Pandaemonium

PLUCKED FROM THE WEB #56

web 56

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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When Christians are under attack,
Muslims and the left need to defend them

Mehdi Hasan, The Intercept, 22 April 2019

From Christchurch, New Zealand, to Xinjiang, China, there is a war on Muslims. Many of us have spent years writing about it and condemning it. But let’s be clear: From the Middle East to parts of Asia and Africa, there is a war on Christians too.

On Sunday, as Sri Lanka’s minority Christian community celebrated Easter, six suicide bombings struck churches and hotels across the country, killing at least 290 people and injuring more than 500 others. While no one has yet taken responsibility for the blasts, Sri Lankan officials are pointing the finger at a little-known local jihadi group called National Thowheed Jamath.

To call these acts of violence heartless and barbaric would be an understatement. Nevertheless, they aren’t the first such Easter-related attacks on Christians. In Egypt, on Palm Sunday 2017, Islamic State suicide bombers murdered 45 people in two Coptic churches. In Pakistan, in 2016, a suicide bomber affiliated with the Pakistani Taliban targeted Christians celebrating Easter at a public park, killing 75 people. In Nigeria, on Easter Sunday 2012, a suicide bomber believed to be a member of Boko Haram targeted Christians outside a church, killing 38 people.

I am a Muslim, and I consider myself to be on the left, but I’m embarrassed to admit that in both Muslim and left circles, the issue of Christian persecution has been downplayed and even ignored for far too long.

For Muslims, especially those of us living in the West, it simply isn’t an issue we’re comfortable discussing. Perhaps understandably, we don’t want to give the Islamophobes an extra stick with which to beat us. And the fact is that many of those who have raised this particular issue of Muslim-on-Christian persecution in the wake of these latest attacks — such as Republican Sen. Ted Cruz or former British Conservative Foreign Minister Boris Johnson — do have a well-documented history of anti-Muslim bigotry. On Monday, the Washington Post noted how the Sri Lanka attacks are stoking ‘far-right anger in the West.’

Meanwhile, progressives struggle to see Christianity, the world’s biggest religion, as weak or vulnerable, while prominent Christian leaders here in the West have been associated with great crimes — think George W. Bush, Tony Blair, and the invasion of Iraq. ‘I do wonder whether on some unconscious level the secular and broadly progressive west thinks that Christianity had it coming,’ wrote Giles Fraser, the British priest and social commentator, in the wake of the Sri Lanka bombings on Sunday. ‘They associate Christianity with popes and their armies, with crusades and inquisitions, with antisemitism, British imperialism, Trump supporters and abortion protesters.’

Read the full article in The Intercept.


 

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Once, the ‘Judeo-Christian tradition’
united Americans. Now it divides them.

Anna Grzymala-Busse, Washington Post, 17 April 2019

Yet the ‘Judeo-Christian tradition’ is neither as religiously or politically coherent as it sounds. ‘Judeo-Christian’ fuses together distinct theologies; few elements of doctrine or belief are shared. Beyond the obvious incompatibility regarding Jesus’ divinity, theological approaches to salvation, the meaning of religious observance and even the necessity of belief in God differ among Jews and Christians.

Nor is there much of history of shared fates here on Earth. In the name of defending Christian communities, European rulers and Christian clerics promulgated the blood libel, forced Jews to convert (and then punished them for incomplete conversions), and had Jewish children taken away from their parents. Historically, ghettos, pogroms, expulsions, restrictions on jobs and education, and the toleration of violence and prejudice directed against Jews in the name of Christian integrity all belie the notion of shared fates, much less shared moral principles.

The ‘tradition’ itself is an invention. It was coined by German theologian Ferdinand Christian Baur in 1831, but it gained little resonance until just before World War II, when it first became a philosophical affirmation of anti-fascism.

After World War II, interfaith organizations such as the National Conference of Jews and Christians, liberal theologians such as Paul Tillich and Reinhold Niebuhr, and politicians of all stripes all actively promoted the idea of the Judeo-Christian tradition. It offered national solidarity as a riposte to the horrors of the Holocaust. Just as important, it differentiated the United States from the atheist forces of ‘godless communism,’ without imposing a divisive denominational favoritism.

Yet even in the 1950s, not all Christians and Jews supported the tradition. The Roman Catholic Church resisted the idea, as it implied that multiple religions were equally valid. Others charged that the veneer of equality and reciprocal influence belied a Christian supremacy. Yet even vehement critics of the tradition acknowledged its political and cultural significance — and its ubiquity in the American national imagination. (The ‘tradition’ remained a largely American phenomenon. Postwar European politicians rarely invoked the Judeo-Christian tradition, or religion at all).

Read the full article in the Washington Post.


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‘I’m not racist but…’
Daniel Trilling, London Review of Books, 18 April 2019

His authority to make his case rests on his reputation as a demographer. ‘If we stick to data, the answer is crystal clear,’ he writes near the beginning of the book, which contains extensive information on population trends and voting patterns, with additional material on an accompanying website. But the further he moves away from the data, the more his argument is undermined by the contradictory assumptions on which it is based. One problem is the way he treats white identity, and his claim that it is ‘an ethnic identity like any other’. Ethnicity is most commonly understood as something richer and more specific than race: a matter of shared cultures, languages, traditions and beliefs. Kaufmann’s frame of reference is both too broad and too narrow. On the one hand, the cultures and histories of the countries he writes about are plainly not uniform. The US is a former settler colony in which the dominant Wasp culture excluded black people, and only gradually admitted others now regarded as white – Italians, Jews, Irish – into the national culture. Britain developed a hierarchy of race to suit its colonial empire. France prides the alleged colour-blindness of its secular republic to such an extent that it forbids the collection of census data on the race or ethnicity of its citizens, yet racial discrimination plainly exists in French society. Does ‘white’ ethnic identity mean the same thing in all these contexts? On the other hand, by focusing on ‘the West’ – and within that construct, mainly on English-speaking countries – Kaufmann misses details that would further complicate the picture. Why is it that fears of white decline seem to have the greatest political power in countries such as Hungary and Poland where the immigration levels are negligible? If we’re really talking about whiteness as a shared identity, isn’t it shared in Southern and Eastern Europe too? Why are these regions any less worthy of consideration?

But the countries Kaufmann focuses on do have something in common: power. The West, as Kaufmann determines it, roughly covers the countries that were the centres of white domination during the era of European colonial empire and transatlantic slavery. They share a belief in a particular kind of white racial superiority, whereby whiteness is defined largely in the negative: a norm against which other, supposedly inferior groups are defined. To treat whites in these countries as a discrete and homogenous group seems coherent only because of that history of hierarchical thinking, and it obscures the variety of conflicting traditions that exist among white people. Who represents white Italy: Matteo Salvini, as he cracks down on migrant rescues at sea, or the mayor of Palermo, who appeals to his city’s history as a meeting point of Mediterranean cultures as he allows boats to dock?

Ethnicity in this context seems a euphemism for race rather than an alternative to it. The feeling grows stronger the further you get into Whiteshift, because despite Kaufmann’s opening declaration that whiteness should be considered an ethnic identity, he keeps sliding back into talking about race. One crucial chapter, on the concept of ‘racial self-interest’, argues that a pattern of white people moving out of mixed urban communities into whiter ones shows that people are more comfortable living with their own kind, and that this isn’t a problem because there is a difference ‘between love for one’s group and hatred for the other’. Racial categorisation is inevitable, Kaufmann thinks, because of the way human brains are wired: we perceive discrete colours, not the continuous spectrum that exists in nature, and this, combined with ‘slowly evolved cultural conventions’, results in a tendency to group our fellow humans according to appearance. But this doesn’t tell us much. ‘Cultural conventions’ do not evolve through some benign natural process: they are a product of history and conflict. What’s more, Kaufmann severely underestimates the risks of promoting a specifically ‘white’ identity. The state is far from a neutral actor: policies on refugee protection, for example, have created a category of people – ‘asylum-seekers’ – who have, as a group, become the target of racism. Or take the way in which the ‘war on terror’, and the concomitant claim that there is a ‘clash of civilisations’ between Islam and the West, has helped shape anti-Muslim racism in Europe and the US.

Read the full article in the London Review of Books.


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How banning abortion in the early weeks
of pregnancy suddenly became mainstream
Sabrina Tavernise, New York Times, 18 April 2019

For years, Ohio Right to Life, the state’s largest and oldest anti-abortion group, steered clear of a bill that would ban abortion in the very early weeks of pregnancy — after a fetal heartbeat is detected.

The reason was simple. The bill, which would have been the toughest abortion restriction on record, would be dead on arrival once it reached an unfriendly Supreme Court.

But after seven years of avoiding the ban, Ohio Right to Life’s board gathered in an office building outside Toledo in November and voted unanimously to support it. Last week, here in Columbus, it was signed into law.

The reversal is evidence of a fundamental shift in the landscape of abortion in America. The math on the Supreme Court has changed with President Trump’s choice of Brett Kavanaugh last year. And now, in the first legislative cycle after the midterm elections last fall, states are rushing to make changes. Newly confident red states are passing some of the strictest prohibitions the country has ever seen. Blue states are enacting ever stronger protections, like ones for later-term abortions in New York and Virginia.

‘Now is our time,’ said Michael Gonidakis, president of Ohio Right to Life in Columbus. ‘This is the best court we’ve had in my lifetime, in my parents’ lifetime.’

In their sights is overturning Roe v. Wade, the Supreme Court case that established a federal protection for abortion in 1973. And many in the movement believe that the so-called heartbeat bill — a ban on abortion as early as six weeks of pregnancy, often before a woman even knows she is pregnant — is the way to do it. The bill flies in the face of decades of Supreme Court decisions, like a dare to the American legal system.

‘It’s a pretty bold step, I’ll be honest,’ said William Seitz, a state representative in Ohio who voted for the bill. ‘But at least there is some chance that this would provide an opportunity to either further limit Roe, or perhaps jettison it entirely.’

Read the full article in the New York Times


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Why the ANC is bent on conferring
colonial and apartheid-era rights on rural chiefs
Peter Delius, Daily Maverick, 25 April 2019

One might imagine that a government deeply discredited by State Capture would wish to prevent any new opportunity for corruption and collusion. Quite the reverse: While lamenting looting in the upper echelons of the state, it is rushing bills through Parliament that will throw the doors wide open to new State Capture.

This time the opportunity will be at a more local level. New legislation will strip millions of rural residents of their land rights, their rights to participation in a full democracy and their rights to access the country’s full judicial system.

The new measures, designed to entrench and extend the power of traditional leaders, have barely surfaced in the pre-election debates between the political parties. But commentators have pointed out that the Traditional Courts Bill traps rural residents in a separate legal order that gives unprecedented power to chiefs. And that the Traditional and Khoisan Leadership Bill allows chiefs to enter into deals with mining companies and other interests without the consent of their subjects.

This is not the new dawn promised by the president. These bills hark back to the darkest days of colonialism and apartheid. They entrench one of their most pernicious legacies — the division between insiders who enjoyed equality before the law and full political and property rights, and outsiders who did not.

Race was once the crucial determinant of your fortunes. Now it is whether or not you are one of about 17 million black South Africans who live under the sway of traditional leaders in the former homelands. The other difference is that the new bills give considerably greater power over land and law than traditional leaders held under apartheid.

A key argument in defence of all this is that recognising traditional leaders is fundamental to respecting, incorporating and sustaining elements of African culture and customary law. This ignores the fact that the position of traditional leaders today was largely shaped by colonial power and co-option.

Read the full article in the Daily Maverick.


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Islamic State flag waving on the wind

What ISIS did to my village
Hassan Hassan, The Atlantic, 27 April 2019

ISIS maintained its governance structures in eastern Syria—and its determination to enforce its version of Islamic law—long after it was obvious that the group could not prevail. The caliphate finally collapsed completely on March 23, 2019, four years and eight months after Baghdadi declared it from Mosul. For my family, one chapter ended and a new one began.

My parents and siblings live far from the village where I grew up, in a city held by the Syrian regime. They do not know whether they will ever return home, or whether they would recognize the village as their home. Our livestock is gone, our orchard’s fate is unknown, and the desert where I used to herd sheep is now a no-go zone because ISIS militants laid mines there. Such misfortunes are shared by and, indeed, affect the whole village. My father used to employ at least three people and offer support to other families, especially in high-demand times such as Ramadan and winter. Today he depends on pocket money sent by his children living abroad and cannot help others.

Widen the aperture, and the picture is even more dire. ISIS has left behind social friction caused by five years of divide-and-rule tactics, evident in current threats of revenge by clans such as the Shaytat against locals who cooperated with ISIS. It is impossible to tell how many people were indoctrinated by the Islamic State’s ideology.

But the ISIS takeover of my community was not inevitable, nor obvious in the slightest. Rural areas are socially conservative and governed by tribal norms but are not dogmatically religious. A strictly religious person might even be described in his rural community as darweesh or a simpleton. From Fallujah to rural Aleppo, the areas that ISIS controlled had historically been strongholds of Sufism, the antithesis of the jihadist movements that came to dominate the region after the U.S. invasion of Iraq.

The Islamic State operated in war-torn Syria for more than a year before its spectacular rise in 2014, but it had no grassroots support in Deir Ezzor. Instead, it had to snatch the province by force from other rebel groups before it was able to co-opt some portions of the population.

Nevertheless, the past five years have transformed the area and created a new reality—of societal and economic collapse, a power vacuum, and radicalization—that nobody has a plan to address. I worry that the people of my village, ripped apart by war, might eventually become amenable to an extremist ideology they were previously strong enough to reject. The contrast is stark between the simple world I lived in as a young man and the complicated one that my father left behind only a few months ago. The contrast might be starker still in the coming years.

Read the full article in the Atlantic.


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The recent ‘brain reanimation’ experiment on pigs
is fascinating but not for the reason you think
Phillip Ball, Prospect, 24 April 2019

Stories about scientists reanimating a brain in a jar, like those prompted by a paper published last week in Nature, have a long pedigree. In 1937 the Sunday Express reported ‘Lonely island experiments with machine that keeps a brain alive’. It went on: ‘In a guarded, walled laboratory… a machine is slowly being assembled [that] can even keep a brain alive after the animal it was taken from is dead.’ The machine was allegedly being constructed by Nobel laureate surgeon Alexis Carrel (who bought the island retreat of St Gildas, off Brittany, with his prize money) and world-famous aviator Charles Lindbergh.

But the story was total fantasy, and so are any similar suggestions based on the new experiments. These were done at the Yale School of Medicine by a team led by neuroscientist Nenad Sestan. What they report is deeply interesting and rather surprising. Using an apparatus that ‘perfuses’ brains with a blood-like fluid, pulsing it through the veins and arteries, they could see signs of tissue function in pigs’ brains taken from an abattoir – even though the pigs’ heads had been removed after the death of the animals up to four hours earlier. It has generally been thought that irreversible, debilitating damage of the cells and tissues of organs happens more quickly than this when blood circulation (and thus oxygen supply) is stopped, either by removal from the body or by death of the organism. That’s why people are pronounced brain dead minutes after the heart stops beating.

You can see where this is leading. Are we being too hasty to assume brain death in people who suffer fatal trauma? Might it even be possible to use a perfusion apparatus like this to keep brains alive – and perhaps even ultimately to transplant them to another body? Does the work offer hope for the many people (especially in Silicon Valley) who have paid large sums to have their heads cryogenically frozen after death, arresting cell decay, in the hope that one day they might be resuscitated?

The answer is a firm no. Despite breathless claims about ‘rebooting’ or ‘bringing back to life’ the pig brains, there is nothing in these experiments that gives any indication that a brain placed in the perfusion device could be brought back to conscious function. It’s not even a matter of this being ‘early days’ for such a goal: it is very possible that, between seeing some activity in the cells of a perfused brain and restoring actual ‘brain function’, there is not just much ground to be navigated but a yawning gulf. The restoration of cell activity, say Sestan and colleagues, ‘should not be extrapolated to signify resurgence of normal brain function… at no point did we observe the kind of organised global electrical activity associated with awareness, perception, or other higher-order brain functions.’

Read the full article in Prospect.


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Part-revived pig brains raise slew of ethical quandaries
Nita A Farahany, Henry T Greely & Charles M Giattino, Nature, 17 April 2019

In our view, new guidelines are needed for studies involving the preservation or restoration of whole brains, because animals used for such research could end up in a grey area — not alive, but not completely dead. Five issues in particular need addressing.

First, how should researchers try to detect signs of consciousness or sentience? On its own, EEG activity would not reliably signal a conscious brain; such activity is nearly always detected in people who are under general anaesthesia7. EEG activity might provide an appropriate measure should it be detected along with responsiveness to transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS) — a non-invasive way of stimulating brain activity, using a magnetic coil held near the head. Together with other measures, this would determine the brain’s perturbational complexity index, a way of identifying the level of consciousness8. Furthermore, recent research in humans using functional magnetic resonance imaging indicates that certain patterns of neuronal activity may provide a correlate for consciousness9.

Second, which species make appropriate models for this type of research on brain perfusion? And what kinds of research and results would be needed to justify the use of other models? (In our view, investigators should proceed cautiously with testing in other mammals, particularly in pigs, dogs or primates, at this time10.)

Third, until more is known, is the use of neuronal activity blockers sufficient to safeguard against the emergence of capabilities associated with sentience, such as the capacity to feel pain? It might be necessary to apply BrainEx or similar systems to mice or rats, both with and without neuronal activity blockers, to better understand the blockers’ role.

Fourth, under which scenarios should anaesthetics be used in follow-on studies, to safeguard against the possibility of inducing any experience similar to pain or distress? And under what scenarios might it be permissible not to use them? (We think that the use of anaesthetics in follow-on studies should be mandatory at this time, given all of the unknowns.)

Finally, for how long should BrainEx or similar artificial circulatory systems be run? Such systems might be effective for only a certain period of time, or there could be a limit as to how much recovery can be achieved. This knowledge will inform analyses of risks and benefits.

Read the full article in Nature


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Notre Dame in the French imagination
Adam Gopnik, New Yorker, 16 April 2019

The scale and the insensitivity of much of the nineteenth-century restoration of Notre-Dame, including much of the remade stained glass, as well as the façade statuary, all made more to Viollet-le-Duc’s vision of the Gothic than to its original manner, has always made Notre-Dame less valued than its sister churches among lovers of pure, high Gothic style. The architectural Romantics—Ruskin and Proust and the rest—who resurrected the glory of the Gothic for the world, turned their eyes more often to Chartres, with its blue-tinted interior, than to the Paris city church.

Notre-Dame is indisputably something of a patchwork of time and changing historical impulses and nineteenth-century folly. And little art of major consequence resides inside it; Notre-Dame is not St. Peter’s Basilica. But this makes it, in its way, more specific. Its special virtues reside in its form, which seems to have been, blessedly, saved: the familiar play of the towers facing west and the matchless, buttressed rear curving down along the Seine, where it can be discovered, almost as a secret, walking on the bridges east of the cathedral.

And the same hodgepodge of architectural qualities that many Romantics disdained proved, in the end, central to its romance. It was the greatest of the Romantic novelists, Victor Hugo, who imagined it first not as a religious monument but as a cultural one, a civic one, where religious piety could manifest as a sheer tribute to the power of the irrational in human life. Love, Hugo wrote, in his 1831 novel about the cathedral and its strange inhabitant, Quasimodo, makes no sense: ‘The inexplicable fact is that the blinder it is, the more tenacious it is. It is never stronger than when it is completely unreasonable.’ Quasimodo’s love for Esmeralda is set in and around Notre-Dame precisely because the sheer power of life’s irrational forces is felt so deeply there. Hugo, not a pious figure but a Republican and political one—the voice, in fact, of the impious populace—made the cathedral the quintessential French romantic setting.

At moments of enormous and historic loss, one seeks, perhaps foolishly or with false reassurance, for some sense of continuity, including the continuities of disaster and renewal. So, let it be said that Paris, though to a stranger’s eyes a city of continuities, has hardly been immune to catastrophic circumstance. Nearly a century after Notre-Dame was looted in the revolution, it narrowly escaped being set on fire during the Commune of 1871. The palace of the Tuileries was burned then—whether by accident or by arson is still a question that divides right and left—and its ruins remained intact, or, rather, ruined, and in situ for most of the next decade, until they were finally demolished. Even that story, in a sense, offers an encouraging lesson about civic disaster and civic recovery: while the politicians debated what to do with the ruins, the culture of the Impressionists rose up around them. Life and light found their way.

Read the full article in the New Yorker.


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The US government’s indictment of Assange
poses grave threats to press freedom
Glenn Greenwald & Micah Lee,
The Intercept, 12 April 2019

So much of what has been reported today about this indictment has been false. Two facts in particular have been utterly distorted by the DOJ and then misreported by numerous media organizations.

The first crucial fact about the indictment is that its key allegation — that Assange did not merely receive classified documents from Chelsea Manning but tried to help her crack a password in order to cover her tracks — is not new. It was long known by the Obama DOJ and was explicitly part of Manning’s trial, yet the Obama DOJ — not exactly renowned for being stalwart guardians of press freedoms — concluded that it could not and should not prosecute Assange because indicting him would pose serious threats to press freedom. In sum, today’s indictment contains no new evidence or facts about Assange’s actions; all of it has been known for years.

The other key fact being widely misreported is that the indictment accuses Assange of trying to help Manning obtain access to document databases to which she had no valid access: i.e., hacking rather than journalism. But the indictment alleges no such thing. Rather, it simply accuses Assange of trying to help Manning log into the Defense Department’s computers using a different username so that she could maintain her anonymity while downloading documents in the public interest and then furnish them to WikiLeaks to publish.

In other words, the indictment seeks to criminalize what journalists are not only permitted but ethically required to do: take steps to help their sources maintain their anonymity. As longtime Assange lawyer Barry Pollack put it: ‘The factual allegations … boil down to encouraging a source to provide him information and taking efforts to protect the identity of that source. Journalists around the world should be deeply troubled by these unprecedented criminal charges.’

That’s why the indictment poses such a grave threat to press freedom. It characterizes as a felony many actions that journalists are not just permitted but required to take in order to conduct sensitive reporting in the digital age.

But because the DOJ issued a press release with a headline that claimed that Assange was accused of ‘hacking’ crimes, media outlets mindlessly repeated this claim even though the indictment contains no such allegation. It merely accuses Assange of trying to help Manning avoid detection. That’s not ‘hacking.’ That’s called a core obligation of journalism.

Read the full article in The Intercept.


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DNA graphic

New turmoil over predicting the effects of genes
Jordana Cepelewicz, Quanta, 23 April 2019

Various innovations in the field of genomics over the past few decades have given researchers hope that resolutions to long-lasting debates might finally be on the horizon. In particular, many have become optimistic about the prospects for disentangling the threads of ‘nature’ and ‘nurture’ — that is, about determining the extent to which genes alone can explain differences within and between populations.

But two recent studies are now calling some of the methods underlying those aspirations into question.

A key breakthrough was the recent development of genome-wide association studies (GWAS, commonly pronounced ‘gee-wahs’). The genetics of simple traits can often be deduced from pedigrees, and people have been using that approach for millennia to selectively breed vegetables that taste better and cows that produce more milk. But many traits are not the result of a handful of genes that have clear, strong effects; rather, they are the product of tens of thousands of weaker genetic signals, often found in noncoding DNA. When it comes to those kinds of features — the ones that scientists are most interested in, from height, to blood pressure, to predispositions for schizophrenia — a problem arises. Although environmental factors can be controlled in agricultural settings so as not to confound the search for genetic influences, it’s not so straightforward to extricate the two in humans.

Not to be thwarted, over the past two decades experts have come up with robust statistical techniques to address the issue, using data collected from thousands of individuals. This approach has become particularly prevalent in human genetics, as researchers hope to predict, say, someone’s risk for a disease based on their genome. Some groups have even used these methods to probe how natural selection might have led to observed differences in height (and other traits) among populations. The findings generated further excitement about the potential applications in medicine and evolutionary biology for GWAS.

But now, two results published last month have cast doubt on those findings, and have illustrated that problems with interpretations of GWAS results are far more pervasive than anyone realized. The work has implications for how scientists think about the interactions between genetic and environmental effects. It also ‘raise[s] the ghosts of the possibility that we overestimate … how important genetics is in contributing to differences between people,’ said Rasmus Nielsen, a biologist at the University of California, Berkeley.

Read the full article in Quanta.


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Ilhan Omar falls victim to the outrage exhibitionists
Conor Friedersdorf, The Atlantic, 13 April 2019

When the ideological left engages in what is variously denigrated as ‘political correctness,’ virtue-signaling, performative wokeness, or ‘social-justice warrior’ cry-bullying, many on the right find it easy to spot the flaws in those modes of discourse. But that discernment vanishes when the populist right indulges in the same vices (even as progressives become unusually attuned to their downsides).

Last month, Representative Ilhan Omar attended a banquet hosted by the Council on American-Islamic Relations, where she delivered remarks for roughly 20 minutes.

A major theme was prejudice against Muslims. ‘Here’s the truth,’ she said. ‘For far too long we have lived with the discomfort of being a second-class citizen. Frankly, I’m tired of it. And every single Muslim in this country should be tired of it. CAIR was founded after 9/11 because they recognized that some people did something and that all of us were starting to lose access to our civil liberties.’

Omar’s meaning was clear: Many Muslims felt collectively blamed for something that was indisputably perpetrated by a tiny fraction of their co-religionists and marshaled new resources to protect their civil rights in response. (CAIR was actually founded in the 1990s, but expanded significantly after 9/11.)

Her speech was covered live. It generated no blowback upon delivery. Then, this month, an Australian imam stripped one of her remarks from its context and tweeted, ‘Ilhan Omar mentions 9/11 and does not consider it a terrorist attack on the USA by terrorists, instead she refers to it as ‘Some people did something,’ then she goes on to justify the establishment of a terrorist organization (CAIR) on US soil.’

CAIR is not, in fact, a terrorist organization. Anyone with third-grade reading comprehension can review Omar’s clumsy words and see that they do not, in fact, assert that 9/11 wasn’t a terrorist attack, nor that its perpetrators were not terrorists. Arriving at the opposite conclusion requires interpreting Omar’s words in a manner that is both implausible and willfully optimized for offense-taking.

Nevertheless, Representative Dan Crenshaw retweeted the imam’s remarks, seizing a chance for a woke callout and the expression of disdainful outrage. ‘First Member of Congress to ever describe terrorists who killed thousands of Americans on 9/11 as ‘some people who did something,’’ he wrote. ‘Unbelievable.’

What’s ‘unbelievable’ about imperfect extemporaneous speech?

Read the full article in the Atlantic.


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The invention of the ‘Salvator Mundi’
Matthew Shaer, New York Magazine, 14 April 2019

In an essay published in 2015, Modestini details the long process of restoring Christ’s face, which gave her no shortage of trouble — a previous clean had stripped away the 20th-century overpaint while revealing areas of abrasion around the eyes and chin. ‘The ambiguity between abrasion and highlight made the restoration extremely difficult, and I redid it numerous times,’ she wrote. Equally time-consuming was the ‘muddy background.’ To fix it, she added ‘a glaze of rich warm brown,’ then more layers of paint, distressing the paint between layers ‘to make it look antique … The new color freed the head, which had been trapped in the muddy background, so close in tone to the hair, and made a different, altogether more powerful image.’

About a year into the restoration process, Modestini was repairing some damage to Christ’s lip when she noticed a set of color transitions that she described to me as ‘perfect. Just the way the paint was handled — no other artist could have done that.’ In 2006, the Louvre had published a book called Mona Lisa: Inside the Painting, which included high-resolution close-ups of the subject’s features. ‘I was studying her mouth, and all at once, I could no longer hide from the obvious,’ Modestini later wrote. ‘The artist who painted her was the same hand that had painted the Salvator Mundi.’ Already Modestini had used intact portions of the painting, such as the corkscrews of hair, to inform her in-painting of destroyed ones. After her epiphany about the authorship, she no longer was just restoring a Renaissance painting — she was restoring a Leonardo. She studied how he had handled certain passages or transitions in analogous works, such as the Mona Lisa and Leonardo’s other masterwork, St. John the Baptist. Her work was almost ontological in nature; by relying on Leonardo’s work to restore the painting, was she uncovering a Leonardo or bringing it into being?

No specific technique used by the Salvator Mundi’s restorers was particularly unusual. What sets the painting apart, one prominent art-world figure told me, is the scale of the restoration. ‘You’ll get defenders of the painting who will say, ‘Look at a work like [Hans] Holbein’s The Ambassadors. That had loss too, and it was restored and repainted, and now it’s hanging in a museum!’ ’ the source said. ‘Well, yes, but that loss was 5 to 10 percent of a very large painting. With all due respect to the immense talents of Dianne Modestini, the Salvator Mundi was a much smaller picture, and the amount of required intervention was proportionally higher. And that should be a key area of debate: Where does conservation become invention?’

Read the full article in New York Magazine.


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The book on Marx that Arendt never finished
Geoffrey Wildanger, Boston Review, 16 April 2019

The volume’s value lies, in part, in clarifying the relation between Arendt and Marxism, which has long been defined in polemical terms. Marxists often call Arendt a reactionary, conservative, or elitist; they describe her as preferring, in the historian Eric Hobsbawm’s words, ‘metaphysical construct or poetic feeling over reality.’ Such accusations easily seem misplaced now that Arendt is best known for powerful texts such as ‘We Refugees’ and Eichmann in Jerusalem (1963) that are clearly on the left-liberal side of the spectrum. It can seem strange that a woman committed to many progressive causes in her time, and who revered Rosa Luxemburg, could be tarred as a reactionary.

The story is not quite so simple. Arendt’s controversial essay ‘Reflections on Little Rock’ was criticized as borderline racist, at least, by her contemporaries and by the philosopher Kathryn S. Belle. The Origins of Totalitarianism hints at an equivalency between communism and Nazism, a thesis now associated with Ernst Nolte. The Human Condition and The Life of the Mind (1978) do move beyond factual claims about social history to speculative thinking about the nature of work, action, and judgement. On Revolution (1963) privileges the American Revolution above the French, an evaluation with which many on the left would disagree. Finally, insofar as Arendt contributed to the journal Confluence: An International Forum, founded and edited by Henry Kissinger, one could even paint her as something of a ‘cold warrior’ or, as the historian Samuel Moyn does in an excellent new book on Arendt from Verso, a ‘Cold War liberal,’ although one imagines she would detest both appellations.

The new volume on Marx will force scholars to reevaluate some of their presumption. By arranging some essays that Arendt ultimately published, such as ‘Understanding and Politics,’ within their chronological context along unpublished pieces, such as ‘Karl Marx and the Tradition of Western Political Thought: The Modern Challenge to Tradition,’ the editors piece together the material for a book length study that ventures into the profound territory laying in between The Origins of Totalitarianism and The Human Condition. The book makes clear Arendt’s deep regard for, and apprehension at, the revolutionary claims of Marxism. Like Marx, Arendt understands revolution to be the product of the disjuncture between modernity’s ideals of justice and equality and the realities of capitalism. Like Marx, she recognizes the ‘mute violence’ of the marketplace. Nonetheless, she doubts Marxism can avoid the Büchner problem: the terrors of revolutionary violence. Occasionally she remains stuck in the clichés of Cold War polemic, and here her reading of Marx can be weak. But where she breaks with this blindness, she develops brilliant insights.

Read the full article in the Boston Review.


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The FBI wanted a backdoor to the iPhone.
Tim Cook said no.
Leander Kahney, Wired, 16 April 2019

Late in the afternoon of Tuesday, February 16, 2016, Cook and several lieutenants gathered in the ‘junior boardroom’ on the executive floor at One Infinite Loop, Apple’s old headquarters. The company had just received a writ from a US magistrate ordering it to make specialized software that would allow the FBI to unlock an iPhone used by Syed Farook, a suspect in the San Bernardino shooting in December 2015 that left 14 people dead.

The iPhone was locked with a four-digit passcode that the FBI had been unable to crack. The FBI wanted Apple to create a special version of iOS that would accept an unlimited combination of passwords electronically, until the right one was found. The new iOS could be side-loaded onto the iPhone, leaving the data intact.

But Apple had refused. Cook and his team were convinced that a new unlocked version of iOS would be very, very dangerous. It could be misused, leaked, or stolen, and once in the wild, it could never be retrieved. It could potentially undermine the security of hundreds of millions of Apple users.

In the boardroom, Cook and his team went through the writ line by line. They needed to decide what Apple’s legal position was going to be and figure out how long they had to respond. It was a stressful, high-stakes meeting. Apple was given no warning about the writ, even though Cook, Apple’s top lawyer, Bruce Sewell, and others had been actively speaking about the case to law enforcement for weeks.

The writ ‘was not a simple request for assistance in a criminal case,’ explained Sewell. ‘It was a forty-two-page pleading by the government that started out with this litany of the horrible things that had been done in San Bernardino. And then this . . . somewhat biased litany of all the times that Apple had said no to what were portrayed as very reasonable requests. So this was what, in the law, we call a speaking complaint. It was meant to from day one tell a story . . . that would get the public against Apple.’

Read the full article in Wired.


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black hole

What the sight of a black hole
means to a black hole physicist
Janna Levin, Quanta, 10 April 2019

Black holes were conceived of as a thought experiment, a fantastical imagining. Imagine matter crushed to a point. Don’t ask how. Just imagine that. While enlisted in the German army during World War I, Karl Schwarzschild discovered this possible solution to Einstein’s newly published theory of relativity, apocryphally between calculating ballistic trajectories from the trenches on the Russian front.

Schwarzschild inferred that space-time effectively spills toward the crushed center. Racing at its absolute speed, even light gets dragged down the hole, casting a shadow on the sky. That shadow is the event horizon, the stark demarcation between the outside and anything with the misfortune to have fallen inside.

Einstein thought nature would protect us from the formation of black holes. To the contrary, nature makes them in abundance. When a dying star is heavy enough, gravity overcomes matter’s intrinsic resistance and the star collapses catastrophically. The event horizon is left behind as an archaeological record while the stellar material continues to fall inward to an unknown fate. In our own Milky Way galaxy there could be billions of black holes.

Supermassive black holes, millions or even billions of times the mass of the sun, anchor the centers of nearly all galaxies, though nobody yet knows how they formed or got so heavy. Maybe they formed from dead stars that merged and escalated in size, or maybe they directly collapsed out of more primordial material in a younger universe.

However they formed, there are as many supermassive black holes as there are galaxies — hundreds of billions in the observable universe.

We had never seen a black hole before today. No telescope had ever taken a picture of one. We have indirectly inferred the presence of black holes when they’ve cannibalized companion stars, powered energetic jets in twisted magnetic fields, and captured stars in their orbit. We have even heard black holes collide and merge, ringing space-time like mallets on a drum.

We had never taken a direct picture of a black hole before because black holes are tiny, despite their dramatic reputation as weapons of mayhem and destruction (yes, the Nova film I hosted was called ‘Black Hole Apocalypse’). A black hole the mass of the sun would have an event horizon a mere 6 kilometers across. Compare that to the 1.4-million-kilometer breadth of the sun itself. The supermassive black hole at the center of the Milky Way, dubbed Sagittarius A*, is 4 million times the mass of the sun but only about 17 times wider.

Read the full article in Quanta.


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The most political animal
Michelle Nijhuis, The Atlantic, 17 April 2019

Europe is now home to an estimated 12,000 wolves, 17,000 bears, and 9,000 lynx, and wolf sightings have been documented in every country on the European mainland. Large predators provoke powerful emotions, and in Norway, where captive wolves are a beloved and lucrative tourist attraction, humans have greeted the returning wolves with both great joy and exceptionally furious resistance. The resulting conflict is testing humans’ ability to coexist with our fellow predators—and, along the way, our ability to coexist with one another…

The Norwegian sociologist Ketil Skogen, who has studied the wolf controversy for two decades, says that its deepest divisions are between rural and urban Norwegians. Since World War II, in Norway and the rest of the developed world, the growth of the urban middle class—both in numbers and political and cultural influence—has fostered a sense of inferiority in rural communities. Many rural people feel, not without reason, that their practical knowledge and experience are dismissed by more formally trained urban ‘experts,’ and some have responded to perceived and real disrespect with a deep skepticism of science and scientific authority. These urban-rural resentments, Skogen has found, can obscure even vast class differences, creating political alliances between large rural landowners such as Gundersen and working-class hunters and farmers.

Gundersen has worked with farmers’ and landowners’ groups to mobilize this alliance, and this past January, they drew an estimated 7,000 protesters to a torchlight parade in Oslo. Supporters of wolf recovery have also organized large protests, with several thousand people turning out for demonstrations across the country this winter. vi er vikinger, ikke veikinger, (we are vikings, not weaklings), read one pro-wolf demonstrator’s sign.

In Norway, like everywhere else, these divides are deepened by social media. During my week of conversations in rural Norway—in farmyards, in offices, and over teatime waffles in cozy kitchens—I heard repeatedly that the nastiest arguments about wolves take place on Facebook. Social media have bred conspiracy theories, too, with many wolf opponents insisting, for instance, that the wolves were secretly trucked into Scandinavia and released. (There are many variations on this rumor, all fanciful extrapolations of a real but stillborn Swedish proposal to reintroduce wolves in the 1970s.) The theory is so persistent that a group of landowners in eastern Norway commissioned a second set of wolf DNA analyses, separate from those already conducted by SKANDULV, in hopes that the results would suggest that the animals were descended from captives or came from far outside the region. Wolf opponents have also convinced the Norwegian government to sponsor two additional studies. But none has found any evidence of deliberate reintroduction.

Read the full article in the Atlantic.


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Peas in a matchbox
Jonathan Ree, London Review of Books, 18 April 2019

The title – Being and Nothingness in English – is rather misleading: Self and Others would have been a better fit. There was speculation that it was chosen to encourage the Propagandastaffel to see it as a tribute to Being and Time, but while it took up several themes from Heidegger, it was really a continuation of the criticisms of traditional psychology that Sartre had been developing over the past twenty years. It also drew on his recent experiences with theatre: it is structured as a kind of drama, following the fortunes of a consciousness – your consciousness, my consciousness, anyone’s consciousness – on its journey towards self-knowledge. The first act reveals consciousness distinguishing its own existence ‘for itself’ from an objective reality which exists ‘in itself’, and then tormenting itself by trying to obliterate the distinction and become a self-sufficient something, perhaps even God. The second and third acts explore the consequences of this folie de grandeur: consciousness attempts to dominate the world by ‘totalising’ it, but flounders when it tries to make sense of the passage of time, or its own bodily existence, or its dependence on others, and in the end it realises that its fascination with ‘pure knowledge’ – with intuitions ‘situated outside the world’ or ‘without any point of view’ – was deluded all along. The fourth and final act shows consciousness learning to understand itself on the basis of its own absurdity, by means of a form of psychoanalysis – ‘existential psychoanalysis’ – which treats our opacities and neuroses as arising not from unconscious drives originating outside us, but from the contradictory stories we have told ourselves about the world and our place in it. The drama concludes by invoking a new morality, rooted in a willingness to ‘step back’ and accept the fact of our own nothingness.

Sartre did not think of Being and Nothingness as one of his ‘works of art’, and while the design was magnificent, the execution was slapdash. Much of the prose reads like the unfiltered output of late-night delirium, and Gallimard’s editorial staff seem to have done nothing to cut out redundancies or to clean up the rest. (They might at least have prevented him from harping on the expression ‘réalité humaine’, when the whole point of the book was that human existence has nothing in common with thing-like ‘realities’, and they should have noticed that he kept getting the title of one of his own essays wrong.) There are several vivid scenes – an over-attentive waiter who seems to be ‘playing at being a waiter’, a girl who pretends not to notice that she is an object of sexual attention, and a snooper at a keyhole who feels a surge of shame when he realises he is being observed – but they only show up the tawdriness of the rest. Worst of all, Sartre failed to observe the proprieties of dramatic point of view. His fundamental project was to show how the world is bound to appear – riddled with obscurity, indistinctness and incoherence – to a consciousness such as ours; but he keeps interrupting the action like a hyperactive chorus to tell us what is really going on. He could hardly have done more to test the patience of his readers.

Read the full article in the London Review of Books.


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An archive of atrocities
Mark Mazower, New York Review of Books, 4 April 2019

Akçam, a leading authority on the Armenian genocide, is unquestionably a very brave man: now based in the US, he is himself Turkish, and because of his pioneering work has long been a hated figure for the Turkish right. In 2012 he published a fine study of the Young Turks and the genocide, and he has since established Clark University as a center of serious research into it.1 His new book is not an easy read, and not just because of the subject. Killing Orders is less a conventional history than a kind of forensic exercise designed to lay to rest once and for all any dispute regarding the authenticity of the Naim-Andonian documents, and to demonstrate their importance in helping to understand the state structures that allowed the genocide to take place.

There is a long discussion of Ottoman encryption techniques and extended criticism of the denialist camp’s arguments. Documents are cited to demonstrate that an official called Naim really did work in the relevant department in Aleppo and that he had been stationed in the places he said he had. Dates and signatures are scrutinized and compared. Because some Turkish scholars have complained that the Naim documents must be fakes because they are written on lined paper, we are even given a brief excursus on official Ottoman policy regarding the use of lined paper in encrypted documents. The reader feels rather like someone who has stumbled into a fiercely argued courtroom drama. One can either try to follow every thrust and counterthrust from the opposing sides, or one can—as much despite the advocacy as because of it—try to figure out what really matters in the whole story. In this respect, it resembles the work of an earlier scholar in the field, Vahakn Dadrian, who published a long article on the Naim-Andonian materials thirty years ago, and who has worked closely with Akçam in the past.

The documents themselves, which appear together with Naim’s commentary in a fifty-page appendix to the book, are shocking and revealing. They make it clear that conversions to Islam or marriages to Muslims were not enough to exempt Armenians from deportation. One Interior Ministry document noted that there was no need to investigate criminal acts carried out by locals in the Deyr-i Zor region—the scene of some of the worst massacres—since they were consistent with government policy. Another message from the hard-line governor of Aleppo, Mustafa Abdülhalik, criticized the district governor of Deyr-i Zor for being too concerned about the deportees. Some of the telegrams Naim copied appeared to show Talaat Pasha ordering the Aleppo governor to single out the clergy for killing. Others used commonly accepted euphemisms such as ‘familiar and previously communicated guidelines’ and ‘necessary measures,’ which reflected a larger concern among policymakers about news of the killings getting out. Talaat ordered Armenian reporters to be arrested and ‘liquidated,’ and urged the governor to ensure that the corpses that littered the deportation routes be buried as quickly as possible.

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


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Unknown human relative discovered in Philippine cave
Nic Fleming, Nature, 10 April 2019

The human family tree has grown another branch, after researchers unearthed remains of a previously unknown hominin species from a cave in the Philippines. They have named the new species, which was probably small-bodied, Homo luzonensis.

The discovery, reported in Nature on 10 April1, is likely to reignite debates over when ancient human relatives first left Africa. And the age of the remains — possibly as young as 50,000 years old — suggests that several different human species once co-existed across southeast Asia.

The first traces of the new species turned up more than a decade ago, when researchers reported the discovery of a foot bone dating to at least 67,000 years old in Callao Cave on the island of Luzon, in the Philippines2. The researchers were unsure which species the bone was from, but they reported that it resembled that of a small Homo sapiens.

Further excavations of Callao Cave uncovered a thigh bone, seven teeth, two foot bones and two hand bones — with features unlike those of other human relatives, contends the team, co-led by Florent Détroit, a palaeoanthropologist at the National Museum of Natural History in Paris. The remains come from at least two adults and one child.

‘Together, they create a strong argument that this is something new,’ says Matthew Tocheri, a palaeoanthropologist at Lakehead University in Thunder Bay, Canada.

H. luzonensisis the second new human species to be identified in southeast Asia in recent years. In 2004, another group announced the discovery of Homo floresiensis— also known as the Hobbit — a species that would have stood just over a metre in height, on the Indonesian island of Flores. 

But Détroit and his colleagues argue that the Callao Cave remains are distinct from those of H. floresiensis and other hominins — including a species called Homo erectus thought to have been the first human relative to leave Africa, some 2 million years ago.

Read the full article in Nature.


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Mark Rothko Green over blue

The colors of our dreams
Jesse Russell, Claremont Review of Books, 1 April 2019

Pastoureau argues that the color blue is both a naturally occurring phenomenon and a complex cultural construct which is ‘first and foremost a social phenomenon.’ His impressive scholarly narrative does not fall prey to postmodernism’s worse excesses; Blue offers a coherent raison d’être behind Western history, no matter how that story is colored.

Blue was once little-known in the Western palette. Homer’s sea was ‘wine dark’; blue would not be used as water’s color until the seventeenth century. It has evolved from its original association with warmth, heat, barbarism, and the creatures of the underworld, to its current association with calm, peace, and reverie. Like the unruly green, the Romans associated blue with the savage Celtae and Germani, who used the woad herb’s rich leaves for their blue pigments. These northern barbarians also painted themselves blue before war and religious rituals. The ancient Germans, according to Ovid, even dyed their whitening hair blue.

The Romans, in contrast, preferred the color red—the Latin word, ‘coloratus’ was synonymous with that for red, ruber. The Romans and Greeks did import lapis lazuli, the exquisite blue rock, from exotic locals such as China, Iran, and Afghanistan. But neither used the barbaric blue for important figures or images, saving it for the backgrounds for white and red figures. Even the Greek words for blue, like the names of colors in the Bible, largely were meant to evoke certain states or feelings as opposed to exact visual colors. Blue, like green, was the color of death and barbarism. The nobler colors – white, red, and black – were preferred.

The barbaric tribes that ushered in the Dark Ages after Rome’s fall brought their love of woad-extracted blue into the newly formed Germanic kingdoms. But their ascendant Christian kings adopted Roman trappings: blue gave way to red, at least among the upper class, who delegated blue (along with vegetable consumption) to the peasantry. In its first thousand years, the Catholic Church also largely ignored blue, adopting white, a symbol of purity, holiness, and Christ’s resurrection, as the color for liturgical worship and dress.

In late antiquity and the early medieval period blue and green were associated with Satan and his demonic cohort. This connotation was drawn from blue’s classical association with the underworld, death, and barbarism. By the twelfth century, blue, when shown alongside red, gained a luminous, purple tinge and was detached from the diabolical and barbaric green. Artisans employed by the mysterious twelfth century Abbot Suger of St. Dennis Abbey developed what would become known as ‘St. Denis Blue.’ Its beauty inspired Christians to adopt it as fitting for heaven, nobility, and the Virgin Mary, who had traditionally been shown in dark clothes highlighting her suffering. Innumerable aesthetic treasures, such as Lorenzo di Credi’s late fifteenth century piece The Annunciation, helped transition blue from the color of the underworld and the barbaric north to that of joy, peace, and love.

Read the full article in the Claremont Review of Books.


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Fear of a black homeland
Alice Speri, The Intercept, 23 March 2019

The ‘black identity extremism’ report was prepared by the FBI’s Domestic Terrorism Analysis Unit, part of the bureau’s Counterterrorism Division, and was distributed to scores of local and federal law enforcement partners across the country. Although Davis and Baldwin were not charged under anti-terrorism laws, they do appear to be the first individuals retroactively labeled by the FBI as ‘black identity extremists.’

The FBI report was written six months into the Trump administration — as white supremacist groups felt emboldened by support for their ideology seemingly coming from the very top of the government — and was released only a week before the ‘Unite the Right’ rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, where a white nationalist ran down and killed Heather Heyer. When the report was leaked to Foreign Policy later in 2017, it prompted fierce and widespread criticism from activists, civil rights advocates, and lawmakers, many of whom accused the FBI of reverting to the surveillance and sabotage of black activists that had defined its activities in the civil rights era.

Critics called the report’s contents ‘fiction,’ ‘fantasy’ ’weak’ and ‘irresponsible.’ Several noted that it seemed designed to distract attention from the reality of police abuse against minorities. ‘The feds have invented a title — BIE — and linked it to a handful of episodes of violence,’ wrote Andrew Cohen, a fellow at the Brennan Center for Justice. ‘To deflect legitimate criticism of police tactics, to undermine a legitimate protest movement that has emerged in the past three years to protest police brutality, the FBI has tarred the dissenters as domestic terrorists, an organized group with a criminal ideology that are a threat to police officers.’

The National Organization of Black Law Enforcement Executives, which includes leaders of federal, state, and local law enforcement agencies, called for the classification to be eliminated. ‘This assessment resurrects the historically negative legacy of African American civil rights leaders who were unconstitutionally targeted and attacked by federal, state, and local law enforcement agencies for seeking full U.S. citizenship under the law,’ the group wrote in a statement.

Yet even more worrisome than the report’s political implications is the immediate threat to life that labeling someone a ‘terrorist’ can pose, especially as the FBI has no way to monitor what law enforcement departments do with the reports it distributes. For many black people, already accustomed to being uniquely vulnerable to police violence, the fear is that being viewed as potential terrorists for expressing legitimate political grievances might give police license to target them even more intensely than they already do.

‘Not only can they go after these people with surveillance, but they can then justify using the most aggressive, violent tactics,’ said Justin Hansford, a St. Louis activist and law professor who heads the Thurgood Marshall Civil Rights Center at Howard University. ‘Whenever you create an assumption that somebody poses a physical threat to law enforcement, that provides incentive for law enforcement to shoot first and ask questions later.’

Read the full article in The Intercept.


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Is your pregnancy app sharing
your intimate data with your boss?
Drew Harwell, Washington Post, 10 April 2019

Period- and pregnancy-tracking apps such as Ovia have climbed in popularity as fun, friendly companions for the daunting uncertainties of childbirth, and many expectant women check in daily to see, for instance, how their unborn babies’ size compares to different fruits or Parisian desserts.

But Ovia also has become a powerful monitoring tool for employers and health insurers, which under the banner of corporate wellness have aggressively pushed to gather more data about their workers’ lives than ever before.

Employers who pay the apps’ developer, Ovia Health, can offer their workers a special version of the apps that relays their health data — in a ‘de-identified,’ aggregated form — to an internal employer website accessible by human resources personnel. The companies offer it alongside other health benefits and incentivize workers to input as much about their bodies as they can, saying the data can help the companies minimize health-care spending, discover medical problems and better plan for the months ahead.

Emboldened by the popularity of Fitbit and other tracking technologies, Ovia has marketed itself as shepherding one of the oldest milestones in human existence into the digital age. By giving counseling and feedback on mothers’ progress, executives said, Ovia has helped women conceive after months of infertility and even saved the lives of women who wouldn’t otherwise have realized they were at risk.

But health and privacy advocates say this new generation of ‘menstrual surveillance’ tools is pushing the limits of what women will share about one of the most sensitive moments of their lives. The apps, they say, are designed largely to benefit not the women but their employers and insurers, who gain a sweeping new benchmark on which to assess their workers as they consider the next steps for their families and careers.

Read the full article in the Washington Post.


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Unsettled: Refugee camps
and the making of multicultural Britain
Peter Gatrell, Reviews in History, 19 March 2019

My first thought on reading Unsettled was to wonder why no-one has thought of doing this before now. The sources are abundant and for the most part readily accessible, even if they are scattered across the archives of different UK government departments as well as in numerous county record offices. This bureaucratic evidence can be supplemented by using national and local newspapers. Careful use of oral history will broaden the scope of the resource base, as Bailkin has done here. It is not as if we have had to wait for the disclosure of hitherto unavailable or inaccessible material. Perhaps a book such as this could only have been written in the light of current concerns about the so-called ‘refugee crisis’. In any case, the appearance of Unsettled could not be timelier, even if the history it uncovers belongs in many respects to a different epoch.

Its timeliness is only in part related to current debates about refugees. Unsettled has a broader purpose, which is to configure refugee history as something more than an account of successive episodes of mass population displacement. Bailkin understands that refugee history must be written by also taking other actors into account, not to deny refugees a significant degree of agency and self-expression, but to locate their actions against the backdrop of the constraints imposed and the practices enforced by the modern state. In this regard, she draws productively upon the now extensive literature in refugee studies.

How, then, does Bailkin frame her research questions? She begins with a careful consideration of the term, ‘refugee’, noting that it is laden with multiple meanings, including the definition agreed in international law as per the 1951 UN Refugee Convention. She points out that being recognised as a Convention refugee affords a significant degree of protection as well as assistance, but that not everyone who has been displaced is recognised in this way. Asylum-seekers remain in limbo, awaiting an adjudication of their claims; internally displaced persons fall outside the Convention; and many states refuse to sign it. More to the point, in relation to Bailkin’s chosen case studies, it is important to acknowledge that individuals or groups of displaced people have refused the label, on the grounds that it is demeaning and also effaces alternative ways of representing one’s displacement, such as describing oneself as an ‘exile’, or an ‘evacuee’.

By addressing the discourse of displacement, Bailkin suggests that it is possible to cast familiar aspects of British history in a different light. This is partly about particular moments when people sought admission to the UK in order to escape from violence and persecution. Her approach is also designed to take account of the organised resettlement of British families after the Second World War. But she aims higher than this, arguing that we need to think about the close encounters between ‘refugees’ and ‘citizens’ or, as she puts it, between those who were settled and those who were unsettled.

Read the full article in Reviews in History.


 

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Asterix in Hindi:
How do you translate a universal cultural memory?
Mohini Gupta, Scroll, 27 April 2019

‘The first and immediate constraint,’ Gupta said, ‘was fitting the Hindi translation into each speech bubble, despite Hindi being syntactically different from French, and also because of the maatras on the top, bottom and the side (in French, the accents are only on the top and bottom). Before translating the nuances into Hindi, we had to go into the etymology of the words, the idioms, the phraseology of the region in which the Asterix and Obelix find themselves.’

‘As we went along’, explained Chaudhuri, ‘it became clear that we were translating not only from French to Hindi, but depending on the provenance of the protagonist, we were translating from Latin, and on occasion, German too…Negotiating between different registers of each language to establish the social hierarchy that binds the characters, was part of the task at hand.’

The Hindi translation of the first four albums delightfully employs humour, wordplay, inventive puns and caricatures across the narrative. The translators are thoughtful about their choices – every character preserves their own regional suffix in Hindi. Gaul residents Getafix, Vitalstatistix and Cacophonix (to use the English versions of their names) turn into Aushadhix, Golmatolix and Besurtalix – and a shifty dealer, Lentix, is cleverly called Dal-me-Kalix.

Latin phrases turn into smatterings of Sanskrit, Germanic tribes speak in guttural sounds, drunken slurs borrow suitable accents or dialects from other Indian languages, and Gaulish songs turn into versions of popular Bollywood songs that Indian audiences can relate to. For instance, the evergreen hit Jeena Yahan, Marna Yahan appears as Jeena Yahan, Gaana Yahan. And Besurtalix sings O re Maajhi, mere saajan hain us paar, aur main manjh daar to convey his plight.

Sound systems too have cultural disparities –– ‘splotch’ in French turns into ‘splash’ in English and chhapaak’ in Hindi. Gupta spoke of the difficulty of finding Indian equivalents of at least 150 onomatopoeic expressions across the four albums they translated.

It has always been a challenge to preserve the genius of this comic series in other languages and cultural contexts. The 37 albums have, over the years, been translated into 111 languages, including Estonian, Icelandic, Esperanto, ancient Greek, and Afrikaans, to name a few. Italian translations had the added complexity of differentiating the accent of the French and the Romans, which they resolved by using different Roman dialects.

Anthea Bell’s English version retains the wordplay by translating Asterix’s dog’s name Idéfix, which is a ‘fixed idea’ in French, into Dogmatix in English, taking the pun even further than original. Gupta and Chaudhuri’s Hindi version calls the dog Adiyalix – someone who is ‘doggedly obstinate’ – while the village druid Panoramix is called Ojha Aushadhix – with connotations of a witch doctor who brews magical potions or jaadui kaadha. (The Bengali translation calls this character Etashetamix – a mix of this and that – another wonderful play on the meaning of the word.) While the possibilities in translation are endless, translating a text that is so deeply loved and entrenched in our collective memory brings with it its own set of benchmarks.

Read the full article in Scroll

One comment

  1. Lucas Picador

    The WaPo article on the “Judeo-Christian” dogwhistle has its heart in the right place but is a bit incoherent.

    1. Obviously the term papers over stark differences between different religions. That’s also true of the blanket terms “Christian”, or “Jewish”, or “Muslim”, each of which encompass a raft of faiths and traditions that diverge from each other theologically and culturally and that have spent hundreds of years murdering and persecuting each other. Yet the terms continue to be useful. That’s how categorization works in human language.

    2. I have always understood the term to be more or less synonymous with “the Abrahamic tradition” or “people of the book”, ie, any religious tradition that traces through the Hebrew religious tradition. So Judaism and Christianity, sure, but also obviously Islam, and also more recent or smaller faiths like Rastafarianism, messianic Judaism, Mormonism, Baha’i (I think?), etc. I get it that recently white supremacists have started using the term to mean “not Muslims”. But they’re idiots and they shouldn’t get to dictate our use of the English language.

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