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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.


Centrists are the most hostile
to democracy, not extremists

David Adler, New York Times, 23 May 2018

The warning signs are flashing red: Democracy is under threat. Across Europe and North America, candidates are more authoritarian, party systems are more volatile, and citizens are more hostile to the norms and institutions of liberal democracy.

These trends have prompted a major debate between those who view political discontent as economic, cultural or generational in origin. But all of these explanations share one basic assumption: The threat is coming from the political extremes.

On the right, ethno-nationalists and libertarians are accused of supporting fascist politics; on the left, campus radicals and the so-called antifa movement are accused of betraying liberal principles. Across the board, the assumption is that radical views go hand in hand with support for authoritarianism, while moderation suggests a more committed approach to the democratic process.

Is it true?

Maybe not. My research suggests that across Europe and North America, centrists are the least supportive of democracy, the least committed to its institutions and the most supportive of authoritarianism.

I examined the data from the most recent World Values Survey (2010 to 2014) and European Values Survey (2008), two of the most comprehensive studies of public opinion carried out in over 100 countries. The survey asks respondents to place themselves on a spectrum from far left to center to far right. I then plotted the proportion of each group’s support for key democratic institutions.

Respondents who put themselves at the center of the political spectrum are the least supportive of democracy, according to several survey measures. These include views of democracy as the ‘best political system,’ and a more general rating of democratic politics. In both, those in the center have the most critical views of democracy.

Some of the most striking data reflect respondents’ views of elections. Support for ‘free and fair’ elections drops at the center for every single country in the sample. The size of the centrist gap is striking. In the case of the United States, fewer than half of people in the political center view elections as essential.

Read the full article in the New York Times.


Are centrists really most hostile to democracy?
Philippe Lemoine, Quilette, 1 June 2018

One of the reasons Adler’s op-ed was met with such enthusiasm is that it spoke to a widespread perception that political and cultural elites only care about democracy when the people does what those elites want. The rest of the time, they are happy to ignore popular opinion. A few days ago, the European Budget Commissioner Günther Oettinger lent support to this view when he suggested that markets would soon teach Italians how to vote more wisely. He was commenting on the decision by Sergio Mattarella, the Italian President, to refuse to accept the government proposed by the alliance of populist movements that won the elections a few months ago.

Now, I happen to agree that the elites are often contemptuous of popular opinion when it is not to their liking. But it is important to distinguish that claim from the claim Adler is making and what his data purport to show. His paper examines the attitudes of centrists in general, not just, or even mainly, the attitudes of the elites. Adler’s specific claim is that people who place themselves in the center of the political spectrum are the most hostile to democracy and the most supportive of authoritarianism. This claim may be false even if, among the elites, centrists are particularly hostile to democracy.

Now, while I agree that the elites are typically disdainful of democracy (although I don’t think they have much sympathy for the kind of authoritarian alternatives Adler is discussing in his paper), I don’t think this is particularly true of centrist elites. Indeed, in Adler’s classification (about which, more in a moment), Oettinger would presumably be center-Right and not centrist. Yet it is people in the center – not on the center-Left or the center-Right—who Adler claims are the most hostile to democracy. So, with that in mind, let us turn to the substance of his argument…

The data Adler marshals appear to be clear and unequivocal. So what’s the problem?

First, while Adler’s regressions show that centrism is more strongly associated with anti-democratic attitudes, the coefficient of determination or ‘R-squared’ is tiny. When the variables for age, income and education are not included, it ranges from 0.006 to 0.02. In other words, political ideology, as defined by Adler, explains only between 0.6 percent and 2 percent of the variance in democratic attitudes in the data, which is really not much. If all you know about someone that he is a centrist – or that he belongs to any of the five groups defined by Adler, for that matter – you basically can’t predict anything about how much he supports democracy. (Well, you can predict that he probably supports democracy quite a lot, because most people in every group do, but you can’t predict with any certainty how much less he supports democracy than anyone else.) So, even if the phenomenon Adler claims to have identified were real, it’s not clear that it would be very significant. But it’s not also not clear that the phenomenon in question is real.

Read the full article in Quilette.


How identity politics has divided the left:
An interview with Asad Haider

Asad Haider & Rashmee Kumar,
The Intercept, 27 May 2018

In ‘Mistaken Identity,’ Asad Haider argues that contemporary identity politics is a ‘neutralization of movements against racial oppression’ rather than a progression of the grassroots struggle against racism. Haider, a PhD candidate at the University of California, Santa Cruz, puts the work of radical black activists and scholars in conversation with his personal experiences with racism and political organizing. He charts out the process through which the revolutionary visions of the black freedom movement — which understood racism and capitalism as two sides of the same coin — have been largely replaced with a narrow and limited understanding of identity.

Identity, he argues, has become abstracted from our material relationships with the state and society, which make it consequential to our lives. So when identity serves as the basis for one’s political beliefs, it manifests in division and moralizing attitudes, instead of facilitating solidarity.

‘The framework of identity reduces politics to who you are as an individual and gaining recognition as an individual, rather than your membership in a collectivity and the collective struggle against an oppressive social structure,’ Haider writes. ‘As a result, identity politics paradoxically ends up reinforcing the very norms it set out to criticize’…

Haider’s short book concludes with the paradox of rights as the end goal of mass movements. Instead, he calls for a reclaiming of an ‘insurgent universalism,’ in which oppressed groups position themselves as political actors rather than passive victims. At turns fascinating and provocative, ‘Mistaken Identity’ steps back from Twitter fights and think pieces to contextualize debates on identity politics and reconfigure how race informs leftist movements.

Read the full article in The Intercept.


The mass murder we don’t talk about
Helen Epstein, New York Review of Books,
7 June 2018

During the occupation, roughly a million Hutu peasants fled RPF-controlled areas, citing killings, abductions, and other crimes. An Italian missionary working in the area at the time told Rever that the RPF laid landmines around springs that blew up children, and invaded a hospital in a town called Nyarurema and shot nine patients dead. According to Alphonse Furuma, one of the founders of the RPF, the purpose was to clear the area, steal animals, take over farms, and, presumably, scare away anyone who might think of protesting. The Ugandan army, which trained the RPF, had used similar tactics against its own Acholi people during the 1980s and 1990s, so these accounts seem plausible.

At least one American was angry about the RPF invasion. US ambassador to Rwanda Robert Flaten witnessed how it sent shock waves throughout the country, whose majority-Hutu population had long feared a Tutsi attack from Uganda. Flaten urged the Bush administration to impose sanctions on Uganda for supplying the RPF, noting that Saddam Hussein had invaded Kuwait only two months earlier and been met with near-universal condemnation, a UN Security Council demand that he withdraw, and a US military assault.

By contrast, the Bush administration, which was then supplying most of Uganda’s budget through foreign aid, treated the RPF invasion of Rwanda with nonchalance. When it took place, Museveni happened to be visiting the US. He assured State Department officials that he’d known nothing about it, and promised to prevent weapons from crossing the border and court-martial any defectors who attempted to return to Uganda. He then did neither, with the apparent approval of US diplomats. In 1991 and 1992 US officials met RPF leaders inside Uganda and monitored the flow of weapons across the border, but made no effort to stop it, even when the Rwandan government and its French allies complained.

Years later, Bush’s assistant secretary of state for Africa Herman Cohen expressed regret for failing to pressure Museveni to stop supporting the RPF, but by then it was too late. At the time, Cohen maintained that the US feared that sanctions might harm Uganda’s robust economic growth. But he hasn’t explained why Washington allowed the RPF—by invading Rwanda—to ruin that country’s economy, which had previously been similarly robust. Robert Gribbin, a diplomat then stationed at the US embassy in Kampala, has claimed that sanctions weren’t considered because they might have interfered with Uganda’s ‘nascent democratic initiatives,’ without mentioning that Museveni’s security forces were torturing and jailing members of Uganda’s nonviolent opposition and also pursuing a brutal counterinsurgency in northern Uganda that would claim hundreds of thousands of Ugandan lives.

The UN may also have turned a blind eye to Museveni and Kagame’s schemes. In October 1993 a contingent of UN peacekeepers was deployed to help implement a peace agreement between the RPF and the Rwandan government. One of its mandates was to ensure that weapons, personnel, and supplies didn’t cross into Rwanda from Uganda. But when the peacekeepers’ commander, Canadian general Roméo Dallaire, visited the Ugandan border town of Kabale, a Ugandan officer told him that his peacekeepers would have to provide twelve hours’ notice so that escorts could be arranged to accompany them on patrols. Dallaire protested, since the element of surprise is crucial for such monitoring missions. The Ugandans stood their ground, and also refused to allow Dallaire to inspect an arsenal in Mbarara, a Ugandan town about eighty miles from the Rwandan border, which was rumored to be supplying the RPF.

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


Lyubov Popova Portrait of a philosopher

Time to abandon grand ethical theories?
Julian Baggini, Times Literary Supplement,
22 May 2018

Although truth is not a democracy, philosophers might take some heart in the fact that realism and cognitivism at least enjoy majority support among their colleagues. However, when it comes to normative ethics – actual theories about what makes things right or wrong – the field is hopelessly divided. Just over a quarter of academic philosophers ‘accept or lean towards’ deontology, the view that morality concerns duties to follow rules or fulfil obligations. A few percentage points behind are the consequentialists, who believe that actions are right or wrong to the extent that they result in good or bad consequences. In a not-too distant third place are the proponents of virtue ethics, who reject both rules and utilitarian calculations of the greatest good of the greatest number, preferring to see goodness as inherent in character and habit. Katja Maria Vogt’s Desiring the Good is the latest book to defend a version of this still growing camp. More popular than all three of these leading theories is the refusenik option of ‘other’, backed by nearly a third.

The academic debate suggests that this is not so much a battle to the death as a sometimes fractious effort to build a peace. To defend one theory against others you have to admit that its opponents have a point and show how you can accommodate it. For example, the oldest objection in the book against deontological ethics is that it leads to a mindless rigidity in which common sense is trumped by abstract duty. Immanuel Kant, the greatest deontologist in history, scored an own goal in this respect when he said (or at least strongly suggested) that it would be wrong to lie even to a malicious murderer wanting to know where his intended victim was. Consequentialists, on the other hand, are constantly trying to show why their theory doesn’t justify stringing up the innocent if it prevents a greater loss of life. To put it more starkly, deontologists try to disown the compliant citizen of the Third Reich while many consequentialists seek to distance themselves from the instrumental horrors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. It is perhaps then unsurprising that the most high-profile work of moral philosophy in recent years, Derek Parfit’s monumental On What Matters, attempted to combine deontology, consequentialism and contractarianism.

The uninformed outsider might conclude from this that each theory has a point but that none has all of them. Most philosophers would find this hopelessly woolly. Since the theories say radically different things, they can’t all be right. Either we have to give up some strongly held moral intuitions – learn to love the bomb or admire the steadfastness of the honest informer – or we have to work harder to show that our favoured theory does not have the rebarbative implication it seems to have.

But I suspect the naive outsider is onto something. If we’re not realists or cognitivists, we have to believe that morality cannot be neatly described in a complete and consistent system. That does not mean we have to conclude morality is just an illusion or a matter of preference. There is space in between for a kind of moral seriousness that sees importance in doing the right thing without believing we can ever have a formula for specifying what the right thing is.

Read the full article in the Times Literary Supplement.


Why rich kids are so good at the Marshmallow Test
Jessica McCrory Calarco, The Atlantic, 1 June 2018

The marshmallow test is one of the most famous pieces of social-science research: Put a marshmallow in front of a child, tell her that she can have a second one if she can go 15 minutes without eating the first one, and then leave the room. Whether she’s patient enough to double her payout is supposedly indicative of a willpower that will pay dividends down the line, at school and eventually at work. Passing the test is, to many, a promising signal of future success.

But a new study, published last week, has cast the whole concept into doubt. The researchers—NYU’s Tyler Watts and UC Irvine’s Greg Duncan and Hoanan Quan—restaged the classic marshmallow test, which was developed by the Stanford psychologist Walter Mischel in the 1960s. Mischel and his colleagues administered the test and then tracked how children went on to fare later in life. They described the results in a 1990 study, which suggested that delayed gratification had huge benefits, including on such measures as standardized test scores.

Watts and his colleagues were skeptical of that finding. The original results were based on studies that included fewer than 90 children – all enrolled in a preschool on Stanford’s campus. In restaging the experiment, Watts and his colleagues thus adjusted the experimental design in important ways: The researchers used a sample that was much larger – more than 900 children – and also more representative of the general population in terms of race, ethnicity, and parents’ education. The researchers also, when analyzing their test’s results, controlled for certain factors – such as the income of a child’s household – that might explain children’s ability to delay gratification and their long-term success.

Ultimately, the new study finds limited support for the idea that being able to delay gratification leads to better outcomes. Instead, it suggests that the capacity to hold out for a second marshmallow is shaped in large part by a child’s social and economic background – and, in turn, that that background, not the ability to delay gratification, is what’s behind kids’ long-term success.

The marshmallow test isn’t the only experimental study that has recently failed to hold up under closer scrutiny… This new paper found that among kids whose mothers had a college degree, those who waited for a second marshmallow did no better in the long run – in terms of standardized test scores and mothers’ reports of their children’s behavior – than those who dug right in. Similarly, among kids whose mothers did not have college degrees, those who waited did no better than those who gave in to temptation, once other factors like household income and the child’s home environment at age 3 (evaluated according to a standard research measure that notes, for instance, the number of books that researchers observed in the home and how responsive mothers were to their children in the researchers’ presence) were taken into account. For those kids, self-control alone couldn’t overcome economic and social disadvantages.

Read the full article in the Atlantic.


Arguing about feminism and transgenderism:
an opinionated guide for the perplexed

Kathleen Stock, Medium, 19 May 2018

So much for the basic presuppositions. In the discussion that follows, I will assume the persona of a so-called ‘pro-trans’ ally (actually, I consider myself ‘pro trans’ too, but let that pass) and ask questions in that guise, in many cases repeating versions of points that have been made to me by others. I’ll group the questions under various headings. I’ll answer the questions as myself  – a feminist who is increasingly more radical than liberal, but who doesn’t yet know exactly what she thinks about the GC position overall, and who is trying to think it through with a relatively open mind. So here goes. I’ll start with some persistently made claims in popular culture, and move on from there…

There is no genuine conflict of interests between women-who-aren’t-trans and transwomen

‘Many transpeople indisputably suffer enormously from body dysphoria. You, a non-dysphoric WNT, can’t imagine the suffering of feeling like you are born in the wrong body. If we can do something small to alleviate that suffering, by recognising and validating their status as women, shouldn’t we try do it?’

There are a number of relevant things to say here. The first is obviously, to acknowledge the intense pain of body dysphoria as absolutely tormenting. The second is to say that there are many types of severe and distressing unease, but we do not automatically act to change the world to fit the object of those feelings, in other case. Such change is not a given; there have to be good socially useful reasons for it. A third thing to say is that nonetheless, the intensity of body dysphoria is clearly one important factor to be considered; but that there are other feelings to take into account too.

For instance, a result of the changing conception of ‘woman’, legally and socially, the following social changes are already beginning to be discernible in the UK, and I reasonably assume — in fact, I know — that many WNT have negative feelings about them. (This list isn’t supposed to be exhaustive).

  • WNT are losing access to some formerly female-body-only spaces, where they get naked or sleep (in shop changing rooms, swimming pool cubicles; sleeper coaches; women’s prisons; and bathrooms).
  • Formerly single-sex wards in some UK hospitals are increasingly mixed gender, despite worries about loss of privacy and the danger of sexual assault.
  • Male-bodied TW, nearly all of whom were also originally socialised as men during childhood and adolescence, are allowed on ‘all-women’ shortlists for selecting a Labour Party Member of Parliament. Many doubt that as such they are properly able to represent WNT interests. All-women shortlists were originally designed to increase WNT political representation, which is low…
  • As this video… suggests, young WNT lesbians are increasingly being socially pressured by TW ‘lesbians’ to consider having sex with them, since the latter are allegedly women too.
  • As the last point suggest, some TW who retain a sexual preference for women post-transition are calling themselves ‘lesbians’.
  • WNT lesbians who date online on the basis of photographs and emails have lost the security of knowing for sure they are going on a date with someone without a penis. Unsurprisingly, this matters to them.


Read the full article on Medium.


The Five Star Movement
and the rise of ‘techno-populist’ parties

Chris Bickerton, Social Europe, 28 May 2018

Competence and expertise is at the core of the M5S. Back in 2013, the Movement selected candidates in primary elections by obliging them to upload their CVs, a move which has ironically played out in the ‘CV-gate’ row provoked by Guiseppe Conte’s nomination. This problem-solving approach is at the heart of the M5S’s interest in the internet and it was the basis for the vision of the internet put forward by another of the M5S’s founders, Gianroberto Casaleggio. What mattered about the internet for Casaleggio was its capacity to harness the collective intelligence of mankind in order to solve global problems like climate change and economic crisis. The M5S’s faith in technology is based on its epistemic qualities, on technology’s ability to advance what we know in order to solve the most intractable problems.

The M5S stands for a curious blend of technocracy and populism. Far from being hostile to pragmatic attempts at problem-solving, the M5S incarnates this approach. However, instead of believing that competence is concentrated within a select group of self-appointed experts, the M5S locates expertise within society itself. The M5S stands for the transformation of all citizens into experts, a move that integrates technocratic and populist elements into a single political offer.

Italian politics will continue to surprise all those who follow it, inside Italy and outside. But we should not be surprised by the way the M5S blends populism with technocracy. The M5S is a ‘techno-populist’ party, a kind of political party that we are seeing emerge across Europe, from La République En Marche in France to Ciudadanos in Spain. As appeals to left and right fade away from our politics, appeals to the people and appeals to expertise take the fore. The M5S is an expression of this more fundamental change in our politics.

Read the full article in Social Europe.


Jacob Lawrence Lynching

News of an ‘outrage’ used to mean
something very, very different

ZZ Packer, New York Times, 23 May 2018

As recently as the mid-20th century, Americans used ‘outrage’ very differently: It referred to things like floggings, torture, rape, mutilation, arson and lynching. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, an outrage was ‘an act of violence, esp. one committed against a person or against society; a violent injury or wrong.’ It derived from the Medieval French ultrage and then outrage — an insult or excess — and is related to the Latin ultragium (‘a going beyond’). In other words, an outrage was not an expression of one’s anger at something considered offensive. It was an offense so violent and unseemly that it threatened the foundation of society itself.

In an 1870 Times article, for instance — ‘The Outrage at the City Hall’ — ‘outrage’ clearly means rape: ‘After locking the door, he made an improper proposal, which she rejected. He then threw her down and outraged her, threatening to smother her if she made any noise.’ The Freedmen’s Bureau’s records of ‘murders and outrages’ were, in many cases, the only documents detailing the murders of blacks, which United States papers often framed not as crimes but as ungentlemanly excesses. (‘Wm. Richards whipped a boy early in 1865 until he died in August from the effects by the name of Luke Adams. He also whipped a Negro man nearly to death and supposed he did as he was never seen any more.’) Following the U.S.-Dakota War of 1862, dozens of Dakota were accused of ‘murder and other outrages’ at a sentencing, with 38 hanged in the largest mass execution in the nation’s history.

If ‘outrage’ meant a lynching or rape a mere 150 years ago, how did it come to express something as trivial as one starlet’s retort to another? The answer might lie in its pseudo-etymology, which tempts people to see it as a combination of ‘out’ and ‘rage,’ a simple venting of anger rather than a violence beyond the standards of decency. It was only a matter of time before this pseudo-etymology, or folk etymology, became the main usage. The ‘beyond’ of ultra- gave way to the ‘expulsion’ of out-, and ‘rage’ — having nothing whatsoever to do with the original etymology — bubbled up, as rage often does, to steal focus from everything else.

Read the full article in the New York Times.


Indonesia’s red slaughter
Alex de Jong, 5 June, Jacobin, 2018

Supposed leftists were usually rounded up and imprisoned in makeshift camps before being executed in groups. In some cases, whole villages that were supposed to be pro-PKI were slaughtered. Often, the killing was done by soldiers. More frequently, the murders were committed by right-wing militia composed of members of religious and nationalist groups, who were organized, trained, and equipped by the army.

This means that tens, maybe hundreds, of thousands, were involved in the killings. This diffusion of guilt across society proved very effective in blocking later attempts to find justice.

Robinson shows the crucial role of the army in organizing the massacre… Inside Indonesia, the history of the months-long massacre that enabled Suharto to seize power was manipulated. Decades of propaganda spread a still-influential myth: the violence against ‘Communists’ had been an eruption of popular anger against the treacherous PKI after it had tried to seize power. It was perhaps regrettable that it had gone so far, but the violence was essentially self-defense.

The Indonesian army, so the story continues, had tried its best to contain it while acting decisively to save the nation from the Communist conspiracy. In Western accounts of the violence, pontifications about ‘Indonesian culture’ served as an additional explanation for the massive bloodletting. The normally ‘peaceful’ and ‘placid’ Indonesians had ‘run amok.’ But now, under the rule of Suharto, the country was peaceful and advancing.

As Robinson shows, this falsification of history was facilitated by Western officials and journalists who repeated the army line. A particular egregious example is Indonesia: Crisis and Transformation 19651968, a book from 1990 by the US ambassador to Indonesia at the time, Marshall Green — someone who, Robinson shows, was in a good position to know much more about what actually happened. The book repeats all the myths; the PKI and the army had been engaged in ‘a prolonged armed struggle,’ a ‘life-and-death struggle’ even, during which Suharto emerged ‘as the man who could save Indonesia from communism and chaos.’

Read the full article in Jacobin.


The fall of ‘Italy’s Stalingrad’:
symbol of left wages war on migrants and poor

Giorgio Ghiglione, Guardian 22 May 2018

This once industrial city used to be the home of four large metalwork factories: Falck, Ercole Marelli, Magneti Marelli and Breda. Unsurprisingly, it also hosted a large, left-leaning and highly unionised working class. In the 1950s, more than half of Sesto’s 32,000 inhabitants were Communist party members. Since then, the population has more than doubled. For 72 years the left ruled the city uninterrupted.

Between the 1950s and late 1980s, Communist-led councils built public housing and guest houses for workers flocking to the cities. They built nurseries and organised summer camps for the workers’ children, and opened a music and dance school catering to the working class, staffed with teachers from Milan’s prestigious La Scala opera theatre.

In the 1990s, the factories began to shut down. Ercole Marelli and Breda are gone for good, while Falck has been reduced to a much smaller factory, producing renewable energy. One industrial facility became a supermarket, another a cultural space and a third is being transformed into a large hospital.

‘The first casting of steel in Falck factories was made in 1906, the last one in 1996’, recalls Antonio Pizzinato, a former secretary with the CGIL trade union. ’That was the end of Sesto as an industrial city.’

The old system began to weaken. Without the factories, unions and leftwing parties lost their base. Sesto evolved into a dormitory town, with much of its workforce commuting to Milan. And yet the left remained in power – albeit less strongly that in the past – until 2017. Many say it was the fear of Muslim immigrants that brought the right to power.

Sesto is home to around 5,000 Muslims, most of them immigrants or children of immigrants. Their community, dating back to the 1990s, was not a source of tension until recently. Things changed in December 2016, when Anis Amri, who killed 12 people in a truck attack on a Christmas market in Berlin, was shot by police in Sesto. Amri, a Tunisian, had lived in Italy before moving to Germany but Italian authorities say he had no particular connection with Sesto – most likely he was passing through the city trying to go south – yet the fact he was found and shot here was enough to scare some residents.

Read the full article in the Guardian.


Why big data cannot fix migration statistics
Stephan Scheel & Funda Ustek-Spilda,
Refugees Deeply, 5 June 2018

We are witnessing the datafication of mobility and migration management across the world. In the context of Europe, programs like Eurosur use satellite images for surveilling the E.U.’s maritime borders, while the so-called hotspot approach aims to register all newly arriving migrants in biometric databases. Similarly, in the field of asylum, biometric databases are built for purposes of refugee management, while asylum seekers in Greece are distributed cash-cards.

These new types and collections of data do not only change border and migration management practices. They also reconfigure how human mobility and migration are known and constituted as intelligible objects of government. The crucial innovation driving this datafication is the digitization of information that was previously stored – if at all – on paper files. This information is now available in a range of databases and can – at least in theory – be searched, exchanged, linked and analyzed with unprecedented scope and efficiency.

As a consequence, ‘Big Data’ is promoted as promising alternative sources for producing more reliable statistics on international migration. Several national statistical institutes (NSIs), international organizations and private actors are currently developing alternative methodologies for the production of migration statistics, for instance, by analyzing mobile phone data, geotagged social media data from platforms like Twitter or Facebook or internet searches with particular search terms. Likewise, the UNHCR stresses the (potential) role of social media to inform humanitarian response.

The ‘huge potential of Big Data’ to provide accurate and up-to-date accounts of international migration is promoted. Nevertheless, the promises driving these efforts are just as big as the data they refer to. In this post, we briefly discuss three reasons why it is rather unlikely that Big Data will simply solve the most important known limitations of migration statistics. Each reason is related to a form of politics which, taken together, shape the quantification of migration.

Read the full article in Refugees Deeply.


La Lutte Continue

1968: Year of counter-revolution
Todd Gitlin, NYR Daily, 8 May 2018

The familiar collages of 1968’s collisions do evoke the churning surfaces of events, reproducing the uncanny, off-balance feeling of 1968. But they fail to illuminate the meaning of events. If the texture of 1968 was chaos, underneath was a structure that today can be – and needs to be – seen more clearly.

The left was wildly guilty of misrecognition. Although most on the radical left thrilled to the prospect of some kind of revolution, ‘a new heaven and a new earth’ (in the words of the Book of Revelation), the main story line was far closer to the opposite—a thrust toward retrogression that continues, though not on a straight line, into the present emergency. The New Deal era of reform fueled by a confidence that government could work for the common good was running out of gas. The glory years of the civil rights movement were over. The abominable Vietnam War, having put a torch to American ideals, would run for seven more years of indefensible killing.

The main new storyline was backlash. Even as President Nixon assumed a surprising role as environmental reformer, white supremacy regrouped. Frightened by campus uprisings, plutocrats upped their investments in ‘free market’ think tanks, university programs, right-wing magazines, and other forms of propaganda. Oil shocks, inflation, and European and Japanese industrial revival would soon rattle American dominance. What haunted America was not the misty specter of revolution but the solidifying specter of reaction.

Even as established cultural authorities were defrocked, political authorities revived and entrenched themselves. In so many ways, the counterculture, however domesticated or ‘co-opted’ in Herbert Marcuse’s term, became the culture. Within a few years, in public speech and imagery, in popular music and movies, on TV (All in the FamilyM*A*S*HThe Mary Tyler Moore Show) and in the theater (HairOh! Calcutta!), profanity and obscenity taboos dissolved. Gays and feminists stepped forward, always resisted but rarely held back for long. It would subsequently be, as the gauchistes of May ’68 in Paris liked to say, forbidden to forbid.

In the realm of political power, though, for all the many subsequent social reforms, 1968 was more an end than a beginning. After les évènements in France in May came June’s parliamentary elections, sweeping General De Gaulle’s rightist party to power in a landslide victory. After the Prague Spring and the promise of ‘socialism with a human face,’ the tanks of the Soviet-run Warsaw Pact overran Czechoslovakia. In Latin America, the Guevarist guerrilla trend was everywhere repulsed, to the benefit of the right. In the US, the ‘silent majority’ roared. As the divided Democratic Party lay in ruins, Richard Nixon’s Southern strategy turned the Party of Lincoln into the heir to the Confederacy. As the right consolidated around an alliance of Christian evangelicals, racial backlashers, and plutocrats, the left was unable, or unwilling, to fuse its disparate sectors. The left was maladroit at achieving political power; it wasn’t even sure that was its goal.

Read the full article in the NYR Daily.


What do we mean when we call art ‘necessary’?
Lauren Oyler, New York Times, 8 May 2018

The prospect of ‘necessary’ art allows members of the audience to free themselves from having to make choices while offering the critic a nifty shorthand to convey the significance of her task, which may itself be one day condemned as dispensable. The effect is something like an absurd and endless syllabus, constantly updating to remind you of ways you might flunk as a moral being. It’s a slightly subtler version of the 2016 marketing tagline for the first late-night satirical news show with a female host, ‘Full Frontal With Samantha Bee’: ‘Watch or you’re sexist.’

This usage seems to gesture everywhere but at the art itself, both as an admonishment to the audience and an indictment of the world that has begotten the themes contained in the work being discussed. If the point of art might once have been found in its pointlessness, this attempt to infuse it with purpose runs the risk of rendering it even more irrelevant. On the bright side, we’d have less homework…

An art museum is not a nail salon, but codifying an exhibition, novel or film as ‘necessary’ is a similar camouflaging maneuver that saddles an aesthetic pursuit with moral weight. Often it is burdensome to the audience, the work and the artist alike. When New York magazine’s Matt Zoller Seitz calls the mini-series ‘Waco’ ‘necessary and sometimes powerful,’ he separates the work’s role from its ability to stir emotion, and in turn protects the show from any qualitative assessment. In a short review of Mohsin Hamid’s ‘Exit West,’ which tells the story of two refugees fleeing an unnamed country during a civil war, for the annual ‘Tournament of Books’ published by The Morning News, Patrick Hoffman calls the novel ‘a full-fledged masterpiece; it’s necessary, timely, wise and beautiful,’ and in doing so, makes it seem as if ‘necessary’ is a precondition to ‘masterpiece’ — which in turn is downgraded, through the urgency of necessity, to second-string praise.

Along with obligation and requirement, ‘necessary’ can also suggest inevitability, even predestination, the sense that a work is both mandatory for the audience’s political education and a foregone response to the world as it is. There are many noncomprehensive adjectives we can apply to good art: moving, clever, joyous, sad, innovative, boring, political. But good art doesn’t have to be any of these things, necessarily; what we want out of it is possibility. To call a work ‘necessary’ keeps the audience from that possibility and saps the artist of autonomy as well. That it’s frequently bestowed on artists from marginalized backgrounds pressures these artists to make work that represents those backgrounds. Worse, it subtly frames their output as an inevitability, something that would have happened regardless of creative agency, and thus suggests that these artists are less in control of their decisions and skills than their unnecessary counterparts.

When applied to bad art with good politics, ‘necessary’ allows the audience to avoid engaging with a work in aesthetic terms, which tend to be more ambiguous and difficult. When applied to good art with good, or even ambivalent, politics, it renders aesthetic achievement irrelevant. Not only is that depressing, it also nullifies the political argument in favor of art in the first place: Why write a novel when a manifesto will do?

Read the full article in the New York Times.


Premature mortality
and the long decline of hope in America

Carol Graham, Brookings, 10 May 2018

For the first time in this millennium, unemployment in the United States is below 4 percent. Most parts of the economy are growing at a respectable rate, and market confidence is up. So why are Americans so despondent? The answer to this question matters not just for America but – as the political and policy shifts of the last two years have shown – for many other parts of the world.

In part, the despair is due to the happenings in the ‘other America’: blue-collar workers who have experienced declining incomes even as new technologies and skills power success in thriving sectors. Those activities are so far removed from their daily lives they might as well be happening in another country. Many of these people live in the heartland, in hollowed out manufacturing towns and decaying cities. As these places have lost business, people who still live there have lost hope.

One marker of this lost hope is the 15 percent of prime-age males who have dropped out of the labor force. For the purpose of calculating the headline unemployment rate, they have ceased even to be a statistic. Another is the surprising amount of support for an antiestablishment, anti-immigrant, and xenophobic political agenda intended to incite anger in lieu of proposing realistic remedies. The starkest marker, though, is the rise of ‘deaths of despair’ in the United States: preventable deaths due to suicide, opioid and other drug overdoses, and deaths related to poor health behaviors. The U.S. is the only rich country in the world where mortality rates are increasing rather than falling.

In recent work published in the Journal of Population Economics, Sergio Pinto and I explore the role of hope—or its absence—in explaining recent trends in premature mortality. We use metrics of well-being and ill-being from Gallup surveys and county-level Center for Disease Control data on deaths of despair. Our metrics of desperation, stress, and worry map closely with trends in deaths of despair at the level of the individual, race, and place. The dimension of well-being that is most closely associated with higher mortality rates is lack of hope, a marker that is starkest among whites who have not completed college. Conversely, individuals and places with higher levels of hope, which tend to be urban and more racially diverse, display much lower levels of deaths of despair.

Read the full article in Brookings.


Five blood transfusions,
one bone marrow transplant — all before birth

Denise Grady, New York Times, 25 May 2018

In the three months before she was even born, Elianna Constantino received five blood transfusions and a bone-marrow transplant. All were given with a needle passed through her mother’s abdomen and uterus, into the vein in her umbilical cord.

Elianna, born Feb. 1 with a robust cry and a cap of gleaming black hair, has a genetic disease that usually kills a fetus before birth. The condition, alpha thalassemia major, leaves red blood cells unable to carry oxygen around the body, causing severe anemia, heart failure and brain damage.

The transfusions in the womb kept her alive, but only treated her illness. The bone-marrow transplant has the potential to cure it. Whether it will succeed is still too soon to tell.

Elianna and her mother, Nichelle Obar, were the first patients in an experiment that pushes the limits of fetal therapy, a field already known for its daring.

If the treatment works, it could open the door to using bone-marrow transplants before birth to cure not just Elianna’s blood disease but also sickle cell anemia, hemophilia and other hereditary disorders, some so severe that the prenatal diagnosis may lead parents to end the pregnancy.

Read the full article in the New York Times.


Samuel Beckett

Where lost bodies roam
Fintan O’Toole, New York Review of Books,
7 June 2018

In April 1962, Samuel Beckett sent a clipping from the French press to his lover Barbara Bray: a report of the arrest in Paris of a member of the Organisation armée secrète. The OAS was a far-right terror gang whose members were drawn largely from within the French military. It had carried out bombings, assassinations, and bank robberies with the aim of overthrowing the government of Charles de Gaulle and stopping the concession of independence to Algeria. Among its targets had been Beckett’s publisher and friend Jérôme Lindon, whose apartment and office were both bombed by the OAS.

The press clipping detailed the capture of an army lieutenant who would be charged with leading an OAS attack on an arms depot outside Paris and a raid on a bank in the city. His name was Lieutenant Daniel Godot. Sending it to Bray was a typical expression of Beckett’s black humor. But it also serves as a reminder that his work is not an exhalation of timeless existential despair. It is, as Emilie Morin’s groundbreaking study, Beckett’s Political Imagination, shows, enmeshed in contemporary politics.

That such a reminder should be necessary is one of the more remarkable facts of twentieth-century cultural history. Beckett, after all, risked his life to work for the French Resistance, even though he was a citizen of a neutral country, Ireland. The astonishing works with which he revolutionized both the theater and the novel – Waiting for Godot and the trilogy of MolloyMalone Dies, and The Unnamable – were written immediately after World War II and the Holocaust. Vladimir’s question in Godot, ‘Where are all these corpses from?,’ and its answer, ‘A charnel-house! A charnel-house!,’ hang over much of his writing. Torture, enslavement, hunger, displacement, incarceration, and subjection to arbitrary power are the common fates of Beckett’s characters.

Yet there is a long tradition of seeing him as not merely apolitical but antipolitical. In his introduction to The Complete Short Prose, for example, the brilliant Beckett scholar Stan Gontarski writes:

The focus of injustice in Beckett is almost never local, civil, or social, but cosmic, the injustice of having been born.

Deirdre Bair, in her pioneering 1978 biography of Beckett, called him ‘consistent in his apolitical behavior,’ claimed that politics was ‘anathema’ to him, and described him as having ‘walked away from any conversation that veered into politics.’ For the English left-wing playwrights of the 1960s, he was a disengaged pessimist with nothing to contribute to political discourse except a disempowering despair. In France, Maurice Blanchot’s early advocacy of Beckett as (in Morin’s summary) the creator of ‘a narrative voice divorced from recognizable political and historical parameters’ established an enduring template. Another of his great advocates, Theodor Adorno, happily conceded that ‘it would be…ridiculous to have him testify as a key political witness.’

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


Citation analysis reveals the game changers
Gemma Conroy, Nature Index, 29 May 2018

Fewer than two out of every 10,000 scientific papers remain influential in their field decades after publication, finds an analysis of five million articles published between 1980 and 1990.

Among these seminal papers is the first tool for sequencing the genome, a longitudinal study linking the hepatitis B virus to higher rates of liver cancer among Chinese men, and the use of hypnosis to investigate the role of emotions in memory.

These types of papers represent ‘the shoulders on which the rest of research stands’ says Lutz Bornmann, a sociologist of science at the Max Planck Society in Germany, who co-authored the study in the Journal of Documentation along with colleagues in China. While most papers see a gradual drop in citations two to three years after publication, the papers identified by Bornmann continue to gather a high number of citations decades after being published. This suggests that they establish the foundation for many branches of science.

To identify these classic papers, the researchers analysed the citation impact of scientific articles published between 1980 and 1990 over a period of 25 years. They categorised papers as fairly, remarkably, or outstandingly cited, based on how much higher their citation impact was from the mean in their field.

Of the five million papers, only 1,013 were outstandingly cited, indicating that they maintained a high number of citations for decades after publication. A subset of 40 papers stood out as being exceptionally cited, many of which were in the fields of chemistry, internal medicine, biochemistry, and molecular biology. Some 80% of these standout papers were authored by researchers based in the United States.

Read the full article in Nature Index.


Oxford was more likely to offer a place to the best black candidates last year – but its race problem is more complicated than that
Fact Check, 24 May 2018

Oxford can only deal with pupils who apply in the first place. In 2017, 396 UK-domiciled black people (including African, Caribbean and ‘other’) applied for an undergraduate place at the university out of 12,583. That’s about 3 per cent of all applications – roughly in line with the percentage of black people who live in the UK. But as a raw number, it’s very small. And then Oxford only offers places to a fraction of those applicants – 65 people in 2017. And then only some of those students who get offers will only take up a place. Last year the number was just 48.

So low admissions means the final number of black students who actually attend Oxford is always likely to be very small, even if you leave aside any question of bias or prejudice. Scatter these black students among the the 30-odd Oxford colleges that take undergraduates, and it becomes easier to see why colleges might have tiny numbers – or even none at all in some years – without this necessarily being evidence of racism.

The minimal increase in state school intake to Oxford over the last five years appears to show that slow progress is being made.Better outreach at state schools could widen the pool of potential candidates for Oxford and Cambridge places, which is small from the outset.

So how many black students get offers? This is the bit the university has the most control over, and it’s where we would expect to find evidence of systemic bias.

On the face of it, black students do appear to get a raw deal at the offers stage: only about 16 per cent of black applicants receive an offer, compared to 26 per cent of white applicants. But there’s a complicating factor…

Black students are choosing the most competitive courses You’re less likely to get an offer if you apply for an over-subscribed subject, where competition for places is higher. And black students are much more likely to apply for the most popular courses than for niche subjects with less competition. Oxford says that between 2015 and 2017, 41 per cent of applications from black pupils were for Medicine and Law, compared to about 12 per cent for white students.

To understand whether there’s evidence black students are being discriminated against, you need to allow for the courses people apply for. And you need to allow for their predicted grades, to make sure we are making a fair comparison between pupils of similar academic attainment.

Oxford was very slightly more likely to offer a place to black candidates in 2017, once you allow for course and grades

Read the full article on Fact Check.


A silver thread: Islam in Eastern Europe
Jacob Mikanowski, LA Review of Books, 15 May 2018

There has never been an Eastern Europe without Islam. Eastern Europe owes its existence to the intermingling of languages, of cultures, and, perhaps above all, of faiths. It is the meeting place of the Catholic West and the Orthodox East, of Ashkenazi and Sephardic Jewry, of militant Islam and crusading Christianity, of Byzantine mystics and Sufi saints.

Once, this plurality would have been obvious. A visitor to Vilnius in the 17th century would have heard six languages spoken in the streets; they could have heard prayers conducted in at least five more. The city had churches belonging to five denominations, as well as a synagogue and a mosque. Some examples of ‘Lithuanian’ mosques still exist in Poland and Belarus. Wooden and square, they look just like parish churches, with the minor exception of the ornament at the top: a slim silver crescent instead of a cross.

If anything marks Eastern Europe as a place of its own, and not someone else’s periphery, it is this function as gateway and bridge between and among different traditions. And yet, again and again, the role of Islam in the making of this tapestry has been forgotten or disavowed. That is a grave mistake. Islam is the silver thread holding the whole together. Thirty years ago, the historian Larry Wolff argued that Eastern Europe was a product of the Enlightenment. When Western (principally French) intellectuals began to fashion their countries as realms of progress and rationality, they created the ‘East’ as a flattering foil for their ambitions, filled as it was (in their eyes at least) with backwardness and superstition.

It seems to me that Wolff is only partially right. I think a notion of a separate Eastern Europe predates the Enlightenment by a few hundred years. I think, moreover, that its genesis is intimately tied to the introduction of Islam to the Balkans and southern steppes and, with it, the creation of a shatter-zone between empires stretching from the Adriatic to the Black Sea. This shatter-zone consisted of a sharp border and a soft frontier. Armies and lone warriors fought along the border. People, stories, and miracles crossed the frontiers. So many of the legends that came to define the nations of the region stem from this space of contact. And everywhere you look, relationships that appear at first to be based on enmity turn out instead to be characterized by mutual influence, mimicry, friendship, and even love.

Read the full article in the LA Review of Books.


Image converted using ifftoany

What is spacetime?
George Musser, Nature, 9 May 2018

A kitchen magnet neatly demonstrates the problem that physicists face. It can grip a paper clip against the gravity of the entire Earth. Gravity is weaker than magnetism or than electric or nuclear forces. Whatever quantum effects it has are weaker still. The only tangible evidence that these processes occur at all is the mottled pattern of matter in the very early universe—thought to be caused, in part, by quantum fluctuations of the gravitational field.

Black holes are the best test case for quantum gravity. ‘It’s the closest thing we have to experiments,’ says Ted Jacobson of the University of Maryland, College Park. He and other theorists study black holes as theoretical fulcrums. What happens when you take equations that work perfectly well under laboratory conditions and extrapolate them to the most extreme conceivable situation? Will some subtle flaw manifest itself?

General relativity predicts that matter falling into a black hole becomes compressed without limit as it approaches the center—a mathematical cul-de-sac called a singularity. Theorists cannot extrapolate the trajectory of an object beyond the singularity; its time line ends there. Even to speak of ‘there’ is problematic because the very spacetime that would define the location of the singularity ceases to exist. Researchers hope that quantum theory could focus a microscope on that point and track what becomes of the material that falls in.

Out at the boundary of the hole, matter is not so compressed, gravity is weaker and, by all rights, the known laws of physics should still hold. Thus, it is all the more perplexing that they do not. The black hole is demarcated by an event horizon, a point of no return: matter that falls in cannot get back out. The descent is irreversible. That is a problem because all known laws of fundamental physics, including those of quantum mechanics as generally understood, are reversible. At least in principle, you should be able to reverse the motion of all the particles and recover what you had.

Read the full article in Nature.


My preferred pronouns?
Justin EH Smith, 25 May 2018

I was at an academic conference last week, somewhere in America, where we were invited by our hosts to place a ‘preferred pronoun’ sticker on our nametags. ‘If you could pick one of those up during the next break, we’d appreciate it.’ The options were, ‘He’, ‘She’, ‘They’, ‘Ask Me’, and one with a blank space for a write-in. Coming from my adoptive France, I had heard of this new practice in my country of origin, but somehow I had convinced myself that it was mostly mythical. Yet there were the stickers, and there were all my fellow participants, wearing them with straight faces.

I did not pick one up. As is my practice at these events, I do not even wear the nametag that has been provided for me, so there would have been nothing to put the sticker on. But if there had been any direct and explicit pressure on me to wear one, rather than just a general announcement, I would have been constrained to explicitly refuse to do what was being asked of me. I would have been a conscientious objector.

In the future I will avoid meetings at which I know in advance, or I have a reasonable expectation, that there will be such stickers. I am strongly opposed to this convention, I think it is ridiculous and offensive, and I am only thankful that, for now, it is only a convention and not a compulsion. But the line is not so clear. It is not a compulsion for me to wear a sticker, because I am privileged and basically indifferent as to whether I ever get invited to an academic event again. The quality of my life is enhanced by not going to academic events, and reduced by going to them. If I can’t go because social pressure would require me to wear a sticker, well, tant mieux. But this is not the case for younger scholars who are precariously employed. It is in part for their sake that I feel the need to make explicit my opposition to this practice.

Read the full article on Justin Smith’s blog.


The ashtray has landed: The case of Morris v Kuhn
Philip Kitcher, LA Review of Books, 18 May 2018

Like James, Kuhn recognizes something independent of observers, something that pushes back against their efforts to interact with it. Both acknowledge reality. But they distinguish reality from the world in which the subject of experience lives. That world contains objects, with determinate boundaries; it contains kinds of things; it contains processes with beginnings and endings. It is a structured world, not a chaos, not a ‘blooming, buzzing confusion.’ We naturally think of our world as containing levers and pendulums, hormones and neurons, financial exchanges and court procedures. In doing so, we reorganize the world our predecessors inhabited. Their structures no longer suit the way we live now. Reality admits many ways of dividing it — although by no means all; it often pushes back. There are no privileged joints at which it must be carved. The worlds of human experience result in part from our biological capacities, and in part from the divisions and connections we construct in attempts to serve our evolving purposes. To quote a phrase from Hilary Putnam, the brilliant subject of one of Morris’s interviews, there isn’t ‘a ready-made world.’ (In their way, those interviews, too, are brilliant, lively contributions to the case against the accused. Yet the words on the page are, inevitably, a selection from what those interviewed said, and it is reasonable to ask if they would always endorse the decontextualized implications of the printed version.)

The realism Kuhn denies is much stronger than any dreamed of in Morris’s excursions into philosophy. It consists of the claim that reality comes pre-packaged, divided up in advance of our cognition of it. The position Kuhn envisages — derived from James, and elaborated in Kuhnian directions by Dewey — may turn out in the end to be incoherent or unsustainable. But it is far more complex and interesting than Morris allows. It poses interesting challenges to the hyper-realism of the ready-made world, and should not be brushed aside by dismissive gestures, citations of authority, or Johnsonian exercises.

Read the full article in the LA Review of Books.


How a pioneer of machine learning
became one of its sharpest critics

Keith Hartnett & Judea Pearl, Atlantic, 19 May 2018

Hartnett: People are excited about the possibilities for AI. You’re not?

Pearl: As much as I look into what’s being done with deep learning, I see they’re all stuck there on the level of associations. Curve fitting. That sounds like sacrilege, to say that all the impressive achievements of deep learning amount to just fitting a curve to data. From the point of view of the mathematical hierarchy, no matter how skillfully you manipulate the data and what you read into the data when you manipulate it, it’s still a curve-fitting exercise, albeit complex and nontrivial.

Hartnett: The way you talk about curve fitting, it sounds like you’re not very impressed with machine learning.

Pearl: No, I’m very impressed, because we did not expect that so many problems could be solved by pure curve fitting. It turns out they can. But I’m asking about the future—what next? Can you have a robot scientist that would plan an experiment and find new answers to pending scientific questions? That’s the next step. We also want to conduct some communication with a machine that is meaningful, and meaningful means matching our intuition. If you deprive the robot of your intuition about cause and effect, you’re never going to communicate meaningfully. Robots could not say ‘I should have done better,’ as you and I do. And we thus lose an important channel of communication.

Hartnett: What are the prospects for having machines that share our intuition about cause and effect?

Pearl: We have to equip machines with a model of the environment. If a machine does not have a model of reality, you cannot expect the machine to behave intelligently in that reality. The first step, one that will take place in maybe 10 years, is that conceptual models of reality will be programmed by humans.

The next step will be that machines will postulate such models on their own and will verify and refine them based on empirical evidence. That is what happened to science; we started with a geocentric model, with circles and epicycles, and ended up with a heliocentric model with its ellipses. Robots, too, will communicate with each other and will translate this hypothetical world, this wild world, of metaphorical models.

Read the full article in the Atlantic.


lampedusa boat

Sicily’s missing-migrant detectives
Leanne Tory-Murphy, Refugees Deeply, 18 May 2018

Giorgia Mirto gestures at the lines of simple metal rods topped with laminated signs in a forgotten corner of a crowded cemetery in the Sicilian port city of Palermo. The signs, stained with rust and mildew, read ‘sconosciuto’ or ignoto’ – they mark the graves of the unidentified victims of migrant shipwrecks.

Mirto’s animated presence and bright blue eyes bely the gravity of her mission. As one of the founders of the Mediterranean Missing Project, she has dedicated her life to documenting what she calls border deaths, people who die or go missing while crossing the sea.

The Mediterranean has been the deadliest migratory route in the world in recent years, with more than 8,000 deaths in 2016 and 2017. So far in 2018 there have been more than 600 deaths. The vast majority of the bodies of deceased migrants that are found remain unidentified, and many are never found at all, leaving thousands of families in the dark as to the fate of their loved ones.

Mirto has spent years analyzing news reports, poring through police documents and visiting rows of unnamed graves in towns and cities throughout Italy’s south. Her quest is motivated by a sense of obligation and her own history of loss. Her grandfather was kidnapped by the Mafia and never seen again. ‘We don’t know what happened,’ she says, ‘no one has been charged and we never got the body in order to bury it.’

When people die in a ‘mass disaster’ – more than five deaths – the standard procedure developed by the Red Cross is to begin Disaster Victim Identification, a process driven by forensic police and medical specialists. Despite the dozens of shipwrecks on the Central Mediterranean route since 1990 only three cases have been treated as mass disasters by Italy’s interior ministry. This means that whether victims are identified or not is entirely at the discretion of local authorities.

When there is a plane crash, victims are identified and families informed. Mirto compares what has happened in the Mediterranean to multiple plane crashes but says the resources and will to identify the victims has most often been lacking.

Read the full article in Refugees Deeply.


Strange investigators
Marcia Lynx Qualey, The Believer, April/May 2018

When civil war broke out in Lebanon in the mid-1970s, Lebanese art had just gone through an avant-garde flowering, much of it detached from the grit of daily life and driven by a search for its own text-centric truths. The war’s opening battle, in 1975, between the Palestine Liberation Organization and the Kataeb Christian militia, brought writers, along with everyone else, to the ground. The initial conflict inspired alliances in accord with relatively clear political and religious affiliations. A young Elias Khoury, compelled by the injustices done to Palestinians—which he would later explore in Gate of the Sun—fought on the Palestinian side. But Khoury didn’t last long as a simultaneous novelist and soldier; his 1981 novel, White Masks, drove a wedge between him and the PLO.

There is nothing anti-Palestinian, or even particularly critical of the PLO, in the novel. But while White Masks (translated by Maia Tabet) is utterly grounded in the daily lives of ordinary Beirut-dwellers, there is no clear truth to it: it’s a whodunit in which we never learn who did it. White Masks records an unnamed narrator’s attempt to understand what he describes as the ‘wonderful, dreadful’ murder of low-level civil servant Khalil Ahmed Jaber. He searches the neighborhood for stories, talks to the trash men who discovered the body, but never manages to excavate the murderer’s identity. At first, he feints toward revelation, but then he veers off into several entirely new stories and concludes the novel with a searching ‘provisional epilogue.’ ‘Is the identification of the murderer the problem?’ he wonders. ‘Would it help us understand the motives for the crime?’

White Masks is one of a number of Lebanese Civil War novels in which ordinary citizens search for a killer, for the most part without finding one. As the war dragged into its second decade, truth—the idea and the thing—got caught in the tangle of shifting alliances. According to the novelist Iman Humaydan, who was a teenager when the war broke out, the war ‘destroyed mainstream ethics.’ Contemporary Lebanese fiction was reborn in the crucible of a fifteen-year war that left more than 120,000 dead. After a while, instead of looking for truth, many writers began to look for something more like an anti-truth, something beyond the binary of truth and lies.

Read the full article in The Believer.


Looking in the wrong places
Sabine Hossenfelder, Edge, 30 April 2018

The field that I mostly work in is the foundations of physics, which is, roughly speaking, composed of cosmology, the foundations of quantum mechanics, high-energy particle physics, and quantum gravity. It’s a peculiar field because there hasn’t been new data for almost four decades, since we established the Standard Model of particle physics. There has been, of course, the Higgs particle that was discovered at the LHC in 2012, and there have been some additions to the Standard Model, but there has not been a great new paradigm change, as Kuhn would have put it. We’re still using the same techniques, and we’re still working with the same theories as we did in the 1970s.

That makes this field of science rather peculiar and probably explains why there hasn’t been much progress. But it’s not like we don’t have any questions that need to be answered. There are a lot of questions that have been around for decades. For example, what is dark energy? What is dark matter? What are the masses of the Standard Model particles? And what’s up with the foundation of quantum mechanics? Is a theory that’s fundamentally not deterministic, where we cannot predict outcomes, the last word that we have, or is there something more to it? Is there maybe another underlying structure to reality?

Why do people continue to work on it if it doesn’t look like anything has been happening? It’s a good question. The reason is that we are all pretty sure that there is more, but we haven’t reached the fundamental level. Maybe we will never reach it. Certainly, the theories that we have right now are not all there is. The question is, of course, if we don’t have any guidance by experiment, how do we make progress? And are we doing the right thing?

Very plausibly, the main reason why we haven’t made progress is that we’re not doing the right thing. We’re looking in the wrong places. We are letting ourselves be guided by the wrong principles. It’s about time that we rethink this because, clearly, it’s not working. One of the things that I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about is what would be good principles to look at. Interestingly, in high-energy particle physics and also in cosmology, people pay a lot of attention to aesthetic criteria that they use to select theories they think are promising. And we know that paying attention to beauty is not very scientific. It’s certainly a human desire, but it’s questionable whether it will bring us anywhere.

Read the full article on Edge.


Review of Municipal Dreams:
The rise and fall of council housing

Rowan Moore, Guardian, 1 May 2018

Council housing is the ever-changing outcome of complex and competing forces. In its early decades, it tended to serve the better-off working classes, leaving the slum-dwellers at the bottom of the heap no better off. It has been seen as serving a general need, something like a National Health Service for housing, and as a service of last resort for those with no other options. Fashions in its architectural form have fluctuated – from suburban ‘cottage estates’ to tower blocks.

Some issues endure. The problem of what is now called dependency culture was raised almost as soon as council housing was invented, when it was objected that too-pleasant homes would make the British workman ‘ornamental’. There has been an enduring concern, expressed by both left and right, that neighbourhoods should be ‘mixed’ or ‘mingled’, rather than ghettoes of a single class. There is a recurring anxiety, derided by Boughton, that ‘communities’ might not be created in an appropriate way.

Council housing has been shaped by national and local politicians, by construction companies, architects and, sometimes, by the people who live and have lived in it. A succession of acts of parliament and policy directives, expertly navigated by Boughton, have had profound and sometimes unintended consequences on the way millions of people live. The Conservative minister Duncan Sandys, whose 1956 Housing Subsidies Act introduced incentives for building tall, had more influence on the rise of tower blocks than the man usually credited or blamed for them, the French-Swiss architect Le Corbusier.

Sometimes the Conservative and Labour parties took unexpected positions within what was, before Thatcher, a broad consensus about the importance of council housing. There was Macmillan’s enthusiastic advocacy for it in 1951. Then Labour, in the 1959 election, supported the right to buy – which became Thatcher’s signature policy. Boughton recalls how utterly different the political universe in the years after 1945 was. The wartime power of government to requisition private homes was sometimes still used; the development charge of 1947 required that developers paid 100% of any increase in land value, measured before and after development, to the government. Such supreme indifference to the sensitivities of the property business is inconceivable now.

Read the full article in the Guardian.


The images are, from top down: Lyubov Popova, ‘Portrait of a Philosopher’; Image 15 from Jacob Lawrence’s Great Migration series; Poster from Paris, May 1968; Photo of Samuel becket (photographer unknown); An graphic of spacetime curvature from the European Space Agency‘The Journey’, a painting of drowned migrants by an Italian school student courtesy of Fortress Europe.


  1. David

    Extremists are successfully exploiting the failures of our ‘centrist’ democracies to be democratic enough and in so doing they are turning the democratic will against the Centrism and democracy that stands so accused. Centrists are thus left with a situation where the democratic will of the People, quite oblivious to the existential threat to Democracy that the extremists pose, is turning to those extremists. Centrists face a paradox: to save Democracy someone must say that the Will of the People is not always God; to guard our democracies or preserve a hope of a more democratic future, the current malignant populism must not be allowed to proceed, come what may. That is the full extent to which Centrists currently oppose democracy. The true hatred for democracy and the regressive forces that hold Democracy in in contempt, represented by people like Trump, those behind Brexit, Putin and a swathe of similar parties rising across the West, is an utterly different beast though. To compare or conflate the two, or to judge centrists as the true threat to democracy here, is fundamentally wrong. Deceptive in fact.

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