Pandaemonium

PLUCKED FROM THE WEB #57

web57

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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‘If we don’t rehabilitate reason,
we will not be able to fix our broken world’

Achille Mbembe & Andreas Eckert,
Mail & Guardian, 10 May 2019

South Africa has been your home for many years. When you went there (in 2000), it was still a country full of hope. At the end of apartheid, the project of a rainbow nation was seen to open up to a happy future. There was, of course, Nelson Mandela, full of wisdom and generosity, who made all other politicians in the world look parochial. You also wrote about South Africa as a creative laboratory, as a place where a new form of humanism and co-operation was tested. But now most of the news we get from South Africa is bad news. We mainly hear about crisis and corruption. We hear about a failed ANC. We hear about many frustrated people. We hear about a land reform programme that might lead the country into violent conflicts. So would you still stick to your idea of South Africa as a creative laboratory that could pave the way for many other African regions and the rest of the world to a more humane future?

Yes, I still believe in the potential universality of the South African experiment. Race and the structures of white supremacy having been such corrosive and yet determining features of the modern world, South Africa is arguably the one place on Earth with the best chance of radically undoing the extraordinary damage they inflicted upon a huge portion of humanity.

South Africa could objectively become a paradigmatic instantiation of the entanglement of our world. For this to happen, the utopian resources present in its history must be harnessed and must serve as a basis for a radical critique and remaking of the present. This requires a powerful intellectual and cultural reorientation as well as new images of thought and praxis.

As we speak, the country is unfortunately at great risk of finding itself in an intellectual and cultural cul-de-sac, unable to conjure up new imaginaries for itself, for Africa and the world. This atrophy of the mind worries me the most.

For instance, I profoundly disagree with those who confuse radical and future-oriented politics with the continuous invocation of blood or burning. There can be no sustained project of freedom without a voluntary renunciation of the law of blood. Radical politics is about attending to the foundational debt we owe each other, the debt of life, the recognition of which is the first step and only road to genuine restitution, reparation and the possibility of a world in common. That is what I believe.

Read the full article in the Mail & Guardian.


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Notes on the Indian election
Tariq Ali, LRB Blog, 24 May 2019

That Narendra Modi would win again was never really in dispute. The only question was whether the Bharatiya Janata Party would be forced to seek coalition partners in the Lok Sabha, or repeat its astonishing success of 2014 and govern alone. The main opposition, the Congress, turned the campaign into a referendum on Modi. Could the tea-seller’s son, they asked, an untutored, uncouth, bigoted, small-town petit-bourgeois (who can’t even speak English) be trusted again? India’s electorate has now provided the answer. They love their Modi. The BJP-dominated alliance has 351 seats, the Congress alternative 95. Another landslide victory for the orchestrator of pogroms against Muslims. Hardly a surprise that Modi, Trump and Netanyahu share electoral affinities.

Modi’s triumph is unpalatable to the metropolitan liberal elite and many on its left. But they need to ask themselves some tough questions. In the decade before the BJP came to power, the Congress pioneered neo-liberalism under a caretaker PM, Manmohan Singh (as he waited for the Nehru-Gandhi kids to grow up and claim their inheritance); it often competed with the BJP in fanning anti-minority prejudice in Gujarat and elsewhere. India’s liberals and some on the left hold similar positions to Modi on Kashmir, class inequalities and the institutionalised discrimination against Muslims that started soon after Partition and is now worse than ever.

Many commentators have written that Modi’s electoral victory was helped by a ‘surgical’ attack on Pakistan in February after a terrorist assault in Kashmir that killed Indian soldiers and led to a surge in military-style clothes. But the India military response was a disaster: they lost a plane and targeted an empty camp. The fact is that a majority of Indian voters preferred the BJP to the national opposition. Despite economic problems and mass youth unemployment, they preferred Modi to the remnants of a crumbling dynasty.

The BJP, and its parent RSS, are now pacemakers, embedded in the heart of a modernising Indian state. And they are using all its resources to impose their ideology and punish those who do not conform. History is a crucial battleground. They have not yet burned the books of Romila Thapar, Irfan Habib or Arundhati Roy. But most mainstream publishers will be scared away from publishing critical, scholarly works on the origins and development of Hinduism, the RSS etc. This has already happened and will get much worse.

Read the full article on the LRB Blog.


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How Hinduism became a political weapon in India
Jonah Blank, Atlantic, 24 May 2019

Religions change—that’s as timeless as time. But the transformation currently under way in Hinduism is among the most significant in modern history. It has much in common with similar changes taking place in Islam, Buddhism, and Christianity: Why are so many radical Islamists poorly versed in the Koran? How can Buddhist monks sworn to nonviolence lead pogroms in Myanmar and Sri Lanka? Why do evangelical Christians care so much about issues never mentioned by Jesus, such as abortion and homosexuality? The answer is not always hypocrisy. For many today, religion is less a matter of what you believe, or even what you do, than of who you are.

The term Hindutva can be (sort of) translated as ‘Hindu-ness,’ and that gets (sort of) at what it’s all about: Hinduism not a theology, but an identity. The movement’s intellectual father, Veer Savarkar, wrote its foundational text (helpfully titled Hindutva) a century ago. At the time, the notion of a unified faith or doctrine, let alone a shared identity, would have left most Hindus simply confused: Identity was determined by a person’s family, village, caste. The very term Hindu is merely a loanword (most likely from Persian), referring to ‘the people who live across the Indus River.’ Until the 20th century, most Hindus had never felt the need to describe themselves in any comprehensive way.

It was the colonial experience that created Hindutva: Why, Savarkar and his comrades wondered, had India been dominated for centuries by a relatively small number of Muslim Mughals and Christian British? Was monotheism simply better suited for ruling? If so, what did that mean for a faith with more deities than days in the year? During the founding decades of the Hindutva movement, much effort revolved around making Hinduism more like its rivals: building a single shared identity to unite everyone for whom India was, in Savarkar’s words, ‘his Fatherland as well as his Holy-land.’ This definition conveniently roped in Sikhs (a disproportionate number of whom served in the army), Buddhists (whose spiritual cachet helped give the movement credibility), and Jains (who tended, then and now, to be quite rich).

What it pointedly did not do was dictate what this newly lumped-together group of people should believe. Indeed, very few of Hindutva’s leading lights have been holy men, or even particularly devout; Savarkar and K. B. Hedgewar (the founder of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, or RSS – the primary vehicle for Hindutva mobilization) are both described as having been atheists or agnostics. The point wasn’t doctrine, but branding.

Read the full article in the Atlantic.


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Abortion bans create a public health nightmare
Adam Rogers, Wired, 21 May 2019

Take Romania. Abortion was legal there until 1966, when Nicolae Ceausescu became president and outlawed it, along with contraception. He said he wanted to increase the number of native-born Romanians. Women were forced to get pelvic inspections at work. Police informers roamed maternity hospitals. Performing abortions was a crime.

As a result, the birth rate in Romania went up for a couple years, and then in 1970 it went into freefall. Deaths from complications resulting from attempted, illegal abortions increased to 10 times that of the rest of Europe—about 500 women a year, more than 10,000 women over two decades. The maternal mortality rate spiked to 150 women per 100,000 births. That number is insanely high. Today, when the US has the worst maternal mortality in the industrialized world, it’s only a sixth of that (except in Louisiana, where the maternal mortality rate for women over 35 years of age is a 1980s-Romania-adjacent 145.9 per 100,000 births). Also, nearly 200,000 children were put in hellish orphanages.

In December of 1989 a revolution cleared out Ceausescu’s government. The new leadership instituted an emergency public health measure to legalize abortion and contraception. The maternal mortality rate fell 50 percent in the first year.

Is this bumming you out? Here’s the converse. Amid worries about maternal mortality, Nepal legalized abortion in 2002. Over the next decade or so, 1,200 clinicians learned to provide abortions, and 500,000 women got them. The maternal mortality rate dropped from 360 to 170 per 100,000 live births, and while the number of abortion complications went up—along with total hospital admissions and total live births—the number of serious complications went down.

While pregnancy, in general, is something like 14 times as risky as a legal abortion, much of the danger in the past came from illegal abortions—often performed without a trained clinician, sometimes with dangerous methods that involve inserting objects into a woman’s uterus. When people talk about ‘back-alley’ abortions and deaths from coat hangers in the United States, that’s what they mean. Before legalization, hundreds of women died every year in the US from botched induced abortions (as opposed to ‘spontaneous abortions,’ the technical term for a miscarriage). Legalization also resulted in fewer low-weight births and pre-term births.

Read the full article in Wired.


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The European Union is an antidemocratic disgrace
Thomas Fazi, Jacobin, 23 May 2019

If there’s an opinion that everyone, across the entire political spectrum, seems to share about the upcoming European elections, it is that these will be ‘the most important elections in the history of the European Union.’ All sides pitted in battle – from the ‘eurosceptic populists’ to pro-EU elites to everyone in between, including the UK Labour Party — claim that the make-up of the next Parliament will be decisive for Europe’s future. As former Greek finance minister Yanis Varoufakis recently stated: ‘The contest for seats in the next European Parliament … will fundamentally shape the future of Europe for years to come.’

But is this really the case? Such grand claims might make sense if the EU were a fully-fledged federal state with a truly sovereign parliament — in other words, if it were truly a parliamentary democracy. Yet it is anything but. In fact, the European Parliament has very limited powers: for starters, unlike national parliaments, it doesn’t even have the power to initiate legislation. This is a power uniquely reserved for the EU’s ‘executive’ arm, the European Commission — the closest thing to a European ‘government’ — which avows itself ‘completely independent,’ promising ‘neither to seek nor to take instructions from any government or from any other institution, body, office or entity.’

This, of course, includes the European Parliament, which may only approve or reject (or propose amendments to) the Commission’s own legislative proposals. This alone sets the EU firmly apart from any meaningful democratic tradition, and casts serious doubts over the alleged importance of this weekend’s elections.

The Commission itself is by no means democratically elected. Its president and its members (informally known as the commissioners) are proposed and appointed by the European Council, which is made up of the leaders of the EU member states. Even in this case, the Parliament may only approve or reject the Council’s proposals. In 2014, a new system — the so-called Spitzenkandidat, or ‘lead candidate,’ process — was introduced, whereby prior to the European elections each major political group in the European Parliament nominates its candidate for the role of Commission president. The aim is to make the election of the Commission appear more democratic.

However, as Costas Lapavitsas notes, this ‘represents a largely cosmetic change.’ In fact, the Council is only required to ‘tak[e] into account’ the results of the European elections. Ultimately, the final word still lies with the Council, i.e., with the member states. Indeed, as reported by the BBC,’[[t]his time round, EU leaders have said the European treaties give them the sole authority to nominate someone for the role, and that they only have to nod towards the results of the European Parliament election when they make their choice.’ Thus, as has always been the case, the appointment of the Commission ‘is more likely to be the product of power-plays between countries’ rather than a true exercise of democracy. Even more worryingly, it is practically impossible for the Parliament to dismiss the Commission, as this requires two-thirds of votes cast and a majority of all MEPs.

Read the full article in Jacobin.


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Syria death notices

Inside Syria’s secret torture prisons:
How Bashar al-Assad crushed dissent
Anne Barnard, New York Times, 11 May 2019

Mr. Ghabbash, the protest organizer from Aleppo, survived torture at at least 12 facilities, making him, he says, ‘a tour guide’ to the system. His odyssey began in 2011, when he was 22. The oldest son of a government building contractor, he was inspired by peaceful protests in the Damascus suburb of Darayya to organize demonstrations in Aleppo.

He was arrested in June 2011, and released after pledging to stop protesting.

‘I didn’t stop,’ he recalled with a grin.

In August, he was arrested again — the same week that, a memo from CIJA shows, Mr. al-Assad’s top officials ordered a tougher crackdown, criticizing provincial authorities’ ‘laxness’ and calling for more arrests of ‘those who are inciting people to demonstrate.’

Mr. Ghabbash was hung up, beaten and whipped in a string of military and general intelligence facilities, he said. His captors eventually let him go with a stern recommendation given to many similar youths: Leave the country.

Even as they released Saydnaya Prison’s most radical long-term prisoners, Islamists who would later lead rebel groups, they aimed to get rid of civilian opposition. Both moves, critics say, appear to have been part of a strategy to shift the uprising to the battlefield, where Mr. al-Assad and his allies enjoyed a military advantage.

With like-minded civilians fleeing or jailed, and security forces firing on protesters, Mr. Ghabbash struggled to dissuade allies from taking up arms and playing into the government’s hands.

Soon he was arrested a third time, by Air Force intelligence in Aleppo. What struck him most was interrogators’ surreal insistence on some trappings of judicial procedure. They accused him of an apparently fictional bombing on a date before any insurgent bombs hit Aleppo. Despite having the power to charge him as they liked, they insisted that he confess.

Sometimes he was stuffed into a tire for the beatings. He would pass out, wake up naked in a freezing hallway, and then the beatings would start again. One officer put a gun into his mouth; another insisted that a woman screaming out of sight was his mother.

His account closely matches those of others held in the facility, and some described worse. One survivor, who asked to be identified only as Khalil K. to protect family still in Syria, watched a teenager take 21 days to die after interrogators doused him with fuel and set him alight.

Read the full article in the New York Times.


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Facebook while black: Users call it getting ‘Zucked,’
say talking about racism is censored as hate speech
Jessica Guynn, USA Today, 30 April 2019

A post from poet Shawn William caught her eye. ‘On the day that Trayvon would’ve turned 24, Liam Neeson is going on national talk shows trying to convince the world that he is not a racist.’ While promoting a revenge movie, the Hollywood actor confessed that decades earlier, after a female friend told him she’d been raped by a black man she could not identify, he’d roamed the streets hunting for black men to harm.

For Wysinger, an activist whose podcast The C-Dubb Show frequently explores anti-black racism, the troubling episode recalled the nation’s dark history of lynching, when charges of sexual violence against a white woman were used to justify mob murders of black men.

‘White men are so fragile,’ she fired off, sharing William’s post with her friends, ‘and the mere presence of a black person challenges every single thing in them.’

It took just 15 minutes for Facebook to delete her post for violating its community standards for hate speech. And she was warned if she posted it again, she’d be banned for 72 hours.

Wysinger glared at her phone, but wasn’t surprised. She says black people can’t talk about racism on Facebook without risking having their posts removed and being locked out of their accounts in a punishment commonly referred to as ‘Facebook jail.’ For Wysinger, the Neeson post was just another example of Facebook arbitrarily deciding that talking about racism is racist.

‘It is exhausting,’ she says, ‘and it drains you emotionally.’

Black activists say hate speech policies and content moderation systems formulated by a company built by and dominated by white men fail the very people Facebook claims it’s trying to protect. Not only are the voices of marginalized groups disproportionately stifled, Facebook rarely takes action on repeated reports of racial slurs, violent threats and harassment campaigns targeting black users, they say…

They call it getting ‘Zucked’ and black activists say these bans have serious repercussions, not just cutting people off from their friends and family for hours, days or weeks at a time, but often from the Facebook pages they operate for their small businesses and nonprofits.

Read the full article in USA Today.


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The government is quietly creating
a digital ID card without us noticing
Rowland Manthorpe, Sky News, 23 May 2019

In less than two months, the UK will become the first country in the world to bring in age checks for online porn. Anyone visiting a porn website will be required to prove they are over 18, using a variety of methods (more on which later).

Beset by poor planning and bad handling, porn block, as it is known, has been treated for the most part as a bizarre one-off, an online equivalent of Brexit. The New York Times called it ‘a distinctly British moral crusade’.

That may be true. But the porn block is anything but a one-off. It is a testing ground for a system of digital identity checks, which could become an integral part of everything from internet shopping to social media.

A crucial – yet, strangely, barely recognised – milestone in the death of anonymity online. That might sound like an exaggeration. In fact, it’s on its way to becoming government policy.

In mid-April, a few days after the launch of the government’s long-waited Online Harms white paper, the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) announced a code of practice for age-appropriate design online, proposing strong restrictions on the way under-18s are treated online.

Whereas the white paper addresses harms once they’ve happened, the code is designed to change the broken business model that produces them in the first place.

Its measures are ingenious and far-reaching. They include restricting the collection of data and limiting ‘nudge techniques’ – a move which could spell an end to ‘likes’ and ‘streaks’ on social media.

Yet the most important aspect of the code – which is currently out for consultation, but expected to come into effect before the end of the year – is not its policy proposals, but the very idea that young people can be identified and treated differently online.

Read the full article in Sky News.


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Is there a connection between
undocumented immigrants and crime?
Anna Flagg, New York Times, 13 May 2019

A lot of research has shown that there’s no causal connection between immigration and crime in the United States. But after one such study was reported on jointly by The Marshall Project and The Upshot last year, readers had one major complaint: Many argued it wasunauthorized immigrants who increase crime, not immigrants over all.

An analysis derived from new data is now able to help address this question, suggesting that growth in illegal immigration does not lead to higher local crime rates.

In part because it’s hard to collect data on them, undocumented immigrants have been the subjects of few studies, including those related to crime. But the Pew Research Center recently released estimates of undocumented populations sorted by metro area, which The Marshall Project has compared with local crime rates published by the F.B.I. For the first time, there is an opportunity for a broader analysis of how unauthorized immigration might have affected crime rates since 2007.

A large majority of the areas recorded decreases in both violent and property crime between 2007 and 2016, consistent with a quarter-century decline in crime across the United States. The analysis found that crime went down at similar rates regardless of whether the undocumented population rose or fell. Areas with more unauthorized migration appeared to have larger drops in crime, although the difference was small and uncertain

The results of the analysis resemble those of other studies on the relationship between undocumented immigration and crime. Last year, a report by the Cato Institute, a libertarian think tank, found that unauthorized immigrants in Texas committed fewer crimes than their native-born counterparts. A state-level analysis in Criminology, an academic journal, found that undocumented immigration did not increase violent crime and was in fact associated with slight decreases in it. Another Cato study found that unauthorized immigrants are less likely to be incarcerated.

At the more local level, an analysis by Governing magazine reported that metropolitan areas with more undocumented residents had similar rates of violent crime, and significantly lower rates of property crime, than areas with smaller numbers of such residents in 2014. After controlling for multiple socioeconomic factors, the author of the analysis, Mike Maciag, found that for every 1 percentage point increase in an area’s population that was undocumented there were 94 fewer property crimes per 100,000 residents.

Read the full article in the New York Times.


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Welcome to the age of ironic bigotry,
where old hatreds are cloaked in woke new language
Helen Lewis, New Statesman, 1 May 2019

The best analogue for the way ‘terf’ functions is another word which is wildly popular on social media: ‘Zionist’. Ostensibly, it’s merely the description of an ideology – and ideologies can and must be open to criticism. But, with a knowing wink, it is understood to mean ‘Jew’. In the same way, ‘shouting at women you don’t like’ is reframed as ‘legitimate criticism of transphobia’. The intended audience knows exactly what’s being said, but the speaker maintains plausible deniability.

As it happens, I told Dominique McLean that his use of ‘terf’ was a glorification of misogyny. He responded by calling me a ‘terf’. Another user added: ‘fuck off back to Mumsnet, terf’. (But I don’t even have any children to complain about there?) The ensuing wave of abuse included an image of an anime character pointing a gun at the screen, with the words ‘shut the fuck up, terf’. Twitter ruled that post did not violate its abuse guidelines, and neither did McLean’s video. (It relented after I went public.)

I wrote about GamerGate in 2014. Everything I received for calling out McLean was identical to the vitriol I got then, just with a new epithet meaning ‘woman’ attached to it. ‘Shut up, bitch’ is now ‘shut up, terf’.

Misogyny mutates. The creation of ‘terf’ has been a boon to sexists everywhere. It looks woke: you’re against transphobia! It can be defended as a neutral ideological description: it’s just an acronym! And it evades social media guidelines which forbid attacks on protected minorities: ‘terf’ doesn’t mean woman, duh! Even better, it is isolating. Who wants to complain about it, and risk being called a terf themselves?

A former quiz show champion called Arthur Chu used his opposition to GamerGate to launch a career opposing geek misogyny. For $1,500, e-speakers will set you up with a keynote by Chu to give your company ‘a vocabulary for describing the sexist attitudes baked into our popular culture’. Looking at McLean’s video, though, Chu could see no issue: ‘Yeah, the optics would’ve been better if he’d been playing a female character when he made the clip,’ he tweeted. ‘But I’m not going to tell the 2018 e-sports player and furry queer icon of the year to change up his main [account] to appease terfs.’ Well said. The guy is rich and famous. He wears a fur suit in public. No way should a bunch of whiny old harpies be allowed to question his online behaviour.

So this is where we are. The people who were opponents of GamerGate five years ago are now proponents of its successor. The language is different, but the impetus remains the same. Women are talking, and we don’t like what they are saying. So they should shut the fuck up – or else.

Read the full article in the New Statesman.


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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 Magazine.


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China’s algorithms of repression
Human Rights Watch, 1 May 2019

Human Rights Watch finds that officials use the IJOP app to fulfill three broad functions: collecting personal information, reporting on activities or circumstances deemed suspicious, and prompting investigations of people the system flags as problematic.

Analysis of the IJOP app reveals that authorities are collecting massive amounts of personal information—from the color of a person’s car to their height down to the precise centimeter—and feeding it into the IJOP central system, linking that data to the person’s national identification card number. Our analysis also shows that Xinjiang authorities consider many forms of lawful, everyday, non-violent behavior—such as ‘not socializing with neighbors, often avoiding using the front door’—as suspicious. The app also labels the use of 51 network tools as suspicious, including many Virtual Private Networks (VPNs) and encrypted communication tools, such as WhatsApp and Viber.

The IJOP app demonstrates that Chinese authorities consider certain peaceful religious activities as suspicious, such as donating to mosques or preaching the Quran without authorization. But most of the other behavior the app considers problematic are ethnic-and religion-neutral. Our findings suggest the IJOP system surveils and collects data on everyone in Xinjiang. The system is tracking the movement of people by monitoring the ‘trajectory’ and location data of their phones, ID cards, and vehicles; it is also monitoring the use of electricity and gas stations of everybody in the region. This is consistent with Xinjiang local government statements that emphasize officials must collect data for the IJOP system in a ‘comprehensive manner’ from ‘everyone in every household.’

When the IJOP system detects irregularities or deviations from what it considers normal, such as when people are using a phone that is not registered to them, when they use more electricity than ‘normal,’ or when they leave the area in which they are registered to live without police permission, the system flags these ‘micro-clues’ to the authorities as suspicious and prompts an investigation.

Read the full Human Rights Watch report.


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Viktor Orbán’s war on intellect
Franklin Foer, Atlantic, June 2019

CEU is a private university, accredited in both the United States and Hungary, and for that reason it has posed a particular challenge to the regime. The school was founded by the Budapest-born financier George Soros, whom Orbán has vilified as a nefarious interloper in Hungary’s affairs. Soros had conceived the school during the dying days of communism to train a generation of technocrats who would write new constitutions, privatize state enterprises, and lead the post-Soviet world into a cosmopolitan future. The university, he declared, would ‘become a prototype of an open society.’

But open society is exactly what Orbán hopes to roll back; illiberal democracy is the euphemism he uses to describe the state he is building. The prime minister and his allies did their best to make life unpleasant for CEU. Then, in April 2017, Parliament passed a law setting conditions that threatened to render CEU’s continued presence in the country illegal. All of Ignatieff’s hopes of settling into a placid academic life dissipated. Eighty thousand protesters filled the streets.

The effort to evict CEU rattled liberals across the world. Academic freedom—a bloodless term, but a concept at the core of all that the West professes to treasure—seemed to be slipping away in a country where it had looked firmly established. Universities rushed to declare their solidarity; 17 Nobel Prize winners signed a letter of support. Even the United States, run by a president who is no fan of George Soros, offered to help the university.

And so, for much of the past two years, CEU has been the barricades of a civilizational struggle, where liberalism would mount a defense against right-wing populism. The fate of the university was a test of whether liberalism had the tactical savvy and emotional fortitude to beat back its new ideological foe.

Read the full article in the Atlantic.


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We don’t need to ‘pause’ police use of face recognition
– we need to ban it forever
Dell Cameron, Gizmodo, 22 May 2019

These arguments leave at least some wiggle room for lawmakers to entertain the notion that there’s a future in which an artificial intelligence designed for police use scans the faces of Americans whenever they leave their homes. It’s a vision of a police state that’s ‘good,’ in that the police themselves are ethical and just because they’re held accountable by rules and regulations; a future in which police procedures are open and transparent, and defendants always get the full story about how they came under suspicion in the first place.

Ultimately, this is an absurd fantasy that ignores what is common knowledge about the history of abuses by U.S. law enforcement agencies over the relevant last half-century. In the last two years alone, an investigation by the Associated Press uncovered that police officers across the country had misused law enforcement databases ‘to get information on romantic partners, business associates, neighbors, journalists and others for reasons that have nothing to do with daily police work…’ The realization of this outspread abuse by police did not prompt Congress to take action. It did not even dissuade the type of police stalking that the reporters exposed.

A Florida police officer, it was reported this March, made ‘several hundred questionable database queries of women,’ authorities said. At least 150 women were targeted. Employees at federal agencies whose work is highly classified were also found guilty of this behavior. A 2013 report by the National Security Agency’s Office of Inspector General, for example, detailed how one NSA employee – on his first day of work – ‘queried six e-mail addresses belonging to a former girlfriend, a U.S. person, without authorization.’

In each of these cases, there were already regulations on the books to prohibit the kind of abuse committed. They simply had no effect.

Read the full article in Gizmodo.


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San Francisco had an ambitious plan
to tackle school segregation. It made it worse.
Dana Goldstein, New York Times, 25 April 2019

For decades, the education mantra from presidential campaign trails to local school board elections has been the same: Your ZIP code should not determine the quality of your school. Few cities have gone further in trying to make that ideal a reality than San Francisco.

But as education leaders from New York to Dallas to San Antonio vow to integrate schools, and as presidential candidates like Joseph R. Biden Jr. are being asked to answer for their records on school segregation, San Francisco’s ambitious plan offers a cautionary tale.

Parental choice has not been the leveler of educational opportunity it was made out to be. Affluent parents are able to take advantage of the system in ways low-income parents cannot, or they opt out of public schools altogether. What happened in San Francisco suggests that without remedies like wide-scale busing, or school zones drawn deliberately to integrate, school desegregation will remain out of reach.

After families submit their kindergarten applications, ranking as many school choices as they like across the city, a computer algorithm makes assignments. Those from neighborhoods where students have scored low on state tests get first dibs at their top-ranked programs. Each child gets an address-based priority at one school, but it is considered only after those with test-score priority are offered seats.

The district had previously used busing to try to desegregate schools, under a 1983 agreement with the N.A.A.C.P. But a group of Chinese-American families sued in the 1990s, saying their children were being denied seats at elite campuses. The city settled the case by devising a choice-based enrollment process meant to be race-neutral but still achieve integration.

Research shows that desegregation can drive learning gains for students of all races. And on paper, San Francisco’s system showed promise. In recent years, it succeeded in breaking up racial concentrations at a handful of schools.

But over all, many parents and city leaders consider it a disappointment. The district’s schools were more racially segregated in 2015 than they were in 1990, even though the city’s neighborhoods have become more integrated, research shows. That pattern holds true in many of the nation’s largest cities, according to an analysis by Ryan W. Coughlan, an assistant professor of sociology at Guttman Community College in New York.

Read the full article in the New York Times.


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Eighteenth century Syriac Gospel

The impossible future of Christians in the Middle East
Emma Green, Atlantic, 23 May 2019

The precarious state of Christianity in Iraq is tragic on its own terms. The world may soon witness the permanent displacement of an ancient religion, and an ancient people. Those indigenous to this area share more than faith: They call themselves Suraye and claim a connection to the ancient peoples who inhabited this land long before the birth of Christ.

But the fate of Christianity in places like the Nineveh Plain has a geopolitical significance as well. Religious minorities test a country’s tolerance for pluralism; a healthy liberal democracy protects vulnerable groups and allows them to participate freely in society. Whether Christians can survive, and thrive, in Muslim-majority countries is a crucial indicator of whether democracy, too, is viable in those places. In Iraq, the outlook is grim, as it is in other nations in the region that are home to historic Christian populations, including Egypt, Syria, and Turkey. Christians who live in these places are subject to discrimination, government-sanctioned intimidation, and routine violence…

Since the U.S. invasion of Iraq, regional powers have vied to determine the country’s fate, and nearly all of them have laid claim to the Nineveh Plain. To the north is Kurdistan, a semiautonomous zone controlled by the country’s Kurdish ethnic minority. To the south is territory governed by Baghdad, which aggressively contests Kurdish autonomy. In the fall of 2017, around the time Christian families began returning to their homes, Kurds passed a referendum declaring total independence from Iraq. Baghdad retaliated, banning international flights from Kurdistan’s airports and moving to capture some of the ambiguous territory between the two regions, including portions of the Nineveh Plain. This has left some Christians stranded: In one town, Batnaya, people who had hoped to rebuild their homes after ISIS’s defeat had to leave again to avoid the new fighting.

The east-west axis is no less fraught. To the west lies Syria, where, until recently, the last strongholds of ISIS remained. To the east lies Iran, which continually works to expand its influence on its longtime neighbor and frequent rival, and to support the interests of Iraq’s Shiite majority. Shiite-affiliated groups have been gaining influence in the Nineveh Plain in recent years, as Iran has allegedly taken an interest in the area as a strategic foothold in the corridor that runs through Erbil and Mosul to Syria. This has left Christians fearful that their homeland is becoming a prime target in Iran’s efforts to become the dominant power in the Middle East. In May, the U.S. State Department ordered the evacuation of all nonessential personnel from the embassy in Baghdad—and the consulate in Erbil—based on fears of possible attacks from Iran.

Read the full article in the Atlantic.


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Can doctors refuse to treat a patient?
Sandeep Jauhar, New York Times, 13 May 2019

But refusing to treat a patient on the basis of conscience, which the Trump administration is defending, is more problematic. Federal legislation already permits doctors to opt out of care that is incompatible with their religious or moral beliefs. Gynecologists, for example, may refuse to perform abortions on those grounds. The new rule, however, is written more broadly, and more specifically itemizes religious exemptions, including which health care workers are covered and what particular situations might arise.

However, the American Medical Association has stated that such rights should not ‘unduly burden’ patients or infringe on their civil liberties. And because doctors control the provision of medical care, this can easily happen. Conscientious objection by doctors necessarily limits a patient’s own right to self-determination. Of course, patients can be directed to find a doctor to do their bidding, but this can lead to potentially dangerous delays, especially in resource-poor areas.

Conscientious objection can also promote outright discrimination.

Christian medical associations, for example, have argued that providing treatment to transgender individuals can constitute ‘cooperation with evil.’ In some cases conscientious objection may be motivated by rank prejudice as opposed to religious conscience — a distinction that can be hard to parse in practice.

Doctors have an obligation to adhere to the norms of their profession. In my view, as long as treatments are safe and approved by medical organizations, doctors should have limited leeway in refusing to provide them. Patients’ needs should come first. At the very least, patients whose medical needs violate a doctor’s deeply considered beliefs should receive a timely referral to an alternative provider. And to avoid such conflicts, medical students who foresee problems of conscience should steer clear of certain fields, such as obstetrics-gynecology, when making career choices. Broad conscientious objection of the sort the Trump administration is defending could lead to chaos in health care.

Read the full article in the New York Times.


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The hunt for a CRISPR antidote just heated up
Shelly Fan, Singularity Hub, 15 May 2019

Just half a decade after CRISPR’s discovery, DARPA initiated the Safe Genes program: a collaboration between seven of the world’s leading gene editing experts to find multiple antidotes for CRISPR and better its editing specificity in time and space.

The point isn’t to fuel public fear of the powerful tool; rather, it’s to look far ahead at potential dangers and find preventive treatments or countermeasures. If CRISPR is the biological Pandora’s Box, it’s already been opened: in the clinics, CRISPR has entered human trials; in the lab, the technology is forged into gene drives, with the potential to wipe out entire species. The goal of the Safe Genes program is to find a way—or many ways—to slam that box shut again.

Last week, the search for a CRISPR antidote got more heated. A team led by Dr. Amit Choudhary at the Broad Institute of MIT, a member of Safe Genes, developed a ‘screening’ platform for rapidly sifting through over 10,0000 small chemicals that dial down Cas9 scissors’ activity.

The team tweaked the structure of several promising candidates to further boost their anti-CRISPR power, generating two antidote molecules that prevent Cas9 from binding to and cutting its DNA target. When tested on human cells in petri dishes, the molecules floated through the cell membranes and reliably killed CRISPR activity within minutes.

These drugs are very early candidates—heck, they may be even more toxic than CRISPR running amok inside the body. Scientists will have to test them in animals to further assess their effectiveness and safety.

But the small anti-CRISPR drugs, some of our very first, offer proof-of-concept that the CRISPR titan can be stopped. With a drug screening platform now in place, the scene is set to find even more powerful ‘undo’ buttons: chemicals that may one day turn into shots or pills to block unwanted gene editing activity, in medicine and perhaps bio-weaponry (now that’s a scary thought!).

‘These results lay the foundation for precise chemical control over CRISPR-Cas9 activities, enabling the safe use of such technologies,’ said Choudhary.

Read the full article on Singularity Hub.


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How the fight for religious freedom
has fallen victim to the culture wars
Tom Gjelten, NPR, 23 May 2019

In the years since, however, the religious freedom cause has been politicized, with conservatives claiming it for their purposes and liberals shying away from it for reasons of their own.

When liberals started pushing for expanded protections for the LGBT population, conservatives grew alarmed, arguing that practices such as same-sex weddings go against biblical teaching. They’ve argued that religious freedom should mean they can’t be forced to accommodate something they don’t believe in. Liberals portrayed that stance simply as discriminatory and argued it should be illegal.

Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, made the issue a major theme of his campaign when he ran for the 2016 Republican presidential nomination.

‘We’re a nation that was founded on religious liberty,’ Cruz told an interviewer, ‘and the liberal intolerance we see trying to persecute those who as a matter of faith follow a biblical definition of marriage is fundamentally wrong.’

When the conservative Heritage Foundation celebrated the 25th anniversary of the RFRA passage earlier this year, the organization’s president, Kay Cole James, blamed ‘the left’ for the erosion of the original consensus.

‘I wish we could get that kind of bipartisan support today,’ she said. ‘The political left has actively worked to undercut our freedoms.’

As conservatives focused the religious freedom debate narrowly around issues of sexuality and marriage, progressives doubled down on the promotion of LGBT rights. The Democrat-controlled House this month approved the ’Equality Act,’ which would prohibit virtually all discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity. One provision actually singles out the RFRA law, prohibiting its use as a defense against discrimination allegations.

Rep. Nadler, having originally been a RFRA backer, co-sponsored the new ‘Equality’ legislation as chairman of the House Judiciary Committee.

‘Religion is no excuse for discrimination in the public sphere, as we have long recognized when it comes to race, color, sex, and national origin,’ Nadler argued in a committee markup hearing, ‘and it should not be an excuse when it comes to sexual orientation or gender identity.’

Read the full article on NPR.


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Hannah Arendt’s ethics
John Douglas Macready,
Contemporary Political Theory, 8 May 2019

Hannah Arendt’s Ethics is a view of Arendt from the other side of a great abyss separating the analytic and continental traditions in philosophy. Bridging this divide in philosophy is a challenging task that requires an appreciation of the value and potential of both traditions. For this reason, it is important to remember that Arendt was a continental theorist whose intellectual roots were nourished by the streams of phenomenology, hermeneutics, and existentialism that emerged in Kant and meandered through Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, Heidegger, Jaspers, Merleau-Ponty, and Camus. She was an imaginative thinker who engaged in thought exercises about human experience by reflecting on ideas generated at the intersection of literature, politics, and philosophy. Her great value as a modern political theorist was that she was a creator of signposts not maps: in Arendt there are no maps, there are only ciphers. This is especially true of her approach to ethics, which cannot be separated from her political theory any more than Aristotle’s ethics can be separated from his politics. Arendt’s ethical concerns are less about crafting precise arguments that are logically valid and more about rethinking the conditions for the possibility of ethics. Arendt would remind us of Aristotle’s claim in the Nicomachean Ethics that ethics is necessarily imprecise and requires aesthetic rather than calculative judgment. Regrettably, Mahony’s evaluation of Arendt’s moral theory seeks maps where there were only ciphers. Arendt was engaged in a counter-move to Anglo-American ethics in a way similar to Jackson Pollock’s counter-move to realism. Evaluating Arendt’s ethical claims from an analytic perspective without sufficiently appreciating the continental trajectories in her thought is akin evaluating Pollock’s ‘Untitled (Green and Silver), 1949’ using the principles of realism; it simply misses the point of the endeavor.

Read the full article in Contemporary Political Theory.


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Pieter Bruegel the Elder: <i>The Triumph of Death</i>, 1562–1563

In love with multiplicity
Joseph Leo Koerner,
New York Review of Books, 23 May 2019

Seeing these paintings together was a revelation. Gigantic vistas with mighty rivers winding through them to the sea, they each capture differently their time of year as the vast, fluctuating envelope of air, water, and light in which all life, human and natural, precariously coexists. Colossal rock formations (conjured from the artist’s youthful journey across the Alps) set the represented time of day and of year against a vast geological scale. Each is plausibly the greatest painting ever made: Hunters in the Snow, with its pellucid distances and abstract planes of white;1 the subdued but radiant Return of the Herd, in which approaching winter, night, and death dwarf the close promise of home; Haymaking—the beautiful visitor from Prague—in which Earth yields fruits with almost comical abundance and the vast horizon is a promise, not a terror.

Bruegel, born between 1525 and 1530, began his career as an imitator of Hieronymus Bosch (circa 1450–1516). One of his first engravings (an allegorical social satire of big fish eating little fish) names that older master as the ‘inventor,’ probably to boost sales. Even when he does not paint monsters and demons, Bruegel draws deeply on Bosch for his bird’s-eye views, his huge, steep, perspectival ground planes teeming with strange figures, and his thin, translucent painting style. In the Vienna panels, Bruegel populates Boschian expanses not with devils or the damned but with villagers and children. His interest lies in the enigma of the human rather than in the machinations of some diabolical foe. The exhibition brought together Bruegel’s two most Bosch-like panels: the comical Dulle Griet (named after a giant virago of Netherlandish folklore who plunders hell with her army of housewives) and The Triumph of Death—the former of Spanish, the latter of Austrian Habsburg provenance. But even as he evokes the infernos of his Early Netherlandish predecessor, Bruegel also demonstrates his astonishingly contemporary sensibility. Long attributed to Bosch, The Triumph of Death shows something more terrifying than any of Bosch’s fantasies: mass murder on a new scale—entire systems built to slaughter, but neither God nor Satan to explain why—as was occurring in the religious wars and imperial conquests of the time.

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


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Thousands of Bengali women must prove their Indian citizenship or face statelessness. Most can’t.
Sarita Santoshini, PRI, 8 May 2019

Every night, Fatima Begum leaves her brick-and-bamboo home located near a tributary of the Brahmaputra River in India’s northeastern Assam state to seek refuge with neighbors. In the morning, she returns home to her family, but spends the day watching for unexpected guests, ready to flee.

As a Bengali Muslim living in Assam, which shares a border with Bangladesh, Begum is among thousands accused of foreigner status after the government established 100 foreigners’ tribunals and a specialized border police force tasked with identifying ‘illegal immigrants.’

In 2010, local authorities began to suspect Begum of being a ‘doubtful voter,’ or D-voter, and asked to provide citizenship documents. Over two years later, a government tribunal declared her a ‘foreigner.’

Since then, she has lived in constant fear of detention. Her name has been changed to protect her identity.

‘I am always tense and worried. It will be better if I die,’ she said. Her husband and grown children remain supportive and so do her neighbors, but all feel helpless in Begum’s case.

Begum, a mother of seven, does not know her exact age or birth year but says she was born in a village in Assam. She married as a teen and never went to school; she cannot read or write. She has moved several times in the last 25 years. She speaks Bengali instead of Assamese, the language claimed by the state as integral to its identity. Many women living in chars, or river islands, spread across 2,300 villages, in rural parts of Assam, share similar backgrounds.

After being declared a foreigner in 2013, Begum began to present herself at the local police station almost every month, risking her life to swim across the river during heavy rains and floods. She says police officers have asked her for bribes and estimates having spent a total of more than $2,200 in her case so far  — a large sum for the family that relies on fishing and wage labor for its income.

Assam has about 120,000 so-called D-voters, those who are suspected of foreigner status which bars them from their electoral rights. Begum is among almost 92,000 people officially declared as foreigners in the state as of 2018.

Read the full article in PRI.


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‘They will remember us’: The miners of Black Harlan
Radcliffe Roye, NYR Daily, 3 May 2019

In the Depression years, between 1931 and 1939, the Harlan County War, also known as ‘Bloody Harlan,’ saw significant and violent battles between the miners and the United Mine Workers union on one side, and coal firms and law enforcement on the other. In the boom years that followed, just over half of the miners were black, according to Bennie Massie, who worked in the mines for decades.

The miners’ bath houses were segregated, but otherwise miners of all races worked together and depended on one another. The United Mine Workers promised better wages, benefits, and working conditions. The union established equal pay between black and white miners, and abolished payment in the form of scrips, which could only be redeemed at the US Steel-owned commissary—the notorious ‘company store’ that turned miners into little more than indentured laborers—in favor of regular pay checks.

But the coal firms put all their resources into union busting. And by the late Nineties, the power of the union was mostly broken up, Massie said, thanks to the modernization of the mining industry, the advent of new technology, and alternative energy sources. There are still a handful of miners in the Lynch area, but according to those I spoke to, not one is black anymore.

The decline of the industry has entailed an exodus from town, with many people leaving Lynch to move north to Indianapolis, Detroit, and Cleveland for better opportunities. Today, many of Lynch’s remaining black residents are retired. The average age of the town is about sixty-five, by my estimation, and I was told that most young people leave directly after high school, either for jobs or to attend college.

The black former miners are troubled that no one knows their stories. The nation’s news media, and even the publishers of literary memoirs, feed the myth that the forgotten people of Appalachia are essentially hardscrabble white folks. This can be used as an explanation for Trump-supporting racism and destructive ‘white trash’ stereotypes. It also erases the truth of the historical black presence in Appalachia.

Read the full article in NYR Daily.


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The forgotten world
Yvonne Singh, Adda, April 2019

What is shocking, given the extent of the involvement of Highland Scots in the history of Guyana, is the way their role has been airbrushed from history. Not many  Scottish people would have a clue where Guyana is or of its importance to their own nation’s industrial growth.

In 2014, a group of writers were asked to contribute poems reflecting on Scotland and slavery to a collection entitled Yonder Awa, edited by Louise Welsh ― the phrase is from Walter Scott’s 1817 novel Rob Roy and is uttered by the slave merchant Nicol Jarvie on explaining the origin of the limes in his punch: ‘“[They] were from his own little farm yonder-awa.” (indicating the West Indies with a knowing shrug of his shoulders)’.

The poet Malika Booker, who is of both Guyanese and Grenadian heritage, writes of collective amnesia:

So it was that the rum came to be from yonder awa awa, and the black ants lifting heavy load in that heathen land became yonder awa awa. Til your memory grew awa awa … and the land had broad back – you forget, and the land dash you awa – you forget … look how you can’t run awa awa from the truth.

The black Scottish poet and novelist Jackie Kay, writing in The Guardian in 2007, said: ‘Scotland is a canny wee nation when it comes to remembering and forgetting. The plantation owner is never wearing a kilt.’

There has been a wilful obfuscation of the truth: Scots have been portrayed as abolitionists, reformers and liberal champions, and so David Livingstone is remembered fondly as is Scotland’s role in abolition, while the slave-owning firms of Sandbach Tinné, John Gladstone, HD and JE Baillie, CW&F Shand, Reid Irving and others, with their cruel, exploitative trade, are referred to euphemistically as ‘West Indian merchants’.

Unlike in Liverpool, Bristol or London, there is little acknowledgement of public buildings funded by the slave trade in Glasgow. Buchanan Street, Glassford Street and Ingram Street are named after notorious slavers, but there is no mention of this in the city’s history. Similarly, Jamaica Street, Tobago Street and Kingston Bridge simply exist, the story of how they came to be unacknowledged. Even stark imagery like the St Andrew’s Cross in the Jamaican flag is a connection left unexplored.

Read the full article in Adda.


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Thomas Paine and the French Revolution
Harry T Dickinson, Reviews in History, 30 April 2019

Dr Lounissi insists that Paine was a serious political thinker, who offered practical solutions to concrete problems and challenged received interpretations of political concepts in works aimed at educated as well as less educated readers. Over the decade he spent in France, Paine engaged in the most important political debates sparked off by the rapidly changing power struggles of these revolutionary years. Although he never wrote a history of the French Revolution, a task he sometimes contemplated undertaking, he did consistently describe the political changes occurring in France, often tried to justify these developments, and even tried to influence them. From the beginning he tried to explain the causes and nature of rapidly changing events, both in his correspondence and in his Rights of Man. Dr Lounissi compares Paine’s views of the early stages of the French revolution with those advanced by other non-French writers, such as Edmund Burke and James Mackintosh. She stresses the role Paine accorded to individuals, to the influence of enlightened thinkers and the American Revolution, and to the impact of public opinion. Paine was convinced that the principle of monarchical government was undermined long before France became a republic. His account of the early dramatic events of the French Revolution were often inaccurate, because he was in England when they occurred, and he wrote as a polemicist not as an impartial historian. He played down the violence of these years and claimed that the supporters of revolution were motivated more by cool reason than violent passions. He was also ignorant of the economic factors influencing the early stages of the French Revolution, though he did recognize that a popular revolution was driven forward by the fear of a monarchical counter revolution.

Paine did not become directly involved in the French Revolution until June 1791, when Louis XVI’s flight to Varennes led him to call for the abolition of the monarchy in the contributions he made to Le Républicain in 1791 and La Chronique du mois in 1792. He was in England from July 1791 to September 1792 and had to submit his articles from there and without first-hand knowledge of political developments in Paris. Shortly before his return to France he was granted French citizenship and was promptly elected to the Convention for the Pas de Calais. Paine served on the committee chosen by the Convention to draft a new French constitution, but there is no surviving evidence of any contribution that he made to these discussions. In journal articles and in speeches delivered for him in the Convention, however, he continued his attacks on monarchy and supported the creation of a French republic. These contributions were generally well received, but more controversial were Paine’s views on the trial of Louis XVI and the punishment to inflict upon him. He was convinced that the king should be found guilty, but he opposed his execution, preferring to see him imprisoned and then banished when peace was achieved with the enemies of revolutionary France.

Read the full article in Reviews in History.


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How quantum mechanics puts the ‘real’ in reality
Dan Falk, Undark, 24 May 2019

One day, Albert Einstein was walking in Princeton with his biographer and fellow physicist Abraham Pais. At one point, Einstein turned to Pais and asked: ‘Do you really believe the moon is not there when you are not looking at it?’

To the layperson, the question is absurd; of course the moon is still there. But then one reads a bit of quantum mechanics, and suddenly the answer is less clear.

Quantum mechanics, now just over 100 years old, describes the universe very differently from so-called classical physics (the physics of Isaac Newton). In classical physics, particles have clearly defined positions and speeds. If you measure an object’s location and speed, you can predict where it will be in the future. In quantum mechanics, however, all we can do is calculate the probability of getting some particular result when we make a measurement (of a particle’s position or speed, or some other property).

Those probabilities are governed by an abstract mathematical entity known as the wave function. Before the measurement is made, the system can be in many states at once — think of Schrödinger’s poor cat, alive and dead at the same time. When a measurement is carried out, the wave function is said to ‘collapse,’ and just one of the various states that might have been becomes real.

And so, quantum mechanics appears to place a special emphasis on the act of observation — and thus, perhaps, on the human beings who carry out the observations. This is in stark contrast to earlier theories, which attempted to describe the universe ‘as it really is’ — to show how its various parts move about, whether humans are there to observe the results or not. Now you see why Einstein brought up the moon: Surely the act of observation can’t matter; presumably the universe is what it is, whether we’re looking at it or not … right?

Einstein certainly hoped so, and so does Lee Smolin, the author of ‘Einstein’s Unfinished Revolution: The Search for What Lies Beyond the Quantum.’ Smolin is an American physicist based at the Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics in Waterloo, Ontario; his previous books include ‘Three Roads to Quantum Gravity,’ ‘The Trouble with Physics’ and ‘Time Reborn.’’

In his latest book, Smolin’s admiration for Einstein shines through; it was Einstein’s later philosophical writings that inspired him to pursue a career in theoretical physics. And like Einstein, he takes the position that philosophers call ‘realist.’ As he writes, ‘The reality that we realists seek is the world as it is, or would be, in our absence.’

Read the full article in Undark.


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A history of the influencer
from Shakespeare to Instagram
Laurence Scott, New Yorker, 21 April 2019

Connectivity is the basis for the heightened role that influence now plays in our lives. Digital technologies soften the borders between people and create a porousness upon which influence depends. In a fairly undisguised etymology, the word ‘influence’ comes from the Latin for ‘inflow,’ which provides an image of the way that, every second, our thoughts now stream into one another’s pockets. The same image evokes our anxieties about hostile foreign states penetrating our defenses. Influence is a challenge to sovereignty, both political and personal; to admit to being influenced is to give up the attractive idea that, as individuals or societies, we are entirely self-contained.

The elusive quality of influence—the difficulty we encounter when we try to identify its sources or measure its effects—is equally destabilizing. Influence works best when it’s wielded obscurely, in the shadows and behind the scenes, and this has clear social consequences for a society engaged in building a digital-influence economy. Based on the available evidence, it seems that we can’t construct an influence economy without stoking a culture of skepticism and paranoia.The fear of being influenced affects our sense of reality and our ability to trust our own judgments about what is true. Election hackers and commercial influencers have wildly different aims, but both contribute to the unreal, distrustful tenor of our times, in which a language of fakery, deception, and inauthenticity has become fundamental to how we interpret the world.

Influence was worrisome long before it was digital. The word ‘influence’ appears in a quarter of William Shakespeare’s plays, in which the condition of being influenced is rarely happy or dignified. Almost without exception, Shakespeare gives influence a darkly astrological cast. In ‘Measure for Measure,’ Vincentio argues that it’s misguided to fear death, since human life is so inescapably ‘servile to all the skyey influences’ that ‘hourly afflict’ this earth. Influential mortals, meanwhile, often mock those who are susceptible to influence. Parolles, the vulgar, unreliable soldier in ‘All’s Well that Ends Well,’ encourages the young Count Bertram to exploit his position in the court, which is populated, Parolles says, by those who ‘eat, speak, and move, under the influence of the most receiv’d star.’ (Today, as we know, the word ‘star’ still describes someone who possesses extraordinary influence.)

Read the full article in the New Yorker.

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The images are, from top down: Memos sent to Syria’s head of military intelligence reporting the deaths of detainees in custody (Credit: Commission for International Justice and Accountability/ New York Times); DNA graphic by Thomas Porostocky; page from an 18th century Syriac Gospel; ‘The Triumph of Death’ byPieter Bruegel the Elder.