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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.


This poisonous cult of personality
Pankaj Mishra, NYR Daily, 1 December 2017

Donald Trump’s election last year exposed an insidious politics of celebrity, one in which a redemptive personality is projected high above the slow toil of political parties and movements. As his latest tweets about Muslims confirm, this post-political figure seeks, above all, to commune with his entranced white nationalist supporters. Periodically offering them emotional catharsis, a powerful medium of self-expression at the White House these days, Trump makes sure that his fan base survives his multiple political and economic failures. This may be hard to admit but the path to such a presidency of spectacle and vicarious participation was paved by the previous occupant of the White House.

Barack Obama was the first ‘celebrity president’ of the twenty-first century—’that is,’ as Perry Anderson recently pointed out, ‘a politician whose very appearance was a sensation, from the earliest days of his quest for the Democratic nomination onwards: to be other than purely white, as well as good-looking and mellifluous, sufficed for that,’ and for whom ‘personal popularity’ mattered more than the fate of own party and policies.

Public life routinely features such sensations, figures in whom people invest great expectations based on nothing more than a captivation with their radiant personas. Youthful good looks, an unconventional marriage, and some intellectual showmanship helped turn Emmanuel Macron, virtually overnight, into the savior not just of France, but of Europe, too. Until the approval ratings of this dynamic millionaire collapsed, a glamour-struck media largely waived close scrutiny of his neoliberal faith in tax breaks for rich compatriots, and contempt for ‘slackers’…

The meaning of consistent striving, modest self-image, and quiet solidarity in politics is mostly lost today, partly because the last great mass movements for change in the West—the Civil Rights, anti-war, and feminist movements—occurred decades ago, in the 1960s and 1970s. During their long absence, decreed by the ideological conceit coined by Margaret Thatcher that ‘there is no alternative’ to neoliberalism, the scope for collection action shrank. Glamorous individuals are increasingly tasked with working miracles. But in societies bitterly polarized by social and economic inequality, the appeal of such figureheads—whether expressed as ‘Yes, we can,’ ‘Make American great again,’ or ‘En Marche!’—is inevitably limited to specific constituencies. In this demoralizingly fragmented political landscape, many people end up bestowing their hopes upon celebrities with whom they can gratifyingly identify.

It was this politics of narcissistic identification, of fanciful private bonding with the famous, that set us up for, first, the disappointment with Obama, and then, the appalling shock of Trump.

Read the full article in the NYR Daily.


The limits of ‘Believe all Women’
Bari Weiss, New York Times, 28 November 2017

Emily Lindin, a columnist at Teen Vogue, summed up this view concisely last week on Twitter. ‘I’m actually not at all concerned about innocent men losing their jobs over false sexual assault/harassment allegations,’ she wrote. ‘If some innocent men’s reputations have to take a hit in the process of undoing the patriarchy, that is a price I am absolutely willing to pay.’

Ms. Lindin was widely criticized, but say this much for her: At least she had the guts to publicly articulate a view that so many women are sharing with one another in private. Countless innocent women have been robbed of justice, friends of mine insist, so why are we agonizing about the possibility of a few good men going down?

I think the worry is justified. And it’s not because I don’t get the impulse to burn it all down. It’s because I think that ‘believing all women’ can rapidly be transmogrified into an ideological orthodoxy that will not serve women at all.

If the past few weeks have shown us the unique horrors some women have faced, the answer to it can’t be a stringent new solidarity that further limits the definition of womanhood and lumps our highly diverse experiences together simply based on our gender. I don’t think that helps women. Or men.

I believe that the ‘believe all women’ vision of feminism unintentionally fetishizes women. Women are no longer human and flawed. They are Truth personified. They are above reproach.

I believe that it’s condescending to think that women and their claims can’t stand up to interrogation and can’t handle skepticism. I believe that facts serve feminists far better than faith. That due process is better than mob rule.

Maybe it will happen tomorrow or maybe next week or maybe next month. But the Duke lacrosse moment, the Rolling Stone moment, will come. A woman’s accusation will turn out to be grossly exaggerated or flatly untrue. And if the governing principle of this movement is still an article of faith, many people will lose their religion. They will tear down all accusers as false prophets. And we will go back to a status quo in which the word of the Angelos is more sacred than the word of the Isabellas.

There are limits to relying on ‘believe all women’ as an organizing political principle. We are already starting to see them.

Read the full article in the New York Times.


How Obama destroyed black wealth
Matt Bruenig & Ryan Cooper, Jacobin, 7 December 2017

An epic crime spree after the crisis offered another opportunity to assist beleaguered homeowners. During the bubble years, originators and banks had routinely mangled the paperwork while issuing loans and packaging them into securities. When they went to foreclose, they often found they did not have the correct documentation. But rather than acknowledging their indiscretions, financial institutions paid large teams of entry-level employees to commit document fraud on an industrial scale — forging signatures, falsely notarizing documents, or falsely attesting to ‘personal knowledge’ of large mortgage files, hundreds of times per day. This was the so-called ‘robosigning’ scandal.

These document problems eventually came to the attention of law enforcement. Forty-nine state attorneys general, the District of Columbia, and the Department of Justice banded together in a lawsuit, which resulted in a $26 billion joint settlement between them and the five largest servicers.

However, largely due to foot-dragging at the Department of Justice, the settlement ended up being toothless. Much of the cash went to ‘short sales‘ (simply selling an underwater home) instead of principal reductions, or to other weak relief. Servicers even received roughly $12 billion in credit for waiving outstanding debts from short sales in states where such a waiver is already legally mandatory. JPMorgan Chase allegedly claimed credit for forgiving loans that it had already sold.

Unsurprisingly, bending over backwards for the banks failed to stop the wave of foreclosures sweeping the nation. All told, some 9.3 million homeowners lost their homes. It was the greatest destruction of middle-class wealth since the Great Depression at least.

Read the full article in Jacobin.


Myanmar’s imagined jihadis
Jason Motlagh, New Republic, 21 November 2017

‘I’ve been doing this for 20 years, and some of the stories here have been the most shocking of my career,’ said Peter Bouckaert, emergencies director for Human Rights Watch. Bouckaert, a Belgian-born lawyer and expert on humanitarian crises, had been interviewing Rohingya refugees for several weeks, and their stories were harrowing. Survivors from one massacre told him that the Myanmar Army had split up the Rohingya in one village by sex and executed the men. The women were then forced to watch as their infants were smashed to death on the ground. They were then beaten, raped, and burned alive. ‘There’s no end in sight,’ Bouckaert said. ‘The Burmese army is not going to stop until the last Rohingya has been pushed out of Myanmar—that’s very clear.’

Despite international condemnation and damning media coverage, the authorities in Myanmar have denied wrongdoing, alleging that foreign-funded ‘extremist terrorists’ fighting for an Islamic state in Rakhine are responsible for the atrocities, a flimsy nod at global war on terror rhetoric used to justify acts of aggression around the world since 2001. Their stance was echoed by Aung San Suu Kyi, the Nobel Peace Prize laureate and, since 2015, four years after the inception of civilian rule, the country’s nominal leader. After a four-week-long silence, Suu Kyi issued a tepid statement about the slaughter, noting that the Myanmar government, and those abroad, needed to ‘decide how to differentiate terrorists from innocents.’ A message on her Facebook page posted on September 6 blamed ‘terrorists’ for ‘a huge iceberg of misinformation’ about the violence. When she finally visited Rakhine in November, she said only, ‘We all have to try our best to live peacefully’ – and made no mention of the crimes committed there.

Suu Kyi’s reputation took a battering in the West, and deservedly so. But the focus on her hypocrisy deflects responsibility from the country’s generals, who ran the country for 50 years, and who still hold enormous power. They are the engineers of the deep-seated xenophobia that fuels the ethnic cleansing campaign being waged against the Rohingya Muslims, and they are the ones using the cover of anti-terrorist Islamophobia to justify the violence. ‘The military wants the world to believe they’re fighting a Myanmar version of ISIS,’ says Matthew Smith, CEO of Fortify Rights, a human rights organization that focuses on Myanmar. ‘It’s calculated, cultivated hysteria. And the ugly irony is that the military is claiming the Rohingya pose this threat while simultaneously destroying them.’

Myanmar’s anti-Rohingya policy dates to the colonial-era British government, which drew previously unimportant distinctions between the country’s more than 135 ethnic groups. Cultural differences hardened further after the 1947 assassination of Suu Kyi’s father, General Aung San, whose death ended hopes of a multi-ethnic federal system and paved the way for military dictatorship. To ensure stability among the country’s semi-autonomous states, the military manipulated ethnic and religious identities, pitting minority groups against one another, and emphasizing the superiority of the Buddhist Bamar ‘as true sons of the soil,’ says Francis Wade, author of Myanmar’s Enemy Within: Buddhist Nationalism and Anti-Muslim Violence.’The military helped politicize ethnicity and gave rise to violent divides between groups that had previously known more fluid relations,’ he added. The military leaders also advanced the idea that some groups were native and others were not, and that those ‘others,’ according to Wade, comprised a hostile outside force, one which, in the case of the Rohingya, was dedicated to ‘overwhelming the land and resources in Rakhine state and furthering the Islamization of Myanmar.’

Read the full article in the New Republic.


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The birthmark of damnation:
Ta-Nehisi Coates and the black body

RL Stephens, Viewpoint, 17 May 2017

In a widely replicated gesture, Coates locates the experience of racism in the body, in a racism that ‘dislodges brains, blocks airways, rips muscle, extracts organs, cracks bones, breaks teeth.’ In the slim volume, fewer than 300 pages, the word ‘body’ or ‘bodies’ appears more than 300 times. ‘In America,’ he writes, ‘it is traditional to destroy the black body.’ Another brooding passage dwells on the inevitability of this violence.

It had to be blood. It had to be nails driven through a tongue and ears pruned away. It had to be the thrashing of a kitchen maid for the crime of churning the butter at a leisurely clip. It could only be the employment of carriage whips, tongs, iron pokers, handsaws, stones, paperweights or whatever might be handy to break the black body.

Yet Coates’s descriptive language and haunting narrative are not mere metaphors. They act as an ontological pivot, mystifying racism even as it is anchored in its physical effects.

Metaphor has long been used to capture racism’s almost unimaginable brutality. Lynching became ‘strange fruit’ in Abel Meerpool’s song, made famous by Billie Holiday. In a wry, tragic innuendo, rape was referred to in Black communities as ‘nighttime integration.’ The use of metaphor is not in itself an obfuscation. But Coates wields metaphor to obscure rather than illuminate the reality of racism. What we find all too often in Coates’s narrative universe are bodies without life and a racism without people. To imbue race with an ontological meaning, to make it a reality all its own, is to drain it of its place in history and its indelible roots in discrete human action. To deny the role of life and people — of politics — is to also foreclose the possibility of liberation.

Read the full article in Viewpoint.


Europe’s plan to close its sea borders relies on Libya’s coast guard doing its dirty work abusing migrants
Zach Campbell, The Intercept, 25 November 2017

The EU border official (who requested anonymity because he is unauthorized to speak to the press) noted that Europe’s 2015 deal with Turkey involved a similar strategy to Hera. In Turkey, the EU paid the government billions of euros in exchange for stopping more migration, upping coast guard activity to keep people from leaving Turkish shores and bringing them back when they did. Europe thought it could do the same in Libya.

‘We can support [the Libyan coast guard] by air and by giving them information as to where the immigrants are,’ the official said. ‘If [they] are collected by others, then give them to the Libyan authorities to do their management.’

And if that violates peoples’ human rights or goes against EU and international law? ‘If it is in the hands of Libyans, it’s their problem, the non-refoulement,’ the official argues. ‘So from a legal point of view, you escape from this issue.’

Europe’s strategy for closing its sea borders since Hera has involved this kind of legal balancing act: giving enough support to local authorities to stop the flow of people, but not so much that the Europeans are seen to be directing operations, and therefore could be held responsible for rights violations. Yet many international human rights lawyers and immigration advocates call this thin cover.

‘[European governments] are trying to escape obligations through a technicality,’ says Cesare Pitea, who teaches international law at the University of Parma in Italy. ‘It’s like they are saying, “We don’t touch them. We don’t interact with them. We just pay someone to do the dirty job for us.”‘

Read the full article in the Intercept.


Let them buy cake
David Cole, New York Review of Books, 7 December 2017

The Supreme Court has recognized a First Amendment objection to public accommodations laws on only two occasions, but both cases involved efforts by states to regulate the speech of private ideological associations, not the conduct of businesses open to the public. In 1995, the Court ruled that Massachusetts could not use its public accommodations law to require the private organizers of Boston’s annual St. Patrick’s Day parade to allow a gay pride contingent to march under its own banner. The parade organizers were open to gay marchers, but objected to an openly gay contingent carrying its own banner. The Court reasoned that a parade is an inherently expressive activity, and that by requiring the organizers to include a gay pride banner, the state was ‘alter[ing] the content’ of the parade’s message. Similarly, in 2000, the Court ruled that New Jersey could not require the Boy Scouts to accept an openly gay Scout leader, because doing so directly interfered with the Boy Scouts’ First Amendment right to choose leaders who did not undermine the group’s mission.

Masterpiece Cakeshop invokes these cases, but they are plainly different. The St. Patrick’s Day parade organizers and the Boy Scouts are private groups that exist for the purpose of communicating ideas, not businesses serving the public in the commercial marketplace. Private organizations engaged in speech have a First Amendment right to choose their messages and their leaders. Businesses open to the public, by contrast, have no right to choose their customers.

But, some ask, what if a couple requested a cake bearing a written message? Surely the law should not require the bakery to write ‘Congratulations on your wedding’ if the baker does not in fact feel congratulatory. And doesn’t every wedding cake implicitly say just that? The problem with this question is its premise—namely, that if a business’s conduct is sufficiently expressive, it earns the right to discriminate against its customers based on race, sex, sexual orientation, or other grounds.

Under Colorado law, as under most public accommodations laws, a bakery can decline to place any messages on a cake that it finds offensive, as long as that policy applies to all customers and is not a pretext for discrimination on the basis of identity. What it cannot do is refuse to provide to a gay couple the very same product that it will sell to a straight couple. In this case, moreover, Masterpiece Cakeshop refused to provide even a nondescript cake if it was to be used for a reception celebrating a same-sex couple’s wedding. What triggered the objection was the identity of the customers, not any requested message. In fact, Craig and Mullins did not request a message at all.

Read the full article in the New York Review of Books.


Skin pigmentation is far more
genetically complex than previously thought

Science Daily, 1 December 2017

‘Africa has the greatest amount of phenotypic variability in skin color, and yet it’s been underrepresented in large scale endeavors,’ said Alicia Martin, a postdoctoral scientist in the lab of Broad Institute member Mark Daly. ‘There are some genes that are known to contribute to skin pigmentation, but by and large there are many more new genes that have not been discovered.’

‘We need to spend more time focusing on these understudied populations in order to gain deeper genetic insights,’ said Brenna Henn, assistant professor in the Department of Ecology and Evolution at Stony Brook University who, along with Martin, is a co-corresponding author.

The paper is a culmination of seven years of research that spanned several institutions, starting with a collaboration between Stellenbosch University in South Africa and Stanford University in Carlos Bustamante’s lab, where Martin and Henn trained. Martin, Henn, and their colleagues spent a great deal of time with the KhoeSan, interviewing individuals, and taking anthropometric measurements (height, age, gender), and using a reflectometer to quantitatively measure skin color. In total, they accumulated data for approximately 400 individuals.

The researchers genotyped each sample — looking at hundreds of thousands of sites across the genome to identify genetic markers linked with pigmentation measures — and sequenced particular areas of interest. They took this information and compared it to a dataset that comprised nearly 5,000 individuals representing globally diverse populations throughout Africa, Asia, and Europe.

What they found offers a counter-narrative to the common view on pigmentation. The prevailing theory is that ‘directional selection’ pushes pigmentation in a single direction, from dark to light in high latitudes and from light to dark in lower latitudes. But Martin and Henn’s data showed that the trajectory is more complex. Directional selection, as a guiding principle, seems to hold in far northern latitudes. But as populations move closer to the equator, a dynamic called ‘stabilizing selection’ takes effect. Here, an increasing number of genes begins to influence variability. Only about 10 percent of this variation can be attributed to genes known to affect pigmentation.

Read the full article in Science Daily.


Muhammad Ansi Untitled (Pier)

The art of keeping Guantánamo open
Erin L Thompson, Salon, 5 December 2017

I’m a professor at John Jay College in New York City. It has a small art gallery and so one day in August 2016 I found myself in that lawyer’s midtown Manhattan office preparing, however dubiously, to view the art of her clients. She was pushing aside speakerphones and notepads and laying out the artwork on a long table in a conference room whose windows overlooked the picturesque East River. As I waited, I watched from high up as the water cut a swath of silence through the city. When I finally turned my attention to the art, I was startled to see some eerily similar views. Painting after painting of water. Water trickling through the reeds at the edge of a pond. Water churning into foam as it ran over rocks in rivers. Calmly flowing water that reflected the buildings along a canal.

But above all, there was the sea. Everywhere, the sea.  In those paintings in that conference room and in other work sent to me as word spread among detainees and their lawyers that I was willing to plan an exhibit, I found hundreds of depictions of the sea in all its moods. In some paintings, storms thrashed apart the last planks of sinking ships. In others, boats were moored safely at docks or scudded across vast expanses of water without a hint of shore in sight. Clouds bunched in blue midday skies or burned orange in mid-ocean sunsets. One detainee had even made elaborate models of sailing ships out of cardboard, old T-shirts, bottle caps, and other scraps of trash.

Puzzled, I asked the lawyer, ‘Why all the water?’ She shrugged. Maybe the art instructor at the prison, she suggested, was giving the detainees lots of pictures of the sea. The detainees, it turned out, could actually take art classes as long as they remained ‘compliant.’ But when there was a crackdown, as there had, for instance, been during a mass hunger strike in 2013, the guards promptly confiscated their art — and that was the reason the lawyer’s clients had asked her to take it.  They wanted to keep their work (and whatever it meant to them) safe from the guards.

As it turned out, the art doesn’t leave Guantánamo that much more easily than the prisoners themselves. Military authorities scrutinized every piece for hidden messages and then stamped the back of each work, ‘Approved by US Forces.’ Those stamps generally bled through, floating up into the surface of the image on the other side. The lawyer had even nicknamed one of the model ships the U.S.S. Approved because the censors had stamped those words across its sails.

So I found myself beginning to plan an exhibition of a sort I had never in my wildest dreams imagined I would curate.

Read the full article in Salon.


‘No such thing as Rohingya’: Myanmar erases a history
Hannah Beech, New York Times, 2 December 2017

Myanmar’s sudden amnesia about the Rohingya is as bold as it is systematic. Five years ago, Sittwe, nestled in an estuary in the Bay of Bengal, was a mixed city, divided between an ethnic Rakhine Buddhist majority and the Rohingya Muslim minority.

Walking Sittwe’s crowded bazaar in 2009, I saw Rohingya fishermen selling seafood to Rakhine women. Rohingya professionals practiced law and medicine. The main street in town was dominated by the Jama mosque, an Arabesque confection built in the mid-19th century. The imam spoke proudly of Sittwe’s multicultural heritage.

But since sectarian riots in 2012, which resulted in a disproportionate number of Rohingya casualties, the city has been mostly cleared of Muslims. Across central Rakhine, about 120,000 Rohingya, even those who had citizenship, have been interned in camps, stripped of their livelihoods and prevented from accessing proper schools or health care.

They cannot leave the ghettos without official authorization. In July, a Rohingya man who was allowed out for a court appearance in Sittwe was lynched by an ethnic Rakhine mob.

The Jama mosque now stands disused and moldering, behind barbed wire. Its 89-year-old imam is interned. ‘We have no rights as human beings,’ he said, asking not to use his name because of safety concerns. ‘This is state-run ethnic cleansing and nothing else.’

Sittwe’s psyche has adapted to the new circumstances. In the bazaar recently, every Rakhine resident I talked to claimed, falsely, that no Muslims had ever owned shops there.

Sittwe University, which used to enroll hundreds of Muslim students, now only teaches around 30 Rohingya, all of whom are in a distance-learning program. ‘We don’t have restrictions on any religion,’ said U Shwe Khaing Kyaw, the university’s registrar, ‘but they just don’t come.’

Read the full article in the New York Times.


How criminal courts are putting brains –
not people – on trial

Robbie Gonzalez, Wired, 4 December 2017

The general assumption is that the same standards that guide the scientific community should guide the law, says Drexel University legal professor Adam Benforado, author of Unfair: The New Science of Criminal Injustice. ‘But I think that probably shouldn’t be the case,’ he says. ‘I think when someone is facing the death penalty, they ought to have a right to present neuroscientific or genetic research findings that may not be entirely settled but are sound enough to be published in peer reviewed literature. Because at the end of the day, when someone’s life is at stake, to wait for things to be absolutely settled is dangerous. The consequences of inaction are too grave.’

That’s basically the Supreme Court’s stance, too. In the US, the bar for admissibility on mitigating evidence in death penalty proceedings is very low, owing to a Supreme Court ruling in the 1978 trial of Lockett against Ohio. ‘Essentially, the kitchen sink comes in. And in very few death penalty proceedings will the judge make a searching inquiry into relevance,’ says Morse, who begrudgingly agrees that neurobiological evidence should be admissible in capital cases, because so much is at stake. ‘I’d rather it wasn’t, because I think it debases the legal process,’ he says, adding that most neuroscientific and genetic evidence introduced at capital proceedings has more rhetorical relevance than legal relevance.

‘What they’re doing is making what I call the fundamental psycho-legal error. This is the belief that once you have found a partially causal explanation for a behavior, then the behavior must be excused altogether. All behavior has causes, including causes at the biological, psychological, and sociological level. But causation is not an excusing condition.’ If it were, Morse says, no one would be responsible for any behavior.

But that is not the world we live in. Today, in most cases, the law holds people responsible for their actions, not their predispositions. As Wells told his relatives in the courtroom after his sentence was handed down: ‘I did this. I’m an adult. Don’t bear this burden. This burden is mine.’

Read the full article in Wired.


The root of all cruelty?
Paul Bloom, New Yorker, 27 November 2017

At some European soccer games, fans make monkey noises at African players and throw bananas at them. Describing Africans as monkeys is a common racist trope, and might seem like yet another example of dehumanization. But plainly these fans don’t really think the players are monkeys; the whole point of their behavior is to disorient and humiliate. To believe that such taunts are effective is to assume that their targets would be ashamed to be thought of that way—which implies that, at some level, you think of them as people after all.

Consider what happened after Hitler annexed Austria, in 1938. Timothy Snyder offers a haunting description in ‘Black Earth: The Holocaust as History and Warning‘:

The next morning the ‘scrubbing parties’ began. Members of the Austrian SA, working from lists, from personal knowledge, and from the knowledge of passersby, identified Jews and forced them to kneel and clean the streets with brushes. This was a ritual humiliation. Jews, often doctors and lawyers or other professionals, were suddenly on their knees performing menial labor in front of jeering crowds. Ernest P remembered the spectacle of the ‘scrubbing parties’ as ‘amusement for the Austrian population.’ A journalist described ‘the fluffy Viennese blondes, fighting one another to get closer to the elevating spectacle of the ashen-faced Jewish surgeon on hands and knees before a half-dozen young hooligans with Swastika armlets and dog-whips.’ Meanwhile, Jewish girls were sexually abused, and older Jewish men were forced to perform public physical exercise.

The Jews who were forced to scrub the streets – not to mention those subjected to far worse degradations – were not thought of as lacking human emotions. Indeed, if the Jews had been thought to be indifferent to their treatment, there would have been nothing to watch here; the crowd had gathered because it wanted to see them suffer. The logic of such brutality is the logic of metaphor: to assert a likeness between two different things holds power only in the light of that difference. The sadism of treating human beings like vermin lies precisely in the recognition that they are not.

Read the full article in the New Yorker.



Making a stand for cultural universalism
Jon Kay, Quilette, 8 December 2017

Even where history’s great tragedies are concerned, the concept of appropriation has no purchase on me. ‘It doesn’t matter that you’re gentile and I’m Jewish’, I would tell indigenous correspondents during private-channel discussions. ‘Go ahead with your Holocaust novel. You don’t need a Hebrew permission slip to write about Auschwitz.’

But as these exchanges unfolded, it became clear that there was an important, unstated premise embedded within my analogy—which is that the moral meaning of the Holocaust and its place in history isn’t up for grabs. The same isn’t always true for other historical traumas.

As a Jew, I can afford to treat the Shoah as cultural shareware because I know that my daughters read The Diary of Anne Frank in school, and that one of the most successful figures in the history of film made a movie called Schindler’s List. But my feelings might be different if I were living in a society where the Holocaust were widely unknown or, worse, denied. In that case, it really would matter if the next Primo Levi had genealogical skin in the game.

For Canada’s indigenous peoples, these issues are especially wrenching because their societies generally have relied on the oral transmission of folklore and legends from generation to generation. There are over 600 First Nations groups in my country, each with distinct traditions. In many cases, their stories have never been comprehensively set down in print—in part because racist Canadian laws once suppressed the use of indigenous languages and cultural expression. Members of these communities are sensitive about letting an outsider create history’s first draft.

Read the full article in Quilette.


Misunderstanding the victims of the Sinai massacre
Shadi Hamid, Atlantic, 26 November 2017

What are Sufis? This was a question many were asking after at least 305 Egyptians were massacred on Friday in the Sinai. They were killed in an assault by Islamist militants (likely from the local Islamic State affiliate, although the group has not yet made a claim of responsibility) on Al Rawdah mosque, which is commonly described as a ‘Sufi mosque.’ The implication is that its congregants observed a more ‘mystical’ version of Islam, one that, for example, venerates saints. While such a description is not necessarily inaccurate—it is common to refer to mosques by their apparent ideological or spiritual orientation—like most things related to Islam, it’s a bit more complicated. Many Sufis do not self-define as Sufis, since for them, this is just how Muslims practice—and have always practiced – Islam.

For most of Islamic history, Sufism wasn’t considered as something apart. That it is today has much to do with the rise of Islamism, which is generally perceived as anti-Sufi. (Indeed, many contemporary Islamists, particularly ultra-conservative Salafis, are precisely that.) Yet, none other than Hassan al-Banna, perhaps the most preeminent Islamist of the twentieth century, was initiated into the Sufi Hasafiyya order in 1923, just five years before he founded the Muslim Brotherhood. (Banna, for a time, would regularly visit the tomb of Sheikh Hasanayn al-Hasafi, the order’s namesake.) Similarly, Abdessalam Yassine, the late founder and leader of Adl Wal Ihsane, Morocco’s largest Islamist movement, was a member of the Boutchichiyya order.

To describe Sufis as ‘tolerant’ and ‘pluralistic’ may also be true, but doing so presupposes that non-Sufi Muslims aren’t tolerant or pluralistic. On the other hand, describing Sufis as heterodox, permissive, or otherwise less interested in ritual or Islamic law is misleading. In 2005, I lived down the street from an area of Amman called Kharabsheh, where the followers of the American convert Sheikh Nuh Keller, of the Shadhili order, lived. Here, I met some of the most strict, orthodox Muslims I’ve ever met. If, for instance, female followers of Sheikh Nuh wanted to live in Kharabsheh and take part in the community, they were required to wear the niqab, or face veil, which I initially found quite odd. Perhaps the most well-known Sufi-influenced traditionalist imam in the United States is another convert, Hamza Yusuf, who is nothing if not orthodox.

The idea that Sufis are inherently non-violent or pacifist is similarly ahistorical. Some of the most famous Islamic rebellions were led by Sufis like Sudan’s Mohamed Ahmed, who declared himself Mahdi, or ‘the redeemer,’ and Abdelkader in Algeria. As Abdelbasit Kassim and Jacob Zenn have noted, ‘During the jihadist campaigns of the 1800s in the Sahel-Sahara region, the Muslim scholars who led the armed movements identified themselves with the Sufi brotherhoods.’ Some of this may have to do with the fact that someone had to lead rebellions against foreign invasions; Sufi orders were popular and enjoyed considerable legitimacy. If they didn’t take charge, who would? Still, this would only mean that the fundamental ‘peacefulness’ of Sufis is mostly circumstantial and has little to do with opposing jihad, as such, or rejecting violence more generally. Today, in countries like Syria, some prominent Sufi sheikhs have been vocal defenders of state violence, with Ahmed Kuftaro, the grand mufti until his death in 2004, supporting the Baath regime. (Without doing so, he wouldn’t have remained grand mufti).

Read the full article in the Atlantic.


The connected vocabularies of six-month-olds
Rachel Gutman, Atlantic, 20 November 2017

No matter how many words you can define, your vocabulary isn’t like a dictionary. Your mind stores language not as a list of words, but as a network of categories, properties, and meanings, with stronger connections between related words, like newspaper and magazine, than unrelated ones, like wallet and avalanche.

At six months old, a baby probably doesn’t know what wallet or avalanche means—but even at such a young age, months before children start talking, they do understand some basic nouns, like ball and dog. And a new study suggests that the few words infants know are structured in their minds the same way as an adult’s vocabulary, in a complex web of related concepts. The evidence: When words have similar meanings, babies can get confused. That confusion hints that babies know more about language, at a younger age, than scientists have found before.

In the study, which was published Monday in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, infants were shown images of two different common objects at a time: a blanket and a dog, a book and a diaper, a stroller and a car, and so on. The babies’ parents would name one of the images, and researchers would then track where the babies looked by reflecting infrared light off their eyes. When the images depicted related words, like nose and mouth, the infants spent more time looking at the wrong picture than when the images depicted unrelated words, like nose and bottle.

The fact that the children were more confused by related images reflects that they somehow understand that the concepts are related, said Elika Bergelson, an assistant professor of psychology and neuroscience at Duke University and the study’s lead author. The same is true of adults, who have shown such a lag on a smaller scale when they do similar experimental tasks. If you were supposed to look at the nose in Bergelson’s experiment, it would take your brain a few milliseconds to make sure that the mouth isn’t what you’re supposed to be looking at, because the entries for nose and mouth are more closely connected in your mental vocabulary. It would take less time to rule out the bottle…

Janet Werker, a professor of psychology at the University of British Columbia who was not involved in the study, called the results ‘just amazing.’ If further research shows that babies have a deep understanding of the similarity between the meanings of nose and mouth, and aren’t just used to seeing mouths and noses in the same places, it would reflect that they are driven by a ‘search for meaning,’ she said. That would mean ‘our whole approach to infant cognition is going to be really turned on its head.’

Read the full article in the Atlantic.


Why Putin’s foes deplore US fixation on election meddling
Andrew Higgins, New York Times, 23 November 2017

Mr. Volkov and others say they have no doubt that Russia did interfere, at least on the margins, in last year’s presidential election campaign. But they complain that the United States consistently inflates Mr. Putin’s impact and portrays his government as far more unified and effective than it really is, cementing his legacy and making him harder to challenge at home.

Ultimately, they say, Americans are using Russia as a scapegoat to explain the deep political discord in the United States. That has left many westward-leaning Russians, who have long looked to America for their ideals, in bitter disappointment that the United States seems to be mimicking some of their own country’s least appealing traits.

The hunt for a hidden Russian hand behind President Trump’s election victory has caused particular disquiet among liberal-minded Russian journalists.

‘The image of Putin’s Russia constructed by Western and, above all, American media outlets over the past 18 months shocks even the most anti-Putin reader in Russia,’ Oleg V. Kashin, a journalist critical of the Kremlin, wrote last week in Republic, a Russian news site. He complained that the American media has consistently misconstrued the way Russia works, presenting marginal opportunists and self-interested businessmen with no real link to the Kremlin as state-controlled agents working on orders from Mr. Putin.

For Ivan I Kurilla, a professor of history and an America specialist at the European University at St. Petersburg, a bastion of liberal thinking, Russia’s prominent and almost entirely negative role on America’s political stage since the November election reprises a phenomenon first seen in the late 1800s.

Americans use Russia each time they feel their own identity in crisis,’ said Mr Kurilla, the author of a new book on the history of Russian-American relations, ‘Frenemies.’

Unlike China and India, which are far more distant culturally and geographically from the United States, he added, Russia is a country on to which alarm over America’s own internal problems can be easily projected.

‘American liberals are so upset about Trump that they cannot believe he is a real product of American life’, Mr Kurilla said. ‘They try to portray him as something created by Russia. This whole thing is about America, not Russia.’

Read the full article in the New York Times.


Alfred E Willis Illustrated Physiognomy 1879

Are face scans resurrecting the false science of physiognomy?
Jesse Emspak, Atlantic, 10 November 2017

Just one year ago, engineering professor Xiaolin Wu of McMaster University and Xi Zhang of Shanghai Jiao Tong University jointly published a paper at, a popular online repository of unreviewed science papers in various stages of development, suggesting that it was possible for a computer to predict who might be a convicted criminal based solely on scanned photographs. (The study has since been taken down, but the authors posted a response to critics here.) Wu followed with another study that said machine learning could be used to infer the personality traits of women whose pictures were associated with different words – coquettish and sweet, for example, or endearing and pompous – by a group of young Chinese men.

While the abstract noted that the algorithm is only learning, aggregating, and then regurgitating human perceptions, which are prone to errors, the authors also suggest that ‘our empirical evidences point to the possibility of training machine-learning algorithms, using example face images, to predict personality traits and behavioral propensity.’

In early September, Michal Kosinski and Yilun Wang, both of Stanford University, released a preprint of a study suggesting that it was possible to detect whether a person was gay or not from photos used on a dating site. The paper was submitted to—and accepted by—the well-respected Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, although this fall, in response to public outcry, the journal’s editors decided to give the paper another look, including what was described as an ethical review.

For all the current controversy, the underlying assumptions of this kind of research are nothing new. The origins of physiognomy trace back to ancient Mesopotamia, but it was in the mid-19th century that Italian criminologist Cesare Lombroso aimed to use it to detect criminality. Lombroso believed that criminals could be spotted by anomalies in facial structure – basically, that they were ‘throwbacks’ and would have ‘atavistic’ features such as a sloping forehead or facial asymmetry. His ideas were abandoned after World War II, but some scientists have continued to seek out correlations between the body and the mind.

Read the full article in the Atlantic.


The remaking of the Saudi state
Nathan Brown, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace,
9 November 2017

The arrests of leading Saudi princes and other prominent political figures in early November 2017 indicate that Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman is consolidating his influence. King Salman and his chosen heir are strengthening their position vis-à-vis the rest of the ruling family, seeking to centralize elements of the Saudi governing structure, and reining in the autonomy of the religious and judicial apparatuses.

Saudi Arabia has long followed a distinctive, dilatory path in building its modern state. Riyadh features a political system that has evolved in insulated ways, with fiscal needs oversupplied by oil and a Wahhabi religious establishment that has dominated the religious and legal systems from the country’s founding to the present. Recent political changes may be led by a brash and ambitious crown prince, imposed by unsustainable welfare commitments, and rendered more urgent by apparent Saudi foreign policy overreach. They still seem to be products of a different country.

And they may be. Recent political changes in Saudi Arabia build on long-standing trends that were evident even before the crown prince’s ascendance. Such developments not only betray the marks of domestic power struggles but also portend deep structural changes in the way the country is governed. The centralization of royal power and vigorous public debate form a crucial context for understanding recent newsworthy developments in Saudi Arabia. These include the kingdom’s more assertive foreign policy; internal reforms, like the September 2017 decision to allow women to drive; changing rhetoric, such as the crown prince’s pledge to ‘destroy’ extremist ideas; and the country’s ambitious economic reform agenda (encapsulated in the Vision 2030 policy blueprint and the plans for Neom, a wholly new city). Saudi citizens are certainly noticing the changes and are talking about them publically in unprecedented ways – with some paying a price for their frankness.

The political centralization and restive public debate under way in Saudi Arabia reinforce each other to undermine the traditional peculiarities of Saudi politics. These trends make for a potentially combustible mix.

Read the full article at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.


The rise and fall of the English sentence
Julie Sedivy, Nautilus, 16 November 2017

The divergence between spoken and written language can be witnessed around the world, at all time scales. Compare, for example, the number of Finnish subordinate clauses in the old oral tradition to modern written Finnish. There are embedded clauses in The Kalevela (a collection of folk poetry that constitutes the Finnish national epic). But there are not very many: a 1,300-word sample yields three fairly simple examples, but a 1,300-word stretch of current written Finnish would typically contain about 60—and these would be more varied and more complex. A more recent example: The Somali language had essentially no written tradition until 1972, when it became the official state language. Over a mere 20-year period, researchers have observed noticeable changes to the written language, such as the emergence of longer and more complex words and greater elaboration of sentence structure.

Modern languages with a long literary tradition show a stark split between their written and spoken styles across many contexts. In current English, writing uses more varied vocabulary than conversational speech, and it uses rarer and longer words much more often. Certain structures (such as passive sentences, prepositional phrases, and relative clauses) appear more often in written than spoken language. Writers generally elaborate their ideas more explicitly through syntax whereas speakers leave more material implicit. And written language stacks clauses inside each other to a greater depth than spoken language. This is one of the most striking differences between speech and text; sentences like the opening line of the Declaration of Independence simply do not occur in conversation…

The complex syntax fostered by writing seems to be an acquired skill much like mental arithmetic. More or less everyone is born with the potential to do it, but to be able to calculate truly spectacular equations in your head, you need heavy practice, just as to understand (and compose) elaborate sentences with ease, you need plenty of experience with such sentences. Reading transforms the experiential landscape, offering a range and complexity of sentence structure that is rarely found in speech.

When children are fed a steady linguistic diet that is rich in complex sentences, these become easier to compute, and in turn, more readily produced under the time pressures imposed by speech. For example, psychologist Jessica Montag and her colleagues targeted relative clauses in the passive voice (the dog that was hit by the car), which are exceedingly rare in speech but more abundant in text, even that written for children. They found that heavy readers in the 8-12-year-old range produced such structures more often than children who read less. Even among adults, the production of these sentences was highly correlated with how much text they consumed, suggesting that avid readers are far more likely to transmit complex sentences to future generations.

All of this suggests that exposure to literary language is essential for the health of complex recursive sentences in English. If certain structures are too rare in speech to be reliably mastered by learners and passed on, then they may fade out within a community of non-readers. Naturally, this raises the question: Could syntactic complexity in literate languages diminish over time, if new technologies (podcasts, video lectures, and audiobooks) tether language more tightly to speech and its inherent limitations?

Read the full article in Nautilus.


Two cheers for polarization
Sam Rosenfield, Boston Review, 25 October 2017

To be human and sentient is to be dissatisfied with current U.S. politics. Party polarization is centrally implicated in many of the era’s core failings. But because trade-offs among democratic goals are unavoidable in a political system—pragmatic bargaining versus coherent policymaking, elite comity versus democratic participation and accountability—grappling with polarization presents paradoxes. The story of polarization’s mid-century advocates and architects suggests not only that the road back to a depolarized era may be all but impassable, but also that such an era had limits and pathologies in its own right. Likewise, realistic alternatives to today’s polarization may offer a cure worse than the disease.

Most paradoxically of all, the disease may itself be a cure. We could lessen political paralysis, for example, most easily by reforming the processes to accommodate polarization. At the Yale conference on democratic decline, analysts also pointed to rising inequality and stagnant median incomes as indicators that the ‘class compromise’ undergirding popular commitment to the system is starting to unravel. How best to respond politically to inequality is hardly a settled question, but given the GOP’s existing commitments, it is likely that part of the answer will involve a more rather than less disciplined, ideological, and aggressive left-of-center political party. If the Democratic Party became the vehicle for meaningfully redressing inequality that would itself be a polarizing development.

Extending the point further, a two-party system leaves little room to avoid the fray in pursuing change—try as so many do. The renaissance of civic activism that ‘resistance’ to Trump inspired after the election, for example, has come in countless forms, but one noticeable tendency in much of it has been an aversion to explicitly partisan forms of organization-building and mobilization. But meaningful resistance requires power, and the chief means of winning that power are electoral and partisan ones. To effectively counter the very hatreds and pathologies that seem so endemic to the age, in other words, progressives have no choice but to get into the thick of the action and fight. Doing so would only ‘worsen’ polarization in U.S. politics, but it might just save U.S. democracy.

Read the full article in the Boston Review.


Salvator Mundi attributed to Leonardo da Vinci

Great collectors used to have great taste.
Now they simply show off their wealth

Tiffany Jenkins, Guardian, 19 November 2017

If you walk around Mayfair or Manhattan at twilight and look up, you could glimpse a Damien Hirst spot painting through an apartment window. The simple circles of colour on a grid and a white background are recognisable and everywhere. There are more than 1,000 in existence, and they have been exhibited all over the world.

The spot paintings are visually inoffensive; if one catches your eye, it does not hold it. One works as well hung in the living room as it does in the boardroom. But whichever wall it does grace, even a child knows it’s a Hirst, though painted by his assistants, even if they can’t differentiate one work from another.

That is the state of modern-day art collecting: safe, boring and expensive. According to a recent UBS/PricewaterhouseCoopers report, the world’s billionaires have seen their net worth climb by more than $900bn in the past year, collectively topping $6tn.

There is a new rich class swimming in liquidity that can afford art with a high price-tag, which serves as both an asset, if an unreliable one, and a display of status. Chinese, Russian and Ukrainian billionaires have entered the market. Hedge fund managers trail behind them. A pricey artwork is just what you need after remodelling your billion-pound home: you splash your cash to display your wealth, if not your taste.

All of this goes some way to explain the astonishing price tag of Salvator Mundi, the most expensive painting ever sold at auction. The 500-year-old painting of Christ is thought to have been painted by Leonardo da Vinci. It sold for a record $450m (£341m) in Christie’s auction rooms in New York last Wednesday evening. The identity of the buyer has not been revealed.

Though Leonardo da Vinci was a masterful artist, Salvator Mundi is not a great work of art. Christ faces the viewer in a conventional composition, with one hand raised, the other holding a glass sphere. His eyes are blank; his hair is limp. Cleaned and repainted so often, and layered in varnish, there is little left of what was original. It probably was by Leonardo, but not many of the brushstrokes can be his. He used assistants a lot at the time it was painted, and now much of it is reconstruction.

Read the full article in the Guardian.


The Jews will have to wait
Robert Satloff, Mosaic, 9 October 2017

Rather, Torch’s lasting impact was political. In the hours immediately after the first U.S. troops came ashore outside Algiers, the capital of France’s North African empire, two key decisions were made that would exercise a profound impact both on the war and on America’s long-term role in the Middle East.

The first decision was to fight Vichy but then ultimately to embrace both Vichy’s local leaders and key aspects of their policy. The origin of this story long predates Torch…

The second Torch decision pregnant with implications for the future revolved around the fact that immediately upon landing on the North African coast, American commanders came face to face with what in European circumstances was dubbed ‘the Jewish question.’

By November 1942, many details of the Holocaust, as it would later be named, were already well known. During that same month, the State Department publicly confirmed reports of Nazi plans to annihilate the Jews of Europe. Just six weeks after Torch, twelve Allied governments issued a joint statement vowing retribution against those responsible for the extermination of Jews.

Though much less dire, the situation in North Africa was also known, certainly in the upper reaches of the U.S. government. A steady stream of diplomatic reports and journalistic accounts detailed the application of Vichy laws that had stripped Algerian Jews of French citizenship and, across all French-controlled territories, denied Jews the rights to live, work, and study freely.

More ominously, thousands of Jews had been dispatched to what the French themselves called ‘concentration’ or ‘punishment’ camps. The deportees ranged from Jewish soldiers who had been serving honorably in the Foreign Legion when Vichy took power, to Jewish refugees from Central or Eastern Europe driven by fear of the coming Nazi onslaught to seek refuge in France or its North African possessions. The camps, often deep in the Sahara, were remote sites of arduous forced labor where torture was common and death by hunger, thirst, exposure, and mistreatment a daily occurrence.

Until Torch, the misfortune facing the Jews in lands under fascist domination was, for the Roosevelt administration, a faraway problem, distressful to contemplate but distant from the battle front. Torch changed that equation. For the first time during the war, Torch’s success put American troops in direct control of territory in which Jews faced government-ordained and -implemented persecution and possible death.

Read the full article in Mosaic.


The Other Foucault
Bruce Robbins, The Nation, 20 November 2017

Those who have found Foucault too anti-economistic, too literary, or too enamored of the powers of discourse, Elden argues, are missing Foucault’s own interest in the materiality of the world. That interest becomes particularly clear in Elden’s elucidation of the term dispositif, which rose to prominence in Foucault’s later work along with his innovative notion of power. Commonly translated as ‘apparatus,’ ‘mechanism,’ ‘organization,’ or ‘infrastructure,’ a dispositif is not just a collection of hidden rules governing what can be said or known; it’s a collection of ‘relations of power, practices, and actions.’ In other words, it’s material, even materialist. Foucault’s vocabulary here, though, seems studiously neutral, as if he is suggesting that, embodied in infrastructures, power too might be neutral—not the enemy of those striving against injustice, but (as Marxists might say) something that had to be taken over and repurposed.

For Elden, it was not just the latent materialism in Foucault’s early work that reveals its political implications: His interest in the mores around madness and sexuality was itself about power. When Foucault swings his attention from madness to sexuality, it’s not because the norms surrounding the body are more material than those of the mind. Foucault was interested in sexuality and the body less for their own sake than for their place in the larger history of subjectivity, which is itself part of power’s still larger and more important history.

When Elden proposes that power is already present as a theme in ‘The Order of Discourse,’ even if ‘the language is still largely absent,’ he reveals a neglected continuity within Foucault’s thought. He is also making a delicate dig at Foucault’s embrace of the idea that history is fundamentally discontinuous: If period X has different names for certain concepts, the argument goes, isn’t it really dealing with different things? No, Elden replies, in effect Foucault was at work developing his idea of power even before he had the word for it.

Elden’s argument is refreshing, but one wonders why he is so intent on giving Foucault the gift of consistency. There is an obvious irony in seeing Foucault treated here as an ‘Author’ in the most reverential sense, as if the author of ‘What Is an Author?’ had not taught us to be skeptical about scholarship’s habit of using an author’s name to impose consistency on a body of writing that often responded to different situations and therefore exploded off in different directions.

Read the full article in the Nation.


The most popular genes in the human genome
Elie Dolgin, Nature, 22 November 2017

Kerpedjiev went straight to the data. For years, the US National Library of Medicine (NLM) has been systematically tagging almost every paper in its popular PubMed database that contains some information about what a gene does. Kerpedjiev extracted all the papers marked as describing the structure, function or location of a gene or the protein it encodes.

Sorting through the records, he compiled a list of the most studied genes of all time — a sort of ‘top hits’ of the human genome, and several other genomes besides.

Heading the list, he found, is a gene called TP53. Three years ago, when Kerpedjiev first did his analysis, researchers had scrutinized the gene or the protein it produces, p53, in some 6,600 papers. Today, that number is at about 8,500 and counting. On average, around two papers are published each day describing new details of the basic biology of TP53.

ts popularity shouldn’t come as news to most biologists. The gene is a tumour suppressor, and widely known as the ‘guardian of the genome’. It is mutated in roughly half of all human cancers. ‘That explains its staying power,’ says Bert Vogelstein, a cancer geneticist at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine in Baltimore, Maryland. In cancer, he says, ‘there’s no gene more important’.

But some chart-topping genes are less well known — including some that rose to prominence in bygone eras of genetic research, only to fall out of fashion as technology progressed. ‘The list was surprising,’ says Kerpedjiev, now a postdoc studying genomic-data visualization at Harvard Medical School in Boston, Massachusetts. ‘Some genes were predictable; others were completely unexpected’…

Out of the 20,000 or so protein-coding genes in the human genome, just 100 account for more than one-quarter of the papers tagged by the NLM. Thousands go unstudied in any given year. ‘It’s revealing how much we don’t know about because we just don’t bother to research it,’ says Helen Anne Curry, a science historian at the University of Cambridge, UK.

Read the full article in Nature.


The images are, from top down: Panel 4 from Jacob Lawrence’s Great Migration series; Muhammad Ansi, Untitled (Pier); Adam Miler, Quebec; Page from Alfred E Willis 1879 book Illustrated Physiognomy; Leonardo d Vinci, Salvator Mundi.


  1. As usual a great diverse selection..
    I was particularly struck by Two Cheers for Polarisation
    First, they underestimated the virulence of party polarization in practice. Political psychology and public opinion research confirms what so many of us have experienced. When partisan team spirit becomes reinforced by shared substantive beliefs on core issues, peoples’ partisan identities become a more intensely felt component of their self-identities. Righteous passion for one’s own side intensifies while distrust of and hostility toward the other side deepens. Motivated reasoning and perceptual blinders hinder our ability to deliberate, to learn from those we disagree with, to change our minds or accept compromises.

    Similarly The Limits of Dehumanization was both interesting and disturbing.

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