Pandaemonium

PLUCKED FROM THE WEB #47

web 47

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.


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Brazil’s Bolsonaro-led far right wins a victory far more sweeping and dangerous than anyone predicted. Its lessons are global.
Glenn Greenwald, The Intercept, 8 October 2018

In sum, it is virtually impossible to overstate the threat level posed to democracy and human rights in the world’s fifth most-populous country as a result of last night’s election. And unlike in the U.S. or in the UK, which have old, strong, long-established democratic institutions that can limit the excesses and worst abuses of demagogues and authoritarians, Brazil has none of that. Spiraling from multiple crises – suffocating economic inequality, an epidemic of violence worse than many war zones, and a corruption scandal so sweeping that it has infected the core of almost every faction of the ruling class – this is a country with little to no ability to impose limits on what Bolsonaro wants to do.

Add to that the sheer youth of Brazilian democracy – only 33 years old: the temporal equivalent of the U.S. in 1820 or so – and it’s remarkably easy to envision a quick return to the military rule that imposed so many atrocities on so many segments of the population. That all of this has been ushered in democratically should be, but likely will not be, another warning sign to western democracies that are confronting similar dynamics, albeit ones that are unfolding somewhat more gradually.

To be sure – as is true of Trump, Brexit, and the rise of right-wing extremism throughout Europe – some substantial minority of Bolsonaro voters are motivated by classic bigotry, racism, anti-LGBT animus, resentment toward the indigenous population, and just a general tribal anger that seeks scapegoats for their plight. But many, probably most, are none of those things.

Many, instead, are motivated by legitimate grievances toward an establishment ruling class that has failed them on all levels, that expresses indifference if not outright contempt for their suffering and loss of hope, that they blame, often with good reason, for enacting policies that have destroyed their futures while refusing to accept any responsibility for it. And once that framework is adopted, any perceived enemy of that ruling class becomes their friend, or at least someone whose vows of destruction become more appealing than vows to preserve the system they justifiably despise (the reality is that Bolsonaro (like Trump), with his Chicago-trained neoliberal economic guru, will serve the economic interests of the establishment with great devotion at the expense of his working-class voters, but the perception of his anti-establishment animus is what matters).

The standard establishment reaction in the face of rising demagogues like Bolsonaro is to denounce those who support them, to call them names, to heap scorn on them, to sanctimoniously lecture them that their choices are primitive, retrograde, ignorant and illegitimate. That only serves further to exacerbate the dynamic.

Read the full article in The Intercept.


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Managing innocence
Joseph Marguies, Boston Review, 4 October 2018

For those who seem guilty, law and culture thus combine to exert a constant pressure to ignore the Constitution and Bill of Rights, documents ostensibly drafted to ‘secure the Blessings of Liberty’ and provide ‘equal protection of the laws.’ The result is a criminal justice system that tolerates an extraordinarily high level of dysfunction. We guarantee that a defendant will have a lawyer for at least part of the criminal case against her, but not that counsel will be adequately funded. We insist that people of color have a right to serve on a jury, but take no action when prosecutors contrive fanciful reasons to remove them. We proclaim that the state may not send a man to prison based on evidence unlawfully seized, but regularly allow it to do precisely that. We insist that prosecutors must disclose exculpatory evidence, but only rarely disturb a conviction when they do not. We say that money cannot buy justice, but routinely rely on fines, fees, and other monetary sanctions to make the poor pay for the system that oppresses them. And we pretend that justice is color blind, but abide racial imbalance at every step of the criminal process.

We accomplish all this by insisting that innocence alone is all that deserves our attention. It is true that cases are sometimes reversed because the police conducted an unlawful search, and convictions are sometimes overturned because the prosecutor failed to disclose exculpatory material. But these events are the exception rather than the rule.

Having channeled all criticism of the system into innocence—step one—the state then makes innocence all but impossible to unearth. To begin with, and contrary to what many people imagine, the system does not hold that the incarceration of the innocent is, in and of itself, a problem. In prevailing case law, the conclusion that a prisoner is innocent is not the same as the conclusion that the Constitution has been violated.

Suppose an officer presented false evidence and that the prevarications sent an innocent man to prison, as happened in Brandley’s case. The ‘violation,’ according to the law, is not that an innocent man has been dispatched to a concrete and steel cell for what may be the rest of his life, but that the officer has lied. Now imagine the same man is convicted not because an officer lied but because a witness was wrong. Here there is no violation at all; there is simply a mistake—the prisoner exhibits ‘bare innocence,’ as it is sometimes called—and the Constitution does not concern itself with mere error.

Read the full article in the Boston Review.


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The Khashoggi killing: America’s part in a Saudi horror
Hugh Eakin, NYR Daily, 18 October 2018

In the spring of 2012, I made an extended visit to Saudi Arabia to report on the effects of the Arab Spring there. The arch-conservative oil monarchy was pursuing a robust counter-revolution, but the uprisings had brought new energy to reformers across the region. I was curious to see how Saudis themselves saw their country’s future.

Among the many people I spoke with was Jamal Khashoggi, at the time an unusually well-connected journalist with an irrepressibly optimistic outlook. I also met the prominent reform cleric Salman al-Ouda, who had 14 million Twitter followers; Prince Alwaleed bin Talal, the pro-Western billionaire investor; Hatoon al-Fassi, a brilliant historian who viewed the liberated women of pre-Islamic Arabia as a model for change in her own society; Mohammad Fahad al-Qahtani, a US-educated economics professor; Waleed Abu al-Khair, a Jeddah lawyer; and the young blogger Eman Fahad al-Nafjan.

Men and women, young and old, deeply religious and secular: they came from very different places in Saudi life. Some, like Khashoggi, were at the heart of the establishment; others saw themselves as true oppositionists. What nearly all of them shared was an interest in social and political reform—and the belief that the United States would support them in that end. It did not.

In the years since my visit, every one of them has been detained, put on trial, jailed, chased into exile, or worse. Al-Nafjan and al-Fassi have been arrested for defending women’s rights. Prince Alwaleed was among the Saudi businessmen forced to hand over huge sums of money to the government after being locked up for months at the Ritz Carlton in Riyadh last winter. Al-Qahtani and al-Khair are serving long prison sentences; al-Ouda may face the death penalty. Until this month, none of their cases had aroused much concern from the US government.

How much has changed with what Turkish intelligence officials now describe as the ISIS-like torture and beheading of Khashoggi in the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul on October 2. Amid an exceptional wave of outrage and fury, veteran US diplomats have declared a fundamental rupture in US–Saudi relations, lawmakers have called for punitive sanctions, and leading CEOs are boycotting the country. ‘Everything we did to Putin, I want to do to Saudi Arabia,’ Senator Lindsey Graham said last week.

But the brazen killing did not occur in isolation. If it was the ‘game-changer’ that many see, it was also the latest, most extreme manifestation of a repressive regime that has acted with virtual impunity while maintaining enviably close ties to Washington. The Saudis did what they did because they assumed they could get away with it.

Read the full article in NYR Daily.


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Poverty Safari: why class matters
Helen Guldberg, spiked online, 19 October 2018 

Poverty Safari is a much-needed exploration of class politics in Britain today. As McGarvey points out, some like to believe we now live in a classless society. But McGarvey argues that class remains the ‘primary dividing line’ in our society. The middle and upper classes – who he describes at times as ‘the specialist class’ – ‘have their hands firmly on the levers at every level of society’ and assume ‘their interests, preferences and aspirations are universal’. The issues that dominate public discourse are primarily the concerns and preoccupations of the middle and upper classes. They are ‘more likely to possess the knowledge, resources and agency to make their voice heard and, crucially, for that voice to be taken seriously’, McGarvey writes. In Pollok and other working-class estates, people feel they are excluded from conversations about their own lives. ‘This belief is deeply held by people in many communities and there is a very good reason for it: it’s true’, he continues.

In Scotland, he points out, the poverty industry is ‘dominated by a left-leaning, liberal, middle class… Because this specialist class is so genuinely well-intentioned when it comes to the interests of people in deprived communities, they get a bit confused, upset and offended when those very people begin expressing anger towards them. It never occurs to them, because they see themselves as the good guys, that the people they purport to serve may, in fact, perceive them as chancers, careerists or charlatans.’

The tendency to ignore the voices of those in deprived communities has led to a pervasive sense of hopelessness in many of those communities. McGarvey recognises that sometimes people are their own worst enemies and warns against the futility of passivity. But he also tries to understand why people have become apathetic. In these communities, he argues, the desire to participate is beaten out of people. People quickly realise that local democracy is about people from outside the community retaining control, over the heads of the residents. He writes: ‘In Pollok, this tension between the concerns and culture of working-class people and those from more affluent backgrounds, who tended to be in positions of influence or authority, was the crucible of my early political experience.’

McGarvey argues that when local people were involved in standing up to the authorities, occupying land and fighting against school closures, ‘the quality of life rose substantially’. This was because people were taking some responsibility for their own community. ‘In this shared purpose, our lives gained new meaning and our quality of life improved, even though our material circumstances remained the same.’ He counterposes this experience to that of being reliant on benefits, in particular the Disability Living Allowance, and receiving professional support. ‘On DLA and surrounded by professionals, I started to see myself as a sick person with serious mental-health problems beyond my own control’, he writes. ‘Rather than accept I had a drink and drug problem, I became fixated on the idea I was mentally ill… My sense of victimhood closed me off from reality behind a wall of delusional self-justification.’

Read the full article in spiked online.


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Tracy Ma

The morality wars
Wesley Morris, New York Times, 3 October 2018

The culture wars back then always seemed to be about keeping culture from kids. Now the moral panic appears to flow in the opposite direction. The moralizers are young people, not their parents. And the fight is no longer over what we once called family values. It’s for representation — seats at the cultural table on the basis of race, gender and sexuality — in museums, on television, in movies. And what’s most valued is existence. And the fight is to keep that existence unobstructed.

In the previous incarnation of this conflict, the prevailing mood was mockery and more boundary expansion. All kinds of artists seemed eager to tick conservatives off, while testing how free freedom of expression really was. A queer independent cinema came out of this era. There seemed to be one erotic thriller a month. Tony Kushner wrote ‘Angels in America.’ Madonna happened, over and over. Andres Serrano put a crucifix in a tank of his own urine, photographed it and called it ‘Piss Christ.’

The animating crisis of that era was sex — from the paranoia, shame and judgment during the AIDS epidemic to the national cataclysm of the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal. The animating crisis of this era is power: the abuse, sharing and stripping of it. Empowerment. Art might not have the privilege of being art for art’s sake anymore. It has to be art for justice’s sake. Suddenly, but for very different reasons, the kinds of people who used to be subject to censorship are now the purveyors of a not-dissimilar silencing. Something generational has shifted, even among the cool kids and artsy-fartsies. Members of the old anti-censorship brigades now feel they have to censor themselves.

So we wind up with safer art and discourse that provokes and disturbs and shocks less. It gives us culture whose artistic value has been replaced by moral judgment and leaves us with monocriticism. This might indeed be a kind of social justice. But it also robs us of what is messy and tense and chaotic and extrajudicial about art. It validates life while making work and conversations about that work kind of dull.

Read the full article in the New York Times.


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CLR James rejected the posturing of identity politics
Ralph Leonard, Unherd, 11 October 2018

‘I denounce European colonialism’, wrote CLR James in 1980, ‘but I respect the learning and profound discoveries of Western civilisation.’ A Marxist revolutionary and Pan-Africanist, a historian and novelist, an icon of black liberation and die-hard cricket fan, a classicist and lover of popular culture, Cyril Lionel Roberts James, described by V.S Naipaul as ‘the master of all topics’, was one of the great (yet grossly underrated) intellectuals of the 20th century.

He was one of the few Leftist intellectuals – as Christopher Hitchens once said about George Orwell – who was simultaneously on the right side of the three major questions of the 20th century: Fascism, Stalinism and Imperialism. But today his praise for ‘Western culture’ would probably be dismissed as a slightly embarrassing residue of a barely concealed ‘Eurocentrism’’

Sophie Zhang in a recent column for Varsity entitled ‘Not all literature is ‘universal’ – nor does it have to be’, writes that:

‘The study of English Literature… has often centred around texts that claim to explore ‘universal’ themes and experiences. Yet what such curricula fail to recognise is that in glorifying the universal, we neglect the particular, because to focus on the ‘Western’ canon would be to ‘to centre whiteness and continually place non-white voices on the margins’‘.

Implicit in this view is that only ‘whiteness’ could have access to the universal, and those outside of ‘whiteness’ are intrinsically on the margins, and their views are necessarily ‘particular’.

Similarly, James’s admiration for Western culture and the Western canon is something many black radicals, who otherwise admire James for his opposition to colonialism, struggle to understand about him. It is rather fashionable, and almost expected, that to be a ‘proper’ black radical today is to be hostile to all that is designated as Western; it is to indiscriminately dismiss the Enlightenment as ‘white’ and ‘racist’, and disparage the Western canon as not being ‘relevant’ to black people.

James, though, was, to his core, a radical humanist who believed in the collective power of human beings to transform society and be masters of their own future. He held this fundamental principle throughout his life, above any narrow characteristic such as race, ethnicity, or nationality. While James opposed dogmatic, class-reductionist forms of Marxism that didn’t take into account the importance of racist oppression, or were indifferent to the specific struggles of black people for their freedom, he had no time whatsoever for half-baked romantic notions of ‘negritude’, or essentialist black nationalism.

Read the full article in Unherd.


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Self-identification, sex, and gender
Les Green, Semper Viridis, 15 October 2018

The UK House of Commons Report Report on Transgender Equality is needed, and overdue, and I hope that at least some of its recommendations find their way into law.  There is no doubt that, in the UK as elsewhere, trans people are routinely humiliated, abused, and discriminated against–not only by ‘usual suspects’ (the far right, decadent religions, and men who pathetically cling to the status that gender gives them).  They also suffer at the hands of those who are, or  say they are, here to help: in healthcare, in education, and in the legal system.

At the same time, the Report tries to do too much, on the basis of advice that is too narrow, and on a research foundation that is far too thin.  Here are some questions that need to be at least confronted, if not answered, ahead of any legislation.

  1.  We need to get a lot clearer, at least in medicine and law, about what ‘sex’ and ‘gender’ actually amount to and about the (fairly rare) instances in which it is essential for law or medicine mark either of them.  This will not be easy.  In English law, and in common usage, ‘gender’ is sometimes used as synonym for ‘sex.’  (As in ‘the gender imbalance in the judiciary’. )  But the law’s concept of ‘sex’ is a mess.  And the gender-studies shibboleth that ‘sex is gender, all the way down’, repeated by lazy if well-meaning lawyers, is incoherent.  Yet there is a lot of good work by social theorists and philosophers on these problems.  It has left no mark on the Report.
  2. We need to acknowledge more forthrightly than the Report does that there are real, material conflicts of interest that need to be addressed, in particular, conflicts between the interests of non-trans women and trans-women.  This work is not done in the Report, although a background assumption of a harmony of interests among non-trans women, trans-women, and gay people seems to hover over it, along with the hope that the lawyers will iron out any residual kinks.  Professor Kathleen Stock has shown that this is improbable.  And the furious, often hate-filled responses to Stock’s measured arguments–arguments that raise questions but do not dictate solutions–are one index of how serious these conflicts of interest are.  If the Committee and Parliament cannot even acknowledge them, the chances of coming to a fair accommodation among them are slim.

Read the full article in Semper Viridis.


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Born to be crushed
Neel Mukherjee, TLS, 9 October 2018

The book tells the story of Satyam’s life, first, then, slowly, Manjula’s. These are individual histories of the struggle for self-­det­ermination, of the urge to transcend the unrelenting depredations of the caste system. As a boy of eight, Satyam is attacked by an older boy of the golla caste – a low caste but, as Gidla writes, ‘even the lowest of caste Hindus are superior to untouchables’ – because Satyam is wearing briefs; as an untouchable, he is only permitted to wear a loincloth. Because barber-caste people will not touch an untouchable’s hair, the boy’s grandmother takes him to a ‘Christ barber’: ‘a Christian [convert] trained in haircutting by mission­aries to serve their fellow untouchables’. Whenever Prasanna Rao takes his children to the countryside to visit relatives, he takes ‘a long, circuitous path to avoid running into caste people before whom they would be forced to take off their shoes and fold their hands and bend their waists’. When Satyam visits an upper-caste school friend’s home, he has to go in through the back door, and to disappear if the boy’s father makes an unexpected appearance. Papa’s friend Bharati, from the untouchable madiga caste, feels too ashamed to offer Papa a glass of water as they are walking close to where she lives, in a madiga slum, because of the ‘festering piles of guts on the ground . . . dripping pieces of flesh hanging in the sun . . . the smell of blood . . . everywhere’. A few weeks later, Bharati dies in a blaze caused by a small kerosene lamp she was using to do her homework – they ‘were so poor that they couldn’t afford a lamp with a glass cover over the flame’. As an untouchable teacher in the wealthy village of Telaprolu, Prasanna Rao and two other untouchable teachers have to petition the school committee to be allowed to live close to the school, albeit strictly segregated, since the colony for the untouchables of the mala caste is so far away that the teachers would be late for school every morning. Gidla points out, ‘As salaried people, they could afford to live a little more decently than other untouchables. But as untouchables, they were not allowed to rent a house inside the village’.

What does this kind of systemic hierarchy do to people at the receiving end? It keeps them from resources, of course – in India, upper class is, almost without exception, upper caste – but it does something far more insidious and destructive: to borrow from Amartya Sen’s capability theory of poverty, it ruins the potential of what a set of people under its yoke can do or be. The notion of individual freedom has been so central in the intellectual history and polity of the West that it is difficult to imagine where or what we would be if that concept were decentred or missing. What palette of possibilities could have opened up to Satyam if poverty had not caused him to fail his exams in AC College and to drop out before finishing? What about the potential choices in the life of Manjula, who forms the beating heart of this book? Her extraordinary story is, by turns, deeply affecting and enraging. Against very steep odds, she manages to reach the MA level of education, then takes a series of temporary jobs as a teacher: she is shunted around from one town to another, fired repeatedly because she is lower-caste or because her job has been given to an upper-caste person. She marries a feckless man, given to wild explosions of rage, and is treated with intransigent hostility and cruelty by her mother-in-law. Add to that the unremitting squalor and grinding poverty and you’re left with a picture of a life reduced; it could have been so much more if the machinery of the caste system had not put up barriers on both the micro and macro levels. Gidla is clear-eyed about Manjula’s own internalization of caste oppression: she considers inter-caste marriage taboo and, against all evidence, thinks that the Brahmin history teacher who had bullied and mistreated her in class had done so with the intention of making her a better student. This is how power works, as Foucault taught us: not through any sovereign, top-down way, but via diffusion, circulation and internalization.

Read the full article in the TLS.


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Henry Fusseli, Oedipus Cursing His Son, Polynices

A Greek tragedy: how the EU is destroying a country
Jonathan Bond, The Spectator, 6 October 2018

The EU has enforced a 25 per cent contraction in the size of the Greek economy during the last eight years (more severe than the great American depression of the 1930s) and its fiscal punishments have caused youth unemployment to reach a staggering 44 per cent.

In which economic textbook does allowing Greece’s debt to GDP ratio to grow (not reduce) from 120 per cent in 2010 (when it was already considered unsustainable) to 180 per cent by 2060 signal a return to economic normality? Every rule in the book has been set aside in the EU-ECB-IMF troika’s cowardly decision to heap more loans onto an already insolvent nation. Perhaps someone should have checked what was in his water glass when Mario Centeno, president of the eurozone group of finance ministers, said back in June: ‘With all these measures we can safely say that Greek debt is sustainable going forward.’

The evidence is everywhere to be found that Greece is slowly dying under its EU-induced euthanasia. At Easter, I spoke to newly ordained monks on Mount Athos — who have retreated to the Byzantine calm of the Holy Mountain to escape the agonies of modern domestic Greek life on the EU’s rack. My neighbour, a fully qualified accountant who lost her office job in 2010, says her parents’ monthly pension was reduced from €980 to €600 last year under government cuts. Her young daughter’s heart operation can no longer be under-taken at Corfu’s brand-new Ionian Islands hospital because its annual budget was recently slashed by 50 per cent.

Greece isn’t the poorest member of the EU — poverty rates are higher in Bulgaria and Romania — but it is close behind in third place, with over a fifth of the population now ‘severely materially deprived’ in 2015 according to Eurostat (up from 2 per cent in 2009 before the crisis began). Whereas the figures have been dropping sharply for her Balkan neighbours, the rate for Greece has doubled since 2008 (to 22 per cent, against an EU average of 8 per cent). The EU itself estimates that one in three Greeks currently lives ‘in a situation at risk of poverty or social exclusion’. These are shocking figures.

Notwithstanding my deeply held support for the 60-year European integration project, it’s no longer possible for me to look away from the tragic toll being exacted on 11 million Greeks by the EU’s cruelty. I have been forced to acknowledge that what Greece is enduring no longer meets the preferred explanation discussed around the dinner tables of northern, Protestant-work-ethic Europe: that Greece needed a harsh dose of corrective austerity in order to end for once and for all her Byzantine levels of corruption and clientilism.

No, what is happening is without precedent in EU history: the deliberate, slow destruction of a small and vulnerable society of fellow Europeans, all in the name of financial prudence and necessity.

Read the full article in the Spectator.


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Kingdom crackdown
Sarah Aziza, The Intercept, 6 October 2018

Still, as recently as a year ago, al-Hathloul and those like her held out hope that the state-endorsed push for reform could create conditions for progress on other issues, such as the rights of political prisoners and the kingdom’s male guardianship laws, which subject women to the will of their male ‘custodians’ in various areas of social and civil life. ‘We weren’t sure how serious the government was about its promises, but we thought, maybe we can work within the system and use their own words to push for change now,’ said one woman activist, speaking of last year. ‘We thought we could present ourselves as allies, to support their work, and maybe they would accept us.’

For al-Hathloul, this hope would be short-lived. Beginning on May 15, 2018, just weeks before the end of the ban on female drivers, the government began a series of arrests targeting prominent activists. Al-Hathloul was among the first to disappear into custody, along with Eman al-Nafjan and Aziza al-Yousef, fellow advocates for human rights and reform. Simultaneously, photographs of the women began to circulate on local media and online, accompanied by state accusations of treason and collusion with foreign governments. A hashtag, #AgentsofEmbassies, went viral, as did speculations that al-Hathloul was a Qatari operative intent on harming the Saudi state.

The arrests were the latest example of a new and expanding tactic in Saudi Arabia of the state using anti-terrorism laws to silence dissent. ‘In the past few years, there has been an increasing trend of using nationalist rhetoric and accusations of terrorism to squelch anyone who might question the state,’ said Zayadin. Such allegations allow for the authorities to hold people for months without trial and prosecute them in the so-called Specialized Criminal Court, where they could face heavy sentences for nonviolent crimes. ‘We’ve seen it used against conservatives and liberals alike,’ Zayadin added, citing a slew of arrests in September 2017 during which the government rounded up a group of clerics, academics, and journalists under similar charges of treason. (The Saudi embassy in Washington did not respond to a request for comment.)

At the end of June, the world applauded as women in the kingdom claimed their right to drive for the first time. Meanwhile, al-Hathloul and her colleagues remained incommunicado. Just three days later, Hatoon al-Fassi, a prominent professor of women’s history and longtime advocate for reform, was taken into custody on unknown charges. The following month, two more well-known female activists, Samar Badawi and Nassima al-Sadah, were arrested, despite having largely halted their organizing and online activities after witnessing the crackdown on their peers.

In the meantime, other activists fell silent or, along with a growing number of conservatives, academics, journalists, and businesspeople, quietly left the country. ‘There’s a feeling now that, even if you’re not an activist, just having an opinion is dangerous,’ said one human rights advocate, who left the country to avoid detention. ‘Right now, I don’t have any hope for activism inside the kingdom.’ Like many of the activists in this story, The Intercept is withholding the human rights advocate’s name and identifying details at their request, in order to protect them and their family.

Read the full article in The Intercept.


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Elizabeth Warren falls for Trump’s trap –
and promotes insidious ideas about race and DNA

Masha Gessen, New Yorker, 16 October 2018

Trump’s frequent attacks on Warren have contained several transparent messages. She looks like a white woman but she claims to be Native American, and therefore she is a liar, says one. In the Trumpian universe, lying is always motivated by profit; therefore, Warren must be lying because she wants the benefits of being Native American, as these must have to do with education and employment. Trump conjures so many familiar irritants: a woman, a cheater, someone nonwhite, and affirmative action itself. He has been demanding the DNA test the same way he used to demand that President Obama produce his birth certificate.

The senator’s video is carefully worded. Warren says that she is laying no claim to citizenship in a tribe. She frames her understanding of her ancestry in terms of experience, though this experience seems fairly well removed: the defining event in Warren’s family was her father’s family’s disapproval of his marriage to her future mother; Warren says that it was the Native American heritage that made her father’s family suspicious. Talking heads from the universities where Warren was employed assure the audience that she has never used her heritage to advance professionally.

Visually and dramatically, though, the video suggests a different framing. We see Warren’s three brothers, who appear darker than she is. It seems that we might be seeing them not only because they are Republicans, as they say, but also because they look more like what we imagine Native Americans should look like. A female cousin is identified as a citizen of the Cherokee Nation. And the centerpiece of the clip is the DNA-test reveal: the professor confirms that the senator has Native American blood…

Warren ended up providing one of the clearest examples yet of how Trumpian rhetoric shifts the political conversation. The woman who is hoping to become the most progressive Democratic nominee in generations is not merely letting herself get jerked around by a Trumpian taunt. She is also reinforcing one of the most insidious ways in which Americans talk about race: as though it were a measurable biological category, one that, in some cases, can be determined by a single drop of blood. Genetic-test evidence is circular: if everyone who claims to be X has a particular genetic marker, then everyone with the marker is likely to be X. This would be flawed reasoning in any area, but what makes it bad science is that it reinforces the belief in the existence of X—in this case, race as a biological category. Warren’s video will hardly convince a Trump voter, who will see only a woman who feels that she has to prove something. Trump himself has already walked back his promise of a million-dollar charity donation. Warren, meanwhile, has allowed herself to be dragged into a conversation based on an outdated, harmful concept of racial blood—one that promotes the pernicious idea of biological differences among people—and she has pulled her supporters right along with her.

Read the full article in the New Yorker.


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How a disastrous change in perspective
disempowered the left and let the right rise

Jeff Sparrow, Guardian, 30 September 2018

Moore’s book drew a simple conclusion. ‘[I]f you live in a country,’ he wrote, ‘where 44 million can’t read – and perhaps close to another 200 million can read but usually don’t – well, friends, you and I are living in one very scary place.’ The moron president remained in power because the American people were themselves moronic. Stupid White Men described Bush as the ‘idiot leader of an idiot nation’, and explained that ‘it comes as no surprise to foreigners that Americans, who love to revel in their stupidity, would ‘elect’ a president who rarely reads anything – including his own briefing papers’.

This was smug politics at its most overt, not just in the assessment of Americans as people ‘who love to revel in their stupidity’, but in its implication that the reader (‘you and I’) was, like Moore himself, smarter than the ordinary dopes whom the book discussed.

These formulations simply inverted the culture-war themes of the right. The Republican electoral campaign had, after all, contrasted George W Bush’s folksiness with the supposed superciliousness of his opponent, Al Gore.

The September 11 atrocity and the outbreak of the ‘war on terror’ facilitated the Republican efforts to build on this image. Bush became a war president – but a war president of a special type. His minders cast him as John Wayne: a hero, to be sure, but also an everyman, whose greatness distilled the values of the heartland.

When Bush (who’d enlisted as a fighter pilot in Texas to evade the Vietnam War) arrived on an aircraft carrier in a flying suit to declare victory in Iraq, the NBC pundit Chris Matthews hosted Watergate felon Gordon Liddy to discuss his appearance.

‘You know, he’s in his flight suit,’ said Liddy. ‘He’s striding across the deck, and he’s wearing his parachute harness … and it makes the best of his manly characteristic. … He has just won every woman’s vote in the United States of America. You know, all those women who say size doesn’t count – they’re all liars.’

This grotesque exchange (and many others like it) provided credence to Moore’s assessment of American idiocy. Here was a political culture at rock bottom, with sycophantic journalists enthusing about how the president, unlike his effete opponents, possessed a large penis.

Yet Moore’s argument that the people themselves were responsible for Bush’s antics implicitly reinforced the Republican case. The right equated the president with the American electorate, and distinguished them both from sneering elitists. Moore did exactly the same – except with the polarities reversed. Conservatives insisted the people and their leaders were wise; Moore judged them both moronic.

The first position was, for obvious reasons, far more politically successful than the second.

Read the full article in the Guardian.


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Jasper Johns, Flag

History for a post-fact America
Alex Carp, NYR Daily, 19 October 2018

Lepore’s work demonstrates that while America is a place, it is also an act of imagination. The great value of a project like These Truths is not just its placement of events in time, it’s also the light thrown across history’s absences and elisions. It tells us what happened as well as what most definitely did not; which problems were resolved, which were deferred, which are rephrased and repeated. Martin Luther King Jr.’s ‘Letter from a Birmingham Jail’ invoked the Boston Tea Party; Ronald Reagan, in his 1964 endorsement of Barry Goldwater, warned voters not to abandon the founders. When David Walker published his appeal for abolitionism in the run-up to the Civil War, and Elizabeth Cady Stanton drafted a call for reform at Seneca Falls, they chose to do so by both remaking the Declaration of Independence for those it had excluded and by casting themselves as philosophical descendants of the men who signed it.

America was not so much a feat of invention as one of reinvention; the founders’ language of rights and equality has grown into the dominant American idiom, made and remade again. It stretches to the very edges of the political spectrum. When Donald Trump, then a candidate surging in the polls, sat for an interview with Alex Jones, the conspiracy theorist and provocateur, at the end of 2015, the political establishment responded with shock. Perhaps they should have reconsidered. ‘What you’re doing is epic,’ Jones told Trump, one self-professed outsider to another. And then: ‘It’s George Washington level.’

Every generation ‘has to find a way to inherit the mantle of the American Revolution,’ Lepore has argued, in this book and elsewhere. ‘We are a people that share an idea.’ Could she be right? Either way, it’s a really good story.

Read the full article in the NYR Daily.


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Uncivil rights
Jill Lepore, TLS, 9 October 2018

In pursuing this end, Radical Republicans were supported by the legions of women who had fought for abolition and emancipation and for women’s rights. After Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation, and after ratification of the Thirteenth Amendment, Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony had begun to fight, equally hard, for the next amendment, which they expected to guarantee the rights and privileges of citizenship for all Americans – including women.

The Fourteenth Amendment, drafted by the Joint Committee on Reconstruction, marked the signal constitutional achievement of a century of debate and war, of suffering and struggle. It proposed a definition of citizenship guaranteeing its privileges and immunities, and ensuring equal protection and due process for all citizens. ‘All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the State wherein they reside’, it began. ‘No state shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any state deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.’

During the drafting of the amendment, the committee betrayed the national phalanx of women who for decades had fought for abolition and for black civil rights by proposing to insert, into the amendment’s second section, a provision that any state that denied the right to vote ‘to any of the male inhabitants of such state’ would lose representation in Congress. ‘Male’ had never before appeared in any part of the Constitution. ‘If that word ‘male’ be inserted,’ Stanton warned, ‘it will take us a century at least to get it out.’ She was not far wrong.

Women protested. ‘Can any one tell us why the great advocates of Human Equality . . . forget that when they were a weak party and needed all the womanly strength of the nation to help them on, they always united the words ‘without regard to sex, race, or color’?’ asked the Ohio-born reformer Frances Gage. Charles Sumner offered this answer: ‘We know how the Negro will vote, but are not so sure of the women’. How women would vote was impossible to know. Would black women vote the way black men voted? Would white women vote like black women? Republicans decided they’d rather not find out. ‘This is the negro’s hour’, they told women. ‘May I ask just one question based on the apparent opposition in which you place the negro and the woman?’ Stanton asked Wendell Phillips. ‘My question is this: Do you believe the African race is composed entirely of males?’

Over the protests of women, the word ‘male’ stayed in the draft. But another term raised more eyebrows. ‘All persons born or naturalized in the United States . . . are citizens.’ Why ‘persons’? To men who were keen to deny women equal rights, ‘persons’ seemed oddly expansive. Was there a way in which this amendment could be read, even with the word ‘male’, to support female claims for equal rights?

Read the full article in the TLS.


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German far-right party draws backing
from small group of Jews

Hakan Ersen, Reuters, 7 October 2018

Leaders of the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) have been rebuked for belittling the significance of the Nazis and criticizing a Holocaust memorial, but this has not stopped a small group of Jews from throwing their support behind the party.

On Sunday they formed Jews in the AfD, a political group based in the western city of Wiesbaden that seeks to foster support for the party, which says Islam is not compatible with the German constitution.

‘We are not a religious organisation, we are a political organisation,’ Jews in the AfD leader Wolfgang Fuhl told reporters at the inauguration ceremony, sitting on a podium with fellow Jews including a few wearing the Jewish skullcap.

He said people wishing to join had to meet two requirements: membership in the AfD and ethnic or religious association with the Jewish faith. Twenty people signed up at Sunday’s meeting.

The AfD entered the German parliament for the first time in an election last year, drawing support from a broad array of voters angry with Chancellor Angela Merkel’s decision in 2015 to welcome almost a million, mainly Muslim asylum seekers.

Its success drew immediate expressions of concern from Israeli officials and Jewish groups in Europe and the United States.

German politicians in June rebuked AfD co-leader Alexander Gauland after he said that Hitler and the Nazis ‘are just bird shit in 1,000 years of successful German history.’

And Bjoern Hoecke, the AfD’s leader in the eastern state of Thuringia, triggered anger last year after he told supporters that Berlin’s memorial to the victims of the Holocaust was a ‘memorial of shame’ and that history books should be rewritten to focus more on German victims.

But Jews for AfD leader Fuhl dismissed those concerns on Sunday, saying the AfD was the most pro-Israel party in Germany, not least because it supports the Jewish state’s right to have all of Jerusalem as its capital

Read the full article on Reuters.


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Americans aren’t practicing democracy anymore
Yoni Appelbaum, The Atlantic, October 2018

But the united states is no longer a nation of joiners. As the political scientist Robert Putnam famously demonstrated in Bowling Alone, participation in civic groups and organizations of all kinds declined precipitously in the last decades of the 20th century. The trend has, if anything, accelerated since then; one study found that from 1994 to 2004, membership in such groups fell by 21 percent. And even that likely understates the real decline, as a slight uptick in passive memberships has masked a steeper fall in attendance and participation. The United States is no longer a nation of presidents, either. In a 2010 census survey, just 11 percent of respondents said that they had served as an officer or been on a committee of any group or organization in the previous year.

Putnam was concerned about the effects of this decline on ‘social capital,’ which he defined as the ‘norms of reciprocity and networks of civic engagement.’ His financial metaphor values civic life primarily for the assets it provides individuals. This perspective lends itself to a certain optimism. Not every measure of social capital is in decline: Americans still volunteer and attend religious services at relatively high rates. They can also use social media to connect with one another in new ways, forging communities of interest across vast geographic distances. In these ways, individuals can still accrue substantial social capital. The metaphor has its limits, however: In focusing on the importance of ties between individuals, it neglects the intrinsic benefits of participating in civic life.

Volunteerism, church attendance, and social-media participation are not schools for self-government; they do not inculcate the habits and rituals of democracy. And as young people participate less in democratically run organizations, they show less faith in democracy itself. In 2011, about a quarter of American Millennials said that democracy was a ‘bad’ or ‘very bad’ way to run a country, and that it was ‘unimportant’ to choose leaders in free and fair elections. By the time Donald Trump launched his presidential campaign, Gallup polling showed that Americans’ faith in most of the nation’s major institutions—the criminal-justice system, the press, public schools, all three branches of government—was below the historical average.

Trump turned the long-standing veneration of civic procedure on its head. He proclaimed that America is ‘rigged’; that ‘the insiders wrote the rules of the game to keep themselves in power and in the money.’ The norms and practices of democratic governance, he insisted, had allowed elites to entrench themselves.

Trump secured the Republican nomination by speaking directly to those voters who had the least experience with democratic institutions. In April 2016, when the Republican field had narrowed from 17 candidates to three, a PRRI/The Atlantic survey found Trump enjoying a narrow lead over second-place Ted Cruz among Republican-leaning voters, 37 to 31 percent. But among those who seldom or never participated in community activities such as sports teams, book clubs, parent-teacher associations, or neighborhood associations, Trump led 50 to 24 percent. In fact, such civically disengaged voters accounted for a majority of his support.

Read the full article in the Atlantic.


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Dalton Paula, Zeferina

Brazil enthralls with an art show
of Afro-Atlantic history

Holland Cottier, New York Times, 12 October 2018

Nearly every one of its 60-plus images, all of black subjects, is mesmerizing. Some sitters appear trapped in European conventions. Don Miguel de Castro, a black envoy from the African kingdom of Kongo to the Dutch court, looks forbearingly out at us from under his absurd Rembrandtesque hat. Four oil studies of black men by Theodore Gericault are, by any formal standards, gorgeous. But they’re also disturbing. All but one of the sitters have been cast as emoting bit players in a French Romantic drama.

A large 19th century painting titled ‘Woman From Bahia’ stands in contrast to all this. We don’t know who the subject is, or who painted her, or when (the guess is around 1850). But, wearing white gloves, a midnight-blue gown, and ropes of gold beads, she’s a self-contained presence. She has a life and thoughts all her own. She may be an ex-slave; she’s also a queen.

In the context of this racially fraught moment in Brazil, she reads as political statement. Many images in the show do. And some were intended to. One picture is of João de Deus Nascimento who, in 1798, led a predominantly black rebellion demanding the end of slavery and Portuguese rule. The other is of a woman known only as Zeferina who, brought to Brazil from Angola, established a runaway slave community in Bahia and plotted an armed rising against the white population.

For Afro-Brazilians both are martyr-heroes, though official history books barely mention them. They represent a long tradition of resistance to the racism that is hardwired into the social and political structure of that country, as it is to the rest of the Afro-Atlantic world. And the exhibition is fundamentally about resistance, and black sovereignty. It’s about change, not chains. 

Read the full article in the New York Times.


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‘World’s oldest fossils’ may just be pretty rocks
Maya Wei-Haas, National Geographic, 17 October 2018

In 2016, a series of unassuming stone shapes rocked the paleobiology world when they were declared the earliest fossilized life yet found. Standing up to 1.6 inches tall, the triangular forms line up like a string of inverted flags in an outcrop on the southwest coast of Greenland that dates back 3.7 billion years.

‘If these are really the figurative tombstones of our earliest ancestors, the implications are staggering,’ NASA astrobiologist Abigail Allwood wrote in a review article that accompanied the Nature study announcing the find. The microbes that made these fossils are over 200 million years older than the most widely accepted evidence of fossil life and would have lived a geologic blink of an eye after astroids had blasted Earth’s early surface. Evidence of critters from this time would suggest that ‘life is not a fussy, reluctant, and unlikely thing,’ Allwood wrote. ‘Give life half an opportunity, and it’ll run with it.’

But even as Allwood penned these words, she had a nagging sense that something was amiss.

‘I was initially quite enthusiastic,’ she says. ‘But then I sort of was looking more closely and seeing some funny things.’ So she collected her own set of rocks from the Greenland outcrop and analyzed their structure and chemistry. The results, published this week in Nature, paint an entirely different picture: The structures are not from microbial action, she reports, but from the more expected squishing and pulling of rocks as Earth’s early surface took shape.

The University of Wollongong’s Allen Nutman, who led the 2016 analysis of the structures, wholeheartedly disagrees with the new work. ‘This is a classic ‘comparing apples to oranges’ scenario, leading to the inevitable outcome that ours and their observations do not exactly match,’ he says in an emailed statement.

This debate draws back the veil on the necessary analysis and reanalysis that happens in the scientific process, highlighting in this case just how difficult it can be to tease out details from ancient materials. Allwood sees this latest work as an important cautionary tale in our search for life on other planets, especially with the upcoming Mars 2020 rover set to seek traces of ancient life on the red planet.

‘Give yourself the best chance possible while doing the work in the field,’ she says. Returning to Mars—or even Greenland—is not easy, so careful analysis and review at every step of the process is vital to our collective understanding.

Read the full article in the National Geographic.


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‘New Age’ beliefs common among both
religious and nonreligious Americans

Claire Gecewicz, Pew research Centre, 1 October 2018

Most American adults self-identify as Christians. But many Christians also hold what are sometimes characterized as ’New Age’ beliefs – including belief in reincarnation, astrology, psychics and the presence of spiritual energy in physical objects like mountains or trees. Many Americans who are religiously unaffiliated also have these beliefs.

Overall, roughly six-in-ten American adults accept at least one of these New Age beliefs. Specifically, four-in-ten believe in psychics and that spiritual energy can be found in physical objects, while somewhat smaller shares express belief in reincarnation (33%) and astrology (29%).

But New Age beliefs are not necessarily replacing belief in traditional forms of religious beliefs or practices. While eight-in-ten Christians say they believe in God as described in the Bible, six-in-ten believe in one or more of the four New Age beliefs analyzed here, ranging from 47% of evangelical Protestants to roughly seven-in-ten Catholics and Protestants in the historically black tradition.

Moreover, religiously unaffiliated Americans (those who say their religion is atheist, agnostic or ‘nothing in particular’) are about as likely as Christians to hold New Age beliefs. However, atheists are much less likely to believe in any of the four New Age beliefs than agnostics and those who say their religion is ‘nothing in particular.’ Just 22% of atheists believe in at least one of four New Age beliefs, compared with 56% of agnostics and eight-in-ten among those whose religion is ‘nothing in particular.’

Americans who consider themselves to be spiritual but not religious also tend to accept at least one New Age belief. Roughly three-quarters of U.S. adults in this category hold one or more New Age beliefs, including six-in-ten who believe spiritual energy can be located in physical things and 54% who believe in psychics. And among those who say they are religious and spiritual, 65% espouse at least one New Age belief.

Americans who reject both the religious and spiritual labels also are more likely to reject New Age beliefs. Roughly three-in-ten or fewer in this group believe in psychics, reincarnation, astrology or that spiritual energy can be found in objects. And fewer than half (45%) affirm one or more of these beliefs.

Read the full article at the Pew Research Centre.


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What’s your solution to fighting sexism and racism? Mine is: unions
Bhaskar Sunkara, Guardian 1 September 2018

As Jake Rosenfeld and Meredith Kleykamp point out, when President Franklin D Roosevelt signed the National Labor Relations Act in 1935, which guaranteed the right of private sector employees to collectively bargain, less than 1% of black workers were in unions. By the early 1950s, 40% of black males working in the private sector were unionized. This high level of union membership wasn’t an accident – excluded groups consciously used collective bargaining to fight against discrimination and win a better position in the labor market.

The type of anti-racism that could materially improve lives, in other words, has always flowed through economic struggles. As Martin Luther King Jr put it in 1967: ‘We aren’t merely struggling to integrate a lunch counter now. We’re struggling to get some money to be able to buy a hamburger or a steak when we get to the counter.’

Unlike other countries, the United States didn’t have its own labor party. But union organizers and civil rights leaders pressured the Democratic party into carrying out some of the reforms that social democrats implemented elsewhere. In turn, working-class Americans of all races supported the party through its longest spell of political dominance.

It was always an uneasy alliance, however. Democrats relied on working-class votes to win elections, but the Democratic coalition also included powerful corporate interests – even big oil and General Electric – who really called the shots. And when economic growth slowed in the 1970s and business wanted to restore profitability off the backs of workers, the party quickly abandoned its promises of shared prosperity and equality and did capital’s bidding.

The Democratic party is still led by the currents that led this charge. Hillary Clinton was on the Walmart board from 1986 to 1992, while the corporation launched anti-labor union campaigns. In her future Senate campaigns, she got upwards of $25,000 in contributors from the company’s executives, lobbyists, and political action committee. Under Bill Clinton’s tenure as governor, Arkansas had the worst record in the country for worker safety. It wasn’t just a family affair: Democrats across the country took the lead forcing unions to make painful concessions and clearing the way for corporate dominance.

The rollback has had millions of victims – not least of all minority workers. Deunionization has cost black men around $50 a week – often the difference between food and housing security and deprivation. In the meantime, Democrats had to find a new pitch to keep voters turning out. They promised to better ‘represent’ and ‘include’ minorities and women, all the while undermining the social programs and unionized employment that actually gave oppressed people a shot at a better life. It’s no surprise that millions of black and brown voters have simply stopped turning out to vote.

And this is where establishment liberal politics finds itself today. It knows it can’t deal with class inequality because that means taking on capital, so instead it issues platitudes about racism and sexism. But dealing seriously with oppression means distributing wealth and power (currently held by economic elites and not less oppressed workers) to the working-class victims of racism and sexism. That means confronting corporate interests.

Read the full article in the Guardian.


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Sam Selvon The Lonely Londoners

The Lonely Londoners:
a new way of reading and writing the city

Susheila Nasta, British Library Windrush Stories,
4 October 2018

‘One grim winter evening’, Moses Aloetta jumps on ‘a number 46 bus at the corner of Chepstow Road and Westbourne Grove to go to Waterloo to meet a fellar who was coming from Trinidad on the boat-train’. As we accompany Moses, veteran black Londoner on his routine journey to welcome yet another newcomer into the fold, Selvon swiftly transports us into the tragicomic urban theatre of his fictional world. It is a labyrinthine city that his cast of rootless, unlettered characters soon learn to survive in and reinvent. As an iconic chronicle of post-war Caribbean migration to Britain, The Lonely Londoners encapsulates the romance and disenchantment of an imagined city that was both magnet and nightmare for its new colonial citizens, a promised land that despite its glittering lure turns out to be an illusion. Without doubt Selvon’s ironic reversal of the El Dorado myth – his colonisation of England in reverse – has important socio-political implications. First and foremost, however, it remains a powerful imaginative work, timeless in its bitter sweet love affair with the city and ground-breaking in its creation of an inclusive narrative voice that creates a new means of describing it.

In The Lonely Londoners, Selvon faced the challenge of both exploring London as a black city and creating a suitable literary frame to inscribe it. In using a creolised voice for the language of the narration and the dialogue, a voice which transports the calypsonian ‘ballads’ of his errant island ‘boys’ to the diamond pavements of Caribbean London, Selvon not only envisioned a new way of reading and writing the city but also exploded some of the narrow and hyphenated categories by which black working-class voices had hitherto been defined. Closing the sometimes awkward gap between the teller of the tale and the tale itself, Selvon thus finds a means to not only reinvent London but to reshape its spaces, giving his previously voiceless characters a place to live in it. During the first six months of the novel’s composition, Selvon tried in fact to write the book in Standard English, but later admitted it ‘just would not work’. The language was not sufficiently pliable and could not convey the feelings, the moods and the – as yet – ‘unarticulated’ desires of his characters. At the same time there were certain ‘physical and emotional scenes’ where the oral vernacular simply ‘couldn’t carry the essence of what I wanted to say’. Once Selvon switched to what he calls the ‘idiom’ of the people and shifted his register to fuse Standard English with the full range of a broad and hybrid linguistic continuum, he was able to bring new life and rhythms to the book. As Caryl Phillips once commented:

If I were to point to a writer who captures the tone … and texture of London as the austere fifties … give way to the swinging sixties, I would not cite the plays of John Osborne or Arnold Wesker, or the prose of David Storey or John Braine. For acuity of vision, intellectual rigour and sheer beauty… it would have to be the works of Sam Selvon which would figure pre-eminently. He did not only know the Caribbean but the pages of London’s A to Z, and was able to capture these with a haunting lyricism which remains … imprinted on the imagination.

Now heralded as an ingenious alchemist of style or the ‘father of black writing’ in Britain, Selvon’s work has influenced several generations of writers. Notably Phillips, a well-known writer in his own right, locates Selvon not only in terms of a tradition of black writing – a precursor of a later generation of contemporary figures such as David Dabydeen, Zadie Smith or Andrea Levy – but more significantly as a key figure in the literary reimaging of Britain during the post-war years. Selvon’s improvisations in this his first London novel forged a shift in perspective which would not only change the way the city was seen, but ‘Englishness’ itself. It was akin, as Selvon once put it, to experimenting with ‘music… I sat like a passenger in a bus and let the language do the writing’.

Early on in the novel the atmosphere of Selvon’s city is described: ‘it had a kind of unrealness about London, with a fog sleeping restlessly over the city and the lights showing in a blur as if is not London at all but some strange place on another planet’. Mimicking the oral rhythms of a modified Caribbean vernacular, Selvon immediately takes us inside the world of his immigrant characters creating an intimacy between storyteller and reader and distancing us from the bleak landscape of the alien city outside. Although earlier inscriptions of the city reverberate (we feel the shrouding fog of Dickens’s Bleak House and hear the morbid echoes of T S Eliot’s ‘unreal city’ in The Waste Land), the narrator’s voice distinguishes itself from such earlier models, carrying with it the weight of a differently formed historical and cultural experience.

Read the full article in the British Library Windrush Stories.


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The free speech moment and the Claudia Jones Lecture
Robert Sharp, 5 October 2018

For a long time now, I have been meaning to write a post about the ‘free speech moment’, after which we have a moral duty to defend the right to freedom of expression, even if we find the speaker or their statements odious. During a free speech controversy, asking oneself when that moment might be is a useful exercise, which helps to clarify what one thinks.

The Free Speech Moment I refer to might be the point of publication. Or in other contexts: The clicking on the ‘tweet’ button; The curtain up; the exhibition opening; The opening notes of the first song; the speaker clearing their throat.

Alternatively, the Moment might also be the point of commission; the announcement of the new season of plays; the curatorial decisions; the booking of the venue; or the invitation.

But it could also be when a piece of text or speech is shared… especially if that act of sharing puts the original speech in a new context, or strips it of the original context.

Whether we are before or after the Free Speech Moment is crucial to how we treat complaints about the speech. If someone suggests that an offensive political figure speak at a conference, but the conference curator puts a kibosh on the idea, we do not (or should not) describe this as ‘censorship’. It’s just good judgment.

However, if that same speaker was invited, but then disinvitedfollowing protests, I think we should describe that as a form of ‘censorship’ and certainly against the spirit of free speech.

If a play is rehearsed and ready for performance, but then the creative director who commissioned it decides to cancels the performances, is that an act of curation or an act of censorship? (See: HomegrownRita Sue and Bob TooPah-la)

Is depends on why. Is it because some new information has come to light, which changes the curatorial calculus? Or is it because of some kind of external pressure? Because the venue cannot guarantee the safety of the speakers? Or because the plumbing is not working?

As it happens, one such furore is brewing over the past couple of weeks: Kerry-Anne Mendoza, the editor of The Canary, was invited by the National Union of Journalists to give the prestigious Claudia Jones Lecture, as part of Black History Month. It was due to take place at the Guardian offices in London.

Mendoza is controversial and has been accused of publishing irresponsible inaccuracies. So for many (shall we say) ‘mainstream’ journalists, the NUJ Black Members Council decision to invite to Mendoza was an anathema. They were very angry.

Now it seems that the lecture has been cancelled. How might we consider this controversy with my Free Speech Moment framework, above?

Read the full article on Robert Sharp’s blog.


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No cash needed at this cafe.
Students pay the tab with their personal data

Chaeil Schaffel, NPR, 29 September 2018

Shiru Cafe looks like a regular coffee shop. Inside, machines whir, baristas dispense caffeine and customers hammer away on laptops. But all of the customers are students, and there’s a reason for that. At Shiru Cafe, no college ID means no caffeine.

‘We definitely have some people that walk in off the street that are a little confused and a little taken aback when we can’t sell them any coffee,’ said Sarah Ferris, assistant manager at the Shiru Cafe branch in Providence, R.I., located near Brown University.

Ferris will turn away customers if they’re not college students or faculty members. The cafe allows professors to pay, but students have something else the shop wants: their personal information.

To get the free coffee, university students must give away their names, phone numbers, email addresses and majors, or in Brown’s lingo, concentrations. Students also provide dates of birth and professional interests, entering all of the information in an online form. By doing so, the students also open themselves up to receiving information from corporate sponsors who pay the cafe to reach its clientele through logos, apps, digital advertisements on screens in stores and on mobile devices, signs, surveys and even baristas…

Nicholas Tella, director of information security at Johnson & Wales, a private nonprofit university that has a campus in Providence, was a little more skeptical than the customers inside Shiru Cafe.

‘If they’re giving you something for free, this data that’s being collected, for any vendor, there seems to be more value in the data than in the product,’ Tella said.

In an article in New York Magazine, Jacob Furst, a professor of computer security at DePaul University, said that concerns could arise if students were required to connect to the cafe’s Wi-Fi, which would allow access to a much wider range of information that could be accessed by third parties.

Read the full article on NPR.


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Fixing the poor: Eugenic sterilization
and child welfare in the twentieth century

Marius Turda, Reviews in History, September 2018

The history of eugenics continues to provide new and challenging ways to interpret the some of the major developments in social policy and social work during the 20th century, from child welfare, public health, and family planning, to the institutionalisation of disabled persons and the treatment of mentally ill. In recent years, a number of scholars have increasingly questioned certain readings of the eugenic policies of the past which even when not dealing directly with Nazi Germany continued nevertheless to prioritise race as the essential category of the eugenic agenda. What began as a breakaway from the strictures of a historiographic tradition glued to National Socialism has now firmly established itself within the mainstream of the scholarship on the history of eugenics. But current topics and avenues of study are inevitably framed by the past scholarship, which sets up challenges and assumptions to either refine or refute. Sterilization is one such topic requiring re-examination, particularly the underlying assumption that what drove state and public support for this method of population management and control was eugenic notions of racial protectionism. This is certainly one seminal aspect in the history of sterilization, but there are other aspects which are not defined eugenically but socially and economically, alongside a complex system of institutional factors and family decisions. These aspects together have consistently defined sterilization as modern society’s most effective agent in controlling reproduction.

The importance of sterilization therefore cannot be overstated. Again and again, we hear stories of coerced sterilization that had happened in American hospitals or, more recently, in American prisons. Not surprisingly, then, sterilization occupies a central place in the new histories of eugenics, particularly those written about North America, as demonstrated by the work of a host of scholars including as Ian R. Dowbiggin, Paul Lombardo, Erika Dyck, Randall Hansen and Desmond King, and Adam Cohen. They all provide, in different ways, a healthy re-evaluation, carefully grounded in archival research, of the history of sterilization in the 20th century.

Molly Ladd-Taylor’s study of the history of sterilization in Minnesota represents the latest example of this growing body of scholarship. It is a work of commanding erudition and solid archival research. The major contribution of this study is the way in which its author looks at and, correspondingly, interprets and evaluates the convoluted trajectory of sterilization in Minnesota, from its origins in the 1880s to its official termination in the 1970s. Importantly, her focus is not on eugenic discourses of racial improvement but on social and child welfare policies, particularly those aimed at the ‘feebleminded’ and the ‘dependent poor’. She insists that the categorisation often imposed by scholars on the history of sterilization records does not always reflect the reasons behind such practice. Most people assume a direct connection between eugenic ideas of racial betterment and sterilization but the evidence from Minnesota points to other reasons. Voluntary sterilization in Minnesota was driven more by economic, social and institutional reasons than eugenic and racial arguments. This is one of the major strengths of Ladd-Taylor’s approach: her emphasis on the multifactorial nature of sterilization decisions and her repeated warnings against the risk of over-simplification in interpreting sterilizations in Minnesota as driven by eugenic concerns.

Read the full article in Reviews in History.


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Why the novel matters in the age of anger
Elif Shafak, New Statesman, 3 October 2018

The novel matters because, like an alchemist, it turns empathy into resistance. It brings the periphery to the centre, it gives a voice to the voiceless, it makes the invisible visible. And it also distils the deluge of information into drops of wisdom – as argued by the German-Jewish philosopher and cultural theorist Walter Benjamin. Writing at a time when Nazism and the ideology of hatred were on the rise, and the world was turning upside down, Benjamin repeatedly made a distinction between ‘information’ and ‘wisdom’. He believed that the writer, in the depth of solitude, shared his or her own experience or the experiences of others, and by doing this, shed light on ‘the perplexity of living’. But here is where Benjamin’s theory becomes all the more relevant for our world today. The more information is available and the faster it spreads, he thought, the deeper was the perplexity of living. The proliferation of information at the expense of wisdom, and the widening gap between the two preoccupied Benjamin. He was worried that this might bring along the demise, and eventually the death of the art of storytelling.

Writing in 1934, TS Eliot echoed Benjamin’s sentiment: ‘Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge?/Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?’ Susan Sontag, who was fascinated with Benjamin’s work, agreed: ‘Literature, I would argue, is knowledge – albeit, even at its greatest, imperfect knowledge. Like all knowledge.’

In our digital world, Benjamin’s warning has become all the more relevant. We have plenty of ‘information’ – and if we don’t we can always google it. Then there is ‘knowledge’, which, however imperfect, requires depth and focus and slowing the flow of time. ‘Wisdom’ is harder won – I would argue that it embodies not only knowledge but also empathy and emotional intelligence. In life, you might come across very smart people with low emotional intelligence. Wisdom is difficult to achieve because it requires cognitive flexibility. It also demands that one steps outside identity politics and echo chambers.

In the light of all that is happening today, particularly after the global shocks of 2016, perhaps we need to add yet another layer to Benjamin’s theory: that of ‘misinformation’. We are all living in a liquid world. And we are constantly being subjected to not only a cascade of information, but also a cascade of misinformation.

In East and West, all extremist ideologies benefit from misinformation. All extremists yearn to dehumanise the Other. An Islamic fundamentalist and a white supremacist share the same mentality and cognitive rigidity. The opposite of a fanatic is not another fanatic. The opposite of a fanatic is a moderate, as the American philosopher Eric Hoffer pointed out years ago in The True Believer: Thoughts on the Nature of Mass Movements (1951). Populist demagogues dehumanise the Other because it provides fertile ground on which to sow the seeds of racism, misogyny and other kinds of discrimination. If you can convince masses that immigrants resemble animals, blacks are inferior, women have lower IQ, LGBT people are perverts, or Jews or Muslims are untrustworthy, you can legitimise all kinds of violence.

Here is where the novelist must speak up. For writers, there is no ‘us’ and there is no ‘them’. There are only human beings with stories and silences. The job of a writer is to rehumanise those who have been dehumanised. As many who have lived through horrors have told us, including the Auschwitz survivor Elie Wiesel, the opposite of love, kindness or peace is not necessarily hatred and war. The opposite of love is numbness. It is indifference.

Read the full article in the New Statesman.

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The images are, from top down: Illustration for the New York Times by Tracy Ma; ‘Oedipus Cursing His Son, Polynices’, by Henry Fuseli; ‘Flag’ by Jasper Johns; ‘Zeferina’ by Dalton Paula; Book cover of Sam Selvon’s ‘The Lonely Londoners’.