web 50

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.


Can the yellow vests speak?
Édouard Louis, Jacobin, 8 December 2018

Right from the start of this movement we have seen ‘experts’ and ‘politicians’ in the media belittling, condemning, and mocking the gilets jaunes and the revolt that they embody. I saw the words ‘barbarians,’ ‘idiots,’ ‘yokels,’ ‘irresponsible’ spread across social networks. The media spoke of the gilets jaunes’ ‘grunting’: for them, the popular classes do not revolt, but instead grunt like farm animals. I heard of the ‘violence of this movement’ when a car was torched or a window was smashed or a statue was tarnished.

A common example, this, of the differential perception of violence: a large part of the media-political world wanted us to believe that violence is not the thousands of lives destroyed and reduced to misery by politics, but a few burnt-out cars. You must really never have experienced poverty, if you think that graffiti on a historic monument is worse than the impossibility of being able to take care of yourself, of living, of feeding yourself or your family.

The gilets jaunes speak of hunger, of precarity, of life and death. The ‘politicians’ and part of the journalists reply: ‘the symbols of our Republic have been tarnished.’ But what are these people talking about? How dare they? What planet are they from? The media also talk about racism and homophobia among the gilets jaunes. Who are they kidding? I do not want to talk about my books, here. But it is interesting to note that whenever I have published a novel I have been accused of stigmatizing poor and rural France precisely because I mentioned the homophobia and racism that existed in the village where I lived as a child. Journalists who had never done anything for the popular classes were enraged, and suddenly set themselves up to play the defenders of these same classes.

For the dominant, the popular classes are the perfect representation of what Pierre Bourdieu calls a class-object; an object that can be manipulated by discourse, one day represented as the salt of the earth — the authentic poor — and the next day as racists and homophobes. In both cases, the underlying intention is the same: to prevent the popular classes’ speech, about themselves, from ever coming to the surface. Too bad if you have to contradict yourself from one day to the next, so long as they keep quiet.

Read the full article in Jacobin.


The Stansted protesters saved me
from wrongful deportation. They are heroes

Anonymous, Guardian, 10 December 2018

I first arrived in Britain in 2004 and, like so many people who come here from abroad, built a life here. As I sat in that plane in Stansted last year I was set to be taken ‘back’ to a country that I had no links to. Indeed there is no doubt in my mind that had I been deported I would have been destitute and homeless in Nigeria – I was terrified.

Imagine it. You’ve lived somewhere for 13 years. Your mum, suffering with mobility issues, lives there. Your partner lives there. Two of your children already live there, and the memory of your first-born, who died at just seven years old, resides there too. Your next child is about to be born there. That was my situation as we waited on the asphalt – imagining my daughter being born in a country where I’d built a life, while I was exiled to Nigeria and destined to meeting my newborn for the first time through a screen on a phone.

My story was harsh, but it’s no anomaly. Like many people facing deportation from the United Kingdom, my experience with the immigration authorities had lasted many years – and for the last seven years of living here I had been in a constant state of mental detention. A cycle of Home Office appeals and its refusal to accept my claims or make a fair decision based on the facts of my case saw me in and out of detention and permanently waiting for my status to be settled. Though the threat of deportation haunted me, it was the utter instability and racial discrimination that made me feel like I was going mad. That’s why the actions of the Stansted 15 first caused me to be angry. I simply didn’t believe that their actions would be anything more than a postponement of further pain.

My view isn’t just shaped by my own experience. My life in Britain has seen me rub along with countless people who find themselves the victims of the government’s ‘hostile environment’ for migrants and families who aren’t white. Migration and deportation targets suck humanity from a system whose currency is the lives of people who happen to be born outside the UK. Such is the determination to look ‘tough’ on the issue that people are rounded up in the night and put on to brutal, secretive and barely legal charter flights. Most take off away from the public eye – 60 human beings shackled and violently restrained on each flight, with barely a thought about the life they are dragged away from, nor the one they face upon arrival.

I was one of the lucky few. My removal from the plane gave me two life-changing gifts. The first was a chance to appeal to the authorities over my deportation – a case that I won on two separate occasions, following a Home Office counter-appeal. But more importantly the brave actions of the Stansted 15 gave me something even more special: the chance to be by my partner’s side as she gave birth to our daughter, and to be there for them as they both needed extensive treatment after a complicated and premature birth.

Read the full article in the Guardian.


I was one of the transactivists on the Channel 4 documentary. I regret what I did — this is why
Esther Betts, Medium, 24 November 2018

But merely looking and sounding awkward on television isn’t my biggest regret. When I was interviewed, I was standing directly in front of the main entrance to the Jam Jar venue. There, I was holding a banner in an effort to prevent people from entering an event hosted by the ‘We Need To Talk’’ group. Earlier, I had entered the building and blocked the stairwell with a group of other activists. I stood t-posed directly in front of Heather Bruskell-Evans and Julie Bindel and shouted at them that they were ‘as bad as the Nazis’; a sentiment I reiterated during my interview. Because my comrades and I had blocked the main entrance, the ticket holders had to be snuck-in through a fire exit in a side-alley. When we noticed what had happened, we camped outside the fire exit until one of the attendants left. We then forced the fire exit open and tried making our way up the stairwell inside. Our plan was to penetrate the event hall and let off a smoke bomb with true revolutionary panache.

I was right at the front of this advance, being squished between the security guards and the crowd of protesters behind me. I was so determined to break into the event and disrupt it that I was one of the last people left on that stairwell. It took four security guards to drag me out, kicking and screaming.

I did all of this for two reasons. The first was simply to support my friends, the second was that I was, at least in my mind, showing solidarity to the trans community. I’ve been transitioning for a few years now and even in Bristol, probably the most trans friendly city in the country (despite the presence of Posie Parker), being a trans woman has been a challenge, to say the least. I was made homeless after being told to leave my house on account of my trans identity. I have been assaulted on a busy road and lost friends and support for the same reason. This, coupled with the dull agony of gender dysphoria, really wears you down. And if you’re not careful, it warps you. To deal with all this and then see people given a platform to tell you they think trans women are all male fetishists trying to prey on innocent girls can hurt, a lot.

So what do we do about it? Well, my mind-set at the time the Channel 4 documentary was filmed, was to try to shut down events like the one I was protesting. People asked me at the time, ‘why don’t you just go into such events and ask critical questions?’ My response was that engaging in the event, even in an oppositional fashion, was to inadvertently validate views I considered hate speech. Furthermore, trying to shut down the event sent out a message: transphobia is not welcome and trans people are supported. In this day and age, I wouldn’t, and still won’t, turn down the opportunity to show support to my trans brothers and sisters.

What I didn’t realise at the time was that I was engaging in the event anyway. By attending it and blocking the stairwell I was engaging in the event. I was still acknowledging the views of people like Julie Bindel and Posie Parker, just in an entirely different, completely nonproductive way. I hate to admit it, but we achieved absolutely nothing, which is likely less than had we gone to the event and raised hell intellectually in the Q&A period.

Read the full article in Medium.


How does the EU think this is going to end?
Adam Tooze, New York Times, 5 December 2018

The European Commission is, of course, bound to defend its rules. But how does the European Union expect the confrontation to play out?

Brussels has a limited range of sanctions at its disposal. Unlike Greece, which was a net recipient of European Union largess, Italy is a net contributor to the European Union’s budget. It won’t be easy to make penalties and fines stick.

It will therefore have to be the markets that deliver the discipline. But that is a terrifying prospect: Not only is Italy’s debt huge, but Italy’s banks are not minnows, either. Italy is both too big to fail and too big to bail.

So what is the game plan? If the commission is gambling that the budget crisis will force Italy’s government to fold, what direction does it imagine the government folding in?

The last time Italy’s public debt was in the eurozone’s spotlight was in the fall of 2011. Then, the resolution was political: Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi was toppled in favor of the unelected technocrat Mario Monti. Mr. Monti was the darling of the markets. But back home, public outrage against the suspension of normal democratic procedures helped to trigger the upsurge of the Five Star Movement, which culminated with its taking 32 percent of the vote in March.

The European Commission can hardly wish to repeat that cycle.

On the back of its election victory, Five Star was the senior partner in the coalition formed in May. But the balance of power has shifted. While Five Star’s popularity has slid, support for the League has doubled to 34 percent. The League is a party of northern Italian small business. It is far from keen on Five Star’s plans to increase welfare for the south. A League-dominated reshuffle that dropped Five Star’s expensive minimum-income guarantee would go a long way to meeting the financial demands of the European Commission. The new government might even find common ground with Brussels on issues of ‘supply-side reform.’ That would no doubt reassure investors, but it would be a disastrous outcome for the European Union, handing a political victory to Matteo Salvini, Italy’s deputy prime minister, who makes no secret of his desire to remake Europe as an arena of neo-nationalist, nativist politics.

Read the full article in the New York Times.


Lise Reinke Hymn to the Masses

The left against the people?
George Hoare, 10 December 2018

The contemporary moral panic around the ignorance of the masses has a number of characteristic symptoms: the diagnosis of a post-truth or post-factual politics; a deep suspicion of social media that circulates information too quickly and with too little moderation; an instinctive siding with technocratic, institutional aspects of democracy against expressions of popular sovereignty; and, a desire to protect the people from politics (such as the supposed appeal of populism or fascism) as far as possible. The British Left, or at least the liberal Left, the Labour Party and Momentum, sadly seem to be evincing almost all of these symptoms…

The Left’s acceptance of this essentially anti-mass view, if unchanged, will have disastrous political consequences. Most importantly, it cedes the ground for a democratic defence of Brexit to the Right and to people like Jacob Rees-Mogg. It would leave the Labour Party exposed on Brexit, unable to mediate between Leave voters on the one hand and Remain activists and Parliamentarians on the other. At the same time, the moral panic around the ignorance of the masses puts the ‘blame’ for rising populism at the door of the supposedly racist, xenophobic, and irrecoverably hateful British working class. This mistakes symptom for cause. The key factor driving the rise of populism across Western Europe is structural – it is the yawning gap between politics and the people across the continent that has allowed Right-wing populists to attract attention and support by (correctly) criticizing establishment politicians as out of touch. As Lee Jones puts it on the podcast #OCCUPYIRTHEORY, ‘populism is a symptom of the void’. Bridging that void, and so eliminating the space for Right-wing populism, with a demand for greater democracy should be a key priority for socialists.

It seems there is a parallel here with an earlier socialist attempt to rescue the people from what we might want to call the enormous condescension of the elites. Much of Raymond Williams’ work, along with that of Stuart Hall and E. P. Thompson, looked to trace the development of mass culture and politics in the aftermath of the Industrial Revolution, popular education, and universal suffrage. In his 1958 book Culture and Society Williams focuses on the development of mass culture and the arguments that surrounded its emergence. Among other things, Williams finds a deep fear on the part of cultural elites towards the newly literate and enfranchised working classes. A key construction in the critique of mass culture, in Williams’ account, are ‘the masses’, whose ignorance and lowered cultural tastes are said to be eroding the cherished standards of ‘high culture’. Williams memorably concludes: ‘There are in fact no masses; there are only ways of seeing people as masses.’ (Culture and Society, London: Chatto and Windus, 1958, p. 289.) In the final analysis, it is always the case that the masses are invoked from a conservative position to explain an undesirable change. As Williams aptly puts it: ‘Masses are other people.’ (p. 289.)

Read the full article on George Hoare’s blog.


How the right’s Brexit dream died
George Eaton, New Statesman, 28 November 2018

Faced with the threat of a Labour government and public weariness with austerity, the Tories no longer espouse the aim of shrinking the state but promise higher spending on the NHS (‘the closest thing the English people have to a religion,’ in Lawson’s description) and other public services. Far from the age of ‘big government’ being over, voters now long for its return. The 2018 British Social Attitudes survey found that 60 per cent favour higher taxes and spending (the highest level in 15 years), while a mere 4 per cent wish to further roll back the state.

The appeal of a no-deal Brexit to libertarian Leavers is precisely that they believed it could create the conditions to impose policies unachievable in normal times (just as the 2008 financial crisis enabled austerity). One is reminded of Naomi Klein’s The Shock Doctrine (2007), in which the Canadian activist charted the rise of ‘disaster capitalism’: free market policies rapidly introduced in societies traumatised by natural or man-made crises.

After the 2016 Brexit vote, Leavers boasted that the UK held ‘the best cards’ in the negotiation. But they complacently underestimated the resilience and unity of the EU27 and how Britain’s desire to ‘diverge’ would be constrained by the need to preserve a soft Irish border. The free market revolution that Brexiteers hoped to launch now resembles a rocket that has failed to fire.

If there is a natural economic model for a post-Brexit Britain it is surely that advocated by ‘Lexiteers’, such as former Syriza MP and economics professor Costas Lapavitsas, Cambridge academic Chris Bickerton, economist Grace Blakeley and Harvard University’s Richard Tuck. This would entail greater public investment and state intervention, a revival of UK manufacturing and the rebalancing of the economy away from finance and the south-east of England (drawing on the ‘Rhineland model’ of capitalism or, more radically, democratic socialism). The irony, perhaps, is that as it leaves the EU, the UK could yet develop a more European-style economy.

Read the full article in the New Statesman.


Measles resurgence ‘due to vaccine hesitancy’, WHO warns
Smitha Mundasad, BBC News, 29 November 2018

There has been a worldwide resurgence of measles, with many countries experiencing ‘severe and protracted’ outbreaks last year, a report warns. The World Health Organization data shows a rise in cases in almost every region of the world, with 30% more cases in 2017 than 2016. Experts say complacency, collapsing health systems and a rise in fake news about the vaccine are behind the rise…

The Americas, Europe and the Eastern Mediterranean region saw the greatest upsurge in cases. The Western Pacific region was the only area to see a decline. A large number of infections were seen in Venezuela, as health systems collapsed after political and economic crises. The country had previously eliminated the disease…

Dr Martin Friede, of the WHO, told the BBC that it was worrying that in a number of European countries parents were not vaccinating their children.He said: ‘Probably in Europe, more than other regions, we are seeing vaccine hesitancy becoming more of a problem than elsewhere. ‘In some groups, this is driven by religious beliefs but in quite a few populations it is spread by false concerns about the safety of vaccines.’

Dr Friede said that social media was playing a part in this and that new ways must be found to counter misinformation.  He said: ‘Industrialised countries must not be complacent and forget that the disease can come back like a storm.

Read the full article on BBC News.


The rise of the low-pay workforce –
when seven jobs just isn’t enough
Andrew Smith & Jo McBride,
The Conversation, 30 November 2018

We interviewed 50 low paid workers in multiple forms of employment in the regions of Yorkshire and North-East England. We expected to speak to workers with two or three jobs, but were surprised and alarmed to find a number with four, five, six and even seven different jobs.

All of the workers we spoke to had multiple jobs as they were struggling to make a living, and some made use of food banks. Ages ranged from late-teens to 60s and education levels varied: a minority had no qualifications, but many had NVQs, GCSEs, O-levels, A-levels, good quality degrees and even masters degrees.

The workers we interviewed were employed in cleaning, catering, the entertainment sector, the care sector, bar work, security, DIY, social services, public services, libraries, education, retail, administration, accountancy and IT services. These occupations spanned the private, public and third sectors, but a number of public sector jobs had been outsourced to private contractors due to austerity cuts.

In terms of employment contracts, there was a combination of full-time, part-time, agency, temporary, seasonal, term-time only, casual and zero hours.

We believe the rise of multiple jobs is due to the creation of a deregulated ‘flexible’ labour market. Recent research by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation highlighted the expansion of insecure work. The TUC, which comprises the majority of the UK’s major trade unions, has also reported that only one in 40 jobs created since the recession is full-time.

The workers we interviewed had to acquire additional jobs as a result of low wages, limited working hours, under-employment and job insecurity. Additional factors include the proliferation of part-time, zero hours contracts and temporary and casual contracts. Many of the people we spoke to were experiencing job insecurity and instability, and having to work for employment agencies.

Read the full article in the Conversation.



The CRISPR baby scandal gets worse by the day
Ed Yong, The Atlantic, 3 December 2018

  1. He didn’t address an unmet medical need. 

He focused on a gene called CCR5, which the HIV virus uses as a doorway for infiltrating human cells. To lock the virus out, several scientists have tried extracting the immune cells of HIV patients and deactivating CCR5 using gene-editing techniques before injecting the cells back into the body. Although Nana and Lulu’s father is HIV-positive, neither of the infants actually had HIV. As I’ve written before, He’s team deactivated a perfectly normal gene in an attempt to reduce the risk of a disease that neither child had—and one that can be controlled through safe-sex education or antiviral drugs. Even if you wanted to block CCR5 specifically, there are drugs out there that could do the job, many of which have been repeatedly tested in clinical trials. The rationale for using a method as extreme and untested as gene editing doesn’t hold up.

Deactivating CCR5 doesn’t confer complete immunity to HIV, either, since some strains of the virus can enter cells via a different protein. And although people with natural deficiencies in the gene appear healthy, they might be more susceptible to West Nile virus, and more likely to die when they catch influenza. Essentially, He gave Nana and Lulu resistance to a virus that they could have avoided in myriad other ways, and may have opened them up to other dangers.

  1. The actual editing wasn’t executed well. 

He’s data haven’t been published or peer reviewed, so many of the details of his experiment are unclear. But based on the slides that he presented at the Hong Kong summit, other scientists have denounced the work for being amateurish.

For example, it appears that He only managed to edit half of Lulu’s CCR5 genes; the rest are normal. That could either be because every cell in her body has one normal copy of CCR5 and one edited one (she’s heterozygous) or because half of her cells carry two edited genes and half carry two normal ones (she’s mosaic). If it’s the former, she would not be resistant to HIV. If it’s the latter, it depends on whether her immune cells specifically carry the edits. The same might apply to Nana, who, based on the slides, seems to also have normal copies of CCR5 somewhere.

What’s more, the edited cells don’t seem to have been edited in the right way. He planned to delete a small section of the CCR5 gene, mimicking a naturally occurring mutation called delta 32 that’s found in about 10 percent of Europeans. But according to Sean Ryder, a biochemist from the University of Massachusetts Medical School, He’s slides show no sign of delta 32 in either girl. Instead, Lulu has an entirely different CCR5 mutation, and Nana has two. These mutations are in roughly the same part of the gene as delta 32, but ‘it’s a fairly outrageous assumption that any change to this region would lead to some benefit,’ Ryder says. ‘He made new mutations, and there’s no reason to think that they’d be protective—or even that they’d be safe.’

Read the full article in the Atlantic.


‘I feel an obligation to be balanced.’
Noted biologist comes to defense of gene editing babies
George Church & Jon Cohen, Science, 28 November 2018

Q: What do you think of the criticism being heaped on He?

A: I’d just as well not hang myself out to dry with someone I barely know, but I feel an obligation to be balanced about it. I’m sitting in the middle and everyone else is so extreme that it makes me look like his buddy. He’s just an acquaintance. But it seems like a bullying situation to me. The most serious thing I’ve heard is that he didn’t do the paperwork right. He wouldn’t be the first person who got the paperwork wrong. It’s just that the stakes are higher. If it had gone south and someone had been damaged, maybe there would be some point. Like what happened with Jesse Gelsinger [who died in a 1999 gene therapy experiment]. But is this a Jesse Gelsinger or a Louise Brown [the first baby born through in vitro fertilization] event? That’s probably what it boils down to.

Q: Do you think the experiment is unethical?

A: People have said there’s a moratorium on germline editing and I contributed to reports that called for that, but a moratorium is not a permanent ban forever. It’s a checklist of what you have to do. It really seems like he was checking off the published list by the National Academy of Sciences and added a few things of his own. At some point, we have to say we’ve done hundreds of animal studies and we’ve done quite a few human embryo studies. It may be after the dust settles there’s mosaicism and off targets that affect medical outcomes. It may never be zero. We don’t wait for radiation to be zero before we do [positron emission tomography] scans or x-rays.

Q: When did you learn about it and what was your reaction?

A: About a week ago, and I was hoping he did everything right. You don’t have that many shots on goal. He’s not doing it the way I’d do it, but I’m hoping it doesn’t work out badly. As long as these are normal, healthy kids it’s going to be fine for the field and the family.

Q: What do you think of his decision to cripple a gene to prevent HIV infection?

A: It struck me as bold choice to do CCR5. In some ways it doesn’t make sense, but in another way it makes more sense than β-thalassemia or sickle cell, both of which you can prevent with preimplantation genetic diagnosis. [These genetic diseases are two prime targets of many CRISPR researchers.] The real issue is what’s the best first case.

Read the full article in Science.


History suppressed: Censorship in Israel’s archives
Tariq Nafi, Al Jazeera, 10 November 2018

Sealed in Israel’s archives and libraries are troves of Palestinian books, documents, photographs and films that were looted from Palestinian institutions and personal archives by Jewish militias and later, the Israeli military.

‘This confiscation is a kind of daily struggle that Palestinians face,’ says Sherene Seikaly, a scholar of Middle Eastern history. ‘One of the reasons, that these archives are a target, that they’re threatening, is because they’re really a record of Palestinian social life, and Palestine more broadly.’

Israeli historian Rona Sela has spent 20 years uncovering Palestinian visual history that has been kept in the dark in Israel’s state and military archives. She says the methodical plunder of Palestinians’ cultural assets predates the establishment of the state of Israel in 1948, what Palestinians call the ‘Nakba’ or ‘catastrophe.’

‘The looting and seizure, as far as I found, started in the 1930s in a systematic and organised manner … by Haganah forces [Zionist paramilitary group]. The seizure intensified, of course, with the Nakba in 1948. I found materials taken in 1967, 1982, 1991 and … in the last few years.’

What begins with looting and appropriation, continues with a system of censorship and historical revisionism in the archives. The origin of Palestinian material is often erased and replaced with terminology that fits the archivist’s world view.

‘I saw photos with comments and notes written on them by the censors and archivists. For example, Palestinians are described as ‘terrorists’, as ‘gangs’. Seeing all of that taught me about how the materials go through a process of rewriting to aid or benefit the Zionist narrative,’ says Sela. ‘You see a place where the materials are being censored and erased from the public sphere.’

The suppression of history doesn’t only extend to Palestinian material. The Israeli archives also guard state secrets that could reveal details about Israel’s treatment of Palestinians.

Read the full article on Al Jazeera.


Dear liberals, don’t assume
people of colour will solve all your problems
Bhaskar Sunkara, Guardian, 28 Novermber 2018

I was born in the US a few months after my parents arrived in 1989, and I’m part of the ‘browning’ of America and I don’t see anything to lament – or celebrate.

The conservative objection to increased ethnic diversity is reactionary in its essence. But the liberal response is questionable in its own way. Progressives believe in a kind of demographic destiny, in which brown and black voters will necessarily vote for center-left candidates, despite the Democratic party neglecting these loyal voters for decades.

This assumes that both the boundaries of whiteness and the politics of non-white people are fixed. But what happens when many of us start voting Republican? Or if people considered non-white today, like many Latinos, are considered white tomorrow?

Progressives are keen to embrace the catch-all ‘people of color’ label. But the particularity of the black and Native experience in the US – which has been marked by an especially intense exploitation – is lost when we lump all people of color together. Does the experience of a second generation black South African immigrant really map on to those of a black American? Are Indian American doctors members of an oppressed diaspora, or are they just expats?

I say this not to descend into an endless spiral of comparing oppressions, but rather to point out that ‘people of color’ is a pretty meaningless category today, and one that will become even more meaningless in the future as new immigrant groups get further integrated and catch up to social outcomes of white Americans. And that it’s not entirely harmless: college-educated ‘PoC’ assume representational roles as spokespeople for ‘communities of color’ that only exist in their imaginations. Meanwhile, working-class black people continue to be massively unrepresented and face high levels of poverty and unemployment.

Read the full article in the Guardian.


Betty Lee, White matter fibre tracts, 2011 Brain Art winner

How free is our will?
Kevin Mitchell, Wiring the Brain, 25 November 2018

When I give talks demonstrating that we all have innate psychological predispositions – traits that influence our behaviour across our lifetimes – I often get asked what implications this has for free will. If our behaviours are affected in some way by our genes or by the way our brains are wired, doesn’t that mean that we’re really not that free after all?

The answer depends, I think, on the kind of free will you’re after and on an understanding of the mechanisms by which we make choices. And let me say at the outset that we do make choices. The idea that neuroscience has somehow done away with free will altogether or proven that it is an illusion is nonsense. All neuroscience has shown is that when you are making decisions, things are happening in your brain.

This is, to put it mildly, not a surprise – where else would things be happening? And it really has no implications for free will, unless you are a dualist. If you think of the mind as some kind of object that has existence independent of the brain, then I suppose you might be upset to find that your decisions have a physical basis in brain activity. But if you think of ‘mind’ not as an object but as an activity or process – the brain in action – then, well, seeing the brain in action as you make a decision is just what you’d expect.

So, yes, we make choices – really, really. But how free are those choices? How much are they constrained by other things over which we really have no control? How much are they affected by antecedent causes?

Read the full article in Wiring the Brain.


India’s dangerous new curriculum
Alex Traub, New York Review of Books, 6 December

Beyond expressing approval for India’s current leader, the textbooks also make implicit suggestions about what the government ought to be concerned with—namely, strength and unity. Rajasthan’s book on modern India emphasizes India’s military excellence with a list of weapons and pictures of a missile launch and a rumbling tank. The equivalent Gujarat book silently passes over India’s loss in the 1962 Sino-Indian War, while the Rajasthan book actually implies that India won, saying that the army ‘proved its might by retaliating the attacks of enemies in 1962.’

India is infallible; its citizens, however, must be disciplined. Gujarat’s eighth-grade book insists that ‘awareness regarding co-operating with the security agencies has to be developed.’ Social harmony should be pursued even at the expense of individual rights: Rajasthan’s seventh-grade book recommends, ‘We should refrain from negative acts like strikes.’ There is a whiff of authoritarianism in these proposed limits on autonomy and dissent.

Rajasthan’s official ninth- and tenth-grade social science books appear not to be available in English, but a private company has published its own editions that follow the same syllabus as the new textbooks. These books were being used by the Saifee School, and they were the only editions I could find in the bookstores of Udaipur, the city where the school is located. The tenth-grade book is more explicit in listing the ‘demerits of democracy,’ including that ‘democracy teaches a person to be selfish, cunning and illusive,’ that democracies do not produce economic development, and that they are weak in times of crisis.

One Gujarat textbook points to a troubling alternative. Amid surprisingly frequent criticism of the Treaty of Versailles and an enumeration of Mussolini’s successes, the new twelfth-grade history book praises Hitler at length:

Hitler made a strong German organization with the help of [the] Nazi party and attained great honour for this. By favouring German civilians and by opposing Jews and by his new economic policies, he made Germany a prosperous country…. He transformed the lives of the people of Germany within a very short period by taking strict measures. He safe guarded [sic] the country from hardships and accomplished many things.

This is not the first Gujarat textbook to praise fascism: the last one was the ninth-grade social science book of the mid-2000s, when Modi ran the state government. The offending section was not removed until after a visit from the consul general of Israel. The episode became international news and is still frequently referred to, yet the treatment of Nazism in the new textbook seems to have gone unreported.

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


These truths
Scott Spillman, The Point, Issue 17, Fall 2018

At the time of the country’s founding, Americans claimed that their political arguments grew out of truths derived from history and experience. Thomas Paine’s Common Sense offered up ‘simple facts, plain arguments, and common sense’ in favor of independence; a few months later, the bulk of the Declaration was devoted to historical evidence proving the necessity of separation from Great Britain. James Madison read piles of books on political history to prepare for the Constitutional Convention, and during the ratification debates Alexander Hamilton wondered, in the first paragraph of the first Federalist, ‘whether societies of men are really capable or not of establishing good government from reflection and choice.’

Reflection and choice: Would the American people really be capable of using reason to frame good policies built on a foundation of truth? If so, Lepore suggests, they would need to be able to agree on what is true, and how to determine what is true. In these processes, the role of newspapers was crucial. Madison hoped that newspapers would knit the country together and ensure that knowledgeable voters would choose good men for public office. ‘It was an ingenious idea,’ Lepore writes, one that worked well enough and looked so enticing that it was recycled over and over again as each new generation faced its own crises. ‘The newspaper would hold the Republic together; the telegraph would hold the Republic together; the radio would hold the Republic together; the Internet would hold the Republic together.’ These Truths is, in large part, a history of the promises and failures of those technologies as means of communicating common values.

Because of her focus on communications and rhetoric, however, Lepore tends to skim the surface of political disputes, registering the rancorous arguments but rarely seeking the root of the disagreements that have divided Americans. For example, she traces the origins of America’s two-party system to the question of constitutional ratification, which was presented to state conventions as a yes-or-no choice. People debated the question at length in the era’s newspapers, the Federalist Papers being just the most salient example of a broad genre. According to Lepore, the nature of ratification split people into two sides, those two sides were reinforced by partisan newspapers, and we have been stuck with a two-party system ever since. But Lepore’s focus on discourse obscures the larger issues at stake in the debate. Should political power be centralized or decentralized? Do we need governmental power to protect our rights, or do we need to protect our rights from governmental power? Should we promote change or preserve tradition? Are individuals and society formed by rational choice or pre-rational attachments? Some of these questions divided the supporters of the Constitution and their opponents, as they continue to divide us today, but debates about constitutional ratification did not cause those divisions. The answers to such questions don’t necessarily fall into two neat camps, but the dualistic nature of much political terminology—left and right, liberal and conservative, court and country, Tory and Whig—suggests that they at least tend in that direction. The rise of America’s two-party culture might be attributed in part to the role of eighteenth-century newspapers and propaganda, but its endurance hints at more fundamental divisions in our politics and in ourselves.

Read the full article in The Point.


What if the placebo effect isn’t a trick?
Gary Greenberg, New York times, 7 November 2018

Lenferink might not have been so glib had he attended the previous day’s meeting on the other side of town, at which two dozen of the leading lights of placebo science spent a preconference day agonizing over their reputation — as purveyors of sham medicine who prey on the desperate and, if they are lucky, fool people into feeling better — and strategizing about how to improve it. It’s an urgent subject for them, and only in part because, like all apostate professionals, they crave mainstream acceptance. More important, they are motivated by a conviction that the placebo is a powerful medical treatment that is ignored by doctors only at their patients’ expense.

And after a quarter-century of hard work, they have abundant evidence to prove it. Give people a sugar pill, they have shown, and those patients — especially if they have one of the chronic, stress-related conditions that register the strongest placebo effects and if the treatment is delivered by someone in whom they have confidence — will improve. Tell someone a normal milkshake is a diet beverage, and his gut will respond as if the drink were low fat. Take athletes to the top of the Alps, put them on exercise machines and hook them to an oxygen tank, and they will perform better than when they are breathing room air — even if room air is all that’s in the tank. Wake a patient from surgery and tell him you’ve done an arthroscopic repair, and his knee gets better even if all you did was knock him out and put a couple of incisions in his skin. Give a drug a fancy name, and it works better than if you don’t.

You don’t even have to deceive the patients. You can hand a patient with irritable bowel syndrome a sugar pill, identify it as such and tell her that sugar pills are known to be effective when used as placebos, and she will get better, especially if you take the time to deliver that message with warmth and close attention. Depression, back pain, chemotherapy-related malaise, migraine, post-traumatic stress disorder: The list of conditions that respond to placebos — as well as they do to drugs, with some patients — is long and growing.

Read the full article in the New York Times.


DNA graphic

Woman who inherited fatal illness
to sue doctors in groundbreaking case
Robin McKie, Observer, 25 November 2018

In April 2010 the woman gave birth to a daughter. Four months later, she learned her father had Huntington’s disease. She was subsequently diagnosed as also having the disease. She has had to cope with the impact of the disease, and the knowledge that her daughter has a 50% chance of succumbing to it.

The woman decided to sue St George’s Healthcare NHS Trust, who she believed should have told her that she was at risk. Her lawyers claim the trust’s doctors had a duty of care to share the father’s diagnosis with her, even against his wishes. However, when the case went to the high court, concern was raised that allowing it to proceed could undermine the doctor-patient relationship, while doctors might also be overly burdened by having to assess whether or not to make disclosures to patients’ relatives. The woman’s claim was struck out.

However, the decision was overturned by the court of appeal last year.

It accepted that doctors might face extra pressure in considering whether to inform third parties about a person’s diagnosis, but said it was not necessarily in the public interest that clinicians be protected from that. This month, the case of Patient ABC versus St George’s Healthcare Trust was set for trial in November next year.

However, the very fact that the court of appeal has decided this issue might be enshrined in law indicates that some changes in medical practice are now inevitable.

This is emphasised by geneticist Anneke Lucassen and bioethicist Roy Gilbar, who state in the Journal of Medical Genetics: ’As genetics enters mainstream medical practice, knowing when it might be appropriate to alert relatives about heritable risks becomes an issue for medical practice in general.’ ‘In fact, in some circumstances doctors do sometimes share information with patients’ relatives at present.

Read the full article in the Observer.


Big tech’s threat to freedom of expression
Julian Vigo, Forbes, 28 November 2018

We are in the throes of a cultural revolution where big tech meets women and gay rights activists meets the First Amendment and the EU Charter of Human Rights. Over the past year in the UK, teachers have faced disciplinary actions for questioning gender ideology, a mother has been summoned by the police for an online Twitter discussion, and a mother has been threatened with the custody of her child for making a complaint that her child was being ‘encouraged’ to transition by a therapist and school teachers.  Today the ‘public square’ is quickly becoming the various spaces of social media with Facebook accounting for over  2.23 billion monthly users and Twitter coming in at 328 million monthly active users.  Both these companies have user numbers the size matching the population of large countries, yet these companies are immune from upholding Article 9 of the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) and Article 10 of the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights, both which guarantee the freedom of conscience in addition to several other UN provisions preventing anti-democracy actions and totalitarianism. Then there is the UK’s own Human Rights Act, Article 9 (HRA) which also mirrors the EU legislation and in the US, there is the First Amendment which guarantees the freedom of speech, press, religion, assembly and petition.

As Jonathan Best points out, Article 9 of the HRA ‘protects everyone’s right to believe that gender is a social construct and to reject the concept of gender identity,’ and so too do the other pieces of legislation from the US to the EU.  So why are Facebook and Twitter immune to upholding these laws as they manifestly are engaging in—and have been for some time—censorship through blocking or banning users of their platform?  Users which are almost always female…

It’s not just conservatives being shadow banned, but it is leftist women today speaking out against gender ideology, such as Canadian feminist journalist and editor of Feminist Current, Meghan Murphy, whose Twitter account was permanently banned last week. There is an exercise of institutional misogyny across the board from Facebook, to Twitter, and many other social media platforms. And let’s be clear here: we are talking about thought and expression policing in full force where women are not allowed to call men ‘men’ and for so doing are banished from the 21st century public square. And Murphy is one in a long line of feminists who have been kicked off social media for simply stating a scientific truism.

Read the full article in Forbes Magazine.


Rethinking race: The case for deflationary realism
Robin Zheng, Notre Dame Philosophical Reviews, 11 October 2018

Hardimon’s immediate target is eliminativism about race, that is, the view that we should eliminate ‘race’ from our ontology and our vocabulary, because races do not exist and race talk is morally pernicious. His ultimate aim is no less than providing a clear and comprehensive answer to the basic metaphysical question, ‘What is race?’. Hardimon’s biggest service to the field is introducing a tight package of four concepts that will enable us definitively to ‘think and speak coherently about race’ (3). They are as follows:

Racialist race is the familiar and pernicious concept of races as groups of human beings that possess distinct biological essences, resulting in intellectual and characterological differences that mark some race(s) as superior to others.

Hardimon concurs with eliminativists that the concept racialist race does not refer to anything that actually exists in the world. However, he thinks we need to keep the word ‘race’ because it can also refer to a very different concept:

Minimalist race is the (also familiar but non-pernicious) concept of races as groups of human beings distinguishable by visible physical traits that signal differences in geographical ancestry.

Unlike racialist races, minimalist races are real, and can be understood scientifically. According to Hardimon, minimalist race is really the ordinary concept of race.

Now, just as H2O  is the scientific concept that corresponds to our ordinary concept of water and refers to molecules composed of two hydrogen atoms and an oxygen atom, so too there is a scientific concept corresponding to our ordinary concept of minimalist race that refers (most likely) to biologically distinctive populations. It adds crucial biological notions that are not present in the ordinary concept:

Populationist race is the concept of races as groups of human beings whose visible physical differences are genetically transmitted and indicative of distinct founding populations that were once reproductively isolated from one another due to geographical separation.

Finally, Hardimon proposes that we reserve an entirely different concept altogether in order to account for the social (rather than biological) reality of race:

Socialrace is the concept of races as groups of human beings who have, as a matter of contingent sociohistorical fact, been mistakenly taken to be racialist races.

As the foregoing suggests, the book is very much an exercise in good old-fashioned philosophical ground-clearing par excellence. In this Hardimon succeeds exceptionally well. The book is extremely clear, almost punishingly so.

Read the full article in Notre Dame Philosophical Reviews.


What Einstein meant by ‘God does not play dice’
Jim Baggott, Aeon, 21 November 2018

Over time, Einstein evolved a much more realist position. He preferred to accept the content of a scientific theory realistically, as a contingently ‘true’ representation of an objective physical reality. And, although he wanted no part of religion, the belief in God that he had carried with him from his brief flirtation with Judaism became the foundation on which he constructed his philosophy. When asked about the basis for his realist stance, he explained: ‘I have no better expression than the term ‘religious’ for this trust in the rational character of reality and in its being accessible, at least to some extent, to human reason.’

But Einstein’s was a God of philosophy, not religion. When asked many years later whether he believed in God, he replied: ‘I believe in Spinoza’s God, who reveals himself in the lawful harmony of all that exists, but not in a God who concerns himself with the fate and the doings of mankind.’ Baruch Spinoza, a contemporary of Isaac Newton and Gottfried Leibniz, had conceived of God as identical with nature. For this, he was considered a dangerous heretic, and was excommunicated from the Jewish community in Amsterdam.

Einstein’s God is infinitely superior but impersonal and intangible, subtle but not malicious. He is also firmly determinist. As far as Einstein was concerned, God’s ‘lawful harmony’ is established throughout the cosmos by strict adherence to the physical principles of cause and effect. Thus, there is no room in Einstein’s philosophy for free will: ‘Everything is determined, the beginning as well as the end, by forces over which we have no control … we all dance to a mysterious tune, intoned in the distance by an invisible player.’

The special and general theories of relativity provided a radical new way of conceiving of space and time and their active interactions with matter and energy. These theories are entirely consistent with the ‘lawful harmony’ established by Einstein’s God. But the new theory of quantum mechanics, which Einstein had also helped to found in 1905, was telling a different story.

Read the full article in Aeon.


Portrait of Malcolm X. 1964-65.

The missing Macolm X
Garrett Felber, Boston Review, 28 November 2018

More than fifty years after his death, Malcolm X remains a polarizing and misunderstood figure. Not unlike the leader he is too often contrasted with—Martin Luther King, Jr.—he has been a symbol to mobilize around, a foil to abjure, or a commodity to sell, rather than a thinker to engage. As political philosopher Brandon Terry reminded us in these pages on the fiftieth anniversary of King’s death this year, ‘There are costs to canonization.’ The primary vehicle of canonization in Malcolm’s case has been The Autobiography of Malcolm X, which has been translated into thirty languages and has been widely read—by students and activists alike—across the United States and abroad.

The project first took shape in 1963, when Malcolm signed an agreement with journalist Alex Haley to co-author the book for Doubleday Press. (It was the first book for both writers.) The contract stipulated that Malcolm would have ultimate say over the final version: ‘Nothing can be in the manuscript, whether a sentence, a paragraph, or a chapter, or more that you do not completely approve of.’ But Malcolm would never see the final book, which was published instead by Grove Press after his assassination in 1965. Fearing it would be too controversial, Doubleday withdrew its contract after Malcolm’s death in what biographer Manning Marable called the ‘most disastrous decision in corporate publishing history.’ The book sold six million copies by 1977 and would later serve as the basis of Spike Lee’s influential 1992 biopic. It has shaped generations of activists and helped to define our collective understanding of race in the United States. The book is viewed as a crystallization of Malcolm X’s political vision, yet that vision is all too often overshadowed by—or conflated with—the man himself, portrayed in the book as a charismatic leader defined by dramatic personal transformation and tragedy.

That understanding—both of the person and of the politics—now stands to be reexamined. This summer previously unpublished materials that had been seized from a private collector, who acquired them at the sale of Haley’s estate in 1992, were auctioned to the New York Public Library’s Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture in Harlem. The items acquired include various notes from Malcolm, a draft 241-page manuscript of the autobiography with handwritten corrections and notes from both Malcolm and Haley, and—perhaps most importantly—a previously unpublished 25-page typewritten chapter titled ‘The Negro.’ (This week, the Schomburg Center made these items available to the public by appointment.) There have long been rumors of three missing chapters among scholars; some think Haley cut them from the book following Malcolm’s assassination because their politics diverged or the book had transformed during his tumultuous last year. Whatever the reasoning, ‘The Negro’ is a fragment of the book Malcolm intended to publish—a book that would be virtually unrecognizable to readers of his autobiography today. We will never fully know that book, of course, but ‘The Negro’ chapter forces us, finally, to engage with it.

Read the full article in the Boston Review.


Beijing to judge every resident
based on behavior by end of 2020
Bloomberg News, 21 November 2018

China’s plan to judge each of its 1.3 billion people based on their social behavior is moving a step closer to reality, with Beijing set to adopt a lifelong points program by 2021 that assigns personalized ratings for each resident.

The capital city will pool data from several departments to reward and punish some 22 million citizens based on their actions and reputations by the end of 2020, according to a plan posted on the Beijing municipal government’s website on Monday. Those with better so-called social credit will get ‘green channel’ benefits while those who violate laws will find life more difficult.

The Beijing project will improve blacklist systems so that those deemed untrustworthy will be ‘unable to move even a single step,’ according to the government’s plan. Xinhua reported on the proposal Tuesday, while the report posted on the municipal government’s website is dated July 18.

China has long experimented with systems that grade its citizens, rewarding good behavior with streamlined services while punishing bad actions with restrictions and penalties. Critics say such moves are fraught with risks and could lead to systems that reduce humans to little more than a report card.

Beijing’s efforts represent the most ambitious yet among more than a dozen cities that are moving ahead with similar programs.

Hangzhou rolled out its personal credit system earlier this year, rewarding ‘pro-social behaviors’ such as volunteer work and blood donations while punishing those who violate traffic laws and charge under-the-table fees. By the end of May, people with bad credit in China have been blocked from booking more than 11 million flights and 4 million high-speed train trips, according to the National Development and Reform Commission.

Read the full article in Bloomberg News.


A bold new strategy for stopping the rise of superbugs
Ed Yong, The Atlantic, 15 November 2018

The British chemist Leslie Orgel reputedly once said that ‘evolution is cleverer than you are.’ This maxim, now known as Orgel’s Second Rule, isn’t meant to imply that evolution is intelligent or conscious, but simply that it’s inventive beyond the scope of human imagination. That’s something people who fight infectious diseases have been forced to learn again and again.

Over the past 90 years, scientists have discovered hundreds of antibiotics—microbe-killing drugs that have brought many pernicious diseases to heel. But every time researchers identify a new drug, bacteria inevitably evolve to resist it within a matter of years. We thrust; they parry. Now, with the flow of new antibiotics having dried up for decades, our stalemated duel with infectious bacteria threatens to end in outright defeat. Superbugs are ascendant around the world, including those that resist all commonly used drugs.

Houra Merrikh from the University of Washington thinks she has found a way of improving our odds. She and her team have identified a bacterial ‘evolvability factor’—a molecule these microbes need to rapidly evolve into drug-resistant strains. If she can find a way to block this molecule, she could pave the way for a new kind of drug: an anti-evolution drug that doesn’t kill microbes, but stops them from powering up into superbugs (or at least delays the process). ‘They have this way of turning evolution on,’ Merrikh says. ‘And if they can turn it on, we can turn it off.’

Read the full article in the Atlantic


Anchoring an argument
Scott McLemee, Inside Higher Ed, 8 June 2018

‘Although born among us,’ one nativist complains about immigrant communities, ‘our general instinctive feeling testifies that they are not wholly of us. So separate has been their social life, due alike to their clannishness and our reserve; so strong have been the ties of race and blood and religion with them; so acute has been the jealousy of their spiritual teachers to our institutions — that we think of them, and speak of them, as foreigners.’

The diction probably gives away that this point was made in another era — the author was Francis A. Walker, superintendent of the United States Census of 1870 and 1880 — but the sentiment is as contemporary as hysteria over the impending arrival of sharia law or the specter of ‘a taco truck on every corner.’ The alarms raised about alien fertility, criminality and disloyalty haven’t really changed in content, even if you don’t hear it much about those of Irish or Japanese descent now. A steep decline of birth rates among Latinas over the past decade or so (‘both immigrant and native born,’ Chavez notes) ought to curtail demographic fearmongering, though it hasn’t so far.

It is against this backdrop of seemingly perennial nativist obsessions that Chavez depicts the fairly recent emergence of the ‘anchor baby’ trope, added to the American Heritage Dictionary in 2011 with the definition ‘a child born to a noncitizen mother in a country that grants automatic citizenship to children born on its soil, especially such a child born to parents seeking to secure eventual citizenship for themselves and often other members of their family.’ This definition was later tweaked to indicate that the expression is derogatory. Among its earlier uses, in the mid-’00s, was to warn that terrorists were coming to America to create sleeper cells disguised as families. (That claim has long since receded back into the fever swamps, along with all those Spanish-Arabic dictionaries supposedly found in roundups of undocumented workers.)

More recently, the term serves as the basis for efforts to revise or repeal the opening sentence of the 14th Amendment: ‘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 sounds categorical enough. Born in the U.S.A. equals citizen of the U.S.A. The immediate purpose when the amendment following the Civil War was adopted was to establish the citizenship and rights of former slaves, but Chavez shows that it had roots in English common law. Anyone born in the kingdom was automatically a subject of the king, with the exceptions of children of ambassadors, diplomats and alien enemies, who were all under the same jurisdiction as their parents.

Read the full article in Inside Higher Ed.


Writing for Quillette ended my theater project
Lilly Emmons, Quilette, 20 November 2018

Women like me aren’t supposed to say that men aren’t women. We’re supposed to believe that some men are women. We’re supposed to believe that these men who really are women really believe that they are women, and that we should believe it too. Women like me are not supposed to speak about female erasure, because trans erasure is more important. Women like me aren’t supposed to express the opinion that womanhood is defined by more than mere appearances or performance. We’re supposed to defer to those men that really are women and respect their perspective of what it means to be a woman more than our own.

‘You’re punching down,’ my director announced from across the table, our scripts and a selection of snacks between us. She said that she’d been contacted my members of our theater community who had let her know that I had hurt them. These theater people wanted to make sure that she knew about the article I’d written and what people on social media were saying. The director reviewed the thread on my Facebook timeline from July, and determined for herself that I had participated in ‘trans erasure,’ and hurt people by equating medical gender transition to rapidly growing trends in AI and body hacking.

In point of fact I wasn’t punching anyone. I was writing in an attempt to convey a somewhat complicated idea about what human beings are and what we are becoming. This is a topic that interests me greatly, along with the vexing questions of how we ought live. These questions have been hugely influential to my research, my art work, and my writing. They are the questions that had spurred the creation of this script and the theater collective I had co-founded to make it happen.

‘You are cis gender,’ she informed me. ‘You need to educate yourself.’

‘I am not cis gender,’ I replied.

Women like me are supposed to understand that we are privileged to be women in women’s bodies. Did I get that right? Privileged to be females who are perceived to be females? Is that it? Wait, privileged to be women who like being women? Maybe that’s it. We’re supposed to understand that it’s different for those who don’t like being in women’s bodies. Or who don’t like being in men’s bodies. I am supposed to understand this because I am a ‘cis gendered’ woman.

Read the full article in Quillette.


The images are, from top down: ‘Hymn to the Masses by Lisa Reinke; an image of f the crystal structure of the Cas9 gene-editing enzyme (light blue) in complex with an RNA guide (red) and its target DNA (yellow), comes via the Broad Institute of Harvard and MIT and the US National Institutes of Health; Betty Lee, White Matter Fiber Tracts, Winner of the 2011 Brain Art completion for the best representation of the human connectome (photo courtesy of the Laboratory of Neuro Imaging, UCLA); graphic of DNA strands; Malcolm X (photographer unknown).

One comment

  1. damon

    Kenan, how about a Guardian article on the Silicon Valley censorship row?
    How Patreon has kicked Youtubers off it’s platform for using “hate speech” and from what I’ve seen on Twitter, those bans are being supported by the left.

    This is the guy at the centre of it, and whatever people think of him, I think he argues a very good case.

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