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.
Change the world, not yourself,
or how Arendt called out Thoreau
Katie Fitzpatrick, Aeon, 22 August 2018
It is not often that a neighbourhood squabble is remembered as a world-historical event. In the summer of 1846, Henry David Thoreau spent a single night in jail in Concord, Massachusetts after refusing to submit his poll tax to the local constable. This minor act of defiance would later be immortalised in Thoreau’s essay ‘On the Duty of Civil Disobedience’ (1849). There, he explains that he had been unwilling to provide material support to a federal government that perpetuated mass injustice – in particular, slavery and the Mexican-American war. While the essay went largely unread in his own lifetime, Thoreau’s theory of civil disobedience would later inspire many of the world’s greatest political thinkers, from Leo Tolstoy and Gandhi to Martin Luther King.
Yet his theory of dissent would have its dissenters, too. The political theorist Hannah Arendt wrote an essay on ‘Civil Disobedience’, published in The New Yorker magazine in September 1970. Thoreau, she argued, was no civil disobedient. In fact, she insisted that his whole moral philosophy was anathema to the collective spirit that ought to guide acts of public refusal…
Perhaps the most striking difference between Thoreau and Arendt is that, while he sees disobedience as necessarily individual, she sees it as, by definition, collective.
Arendt argues that for an act of law-breaking to count as civil disobedience it must be performed openly and publicly (put simply: if you break the law in private, you’re committing a crime, but if you break the law at a protest, you’re making a point). Thoreau’s dramatic refusal to pay his poll tax would meet this definition, but Arendt makes one further distinction: anyone who breaks the law publicly but individually is a mere conscientious objector; those who break the law publicly and collectively are civil disobedients. It is only this latter group – from which she would exclude Thoreau – that is capable of producing real change, she implies. Mass civil disobedience movements generate momentum, apply pressure, and shift political discourse. For Arendt, the greatest civil disobedience movements – Indian independence, civil rights, and the anti-war movement – took inspiration from Thoreau but added a vital commitment to mass, public action. In sharp contrast, Thoreau believed that ‘there is but little virtue in the action of masses of men’.
Read the full article in Aeon.
The anti-fascist boomerang
Branco Marcetic, Jacobin, 14 August 2018
But the Public Order Act far outlived the peak of its intended targets’ activity. With British fascism receding permanently from its Depression-era heights, the law’s powers were turned against the opposite side of the political spectrum — particularly its Section Five. As law professors Keith Ewing and Conor Geraty later wrote, ‘the subsequent history of the use of the section was to see it being frequently directed against left-wing protest.’
For instance, the Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police ordered a three-month ban on protest in the St Pancras borough during the 1960 Rent Strike, which saw thousands of tenants resist dramatic rent increases and evictions, leading to an eventual march on the local town hall. The local tenants association at the time called the ban ‘martial law,’ while Labour — which had facilitated the original passage of the law now being used to silence the renters — said it was ‘appalled by the undemocratic action.’
The St Pancras Rent Strike was an early, high-profile use of the Public Order Act, but there would be countless instances in the following decades, including:
- The charging of seven men in 1961 under the law’s Section Five for protesting the Western-backed assassination of Patrice Lumumba, the first elected leader of the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
- The Metropolitan Police’s September 1961 ban of a planned march for nuclear disarmament in central London. (Twelve thousand people ignored the order, of whom nearly one thousand were arrested).
- The charging of forty-two people for participating in a demonstration at the Greek embassy in London to protest that country’s 1967 military coup.
- The charging of six anti-segregation demonstrators in Oxford the same year.
- The charging of an anti-apartheid demonstrator for running onto the pitch during Wimbledon in 1972.
- The arrest of ten journalists who were picketing newspaper offices following a layoff of two hundred employees.
- The charging of demonstrators protesting a visit by Indian prime minister Indira Gandhi, who had recently thrown thousands of her political opponents in prison.
- The charging of members of a pro-IRA communist group, who had been protesting police harassment against them when police suddenly attacked them.
Perhaps the most widespread use of the law to punish non-fascist protesters came during the 1984–86 miners strike, when the Thatcher government launched an unprecedented crackdown on striking workers, arresting and trying thousands of them. ‘Never before in this century has the coercive power of the state been used on such a massive scale against a clearly identified group of individuals, except in Northern Ireland against the nationalist community,’ wrote sociologists Janie Percy-Smith and Paddy Hillyard in a 1985 study.
Read the full article in Jacobin.
There’s no hard right-soft left divide
on migration policy
Katharina Natter & Hein de Haas
Refugees Deeply, 25 July 2018
To improve understanding of the influence of political parties on immigration policy, we analyzed the impact of the ideological orientation of governments on the restrictiveness of 2,300 immigration policy changes in 21 OECD countries in the period 1975–2012. Results show that there is no robust relationship between the political orientation of parties in power and overall changes in immigration policy restrictiveness.
Immigration policy changes did not significantly differ depending on whether left- or right-wing parties were in power. The only exceptions were integration and family migration policies, where the left passed on average slightly more liberal policy changes. Restrictive policies tend to receive more media attention, which creates the misleading idea that immigration policies have been tightened over time.
Our analysis of migration policy data shows that migration policies have consistently become more liberal over time both under left- and right-wing dominated governments. Governments from across the political spectrum have liberalized entry rules and backed policies that generally expanded migrants’ rights. At the same time, the cross-party agreement on restrictive policies toward unauthorized migrants and asylum seekers defies the idea that only right-wing parties push for stronger border controls. Yet, against expectations, the strength of the far-right is not associated with more restrictive changes. This confirms other research arguing that the impact of the far-right on entry policies is generally overstated.
These findings show that there is a considerable gap between political rhetoric and the reality of policymaking on both the left and the right. A myopic focus on what politicians say can lead to overestimating the importance of official party discourses on immigration policy. Our research shows that immigration policy changes are mainly driven by factors unrelated to party ideology.
For instance, immigration policies tend to become more liberal in countries with fast-growing economies and openness to trade, as well as in federal political systems. In contrast, restrictive changes are associated with strong welfare systems and fragmented party landscapes. Interestingly, rising immigration levels have no effect on general immigration policy restrictiveness, although they tend to be associated with tougher policies toward unauthorized migration and liberal changes on integration.
Read the full article in Refugees Deeply.
Purges: A growing threat to the right to vote
Jonathan Brater, Kevin Morris,
Myrna Pérez, & Christopher Deluzio,
Brennan Centre for Justice, July 2018
On April 19, 2016, thousands of eligible Brooklyn voters dutifully showed up to cast their ballots in the presidential primary, only to find their
names missing from the voter lists. An investigation by the New York state attorney general found that New York City’s Board of Elections had improperly deleted more than 200,000 names from the voter rolls.
In June 2016, the Arkansas secretary of state provided a list to the state’s 75 county clerks suggesting that more than 7,700 names be removed from the rolls because of supposed felony convictions. That roster was highly inac- curate; it included people who had never been convicted of a felony, as well as persons with past convictions whose voting rights had been restored.
And in Virginia in 2013, nearly 39,000 voters were removed from the rolls when the state relied on a faulty database to delete voters who allegedly had moved out of the commonwealth. Error rates in some counties ran as high as 17 percent.
These voters were victims of purges — the some- times-flawed process by which election officials attempt to remove ineligible names from voter registration lists. When done correctly, purges ensure the voter rolls are accurate and up-to-date. When done incorrectly, purges disenfranchise legitimate voters (often when it is too close to an election to rectify the mistake), causing confusion and delay at the polls.
Ahead of upcoming midterm elections, a new Brennan Center investigation has examined data for more than 6,600 jurisdictions that report purge rates to the Election Assistance Commission and calculated purge rates for 49 states.
We found that between 2014 and 2016, states removed almost 16 million voters from the rolls, and every state in the country can and should do more to protect voters from improper purges.
Almost 4 million more names were purged from the rolls between 2014 and 2016 than between 2006 and 2008.3 This growth in the number of removed voters represented an increase of 33 percent — far outstripping growth in both total registered voters (18 percent) and total population (6 percent).
Read the full report from the Brennan Centre for Justice.
Unfabling the East: The Enlightenment
Encounter with Asia, by Jürgen Osterhammel
Joan-Pau Rubiés, Times Higher Education Supplement,
26 July 2018
The idea that Europeans were systematically blinded by their cultural assumptions or lacked any genuine desire to understand what they saw in Asia is not simply empirically wrong, as Osterhammel’s hefty volume makes clear. It also fails to capture the extent to which our own century, now that we have been forced to reassess the balance of power between the West and the countries of Asia, often resonates with many of the perceptions of the European Enlightenment. A fresh and broad look at earlier European experiences of Asia retrieves a cultural resource that is highly relevant today.
Osterhammel’s book is methodologically significant in its rejection of two traditional approaches. One attempted to assess early modern European accounts of Asia primarily for their capacity to generate an empirically sound description of its lands and peoples, as measured by the standards of modern scholarship. This was the stupendous multi-volume project proposed by Donald F. Lach in his Asia in the Making of Europe. The contrary approach is the ‘sceptical’ reading of European sources on Asia as misrepresentations driven by self-referential ideological concerns.
Adopting a kind of middle position, Osterhammel insists on the relativity of cultural distances, as well as the impossibility of a completely unbiased understanding of foreign cultures, and offers two concrete theses in relation to the European Enlightenment. The first is that, while Europe had a strong identity as a civilisation, as expressed in a Republic of Letters transcending national and religious divisions, the all-encompassing concept of Asia was a European construct primarily defined by the mechanism of opposition. At the same time, this did not preclude direct engagement with its realities, or lead to an exaggerated degree of ethnocentrism: rather the contrary, throughout much of the 18th century, Europeans often practised an exceptional kind of inclusive ethnocentrism, one that sought to encompass the various cultural realities of the world – in Asia and elsewhere – within an (inevitably) Eurocentric global vision. This, as a matter of fact, often involved a remarkable amount of cultural self-reflectivity, as exemplified by Montesquieu’s Persian Letters, and even occasional efforts to incorporate genuine Asian voices.
Osterhammel’s nuanced position is sensible and intelligent, although it will not sound particularly novel to many of those who have been active in the field of early modern travel writing and cultural encounters in the past 30 years. In fact, it is to the credit of Osterhammel that he expressed all this back in 1998, when the German edition of this book was published, and at a time when historians proposing a higher-resolution analysis of the complex cultural mechanisms by which European perceptions of Asia were formed and transformed were still in a minority. For this new English version, he has been able to take account of much of the new scholarship that has flourished since, as revealed by its massive bibliography, and the result is an even richer and more detailed account.
Read the full article in the Times Higher Education Supplement.
The quiet death of racial progress
David Brooks, New York Times, 12 July 2018
Over the past few months, I’ve been trying to write a comforting column. The thesis was going to be that even though Donald Trump is doing his best to inflame racial division, we are still making gradual progress against racism and racial disparities.
I was going to cite evidence showing a steady decline in racist attitudes. I was going to point to a steady rise in intermarriage rates. In 1967, 3 percent of American newlyweds married outside their race or ethnicity. As of 2015, 17 percent do, including 24 percent of African-American men.
I was going to point out that in 2017, 87 percent of blacks 25 and older had completed high school.
I was even going to note some positive economic statistics, too. The black unemployment rate was at a record low (and is now still close). After you control for parental income, black women now out-earn their white counterparts. In 1960, only 38 percent of black men — measuring by family income — were members of the middle class or above. Today, 57 percent are. In 1960, over 40 percent of black men lived in poverty. Now only 18 percent do.
Unfortunately, this is not that comforting column. The deeper I dug into the evidence, the more I came to doubt the idea that we are still making progress on race. For every positive statistic indicating racial reconciliation, there was one indicating stagnation or even decay.
Let’s take that statistic about the decline in poverty among black men. It comes from an excellent report by Bradford Wilcox and others at the American Enterprise Institute. As their report clearly shows, the vast bulk of that decline happened between 1960 and 1975. If you look at poverty data since 1980, there’s been little progress, either in black men moving out of poverty or into the middle class.
The recent famous study co-produced by Raj Chetty points to an elemental truth: There is still a strong, steady societal wind pushing against African-American men. Those born into poverty are much less likely to be able to climb out than their counterparts in other races. Those born into affluence are much more likely to fall down the income scale over the course of their lives.
When it comes to segregation, the story is even worse. One of the things we’ve learned over the past decades is that place really matters — the nature of your neighborhood and surroundings.
American neighborhoods are desegregating slightly, but the situation is worse for children. Black and Hispanic children are more likely to be residentially segregated than minority adults.
Schools are resegregating, too. The percentage of black students who are attending schools that are 90 to 100 percent minority went down in the South in the 1970s and 1980s, but now is shooting up. In the Northeast, the percentage of black students in these schools has been climbing for decades.
Read the full article in the New York Times.
One million Muslim Uighurs have been detailed by China, the UN says. Where’s the global outrage?
Mehdi Hasan, The Intercept, 13 August 2018
On Friday, a panel of U.N. human rights experts said Uighurs in Xinjiang were being treated as ‘enemies of the state’ and announced that it had received credible reports about the ‘arbitrary and mass detention of almost 1 million Uighurs’ in ‘counter-extremism centers.’
One. Million. People. It’s an astonishingly high number. In the context of the Uighur population as a whole, it’s even more shocking: There are around 11 million Uighurs living in Xinjiang, which means that almost one in 10 of them has been detained, according to the U.N. How is this not anything other than one of the biggest, and most underreported, human rights crises in the world today?
To be clear, the Chinese have launched vicious crackdowns against the Uighurs on several occasions since 9/11 — most notably, the ‘strike hard and punish’ campaign of 2009. In fact, ever since Chinese communist forces conquered and occupied the short-lived East Turkestan Republic in 1949 and turned it into the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region, any attempts by Uighurs to demand greater freedom or autonomy from Beijing have been brutally stamped out. This, it seems, is how the Chinese do ‘assimilation.’
Yet, as Amnesty International’s Nicholas Bequelin told me, the sheer scale of this latest crackdown should be seen as a ‘turning point.’ The Chinese government is currently ‘engaged in a mass brainwashing operation that requires the detention of hundreds of thousands of people, arbitrarily, outside of any legal framework, in order to subject them to intense political indoctrination, in the hope that this will make them into a more compliant and loyal political entity,’ Bequelin said…
So where is the global outcry? Where are the protests from Western governments, which so often claim to value human rights above all else? President Donald Trump says he has ‘a lot of respect for China’ and likes to brag that Xi Jinping is ‘a friend of mine.’ On a visit to China earlier this year, British Prime Minister Theresa May won plaudits from Chinese state-run media for being ‘pragmatic’ and ignoring Western journalists and activists who ‘keep pestering [her] to criticize Beijing’ over human rights abuses. Her fellow European leader, Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany, has visited China 11 times in 12 years — but has never publicly raised the issue of the Uighurs on any of those trips.
Where is the outrage from the governments of majority-Muslim countries, which so often claim to speak on behalf of their oppressed Muslim brothers and sisters across the globe? They are loud in their condemnation of Israel’s subjugation of the Palestinians and Myanmar’s ethnic cleansing of the Rohingya. But a million Muslims behind bars? Beards and veils banned? Imams humiliated? The news out of Xinjiang has been met only with radio silence from the 57 member states of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation. Take the Turkish government, which in the past has spoken out in defense of the Turkic-speaking Uighurs, but these days is keen on cozying up to Beijing. Or consider the Iranian government, which not long ago announced a ‘new chapter’ in Tehran-Beijing relations, praising China for having stood ‘by the side of the Iranian nation during hard days.’
Read the full article in The Intercept.
‘I was devastatted’: Time Berners-Lee, the man
who created the World Wide Web, has some regrets
Katrina Brooker, Vanity Fair, 1 July 2018
Berners-Lee, who never directly profited off his invention, has also spent most of his life trying to guard it. While Silicon Valley started ride-share apps and social-media networks without profoundly considering the consequences, Berners-Lee has spent the past three decades thinking about little else. From the beginning, in fact, Berners-Lee understood how the epic power of the Web would radically transform governments, businesses, societies. He also envisioned that his invention could, in the wrong hands, become a destroyer of worlds, as Robert Oppenheimer once infamously observed of his own creation. His prophecy came to life, most recently, when revelations emerged that Russian hackers interfered with the 2016 presidential election, or when Facebook admitted it exposed data on more than 80 million users to a political research firm, Cambridge Analytica, which worked for Donald Trump’s campaign. This episode was the latest in an increasingly chilling narrative. In 2012, Facebook conducted secret psychological experiments on nearly 700,000 users. Both Google and Amazon have filed patent applications for devices designed to listen for mood shifts and emotions in the human voice.
For the man who set all this in motion, the mushroom cloud was unfolding before his very eyes. ‘I was devastated,’ Berners-Lee told me that morning in Washington, blocks from the White House. For a brief moment, as he recalled his reaction to the Web’s recent abuses, Berners-Lee quieted; he was virtually sorrowful. ‘Actually, physically—my mind and body were in a different state.’ Then he went on to recount, at a staccato pace, and in elliptical passages, the pain in watching his creation so distorted.
This agony, however, has had a profound effect on Berners-Lee. He is now embarking on a third act—determined to fight back through both his celebrity status and, notably, his skill as a coder. In particular, Berners-Lee has, for some time, been working on a new platform, Solid, to reclaim the Web from corporations and return it to its democratic roots. On this winter day, he had come to Washington to attend the annual meeting of the World Wide Web Foundation, which he started in 2009 to protect human rights across the digital landscape. For Berners-Lee, this mission is critical to a fast-approaching future. Sometime this November, he estimates, half the world’s population—close to 4 billion people—will be connected online, sharing everything from résumés to political views to DNA information. As billions more come online, they will feed trillions of additional bits of information into the Web, making it more powerful, more valuable, and potentially more dangerous than ever.
‘We demonstrated that the Web had failed instead of served humanity, as it was supposed to have done, and failed in many places,’ he told me. The increasing centralization of the Web, he says, has ‘ended up producing—with no deliberate action of the people who designed the platform—a large-scale emergent phenomenon which is anti-human.’
Read the full article in Vanity Fair.
What is the Muslim world?
Cemil Aydin, Aeon, 1 August 2018
On 17 May 1919 in Paris, three Indian Muslim leaders met the United States’ president Woodrow Wilson to make a case for the preservation of the Ottoman caliphate in Istanbul, and for the national self-determination of Anatolia as a homeland for Turkish Muslims. The Indians advocated for the independence of what they called ‘the last remaining Muslim power in the world’. Indian Muslim leaders speaking up on behalf of an Ottoman caliphate might appear to represent a global Muslim unity, but such a conclusion would be a mistake.
In fact, the details, arguments and ideals of the meeting reveal how incoherent and misleading the prevalent presumption is of any distinction between ‘the Muslim world’ and ‘the West’. The Indian Muslims made their case for Turkish independence by appeals to Wilson’s 14 points for peace. Their success in getting the meeting with Wilson owed much to their sacrifice as soldiers in the British army fighting and defeating the German-Ottoman alliance. Edwin Montagu, Secretary of State for British-ruled India, arranged the meeting because he believed that the British empire, as the biggest Muslim empire in the world, had a moral responsibility to listen to the Indian Muslim case for the preservation of the Ottoman caliphate. All three Muslim leaders asserting their spiritual ties to the Ottoman caliph – the Aga Khan, Abdullah Yusuf Ali and Sahibzada Aftab Ahmad Khan – were loyal subjects of the British Crown. Several Indian Hindu leaders joined the meeting, making clear their solidarity with their fellow Indian Muslim brethren and their support for the Ottoman caliphate.
This conversation at the Paris Peace Conference in 1919 does not reveal a clash between an Islamic world and a Western world. It reveals one complex and interdependent world. Yet, consider Bernard Lewis’s influential essay in The Atlantic magazine, ‘The Roots of the Muslim Rage’ (1990): ‘In the classical Islamic view, to which many Muslims are beginning to return, the world and all mankind are divided into two: the House of Islam, where the Muslim law and faith prevail, and the rest, known as the House of Unbelief or the House of War, which it is the duty of Muslims ultimately to bring to Islam.’ Lewis left little doubt that this alleged ‘duty’ of Muslims meant violent means: ‘The obligation of holy war … begins at home and continues abroad, against the same infidel enemy.’ In spirit and substance, the Indian Muslim leaders meeting with Wilson in 1919 contradicts every single claim by Lewis. The Muslims were loyal supporters of the multi-faith British empire, cooperating with Hindus, and had fought against the Muslim soldiers of the Ottoman empire during the First World War. They did not see Westerners as any kind of enemy, and made their case for the Ottoman caliphate according to international norms about national self-determination and imperial peace.
Read the full article in Aeon.
Trump’s new target in the politics of fear: Citizenship
John Ganz, New York Times, 23 July 2018
Surveying the wreckage of McCarthyism in 1957, the political theorist Hannah Arendt wrote about efforts to denaturalize American citizens suspected of Communist ties.
‘It seems absurd,’ she concluded, ’but the fact is that, under the political circumstances of this century, a constitutional amendment may be needed to assure American citizens that they cannot be deprived of their citizenship, no matter what they do.’
It no longer seems so absurd. Citizenship is squarely in the Trump administration’s cross hairs. It has organized a Citizenship and Immigration Services task force to denaturalize American citizens, the first effort of mass expatriation contemplated since the McCarthy era. In a recent op-ed article for the Washington Post, Michael Anton, a former national security official in the administration, even proposed getting rid of birthright citizenship — by dictatorial fiat, no less: ‘It falls, then, to Trump. An executive order could specify to federal agencies that the children of noncitizens are not citizens.’
Yes, you’re reading that right: A high-ranking former member of the state security apparatus seriously believes that it is good policy to revoke citizenship by executive order.
Nor is this is just the oddball notion of some eccentric former staff member. As far back as August 2015, Mr. Trump himself has trotted out similar ideas, telling CNN, ‘the 14th Amendment is very questionable as to whether or not somebody can come over and immediately that baby is a citizen.’ He also suggested that ‘you can do something fast’ to end birthright citizenship. It may be time to revisit Arendt’s proposal.
For Arendt, the prospect of mass statelessness was particularly alarming. Since states are the only institutions able to guarantee rights, she wrote, ‘A stateless person is not just expelled from one country, native or adopted, but from all countries — none being obliged to receive and naturalize him — which means he is actually expelled from humanity. Deprivation of citizenship consequently could be counted among the crimes against humanity, and some of the worst recognized crimes in this category have in fact, and not incidentally, been preceded by mass expatriations.’
Read the full article in the New York Times.
The closed world of the ‘enlightened’ middle class
James Bloodworth, UnHerd, 31 July 2018
The prevailing view of social mobility in Britain is that there is less of it than, say, half a century ago. Everyone from the former Prime Minister John Major to the General Secretary of the TUC, Frances O’Grady have talked, respectively, of a ’collapse’ and a ’reverse’ in social mobility. This slots comfortably within the general mood of nostalgia that is engulfing politics – be it in the revived enthusiasm for grammar schools or nationalization
Yet the notion of a golden era of social mobility is in some respects a myth built on the post-war expansion of the professions. The growth in white-collar occupations after the Second World War created more room at the top, and so a larger number of working class children were drawn into the middle classes. In other words, social mobility was predominantly driven by structural change, rather than any particular policy.
The big change today is the gulf between those who go to university and those who do not. As Professor Mike Savage of the London School of Economics notes in his exceptionally detailed book Social Class in the 21st Century: ‘there is a tightening association between graduate status and membership of the most advantaged groups in British society’.
Half a century ago it was the exception to go to university. Today, due to the professionalisation of many jobs and the expansion of higher education, it is unusual to encounter a young professional who has not gone to university. According to Savage, while just over half of what he defines as the ‘elite’ have a degree, this figure increases to two-thirds for those aged between twenty-five and fifty.
In one sense there really is a good deal of social mobility – it’s just contained within the middle and upper echelons of British society. As Savage puts it, a meritocratic ‘elite class has often achieved its advantaged economic position through performing well in the education system and then succeeding in the cut-throat world of high-level professional and managerial employment’.
Read the full article in Unherd.
The ‘two cultures’ fallacy
Jennifer Summit & Blakey Vermeule,
Chronicle of Higher Education, 1 July 2018
STEM fields have now absorbed the virtues traditionally associated with the vita activa:practical application toward the public good; an emphasis on productivity, utility, and outcome; and an approach to learning that has come to be called ‘instrumental’ by both supporters and detractors.
The humanities, on the other hand, are generally identified with the traditional values of the vita contemplativa:imagination, speculation, reflection, and an alignment with higher values beyond the ‘merely’ practical, political, and economic.
Those who enter the conflict on either side appear to believe that it is winnable by a well-argued essay or a clever riposte. ‘One would think that writers in the humanities would be delighted and energized by the efflorescence of new ideas from the sciences. But one would be wrong,’ wrote Steven Pinker in 2013. Leon Wieseltier shot back: ‘It is not for science to say whether science belongs in morality and politics and art.’
We believe something different. Seeing the conflict as a carry-over of the ancient debate between the active life and the contemplative life explains why the two sides have remained so intransigent: Each is defined in opposition to the other, each needs the other to play counterpoint. Both sides can articulate the values they hold in emotionally satisfying but utterly imprecise contrasts: useful versus useless, material versus idealistic, narrowly careerist versus broadly learned. As long as this opposition itself remains unquestioned, any ‘defense’ of the humanities will only reinforce and prolong the debate.
This would not pose a problem if the debate were merely a highbrow parlor game — as it has been at various stages of its long history — but the stakes now are too high to dismiss. The apparent opposition between STEM fields and the humanities distracts from the far more important and urgent question at the center of the university’s mission: What is the purpose of higher education: to prepare for a job, or to cultivate a lifelong curiosity, sense of wonder, humility toward what we don’t know, and deep civic-mindedness?
The conflict between what C.P. Snow famously called ‘the two cultures’ will remain with us as long as we remain collectively divided about what it means to be an educated person. Until we can get out from under the debate’s deeply ingrained and oppositional terms, we will remain at a standstill.
Read the full article in the Chronicle of Higher Education.
The real Battle of Vienna
Dag Herbjørnsrud, Aeon, 24 July 2018
If we examine the battle closely, we can understand it rather differently: as a battle based on inter-ethnic cooperation. After all, John III Sobieski (1629-96), the king of the multilingual and multi-religious Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, might not have won the battle were it not for the help of his country’s Sunni Muslim Tatars, known as the Lipka Tatars. ‘Tatar’ was the common name for Turkic-speaking, semi-nomadic people living on or around the immense steppes of the Eurasian continent. After the century-long ‘Pax Mongolica’ from the mid-13th century (also called the ‘Tatar Peace’) and the dissolution of the Mongol empire, a distinguished group of Muslim Tatars, fleeing the great Turko-Mongol ruler Tamerlane, asked the Christian grand duke of Lithuania (Lipka in their language) for asylum in 1397. Duke Vytautas, a national hero in Lithuanian history, welcomed them. He secured for them religious liberty and even exempted them from taxation. In return, the Lipka Tatars provided their new country, and later Poland, with military assistance, initially against Tamerlane…
After Sobieski became king of the Commonwealth in 1674, he freed the Lipka Tatars from all taxation, raised their payments to match those of the Cossacks, and reinstated their former privileges (lost during the Counter-Reformation) including permission to rebuild their mosques. The Tatars also received Crown Estates land in Podlasia, in eastern Poland – as well as the districts of Brest, Kobryn and Grono in today’s Belarus – to ensure that they would continue to serve with distinction in the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth army.
Consequently, when Sobieski set off to lift Vienna’s siege in 1683 (now in command of the armies of the Holy Roman Empire and the Habsburgs), he brought with him the light cavalry of the Muslim Tatars, operating under the leadership of the Lipka Tatar lieutenant Samuel Murza Krzeczowski. During the battle, where they fought alongside Sobieski’s more famous Winged Hussars, the Lipka Tatars wore straw sprigs in their helmets to avoid being mistaken for Crimean Tatars, who were fighting for the Ottomans. The Lipka Tatars wreaked havoc by using their famous tactic of feigning retreat before turning to envelop the enemy. After the battle, Sobieski wrote to his wife Marysieńka from the camp by Szenauna: ‘Our Tatars are entertaining themselves with falcons they have brought with them; they are guarding the prisoners, and are proving to be loyal and trustworthy’…
The other side of the Battle of Vienna was multi-religious as well. The Ottomans, led by the Sunni Muslim Sultan Mehmed IV (1642-93), were allied with the Roman Catholic Sun King of France, Louis XIV (1638-1715). The Ottomans and the French agreed to a formal alliance in the early 1530s, which remained unbroken until Napoleon briefly invaded Egypt a quarter of a millennium later. The Franco-Ottoman alliance is the longest-lasting peace agreement in the history of France.
Louis XIV was a Roman Catholic just like the rulers of the Habsburg Empire in Vienna. That did not, however, make them natural allies, for Louis XIV desired to be Europe’s most powerful Christian monarch. He used the Battle of Vienna to increase his standing. When the Ottomans closed in on Vienna, France bound up Habsburg forces by sending troops to their western front. No wonder the Sun King’s enemies nicknamed him ‘The Most Christian Turk’.
Read the full article in Aeon.
In this grim age of Trump and Brexit,
online fury is a dead end for the left
John Harris, Guardian, 23 July 2018
Along with international football, brown grass and flaming hillsides, political swearing has been an integral part of the summer’s zeitgeist. The protests against Donald Trump’s visit to Britain were exactly the carnivals of dissent that they promised to be: I went on the march in London, and had a great time. But the subsequent media coverage also brought a pang of ambivalence about a seemingly endless array of slogans that mixed profanity with what the modern vernacular calls virtue signalling, and looked like they were unwittingly playing the president’s game: ‘Piss off you orange twat’, ‘Fuck off Trump’. One particularly subtle placard simply read: ‘Prick’ .
The word twat became a signifier for the insane mess of Brexit when the actor and Wildean raconteur Danny Dyer used it to describe David Cameron, and was temporarily honoured as a remainer hero. (By way of an example of the kind of nuance we no longer seem to have time for, he actually voted leave.) When news first broke that the east London MP Margaret Hodge had confronted Jeremy Corbyn about Labour’s failure to meaningfully get to grips with anti-Jewish prejudice, initial reports – which she denied – said she had called him ‘a fucking antisemite and a racist’.
A few days before, a woman called Becca Harrison had found herself in the same cafe as the TV presenter and two-bit provocateur Piers Morgan, not long after his latest encounter with Trump. She consulted Twitter about the best course of action, and then told him that he was ‘a fascist-enabling cunt who’s doing serious damage to our country’. Morgan tweeted back at her with his customary charm (‘I’d update your profile pic – been a few years hasn’t it … ‘ he said), before she recounted the episode via the obligatory online article. It was Morgan, of course, who had co-interviewed Dyer, which highlights the strand of the supposed mainstream media that now runs on the basis of wind-ups, provocations and endless shouting.
What is going on here? One explanation might be that as a sizable part of the western world tumbles into crisis and serial assaults on basic liberal values, eloquence fails us, and an entirely justified rage takes over. But the story surely runs much wider than that, into a whole attitude of mind founded on the platforms via which we not only communicate but also understand just about every facet of our collective existence.
Read the full article in the Guardian.
The fallacy of obviousness
Teppo Felin, Aeon, 5 July 2018
Let’s start with a careful look at Simons and Chabris’s classic experiment, and see how it might suggest something different, and more positive, about human nature. In the experiment, subjects were asked to watch a short video and to count the basketball passes. The task seemed simple enough. But it was made more difficult by the fact that subjects had to count basketball passes by the team wearing white shirts, while a team wearing black shirts also passed a ball. This created a real distraction. (If you haven’t taken the test before, consider briefly taking it here before reading any further.)
The experiment came with a twist. While subjects try to count basketball passes, a person dressed in a gorilla suit walks slowly across the screen. The surprising fact is that some 70 per cent of subjects never see the gorilla. When they watch the clip a second time, they are dumbfounded by the fact that they missed something so obvious. The video of the surprising gorilla has been viewed millions of times on YouTube – remarkable for a scientific experiment. Different versions of the gorilla experiment, such as the ‘moonwalking bear’, have also received significant attention.
Now, it’s hard to argue with the findings of the gorilla experiment itself. It’s a fact that most people who watch the clip miss the gorilla. But it does not necessarily follow that this illustrates – as both the study’s authors and Kahneman argue – that humans are ‘blind to the obvious’. A completely different interpretation of the gorilla experiment is possible.
Imagine you were asked to watch the clip again, but this time withoutreceiving any instructions. After watching the clip, imagine you were then asked to report what you observed. You might report that you saw two teams passing a basketball. You are very likely to have observed the gorilla. But having noticed these things, you are unlikely to have simultaneously recorded any number of other things. The clip features a large number of other obvious things that one could potentially pay attention to and report: the total number of basketball passes, the overall gender or racial composition of the individuals passing the ball, the number of steps taken by the participants. If you are looking for them, many other things are also obvious in the clip: the hair colour of the participants, their attire, their emotions, the colour of the carpet (beige), the ‘S’ letters spray-painted in the background, and so forth.
In short, the list of obvious things in the gorilla clip is extremely long. And that’s the problem: we might call it the fallacy of obviousness. There’s a fallacy of obviousness because all kinds of things are readily evident in the clip. But missing any one of these things isn’t a basis for saying that humans are blind. The experiment is set up in such a way that people miss the gorilla because they are distracted by counting basketball passes. Preoccupied with the task of counting, missing the gorilla is hardly surprising. In retrospect, the gorilla is prominent and obvious.
Read the full article in Aeon.
Liberal smugness will destroy the Left
Giles Fraser, UnHerd, 26 July 2018
‘There is a smug style in American liberalism,’ wrote Emmett Rensin in a justly celebrated essay for the Vox web site. ‘It has been growing these past decades. It is a way of conducting politics, predicated on the belief that American life is not divided by moral difference or policy divergence — not really — but by the failure of half the country to know what’s good for them.’
Rensin wrote these words back in April 2016, before Brexit and before Trump. And time has made them even more pertinent. One might even call them prophetic. For if liberals used to adopt ’a condescending, defensive sneer toward any person or movement outside of its consensus, dressed up as a monopoly on reason’ before, they do so even more these days. And for the most part they are wholly unrepentant about it. Indeed, they are more often than not proud of their superiority complex. They are in the right, after all.
Rensen argues that the liberal smugness in the US is a consequence of the long decline in the number of working-class Democrats. In 1948, 66% of manual labourers voted for the Democrats. That figure was 55% in 1964. And 35% in 1980. And voting Democrat among the white working class has seen an even sharper decline.
So by the Nineties, Rensin argues, the old alliance between the working class and the progressive, college-educated elites began to break apart, leaving the graduates puzzling to themselves why they had been abandoned by the working class. Thomas Frank asked the question, in 2004, with his best selling book: What is the Matter with Kansas? And the answer that they began to develop was that the working class were basically too stupid to know what was in their best interest.
Frank, for example, argues that the Kansas working class have been duped by a Republican alliance of social conservatism and economic liberalism. The Republicans, he contends, make conservative noises (though not much more) about social issues – gay rights, abortion etc – so as to garner working-class support for a set of economic policies that only ever benefit the wealthy. In other words, they are duped. And why are they duped? Because they are stupid.
Rensin’s analysis is of the United States – but it feels uncomfortably close to the state of play in the United Kingdom in the run up to Brexit. What is the matter with the Midlands? Progressives offer a similar answer: foolish Leavers have been duped by an appeal to patriotism and the fear of immigration as a way to get them to vote against their own economic interests. The only explanation for this is that they were too stupid to know what was going on – idiots who were sold a fantasy on the side of a bus.
Read the full article in UnHerd.
Our bodies or ourselves
Anne-Marie Slaughter & Stephanie Hare
Project Syndicate, 23 July 2018
The protection against theft is obvious: what use is a phone, car, or ticket that will only work for its legitimate owner? Above all, biometrics can protect against theft of our identities themselves.
That is the argument behind the world’s largest biometrics project, a multimodal solution (iris, fingerprints, and face) affecting more than one billion Indians. Nandan Nilekani, the chairman of Infosys who left his job to create the system, known as Aadhaar, credits it with saving the Indian government roughly $9 billion by eliminating duplicate and false identities in government beneficiary lists.
Thanks to Aadhaar, more than a half-billion people have connected their digital IDs directly to a bank account, allowing the government to deposit over $12 billion without the risk of fraud, theft, or – especially important for women – the male drinking and domestic violence that frequently accompanies sudden infusions of cash. For many of India’s poor, living in unmapped villages or slums, a digital ID gives them official personhood – just as a birth certificate or social security number does in developed countries.
But biometrics increases the likelihood of Jeremy Bentham’s Panopticon, the dystopia of an all-seeing state. China makes no effort to hide its use of biometrics and artificial intelligence (AI) to police its population. Less well known is the advanced use of biometrics in liberal democracies.
In the United States, a study in 2016 by the Center on Privacy & Technology at Georgetown University Law Center found that the facial images of more than 117 million Americans – nearly half of all US adults – were held in US law enforcement databases, some of which are accessible by the FBI. Next month, Customs and Border Protection will start using a new facial-recognition technology as part of a larger Biometric Exit Program already operating in the airports of eight US cities.
In the United Kingdom, the facial images of 12.5 million people, hundreds of thousands of whom are not guilty of a crime, are stored in the National Police Database (NPD), while HM Customs and Revenue (HMRC) has gathered over five million voice recordings without consent. This defies a 2012 British High Court ruling that ordered the Home Office to delete face and voice biometrics of detainees who have been released without charge or acquitted – in line with the law requiring the deletion of DNA and fingerprints.
The collection and storage of people’s biometric data fundamentally changes the relationship between citizen and state. Once ‘presumed innocent,’ we are now, in the sinister words of former UK Home Secretary Amber Rudd, ‘unconvicted persons’ – people who have not been found guilty of a crime, yet.
Read the full article in Project Syndicate.
Privileging the working-class ‘real’
in politics and culture
Houman Barekat, Guardian, 18 July 2018
At a press event in a cafe in Pontypridd in 2016, the MP Owen Smith, who was at the time trying to unseat Jeremy Corbyn as Labour party leader, was presented with a cappuccino. In an effort to ingratiate himself with the locals, he made a point of calling it a ‘frothy coffee’, and expressed surprise at receiving it in ‘a posh cup’ rather than a mug. Clumsy populism is as old as democracy itself, but this shtick was particularly telling given the circumstances. For many years now, campaign groups such as Blue Labour and Progress have urged Labour to reconnect with voters by appealing to the presumed social conservatism of the white working class. As Joe Kennedy points out in Authentocrats, this constitutes an inversion of the strategy adopted under New Labour: whereas Blairism embraced ‘rightwing economics in order to leverage socially progressive politics’, Blue Labourism proposes that ‘progressive thought needs to emphasise its comfort with atavistic ideas in order to buy itself credibility’.
Authentocrats looks at how the notion of working-class authenticity has been fetishised over the past decade. Its starting point is the Question Time debate that preceded the 2017 general election, in which surly Yorkshiremen in the audience aggressively quizzed Corbyn over defence and migration. An instant Twitter sensation, their ruddy-faced ire became an avatar for commonsensical exasperation with lefty idealism. The spectre of the ‘ordinary’ white voter – a stereotype straight out of a Martin Amis novel: patriotic, a bit lairy, more interested in nukes and the Queen than social justice – has haunted UK politics in recent years, with politicians on both sides of the house competing for its favour. Under Ed Miliband, Labour notoriously issued a promotional mug with the words ‘Controls on Immigration’ printed on it. Embracing nativism in order to undercut or forestall a worse nativism is a dangerous game, as David Cameron learned in 2016: the EU referendum began as a sop to rightwing inclusiveness, before giving way to mission creep. Kennedy accuses the commentariat of contributing to this state of affairs by ‘snake-charming the pissed‑off proletarian id from the tote bag of liberal self-satisfaction’.
Kennedy, who teaches English at the University of Sussex, invokes Roland Barthes’s observation that what we think of as literary realism is in fact a series of codes and techniques no less contrived than modernism. In a similar vein, the idea of a normative ‘ordinary’ person is only ever, at best, a construct made up of ‘a deck of tropes that gesture towards authenticity’. What distinguishes Authentocrats from the plethora of recent books about populism is its focus on the centre-left rather than the obvious bogeymen of the right, and its particular interest in how the fetish of ‘realness’ has manifested itself in the realms of literature, TV and cinema. Kennedy argues that the brooding edginess of Daniel Craig’s James Bond in Casino Royale(2006) and Christian Bale’s Bruce Wayne in Batman Begins (2005) traded on ‘a traumatic capital that seems to be acceptable tender in the pursuit of modern credibility’. A decade on, grim pseudo-realism is de rigueur in everything from the Scandi noir elements incorporated into such UK crime dramas as Line of Duty and Happy Valley, to Game of Thrones’s radical pessimism about the immutability of chauvinistic hierarchies.
Read the full article in the Guardian.
They’re ‘blood brothers’ with Israel’s Jews.
But Druse call new law a betrayal.
Isabel Kershner, New York Times, 31 July 2018
On the edge of this Druse village, perched on a quiet green ridge above the Mediterranean, is a national monument to more than 420 Druse soldiers and security force members who have fallen in battle for Israel.
The tiny, Arabic-speaking Druse minority threw its lot in with Jews even before the state was established. In the 70 years since, both groups have called their strategic alliance a ‘covenant of blood’ and described each other as ‘blood brothers.’
Then, in mid-July, Parliament enacted a basic law, with the weight of a constitutional amendment, declaring Israel ‘the nation-state of the Jewish people,’ built on national self-determination ‘unique to the Jewish people.’ It prioritizes Jewish building and downgrades Arabic from an ‘official’ language alongside Hebrew to one with a ‘special status.’
Most divisively for Israel’s Arab minority, which makes up 21 percent of the population of nearly nine million, it also omits any mention of democracy or equality for all citizens.
The Druse, a generally quiescent religious group of about 145,000 citizens for whom loyalty to the state is an article of faith, have denounced the legislation as a stinging insult and a betrayal. And now they are spearheading a swelling backlash against the law that is roiling the country and posing a stiff challenge for the right-wing government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
‘It’s enough of patting us on the shoulder and saying, ‘You are our brothers, we love you,’’ said Shadi Nasraldeen, 45, a native of Daliyat el-Karmel whose brother, Lutfi, an Israeli soldier, was killed during the last war in Gaza, in 2014.
‘There has to be full equality in a democratic state,’ said Mr. Nasraldeen, who ended a 26-year army career last year and now works at the memorial site, which holds lectures and educational activities. ‘We are the first to run into battle and the first to die on the flag.’
He added: ‘It’s as if the Israeli people simply abandoned us. They say they didn’t. But according to the clauses of this law, we don’t exist.’
Read the full article in the New York Times.
Canada is using ancestry DNA websites
to help it deport people
Tamara Khandaker, Vice, 26 July 2018
In another example of the extraordinary lengths Canadian immigration officials go to deport migrants, the Canada Border Services Agency has been collecting their DNA and using ancestry websites to find and contact their distant relatives and establish their nationality.
‘I think it is a matter of public interest that border service agencies like the CBSA are able to obtain access to DNA results from sites like Familytreedna.com and Ancestry.com,’ said Subodh Bharati, a lawyer who is representing a man who says he’s Liberian, but who the government is now trying to prove is actually Nigerian. ‘There are clear privacy concerns. How is the CBSA able to access this information and what measures are being put in place to ensure this information remains confidential?’
Bharati, who is representing his client through CLASP, the legal aid clinic at Osgoode Hall Law School, said he is aware of at least two individuals who used Familytreedna.com, one in the UK, who have been contacted by the CBSA seeking to deport someone from Canada.
‘Individuals using these sites to look at their family tree should be aware that their confidential information is being made available to the government and that border agents may contact them to help facilitate the deportation of migrants,’ he said.
Both companies deny working with law enforcement.
Franklin Godwin, one of Bharati’s clients, who was accepted as a refugee from Liberia and granted permanent resident status in 1996, was charged two years later with importing and conspiring to import heroin and sentenced to seven years in jail. Because of the seriousness of his criminal convictions, Godwin’s permanent residence status was taken away and the government ordered him deported back to Liberia.
But when he arrived in Liberia in 2003, accompanied by Canadian immigration officials and with a travel certificate in hand from the Liberian embassy in Ghana, he was denied entry into the country by Liberian officials, who claimed that only the embassy in Washington could issue a legitimate document, and that what he had was fake.
Godwin was brought back to Canada. The government also tried to deport him in 2005, but he was rejected once more, with officials claiming again he wasn’t a Liberian national. He was brought back.
Since then, Godwin has been ricocheting between the criminal justice system — with multiple charges of theft, fraud, breaching bail conditions — and the CBSA.
Read the full article in Vice.
2 museums wanted to spark dialogue with
provocative art. They’re handling that very carefully.
Claire Hansen, Chronicle of Higher Education,
26 July 2018
When the Spencer Museum of Art at the University of Kansas at Lawrence brought the public-art project Pledges of Allegiance to campus, curators wanted to spark a conversation.
But not everybody liked the discussion.
The artwork is a collection of 16 flags created by different artists in response to the current political climate. Since November 2017, one flag from the series has been flown each month on a specially installed flagpole outside the Commons, a collaborative at the university that co-sponsored the exhibition.
The latest installation in the collection is a collage of an American-flag likeness, a black drip painting, and other markings, created by the artist Josephine Meckseper. A week after its installation in early July, the piece sparked statewide outrage from critics who say the work is a defiled flag. Jeffrey W. Colyer, Kansas’ Republican governor, called for its removal on Twitter, as did Kris W. Kobach, the secretary of state.
The same day, Douglas A. Girod, chancellor of the University of Kansas, announced the removal of the piece, citing ‘public-safety concerns.’ By late afternoon, the flag was hanging in a gallery inside the Spencer museum, and the flagpole outside the Commons stood empty.
Today, the flag in the gallery is surrounded by information that lends context: an educational binder, an always-present staff member to answer questions, and a comment book where visitors can note their thoughts. Lately, visitors have used the comment book ‘very vigorously,’ said Saralyn Reece Hardy, the museum’s director.
About 700 miles south, at the Blanton Museum of Art at the University of Texas at Austin, curators have taken similar care with ‘The City,’ a four-panel painting of a modern-day Ku Klux Klan meeting, by the Mexican-American artist Vincent Valdez.
It’s dark and visceral, and the museum spent more than a year planning programming and context for the work, and consulting with community members.
Read the full article in the Chronicle of Higher Education.
The swan song of French Nietzscheanism
Richard Woilin, LA Review of Books, 19 July 2018
French Nietzscheanism’s dubious epistemological claims, its pervasive cynicism about truth and communication, are the cornerstone of French Theory. In what ways might these factors have played a role in the fraught Title IX debate that has roiled the NYU campus? And how might they have contributed to the intellectual arrogance that characterized the controversial petition that was intended to buttress Ronell’s case, but whose intentions seem to have egregiously backfired?
French Nietzscheanism alleges that inherited institutional norms are manifestations of power. On these grounds, in a Foucauldian spirit, it equates ‘norms’ with practices of ‘normalization.’ This supposition implies that, as critical intellectuals, it is our duty to disrupt and overturn these norms, wherever they might be found. Among the adepts and initiates of French Theory, such acts of disruption have assumed the status of new moral imperative. By engaging in such acts, the proponents of French Theory seek to unsettle and displace the normalizing constraints of existing power relations, thereby reinventing themselves as Nietzschean ‘immoralists.’ They seek to transcend the repressive strictures of the ‘civilizing process’ (N. Elias), thus honoring Nietzsche’s admonition that we conduct ourselves in a manner that is ‘beyond good and evil.’
One thing that is troubling about this mindset or approach is that it sanctions a dichotomy between craven ‘rule-followers’ and proto-Nietzschean ‘rule-violators’: that is, between Nietzscheans and non-Nietzscheans. And therein lies the potential for considerable intellectual mischief. On the one hand, French Nietzscheanism belittles those who play by the rules as conformists, as the enforcers of ‘normalization.’ On the other hand, it overvalues transgressive behavior, which, in keeping with Nietzsche’s summons to a ‘transvaluation of all values,’ it restyles as a type of new ethical absolute.
Yet, at this point, an additional problem emerges, insofar as French Nietzscheanism’s abhorrence of ‘norms’ and ‘normativity’ risks devolving into a series of arbitrary and gratuitous transgressions. French Theory’s constitutional aversion to norms means that it disdains the distinction between justifiable norms and unjustifiable norms: between norms that are democratically legitimate as opposed to norms that are oppressive, insofar as they underlie and perpetuate relations of domination. This blind spot or incapacity on French Nietzscheanism’s part has proved insuperable, since it regards all attempts to ‘ground’ or ‘re-center’ norm-displacing, transgressive behavior as part and parcel of the discourse of ‘normalization’ it seeks to escape.
Read the full article in the LA Review of Books.
Google plans to launch censored search engine
in China, leaked documents reveal
Ryan Gallagher, The Intercept, 1 August 2018
Google is planning to launch a censored version of its search engine in China that will blacklist websites and search terms about human rights, democracy, religion, and peaceful protest, The Intercept can reveal.
The project – code-named Dragonfly – has been underway since spring of last year, and accelerated following a December 2017 meeting between Google’s CEO Sundar Pichai and a top Chinese government official, according to internal Google documents and people familiar with the plans.
Teams of programmers and engineers at Google have created a custom Android app, different versions of which have been named ‘Maotai’ and ‘Longfei.’ The app has already been demonstrated to the Chinese government; the finalized version could be launched in the next six to nine months, pending approval from Chinese officials.
The planned move represents a dramatic shift in Google’s policy on China and will mark the first time in almost a decade that the internet giant has operated its search engine in the country.
Google’s search service cannot currently be accessed by most internet users in China because it is blocked by the country’s so-called Great Firewall. The app Google is building for China will comply with the country’s strict censorship laws, restricting access to content that Xi Jinping’s Communist Party regime deems unfavorable.
The Chinese government blocks information on the internet about political opponents, free speech, sex, news, and academic studies. It bans websites about the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre, for instance, and references to ‘anticommunism’ and ‘dissidents.’
Mentions of books that negatively portray authoritarian governments, like George Orwell’s 1984 and Animal Farm, have been prohibited on Weibo, a Chinese social media website. The country also censors popular Western social media sites like Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter, as well as American news organizations such as the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal.
Documents seen by The Intercept, marked ‘Google confidential,’ say that Google’s Chinese search app will automatically identify and filter websites blocked by the Great Firewall. When a person carries out a search, banned websites will be removed from the first page of results, and a disclaimer will be displayed stating that ‘some results may have been removed due to statutory requirements.’ Examples cited in the documents of websites that will be subject to the censorship include those of British news broadcaster BBC and the online encyclopedia Wikipedia.
The search app will also ‘blacklist sensitive queries’ so that ‘no results will be shown’ at all when people enter certain words or phrases, the documents state. The censorship will apply across the platform: Google’s image search, automatic spell check and suggested search features will incorporate the blacklists, meaning that they will not recommend people information or photographs the government has banned.
Within Google, knowledge about Dragonfly has been restricted to just a few hundred members of the internet giant’s 88,000-strong workforce, said a source with knowledge of the project. The source spoke to The Intercept on condition of anonymity, as they were not authorized to contact the media. The source said that they had moral and ethical concerns about Google’s role in the censorship, which is being planned by a handful of top executives and managers at the company with no public scrutiny.
Read the full article in The Intercept.
The salvation of Langston Hughes
Wallace Best & Josef Sorett,
Religion and Politics, 24 July 2018
Josef Sorett: Some might be surprised to see you, a historian of the Great Migration, move toward being a scholar of African American literature with this biographical study of Langston Hughes. Can you start by telling us how you got to this book on Hughes?
Wallace Best: This book in many ways is born from that research that I did in Chicago years ago, when I was working on Passionately Human as a dissertation, deep into the archives and into the issues of movement and migration and the way in which that transforms African American religious practices in Chicago and beyond. Langston Hughes’s name kept coming up. His name would come up in church documents, the papers of ministers and church workers. His name would come up in gospel music programs. I found him in unexpected places in my research on Chicago and that intrigued me.
My understanding of Langston Hughes was that he would be un-churched and unconcerned about churches and unconcerned about religion. I was thinking: Why would this atheist, who as one of his biographers would say was “secular to the bone,” show up in the documents on Harlem and Chicago’s world of religion and churches? He was there, from what I could tell, as an active participant. I knew once I finished the book on Chicago, I had to further explore this angle, and it began with that simple question: What is the relationship between Langston Hughes and American religion?
I thought it was a simple question, but it turned out to be an enormously complex, intricate, and textured question about religion, about literature, about Hughes, about church culture, about religious cultures more broadly—all of which, to my surprise, he was very interested in, and wrote quite a lot about. I returned to his own work—to his poetry in particular—with my encounter of him in those documents in mind to, in a sense, read him religiously. That is, to read him with the idea that he perhaps had something to say about religion. That’s how it started.
What I discovered is that he had quite a lot to say about religion. I argue in the book that Langston Hughes wrote as much about religion as he did about any other topic if we broaden our understanding of what religion actually is. And that’s when it got rich. Because what Hughes began to offer me in my exploration was this much more broad and expansive way to think about what constitutes religious writing. His poems, his plays, and his social commentary became available to me for religious analysis.
Read the full article in Religion & Politics.
Henry Taylor’s promiscuous painting
Zadie Smith, New Yorker, 30 July 2018
Not quite two months after the Presidential Inauguration, a Henry Taylor painting appeared on the cover of Art in America: ’Cicely and Miles Visit the Obamas’ (2017). In this portrait, the Obamas are invisible, represented only by the house they’d just left, while the actress Cicely Tyson and her lover Miles Davis have been transported from a long-ago black-and-white society photograph onto the green impasto glory of the White House front lawn. Transported? Transmogrified. The original paparazzi snap is from the 1968 première of ‘The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter,’ a film in which Tyson had a supporting role—in 1968, a black actress could rarely expect more—and she is playing a supporting role here, too. The nature of this support is interesting. Her hand is on Davis’s sleeve, a gesture somewhere between solidarity and protection. Her gaze is steely: as proud and firm as it is guarded. (Meanwhile, his shades are on and his arms are crossed, as if the camera were some sort of weapon.) The support she offers is not meek or retiring (‘Behind every great man . . .’), nor is it hidden or oblique (‘The power behind the throne’). Instead, it speaks of a double consciousness. On the one hand, her lover is that unimpeachable thing: an American genius. Why should Miles Davis need anyone’s help or protection? On the other hand, he is a black man in America. The same black man who, nine years earlier, found himself beaten up by a New York cop for the twin crimes of escorting a white girl to a cab and not ‘moving on.’ (He had been standing outside Birdland, where he was playing a concert for the U.S. armed forces.) Davis’s name was up in lights, but Davis himself was laid out on the pavement: blood ‘running down the khaki suit I had on,’ as he later recalled. If you can be assaulted outside your own show, you might come to experience many apparently benign situations as rife with the potential for humiliation or violence. It’s 1968: best be on your guard. But to be on your guard—unsmiling, self-possessed, not in need of anyone’s approval, and dressed like you know your own worth—is also to be cool. Cool as a motherfucker. And surely one obvious way to read this translation of Miles and Cicely to the Obamas’ front lawn is as a form of transhistorical wish fulfillment. What if these cool cats met those cool cats?
Yet to speak of this painting as I have—conceptually—is to pass over the difference between thinking with language and thinking in images, and no narrative explanation of the relation between these two pictures is as compelling as the horizontal line that marks the credenza in the photograph and the edge of the White House gardens in the painting, or the verticality of the white man in the photo’s top-right corner—with his squared-off shoulders—and his painterly analogue: a blue flagpole, with its crossbar and absence of flag. Taylor thinks primarily in colors, shapes, and lines—he has a spatial, tonal genius. Form responds to form: the negative space around Cicely and Miles in the photograph suggests the exact proportions of the White House, yet in the transition the abstract sometimes becomes figured, and vice versa, as if the border between these things didn’t matter. A burst of reflected light in the photo decides the height and placement of the windows in the painting, while two round signs at the movie première—one for Coca-Cola, the other for ‘Orange’—which can have no figurative echo in the painting, turn up anyhow on the White House façade as abstraction: a red sphere and an orange sphere, tracking the walls of what, in reality, now belonged to Trump. Like two suns setting at the same time.
Read the full article in the New Yorker.
Philosophise this – psychology research by philosophers is robust
and replicates better than other areas of psychology
Dan Jones, BPS Research Digest, 12 July 2018
The current crisis in psychology was largely precipitated by a mass replication attempt published by the Open Science Collaboration (OSC) project in 2015. Of 100 previously published significant findings, only 39 per cent replicated unambiguously, rising to 47 per cent on more relaxed criteria.
Now a paper in Review of Philosophy and Psychology has trained the replicability lens on the burgeoning field of experimental philosophy. Born roughly 15 years ago, X-Phi takes the tools of contemporary psychology and applies them to unravelling how people think about many of the major topics of Western philosophy, from the metaphysics of free will and the nature of the self, to morality and the problem of consciousness.
Take one of the earliest and most well-known findings from the field. Back in 2003, Joshua Knobe, now at Yale University, set out to study what determines whether we describe the outcome of someone’s behaviour as intentional or not. Knobe ran two short vignettes by his participants. One described the CEO of a company being brought a new business plan by his VPs that would cause harm to the environment. The CEO says ‘I don’t care about harming the environment, go ahead’. The project proceeds and the environment is duly hurt.
In that case, most people say that the CEO intentionally harmed the environment. But switch the word ‘harm’ to ‘help’ and now people are reluctant to say that the CEO intentionally helped the environment, even though in both cases the CEO was indifferent to harming or helping the environment as a side effect of his business activities. This asymmetry, known as the Knobe effect, revealed how moral considerations affect our deployment of ostensibly non-moral concepts, like intentionality.
X-Phi has generated great excitement making it essential to see whether the pall of the replicability crisis darkens this field too. So the X-Phi Replicability Project (XRP) – a collaboration between twenty research teams in eight countries, devised by Brent Strickland of the Institut Jean Nicod, Paris, France and led by Florian Cova of the Swiss Centre for Affective Sciences, University of Geneva, Switzerland – set about re-running a representative sample of 40 X-Phi studies to see how the field is holding up (the sample comprised the most cited X-Phi papers from 2003-2015, two random papers for each year, and a few extra to bring the total to 40).
Read the full article in the BPS Research Digest.
Three major physics discoveries and counting
Joshua Roebke, Quanta, 18 July 2018
In 1963, Maria Goeppert Mayer won the Nobel Prize in physics for describing the layered, shell-like structures of atomic nuclei. No woman has won since.
One of the many women who, in a different world, might have won the physics prize in the intervening 55 years is Sau Lan Wu. Wu is the Enrico Fermi Distinguished Professor of Physics at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, and an experimentalist at CERN, the laboratory near Geneva that houses the Large Hadron Collider. Wu’s name appears on more than 1,000 papers in high-energy physics, and she has contributed to a half-dozen of the most important experiments in her field over the past 50 years. She has even realized the improbable goal she set for herself as a young researcher: to make at least three major discoveries.
Wu was an integral member of one of the two groups that observed the J/psi particle, which heralded the existence of a fourth kind of quark, now called the charm. The discovery, in 1974, was known as the November Revolution, a coup that led to the establishment of the Standard Model of particle physics. Later in the 1970s, Wu did much of the math and analysis to discern the three ‘jets’ of energy flying away from particle collisions that signaled the existence of gluons — particles that mediate the strong force holding protons and neutrons together. This was the first observation of particles that communicate a force since scientists recognized photons of light as the carriers of electromagnetism. Wu later became one of the group leaders for the ATLAS experiment, one of the two collaborations at the Large Hadron Collider that discovered the Higgs boson in 2012, filling in the final piece of the Standard Model. She continues to search for new particles that would transcend the Standard Model and push physics forward.
Read the full article in Quanta.
What science says about the mood of music
Phillip Ball, Science Museum Blog, 13 July 2018
I suspect there’s a common perception that emotion in music is different from cognition of music. Cognition sounds cool and rational – Ah, what splendid use of counterpoint in this fugue! – while emotion is raw, coming from the gut rather than the mind and beyond analysis.
But that’s not right. Many psychologists and neuroscientists now argue that emotion isn’t separate from, and indeed in opposition to, rational thought, but is important for good decision-making. Emotion is simply a part of how we think and make sense of the world; without it, our thinking may be impaired. With music that is more clear than ever: much of the emotional impact stems from the stunning intuition we develop, even without any formal musical training, about the structure and patterns in what we hear.
Maybe, though, you are suspicious of claims that we can understand musical emotion because it seems so subjective. There is nothing like music for eliciting the dismissive comment ‘each to his own’ – most of us have had the experience of feeling indifferent about music that renders others ecstatic, and vice versa. We’re not even consistent in our own responses: how a piece of music makes us feel could vary depending on the circumstances in which we hear it.
Does this mean that musical emotion is doomed to remain forever too personal and mysterious, beyond the reach of systematic analysis?
Apparently not – because some aspects of musical emotion do seem universal. Western listeners turn out to be pretty good at judging whether happiness or sadness is intended in music from unfamiliar cultures, such as Kyrghistani, Hindustani and Navajo Native American, while people from a remote tribe in the Cameroon who had never heard Western music proved to agree with Western listeners more often than chance in assessing which extracts of Western music were happy, sad and fearful.
Where does this apparent universality in designators of musical mood come from? Think of Ann Ronell’s great 1932 song ‘Willow Weep for Me’, which has been sung by everyone from Billie Holiday to Ella Fitzgerald and Nina Simone. It’s a melancholy song, and for much the same reason that we say willows ‘weep’. Just as the trees look like a weeping person, with a slouched, drooping physiognomy, some broad characteristics of musical emotion seem to mimic in music the physicality of that emotion in people, particularly in speech and gesture.
Read the full article in the Science Museum blog.
The images are, from top down: Ludwig Deutsch, ‘At Prayer’; Osman Hamdi Bey, ‘A Young Emir Studying’; Jan Matejko, ‘King John III Sobieski Sobieski sending Message of Victory to the Pope, after the Battle of Vienna’; A still from ‘Minority Report’; Josephine Meckseper, ‘Flag’; Henry Taylor, ‘Cicely and Miles Visit the Obamas’.