatists
Stephen Burgen, Observer, 30 September 2017
All four dismiss the independence movement as a distraction from more pressing social issues, claiming it has proved a useful smokescreen for the Catalan government’s spending cuts.
‘What’s happening now is that everyone has been told that Spain is the origin of our problems,’ says Salas. ‘They are being fed a version of Catalan history that has nothing to do with reality and this has radicalised young people around independence.’
‘There’s been a sort of mantra, that Spain is robbing us, and there’s a lot of confusion, as though the Spanish government and the Spanish people were one and the same,’ Jiménez says. ‘With a prime minister like Mariano Rajoy it’s very easy for everyone to oppose the government.’
The Baix Llobregat has its own history and none of the four feels included when politicians talk about ‘the Catalan people’, they say.
‘All of us here are immigrants but we’re all Catalans, too,’ says Martínez, who is dismissive of the case for Catalan independence. ‘It’s about class. I don’t have a problem with the person standing next to me, it’s the one above me who’s the problem.’
Read the full article in the Observer.
The myth of women’s ‘empowerment’
Rafia Zakaria, New York Times, 5 October 2017
Empowerment did not always stand for entrepreneurship starter kits. As Nimmi Gowrinathan, Kate Cronin-Furman and I wrote in a recent report, the term was introduced into the development lexicon in the mid-1980s by feminists from the Global South. Those women understood ‘empowerment’ as the task of ‘transforming gender subordination’ and the breakdown of ‘other oppressive structures’ and collective ‘political mobilization.’ They got some of what they wanted when the Fourth World Conference on Women in 1995 adopted ‘an agenda for women’s empowerment.’
In the 22 years since that conference, though, ‘empowerment’ has become a buzzword among Western development professionals, but the crucial part about ‘political mobilization’ has been excised. In its place is a narrow, constricted definition expressed through technical programming seeking to improve education or health with little heed to wider struggles for gender equality. This depoliticized ‘empowerment’ serves everyone except the women it is supposed to help.
In handing out chickens or sewing machines, Western feminists and development organizations can point to the non-Western women they have ‘empowered.’ The non-Western subjects of their efforts can be shown off at conferences and featured on websites. Development professionals can point to training sessions, workshops and spreadsheets laden with ‘deliverables’ as evidence of another successful empowerment project.
In this system there is little room for the complexities of the recipients. Non-Western women are reduced to mute, passive subjects awaiting rescue.
Read the full article in the New York Times.
Antonio Melechi, Times Literary Supplement, 4 October 2017
As Freud distanced himself from Breuer, chiding him for offering up ‘three candidates for the position of one truth’, false claims and wishful thinking would continue to eclipse his clinical insights. In the spring of 1896, in his lecture on the ‘Aetiology of Hysteria’, Freud reported on eight cases of hysteria that he had apparently traced back to molestation, provoking disbelief among Vienna’s gathered psychiatrists and neurologists. In a wounded letter to Fliess, Freud spoke of the lazy reception that he had been given on demonstrating ‘the solution to a more-than-thousand-year-old problem’, and poured scorn on his audience, particularly Richard von Krafft-Ebing, who famously remarked that his ideas were akin to a ‘scientific fairy tale’.
The rebuke hit him hard. From now onwards, Crews writes, ‘Freud would be an all-or-nothing proponent of revealed truths’, showing as much disregard for rival and critical opinions as he would for the ‘initial denials’ of those patients that failed to recall episodes of childhood abuse. Yet this period was also one of deep personal confusion, with Freud abandoning his so-called seduction theory and retreating into a ‘self-analysis’ that would bring him to the realization that he was ‘by temperament nothing but a conquistador’, ‘not at all a man of science, not an observer, not an experimenter, not a thinker’. Others agreed. Baroness Marie von Fischel, one of the wealthy ‘goldfish’ who made serial visits to Berggasse 19, preferred the epithet ‘charlatan’. And Vienna’s medical community was nonplussed by Freud’s cavalier promotion of a regimen that had proved almost entirely ineffective.
When Freud came to write ‘The History of the Psychoanalytic Movement’ in 1914, he diligently papered over the clumsy and bungling overtures that he had made in the name of psychoanalysis; settled scores with Jung, Breuer and Alfred Adler (all of whom had come to reject its libidinal superstructure); and claimed that he had discovered the true significance of infantile sexuality only after being misled by his patients’ fantasies. Unsurprisingly, Freud neglected to mention the cloistered and deferential milieu in which psychoanalysis had been contained since the recent formation of his ‘Secret Committee’. Founded around the time of Jung’s break with psychoanalysis, the committee’s first members all swore allegiance to its basic tenets, each receiving a gold ring as a sign of loyalty. To ensure no further outbreaks of dissent, members were policed by Ernest Jones, working ‘behind the scenes to attack, ridicule, and blacklist defectors, thus enforcing an orthodoxy that couldn’t be sustained’.
Samuel Moyn, The Nation, 5 October 2017
But in the end it is not so much that Scott is unfair to what people have long glorified as civilization, since he shines a powerful light on its dark side. It is not so much, either, that he romanticizes the lives of those who were dismissed as ‘savages’ by their often murderous enemies, dazzlingly highlighting strategies of resistance by ordinary people past and present. In fact, Scott’s case for the prosecution, and his attempt to bear witness to those defending themselves against states, have always been the most arresting and unforgettable features of his work. But when he turns judge, Scott condemns civilization according to standards that are civilization’s—and modernity’s—own, without ever reflecting on this fact.
‘Philosophers who have examined the foundations of society have all felt the necessity of going back to the state of nature,’ Jean-Jacques Rousseau once remarked, ‘but none of them has reached it.’ A sometime primitivist like Scott, Rousseau wanted to overturn his predecessor Thomas Hobbes’s depiction of pre-state life as nasty, brutish, and short, by showing that civilized life had produced the evils superimposed on the natural condition of humanity. But two can play that game. What if the very standards by which its inhabitants find their civilization still wanting are owed to civilization itself? If freedom and equality are things that only a specific set of events in the modern history of the state has allowed us to value, then Scott’s project to go back before its origin to find earlier expressions of them is a projection onto our ancestors, not the discovery of an alternative world to be won by turning our backs on modernity. And it is surely no excuse to give up the task of saving our civilizations and states in the name of the modern values only they have allowed propounding.
Yet Scott is so enamored with the versatility of our hunting-and-gathering ancestors—especially when compared with the monotonies of grain cultivation—that he never thinks to describe how they -interpreted the freedom and equality he assigns to them. He never confronts the possibility that only a new kind of state could make new kinds of ideals possible, including his own. His fascinating presentation of human self-domestication is a highlight of Against the Grain. But like Clastres – and, more indirectly, Friedrich Nietzsche before him – Scott is implicitly judging the state wanting by criteria that are unthinkable without its rise. He not only ignores the tremendous defects of ‘uncivilized’ life, but he also fails to reflect on the absence in it of the ideals of liberty and equality that alone could justify his admiration. Scott is a product of the modern state who does not care to know it.
Read the full article in the Nation.
Drug company hands patents off to
Native American tribe to avoid challenge
Joe Mullan, ars technica, 13 September 2017
On Friday, Allergan disclosed that it gave six patents covering its top-selling dry eye drug Restasis to the St. Regis Mohawk Tribe in Northern New York. The deal will provide the tribe with $13.75 million immediately and an annual royalty of $15 million as long as the patents are valid. The new deal was soon reported in both The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal.
Allergan made the unprecedented move because it will prevent any meaningful challenge to the company’s patents at the Patent Trial and Appeal Board, or PTAB. Challenging patents at the PTAB in a process called ‘inter partes review’ (IPR) was authorized by the America Invents Act of 2011, and the IPR process has significantly changed the patent landscape since then. While invalidating a patent in district court typically costs millions of dollars, invalidating a patent via IPR can happen for the relative bargain of a few hundred thousand dollars.
Lawyers for Allergan and the tribe expect that the concept of ‘sovereign immunity,’ which bars lawsuits against certain types of government entities, will protect patents owned by St. Regis from any IPR proceeding. In fact, university patents have already been found to be immune to IPR under the concept of sovereign immunity. That will give Allergan a major edge as it clashes with generic drug companies who are trying to knock out the patent so they can produce a cheaper generic version.
The social and political philosophy
of Mary Wollstonecraft
Ruth Hagengruber, Notre Dame Philosophical Review,
7 October 2017
What makes Wollstonecraft so controversial among feminist thinkers is, above all, her critique of women’s weaknesses and their acceptance of their own slavery, seemingly begging for food instead of for freedom. Women, she wrote, subject themselves to domination, ‘creeping in the dust’ and relinquishing their dignity. Consequently, Wollstonecraft’s sisters in gender, emphasizing the need for unity among the suppressed sex, called Wollstonecraft herself a misogynist. This feminist critique pointed out the masculinity of (her) reasoning. One of their main arguments was that with reference to the ideal of reasonability, Wollstonecraft had denied or neglected the female perspective, the importance of otherness, in feminist political and social reasoning. Under this polemic arc, the authors of this collection have gathered material to sketch the current discussion on topics of feminist political and social philosophy.
With this background in mind, the contributions endeavor to engage with this outstanding writer. Wollstonecraft’s thoughts are redefined in today’s language, reflecting today’s questions. The authors present a wide variety of perspectives on a group of texts which emerged at a time when questions that still occupy us today were articulated for the first time. Today these questions are subjected to a multi-faceted interpretation which arises from the problems we face today. The essays do not praise Wollstonecraft as the forerunner of proto-feminist ideas, nor do they interpret her as a self-confirmation of modern convictions. In general, a prudent approach to explaining and understanding Wollstonecraft’s daring ideas is offered.
In reading Wollstonecraft today, and taking her thoughts into account from today’s perspective, one is struck by the power of this philosopher. Leaving aside biased interpretations of female or male dichotomies, stigmatized political demands, or the extensively discussed reason-emotion dualism, we find a differentiated and deliberate presentation of Wollstonecraft’s thoughts, which for that reason seem much more familiar to the philosopher of the 21st century. Beyond the one- dimensional justification of a feminist, or rationalist and therefore misogynist, philosopher of the 18th century, we discover a discussion beyond the pro or contra of sexist-driven politics.
Read the full article in Notre Dame Philosophical Review.
A new history of the first peoples in the Americas
Adam Rutherford, The Atlantic, 3 October 2017
Sovereignty and membership of a tribe is a complex and hard-won thing. It includes a concept called ‘blood quantum,’ which is effectively the proportion of one’s ancestors who are already members of a tribe. It’s an invention of European Americans in the 19th century, and though most tribes had their own criteria for tribal membership, most eventually adopted Blood Quantum as part of the qualification for tribal status.
DNA is not part of that mix. With our current knowledge of the genomics of Native Americans, there is no possibility of DNA being anywhere near a useful tool in ascribing tribal status to people. Furthermore, given our understanding of ancestry and family trees, I have profound doubts that DNA could ever be used to determine tribal membership. While mtDNA (which is passed down from mothers to children) and the Y chromosome (passed from fathers to sons) have both proved profoundly useful in determining the deep ancestral trajectory of the first peoples of the Americas into the present, these two chromosomes represent a tiny proportion of the total amount of DNA that an individual bears. The rest, the autosomes, comes from all of one’s ancestors.
Some genetic genealogy companies will sell you kits that claim to grant you membership to historical peoples, albeit ill-defined, highly romanticized versions of ancient Europeans. This type of genetic astrology, though unscientific and distasteful to my palate, is really just a bit of meaningless fantasy; its real damage is that it undermines scientific literacy in the general public.
Over centuries, people are too mobile to have remained genetically isolated for any significant length of time. Tribes are known to have mixed before and after colonialism, which should be enough to indicate that some notion of tribal purity is at best imagined. Of the genetic markers that have been shown to exist in individual tribes so far, none is exclusive. Some tribes have begun to use DNA as a test to verify immediate family, such as in paternity cases, and this can be useful as part of qualification for tribal status. But on its own, a DNA test cannot place someone in a specific tribe.
That hasn’t stopped the emergence of some companies in the United States that sell kits that claim to use DNA to ascribe tribal membership. Accu-Metrics is one such company. On their web page, they state that there are ‘562 recognized tribes in the United States, plus at least 50 others in Canada, divided into First Nation, Inuit, and Metis.’ For $125 they claim that they ‘can determine if you belong to one of these groups.’
The idea that tribal status is encoded in DNA is both simplistic and wrong. Many tribespeople have non-native parents and still retain a sense of being bound to the tribe and the land they hold sacred. In Massachusetts, members of the Seaconke Wampanoag tribe identified European and African heritage in their DNA, due to hundreds of years of interbreeding with New World settlers. Attempting to conflate tribal status with DNA denies the cultural affinity that people have with their tribes. It suggests a kind of purity that genetics cannot support, a type of essentialism that resembles scientific racism.
Read the full article in the Atlantic.
The election was rigged, the news is fake,
and the deep state is out to get us
Joseph E Uscinski, Eurozine, 28 September 2017
It is true the false ideas plague our political discourse. Some of these ideas are shared widely on social media, so much so that they sometimes outshine more accurate news. Should we be concerned? The short answer is no. Fake and frauds have always existed; the fact we are noticing them more now is a testament to our concern over truth, rather than our disdain for it.
Fakes news can spread fast. Conspiracy theories, in particular, have found a home on the internet and can be shared easily on social media, sometimes creating a wildfire of false beliefs. During the election, fake headlines – for example, those claiming Hillary Clinton was dead – were shared despite having no truth to them. The assumption is that these false ideas pop up on social media and are shared indiscriminately by users. This makes a good headline of course, but contrary to most of the claims made by journalists and commenters, this is not the case. People who are resistant to conspiracy theories won’t traffic in them on the internet, and partisans won’t traffic in conspiracy theories that accuse co-partisans. This leaves the online conspiracy theorizing to those who believe in conspiracy theories anyway.
The bigger picture is that while there are conspiracy theories on the internet, we have overestimated their place there. Everything – recipes, kitten videos, sports – is on the internet, yet it seems that we only think that conspiracy theories and other forms of dubious information are taking over. To put this idea to rest, consider the following. There is currently no evidence to suggest that public beliefs in conspiracy theories have increased since the internet or social media were rolled out. Most conspiracy theories that arise on the internet die on the vine. The websites that traffic in conspiracy theories do not get anywhere near the amount of web traffic that mainstream websites do. People go to the internet to get real news, book travel, get dates, and look at porn in far higher numbers than they go to look at conspiracy theories.
There are good reasons to suspect that the internet has tamed conspiracy theories and false information. First, the internet and social media provide easy access to authoritative sources. People don’t need to rely on village wisdom to solve problems, they can get immediate authoritative information at the touch of a button. But more importantly, peoples’ dispositions still drive what they believe, and elites still largely drive the contours of public opinion. There just isn’t enough room for fake news to affect anyone who doesn’t already have a worldview driven toward dubious ideas to begin with.
For fear of upending a great narrative, fears of a post-truth world are vastly overblown. First, if we had descended into a post-truth world, we probably would not know it, nor would anyone care. The fact that we are having a conversation about the accuracy of our information environment is proof – to a certain extent – that we do care about truth.
Read the full article in Eurozine.
Civil-rights protests have never been popular
Ta-Nehisi Coates, The Atlantic, 3 October 2017
Implicit in Leonhardt’s critique is the idea that Martin Luther King and other civil-rights pioneers, and their protests, were better able to appeal to the hearts of white Americans than Kaepernick and his allies. Leonhardt cites a Yougov poll showing that ‘only 36 percent consider the kneeling protest to be ‘appropriate.’’ This might be damning if not for the fact that the very civil-rights movement Leonhardt cites was generally thought to be equally, if not more, inappropriate.
As The Washington Post noted last year, only 22 percent of all Americans approved of the Freedom Rides, and only 28 percent approved of the sit-ins. The vast majority of Americans – 60 percent – had ‘unfavorable’ feelings about the March on Washington. As FiveThirtyEight notes, in 1966, only 4 percent of Americans had a positive opinion of Martin Luther King. The popular hostility toward King extended to the very government he tried to embrace – King was bugged and harassed by the FBI until the end of his life. His assassination sprang from the deep hostility with which he was viewed, not by a fringe radical minority, but by the majority of the American citizenry.
That the civil-rights movement was unpopular is not shocking to the activists who protested at the time. ‘When I’m told by people, ‘Thank you for what you did,’ I almost want to look around and see who they’re talking to,’ Dorie Ladner told the Post. The paper quotes Julian Bond satirizing the kind of history Leonhardt’s argument is premised—’Rosa sat down, Martin stood up and then the white folks saw the light and saved the day.’
Read the full article in the Atlantic.
Flip-flopping on free speech
Jill Lepore, New Yorker, 9 October 2017
Ronald Reagan, fifty-five and as spruce as a groom, ran for governor of California in 1966. On the stump, he complained about undergraduate ‘malcontents,’ and, as Election Day neared, he made a point of denouncing invitations issued by students at the University of California, Berkeley, to two speakers: Robert F Kennedy, who was slated to talk about civil rights, and Stokely Carmichael, who had been asked by the Students for a Democratic Society to deliver the keynote address at a conference on Black Power. ‘We cannot have the university campus used as a base from which to foment riots,’ Reagan warned. He urged Carmichael, at that time the chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, to decline the invitation – a clever way to guarantee that Carmichael would accept.
‘This is a student conference, as it should be, held on a campus,’ Carmichael, twenty-five, lean and grave in a suit and tie, told a crowd of ten thousand on October 29th. Regulation of speech, he added, amounted to a struggle over ‘whether or not black people will have the right to use the words they want to use without white people giving their sanction.’ Days later, Reagan won the election, and the conservative movement claimed its first major victory, fuelled by inciting opposition to the Free Speech Movement.
This September, a planned Free Speech Week at Berkeley flopped. Sponsored by a conservative student group, the event was the brainchild of Milo Yiannopoulos, who may have expected that the university would call it off. In February, the university cancelled a talk by him after protesters rioted and more than a hundred members of the faculty signed a letter, stating, ‘We support robust debate, but we cannot abide by harassment, slander, defamation, and hate speech.’ In response, Donald Trump tweeted, ‘If UC Berkeley does not allow free speech and practices violence on innocent people with a different point of view – no federal funds?’
In the half century between the elections of Governor Reagan and President Trump, the left and the right would appear to have switched sides, the left fighting against free speech and the right fighting for it. This formulation isn’t entirely wrong. An unwillingness to engage with conservative thought, an aversion to debate, and a weakened commitment to free speech are among the failures of the left. Campus protesters have tried to silence not only alt-right gadflies but also serious if controversial scholars and policymakers. Last month, James B Comey, the former FBI director, was shouted down by students at Howard University. When he spoke about the importance of conversation, one protester called out, ‘White supremacy is not a debate!’ Still, the idea that the left and the right have switched sides isn’t entirely correct, either. Comey was heckled, but, when he finished, the crowd gave him a standing ovation. The same day, Trump called for the firing of NFL players who protest racial injustice by kneeling during the national anthem. And Yiannopoulos’s guide in matters of freedom of expression isn’t the First Amendment; it’s the hunger of the troll, eager to feast on the remains of liberalism.
Read the full article in New Yorker.
An antidote for American amnesia
Marc Parry, Chronicle of Higher Education, 1 October 2017
The story of Shoe Boots and Doll turned out to be a relationship along similar lines, as Miles learned when she found that crucial document: a petition from Shoe Boots for the freedom of his children. The petition made clear that his link to Doll was not the freely chosen, fight-the-power union that Miles had initially envisioned. She was his slave, and he referred to her disparagingly. But the document also revealed something else: a real family. Shoe Boots wanted the kids that Doll had borne him to become full Cherokee citizens.
The award-winning book that Miles wrote about their relationship, Ties That Bind, made two broad arguments. The first was to push back against the widely held notion that Cherokees had practiced a far more benevolent slavery than whites. Miles showed that Cherokee slavery had been a cruel system at the core of tribal wealth and governance. Her writing humanized the victims of that system, especially Doll.
This female slave led so marginalized a life that record keepers could scarcely bother to record it. But Miles tried to describe Doll’s interior world regardless, including details as intimate as how she might have felt about bearing children into slavery. She managed that by patching together sources like slave narratives left by other women, combined with fictional renderings of bondage, such as the portrayal of slave motherhood in Toni Morrison’s Beloved. ’She delves into the emotional side of these people’s lives in a way the vast majority of historians wouldn’t dare,’ says Saunt.
The second argument that Miles put forward was that, despite the cruelty of the Cherokees’ slave system, a more flexible situation existed on the ground. Ties of kinship could supersede categories of race. They could even be a loophole out of slavery.
The corollary was unspoken: Consider thinking that way now. Ties That Bind appeared amid a long-running conflict over the political status of descendants of the tribe’s former slaves, known as Cherokee freedmen. This fight would lead to a 2007 vote in which the Cherokee Nation approved a constitutional amendment limiting citizenship to Indians ‘by blood,’ blocking roughly 2,800 freedmen and freedwomen descendants from membership. Miles’s narrative heartened some slave descendants, who interpreted her research as a positive story about a Cherokee man who had a black wife and freed his kids.
Cherokee scholars and officials, meanwhile, criticized Miles’s findings as marginal to their history. They saw her as trying to steal the Cherokees’ spotlight by turning the Trail of Tears into a ‘black’ story. One prominent Indian elder from a Great Plains tribe went further. After she heard Miles speak prior to the publication of Ties That Bind, she implored her, ‘Don’t write your book; it will destroy us.’
Read the full article in the Chronicle of Higher Education.
How America changed its approach to political Islam
Shadi Hamid, Peter Mandaville & William McCants,
The Atlantic, 4 October 2017
The event that set the tone for U.S. policy toward Sunni Islamist movements (of the Muslim Brotherhood ilk) was the Algerian parliamentary election of 1991. When it became clear that the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS) was poised to win the two-thirds majority required to change the country’s constitution, the military intervened to annul the results, plunging Algeria into civil war for the better part of a decade. In a spring 1992 speech, Assistant Secretary of State Edward Djerejian indicated that the Algerian army’s intervention had been prudent because Islamists coming to power through the ballot box would have been a case of ‘one man, one vote, one time.’ In other words, Islamists would make instrumental use of the ballot box to capture the state, only to subsequently dismantle democracy.
Sunni Islamist movements, meanwhile, were evolving rapidly with the times. By the mid-1990s, there were clear signs that these groups could no longer be understood through the original vision of Islamist ‘founding fathers’ – such as the Egyptian Hassan al-Banna or Pakistan’s Abul Ala Mawdudi. By the mid-2000s, Islamist parties had become fixtures in the mainstream politics of Morocco, Egypt, Palestine, Lebanon, Jordan, Yemen, and Kuwait. In Turkey in 2002, the Justice and Development Party (AKP), whose roots lay in Turkey’s Islamist movement, won its first landslide victory.
During this same period, U.S. policy toward Islamists remained quite cautious. In 1995, Washington announced that it was ceasing all contact with the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood. After the September 11th attacks, some of the more influential voices shaping American views of political Islam were those—such as Israel and Egypt—that wished to advance an understanding of Islamism consistent with their domestic interests. Soon, most Islamist parties in the Arab world decided to boycott the United States in a gesture of protest at the American invasion of Iraq. In 2006, America’s rejection of Hamas’s victory in the Palestinian elections seemed to confirm in the eyes of many the idea that the United States was simply unwilling to allow Islamists to govern, even when they won in free elections.
Looked at from a different vantage point, however, Washington’s reluctance to engage with Islamists seems guided more by basic realpolitik. The U.S. ceased contact with the Brotherhood in Egypt based on a request from its partner, the Egyptian government. It rejected Hamas’s victory at the polls out of concern for its close ally Israel—and because Hamas was a designated terrorist organization. Yet, at the same time, Islamist parties in various countries—including Yemen, Indonesia, Morocco, and Jordan—received various forms of support and training through democracy promotion programs funded by the likes of the United States Agency for International Development and the National Endowment for Democracy. There was no coherent, deliberate policy toward Islamist parties as such; it was a byproduct of other concerns.
Read the full article in the Atlantic.
The partisan divide on political values grows even wider
Pew Research Centre, 5 October 2017
The divisions between Republicans and Democrats on fundamental political values – on government, race, immigration, national security, environmental protection and other areas – reached record levels during Barack Obama’s presidency. In Donald Trump’s first year as president, these gaps have grown even larger.
And the magnitude of these differences dwarfs other divisions in society, along such lines as gender, race and ethnicity, religious observance or education.
A new study by Pew Research Center, based on surveys of more than 5,000 adults conducted over the summer, finds widening differences between Republicans and Democrats on a range of measures the Center has been asking about since 1994, as well as those with more recent trends. But in recent years, the gaps on several sets of political values in particular – including measures of attitudes about the social safety net, race and immigration – have increased dramatically.
Read the full article at the Pew Research Centre.
This is the hammer that killed John Henry
Tom Maxwell, Longreads, October 2017
In 1873, John William Henry disappears from the Virginia State Penitentiary records. Had he been paroled, pardoned, or released, it would have been noted. Instead, argues Scott Reynolds Nelson, it’s probable that he died. His body would have been sent back to the prison that leased him (because the C.&O. was contractually obligated to pay $100 ‘for each prisoner not returned’), buried in an anonymous mass grave on penitentiary grounds, and forgotten.
Forgotten except in song.
Given the fact that John Henry was black, probably a convict, and existed in the unrelieved racism of Reconstruction-era South, the first people to sing about him were almost certainly African Americans. And so there is a hidden history to ‘The Ballad of John Henry,’ in which the protagonist demands to be treated like a man, not a slave, and who may very well have murdered some of his white overseers. A slight but telling version of the lyric quoted above—one which circulated privately in the black community—goes like this:
John Henry told his captain,
A man ain’t nothing but a man
Before I’d let you beat me down
I’d die with the hammer in my hand
Researcher Jim Hauser has collected dozens of such variations—what he calls the ‘rebel versions’ of John Henry’s ballad—which suggest the man was originally a symbol of resistance. This John Henry refuses to be whipped or worked to death. He is willing to quit his job for better wages.
Read the full article in Longreads.
The images are, from top down: ‘Torture and deaths in detention’, an installation by Paul Stopforth; Alberti Giacometti, ‘Diego’; portrait of Sigmund Freud (photographer unknown); A reconstruction of ‘Kennewick Man’; ‘The Old Plantation’ by John Rose.