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.
He was arrested at 13.
Now Saudi Arabia wants to execute him
Muhammad Darwish, Tamara Qiblawi & Ghazi Balkiz,
CNN, June 2019
Foot on pedal, 10-year-old Murtaja Qureiris is about to lead the group of around 30 children. In video footage obtained by CNN, he is wearing rolled up denim jeans and black flip-flops on his feet, and grinning at the camera recording the event. It may look like a regular bike ride, but the group is staging a protest.
Moments after they set off, Qureiris gets lost in the sea of boys, struggling to keep up as he lifts a megaphone and presses it against his lips. ‘The people demand human rights!’ he shouts.
As a boy, Qureiris participated in demonstrations like this bike ride, expressions of dissent in Saudi Arabia’s Eastern Province during the 2011 Arab Spring.
Three years after he was filmed taking part in the bike protest, Saudi authorities arrested Qureiris, then just 13 years old. He was traveling with his family to Bahrain when he was detained by Saudi border authorities on the King Fahd causeway that connects the two countries.
At the time, he was considered by lawyers and activists to be the youngest known political prisoner in Saudi Arabia.
Now, at the age of 18, Qureiris is facing the death penalty after being held for almost four years in pre-trial detention, CNN has learned.
In April, Saudi Arabia announced it had executed 37 men who, according to rights group Reprieve, were mostly from the kingdom’s Shia minority. The country has one of the highest rates of execution in the world, and has frequently been criticized by rights groups for executing people who were minors at the time of the commission of crimes.
Qureiris was 10 years old when he committed at least one of those alleged crimes in his charge sheet, CNN has learned. He was charged with accompanying his activist brother, Ali Qureris, on a motorcycle ride to a police station in the eastern Saudi city of Awamiya, where Ali allegedly threw Molotov cocktails at the facility.
Read the full article on CNN.
Can tracking people through
phone-call data improve lives?
Amy Maxmen, Nature, 29 May 2019
After an earthquake tore through Haiti in 2010, killing more than 100,000 people, aid agencies spread across the country to work out where the survivors had fled. But Linus Bengtsson, a graduate student studying global health at the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm, thought he could answer the question from afar. Many Haitians would be using their mobile phones, he reasoned, and those calls would pass through phone towers, which could allow researchers to approximate people’s locations. Bengtsson persuaded Digicel, the biggest phone company in Haiti, to share data from millions of call records from before and after the quake. Digicel replaced the names and phone numbers of callers with random numbers to protect their privacy.
Bengtsson’s idea worked. The analysis wasn’t completed or verified quickly enough to help people in Haiti at the time, but in 2012, he and his collaborators reported that the population of Haiti’s capital, Port-au-Prince, dipped by almost one-quarter soon after the quake, and slowly rose over the next 11 months1. That result aligned with an intensive, on-the-ground survey conducted by the United Nations.
Humanitarians and researchers were thrilled. Telecommunications companies scrutinize call-detail records to learn about customers’ locations and phone habits and improve their services. Researchers suddenly realized that this sort of information might help them to improve lives. Even basic population statistics are murky in low-income countries where expensive household surveys are infrequent, and where many people don’t have smartphones, credit cards and other technologies that leave behind a digital trail, making remote-tracking methods used in richer countries too patchy to be useful.
Since the earthquake, scientists working under the rubric of ‘data for good’ have analysed calls from tens of millions of phone owners in Pakistan, Bangladesh, Kenya and at least two dozen other low- and middle-income nations. Humanitarian groups say that they’ve used the results to deliver aid. And researchers have combined call records with other information to try to predict how infectious diseases travel, and to pinpoint locations of poverty, social isolation, violence and more (see ‘Phone calls for good’)…
Yet as data-for-good projects gain traction, some researchers are asking whether they benefit society enough to outweigh their potential for misuse. That question is complicated to answer. Aid agencies are secretive about the details of their projects. The GSMA celebrates some data-for-good analyses as weapons against epidemics and disasters, but rarely points to peer-reviewed research to support the claims. And in the fields of public health, computer and social science, a decade of published call-record studies have yet to notably assist the communities they track.
Meanwhile, concerns are rising over the lack of consent involved; the potential for breaches of privacy, even from anonymized data sets; and the possibility of misuse by commercial or government entities interested in surveillance.
Read the full article in Nature.
California’s vaccination rate slips
as medical exemptions rise
Joanna Pearlstein, Wired, 7 June 2019
Four years ago, following a measles outbreak in Southern California that began at Disneyland, California passed Senate Bill 277, a law that eliminated parents’ ability to opt out of mandated vaccinations for their kids based on personal beliefs. At first, the law seemed to be working. When it was passed, 2.4 percent of kindergartners in California weren’t vaccinated because of a personal belief exemption; today, that figure is zero.
But children can also skip vaccinations if they receive a permanent or temporary medical exemption from a doctor; these are typically given to children who have health conditions, like immune system disorders, that contra-indicate vaccination. Five years ago, just 0.2 percent of California students received a permanent medical exemption, while 2.5 percent claimed a personal belief exemption, or PBE. Since the PBE’s elimination, permanent medical exemption (PME) rates have begun to climb, from 0.7 percent to 0.9 percent for the past year.
California Department of Public Health data suggests that communities in which PBEs were popular in the past may now be obtaining PMEs. As Barbara Feder Ostrov reported in Kaiser Health News earlier this spring, many schools that previously claimed the highest PBE rates now have high PME rates.
New data released this week backs up this analysis. The California schools with the highest exemption rates today—we’re talking rates of 40, 50, even 64 percent of a group of a few dozen kindergartners—had PME rates of zero five years ago. So five years ago, kindergarten classes at these schools had no children whose health was compromised to the degree that they could not medically handle immunizations. At the time, those same schools claimed very high PBE rates—ranging from 35 percent to 87 percent. About half of the schools with the highest PME rates are Waldorf schools. (Waldorf schools follow an educational model developed by Rudolf Steiner and Emil Molt that emphasizes bringing out each child’s individual potential in a way that serves humanity.)
Read the full article in Wired.
A waste of 1,000 research papers
Ed Yong, Atlantic, 17 May 2019
In 1996, a group of European researchers found that a certain gene, called SLC6A4, might influence a person’s risk of depression.
It was a blockbuster discovery at the time. The team found that a less active version of the gene was more common among 454 people who had mood disorders than in 570 who did not. In theory, anyone who had this particular gene variant could be at higher risk for depression, and that finding, they said, might help in diagnosing such disorders, assessing suicidal behavior, or even predicting a person’s response to antidepressants.
Back then, tools for sequencing DNA weren’t as cheap or powerful as they are today. When researchers wanted to work out which genes might affect a disease or trait, they made educated guesses, and picked likely ‘candidate genes.’ For depression, SLC6A4 seemed like a great candidate: It’s responsible for getting a chemical called serotonin into brain cells, and serotonin had already been linked to mood and depression. Over two decades, this one gene inspired at least 450 research papers.
But a new study – the biggest and most comprehensive of its kind yet – shows that this seemingly sturdy mountain of research is actually a house of cards, built on nonexistent foundations.
Richard Border of the University of Colorado at Boulder and his colleagues picked the 18 candidate genes that have been most commonly linked to depression—SLC6A4 chief among them. Using data from large groups of volunteers, ranging from 62,000 to 443,000 people, the team checked whether any versions of these genes were more common among people with depression. ‘We didn’t find a smidge of evidence,’ says Matthew Keller, who led the project.
Between them, these 18 genes have been the subject of more than 1,000 research papers, on depression alone. And for what? If the new study is right, these genes have nothing to do with depression. ‘This should be a real cautionary tale,’ Keller adds. ‘How on Earth could we have spent 20 years and hundreds of millions of dollars studying pure noise?’
Read the full article in the Atlantic.
How fetal personhood emerged
as the next stage of the abortion wars
Jeannie Suk Gersen, New Yorker, 5 June 2019
Thomas connected a series of real dots: the ‘scientific’ belief in black inferiority that informed the early-twentieth-century eugenics movement; the eugenicism espoused by Margaret Sanger, the founder of Planned Parenthood; and Sanger’s promotion of birth control in poor black neighborhoods. Some mid-century arguments for legalizing abortion—including those made by Alan Guttmacher, who went on to succeed Sanger as president of Planned Parenthood—made eugenic appeals, saying that abortion was important to controlling the ‘quality’ of the population. Thomas linked those facts to contemporary statistics on abortion. According to the New York Department of Health, in some areas of New York City, ‘black children are more likely to be aborted than they are to be born alive—and are up to eight times more likely to aborted than white children in the same area.’ Thomas even called up the contested assertion, made by the journalist Stephen Dubner and the economist Steven Levitt in their book ‘Freakonomics’, that Roe v. Wade led, a generation later, to a massive decline in crime, because the availability of legal abortion meant that many people did not have the unwanted babies whose poor circumstances would have led them to grow up to commit crimes. Thomas discerned in all of this an echo of eugenicists’ racially inflected wish for society to be rid of the ‘unfit.’
While the eugenics and abortion movements may have disquieting intersections, the notion that abortion rights are the direct heir to our history of eugenic sterilization is unfounded. Nobody is advocating forcible abortion, for eugenic or any other reason. A state forcibly sterilizing women from disfavored groups bears little similarity to a state allowing individuals to make decisions to terminate their own pregnancies—even in cases in which they may do so because of the fetus’s race, sex, or disability. The former eliminated a person’s ability to decide whether to reproduce, whereas the latter enables it.
But it is important to understand that the alarm over abortion as eugenics is a decoy of sorts. A deeper, more troubling argument that is now gathering force is tucked more quietly into Thomas’s invocation of legal anti-discrimination norms. If the right to be free of discrimination on the basis of race, sex, or disability can be made relevant to a fetus, then fetuses are figured as entities with anti-discrimination rights—like people. This move imbues the fetus with rights that the pregnant person—and, by extension, the abortion provider—might violate. What is really at stake is an idea of fetal personhood.
Read the full article in the New Yorker.
Caster Semenya ruling:
sports federation is flouting ethics rules
Roger Pielke Jr, Nature, 17 May 2019
If the latest outcome of legal tussles stands, South African Olympic gold medallist Caster Semenya will not be allowed to compete in the races in which she excels unless she undergoes medical interventions — pills, injections or surgery — to lower her natural levels of testosterone. Semenya, a cisgender woman who was assigned female at birth, was raised female and has always participated in sport as a woman, has for a decade been the focus of a campaign by the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) that has stigmatized certain women with differences of sexual development (DSDs).
While controversy swirls around issues of sport, sex, gender and fairness, another crucial issue is being overlooked: in my view, such athletes are in effect being asked to act as guinea pigs in medical research, but without the oversight or qualifications that society demands…
It has long been understood that, in some cases, sex chromosomes do not match sexual anatomy. As a simple example, some people with vaginas have Y chromosomes, and some people with penises do not. The IAAF estimates that 1 in 20,000 people assigned female at birth have a Y chromosome, resulting in testosterone levels much higher than the typical female range; they must now comply with new IAAF regulations to compete in women’s events. A mandatory medical examination for women suspected of having a condition covered by the regulations includes palpation and measurement of their breasts, vagina, clitoris and rectum. These women must also maintain testosterone levels below 5 nanomoles per litre for at least 6 months. That is well above the 1.7 nanomoles per litre that the IAAF says most women fall under.
However, an expert testifying on behalf of the IAAF has written that women with a Y chromosome who exceed this threshold are much less common than women with two X chromosomes who exceed the limit because they have the medical condition polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS). Yet women with PCOS are not subject to the regulations.
To reduce their natural testosterone levels, the IAAF states, 46,XY female athletes can take a daily pill, have a monthly injection or have surgery to remove testosterone-producing tissue. But there is no evidence on the efficacy or safety of pills or injections to reduce testosterone and maintain it below an arbitrary level in these otherwise healthy women. The medical treatments are thus what the Helsinki declaration deems ‘unproven interventions’.
The IAAF explains that the medical treatments are voluntary, and that athletes who choose not to undergo treatment are free to compete in the restricted events as men. The association nevertheless encourages athletes to comply with its requirements, explaining that ‘the medication helps to change their body to better reflect their chosen gender’.
Read the full article in Nature.
How the ‘Central Park Five’
changed the history of American law
Elizabeth Hinton, The Atlantic, 2 June 2019
Initially, the police prepared to charge the kids with unlawful assembly and refer them to the children’s court system. But New York District Attorney Linda Fairstein (Felicity Huffman) and investigators quickly concluded that the boys instead were Meili’s attackers and built a case around them, rather than conducting a full investigation. ‘Every young black male who was in the park last night is a suspect in the rape of that woman who is fighting for her life,’ Huffman’s Fairstein says to NYPD officers. She called for the deployment of an ‘army of blue up on Harlem’ and encouraged police to ‘stop every little thug you see.’
The police, investigators, and the press dubbed the boys’ actions in the park that night ‘wilding.’ Two days after the remaining three suspects had been arrested, the New York Post portrayed ‘wilding’ as ‘packs of bloodthirsty teens from the tenements, bursting with boredom and rage, roam[ing] the streets getting kicks from an evening of ultra-violence.’ Soon the term became part of the national discourse, with the newscaster Tom Brokaw describing ‘wilding’ as ‘rampaging in wolf packs and attacking people just for the fun of it’ on NBC Nightly News. Peter Jennings of ABC named it ‘terror,’ plain and simple.
The concept of ‘wilding’ and the racist assumptions behind it made it seem plausible to law-enforcement authorities and the public that black and brown boys’ mischief could easily turn into violent rape. In When They See Us, viewers hear excerpts from the New York Post columnist Pete Hamill’s April 23 account. ‘They were coming downtown from a world of crack, welfare, guns, knives, indifference, and ignorance,’ Hamill wrote, ‘and driven by a collective fury, brimming with the rippling energies of youth … they had only one goal: to smash, hurt, rob, stomp, rape.’ For Hamill, ‘wilding’ was an expression of class and racial hatred. ‘The enemies were rich. The enemies were white.’ The implication was that ‘wilding’ would destroy affluent, white New York if young black and brown boys and men were not severely punished. DuVernay reminds her audience that Donald Trump purchased $85,000 ads in New York City newspapers that screamed ‘BRING BACK THE DEATH PENALTY. BRING BACK OUR POLICE!’
Five years later, the animalistic premise of ‘wilding’ that When They See Us so vividly illuminates received academic treatment. In his definitive 1995 Weekly Standard essay, ‘The Coming of the Super-Predators,’ John DiLulio Jr.—then a politics and public-policy professor at Princeton—predicted that immediate demographic shifts would ‘unleash an army of young male predatory street criminals.’ These chiefly black and brown youths were, according to DiLulio, ‘so impulsive, so remorseless, that [they] can kill, rape, maim, without giving it a second thought.’ Politicians and the media seized on the ‘super-predator’ idea, just as they had done with ‘wilding.’ Three months after the release of DiLulio’s article, then–first lady Hillary Clinton famously called for authorities to bring ‘the kinds of kids who are called ‘super-predators,’ no conscience, no empathy … to heel.’
Read the full article in the Atlantic.
Freedom and the media: A downward spiral
Sarah Repucci, Freedom House, June 2019
The fundamental right to seek and disseminate information through an independent press is under attack, and part of the assault has come from an unexpected source. Elected leaders in many democracies, who should be press freedom’s staunchest defenders, have made explicit attempts to silence critical media voices and strengthen outlets that serve up favorable coverage. The trend is linked to a global decline in democracy itself: The erosion of press freedom is both a symptom of and a contributor to the breakdown of other democratic institutions and principles, a fact that makes it especially alarming.
According to Freedom House’s Freedom in the World data, media freedom has been deteriorating around the world over the past decade, with new forms of repression taking hold in open societies and authoritarian states alike. The trend is most acute in Europe, previously a bastion of well-established freedoms, and in Eurasia and the Middle East, where many of the world’s worst dictatorships are concentrated. If democratic powers cease to support media independence at home and impose no consequences for its restriction abroad, the free press corps could be in danger of virtual extinction.
Experience has shown, however, that press freedom can rebound from even lengthy stints of repression when given the opportunity. The basic desire for democratic liberties, including access to honest and fact-based journalism, can never be extinguished, and it is never too late to renew the demand that these rights be granted in full.
In some of the most influential democracies in the world, large segments of the population are no longer receiving unbiased news and information. This is not because journalists are being thrown in jail, as might occur in authoritarian settings. Instead, the media have fallen prey to more nuanced efforts to throttle their independence. Common methods include government-backed ownership changes, regulatory and financial pressure, and public denunciations of honest journalists. Governments have also offered proactive support to friendly outlets through measures such as lucrative state contracts, favorable regulatory decisions, and preferential access to state information. The goal is to make the press serve those in power rather than the public.
The problem has arisen in tandem with right-wing populism, which has undermined basic freedoms in many democratic countries. Populist leaders present themselves as the defenders of an aggrieved majority against liberal elites and ethnic minorities whose loyalties they question, and argue that the interests of the nation—as they define it—should override democratic principles like press freedom, transparency, and open debate.
Camille Paglia can’t say that
Conor Friedersdorf, The Atlantic, 1 May 2019
Once again, the student activists wield a double-edged sword. If Paglia’s comments qualify as ‘insulting, demeaning, and derogatory towards people on the basis of gender,’ so does lots of speech that is very common on the academic left. For example, locutions such as mansplaining, man-spreading, white male rage, male privilege, toxic masculinity, male gaze, manterrupting, and bropropriating would all be subject to challenge under similarly broad readings of the very same passages in the faculty handbook.
In contrast, robust speech protections like the ones that permitted the Paglia lecture would enable UArts to host events with speakers like the feminist scholar Suzanna Danuta Walters. ‘Is it really so illogical to hate men?’ she asked in a provocative op-ed in The Washington Post. ‘For all the power of #MeToo and #TimesUp and the women’s marches, only a relatively few men have been called to task … But we’re not supposed to hate them because … #NotAllMen … when they have gone low for all of human history, maybe it’s time for us to go all Thelma and Louise and Foxy Brown on their collective butts.’
Would progressive student activists at UArts favor the expansive interpretation of antidiscrimination language that they are urging if they understood that it would likely result in the suppression of many voices on the identitarian left? Perhaps they anticipate a different outcome: UArts could employ a double standard, allowing academics to freely criticize members of some identity groups but not others, because men are historically privileged while women, gay people, and people of other gender identities are historically marginalized.
But adopting different standards for different identity groups—which would of course never fly in a legal context—would ultimately hurt historically marginalized groups.
Paglia possesses all sorts of knowledge that any student could benefit from understanding. (Understanding doesn’t imply agreeing.) The identitarian conceit is that trans people and survivors of sexual assault can’t learn from Paglia, because she renders them ‘unsafe.’ Meanwhile, cis white males are acculturated to believe that they can always learn from anyone, even professors overtly hostile to their race, sexual orientation, or gender identity. In this way, left-identitarianism encourages historically marginalized groups to believe that they are less resilient and less capable than their white, male classmates. They suggest, falsely, that ‘harm’ is the only possible result of listening to controversial (or even offensive) ideas.
Read the full article in the Atlantic.
Five years gone: What Bowe Bergdahl’s odyssey tells us about the United States’s endless war in Afghanistan
Nicholas Utzig, Los Angeles Review of Books, 3 May 2019
In Book IX of Homer’s Odyssey, the reader finds Odysseus recounting the early days of what will become his 10-year voyage home from the Trojan War. Trapped in the Cyclops’ cave, the Greek warrior devises an audacious plan to escape. He blinds the Cyclops and sneaks out of confinement with his crew. As they row out to sea, the sailors hear the rage-fueled cries of the blinded Cyclops as the creature demands to know the author of his fate.
Unable to resist, Odysseus taunts him: ‘[I]f any man on the face of the earth should ask you / who blinded you, who shamed you so — say Odysseus.’ And he does, raising a curse to Poseidon, ‘god of the sea-blue mane who rocks the earth,’ asking that Odysseus ‘find a world of pain at home.’ Odysseus’ life thereafter is complicated by this act of hubris, the reckless decision to reveal his identity to the Cyclops.
While returning home from modern war is considerably faster, it can feel Odyssean. For American soldiers serving in Afghanistan, the journey can take weeks. First, a trip from a small outpost to a larger one, where a unit consolidates and soldiers wait for a helicopter to take them to Bagram, the largest American air base in the country. More waiting at Bagram, this time for a flight to Ali Al Salem Air Base in Kuwait. From there a bus to another camp in Kuwait. More waiting. Then a bus back to Ali Al Salem. More waiting. Finally, the flight home. At least that’s how it’s supposed to go, but nothing ever seems to move so smoothly. At the start of the surge in Iraq, to note a notorious example, some units waiting for flights home from Kuwait were ordered back to Iraq for more months of combat, only to begin the whole return process anew.
But for Bowe Bergdahl, the Cyclops’ curse — calling for Odysseus to ‘come home late […] alone in a stranger’s ship’ — became all too real. Bergdahl, the longest-held American POW in the United States’s longest war, has been the subject of renewed public interest, owing in part to the popularity of the Serial podcast series, which devoted its second season to Bergdahl’s ordeal. Much of the attention in the popular press, however, has focused on one central question — why did this young soldier walk off his post and disappear into the Afghan night 10 years ago this June? Matt Farwell and Michael Ames, in their new book American Cipher: Bowe Bergdahl and the U.S. Tragedy in Afghanistan, broaden the story beyond this decision. Bergdahl’s odyssey, in Farwell and Ames’s account, is far more complex than his solitary journey may suggest. The young soldier’s ordeal, the authors contend, offers a glimpse into the dysfunctional and unending prosecution of the United States’s longest war.
Read the full article in the LA Review of Books.
Naomi Wolf’s career of blunders
continues in ‘Outrages’
Parul Sehgal, New York Times, 5 June 2019
Her first, career-making book, ‘The Beauty Myth,’ is well-known for exaggerating the number of women who died of anorexia (Wolf stated that anorexia kills 150,000 women annually; the actual figure at the time, in the mid-1990s, was said to be closer to 50 or 60). One academic paper found that fully 18 of the 23 statistics about anorexia in the book were inaccurate and coined a term — ‘WOLF’ (Wolf’s Overdo and Lie Factor) — to determine the degree to which Wolf was wrong: ‘On average, a statistic on anorexia by Naomi Wolf should be divided by eight to get close to the real figure.’
Reviews of her book on fascism argued, as one put it, that she ‘consistently mutilated the truth with selective and ultimately deceptive use of her sources.’ And ‘Vagina’ so profoundly misrepresented the working of the brain, I’m not sure science writers have recovered. ‘This is a very troubling interpretation of science. I can’t find the data behind her claims,’ Beverly Whipple, the scientist who discovered the G-spot, said upon reading it. ‘Is this fiction or nonfiction?’
This is to say nothing of Wolf’s unhinged public pronouncements. She has alleged the American military is importing Ebola from Africa with an intention of spreading it at home, that Edward Snowden might be a government plant and that she has seen the figure of Jesus while she was (inexplicably) in the form of a 13-year-old boy. She appeared on Alex Jones’s show, and accused the government of intercepting and reading her daughter’s mail.
Throughout it all, she remains impervious to criticism. ‘I’m lucky,’ she said in a recent profile in The Guardian. ‘I had a good education. I know my books are true.’
Not accurate or factual, but true. This is a key to understanding why charges of sloppiness or misrepresentation don’t seem to stymie, or even embarrass, writers like Wolf (or Jared Diamond and Annie Jacobsen, who have both been involved in similar scandals in recent weeks, facing them with the same blithe indifference). The issue isn’t simply that publishers don’t spring for fact-checking and leave writers vulnerable to making such errors. These writers see themselves in service of something larger than grubby reporting. ‘The important thing is that these stories are told,’ Wolf recently told The Times of London. They are the emissaries of great stories, suppressed stories, and if they take liberties or eschew careful research — as consistently as Wolf has done — it is because they believe they have a right to them, that the story, the cause, somehow sanctions it.
Read the full article in the New York Times.
Pakistan’s blasphemy ordeal
Farahnaz Ispahani, The Hindu, 7 June 2019
Barely two weeks after Pakistani Christian Asia Naureen (usually referred to as Asia Bibi), whose ordeal over false blasphemy charges attracted international attention, was allowed to leave the country, Pakistan’s blasphemy laws claimed new victims.
A Hindu veterinary doctor, Ramesh Kumar, was arrested in Sindh province on May 27 after a local cleric filed a police complaint accusing him of committing blasphemy. Mr. Kumar’s village Phulhadiyon, in Mirpurkhas district, has a population of about 7,000 people, the majority of whom are Hindus. As is often the case when blasphemy allegations are made in Pakistan, riots broke out in the area and an angry mob burnt down Mr. Kumar’s establishment as well as other property belonging to him and his family. The mob also tried to attack the police station and caused some damage in the process. Although six suspects were soon taken into custody for rioting and damaging the vet’s property, it is Mr. Kumar’s family that will now be living in fear while his prosecution meanders through Pakistan’s judicial system.
Ms. Bibi’s experience highlights the difficult path ahead for Mr. Kumar. Her relocation to Canada does not reflect substantive change in the persecuted state of Pakistan’s religious minorities. Pakistan’s draconian blasphemy laws remain in force, and there is no sign that the authorities plan to drop prosecution of hundreds of blasphemy cases.
Between 1987 and 2012, Pakistani authorities prosecuted 1,170 people for blasphemy. That number has only increased over the years. The Pakistani legal system offers little protection to someone charged with blasphemy and mere accusation is tantamount to punishment. Judges and lawyers fear religious vigilantes who violently attack anyone they deem to be supporting a blasphemer…
Unlike Ms. Bibi, Mr. Kumar is unlikely to have the support of Western governments and the Vatican. Any action by Hindu organisations in India or abroad on his behalf will only be misrepresented in Pakistan’s officially directed media as part of the ‘ongoing conspiracies’ against the country that are used as an excuse to maintain Pakistan’s semi-authoritarian power structure.
Read the full article in the Hindu.
Can doctors refuse to treat a patient?
Sandeep Jauhar, New York Times, 13 May 2019
A consensus exists among legal and bioethics experts that doctors can refuse to provide treatment in certain situations. For example, courts have ruled that doctors may refuse to treat violent or intransigent patients as long as they give proper notice so that those patients can find alternative care. Forcing doctors to treat such patients, courts have said, would violate the 13th Amendment’s prohibition on involuntary servitude.
Doctors may also refuse to provide treatment if it conflicts with good medical practice. Physicians in intensive-care units, for example, routinely limit treatment they believe will provide no benefit, especially in cases of terminal illness. I once took care of a man in his 50s who had metastatic cancer and respiratory failure requiring a ventilator. His family refused to turn off the machine and let him die, choosing instead to escalate treatment. However, life support in his case was futile. After consulting with the hospital’s ethics committee, my colleagues and I told the family members that we would no longer obey their wishes. We gave them the option of transferring the patient to another hospital. They didn’t want to do that; treatment was scaled back and the man died a few days later.
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.
Read the full article in the New York Times.
Doing better in arguments
about sex, gender, and trans rights
Sophie Allen et al, Medium, 23 May 2019
We’re a group of gender-critical and radical feminist academic philosophers. In our work, some of us argue that women, by definition, are adult human females. On this view, since no trans woman is an adult human female, no trans woman is correctly categorised as a woman. The rest of us are currently agnostic between i) exclusively taking the former position, and ii) also taking a position that says that there is an additional, meaningful sense of ‘woman’, understood as applying to those who occupy a certain feminine social role, on the basis of perceived membership of the female sex category. Unlike i), ii) entails that a limited number of trans women count as women, in at least one sense. Still, ii) entails that many trans women aren’t correctly categorised as women, since many trans women don’t occupy a feminine social role on the basis of perceived membership of the female sex category.
Either way, we are all sceptical of the political value of accounts of womanhood that identify it as essentially involving possession of a feminine ‘gender identity’. We also all insist that it’s politically essential to retain a clear conceptual differentiation between males and females, in order to continue to be able to name and refer to sex-based patterns of oppression, and harmful sociocultural stereotypes about the ‘right’ ways for males and females respectively to be.
Our aim here is not to summarise our positive arguments for these conclusions. We do this in work elsewhere (see the links from our names, above). Rather, we wish to highlight various fallacies and misrepresentations that we’ve noticed frequently occurring in discussions of our views. While there have been a number of comment pieces in national media by philosophers challenging gender-critical and radical feminism, we have yet to see in these a compelling argument against our position. Rather than respond to these pieces individually, we would like to highlight some of the common misunderstandings and fallacious arguments that we take to be problematic in these responses. We hope that this will be helpful in laying the ground for more fruitful discussion from now on. In particular, we would be pleased to hear a) whether we are mistaken in what we take to be fallacious in our opponents’ arguments; b) whether we are mistaken in attributing these fallacies and misrepresentations to our opponents; or c) whether there are stronger responses available to the positions we defend.
Read the full article on Medium.
Neuroscience readies for a showdown
over consciousness ideas
Philip Ball, Quanta Magazine, 6 March 2019
Plenty of cognition takes place outside the grasp of conscious awareness — in that sense, we respond to some cues and stimuli ‘unconsciously.’ A distinguishing feature of our minds, however, is that we can hold on to a piece of information, an idea or an intention as a motivation for subsequent decisions and behaviors. If we’re hungry, we salivate as a reflex, but we might also choose to eat, go to the kitchen and get what we want from the cupboard.
Some researchers, such as the cognitive scientist Stanislas Dehaene of the Collège de France in Paris, suggest that this conscious behavior arises when we hold a piece of information in a ‘global workspace’ within the brain, where it can be broadcast to brain modules associated with specific tasks. This workspace, he says, imposes a kind of information bottleneck: Only when the first conscious notion slips away can another take its place. According to Dehaene, brain-imaging studies suggest this ‘conscious bottleneck’ is a distributed network of neurons in the brain’s prefrontal cortex.
This picture of consciousness is called global workspace theory (GWT). In this view, consciousness is created by the workspace itself — and so it should be a feature of any information-processing system capable of broadcasting information to other processing centers. It makes consciousness a kind of computation for motivating and guiding actions. ‘Once you have information and the information is made broadly available, in that act consciousness occurs,’ said Christof Koch, chief scientist and president of the Allen Institute for Brain Science in Seattle.
But to Koch, the argument that all of cognition, including consciousness, is merely a form of computation ‘embodies the dominant myth of our age: that it’s just an algorithm, and so is just a clever hack away.’ According to this view, he said, ‘very soon we’ll have clever machines that model most of the features that the human brain has and thereby will be conscious.’
He has been developing a competing theory in collaboration with its originator, the neuroscientist Giulio Tononi of the University of Wisconsin-Madison. They say that consciousness is not something that arises while turning inputs into outputs but rather an intrinsic property of the right kind of cognitive network, one that has specific features in its architecture. Tononi christened this view integrated information theory (IIT).
Read the full article in Quanta Magazine.
Modernism’s debt to black women
Cody Delistraty, Paris Review, 6 June 2019
Manet, meanwhile, was fashioning himself as a recorder of the contemporary social scene. A number of his paintings depicted the black people who had immigrated to the northern neighborhoods of Paris. In his studio notebook, he described the black maid whom he painted standing next to the lounging white prostitute in Olympia and the black caregiver in his Children in the Tuileries Garden(1862) as ‘Laure, très belle négresse, rue Vintimille, 11, 3éme étage.’ Manet’s depiction of Laure wasn’t exoticized—not the kind of nude caricature that had been standard of European depictions of black women. Instead, with her voguish neckline and bouquet of flowers, Laure modeled a typically ‘white role,’ as a clerk in a department store or a server at a café. Also: whereas in Titian’s Venus of Urbino (ca. 1532), a clear forerunner of Olympia, the maid, who is white, is turned away from the nude, lounging women in the foreground; in Olympia, Laure is just as much a part of the scene, in both the amount of the canvas she takes up and her foregrounded placement.
A few years ago, Denise Murrell, an African American woman studying for a doctorate in art history at Columbia, found that excerpt about Laure in Manet’s studio diary. Murrell was studying the depiction of black women from Olympia—the painting that is often considered the founding work of Modernism—to the modern day. Murrell’s dissertation, which she completed in 2013, served as the basis of the exhibitions ‘Posing Modernity: The Black Model from Manet and Matisse to Today,’ which she curated at the Wallach Art Gallery in New York, and ‘Black Models: From Géricault to Matisse,’ which is currently on at the Musée d’Orsay in Paris as an expanded iteration of the New York exhibition. (The Orsay exhibition includes a number of works on view only in France, like Olympia. Murrell co-curated the Orsay show, along with Cécile Debray and Stéphane Guégan.)
The Orsay exhibition includes paintings of black women by Manet, Géricault, Matisse, Delacroix, Gauguin, Picasso, Bonnard, and Cézanne. Marie-Guillemine Benoist’s Portrait of a Negress has been, in this exhibition, temporarily renamed Madeleine, after the black model’s name, an act of humanization. But it is Laure, Manet’s model, who is at the center of both the Orsay exhibition and Murrell’s dissertation—a founding symbol of the overlooked centrality of black women in Modernism.
‘The small body of published commentary about Manet’s Laure, with a few notable exceptions, generally dismisses the figure as meaning, essentially, nothing—except as an ancillary intensifier of the connotations of immorality attributed to the prostitute,’ Murrell writes in her dissertation. She suggests, however, that Laure demonstrates that the history of Modernism is also, in part, the history of an ‘evolving cultural hybridity.’ Ultimately, she writes, ‘what is at stake is an art-historical discourse posed as an intervention with the prevailing historical silence about the representation and legacy of Manet’s Laure.’ ‘The black female figure,’ she concludes, ‘is foundational to the evolving aesthetics of modern art.’
Read the full article in the Paris Review.
Politics by candlelight
Stefan Collini, The Nation, 14 June 2019
Thompson was of the generation for whom service in World War II was a defining experience, but, characteristically, he interpreted this experience primarily in political terms. What he identified in elements scattered across the Allied armies, the local resistance fighters, and the countless men and women who helped the war effort in other ways was a spirit of cooperation and, notably, resistance to fascism. In the years after the war, Thompson was stirred by evidence that this spirit might be transformed into a base upon which to launch a broad form of progressive politics, though he later came to feel that it had been blocked or killed off by the hardening polarities of the Cold War.
Thompson had been particularly moved by the ethos of cooperation and fraternity he encountered in 1947 while laboring to build the trans-Yugoslav railway alongside local workers and peasants as well as young volunteers from across Europe. Following the example of his older brother—who was captured and killed while aiding the partisan forces in Bulgaria—Thompson joined the Communist Party in 1942. But in the immediate postwar years, he was committed to sustaining an updated version of Popular Front politics, a broad alliance of communist, socialist, and other radical movements united by their continuing opposition to the spirit of fascism at home and abroad.
For Thompson, this was entirely compatible with his commitment to communism, not least because he was always uneasy with the need for the British Communist Party to kowtow quite so slavishly to whatever was the current Soviet line. Eventually he, like several of his contemporaries, left the party in 1956, unable to stomach the brutal Soviet suppression of the Hungarian uprising and disillusioned by its handling of revelations about the excesses of Stalinism in Khrushchev’s famous ‘secret speech.’
Although Thompson thereafter distanced himself from the Communist Party (and never rejoined), it is important to recognize how far he was from becoming one of those former party members who then moved further and further to the right en route to becoming a Cold War hawk. He remained for the rest of his life committed to a popular politics of the left that aimed at ending the class exploitation constitutive of capitalism. For Thompson, any left politics worthy of the name not only had to represent the interests of the working class, but also had to form active alliances with grassroots working-class organizations. One source of his eventual disaffection from the New Left, which coalesced after 1957, was that he found it to be operating too much at the level of intellectual and cultural criticism, without possessing the necessary links to trade unions and working-class political movements.
Read the full article in the Nation.
The radical afterlives of Frantz Fanon
Bhakti Shringarpure, Africa is a Country, 4 June 2019
What, after all, is the relevance of Fanon today? Unlike Che Guevara, Fanon has not become a mainstream icon. There are no t-shirts, badges or tote bags upon which he appears, and this is simply because Fanon’s ideas are not easy consumption, nor do they lend themselves to short, pithy slogans. Yet as a global right wing movement now takes root, so too does a ferocious, belligerent and resistant decolonial ideology.
The documentary finds that Fanon has a lot to offer to today’s youth, who are disenfranchised by neoliberal economic policies, fed up of pernicious racism and heavily radicalized due to the ample online availability of a roster of contemporary injustice, inequity and corruption in the world. ‘Misery is the unique destiny promised to hundreds of millions of humans,’ narrator Marie Tsakala stoically declares.
The film’s journey begins in Martinique, Fanon’s birthplace (where the documentary has been screened to enthusiastic audiences in massively packed auditoriums). Mezine was surprised at how little Fanon’s work is known in Martinique. Yet this eager reception is perhaps evidence that there is a desire to look underneath the mistaken stereotype of Fanon as an ‘apostle of violence,’ and a real hunger to return to his ideas that might offer answers for a troubled present.
In Portugal, rapper and activist Flàvio Almada ’LBC Soldjah’ speaks of having been transformed by Black Skin, White Masks. A leader in ‘Plataforma Gueto,’ a black social movement that devises methods for popular education and community building, Almada claims that institutional racism and police violence towards the black population is entrenched in Portugal. Thus, the Fanonian notion that ‘we revolt because we can’t breathe’ resonates urgently. Fanon’s ideas are important because they illuminate that it is not the fault of the marginalized people, and it is not their destiny, explains Almada, but that racism and violence is ideologically organized, and can actually be decolonized, eradicated and overcome.
Traveling to France, South Africa and Niger, the documentary attempts to track the relevance of Fanon for a younger generation intensely cognizant of the fact that imperialism continues unabated in a host of creative and deceptive mutations. ‘We are not the ‘wretched of the earth’ that Fanon talked about,’ French-Algerian activist Houria Bouteldja explains. ‘We are the post-colonial subjects of Europe; we are the South in the North.’
Read the full article on Africa is a Country.
No, Game of Thrones is not ‘a story for our times’
Andrew Harrison, New Statesman, 29 May 2019
But aren’t the Army of the Dead an allegory of climate change? Are Danaerys’s dragons supposed to represent nuclear weapons? Who built the Wall and will the wildlings pay for it? To give Thrones lovers their due, vanishingly few of them make these unconvincing stretches to connect its plot lines and iconography to the contemporary world. It’s the think-piece crew (yes, pot/kettle) and the critical commentariat who can’t accept works of pop culture – especially genre pop culture – without them being validated by ‘relevance’. The alarm bell often rings when we’re asked to accept that a work of history or fantasy ‘speaks to our times’. Sometimes they do and sometimes they don’t. But it’s a strange form of historical narcissism which implies that nothing has value unless it’s about us, now, today.
Does the success of Armando Iannucci’s Death Of Stalin hinge on its resonance with the court of Trump? Or on the fact that its portrayal of a terrorised inner political cabal is just cruelly hilarious in its own right, and applicable to any circle of toadies from Kim Jong-un’s to Saddam Hussein’s to your employer’s management team?
Did the despair at the end of Avengers: Infinity War feel so abyssal because it echoed liberal heroism’s global defeat at the hands of a nihilistic alt-right or was it because, you know, Spider-Man is such a good kid and he didn’t deserve that? This sort of thinking reduces the enjoyment of art and entertainment to a game of join the dots.
Sometimes you suspect people are press-ganging art into pertinence just to confirm that our moment happens to be the most important in history; constantly directly addressed by great minds who, back in the mists of time, couldn’t wait for it to be 2019 so that their stuff could land properly.
Among things I’ve recently heard cited as speaking to our times are Andy Warhol; a collection of socialist fairy tales; Kesha’s performance at the 2018 Grammys; sport in general; horror films in general; reggae in general; and The Lion King, a coming-of-age succession saga featuring talking savannah wildlife, which was conceived in 1988 and so has not yet had a wide choice of times to speak to. So many things are speaking to the times that the times must want to put their out of office on.
Read the full article in the New Statesman.
A British suffragette in America
Katherine Connoly & David Broder, Jacobin, 4 June 2019
Before Sylvia Pankhurst’s first lecture tour in America there had been an upsurge in women’s labor militancy, including the garment workers’ strikes in New York and Chicago in 1909–10. The shocking conditions in that industry were further illustrated by the fire at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory on March 25, 1911, which killed 146 mostly migrant workers. How far were these events in US labor a formative experience for Pankhurst herself — and did they shape her view of what the WSPU were fighting for?
KC Sylvia Pankhurst had been interested in women’s working conditions long before her tour of the United States. In the summer of 1907, she began an independent tour of northern Britain observing different kinds of women’s employment with a view to producing a book on the subject. The very nature of this project contrasted with the WSPU’s approach at this time which was to marginalize working-class women from the campaign and to exclude issues specific to them. So, Sylvia Pankhurst’s political disagreements with the WSPU were nothing new.
What the tours of America did provide, however, was an extensive space and time away from the WSPU leadership: her mother, Emmeline Pankhurst, and her older sister Christabel Pankhurst. As the representative of the suffragettes in the US, Sylvia was able to articulate her own (far more radical) view of the suffrage struggle in Britain and integrate the results of her research into women’s work into arguments for political representation.
Being in America during a period of sustained working-class militancy, in which women were frequently in the forefront, did have a profound effect on Sylvia. This movement was a living rebuttal of the WSPU leaders’ view of working women as weak, passive victims who needed wealthier women to represent them. As you say, Sylvia Pankhurst was also in America when the Triangle fire broke out and she joined the funeral procession for the victims. We know this affected her because she wrote about it in the book and spoke about it to American audiences. Speaking alongside labor organizer Rose Schneiderman in 1912, Sylvia Pankhurst said that the Triangle fire was the result of working-class people being denied the power to represent themselves. In the face of both the achievements of the workers’ movement and the terrible tragedy at the Triangle, Sylvia drew the same conclusion: working-class people could and must be able to control how they lived their lives.
Read the full article in Jacobin.
Brain in a dish, babies by design:
what it means to be human
Natalie Kofler, Nature, 13 May 2019
Ball’s description of cellular organelles and their functions, in particular, is an impressive feat. And his sense of wonder at biological processes is palpable: passages on the intricacies of cell plasticity had me (with my doctorate in molecular biology) exclaiming, ‘That is incredible!’
This awe evokes some much-needed humility. It is a book that requires us to reflect on our biases and preconceived ideas.
Ball pushes back, for instance, against the familiar narrative that genes are the ‘blueprint’ of life. We are much more than this, he argues. Our bodies are made up of multiple genomes; for example, genetic material is often exchanged between mother and fetus during pregnancy. And the trillions of microorganisms lodging in our guts, skin and noses — the microbiome — express their own sequences. Thanks to epigenetic controls (cellular mechanisms that affect how genes are expressed), even genetically identical organisms can display very different characteristics. I learnt that the fur of cloned cats can be a different colour from their genetic donor’s. At best, we are patchworks of genomic expression, and identity isn’t as straightforward as many assume. In the era of consumer genetic-sequencing services, that is cause for caution.
Ball facilitates an informed conversation about our future by inviting us into the grey zone where binary answers don’t exist and complexity reigns. That ambiguity grows as he discusses the ethical and societal implications of new technologies such as CRISPR gene editing, and growing models of the brain and embryos in culture. How do we ensure equity in an era when intelligence could be decided by gene editing? How do we understand our moral obligations to an organ grown outside the human body that might experience pain, memory and emotion? In exploring innovations that blur our concept of identity, rights and death, Ball forces us to ask how and why. To investigate those questions, we must expand our ethical frameworks.
Read the full article in Nature.
Rohingya belonging and statelessness
Dina M Siddiqi, The Daily Star, 6 May 2019
Anthropologists and others have long noted the conceptual paradox of human rights: abstract claims of the inalienability of individual rights—rights we should be able to claim by virtue of being human—are belied in practice. That is, being human is not enough to claim or secure human rights. The exercise of universal rights—or the right to have rights, as Hannah Arendt put it so memorably—hinges on membership in a specific political community. Even if we set aside questions of who counts as human and associated hierarchies of suffering, we are still left with the fact that claims to and exclusions from a rights regime depend upon the individual or group’s relationship to a nation-state, on citizenship. Outside the nation-state context, individuals or groups cannot claim universally recognised rights that would grant them protection.
Statelessness then is both anomaly and built into the structure of all national rights regimes.
Here it is worth recalling that all states rely on some idea of ethnic or racial purity and so of a core people or Self in imagining/unifying the national community. The imagined majoritiarian national Self—Bengali, Bamar, whatever—is co-produced with an imagined minority Other. There can be no ethnic/racial/cultural majority without a corresponding minority. Not all minorities occupy the same place in a nation state, of course. Very few end up, like the Rohingya, the object of active hatred and expulsion. Arjun Appadurai calls such populations bio minorities—those whose difference from national majorities is seen as a form of bodily threat to the national ethnos (or The People). Why do certain minorities become objects of fear, panic, and danger?
The Rohingya genocide, I argue, can be understood as an extreme outcome of the imperative of exclusion at the heart of all nation-making processes, in conjunction with contextually specific factors including the limitations built into transnational governance and associated legal infrastructures, specific regimes of neoliberal capitalism, and the indifference or complicity of the so-called international community.
The profoundly ahistorical premises on which global governance protocols proceed assumes the timelessness of national borders; the immutability of identity; and the existence of documentation, of legal records. This ahistoricity reproduces and enables the often violent logic of the nation and corresponding technologies of rule.
Read the full article in the Daily Star.
Physicists debate Hawking’s idea
that the universe had no beginning
Natalie Wolchover, Quanta Magazine, 6 June 2019
In 1981, many of the world’s leading cosmologists gathered at the Pontifical Academy of Sciences, a vestige of the coupled lineages of science and theology located in an elegant villa in the gardens of the Vatican. Stephen Hawking chose the august setting to present what he would later regard as his most important idea: a proposal about how the universe could have arisen from nothing.
Before Hawking’s talk, all cosmological origin stories, scientific or theological, had invited the rejoinder, ‘What happened before that?’ The Big Bang theory, for instance — pioneered 50 years before Hawking’s lecture by the Belgian physicist and Catholic priest Georges Lemaître, who later served as president of the Vatican’s academy of sciences — rewinds the expansion of the universe back to a hot, dense bundle of energy. But where did the initial energy come from?
The Big Bang theory had other problems. Physicists understood that an expanding bundle of energy would grow into a crumpled mess rather than the huge, smooth cosmos that modern astronomers observe. In 1980, the year before Hawking’s talk, the cosmologist Alan Guth realized that the Big Bang’s problems could be fixed with an add-on: an initial, exponential growth spurt known as cosmic inflation, which would have rendered the universe huge, smooth and flat before gravity had a chance to wreck it. Inflation quickly became the leading theory of our cosmic origins. Yet the issue of initial conditions remained: What was the source of the minuscule patch that allegedly ballooned into our cosmos, and of the potential energy that inflated it?
Hawking, in his brilliance, saw a way to end the interminable groping backward in time: He proposed that there’s no end, or beginning, at all. According to the record of the Vatican conference, the Cambridge physicist, then 39 and still able to speak with his own voice, told the crowd, ‘There ought to be something very special about the boundary conditions of the universe, and what can be more special than the condition that there is no boundary?’
The ‘no-boundary proposal,’ which Hawking and his frequent collaborator, James Hartle, fully formulated in a 1983 paper, envisions the cosmos having the shape of a shuttlecock. Just as a shuttlecock has a diameter of zero at its bottommost point and gradually widens on the way up, the universe, according to the no-boundary proposal, smoothly expanded from a point of zero size. Hartle and Hawking derived a formula describing the whole shuttlecock — the so-called ‘wave function of the universe’ that encompasses the entire past, present and future at once — making moot all contemplation of seeds of creation, a creator, or any transition from a time before.
Read the full article in Quanta Magazine.
The forgotten world
Yvonne Singh, Adda, May 2019
The Baillies were part of an Inverness network of Scots, including the Frasers, the Inglis family and the Chisholms, with substantial plantation interests in Guyana. However, slave ownership wasn’t confined to the wealthy, ordinary working people had a chance to buy slaves too. Alston has compiled a comprehensive index of more than 600 people from the Highlands with connections to Guyana before emancipation.
He says: ‘Ordinary Highlanders had an opportunity to buy slaves themselves, they were seen as property as part of someone’s capital. Guyana offered some the prospect of making a fortune, even for those of limited means, if they were prepared to start work as clerks, overseers and tradesmen. The key to success was to own slaves.’
On Alston’s website is a quote from Donald Mackay, a clerk, who states in 1806, a year before abolition, ‘[The] only encouragement to live in so baneful a climate was the benefit derived from owning some Negroes, their wages being barely sufficient for the necessities of existence.’
A study of the compensation records for plantation Dochfour highlight ordinary working people such as James Fraser, a carpenter from Inverness, who went to Demerara and worked on that plantation. He built up his own gang of slave carpenters, which he hired out to landowners and was prosperous enough to subscribe 10 guineas to the Northern Infirmary in Inverness in 1798.
Fraser’s story was far from unique. Henry Dalton, writing in 1855 in The History of British Guiana, states: ‘Among the numerous parties emigrating from Europe to this colony a large proportion was from Scotland, for the most part of humble extraction, uneducated and glad to accept of any opening that presented itself; they exemplified the well known caution and parsimony of their race and, from ‘the humblest, gradually rose to fill some of the highest situations’.
Read the full article in Adda.
Narrating history through cricket
Salil Tripathi, Live Mint, 1 June 219
Cricket Country, in that sense, is as much about the country as it is about cricket. It is a book of history that uses cricket as a framing device, and if readers are keen to learn about who scored what in the 1910s, or how fiendishly difficult it was to face Palwankar Baloo’s bowling, Cricket Country is not for them. But ‘what do they know of cricket who only cricket know’, as C. L. R. James had asked in his path-breaking work, Beyond A Boundary (1963)—Cricket Country belongs to that tradition. It tells the story of a nation, its consciousness and awakening through the prism of cricket.
Kidambi is a historian, and there are parts where the book strays far from cricket—in setting the scene of a meeting in 1909 in Bombay, to decide on sending an All-India team to England comprising Parsis, Hindus and Muslims, Kidambi introduces us to Shyamji Krishna Varma, the Oxford-educated lawyer who founded the Indian Home Rule Society in England, and how he (and Vinayak Damodar Savarkar) may have influenced Madan Lal Dhingra, who went on to assassinate Curzon Wyllie, a British army officer, in South Kensington.
The digression is not an act of indulgence: The assassination shocked the British and made some members of the British establishment wonder if closer cultural ties with India were a good idea. And by sending a cricket team, rich industrialists in Bombay hoped they could reassure the British that not all Indians were potential assassins. Nationalist stirrings were emerging in India at the time, and there were clear differences between those who sought to use violence (a year earlier, teenagers Khudiram Bose and Prafulla Chaki had attempted to assassinate a British judge in Muzaffarpur, but ended up killing two British women instead) and those who sought to engage constructively with the British.
Cricket Country also offers other fascinating insights. For long, the received wisdom in India has been that cricket was promoted in India by British administrators and princely states. The Australian writer Richard Cashman’s 1980 book, Patrons, Players, And The Crowd: The Phenomenon Of Indian Cricket, cemented that idea. Kidambi’s research shows that India’s emerging industrial class too played a crucial role. Interestingly, they were from Bombay, and overwhelmingly Gujarati—of the 30-odd businessmen and industrialists who promoted the game, more than two dozen were Gujarati-speaking Kachchhis, Bohras, Khojas or Parsis.
Read the full article in Live Mint.
Austin Allen, JSTOR Daily, 18 May 2019
I used to be something of a W. H. Auden skeptic. On first encountering his poetry as a teenager, I enjoyed ‘As I Walked Out One Evening’ and a couple of his other anthology pieces, but I didn’t ‘adopt’ him in the avid way young readers do with favorite writers. His political subjects flew above my head, and his handling of meter struck me at times as clumsy or deliberately perverse. Of course, I soon realized it was my ear, not his, that needed tuning.
By my mid-twenties, I had come to admire Auden very much, but I still found his signature political poems excessively didactic. Ten years later, ‘September 1, 1939’ and ‘The Shield of Achilles’ rank not only among my favorite political poems but among my favorite poems of any kind. What was my younger self thinking? In fact, what was Auden thinking when, a quarter century after writing ‘September 1, 1939,’ he denounced it as ‘infected with an incurable dishonesty’?
Two years ago, in an essay for Poetry Foundation, I wrestled with both questions. In the end I sided firmly with the Auden who’d composed the poem, not the Auden who disowned it. The catalyst for my later essay was the 2016 presidential election, which—in my judgment then and now—installed a raving authoritarian in the White House. By 2016 I had come to respect and even love ‘September 1, 1939’; after the election, for the first time, I found that I needed it. Its portrait of the dictator who spouts ‘elderly rubbish… To an apathetic grave’; its scorn for ‘the lie of Authority / Whose buildings grope the sky’—these phrases, and the ominous rhythm they swing to, seemed to capture the unfolding national disaster as well as anything else in art. What I’d once seen as sentimentality—alongside critics such as Samuel Hynes, who wrote of the poem in 1982 that it ‘sentimentalizes loneliness… sentimentalizes the role of the artist (what good will his voice do in a world war?)…sentimentalizes the idea of affirmation itself’—now looked like desperate courage even as Hynes’s condescension looked cheap. What I’d seen as hectoring turned out to be a moral urgency I hadn’t grasped, because nothing in my experience had prepared me to grasp it.
My Auden piece was also sparked by Stephanie Burt’s post-election essay on Yeats for Boston Review—a model of rereading as self-examination. As Burt grapples with the rise of the new regime, she confesses that it has changed her understanding not only of American history but of American poetry:
It is the American moderns…who might be called writers of liberalism, to whom I feel especially close—[Marianne] Moore, [Elizabeth] Bishop, Randall Jarrell, late James Merrill, early Gwendolyn Brooks, even Frank O’Hara (to name only the dead)—and who are the hardest for me to read right now. I have the feeling that they, and I, got something deeply, sadly wrong.
I wouldn’t have said ‘wrong,’ exactly, but I know what Burt means. When politics turns ugly, we seek out those writers who confront ugliness most trenchantly and directly. I understand why Burt set aside moderation and turned to Yeats; since 2016 I’ve turned more often to Yeats also, and to Auden and Brooks (early and late) and Adrienne Rich, Brecht and Baldwin and Orwell.
Read the full article in Daily JSTOR.
Heart of lonesome galaxy is brimming with dark matter
NASA, 3 June 2019
Isolated for billions of years, a galaxy with more dark matter packed into its core than expected has been identified by astronomers using data from NASA’s Chandra X-ray Observatory.
The galaxy, known as Markarian 1216 (abbreviated as Mrk 1216), contains stars that are within 10% the age of the universe – that is, almost as old as the universe itself. Scientists have found that it has gone through a different evolution than typical galaxies, both in terms of its stars and the invisible dark matter that, through gravity, holds the galaxy together. Dark matter accounts for about 85% of the matter in the universe, although it has only been detected indirectly.
Mrk 1216 belongs to a family of elliptically shaped galaxies that are more densely packed with stars in their centers than most other galaxies. Astronomers think they have descended from reddish, compact galaxies called ‘red nuggets’ that formed about a billion years after the big bang, but then stalled in their growth about 10 billion years ago.
If this explanation is correct, then the dark matter in Mark 1216 and its galactic cousins should also be tightly packed. To test this idea for the first time, a pair of astronomers studied the X-ray brightness and temperature of hot gas at different distances from Mrk 1216’s center, so they could ‘weigh’ how much dark matter exists in the middle of the galaxy.
‘When we compared the Chandra data to our computer models, we found a much stronger concentration of dark matter was required than we find in other galaxies of similar total mass,’ said David Buote of the University of California at Irvine. ‘This tells us the history of Mrk 1216 is very different from the typical galaxy. Essentially all of its stars and dark matter was assembled long ago with little added in the past 10 billion years.’
According to the new study, a halo, or fuzzy sphere, of dark matter formed around the center of Mrk 1216 about 3 or 4 billion years after the big bang. This halo is expected to have extended over a larger region than the stars in the galaxy. The formation of such a red nugget galaxy was typical for a wide range of elliptical galaxies seen today. However, unlike Mrk 1216, most giant elliptical galaxies continued to gradually grow in size when smaller galaxies merged with them over cosmic time.
Read the full article on NASA.
The images are, from top down: Caster Semenya at the London 2012 Olympics (source: Wikipedia); Cover of Naomi Wolf’s ‘Outrages’; Jean-Léon Gérôme, Étude D’Après Un Modèle Feminine, © Gallerie Jean-François Heim-Bȃle; Neurons grown from the reprogrammed skin cells of Philip Ball (Credit: Christopher Lovejoy/Charlie Arber/Selina Wray, University College London).