The latest (somewhat random) collection of recent essays and stories from around the web that have caught my eye and are worth plucking out to be re-read.
How Britain did Gaddafi’s dirty work
Ian Cobain, Guardian, 9 November 2017
As the CIA and MI6 built relationships with Libya, the two agencies assisted Libyan spies in the kidnapping of Gaddafi’s enemies. Two leading figures in the Libyan opposition who had fled the country were kidnapped, one from Hong Kong, one from Thailand, and flown back to Tripoli along with their wives and children. Both men were tortured. MI6 gave their Libyan counterparts questions for the prisoners, who, under extreme duress, led them to other Libyan dissidents in exile.
Opponents of the Gaddafi regime who had been living legally in the UK for years were detained by British police, and the British government made a determined attempt to have them deported to Tripoli. Asylum seekers and British-Libyan nationals in Manchester and London were menaced by Gaddafi’s agents, who were invited into the UK and permitted to operate on the streets of Britain alongside MI5. British intelligence handed over details of the targets’ telephone calls to the ESO, and their relatives and friends in Libya were arrested and threatened.
Details of the dark arrangements made by the intelligence agencies of the US, UK and Libya have been gleaned through interviews with government officials and victims of rendition, British government documents disclosed under the Freedom of Information Act, and material that emerged during a lengthy Scotland Yard investigation and a number of civil trials. In large part, however, what follows is based on several extraordinary caches of secret British, American and Libyan intelligence documents that were discovered amid the chaos of the Libyan revolution in 2011, scattered around abandoned government offices, prisons and officials’ private residences. Many of the most intriguing documents were found by Libyan civilians and human rights activists in September that year inside ESO’s offices. Others came to light in various government outposts after Gaddafi was captured and killed the following month. All together, they amount to many thousands of pages.
These papers show that the post-9/11 rapprochement between the Gaddafi regime and the west – and Tony Blair’s government in particular – went far deeper than was previously known…
No matter that Gaddafi was regarded across the Middle East as dangerously insane. He may be a madman, those in the higher reaches of the British government appear to have concluded, but at least he’s our madman.
Read the full article in the Guardian.
Azmat Khan & Anand Gopal, New York Times,
16 November 2017
Later that same day, the American-led coalition fighting the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria uploaded a video to its YouTube channel. The clip, titled ‘Coalition Airstrike Destroys Daesh VBIED Facility Near Mosul, Iraq 20 Sept 2015,’ shows spectral black-and-white night-vision footage of two sprawling compounds, filmed by an aircraft slowly rotating above. There is no sound. Within seconds, the structures disappear in bursts of black smoke. The target, according to the caption, was a car-bomb factory, a hub in a network of ‘multiple facilities spread across Mosul used to produce VBIEDs for ISIL’s terrorist activities,’ posing ‘a direct threat to both civilians and Iraqi security forces.’ Later, when he found the video, Basim could watch only the first few frames. He knew immediately that the buildings were his and his brother’s houses…
American military planners go to great lengths to distinguish today’s precision strikes from the air raids of earlier wars, which were carried out with little or no regard for civilian casualties. They describe a target-selection process grounded in meticulously gathered intelligence, technological wizardry, carefully designed bureaucratic hurdles and extraordinary restraint. Intelligence analysts pass along proposed targets to ‘targeteers,’ who study 3-D computer models as they calibrate the angle of attack. A team of lawyers evaluates the plan, and — if all goes well — the process concludes with a strike so precise that it can, in some cases, destroy a room full of enemy fighters and leave the rest of the house intact.
The coalition usually announces an airstrike within a few days of its completion. It also publishes a monthly report assessing allegations of civilian casualties. Those it deems credible are generally explained as unavoidable accidents — a civilian vehicle drives into the target area moments after a bomb is dropped, for example. The coalition reports that since August 2014, it has killed tens of thousands of ISIS fighters and, according to our tally of its monthly summaries, 466 civilians in Iraq.
Yet until we raised his case, Basim’s family was not among those counted. Mayada, Tuqa, Mohannad and Najib were four of an unknown number of Iraqi civilians whose deaths the coalition has placed in the ‘ISIS’ column. Estimates from Airwars and other nongovernmental organizations suggest that the civilian death toll is much higher, but the coalition disputes such figures, arguing that they are based not on specific intelligence but local news reports and testimony gathered from afar. When the coalition notes a mission irregularity or receives an allegation, it conducts its own inquiry and publishes a sentence-long analysis of its findings. But no one knows how many Iraqis have simply gone uncounted.
Read the full article in the New York Times.
Baggini’s consolations for a post-truth world
Julian Baggini & Hugh D Reynolds,
3AM Magazine, 11 November 2017
3:AM: A Short History of Truth, should help us endure the apparent crisis of truth. You write: ‘If there is a crisis of truth in the world today, the root of the problem is not the inadequacy of philosophical theories of truth.’ Yet, you suggest philosophers aren’t entirely blameless in that crisis, how so?
JB: To a certain extent all philosophers have been involved in a systematic questioning that undermines confidence and certainty. Philosophy as a whole unleashed skeptical forces which, outside of the tightly controlled environment of a rigorous philosophical debate, led a lot of people to throw their hands up in despair and think ‘what’s the point?’. A lot of the public perception of philosophy is that it leaves you with no answers, and more confused than you were at the beginning.
More specifically, there have been a number of philosophers – perhaps more in continental Europe than in Britain – who have reveled in the dismantling of truth. I think they did so with good ethical motives, and for good philosophical reasons. I can see the sense in what they were talking about; the idea that, as a matter of fact, truth is often claimed by elites in order to further certain agendas. They crowd-out alternative perspectives – particularly those of the powerless. But the undermining of truth contributed – in the weird, indirect way that philosophy contributes to the culture – to a rejection of the idea of truth as having any kind of proper meaning at all.
I think a lot of these people, Foucault for instance, would have been horrified that Trump has emerged as a person taking advantage of this skepticism. But that is what happened. It’s a wake-up call.
3:AM: So there’s no direct connection between the philosophical community and the wider populus?
JB: I don’t think there is ever a direct connection. The connections are extremely complicated – that’s always the way with philosophy. I’m very aware of this because I’ve been working on a book on ideas in global philosophy – in the classical traditions – and you always find some kind of relation between the dominant philosophies in a culture and the folk philosophy – the way people think – but it’s not a straight-down dissemination. It’s partly bottom-up. Thinkers are the products of the cultures they grew-up in. They aspire to thinking purely objectively and universally, but they are often reflecting ways of thought that are embedded in a culture.
Read the full article in 3:AM Magazine.
Keeping the faith
Melvin Rogers, Boston Review, 1 November 2017
The running theme in Coates’s book is that white supremacy is native and essential. It is the source of his motivation. Coates’s goal is to distance both black Americans and himself from thinking of white supremacy as a focus of transformative politics. And his theme should guard against the familiar tendency to deny the national past by invoking its ever-present commitment to redemption. Sometimes denial comes in the form of efforts to sanitize history, Coates tells us, as was the case with Americans seeking to reconcile themselves to a civil war that was about rights, or railroads, or tariffs—anything but race. But denial also comes in the form of believing in ‘an arc of cosmic justice,’ the sense ‘that good acts were rewarded and bad deeds punished . . . ‘ Coates argues instead that US history is merely the record of its fundamental nature. Transcendent stories cannot relieve us of this burden.
For Coates, the desire to transform the United States reflects a naïve religious longing. When Coates tells us that ‘cosmic justice, collective hope, and national redemption’ are meaningless to him, he is asking black Americans to resist the temptation to allow those things (which all seem to be interchangeable throughout the book) to have meaning for them. This is his ‘black atheism.’ It removes the desire to appeal to white Americans because it removes the belief that white Americans are ‘interested listeners’ (even if they are regular readers). In doing so, black Americans arm themselves against disappointment because they drop their ‘expectations of white people . . . ‘
There is much in this that should concern us. Coates describes the pain visited on black bodies and engenders white guilt. He erodes the idea that who we are need not determine who we may become. He obstructs rather than opens any attempt to reckon with our racial past and present in the service of an inclusive future. And he participates in a politics where words and actions can never aspire to change the political community in which we live, and for that reason they only fortify our indignation and deepen our suspicion—namely, that as black Americans, we are as alien to this polity as it is alien to us. The aspiration to defend a more exalted vision of this country’s ethical and political life is taken as the hallmark of being asleep, dreaming in religious illusions. To be alive to an unvarnished reality, to be woke, is to recognize that no such country is possible.
This runs roughshod over that thread in the grand tradition of US struggles for justice – a tradition in which hope and faith are forged through political darkness. Hope involves attachment and commitment to the possibility of realizing the goods we seek. Faith is of a broader significance, providing hope with content. Faith, the black scholar Anna Julia Cooper suggested in 1892, is grounded in a vision of political and ethical life that is at odds with the community one inhabits. It is a vision that one believes ought to command allegiance, for which one is willing to fight, and in which one believes others can find a home. Faith looks on the present from the perspective of a future vision of society, and uses the vision as a resource to remake the present. And so faith, the philosopher and psychologist William James explained in 1897, is ‘the readiness to act in a cause the prosperous issue of which is not certified to us in advance.’ In other words, faith has never been exhausted by the political reality one happens to be living in.
Political faith has always rested on the idea that we are not finished, a thought that Coates rejects out of hand. In the nineteenth century, Ralph Waldo Emerson called this capacity for human renewal ‘ascension, or the passage of the soul into higher forms.’ In our political life this means, as James Baldwin well knew, that both our liberal democratic institutions and its culture ‘depends on choices one has got to make, for ever and ever and ever, every day.’
Read the full article in the Boston Review.
Life and death after the steel mills
Elizabeth Svoboda, Sapiens, 18 October 2017
On the wind-whipped shore of Lake Michigan, a little over 10 miles from downtown Chicago, Illinois, stand what look like the foundations of a massive fortress. These hulks of concrete are the silent remnants of the U.S. Steel South Works production plant—an industrial behemoth that, in its heyday, employed more than 20,000 residents of the Chicago area. Though the plant shut down in 1992, the 30-foot-tall walls endure. ‘They tried to demolish them,’ Christine Walley says, ‘but they were so big and heavy that they just couldn’t do it. So they decided to leave them as monuments.’
Just beyond the ruins is a dead-end channel carved into the lakeshore—the slip where ore boats once arrived. Most days, for more than a century, the boats would drop off hundreds of tons of raw materials to be forged into steel slabs and beams that strengthened bridges and kept skyscrapers aloft. But no ore boat has docked in this slip for more than 20 years.
As the middle daughter of three born to a Chicago steelworking family, Walley feels the weight of these ruins more than most. Her father, a longtime veteran of nearby Wisconsin Steel, lost his job when the mill closed in 1980 without warning. As other mill closures followed, Walley’s family and community fractured in ways that defied easy mending.
Now, as an established anthropology professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, Walley is driven to understand what happens when industries that once gave blue-collar workers an identity and purpose disappear or wither away. Her work captures the erosion of key aspects of the American dream, according to Yale University anthropologist Kathryn Dudley. ‘Good industrial jobs with security and dignity for anyone willing to work was the promise held out by the New Deal coalition of the last century,’ Dudley says. ‘As Chris documents so movingly, that promise was brutally broken. Nothing has replaced it.’
Read the full article in Sapiens.
The Islamic world doesn’t need a Reformation
Mustafa Akyol, Atlantic, 31 October 2017
And that is also why there are people today, especially in the West, who think that ‘a Muslim Martin Luther’ is desperately needed. Yet as good-willed as they may be, they are wrong. Because while Luther’s main legacy was the breakup of the Catholic Church’s monopoly over Western Christianity, Islam has no such monopoly that needs to be challenged. There is simply no ‘Muslim Pope,’ or a central organization like the Catholic hierarchy, whose suffocating authority needs to be broken. Quite the contrary, the Muslim world – at least the Sunni Muslim world, which constitutes its overwhelming majority – has no central authority at all, especially since the abolition of the Caliphate in 1924 by Republican Turkey. The ensuing chaos in itself seems be a part of ‘the problem.’
In fact, if the Muslim world of today resembles any period in Christian history, it is not the pre-Reformation but rather the post-Reformation era. The latter was a time when not just Catholics and Protestants but also different varieties of the latter were at each other’s throats, self-righteously claiming to be the true believers while condemning others as heretics. It was a time of religious wars and the suppression of theological minorities. It would be a big exaggeration to say that the whole Muslim world is now going through such bloody sectarian strife, but some parts of it – such as Iraq, Syria, and Yemen – undoubtedly are.
Besides, various ‘reform’ movements have already emerged in the Muslim world in the past two centuries. Just like Luther’s Reformation, these movements claimed to go back to the scriptural roots of the religion to question the existing tradition. While some of the reformists took this step with the intention of rationalization and liberalization, giving us the promising current called ‘Islamic modernism’, others did it with the exact opposite goal of dogmatism and puritanism. The latter trend gave us Salafism, including its Saudi version Wahhabism, which is more rigid and intolerant than the traditional mainstream. And while most Salafis have been non-violent, violent ones formed the toxic blend called ‘Salafi Jihadism’, which gave us the savagery of al-Qaeda and the Islamic State.
That is why those who hope to see a more tolerant, free, and open Muslim world should seek the equivalent not of the Protestant Reformation but of the next great paradigm in Western history: the Enlightenment. The contemporary Muslim world needs not a Martin Luther but a John Locke, whose arguments for freedom of conscience and religious toleration planted the seeds of liberalism. In particular, the more religion-friendly British Enlightenment, rather than the French one, can serve as a constructive model. (And, as I argued elsewhere, special attention should also be given to the Jewish Enlightenment, also called Haskalah, and its pioneers such as Moses Mendelssohn. Islam, as a legalist religion, has more commonalities with Judaism than with Christianity.)
Read the full article in the Atlantic.
But is it science?
Roger Scruton & Timothy Williamson,
Times Literary Supplement, 1 November 2017
When I give a scientific account of the world I am describing objects and the causal laws that explain them. This description is given from no particular perspective. It does not contain words like ‘here’, ‘now’ and ‘I’; and while it is meant to explain the way things seem, it does so by giving a theory of how they are. I, however, am not an object only; I am also a subject, one with a distinctive point of view. The subject is in principle unobservable to science, not because it exists in another realm but because it is not part of the empirical world. It lies on the edge of things, like a horizon, and could never be grasped ‘from the other side’, the side of subjectivity itself. If I look for it in the world of objects I shall never find it. But without my nature as a subject nothing for me is real. If I am to care for my world, then I must first care for this thing, without which I have no world – the perspective from which my world is seen. That is the message of art, or at least of the art that matters. And that is why philosophy is fundamental to humane education. Philosophy shows what self-consciousness is, and explores the many ways in which the point of view of the subject shapes and is shaped by the human world. German-speakers are right to refer to the humanities as Geisteswissenschaften: for Geist, self-consciousness, is what they are all about.
The human world – what Edmund Husserl called the Lebenswelt and Wilfred Sellars the ‘space of reasons’ – is ordered through concepts and conceptions that vanish from the scientific description of nature. Such things as purity, innocence, tragedy, comedy, elegance and refinement are not mentioned in the book of science. They describe how the world appears to us, and they identify the occasions of action and emotion. But they drop out of every scientific theory, including the theories that explain our belief in them.
Given this, a hard-nosed empiricist will say that those qualities on which our human relations, our religious sentiments and our aesthetic experience all depend, are not part of the natural order. We ‘read them into’ the world: they are part of how the world appears to us, but not part of how it truly is. They stem, as Hume put it, from the mind’s capacity to ‘spread itself upon objects’. But they have no objective basis, and our belief in them can be explained by theories that do not suppose them to be features of the underlying reality. The case is no different from the case of aspects, like the face in the picture, which is there for us in the pigments, but not really there, as the pigments are.
This response is imbued with the metaphors that it seeks to discard. It tells us that there is an ‘underlying’ reality, that the mind ‘spreads itself’ on things, that we ‘read’ things into the world, and so on. It is through and through saturated with the image of a world that we know ‘objectively’ through science, but colour ‘subjectively’ by projecting features of our point of view. But it contains no independent argument for thinking that the ‘scientific image’ (as Sellars dubbed it) is an image of all that matters. The greatest task of philosophy in our time, it seems to me, is to uncover the rest of what matters, and to show why it matters far more.
Read the full article in the Times Literary Supplement.
‘I don’t appear to be living in the same Britain
as much of the rest of the country’
Robert Peston, Daily Telegraph, 28 October 2017
I suspect, Dad, that you, like me, would have said in the immediate aftermath of the vote that poorer people who voted for Brexit were cutting off their noses to spite their faces, that the lower growth in national income that would flow from Brexit would hurt them, the poorest and most vulnerable, the most: it would lead to fewer job opportunities for them, a further squeeze in their already depressed incomes, and an extension of austerity in public spending that would see their benefit payments cut further and a worsening in the vital services provided by schools and hospitals. And although Theresa May delayed by five years the moment when the budget was supposed to be balanced, austerity was not abandoned, so public services and benefits will remain under pressure for years.
But poor people who voted for Brexit were not wrong, in that it was probably the best opportunity they would ever have to give the establishment a proper kicking, for ignoring them, for forgetting they exist. During most of the previous thirty-odd years, Britain and most of the rich West had been run on a deceitful prospectus. Labour and Tories had argued, and even for the most part believed, that they were governing for the whole nation. But that was tosh. They were governing for themselves and for those who work in the City and the service sector in London and the South-East. They were governing for property owners. They were governing for a highly skilled, internationally mobile elite of corporate executives, bankers and entrepreneurs. This is not revolutionary rhetoric, it is observable fact, which cannot be ignored by left or right.
These three themes, the long-term neglect of depressed places and people, worsening inequality, and the perceived unfairness of financial globalisation, have brought us directly to where we are today. We are a divided country – in fact in the West, we are divided countries – at a crossroads, where hate and mistrust are more prevalent and more mainstream than at any time that I can recall, and with respective populations uncertain whether they can still rally and unite around a single flag and a set of basic, civilised values. Dad, we would not be in such a mess if your voice, and others like yours, warning that you can’t allow millions of people to be left behind and then expect them to feel grateful, had been heeded. I wish you were here to help me solve the puzzle of what needs to be done to restore the march of progress, rather than fatalistically accepting fracture and managing endemic failure.
Read the full article in the Daily Telegraph.
Universe shouldn’t exist, CERN physicists conclude
Cathal O’Connell, Cosmos, 23 October 2017
One of the great mysteries of modern physics is why antimatter did not destroy the universe at the beginning of time. To explain it, physicists suppose there must be some difference between matter and antimatter – apart from electric charge. Whatever that difference is, it’s not in their magnetism, it seems.
Physicists at CERN in Switzerland have made the most precise measurement ever of the magnetic moment of an anti-proton – a number that measures how a particle reacts to magnetic force – and found it to be exactly the same as that of the proton but with opposite sign. The work is described in Nature.
‘All of our observations find a complete symmetry between matter and antimatter, which is why the universe should not actually exist,’ says Christian Smorra, a physicist at CERN’s Baryon–Antibaryon Symmetry Experiment (BASE) collaboration. ‘An asymmetry must exist here somewhere but we simply do not understand where the difference is.’
Read the full article in Cosmos.
A creeping quiet in Indian journalism?
Rasmus Kleis Nielsen,
Huffington Post, 15 November 2017
In October, the non-profit news site The Wire published ‘The Golden Touch of Jay Amit Shah, showing how Jay Shah, the son of Amit Shah, the president of the ruling BJP party, had seen a dramatic increase in his business fortunes since Narendra Modi became prime minister. The article used company balance sheets and annual reports filed with the Registrar of Companies (RoC) to show how Shah’s Temple Enterprise had seen revenues increase 16,000-fold after Mr Modi and the BJP party his father presides over took power. The response was interesting. On the one hand, Jay Shah, his lawyers insisting he was a private citizen entitled to privacy, filed a criminal defamation case and a civil defamation case seeking a billion rupees ($15.5m) in damages. On the other hand, a number of high profile government ministers and BJP officials defended Shah publicly and attacked the Wire for publishing the story.
In parallel, the Indian Express has reported on allegations that a top official at the Indian Directorate of Revenue Intelligence (DRI) had repeatedly dismissed tax fraud allegations against various parts of the Adani Group, a large Indian multinational conglomerate company headquartered in Mr Modi’s home state Gujarat and seen by many as closely aligned with the Prime Minister. (As the business paper the Mint reported, ‘[Gautam] Adani has travelled with Modi in the past year more than any other billionaire, helping him emerge as the most prominent face of India Inc.’) Following up on earlier stories first published by the Economic and Political Weekly in 2016, the Indian Express in August reported that the adjudicating authority of the DRI K V S Singh had passed an order striking down all proceedings against the Adani Group firms. In October, the paper reported that Singh struck down another case, alleging that an Adani subsidiary had inflated the declared value of imports to avoid taxes. The sums involved are estimated to be in the region of 15bn rupees ($233m).
What is striking is how little attention these stories have generated in other news media. Imagine if ProPublica reported that Donald Trump Jr. had seen a 16,000-fold increase in his business income after his father took office, or that the Washington Post found that federal officials had repeatedly dismissed allegations of tax evasion by the Trump Organization. Every serious and self-respecting news organization in America would cover the story and follow up to see what else they could find. After the The Wire broke the Jay Amit Shah story, NDTV, the country’s leading English-language news channel, began to do exactly that. A follow-up story focused on the loans given to Jay Shah, asked whether this was ‘cronyism or business as usual’. But while a video version is still available, the web version of the story was taken down briefly after, according to NDTV because it was being ‘legally vetted’. As of early November, the story has yet to be republished. The case has been widely discussed on social media under hashtags like #AmitShahKiLoot, but news media have covered the coverage more than the substantive allegations. Similarly, the Economic and Political Weekly and Indian Express coverage of the Adani Group has been mentioned by some other major news media, like the Times of India as well as digital-born news sites like Scroll and the Quint, and has been discussed on social media under hashtags including #adani and #stopadani. But the substantive allegations have not received the attention one might expect of what could look like an explosive mix of politics and private business at the highest levels. What we see instead is what the media watchdog site NewsLaundry calls ’an eerie silence in the media.’
Read the full article in the Huffington Post.
The Muslim overpopulation myth that just won’t die
Krithika Varagur, Atlantic, 14 November 2017
There’s nothing inherent in Islam to link it to higher fertility—in fact, it’s not a particularly natalist, or pro-birth, religion. Eight of the nine classic schools of Islamic law permit contraception. Many Muslim states, including Pakistan, have supported family planning. The growth of the global Muslim population was, according to a 2011 Pew Center report, due to both a ‘youth bulge’ – an unusually high number of young Muslim people, which peaked around 2000 – and a higher overall fertility rate for Muslim women as a group.
On the latter point, a major takeaway of the Pew report (and its companion from this year) is that fertility has much less to do with religion and much more to do with economics, social services, women’s empowerment, and conflict. The fertility rate across all 49 Muslim-majority countries fell from 4.3 children per woman in 1990-95 to about 2.9 in 2010-15. This was still higher than the global fertility rate in 2015, but it’s a strikingly fast drop given the fact that it took some Western European countries nearly a century to transition from six children per woman to three.
The claim about Muslim overpopulation falls apart in fascinating ways when examined more closely. The fastest fertility drop in modern history happened in the Islamic theocracy of Iran. In 1950, Iranian women had about seven children each; today they have about 1.68, fewer than Americans. What changed? In 1989, the country’s leaders realized that the the high birth rate was straining the young republic. In response, the Supreme Leader issued fatwas encouraging birth control and contraception, and the Health Ministry propagated family planning counseling, rural health centers, and contraceptive distribution across the country. Iran also made girls’ education a development priority as it sought to rebuild civil society after the Iran-Iraq War, which ended in 1988, so more girls than ever started to attend (strictly gender-segregated) schools. Everywhere, there is an inverse relationship between years of schooling and fertility rates.
In the world’s largest Muslim-majority country, Indonesia, fertility rates dropped between the 1960s and the 1990s, from about 5.6 children per woman to 2.3, as the Suharto dictatorship instituted a vigorous, centralized family planning program and made improvements to girls’ education. Those government services were decentralized after democracy came to the archipelago in 1998 and, predictably, fertility rates have been creeping up again. Today, Indonesia’s majority-Christian but less developed eastern provinces have a higher birthrate than the more developed, Muslim-majority western ones – a testament to the correlation between economic development and fertility.
Read the full article in the Atlantic.
America Is waking up to the injustice of cash bail
Bryce Covert, Nation, 6 November 2017
On June 27, Gisclair and another plaintiff who couldn’t afford bail filed a class-action lawsuit against Judge Cantrell, claiming that his use of cash bail violates arrestees’ constitutional rights to due process and equal protection under the 14th Amendment. The lawsuit argues that ‘the money-based orders of post-arrest release that he imposes constitute de facto orders of pretrial detention for those unable to pay.’ Also troubling is the fact that Cantrell—like virtually everyone else in the New Orleans criminal-justice system—benefits from the bail amounts he sets. Louisiana law diverts a small percentage of every bail bond contracted with a bondsman back to the budgets of the people in charge: to the court, the sheriff, the district attorney, even the public defenders. The Orleans Parish Criminal District Court rakes in about $1 million a year from this kickback. This arrangement, the lawsuit argues, is ‘an institutional financial conflict of interest’…
Bail-bond companies can set nearly any condition on a client until the case is resolved, from daily check-ins to drug tests, without facing much regulation. And they often tack on additional costs. A lawsuit filed in June against Blair’s Bail Bonds—owned by Blair Boutte, one of the most politically well-connected bondsmen in New Orleans—accused the company of charging hundreds of dollars in extra fees and requiring clients to wear ankle monitors. The plaintiff was allegedly made to wear such a monitor, charged $10 a day for it, and then kidnapped by bondsmen in order to extort money from him and his mother.
If a client refuses any of these terms or misses a payment, the bondsman can threaten to forfeit the bail, which could land the client back in jail. Even if they don’t go this route, bondsmen will often make harassing phone calls and eventually turn the sum owed over to debt collectors.
The bail-bond industry insists that its services are necessary to ensure that people return for their court appearance. But studies haven’t found a clear correlation between appearance rates and being released on bond versus being released on one’s own recognizance (that is, allowing a defendant to go free with a promise to return to court and obey the law in the interim). And bondsmen aren’t responsible for assessing someone’s risk to public safety when they decide to bail him out; nor must they ensure that the client abides by the law after being released. ‘There is no standardized practice for what is good pretrial supervision,’ Rahman says. ‘We’re letting for-profit companies do a job that is probably better the responsibility of the state.’ The United States is one of just two countries in the world that allow a for-profit bail industry. (The other is the Philippines.) ’The fact that we have a show called Dog the Bounty Hunter’—a reality-TV series about a man who tracks down people who owe bondsmen—’is a uniquely American phenomenon,’ Rahman points out.
Read the full article in the Nation.
Varun Nayar, Pacific Standard, 9 November 2017
Nearly one in four people on the planet live in the countries that border the Bay of Bengal. In many ways, it represents a mix of the many different vulnerabilities migrants across the world face. What makes the region so special for historians?
A couple of things. The first is scale: Simply the concentration of the population in such a relatively small region of the world. The second is cultural diversity: The Bay is one of the most linguistically, ethnically, and religiously diverse regions of the world. The relationship between these two factors is at the heart of a lot of the work I’ve been doing and continue to do. What is the relationship between the [demographic] factors that make the Bay what it is and the fact that it’s so densely populated?
It’s an ideal place to study large-scale social processes, whether that’s population growth, urbanization, or movement across borders because of risks, vulnerabilities, or climate and environmental factors.
And a lot of these borders have only become institutionalized within the last 70 years.
Yes, one of the things you see when you study the Bay of Bengal in the 19th and 20th centuries is the drawing of these borders in the first place. South and Southeast Asia were regions, which were so intensively connected under British colonialism and so intensively disconnected after it. This makes it possible for us to study, very starkly, what effect migration control has on the movement of people, especially people confronting various newer kinds of risks. Partly because of that sharp institutional break in the middle of the 20th century, it helps dramatize the kinds of dilemmas other parts of the world will face—and are already facing—as well.
And while, of course, we shouldn’t romanticize the colonial period, the Empire wasn’t necessarily concerned with how and how many people were moving around, it was actually precisely because labor migration was so exploitative that many Indian and Chinese nationalists worked to stop it.
This perspective also opens up another conversation about freedom in the 21st century. We think of constraints on migration as a violation of people’s freedoms—and while this is certainly the case—if you go back to the 1930s and ’40s, a lot of Asian journalists, intellectuals, and nationalists began looking at the world around them and saying, ‘Actually, we feel the way to ensure people’s freedom is to stop them from migrating.’ That freedom can be best safeguarded best within the borders of an independent nation, especially if it was an independent nation committed to redistributing resources in the way India and China were in the ’40s and ’50s. In a sense, it seemed that the kind of migration that was seen as vast under British rule was now seen as perhaps no longer necessary.
Read the full article in the Pacific Standard.
Poor whites and slavery in the antebellum South
Robert Lindley, History News Network,
5 November 2017
Robin Lindley: Poor whites obviously could never own a slave. You stress that poor whites didn’t have steady incomes and didn’t have land and were illiterate, and the slave owning aristocracy kept them illiterate and impoverished. That may surprise some readers. Why did the slaveholders desire this result?
Dr Keri Leigh Merritt: Most slaveholders looked at poor whites as nuisances – as impediments to slavery itself. Not masters, not slaves, they were essentially ‘masterless men and women’ in a hierarchical world. But poor whites were also interacting on a social and economic level with the enslaved and had an underground economy in which they traded together. Primarily, slaves appropriated foodstuffs from plantations and often traded with poor whites for liquor and other goods – it was America’s original ‘black market.’
Slaveholders knew they had to control and manage poor whites to keep slavery viable and profitable, and to keep these sizable underclasses from banding together and doing anything about it.
By 1860, there were poor white labor associations (or unions) throughout the Deep South and the workers were protesting having to compete with slave labor. They went so far as to threaten to withdraw their support for slavery if something was not done to raise their wages. They literally could not compete with slavery and earn a living wage.
So what did planters do? Well, they used both the legal system and vigilante violence to control this potentially explosive population…
Robin Lindley: You dispel the myth that virtually all poor whites in the antebellum South supported slavery.
Dr Keri Leigh Merritt: Obviously, all of the slave owning class did and, I’d argue, the vast majority of the middling classes supported slavery unconditionally.
I think there was more dissent in the poor white classes. I’m sure most of them were racist, but they saw that slavery was detrimental to them on a socioeconomic level. They recognized that they couldn’t get a decent wage and couldn’t get jobs as slavery increasingly pushed them out of agriculture.
As the possibility of disunion became a reality, poor whites were not the ones pushing for secession. Some were Unionists, but in the Deep South most were anti-Confederates – they just wanted to be left alone. They didn’t want to fight for slaveholders and slaveholder profits. But I argue that they were basically forced to fight in many instances. Even before the Conscription Act of 1862, there are vigilante groups all throughout the region that literally forced poor white men – with the threat of death – to join the Confederate army.
Read the full article in History News Network.
The Arab world is not ready for complacency
HA Hellyer, Arabist, 13 November 2017
But here’s the truth of it – has there ever been a place that has been ‘ready’ for ‘democracy’? Or, let’s break it down, to avoid the tired old tool of ‘democracy is a Western, imperialist, non-universal way of governing’. Indeed, the Arab world ought to be able to produce its own indigenous ways of governing, without fetishizing the modern nation-state model. So, let’s ask: has any place in the world – in human history – been ‘ready’ for respecting the fundamental rights of all, while choosing their representatives openly and freely?
No, of course not. Was the United States ‘ready’, when it started out with slavery, and systematic exploitation of Africans on its soil for centuries? Was it ‘ready’ for democracy, when it elected a man who is daily chipping away at its fundamentals? Was the UK ‘ready’, as we colonised much of the known world? Is the United Kingdom ‘ready’, when we voted ‘yes’ in a referendum that is leading us to economic turmoil, a referendum tainted by xenophobic memes? Was Europe ‘ready’, as we perpetrated the Holocaust? Is Europe ‘ready’, when the bigoted populism of the far-right is the fresh new game in town?
No, there’s no place that is ‘ready’. We all learn – by being given chances, and opportunities, and options. We might all make mistakes, and grievous ones at that. We might make mistakes with Islamists; with anti-Islamists; with right-wingers; with left-wingers; across the board. But they will be our mistakes, and no one else’s.
We all have the right to have that chance: stand for that, or be silent We all have the right to have that chance – and if the comfortable, privileged few within these lands of the Arab world want to disavow their own right to have that chance, that’s their choice. But they do not have the right to negate that choice for the rest.
Read the full article in the Arabist.
Who saved Israel in 1947?
Martin Kramer, Mosaic, 6 November 2017
In a 1998 essay marking Israel’s 50th anniversary, the historian Paul Johnson addressed a ‘paradoxical aspect of the Zionist miracle, which we certainly did not grasp at the time and which is insufficiently understood even now.’ That paradox, wrote Johnson, is that ‘among the founding fathers of Israel was Joseph Stalin.’ Twenty years later, even fewer people grasp it. The Soviet Union is long gone, remembered by Israel and its supporters as the patron of Nasser abroad, the jailer and tormentor of Jews at home, the purveyor of vicious anti-Semitism everywhere. Nor did any Soviet leader himself ever claim the mantle of Cyrus. To the contrary: from the 1950s onward, the Soviet Union did its utmost to erase the fact of Soviet support for the creation of Israel from official history and from Arab memory. Meanwhile, both in the United States and in Israel, an equal and opposite process has erased from memory the inconstancy of American support for Israel’s creation.
Yes, the US voted for partition in November 1947, but by the following March it had declared partition impossible to implement and proposed a ‘temporary’ UN trusteeship in its stead. On the very eve of Britain’s official withdrawal from Israel the following May, America’s top diplomat was still warning Israel’s leaders against declaring independence.
Yes again, Truman did immediately recognize Israel (de facto but not de jure). But he had already enforced an arms embargo on the Middle East, forcing Israel to scavenge for its survival.
By contrast, not only did the Soviet Union under Stalin vote for partition, and also recognize Israel – the first state to do so de jure, three days after independence – it had come out in favor of a Jewish state well before the United States. Moreover, it had held firm in that support both before and after the vote, and had indirectly assured that the newborn state would have the war materiel it desperately needed to defend itself. According to Abba Eban, Israel’s first UN ambassador, without the Soviet vote in favor of partition (together with the votes of four satellite nations), and without the arms provided by the Soviet bloc, ‘we couldn’t have made it, either diplomatically or militarily.’
Read the full article in Mosaic.
Consciousness began when the gods stopped speaking
Veronique Greenwood, Nautilus, 9 November 2017
It’s a sweeping and profoundly odd book. But The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind was enormously appealing. Part of it might have been that many readers had never thought about just what consciousness was before. Perhaps this was the first time many people reached out, touched their certainty of self, and found it was not what they expected. Jaynes’ book did strike in a particular era when such jolts were perhaps uniquely potent. In the 1970s, many people were growing interested in questions of consciousness. Baumeister, who admires Jaynes, and read the book in galley form before it was published, says Jaynes tapped into the ‘spiritual stage’ of the ascendant New Age movement.
And the language – what language! It has a Nabokovian richness. There is an elegance, power, and believability to his prose. It sounds prophetic. It feels true. And that has incredible weight. Truth and beauty intertwine in ways humans have trouble picking apart. Physicist Ben Lillie, who runs the Storycollider storytelling series, remembers when he discovered Jaynes’ book. ‘I was part of this group that hung out in the newspaper and yearbook offices and talked about intellectual stuff and wore a lot of black,’ Lillie says. ‘Somebody read it. I don’t remember who was first, it wasn’t me. All of a sudden we thought, that sounds great, and we were all reading it. You got to feel like a rebel because it was going against common wisdom.’
It’s easy to find cracks in the logic: Just for starters, there are moments in The Iliad when the characters introspect, though Jaynes decides they are later additions or mistranslations. But those cracks don’t necessarily diminish the book’s power. To readers like Paul Hains, the co-founder of Aeon, an online science and philosophy magazine, Jaynes’ central thesis is of secondary importance to the book’s appeal. ‘What captured me was his approach and style and the inspired and nostalgic mood of the text; not so much the specifics of his argument, intriguing though they were,’ Hains writes. ‘Jaynes was prepared to explore the frontier of consciousness on its own terms, without explaining away its mysterious qualities.’
Meanwhile, over the last four decades, the winds have shifted, as often happens in science as researchers pursue the best questions to ask… Eric Schwitzgebel, a professor of philosophy at University of California, Riverside, has conducted experiments to investigate how aware we are of things we are not focused on, which echo Jaynes’ view that consciousness is essentially awareness. ‘It’s not unreasonable to have a view that the only things you’re conscious of are things you are attending to right now,’ Schwitzgebel says. ‘But it’s also reasonable to say that there’s a lot going on in the background and periphery. Behind the focus, you’re having all this experience.’ Schwitzgebel says the questions that drove Jaynes are indeed hot topics in psychology and neuroscience. But at the same time, Jaynes’ book remains on the scientific fringe. ‘It would still be pretty far outside of the mainstream to say that ancient Greeks didn’t have consciousness,’ he says.
Dennett, who has called The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind a ‘marvelous, wacky book,’ likes to give Jaynes the benefit of the doubt. ‘There were a lot of really good ideas lurking among the completely wild junk,’ he says. Particularly, he thinks Jaynes’ insistence on a difference between what goes on in the minds of animals and the minds of humans, and the idea that the difference has its origins in language, is deeply compelling.
Read the full article in Nautilus.
The European roots of the alt-right
George Hawley, Foreign Affairs, 27 October 2017
From its birth until the recent past, the European New Right received little attention from the American right, despite making waves in France and other European countries. The lack of interest on the mainstream right is easy to understand. The ENR rejects nearly every element of US conservatism, including capitalism, Christianity, and support for the United States’ international hegemony. It is thus unsurprising that the movement long received only cursory attention from mainstream U.S. conservative outlets such as National Review.
The radical right in the United States similarly showed little awareness of the ENR until quite recently. This was also understandable, given the language barrier – the writings of de Benoist and others were mostly untranslated – and the ENR’s lack of interest in US domestic politics. De Benoist’s careful avoidance of transparent racism also put him at odds with white nationalists in the United States, who wore their racism on their sleeves.
Over the last decade, however, the ENR’s ideas have become better known in the United States, thanks largely to the movement’s discovery by influential figures on the US far right. Faye has spoken at the American Renaissance conference, organized by the prominent white nationalist Jared Taylor, and in 2013, de Benoist addressed a conference hosted by Richard Spencer’s think tank, the National Policy Institute.
Institutions affiliated with the alt-right are now working to translate books from ENR thinkers into English. The publishing company Arktos Media has put out a large catalog of these translations and is now part of the recently formed AltRight Corporation, which has become a significant hub of alt-right propaganda. Arktos has published works by de Benoist and Faye, the French-German ENR ideologue Pierre Krebs, and earlier right-wing radicals such as the Italian philosopher Julius Evola.
These European ideas are finding a receptive audience in the United States for many reasons. One is the declining legitimacy of mainstream U.S. conservatism, which has prompted a search for right-wing alternatives to what is increasingly perceived as a calcified and anachronistic ideology. Ideas taken from the ENR are also useful for those who wish to provide an intellectual gloss to crude racist attitudes.
Read the full article in Foreign Affairs.
Emmanuel Macron’s anti-terror law is a throwback
to the bad days of colonialism
Sarah H Harvard, New Republic, 1 November 2017
According to French political scientist Patrick Weil, the new law essentially allows authorities to stop-and-frisk black and brown French civilians. This is partly due to an egregious provision that, as Bechrouri noted, makes an individual’s immigrant status enough for police to find probable cause. And unlike the original emergency powers, which targeted specific areas, the new law would extend jurisdiction for stop-and-frisk operations far beyond train stations and borders. This means that police officers could set up ‘protection zones’ in banlieues and other predominantly Muslim communities to carry out stop-and-frisk searches and vehicle searches, and ban some individuals from entry.
It doesn’t help that Macron has failed to quell fears that innocent Muslims and citizens of foreign descent will be spared these indignities. During a special parliamentary address delivered in July 2017 at the Palace of Versaille, Macron said the new law would ‘explicitly target terrorists to the exclusion of other Frenchmen.’ According to Bechrouri, Macron’s promise to exclude ‘Frenchmen’ ends up separating Muslims from their fellow citizens and embroiling them in the logic of the security state. ‘For French institutions, a Muslim is no longer an individual like others,’ Bechrouri told me. ‘They represent either a terrorist threat or a potential tool to fight against terrorism – whether that is through informant or deradicalization programs, etc. In both cases, it continues to associate Islam with terrorism and creates confusion between those two words.’
Another pressing concern is how the law haphazardly grants prefects wide discretion to label individuals and mosques threats to national security. Strikingly, to be labeled as such, there is no requirement of any link to a violent act, nor even an imminent criminal act. The sheer vagueness of what is deemed a ‘threat’ or ‘radical’ makes it possible to treat normal Islamic practice with suspicion. It is not farfetched to fear that something as simple as praying five times a day, growing a beard, wearing a headscarf, or using everyday Arabic phrases like Allahi ahfedk (‘may God guard you’) could be deemed as legitimate grounds to exercise these powers.
The grim irony is that it’s not at all clear the law will prove efficient in curbing genuine threats to national security. ‘The state of emergency looks more like political theater than an effective measure to prevent terrorist attacks from happening,’ Alouane told me. ‘It gives the illusion that the state is in control and has solutions to the problem when in fact it still has no idea to tackle terrorism.’
Read the full article in the New Republic.
In search of the neutrino, ghost particle of the universe
Robin McKie, Guardian, 4 November 2017
But if neutrinos have mass, exactly how much do they possess? It is not a trivial question, for as Mark Thomson of Cambridge’s Cavendish Laboratory points out, the precise result of such a measurement could have critical consequences. ‘Neutrinos have mass but they remain staggeringly insubstantial. They are still a billion times smaller than any other type of known subatomic particle. On the other hand, there so many of them that their combined masses could give them cosmological significance. We badly need to know what that mass is in order to figure out how they might affect the future of the universe.’
For example, if neutrinos prove to be on the heavy side of current estimates, then their combined gravitation pull would effect the expansion of the cosmos and slow it down. However, if their mass is on the light side, neutrinos, despite their cosmological ubiquity, will be unable to act as any kind of meaningful brake to the universe’s expansion.
Nor is this the only reason that scientists are fascinated by the fact that neutrinos have mass. ‘What is so intriguing is that their mass is just so much less than that of any other particle – by a factor of a billion – which suggests they must get their mass from some other mechanism,’ adds Thomson. ‘All other particles get their mass by attaching themselves to Higgs bosons but the neutrino must do it by a very different route. So there is some other basic force that seems to be involved and uncovering that would be a real prize.’
It is for these reasons that scientists have struggled, over the decades, to find the exact mass of the neutrino. First efforts, made after the second world war, placed an upper limit on its mass at around 500 electron volts (ev). This figure is about 1/500th of the mass of the electron, itself a relatively tiny particle. (Using a unit of energy to describe the mass of an object may seem strange but all subatomic particles are measured in electron volts, which can also be used as a unit of mass because energy and mass are convertible concepts according to Einstein’s E=mc² equation.)
Since then, measurements, carried out in Mainz, Germany and Troitsk in Russia, have pushed this figure further and further downwards with the result that the upper limit for the neutrino mass is now put at around a mere 2 ev, about two billionth the mass of the lightest atom. It will be the task of Katrin finally to nail down a precise figure.
Read the full article in the Guardian.
A roadmap to Qur’ans in English
Jack Miles, LA Review of Books, 23 October 2017
The Latin Qur’an effectively was the Qur’an in Europe for 500 years, or until André du Ryer published a French translation in 1647, the first into a European vernacular, and Alexander Ross, chaplain to Charles I of England, translated it into English just two years later. Like Robert of Ketton, du Ryer made good use of Islamic commentaries and, his disparaging comments on Muhammad notwithstanding, ‘we may conjecture that he too shared more sympathy with the text than his biting preface suggested’.
In 1734, George Sale published a translation that would remain dominant in English for two further centuries, Lawrence says, and ‘was certainly the Qur’an that Thomas Jefferson not only bought in 1765 but also consulted frequently in the early years of the Republic.’ By Lawrence’s account, Sale was both publicly more salacious in his attacks on Muhammad than Ketton or Ross, but privately perhaps in even deeper sympathy with Islam than either of them. Some of his contemporaries suspected him of secret conversion.
In 1861, Sale’s translation was joined, though not superseded, by the translation of Reverend J M Rodwell, who rearranged the suras (chapters) of the Qur’an in a proposed chronological order and interpreted the work entirely through Muhammad as its author. For Rodwell, Islam’s prophet was ‘a syncretistic plagiarizer,’ as well as ‘a manic-depressive epileptic, liable to hallucinations, who ‘worked himself up into a belief that he had received a divine call.’’ His translation parallels the shift to historicist criticism that was already far along in biblical criticism.
In 1880, as part of Max Müller’s epoch-making, multi-volume series ‘Sacred Books of the East’ at Oxford University Press, Edward Henry Palmer produced an erudite, relatively un-polemical Qur’an, Translated — a first attempt to bring the Arabic scripture into a more colloquial English, but it appears not to have attracted nearly as many readers as Rodwell’s.
Past Palmer, we reach a major turning point in the Qur’an’s life story with the sudden explosion, in South Asia, of no fewer than seven Muslim translations of the Qur’an into English before the outbreak of World War II. Lawrence’s third chapter, ‘The South Asian Koran’, dealing with four of these, is the most engrossing in the book.
Read the full article in the Los Angeles Review of Books.
The trolley problem will tell you
nothing useful about morality
Brianna Rennix & Nathan J Robinson,
Current Affairs, 3 November 2017
But the trolley problem is not just a pointless exercise. It could also be a damaging one, because of the way in which it gets students to start thinking about moral questions. The first limitation of the trolley problem is that it places us in a situation of forced decision-making, where all the future outcomes of your choices are completely certain, and all of them are bad. (The trolley problem, by the way, also encourages people to be confident that they can predict outcomes, setting aside the uncertainty that characterizes all actual tough decision-making.)
Unless you are a very particular kind of strict utilitarian, who truly believes that killing one innocent person is ‘good’ if five other people get to live, the trolley problem is not a ‘moral quandary’ that asks you to choose between one option that is, say, good but difficult, and another option that is, say, bad but easy, thus testing the strength of your willingness to do the right thing in adverse circumstances. Rather, you are in a situation where any choice you make will result in people’s deaths: any decision-making pathways that would allow you to reduce the likelihood of people being hurt (can you shout to the workers to move? can you throw yourself down onto the track to slow the trolley’s progress?) have been presumptively closed off. The thought experiment is designed to place us into a situation that has already unfolded. We are helpless victims of our conditions, who face a binary choice with two horrendous outcomes. Our choice does not occur, as human moral choices actually do, as part of a chain of decision-making. Literally everything has been decided for us by an unseen external force, except who will die, which is conveniently left up to us…
in the actual world, decisions do not occur in this kind of vacuum, and it’s just as important to pay attention to the factors that structure individual choices as the nature of those choices. For example, we can ask whether it’s morally justified for me to steal a block of cheese in order to feed my starving, cheese-addicted child. (It is.) But if we focus on hashing out that question, debating how individuals should balance their obligation to follow the law with their obligation to their loved ones, we miss the far more crucial one: why am I even in this situation? The whole reason I am faced with an unpleasant set of choices is that I live in a highly unequal society in which children are deprived of the basic cheeses they need in order to survive. If we zero in on the question of what I should do once my choices have been set for me, we fail to ask whose actions caused me to have those particular options available to me, a.k.a. How Did I End Up On This Fucking Trolley To Begin With? If am forced against my will into a situation where people will die and I have no ability to stop it, how is my choice a ‘moral’ choice between meaningfully different options, as opposed to a horror show I’ve just been thrust into, in which I have no meaningful agency at all? Let’s think a bit more about who put me here and how to keep them from having diabolical power over others. (Some might say this makes the trolley problem the perfect philosophy question for the ‘neoliberal’ era, since it reduces everything to individual choice and tells us there is no alternative to existing power structures. Since the word ‘neoliberalism’ is banned from the pages of Current Affairs, though, we ourselves would not say this.)
Read the full article in Current Affairs.
How a focus on rich, educated people skews brain studies
Ed Yong, Atlantic, 31 October 2017
In 1986, the social psychologist David Sears warned his colleagues that their habit of almost exclusively studying college students was producing a strange and skewed portrait of human nature. He was neither the first to make that critique, nor the last: Decades later, other psychologists noted that social sciences tended to focus on people from WEIRD societies – that is, Western, educated, industrialized, rich, and democratic. The results of such studies are often taken to represent humanity at large, even though their participants are drawn from a ‘particularly thin and rather unusual slice’ of it.
The same concerns have been raised in virtually every area of science that involves people. Geneticists have learned more about the DNA of people in Europe and North American than those in the rest of the world, where the greatest genetic diversity exists. The so-called Human Microbiome Project was really the Urban-American Microbiome Project, given that its participants were almost entirely from St. Louis and Houston.
Neuroscience faces the same problems. When scientists use medical scanners to repeatedly peer at the shapes and activities of the human brain, those brains tend to belong to wealthy and well-educated people. And unless researchers take steps to correct for that bias, what we get is an understanding of the brain that’s incomplete, skewed, and … well … a little weird.
Read the full article in the Atlantic.
Why is Allergan partnering with the St Regis Mohawk tribe?
Adam Davidson, New Yorker, 20 November 2017
The St Regis Mohawk Reservation, in upstate New York, sits at the U.S. border with Canada, and most of its residents are citizens of both countries, as well as of the Mohawk Nation at Akwesasne, a territory that includes land on the Canadian side of the border. Much of the St. Regis Mohawk Reservation’s income comes from a casino, but its revenues have lately flattened, and the unemployment rate on the reservation is twice that of Franklin County, which abuts it and is itself one of the poorest parts of the state. Recently, however, the St Regis Mohawk Tribe acquired a major new source of revenue. It has become the owner of six patents for Restasis, a drug for dry-eye syndrome that is the second-highest-selling product of the pharmaceutical company Allergan. Soon, tribal leaders say, they will have a small portfolio of patents, covering other medicines and also computer software and hardware. No tribe members were involved in designing these products. The business opportunity fell into their lap, thanks to an intellectual-property lawyer in Texas named Michael Shore.
For years, Shore had a successful practice representing patent holders, mostly universities, whose intellectual property had been infringed upon. Then, in 2012, Congress passed the America Invents Act, which created a streamlined procedure, known as ‘inter partes review,’ for the adjudication of patent challenges by the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office. Shore immediately realized three things. First, a streamlined procedure would encourage many more challenges. Second, the law was written in such a way that it didn’t apply to sovereign entities, such as foreign countries, U.S. states, and Native American nations. Third, a patent held by a sovereign entity therefore had a greater effective value than the same patent held by an institution subject to the new procedure. By Shore’s calculation, transferring a patent from a non-sovereign entity to a sovereign one would increase its value anywhere from four to ten times over. If he could broker such deals, everybody—patent owners, sovereign entities, and Shore himself—could make millions.
Shore set about looking for a suitable sovereign. He didn’t know much about Native American tribes, but he knew they were often in need of money. He called the Alabama-Coushatta Tribe—as a kid, growing up in East Texas, he had visited a Coushatta-run campground. The Coushatta weren’t interested, but they mentioned a St. Regis Mohawk Tribe member who was a prominent attorney and might better understand Shore’s idea. A quick trip to the New York reservation got the tribe on board.
Next, Shore needed to find a non-sovereign patent holder. He looked first at some software firms, but then came across Allergan: patents for its drug Restasis were being challenged by companies, such as Mylan and Teva, that hoped to manufacture generics. Allergan stood to lose a monopoly worth more than a billion dollars a year, and didn’t need much convincing that cutting a deal with the tribe would be far cheaper than fighting claims in inter partes review. In the deal Shore brokered, the tribe agreed to lease the patent back to Allergan, exclusively, for a fee of fifteen million dollars a year (plus $13.75 million up front). Shore hopes to negotiate more deals for the tribe and is already talking to several other Native American nations about doing the same for them.
Read the full article in the New Yorker.
The Golden House is meant to be a grand tragedy –
it plays more like farce
Sarah Churchwell, Prospect, 12 November 2017
The Golden House, Salman Rushdie’s latest novel, comes with a press release that quotes it being described as a ‘Great Gatsby for our times.’ It’s clear why a publicist was keen to promote such high praise; less easy to understand why anyone who has read both novels would make the comparison. True, their themes are broadly similar: both are about a fabulously wealthy man who acquires an assumed name and tries to remake himself in New York while hiding the criminal sources of his wealth. Both satirise the garishness and vulgarity of America, and feature glamorous parties. Both broadly concern unrequited love—and the resemblance pretty much ends there.
For all its thematic focus on excess, in formal terms Gatsby is marked by restraint. It is lyrical, condensed, even elliptical. The Golden House spills over with surplus, from epigraphs in triplicate, to proliferating adverbs and adjectives, from characters battling across multiple storylines through an avalanche of allusions, which themselves range from Telemachus to Tim Burton, from Leonard Cohen to GK Chesterton, from Moby-Dickto Goethe. Werner Herzog makes a cameo; two-thirds of the way through, Donald Trump pops up like a jack-in-the-box and begins to dominate everything in as abrupt and senseless a way as he has in real life…
John Updike once questioned the need ‘to cover the world in fiction,’ and ultimately it’s not clear that a novel is the most effective form for this peroration; a blistering essay that dealt directly with reality might have achieved more. ‘Why even try to understand the human condition if humanity revealed itself as grotesque, dark, not worth it’, René wonders as the Joker takes the White House. What if America would go on being ‘embodied’ by its new president, if the ‘progressive, tolerant, adult America’ endured ‘but the dark side was still there too, and it roared out of its cage and swallowed us. America’s secret identity wasn’t a superhero. Turns out it was a supervillain. We’re in the Bizarro universe.’
The problem is that when reality enters a comic book universe, caricature becomes redundant, even tautological. It presents itself in the guise of analysis, while merely redescribing the predicament in which we find ourselves. That said, in such bizarre times, maybe only the allegorical grotesque will do.
What seems meant as grand tragedy plays more like farce – perhaps in a knowing recapitulation of Engels’s famous formulation about history replaying tragedy as farce that just failed to register. Or maybe it was simply a failure in tone, as if the Joker overpowered the novel too, turning what was supposed to be serious into something funny, and what was supposed to be funny into something not funny at all. At the end Rushdie acknowledges his exaggerations and calls them his own: ‘sometimes the world is more heightened, more exaggerated, more hyperbolically infernal than even a hyperbolist-infernalist could ever, at his wildest, have dreamed.’ Indeed.
Read the full article in Prospect.
The images are, from top down: Detail from Diego Rivera’s Detroit Industry mural, Detroit Institute of Art; ‘Blue Cosmos’ by Natasha Von; ‘Traditional Indian Festivals’ triptych by MF Husain; Angela Palmer’s Self Portrait, a winner of the 2014 Brain Art competition; Title page for the first English translation of the Qur’an, in 1649, by Alexander Ross.