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.
God’s oppressed children
Pankaj Mishra, New York Review of Books, 21 December 2017
Many Indian houses still have a simple pit toilet, which consists of a large hole in the floor. The feces are collected at night by ‘manual scavengers,’ who, Sujatha Gidla writes in Ants Among Elephants, ‘carry away human shit’ and whose ‘tools are nothing but a small broom and a tin plate.’ Most are women. In the past, they would ‘fill their palm-leaf baskets with excrement and carry it off on their heads five, six miles to some place on the outskirts of town where they’re allowed to dispose of it.’ In many places today, baskets have been replaced with buckets and carts, but the disease-ridden job of cleaning toilets, septic tanks, gutters, and sewers still falls on Dalits, formerly ‘untouchable’ Hindus.
One out of six Indians is a Dalit, but for years I neither witnessed nor imagined the life of one, although almost every week small columns in the newspapers reported the murder, rape, and torture of them. If any of the students at my schools were Dalits, I did not know – such obliviousness about a hierarchy that benefited me was part of my upper-caste privilege. I did hear much whispered malevolence among relatives against the ‘Scheduled Castes’ (the official name of Dalits) and the affirmative action program designed to bring them equal citizenship. It was only at my provincial university, in a left-wing student group, that I first came into regular contact with Dalits; and it was while reading Ralph Ellison in my late teens that I began to reflect on the historical injustices and social and psychological pathologies that had conspired to make tens of millions of people invisible.
India, the world’s largest democracy, also happens to be the world’s most hierarchical society; its most powerful and wealthy citizens, who are overwhelmingly upper-caste, are very far from checking their privilege or understanding the cruel disadvantages of birth among the low castes. Dalits remain largely invisible in popular cinema, sitcoms, television commercials, and soap operas. No major museums commemorate their long suffering. Unlike racism in the United States, which provokes general condemnation, there are no social taboos—as distinct from legal provisions—against hatred or loathing of low-caste Hindus. Many Dalits are still treated as ‘untouchables,’ despite the equal rights granted to them by India’s democratic constitution.
Read the full article in the New York Review of Books.
Cyril Ramaphosa is not the answer
Benjamin Fogel, Jacobin, 21 December 2017
South Africa is the most unequal country in the world. While the racial demographics of inequality have changed since the end of apartheid — 49 percent as opposed 86 percent of top income owners are white, with blacks making up 30 percent — almost the entirety of the poorest sections of the population are black. But Zuma’s rhetoric distracts from the fact that his administration failed to challenge capital. It has gutted and looted state institutions, hurting South Africa’s black working class the most.
For good reason, Zuma and his faction may have lost the party presidency, but the most corrupt and dangerous elements of the ANC are in control of the party. The ANC is now partially controlled by the so-called Premier League, a nickname that refers to a corrupt cabal of premiers (governors) of key South African provinces, more akin to Mafia capos than politicians operating in a constitutional democracy. Two of their members now have positions in the ANC’s top six: David Mabuza (premier of Mpumalanga) and Ace Magashule (premier of the Free State).
Two of South Africa’s most dangerous gangsters, Mabuza and Magashule have transformed their respective provinces into private fiefdoms. Mabuza has been linked to several political murders and seems more than willing to take out his rivals. Magashule paid for the Guptas’ niece’s wedding in cash, and the ANC disqualified his province from elections twice thanks to his utter disrespect for basic democratic process — a remarkable achievement considering the party’s already low standards.
Magashule will oversee the party’s day-to-day maintenance as secretary-general of the ANC with the help of Jessie Duarte (re-elected as deputy secretary-general), an unprincipled Gupta flunky, and Mabuza is in position to become the next president of South Africa after Ramaphosa.
The result is most likely a disaster: with Mabuza and Magashule in office, it will be difficult for Ramaphosa to embark on any serious reforms or policy changes, and he might not even be able to recall Zuma. Unity, as Mabuza dubs it, means that the ANC won’t split and the SACP and COSATU will remain in the alliance, aborting any hopes for a new left party to emerge out of it. Indeed, there are indications that a deal was cut between Ramaphosa and Mabuza before the conference that saw Mabuza become kingmaker by switching his support from NDZ to Ramaphosa. It could quite possibly mean that Mabuza might have broken with the Premier League and is seeking to carve out a new faction, making him even more dangerous and unpredictable.
Two competing patronage networks now run the ANC: one aligned with big capital promising stability, and the other representing a predatory faction based off transferring state assets to politically connected elites even if it plunges the country into economic crisis.
Read the full article in Jacobin.
This is how gerrymandering works
Laura Moser, NYR Daily, 18 December 2017
I first got interested in gerrymandering on that long-ago night in 2012 when President Obama was re-elected. By 10 PM, it was clear that Obama had won. The next morning, I took a closer look at the returns.
I grew up, and currently live, in Harris County, Texas, which includes much of the Houston metropolitan area. After Los Angeles County, California, and Cook County, Illinois, ours is the third-most populous county in the nation. Its population, close to 4.6 million, is greater than the populations of twenty-seven states. So I was stunned to see that Obama was ahead of Romney by two. Not 2 percent. Not 0.2 percent. Not 2,000.
Two votes: 579,070 to 579,068.
I looked for the fine print. But with nearly 99.2 percent of precincts reporting, these were the numbers. (That last 0.8 percent turned out more heavily for Obama. He won by 971 votes, out of 1,188,585 cast.)
That made Harris County, by far, the most closely divided large population center in the country. Under a truly representative system, a county this large and this evenly divided would hold the key to the House of Representatives, and thus open one of the doors to national power. You would expect every race to be hotly contested, wildly expensive, and closely watched. They almost never are.
In 2003, the districts were changed by Tom DeLay, the former congressman and House majority leader later convicted for election violations. (Amid great controversy, the conviction was subsequently overturned.) This was a break with precedent: a redistricting had never occurred in any state between censuses. And it was effective: in the 2004 elections, six incumbent Democrats lost in Texas. This helped the Republican Party increase its House majority by three additional representatives—in a year when the Democratic share of the popular vote rose nationally.
Since then, the number of House seats in Texas has grown from thirty-two to thirty-six, but even with all of them up every two years, on only half a dozen occasions has one changed hands. After the 2010 census, the Texas Legislature, which draws the lines, hewed closely to the DeLay gerrymander.
The results are clear. An average district has about 710,000 people. That would divide fairly evenly into the 4.6 million people in Harris County. So there should be six districts entirely within Harris County. But there aren’t.
Instead, the Houston metropolitan area, of which Harris County is a part, is divided into nine districts whose boundaries are, literally, all over the map. One touches Louisiana; one goes halfway to Dallas; one runs from northwest Harris County to the northern half of Travis County, putting parts of Austin and Houston in the same district.
That didn’t just happen. Urban, Democratic-leaning voters are grouped into as few districts as possible, or divided into little parcels and grouped with Republican exurbs and rural areas. The process is known as ‘packing and cracking.’
Read the full article in the NYR Daily.
‘We believed you harmed your child’:
The war over shaken baby convictions
Will Storr, Guardian, 8 December 2017
Doctors began questioning the idea that a baby could be killed by shaking and yet have no other signs of violent attack. ‘If you grip a baby hard enough to shake it, you’re going to bruise it,’ says Squier. ‘You’re going to fracture ribs, you’re going to break the neck. When babies in a forward-facing car seat are involved in a front-end collision, they get fractures and dislocations in their neck and back. They don’t get shaken baby syndrome.’
Others pointed to the troublesome fact that no witness had ever actually seen a baby being shaken and then suffer the triad. Norman Guthkelch, the British neurologist who’d first mooted the concept, became convinced that rampant injustices were taking place, and became a late-life campaigner against the ‘dogmatic thinking’ of triad believers. It then emerged that John Caffey, who published his influential 1974 paper shortly after Guthkelch, had based his theory about ‘whiplash shaken infant syndrome’ primarily on a Newsweek scare story about an evil nanny who had harmed 15 children and described aggressive winding and shaking in an interview.
Over the years, starting in the 1990s, there was some softening of the idea that the triad always indicated abuse. And then, in 2003, the sceptics were handed another powerful weapon in the form of a brand new paper by Geddes. Colloquially known as ‘Geddes III’, it described a scenario in which lack of oxygen from something as innocent as choking on something could cause a cascade of events resulting in the triad.
With the arguments against shaken baby syndrome gathering force, the rebellious scientists found themselves increasingly in-demand as expert witnesses. As they strode through courtrooms casting doubt on the science, prosecutions failed and convicted parents were released on appeal.
The prosecutorial forces launched a counter-attack. Their first victory came in 2005, during an appeal hearing against three shaken-baby convictions, including that of Lorraine Harris. Geddes, who admits she doesn’t ‘find it easy to think on my feet in court’, was cross-examined about her new paper, Geddes III, which was proving useful in overturning convictions. Under heavy questioning about the science, she admitted: ‘I think we might not have the theory quite right.’ The QC retorted: ‘Dr Geddes, cases up and down the country are taking place where Geddes III is cited by the defence time and time again as the reason why the established theory is wrong.’
‘That I am very sorry about,’ she said. ‘It’s not fact, it’s a hypothesis.’ She tried to point out that the conventional view of the triad was also just a hypothesis. But it was too late. In their judgment, their Lordships wrote that the theory ‘can no longer be regarded as a credible or alternative cause of the triad’. The Crown Prosecution Service issued a celebratory press release. Geddes saw the hearing as a calculated attack on her integrity. It was ‘horrendous,’ she recalls. ‘I was there for two days being cross-examined. It was an attempt to shut my theory down, to prove my research was rubbish and that I was dishonest.’
Read the full article in the Guardian.
Leaving the fortresses:
Between class internationalism and nativist social democracy
Gareth Dale, Viewpoint, 30 November 2017
The idea that labor market competition can be overcome by raising borders, defending the ‘nation,’ and excluding immigrants is a Sozialismus der dummen Kerle [a socialism of chumps, of numpties]. Does capitulating to xenophobia benefit the workers’ cause, or the left? Look no further than our most recent dismal decades, in which Europe’s social democratic parties bowed before anti-immigration pressure, a craven capitulation that brought no sustained electoral revival but has, on the contrary, kept the ogres and trolls on the far-right well fed and hungry for more. Or glance back to the 1940s USA, where draconian immigration policy was the gateway drug that led to binge after binge of repressive legislation, culminating in McCarthyism.
Conversely, the late-nineteenth century upsurge in American socialism occurred at a time of record-breaking immigration, and was itself strongly based in immigrant communities, with labor and socialist organizations often immigrant-led. And today a similar logic obtains; immigrant workers in Europe are building the above-mentioned islands of solidarity. Think of the recruitment campaign that has brought many eastern European food-factory workers into Britain’s BFAWU, revitalizing that union. Or the recently celebrated case of the Latin American cleaners at SOAS; they forced their outsourced firm to recognize their trade union, and built solidarity among staff and student bodies across the college, eventually leading SOAS to bring all facilities staff back in-house – a victory that has inspired similar successes elsewhere. In all the years she has lived in Britain one leading activist, Moreno Yusti, ‘has had stereotypes placed around her neck. The little woman. The ignorant foreigner. The migrant happy to undercut others’ wages.’ The reality, comments journalist Aditya Chakrabortty, ‘is she fought harder and smarter than a multinational and know-all university managers. And she has levelled up pay and conditions for 120 workers.’
But the dark side of the SOAS cleaners’ story is no less instructive. Early in the campaign their employer summoned them to a meeting. Doors were blocked, and when employers’ representatives mentioned the phrase ‘immigration papers,’ immigration officials in riot gear stormed in. Nine cleaning staff were bundled into lock-ups, then on to planes. Here, in one vignette, is the border, busy at work. It’s not out there invisibly hugging the coastline; it’s here, invading our communities and workplaces. (In universities, too, where it runs even in the ink of academics’ signatures.) In its design, immigration control aims to keep out the poor, and, as Bridget Anderson points out, ‘poor countries’ and countries whose citizens are black are very likely to coincide. It is a racist instrument, designed to counterpose the ‘community’ with the outsider, and to establish and maintain ‘racial’ difference. It sorts workers into streams: the ‘unwanted’ or ‘illegal’ (and hence intimidated, attractive to cutthroat employers), the legally-immigrated, and the local-born (their pay packets topped up by a pitiful psychological wage stirred up from nation and racism). It creates ethnically tiered workforces: white CEOs and managers; lower-paid office workers and ‘skilled’ local-born manual workers; and unskilled manual labor, often from ‘Central Europe’ or further afield. In some workplaces this stratification sinks into the soil of daily existence, as each category lunches in different canteens and rarely socializes outside their class-race tier, with predictably corrosive effects on solidarity and the soul. Nowhere is this starker than in Italy, where a highly racialized division of labor separates unemployed and young Italian citizens from hyper-exploited Romanian and African farmhands. Some of the former blame immigrants for their economic plight, and, ironically, often emigrate themselves.
Far from protecting workers’ rights, immigration control divides the workforce, driving new arrivals into insecure jobs, whipping up status anxiety, vesting employers with additional techniques of control, and subjecting everyone to intensive regulation by state bureaucracies and the police. Expanding the remit of the border police and intensifying immigration surveillance would not suppress labor-market competition; as Richard Seymour argues, it would only shunt ‘migrant workers further into the shadows where they are more susceptible to violence and hyper-exploitation,’ sharpening the racialization of rights and life-chances, compromising workplace health and safety, weakening unions’ bargaining power, and intensifying labor-market rivalry – all to the benefit of the propertied classes.
Read the full article in Viewpoint.
Ta-Nehisi Coates is the neoliberal face
of the black freedom struggle
Cornel West, Guardian, 17 December 2017
The disagreement between Coates and me is clear: any analysis or vision of our world that omits the centrality of Wall Street power, US military policies, and the complex dynamics of class, gender, and sexuality in black America is too narrow and dangerously misleading. So it is with Ta-Nehisi Coates’ worldview.
Coates rightly highlights the vicious legacy of white supremacy – past and present. He sees it everywhere and ever reminds us of its plundering effects. Unfortunately, he hardly keeps track of our fightback, and never connects this ugly legacy to the predatory capitalist practices, imperial policies (of war, occupation, detention, assassination) or the black elite’s refusal to confront poverty, patriarchy or transphobia.
In short, Coates fetishizes white supremacy. He makes it almighty, magical and unremovable. What concerns me is his narrative of ‘defiance’. For Coates, defiance is narrowly aesthetic – a personal commitment to writing with no connection to collective action. It generates crocodile tears of neoliberals who have no intention of sharing power or giving up privilege.
When he honestly asks: ‘How do you defy a power that insists on claiming you?’, the answer should be clear: they claim you because you are silent on what is a threat to their order (especially Wall Street and war). You defy them when you threaten that order.
Coates tries to justify his ‘defiance’ by an appeal to ‘black atheism, to a disbelief in dreams and moral appeal’. He not only has ‘no expectations of white people at all’, but for him, if freedom means anything at all it is ‘this defiance’.
Note that his perception of white people is tribal and his conception of freedom is neoliberal. Racial groups are homogeneous and freedom is individualistic in his world. Classes don’t exist and empires are nonexistent.
Read the full article in the Guardian.
What we don’t talk about
when we talk about Russian hacking
Jackson Lears, London Review of Books, 4 January 2018
The consequence is a spreading confusion that envelops everything. Epistemological nihilism looms, but some people and institutions have more power than others to define what constitutes an agreed-on reality. To say this is to risk dismissal as the ultimate wing-nut in the lexicon of contemporary Washington: the conspiracy theorist. Still, the fact remains: sometimes powerful people arrange to promote ideas that benefit their common interests. Whether we call this hegemony, conspiracy or merely special privilege hardly matters. What does matter is the power to create what Gramsci called the ‘common sense’ of an entire society. Even if much of that society is indifferent to or suspicious of the official common sense, it still becomes embedded among the tacit assumptions that set the boundaries of ‘responsible opinion’. So the Democratic establishment (along with a few Republicans) and the major media outlets have made ‘Russian meddling’ the common sense of the current moment. What kind of cultural work does this common sense do? What are the consequences of the spectacle the media call (with characteristic originality) ‘Russiagate’?
The most immediate consequence is that, by finding foreign demons who can be blamed for Trump’s ascendancy, the Democratic leadership have shifted the blame for their defeat away from their own policies without questioning any of their core assumptions. Amid the general recoil from Trump, they can even style themselves dissenters – ‘#the resistance’ was the label Clintonites appropriated within a few days of the election. Mainstream Democrats have begun to use the word ‘progressive’ to apply to a platform that amounts to little more than preserving Obamacare, gesturing towards greater income equality and protecting minorities. This agenda is timid. It has nothing to say about challenging the influence of concentrated capital on policy, reducing the inflated defence budget or withdrawing from overextended foreign commitments; yet without those initiatives, even the mildest egalitarian policies face insuperable obstacles. More genuine insurgencies are in the making, which confront corporate power and connect domestic with foreign policy, but they face an uphill battle against the entrenched money and power of the Democratic leadership – the likes of Chuck Schumer, Nancy Pelosi, the Clintons and the DNC. Russiagate offers Democratic elites a way to promote party unity against Trump-Putin, while the DNC purges Sanders’s supporters.
For the DNC, the great value of the Russian hack story is that it focuses attention away from what was actually in their emails. The documents revealed a deeply corrupt organisation, whose pose of impartiality was a sham. Even the reliably pro-Clinton Washington Post has admitted that ‘many of the most damaging emails suggest the committee was actively trying to undermine Bernie Sanders’s presidential campaign.’ Further evidence of collusion between the Clinton machine and the DNC surfaced recently in a memoir by Donna Brazile, who became interim chair of the DNC after Debbie Wasserman Schultz resigned in the wake of the email revelations. Brazile describes discovering an agreement dated 26 August 2015, which specified (she writes)
that in exchange for raising money and investing in the DNC, Hillary would control the party’s finances, strategy, and all the money raised. Her campaign had the right of refusal of who would be the party communications director, and it would make final decisions on all the other staff. The DNC also was required to consult with the campaign about all other staffing, budgeting, data, analytics and mailings.
Before the primaries had even begun, the supposedly neutral DNC – which had been close to insolvency – had been bought by the Clinton campaign.
Read the full article in the London Review of Books.
A Robert De Niro theory of post-truth:
‘Are you talking to me?’
Colin Wright, The Conversation, 16 November 2017
Many of the commentaries on post-truth have attempted to locate the sources of it. Where does post-truth discourse come from, and who is responsible for producing it?
Looked at this way, post-truth will never be found. It does not exist there. There is nothing new about politicians and the powerful telling lies, spinning, producing propaganda, dissembling, or bullshitting. Machiavellianism became a common term of political discourse precisely because it embodies Machiavelli’s belief that all leaders might, at some point, need to lie.
Lying is not an aberration in politics. Political theorist Leo Strauss, developing a concept first outlined by Plato, coined the term ‘noble lie‘ to refer to an untruth knowingly propagated by an elite to maintain social harmony or advance an agenda.
Questions about the agents of post-truth, and attempts to locate the sources of political bullshit, are just not grasping what is new and specific about post-truth. If we look for post-truth in the realm of the production of disinformation, we will not find it. This is why so many are sceptical that the concept of post-truth represents anything new. Not all haystacks contain needles.
So where is post-truth located, and how did we get here? Post-truth resides not in the realm of the production, but in the realm of reception. If lies, dissembling, spinning, propaganda and the creation of bullshit have always been part and parcel of politics, then what has changed is how publics respond to them.
Read the full article in the Conversation.
Spare us the moral hysteria
that threatens a new age of censorship
Rachel Cooke, Guardian, 17 December 2017
Of course, it should have been obvious to everyone involved right from the beginning that the Royal Court, like all subsidised theatres, is required to be the polar opposite of a so-called ‘safe space’ in artistic terms; plays, all you babies out there, don’t groom people – although I do take the point of the friend who joked to me that she’d once been harassed by some late-period Tom Stoppard. But then, it’s hardly as if the Court is alone when it comes to being lily-livered. This is just one in a long line of recent instances of mimsy self-censorship in the arts and, in the months and years ahead, I predict many more, the fear and trembling among institutions growing exponentially as further cases of harassment and abuse are revealed, and some of those we know about already perhaps pass through the courts.
Anxiety in this matter should not, moreover, be a new thing. It certainly isn’t for me. Although it gives me no pleasure to say so, I saw all this coming. Last April, when Harvey Weinstein was still protected by his ghastly network and the liverish glow of his formerly high-wattage power, I wrote a long piece about the increasingly nervous attitudes of galleries to ‘difficult’ work in which I speculated that, among other artists, Balthus, some of whose subjects are pubescent girls, would probably soon find himself in trouble. And so it came to pass. Earlier this month, a woman called Mia Merrill launched an online petition calling on the Metropolitan Museum of Art to remove his 1938 painting, Thérèse Dreaming. More than 11,500 people signed it, on the grounds that they find it ‘disturbing’ (Thérèse sits in such a way that her underwear can be seen). Again, it tells you something that while the petition didn’t surprise me, the fact that the Met held its nerve did.
People talk of a ‘reckoning’. At last, they say, women need no longer be silent about what they’ve suffered at the hands of men; our idea of what constitutes sexual assault has changed forever. I have no problem with this. I wrote my own #MeToo column five years ago, when people were busy wondering how Jimmy Savile had got away with his crimes for so long. (Not that anyone noticed: after it was published, I did not receive a single supportive message from the sisterhood). But we need to be careful. This is a dangerous moment as well as an important one. You don’t have to look very hard to see that we’re beginning to conflate sexual mistakes of all kinds with abuse, that beneath the surface of this debate conservative forces are at work, as well as reforming, liberal ones.
Read the full article in the Guardian.
Why Is there no ‘Saudi-gate’?
Branko Marcetic, Jacobin, 30 November 2017
Imagine if Russia — instead of doing what it has been accused of doing last year — had funded and facilitated an attack on US soil that killed thousands of Americans. Then imagine that US policymakers, rather than punish the Kremlin by cutting diplomatic ties, imposing sanctions, seeking legal recourse, or all of the above, covered up its involvement in the attack and continued to treat it as a loyal ally.
Imagine if the president who presided over that attack had decades of intimate personal and financial ties to members of the Russian elite and subsequently spirited dozens of Russian nationals out of the country before law enforcement could interrogate them.
Imagine if, despite full knowledge of the Kremlin’s once and ongoing anti-American activities, successive presidents heaped praise on Russia’s authoritarian government, sold it weapons, and made regular pilgrimages to wine and dine with its leaders.
Imagine if an army of Russian lobbyists operated on Capitol Hill to ensure Washington’s pro-Kremlin line, eventually pressuring American leadership into actively assisting it in carrying out one of this decade’s worst war crimes.
Imagine if, at the end of all this, Donald Trump ran for president on an explicitly anti-Russia line, only to shamelessly reverse himself once elected, embrace the Russian leadership, and pursue policies that benefited them even more enthusiastically than his predecessors had.
It’s a pretty scary thought.
Thankfully, in the real world, none of this applies to Russia. It does, however, perfectly describe Saudi Arabia.
Read the full article in Jacobin.
Tracing ISIS’ weapons supply chain – back to the US
Brian Castner, Wired, 12 December 2017
In a small room adjacent to the launcher workbenches, Spleeters begins examining dozens of rocket-propelled grenades of various models, some decades old and all of them bearing some identifying mark. Rockets manufactured in Bulgaria bear a ‘10’ or ‘11’ in a double circle. The green paints used by China and Russia are slightly different shades. ‘In Iraq, we have fought the whole world,’ one soldier bragged to me a couple of days before, referring to the many foreign fighters recruited by ISIS. But he could easily have meant the arms from the disparate countries in that single room.
Spleeters carefully picks through the stacks of warheads until he finds what he’s been looking for: ‘I’ve got a PG-9 round, habibi,’ Spleeters exclaims to al-Hakim. It is a Romanian rocket marked with lot number 12-14-451; Spleeters has spent the past year tracking this very serial number. In October 2014, Romania sold 9,252 rocket-propelled grenades, known as PG-9s, with lot number 12-14-451 to the US military. When it purchased the weapons, the US signed an end-use certificate, a document stating that the munitions would be used by US forces and not sold to anyone else. The Romanian government confirmed this sale by providing CAR with the end-user certificate and delivery verification document.
In 2016, however, Spleeters came across a video made by ISIS that showed a crate of PG-9s, with what appeared to be the lot number 12-14-451, captured from members of Jaysh Suriyah al-Jadid, a Syrian militia. Somehow, PG-9s from this very same shipment made their way to Iraq, where ISIS technicians separated the stolen warheads from the original rocket motors before adding new features that made them better suited for urban combat. (Rocket-propelled grenades can’t be fired inside buildings, because of the dangerous back-blast. By attaching ballast to the rocket, ISIS engineers crafted a weapon that could be used in house-to-house fighting.)
So how exactly did American weapons end up with ISIS? Spleeters can’t yet say for sure. According to a July 19, 2017, report in The Washington Post, the US government secretly trained and armed Syrian rebels from 2013 until mid-2017, at which point the Trump administration discontinued the program—in part over fears that US weapons were ending up in the wrong hands. The US government did not reply to multiple requests for comment on how these weapons wound up in the hands of Syrian rebels or in an ISIS munitions factory. The government also declined to comment on whether the US violated the terms of its end-user certificate and, by extension, failed to comply with the United Nations Arms Trade Treaty, of which it is one of 130 signatories.
Read the full article in Wired.
The making of an American Nazi
Luke O’Brien, Atlantic, December 2017
Ridicule was hard to counter. So Anglin mocked. He made people laugh. ‘The whole point is to make something outrageous,’ he said on the site. ‘It’s about creating a giant spectacle, a media spectacle that desensitizes people to these ideas.’ He considered jokes about Josef Mengele training dogs to rape Jewish women ‘comedy gold’…
Anglin, meanwhile, gained infamy for his troll attacks. In 2015, he tormented the University of Missouri during student protests against racist incidents on campus. He used Twitter hashtags to seed fake news into the conversation, falsely reporting that members of the KKK had arrived to burn crosses on campus and were working with university police. He claimed that Klansmen had gunned down protesters and posted a random photo of a black man in a hospital bed. As his rumors spread, the campus freaked out.
But Anglin wasn’t content to troll alone. He wrote instructions for his followers on how to register anonymous email accounts, set up virtual private networks, mask their IP addresses, and forge Twitter and text-message conversations. He created images and slogans for them to use. Anglin warned his Stormers not to threaten targets with violence, a disclaimer meant to shield him from law enforcement.
Still, Anglin’s mob was a terror. He sicced his trolls on American University’s first black female student-body president. He had them go after Erin Schrode, a Jewish woman running for Congress in California, as well as Jonah Goldberg and David French, writers for National Review. As I reported this story, Anglin sent his trolls after me, too, and my interactions with them confirmed my suspicions that they were, by and large, lost boys who felt rejected by society and, thanks to the internet, could lash out in new and destructive ways. When I tried to draw them out about their lives, some admitted that they struggled with women. One told me that he struggled with his own homosexuality. Most imagined they were rising up against an unchecked political correctness that maligned white males. The more the liberal establishment chose to revile them, the more they embraced their role as villains.
Read the full article in the Atlantic.
The story of humans’ origins got a revision in 2017
Bruce Bower, Science News, 13 December 2017
Human origins are notoriously tough to pin down. Fossil and genetic studies in 2017 suggested a reason why: No clear starting time or location ever existed for our species. The first biological stirrings of humankind occurred at a time of evolutionary experimentation in the human genus, Homo.
Homo sapiens’ signature skeletal features emerged piece by piece in different African communities starting around 300,000 years ago, researchers proposed. In this scenario, high, rounded braincases, chins, small teeth and faces, and other hallmarks of human anatomy eventually appeared as an integrated package 200,000 to 100,000 years ago.
This picture of gradual change contrasts with what scientists have often presumed, that H. sapiens emerged relatively quickly during the latter time period. Fossils clearly qualifying as human date to no more than about 200,000 years ago and are confined to East Africa. But the discoveries reported this year — including fossils from northwestern Africa — point to an earlier evolutionary phase when the human skeletal portrait was incomplete. Like one of Picasso’s fragmented Cubist portraits, Homo fossils from 300,000 years ago give a vague, provocative impression that someone with a humanlike form is present but not in focus.
Read the full article in Science News.
What really happened to Wilfrid Laurier University
Aaron Hutchins, Maclean’s, December 2017
Debates over free speech can have the ironic effect of silencing a lot of people. Among Laurier’s communications studies faculty, many aren’t willing to talk about what’s happening on campus. At least not on the record with the media.
When reached by phone by Maclean’s, Rambukkana immediately hung up. Via email he said he was advised by his union not to speak with reporters. After he declined to comment, Maclean’s was contacted by several communications studies students and faculty.
(In a follow up email, Rambukkana writes: ‘I did not contact any students to suggest that they speak to you, or any members of the media, regarding this issue. After you had been in contact with some students and colleagues, some students spoke to me about their contact with you.’ He did, however, forward the media request on to colleagues, who in turn forwarded the request to students. Several faculty members and students reached out and asked to comment via questions over email and under the condition of anonymity—both requests were denied and interviews never took place.)
Those who do speak are being extra careful with their words. In a telephone interview with Maclean’s, Laurier student Vivek Ramesh answers questions as voices in the background—who are never named—can be heard whispering responses to him.
Read the full article in Maclean’s.
Disha Mullick & Meera Devi, The Caravan, 1 December 2017
‘These WhatsApp journalists are giving journalism a bad name,’ Raza said, without much irony. He was trying to distinguish himself from journalists who use the medium irresponsibly to mislead people. But, he said, his efforts to pursue what he considers sound journalism have often led to his eviction from WhatsApp groups. ‘The reporters who show reality, they are constantly watched, their stories are watched,’ says Raza. ‘If you say something against the powers that be, then your truth will be made false, and you will be removed from their groups.’ Raza’s chief antagonist in this regard is the current district magistrate, 34-year-old Mahendra Bahadur Singh, another ‘Banda King,’ and someone who is equally savvy with WhatsApp.
On 10 September, a group of women went to Singh’s office to submit a petition and protest the lapse of due process in the investigation of their children, who had gone missing recently. Annoyed at the commotion, the district magistrate came out of the office to try and get the protesters to leave. One of Raza’s informers, who was present at the scene, sent him a picture of Singh talking to the women, with his hand raised threateningly. This photograph, along with Raza’s phono, made it to a local television channel. It also travelled quickly across WhatsApp groups, deeply upsetting Singh, who claimed that it misrepresented the situation. He threatened to report Raza to the local information department for not having covered the full story.
More immediately, Raza was removed from all of Singh’s WhatsApp groups, and thus blocked from accessing newsfeeds and updates sent by the district magistrate. By Raza’s account, he won his way back by directly messaging Singh, and arguing that it was his job to cover the district’s problems. ‘We had high expectations of you, as a local leader, that you’d understand this district and its problems and be able to solve them,’ he said he told Singh. ‘Par aap toh latrine bathroom karne aayen hain’—you seem to be here only for the toilets. Raza was referring to Singh’s well-known tendency to send pictures of toilets to WhatsApp groups to showcase his involvement with the Swachh Bharat campaign. Indeed, in our experience, Singh uses his networks and enthusiasm for social media to build a closed narrative about the changing persona of his district, often repeating his favourite line —’Banda badal raha hai’— Banda is changing. Whatever Raza’s tactic, it seemed to have worked, because he was soon back on Singh’s group.
Read the full article in Caravan.
The science that’s never been cited
Richard van Noorden, Nature, 13 December 2017
The idea that the literature is awash with uncited research goes back to a pair of articles in Science — in the 1990 one2 and in another3, in 1991. The 1990 report noted that 55% of articles published between 1981 and 1985 hadn’t been cited in the 5 years after their publication. But those analyses are misleading, mainly because the publications they counted included documents such as letters, corrections, meeting abstracts and other editorial material, which wouldn’t usually get cited. If these are removed, leaving only research papers and review articles, rates of uncitedness plummet. Extending the cut-off past five years reduces the rates even more.
In 2008, Larivière and colleagues took a fresh look at the Web of Science and reported not only that uncitedness was lower than believed, but also that the percentage of uncited papers had been falling for decades4. Nature asked Larivière, together with Cassidy Sugimoto at Indiana University Bloomington, to update and elaborate on that analysis for this article.
The new figures — which count research articles and reviews — suggest that in most disciplines, the proportion of papers attracting zero citations levels off between five and ten years after publication, although the proportion is different in each discipline (see ‘Uncited science’). Of all biomedical-sciences papers published in 2006, just 4% are uncited today; in chemistry, that number is 8% and in physics, it is closer to 11%. (When cases of researchers citing their own papers are removed, these proportions rise — in some disciplines, by half as much again.) In engineering and technology, the uncitedness rate of the 2006 cohort of Web of Science-indexed papers is 24%, much higher than in the natural sciences. This higher figure may relate to the technical nature of many of these reports, which solve specific problems rather than provide work for others to cumulatively build on, Larivière suggests.
For the literature as a whole — 39 million research papers across all disciplines recorded in the Web of Science from 1900 to the end of 2015 — some 21% haven’t yet been cited. Unsurprisingly, most of these uncited papers appear in little-known journals; almost all papers in well-known journals do get cited.
Read the full article in Nature.
How conjoined twins are making scientists
question the concept of self
Michael Harris, The Walrus, 6 November 2016
Ananthaswamy sees reports of people losing their bodily self (by injury, disorder, or drug) as a great opportunity for the rest of us to learn. ‘When these things come apart,’ he says, ‘we understand we are constantly constructing an in-body experience.’ Perhaps the experience of being a person locked inside a bag of skin and bone—with that single, definable self looking out through your eyes—is not natural or given, but merely the result of a changeable, mechanical arrangement in the brain. Perhaps the barriers of selfhood are arbitrary, bendable. This is what the Hogan twins’ experience suggests. Their conjoined lives hint at myriad permeations of the bodily self.
Professor William Hirstein, a philosopher and cognitive scientist, has argued that our stubborn idea of the self as a private thing that cannot be tampered with actually keeps us from understanding it. We are still stuck, he believes, in a pre-Enlightenment vision of the ‘self’ as a god-given soul, separate from the valves and tubes that make up the rest of our bodies. ‘By claiming consciousness is private,’ he tells me, ‘we’re claiming that it is different from all other physical things and processes.’ However, ‘if the twins can both be aware of a single conscious state . . . this would be an example of mind melding.’
Philosopher Colin McGinn once quipped, ‘If your friend is staring at something green, you cannot look at her and see the greeniness of her experience. Such intimacy is ruled out by the nature of consciousness.’ He is sure of a private, secret self. And yet the Hogan twins do upend his assumption. Tatiana senses the greeniness of Krista’s experience all the time. ‘I hate it!’ she cries out, when Krista tastes some spinach dip.
Do the twins, then, truly share a portion of their selfhood? Some bodily aspect of that experience we all think of as private to an inviolate degree? Or do the girls merely see shadows, copies, of consciousness? And—most unsettling of all—is that a distinction without a difference? These questions remain beyond our understanding of the mind. At one point during Inseparable, the twins seem to suggest they do share consciousness when, in passing, they remark that they can converse inside their heads. But then, too, they are utterly distinct (even discordant)—arguing over where to walk, when to rise, what to do. Their extraordinary experience remains confounding and secreted away inside their shared cranium.
Read the full article in the Walrus.
On the Third World Quarterly imbroglio
Lee Jones, 12 December 2017
The opposition to ‘The Case for Colonialism’, then, was not caused by its academic quality or flawed quality control procedures but rather that it said something that many consider deplorable. Rather than ignoring or rebutting it, though, the knee-jerk reaction today is to mob the author/ speaker and insist they recant or are silenced. The cost of this illiberal reaction is immense. J.S. Mill rightly argued that the truth can only emerge through a clash of ideas and vigorous debate. We must allow potentially erroneous ideas to be aired, because it is only by testing ideas that we can establish their veracity – we cannot know in advance. Whoever participates in refuting erroneous ideas (or hearing/ reading the refutation) benefits because they have a livelier understanding of the truth. Conversely, if we hold certain ideas to be beyond critical debate, they become ‘dead dogma’. We ‘know’ they are correct, but we forget the reasons why. We lose the ability to argue our case, to persuade others. Soon, we can only defend our dogma by silencing those who challenge it.
I had first-hand experience of this when judging a school debating competition a few years back. The teams were debating whether the British National Party should be treated like any other party. The opposition argued that, no, they should not, because the BNP are racist. ‘Why,’ I asked, ‘is it wrong to be racist?’ The students were floored. Clearly they had never been asked this question before. Racism was simply wrong. QED. Eventually they stammered their way to answer: racism is wrong because it upsets people from ethnic minorities. ‘Does that mean we are never allowed to upset people?’ No, they conceded; but they were lost. The reason why racism is wrong, of course, is that races are entirely fictive social categories; ‘races’ are not real, they are just nonsensical concepts that human beings have dreamed up to give (false) meaning to completely minor biological differences like skin colour and eye shape. There is no substantial biological differences between two people of different ethnicities. Therefore, to discriminate on the basis of ethnicity is clearly ridiculous. But the students did not know this. Anti-racism was, to them, dead dogma, not living truth.
In a different way, anti-imperialism and anti-colonialism is becoming ‘dead dogma’, which is increasingly being challenged by apologists for imperialism. In this sense, Bruce Gilley’s essay is hardly unusual – it merely represents a growing cultural change.
Surveys routinely show that substantial portions of the British public think the British empire did a lot of good in the world and we should take pride in it. Right-wing commentators have responded to ‘The Case for Colonialism’ by agreeing that, indeed, colonial rule brought many benefits (as well as costs), and we ought to be less ashamed of our past. Fatuous ‘historian’ Niall Ferguson has been writing defences of Western imperialism for years, in outlets far more high profile than TWQ. More insidiously, contemporary forms of imperialism and colonialism abound. For the last four decades, years, Western states and international organisations have been doing precisely what Gilley’s article recommended: seeking to re-establish Western-dominated systems of rule over peoples in the global south. From the IMF’s Structural Adjustment, to ‘humanitarian intervention’, through ‘state building’, ‘post-conflict reconstruction’, ‘transitional justice’, ‘capacity building’, ‘shared sovereignty’ and – most recently – NATO’s destruction of Libya in pursuit of regime change (in the name, of course, of ‘preventing a genocide’), the West has brutalised hundreds of millions of people. This has often been cheered on by so-called ‘leftists’, ‘liberals’ and so on, as well as being favourably discussed in many academic journals. We ought to be grateful to Bruce Gilley for collating all the best arguments for imperialism in a single place, and at least being honest about what everyone else is far coyer about.
Gilley’s essay gave us an enormous opportunity to explain, clearly and succinctly, why imperialism and colonialism were wrong, and why imperialism has created many of the problems to which its reimposition now masquerades as the solution. My suggested response to the publication was for anti-colonial scholars to collectively write a devastating rebuttal – a crowd-sourced article, if you like – in TWQ. You would then have one pro-imperialist piece (which would only get cited once, robbing Gilley of citations, if that had been his goal), and one anti-imperialist piece. This pair of articles would have been a fantastic teaching resource for anyone leading courses on global politics. Recognise there is a growing controversy in society. Put the essays in front of them. Open the floor for debate. If we are so confident that our anti-imperialist position is correct, surely we should expect students to be convinced by our arguments. Then they would understand – truly understand – why imperialism was, and remains, wrong. Anti-imperialism would become living truth, not dead dogma; and they would be able to take on the defenders of imperialism, and win.
Read the full article on Lee Jones’ blog.
Will the ‘most complete skeleton ever’
transform human origins?
John Hawks, Medium, 13 December 2017
Back in the 1990s, anthropologists observed that the Turkana Boy skeleton of Homo erectus is profoundly different in some ways from the few partial skeletons of Australopithecus, including the ‘Lucy’ skeleton. Focusing on these differences, scientists worked to fit other isolated, fragmentary bones into the same puzzle frame. It seemed possible that many parts of the skeleton all evolved in concert with each other to make Homo different from any hominin that went before.
But skeletons uncovered during the last twenty years have shaken the idea that Homo made such a clear evolutionary break with the past. Two partial skeletons of the new species Australopithecus sediba, together with the new ‘Kadanuumuu’ skeleton attributed to Australopithecus afarensis, showed that some australopiths were like Homo erectus in ways that nobody expected. New skeletal evidence from Dmanisi showed the Turkana Boy skeleton did not tell the whole story about variation in H. erectus. Meanwhile the discoveries of Homo floresiensis and Homo naledi each demonstrated unpredicted ways that some species of our genus look a lot like Australopithecus.
What once seemed like one of the major transitions of evolution is now a series of halting hiccups. But that shouldn’t come as a surprise. All fossil hominin species were close relatives that shared much more than 99 percent of their DNA. As natural selection adapted them to their immediate circumstances, they often developed very similar skeletal features, a process called ‘parallel evolution’. They also may have hybridized, mixing genes and features directly with each other.
In the 1990s, the origin of Homo was a missing persons problem. Anthropologists thought they knew how our genus evolved, and tried searching for fossils at ‘the right time and right place’ to be its ancestor.
Twenty years of new discoveries from the wrong times and wrong places have made the science a lot more interesting. Figuring out how all these new skeletons fit in the picture will give us a shot at learning how our genus took the first steps toward humanity.
Read the full article on Medium.
The stench of death amidst hopes for life
8 December 2017, Spiegel Online, 8 December 2017
The further into the city they drive, the stronger the sickly-sweet smell of decaying corpses becomes. Raqqa was once a thriving city of 200,000, located in the heart of Syria’s breadbasket. Now, it’s like an intermediate realm where life and death, the past and the future, meet. One is not quite over, and the other cannot really begin.
The men in the bus are members of the health committee set up by the civil council that now controls Raqqa and they are looking for the clinics where IS used to treat its fighters. And they are also looking for any materials they can use to rebuild the old state-run hospitals. Everything is in short supply. Indeed, residents have only been allowed back into two city districts, one in the east and one in the west, while the rest of the city is mined, destroyed or both.
Raqqa had been the heart of darkness ever since it fell to IS in 2013. It became the de facto capital of Islamic State, the headquarters of beheadings, terror and inhumanity. It was here the Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s fighters put the heads of beheaded regime soldiers on rusty stakes on Naim Square. It was here that IS first consolidated its power in one city before marching across the border into Iraq, where it conquered Mosul and created a ‘caliphate‘ that at one time ruled over 8 million people.
The fall of Raqqa on October 17, 2017 was symbolic for the fall of IS itself, which today has been almost entirely defeated, at least militarily, in both Syria and Iraq. The battle for Raqqa lasted four months and included over 4,450 American airstrikes. More than 30,000 men and women from the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) fought here, a military alliance led by the Kurds. The SDF allowed 270 IS fighters and 3,500 of their relatives to leave Raqqa in order to end its destruction.
But can a city recover from such a past?
Read the full article on Spiegel Online.
How Ernst Haeckel made plankton beautiful
Tom Whipple, 1843 Magazine, 19 December 2017
The best way to enter the Exposition Universelle, held in Paris in 1900, was via the gate on the Place de la Concorde. As was appropriate for a world fair exhibiting the best technology that the planet had to offer, the gate was studded with electric lights, which illuminated the archway’s intricate geometric design. Today, a viewer might guess that it was inspired by an Islamic palace or perhaps the onion-dome towers of St Basil’s Cathedral in Moscow. Back then, Parisian visitors would have known otherwise. The architect modelled the gate’s design on a drawing he had seen in one of the more unlikely bestsellers of the 19th century. That drawing? A microscopic creature called a radiolaria which, down a microscope, resembled a delicate latticework of interlocking arches and circles.
The sketch was by Ernst Haeckel, a German biologist born in 1834 who – though he had no formal art training – made his fame drawing microscopic sea creatures. With his left eye he would look through the microscope, with his right he would attend to the sketch in progress. He did not do so in the name of art but in the name of science. No camera could capture the world he saw down his lens.
But two things elevated his work beyond mere draftsmanship. The first was that it was beautiful, as ‘The Art and Science of Ernst Haeckel’, a new book reproducing 450 of his prints, makes clear. Somehow these exact and faithful re-creations, albeit with occasional liberties taken in the choice of colour, alluringly captured these creatures’ fragility. His books sold in the hundreds of thousands and the alien ecosystems they illuminated inspired art and architecture, from the works of Gustav Klimt to the design of the Dutch stock exchange. The second was that these drawings were not just aesthetically pleasing; they also made an argument. The creatures were ordered, categorised and carefully placed in ‘trees’ of life (he was one of the first to produce such diagrams), with each animal evolving from a lower life form, right down to the point where animals, plants and bacteria diverged.
In Britain Thomas Huxley was Darwin’s bulldog; in central Europe it was Haeckel. The difference was that Haeckel, unlike Huxley, was advancing Darwin’s ideas not through rhetoric but illustration. But do not confuse that with timidity. Darwin himself was taken aback by the force of the argument these drawings made, as they traced – visually – the origin of species. ‘My dear Haeckel,’ he wrote admiringly, ‘your boldness makes me tremble’. He was right to tremble. Haeckel’s attempts to make a hierarchy of the races as he did with the radiolaria was a precursor to something far darker in Germany.
Read the full article in 1843 Magazine.
The ghost and the princess
Anthony Gottlieb, Lapham’s Quarterly, Winter 2018
Elisabeth was the third of the thirteen children of Frederick V, elector of the Rhenish Palatinate, and Elizabeth Stuart, nicknamed the Queen of Hearts, who was the daughter of James I of England. Frederick was briefly king of Bohemia until he was ousted after the Battle of White Mountain, near Prague, in one of the first conflicts of what became the Thirty Years’ War. The young princess was brought up at first by relatives in Silesia, then moved to her parents’ court in exile at the Hague. It was there that she read Descartes’ Meditations.
Hearing of her interest in his work, Descartes expressed a wish to see her, and they began a correspondence that lasted until two months before his death, in 1650. Descartes dedicated his Principles to Elisabeth, even though he had at the time known her for only a year. His last work, The Passions of the Soul, which dealt with the hybrid states that arise from the ‘intimate union’ of mind and body, was, he said, written for her.
Descartes’ replies to Elisabeth are less testy than his answers to other critics tended to be. She was incisive and brilliant: one biographer of Descartes judged that the middle-aged philosopher ‘learned much more from Elisabeth’s letters than she did from him.’ Their correspondence sometimes wandered into personal matters as well as intellectual ones. Descartes’ letters to the princess include his sole written reference to his mother—oddly, he told Elisabeth that she had died a few days after his birth when in fact it had been fourteen months later.
In her first letter, after modestly introducing herself as an ‘ignorant and intractable person,’ Elisabeth went quickly to the point:
I ask you please to tell me how the soul of a human being (it being only a thinking substance) can determine the bodily spirits, in order to bring about voluntary actions. For it seems that all determination of movement happens through the impulsion of the thing moved, by the manner in which it is pushed by that which moves it, or else by the particular qualities and shape of the surface of the latter. Physical contact is required for the first two conditions, extension for the third. You entirely exclude the one [extension—i.e., spatial dimensions] from the notion you have of the soul, and the other [physical contact] appears to me incompatible with an immaterial thing.
In effect, Elisabeth was turning Descartes’ own criticism of scholastic pseudoscience against him. She saw that his account of causal interaction between a material body and a nonmaterial mind conflicted with his defense of the mechanical philosophy. If pre-Galilean science was empty, then so too was what Descartes said about the pineal gland.
Read the full article in Lapham’s Quarterly.
How a dorm room Minecraft scam brought down the Internet
Garrett M Graff, Wired, 13 December 2017
The IoT attacks began to make big headlines online and off; media reports and security experts speculated that Mirai might have the fingerprints of a looming attack on the internet’s core infrastructure.
‘Someone has been probing the defenses of the companies that run critical pieces of the internet. These probes take the form of precisely calibrated attacks designed to determine exactly how well these companies can defend themselves, and what would be required to take them down,’ wrote security expert Bruce Schneier in September 2016. ‘We don’t know who is doing this, but it feels like a large nation-state. China or Russia would be my first guesses.’
Behind the scenes, the FBI and industry researchers raced to unravel Mirai and zero in on its perpetrators. Network companies like Akamai created online honeypots, mimicking hackable devices, to observe how infected ‘zombie’ devices communicated with Mirai’s command-and-control servers. As they began to study the attacks, they noticed that many of the Mirai assaults had appeared to target gaming servers. Peterson recalls asking, ‘Why are these Minecraft servers getting hit so often?’
The question would lead the investigation deep into one of the internet’s strangest worlds, a $27 game with an online population of registered users—122 million—larger than the entire country of Egypt. Industry analysts report 55 million people play Minecraft each month, with as many as a million online at any given time…
As Peterson and Klein explored the Minecraft economy, interviewing server hosts and reviewing financial records, they came to realize how amazingly financially successful a well-run, popular Minecraft server could be. ‘I went into my boss’s office and said, ‘Am I crazy? It looks like people are making a ton of money,’’ he recalls. ‘These people at the peak of summer were making $100,000 a month.’
The huge income from successful servers had also spawned a mini cottage industry of launching DDoS attacks on competitors’ servers, in an attempt to woo away players frustrated at a slow connection. (There are even YouTube tutorials specifically aimed at teaching MinecraftDDoS, and free DDoS tools available at Github.) Similarly, Minecraft DDoS-mitigation services have sprung up as a way to protect a host’s server investment.
The digital arms race in DDoS is inexorably linked to Minecraft, Klein says.
Read the full article in Wired.
Why I’ve had enough of George Orwell
Ben Judah, The American Interest, 20 November 2017
Most of the Orwell cult only irritates, but one thing legitimately grates: the idea of Eric Blair as a monument to British decency. The author of 1984 not only wrote a deathbed list for the authorities denouncing notable writers and public figures as Communist sympathisers. He had meticulously kept throughout the last decade of his life a paranoid notebook filled with 135 names. These, he had variously labelled what he called ‘cryptos,’ ‘FTs’ for fellow travellers, or those he alleged were Stalinist sympathisers, suspect agents or outright members of the Communist Party of Great Britain. Orwell’s list included figures as eminent as the future leader of the Labour Party Michael Foot, the broadcaster and writer J.B. Priestly, and the historian EH Carr. Whilst occasionally it was right, more often than not the list was absurd.
There is a notable and obvious overlap in Orwell’s notebook between many of 1940s London’s prominent gay, Jewish and anti-colonial public figures and the accused ‘cryptos.’ Orwell’s bigoted commentaries fill his suspects notebook. Jews are clearly labeled (‘Polish Jew’, ‘English Jew’, ‘Jewess’) whilst others were mislabeled (‘Charlie Chaplin — Jewish?’). The African-American bass singer and future civil rights activist Paul Robeson finds himself in Orwell’s list with the note ‘very anti-white,’ whilst the half-Jewish poet Stephen Spender is damned as a ‘sentimental sympathiser… tendency towards homosexuality.’ Orwell was a British McCarthyite before the hour. It was only Orwell’s death in 1950 that saved his reputation from his paranoia.
Yet his many defenders, when (rarely) confronted with these facts, urge us to separate the man from the message or his novels, as if he were T.S. Eliot. The slight difference here is of course that George Orwell is canonised not for something distinct from his politics and his prejudices, in the way the intensely anti-Semitic T.S. Eliot is hailed for The Waste Land. His reputation in Britain today is above all as a moral giant.
Yet one does not have to look very far to find a man known to his friends, such as the journalist Malcolm Muggeridge, as being ‘at heart strongly anti-Semitic,’ a man whom they remembered gratuitously raising the fact or question of his contemporaries’ Jewishness and remarking at the preponderance of Jews working alongside him at the Observer. Not only are Orwell’s diaries full of accusations that the Jews controlled the media; they also record that when presented with rumours that Jews predominated amongst those sheltering in the London Tube during the Blitz, he rushed (‘Must check this’) to verify the baseless accusation, only to then dwell on the fact the Jews made themselves conspicuous.
Orwell’s books, too, are heavily stained with anti-Semitism. His 1933 novelistic impressions and imaginings in Down And Out In Paris And London (where he would regularly visit a Parisian aunt in the cinquième arrondissement) contains constant and violent caricatures of Jews. ‘It would have been a pleasure to flatten the Jew’s nose,’ he recalls. Whilst the Romanians, plongeurs and tramps Orwell meets have names and identities, the Jews are only ever Jews—whether it is ‘a red-haired Jew, an extraordinarily disagreeable man’ he fantasises about punching in Paris, or when he returns to London and sights ‘a Jew, muzzle down in the plate, who was guiltily wolfing down bacon.’ These are not feelings that George Orwell was shy to admit, even in writing. His 1945 musings on the illogicality of anti-Semitism as an ideology goes as far as to ask, ‘Why does anti-Semitism appeal to me?’
Read the full article in American Interest.
The images are, from top down: ‘Resistance, artist unknown, the Refugee Art Project; Balthus, Thérèse Dreaming; Reconstruction of Homo naledi by John Gurche, from National Geographic; ‘Twins’ by Leah Saulnier; Ernst Haekel’s drawings of plankton.