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.
The emptiness of an ending
Amanda Hammer, Africa is a Country, 8 September 2019
A day dawned with an early call.
Mugabe was dead.
And then, nothing. Nothing at all
in my heart and mind.
Just a gaping, blank canvas, waiting for a clear script to form out of the morass of both shadowy and sharp memories that had defined so much of the texture of the past four decades.
A day later, the emptiness begins to fill, first with older images floating up like old newsprint, in black-and-white. Hopeful ones like the signings at Lancaster House, a new flag raised, the jubilant mass rallies of the first independent elections. But others too: the dark silhouettes of government soldiers and brutalized bodies from the Gukurahundi era. Then full-color clips start to run like a speeded-up film. A collage of the personal and the political. Times of optimism and loss at both the intimate and the national scale. A spectrum of people and places reconstituted over time by the fortunes and misfortunes of Zimbabwe, shaped so profoundly by the dominating presence of Mugabe.
Mugabe, the grand overseer of progress, and simultaneously the master of darkness. A figure of national liberation and narrow authoritarianism. Discordance between promises and deeds, between narratives of inclusion and practices of exclusion. The constant abuser of ordinary hope within an increasingly heartless political landscape.
I came to know these contradictory forces early on, soon after independence, working together with committed ex-combatants and bureaucrats in government ministries in the ‘development decade’ of the 1980s and into the early 90s. There was the invigorating energy of sharing a seemingly common national project of transformation with tangible results, but only if one wasn’t critical in any way of The Party (Zanu PF); only if one didn’t confront its self-proclaimed authority. The threats were either subtle or not, depending on who and where you were…
Repeatedly, Mugabe’s presence dominated not only the political landscape, but the everyday lives, future possibilities, and consciousness of all Zimbabweans, one way or another. When he was finally deposed through a non-violent ‘non’-coup in November 2017, the relief of an imagined Mugabe-less future was, for a vast majority, momentarily exhilarating. Yet that future didn’t come. Instead, Mugabe’s legacy of intolerance and violence, that had defined The Party from the outset, continued to dominate its trajectory, even in the face of his demise.
Now with Mugabe’s death, some might wonder if at last there might be space for a new self-definition as a nation, as a broad family of nationals, with a shared national project. Sadly, this seems doubtful. With current President Mnangagwa’s public reverence for his predecessor, who was his mentor and protector for decades—despite being the man who deposed him—we are still refused the kind of closure of a Mugabe-dominated era we had so long hoped for.
Read the full article in Africa is a Country.
Why I quit the writers’ room
Walter Moseley, New York Times, 6 September 2019
Earlier this year, I had just finished with the ‘Snowfall’ writers’ room for the season when I took a similar job on a different show at a different network. I’d been in the new room for a few weeks when I got the call from Human Resources. A pleasant-sounding young man said, ‘Mr. Mosley, it has been reported that you used the N-word in the writers’ room.’
I replied, ‘I am the N-word in the writers’ room.’
He said, very nicely, that I could not use that word except in a script. I could write it but I could not say it. Me. A man whose people in America have been, among other things, slandered by many words. But I could no longer use that particular word to describe the environs of my experience.
I have to stop with the forward thrust of this story to say that I had indeed said the word in the room. I hadn’t called anyone it. I just told a story about a cop who explained to me, on the streets of Los Angeles, that he stopped all niggers in paddy neighborhoods and all paddies in nigger neighborhoods, because they were usually up to no good. I was telling a true story as I remembered it.
Someone in the room, I have no idea who, called H.R. and said that my use of the word made them uncomfortable, and the H.R. representative called to inform me that such language was unacceptable to my employers. I couldn’t use that word in common parlance, even to express an experience I lived through.
There I was, a black man in America who shares with millions of others the history of racism. And more often than not, treated as subhuman. If addressed at all that history had to be rendered in words my employers regarded as acceptable.
There I was being chastised for criticizing the word that oppressed me and mine for centuries. As far as I know the word is in the dictionary. As far as I know the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence assure me of both the freedom of speech and the pursuit of happiness.
How can I exercise these freedoms when my place of employment tells me that my job is on the line if I say a word that makes somebody, an unknown person, uncomfortable?
Read the full article in the New York Times.
The idea that whites can’t refer to the N-word
John McWhorter, The Atlantic, 27 August 2019
It’s one thing to ban a word because it is a pitiless slur often used amid physical violence. That black people use it—and have forever—as a term of endearment among one another complicates matters somewhat, but whites who ask ‘Why can’t we use it if they do?’ have always struck me as disingenuous. It isn’t rocket science to understand that words can have more than one meaning, and a sensible rule is that blacks can use the word but whites can’t.
However, since the 1990s this rule has undergone mission creep, under which whites are not only not supposed to level the word as a slur, but are also not supposed to even refer to it. That idea has been entrenched for long enough now that it is coming to feel normal, but then normal is not always normal. It borders, as I suggested above, on taboo.
There are societies – such as many in Australia – in which it is forbidden to use ordinary language with in-laws, and this taboo is often extended even to referring to in-laws in conversation. Upon marrying, one must master a whole different vocabulary for talking to and/or about, for example, one’s mother-in-law. Many are familiar with the click sounds in Xhosa. However, clicks didn’t originate in Xhosa, but in lesser-known languages spoken by hunter-gatherers. Xhosa speakers, it is thought, adopted clicks from these other communities as part of an effort to create avoidance language, substituting them for ordinary sounds in Xhosa.
Practices like this sound neat to Americans – but also arbitrary. We understand that the practice is rooted in respect, but can’t help thinking that the official practice has drifted somewhat beyond what logic would dictate. The idea that nonblacks cannot even soberly refer to the N-word verges on this kind of thing. Note the word verges: The N-word is a slur and loaded in a way that, say, asking your mother-in-law what she’d like for dinner is not; sparing usage and serious caution are warranted. Respect, nevertheless, has morphed into a kind of genuflection that an outsider might find difficult to understand.
That outsider could be an American time-traveler from as recently as the 1990s. Many of us still harbor a small collection of cassettes we just can’t bear to chuck – mixtapes, toddlers telling stories, etc. One of mine is the first media interview I ever did, a radio talk-show episode on the N-word, in 1995. The host was white, the other guest was as well, and we had a discussion about the origins and current usage of that word, except that we used the real one.
The idea that we would euphemize the word as ‘the N-word’ when we were talking about it rather than using it would not have occurred to any of us. It was a perfectly ordinary interview of the period. Sheck, who is in her 60s, was mature and working during this time and thus must remember when we were not so peculiarly uptight.
Read the full article in the Atlantic.
Nativism and narrow nationalism
in South African politics
Siphokazi Mbolo & Ashley Nyiko Mabasa,
Africa is a Country, 6 September 2019
A history riddled with racial and gender oppression, economic inequality, and ethnic disputes, contemporary South Africa is facing mounting and legitimate pressures to resolve profound social challenges. Multiple organizations and political groups have joined the quest to tackle racism, patriarchy, poverty, and inequality. What unites these groups is the desire to be a voice for the historically disadvantaged, and to construct an African nationalism.
How to build such a nationalism, in the context of South Africa, has historically been called the ‘National Question,’ the question of who belongs in South Africa. Currently, equality, and equity are merely aspirations as the country is one of the most unequal societies in the world. In addition, socio-economic and institutional discrimination continues to undermine the full development of the black majority. South African political groups are rightfully aligned in their pursuit for complete socio-economic and political liberation for the historically disadvantaged, however, the way some of these groups have chosen to respond to these challenges is problematic. They mostly dwell on racial and ethnic mobilization centered on fear and intolerance for different ethnicities, religions, and racial groups.
Nativism and nationalism can be found to be problematic in contemporary South African politics. Fairchance Ncube, a columnist with News24, asserts that there is a propensity among some nationalists and Afro-radicals—which in this instance would be the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) and Black First Land First (BLF) among others—’to appeal to narratives of nativism and indigeneity as the indispensable basis for certain entitlements (particularly the land and its natural resources).’ Considering the exclusionary and oppressive history of colonization and apartheid, some of the claims lodged by these groups are justified, particularly considering the inherited inequalities from those governments and the present-day challenge to eradicate them.
However, to paint this perspective in a different light, Achille Mbembe uses the analogy of Nongqwase, the 16 year-old Xhosa girl who in 1854 prophesied to the Xhosa people, via her uncle, to kill all their cattle en masse to combat the deprivation suffered under British colonialism. The prophecy was that the Xhosa ancestral spirit would subsequently resurrect and sweep away the white colonizers to the sea. None of this happened and:
…by May 1857, 400,000 cattle had been slaughtered and 40,000 Xhosa had died of starvation. At least another 40,000 had left their homes in search of food … the whole land was surrounded by the smell of death, Xhosa independence and self-rule had effectively ended.
According to Mbembe, ‘Nongqawuse syndrome is a populist rhetoric and a millenarian form of politics which advocates, uses and legitimizes self-destruction or national suicide, as a means of salvation.’
Read the full article in Africa is a Country.
Johnson thinks a ‘culture war’ will win
crucial working-class votes. He’s wrong
Lynsey Hanley, Guardian, 6 September 2019
It was undoubtedly resentment at such malign neglect over past decades that drove much of the Brexit vote in 2016, among traditionally Labour working-class communities in the north of England and the Midlands.
But the result has been a series of tired popular narratives about the role of place in forming our identity, the most common being the idea that certain places have been ‘left behind’ – a term that conjures up a vision of areas filled with people who are bewildered and marooned in a changing world. Those places haven’t been left behind, but deliberately held back. The people in them are desperate to vote for a party that is fundamentally optimistic about our ability to cope with change and knows what it has to do to make it possible. Labour’s 2017 election manifesto did this. It boosted the turnout and won the party over 40% of the vote. That will not stop the Conservatives attempting to mount a land-grab of supposedly ‘left-behind’ Brexit voters. (It was no accident that Boris Johnson chose Wakefield as the backdrop for his rambling speech yesterday.)
A recent report by the right-leaning thinktank Onward entreated Tories to place more emphasis on ‘the politics of belonging’, suggesting that ‘voters do not want more autonomy, choice and mobility. They want a government that … protects them, their families and British businesses from the modern world.’
Do they mean the same modern world in which the British use smartphones, social media and cashless payments more than anyone else? The problem is not modernity, or nostalgia for an idealised close-knit ‘community’. People desperately want the feeling of autonomy, but are intelligent enough to recognise that autonomy isn’t possible without an underpinning of material security. And they are not going to get that under the Tories, whatever guise the party takes under the shape-shifting Johnson, and whatever pre-election bungs are cynically tossed their way by Sajid Javid.
The Labour party too – and for a longer period of time – has been misreading the politics of community. When Ed Miliband was leader at the start of this decade he convened a lot of workshops and roundtables with advisers and MPs, asking: ‘What should Labour conserve?’ In 2011 was invited to one of them, and I once got into a barney with two MPs who insisted that Miliband’s emphasis on universal benefits would lose Labour ’the white working class’ for ever if they felt that migrants and recent arrivals in communities were given equal treatment to longstanding residents. ‘It’s about community, and social cohesion, and values,’ they blustered. What right had I to challenge the idea that the white working class – as they chose to define it – were right about all things at all times?
Read the full article in the Guardian.
The constitution has been used and abused
by politicians of all parties
Helen Thompson, New Statesman, 4 September 2019
Constitutional outrage is never in short supply in British politics. Though there isn’t much that is formally forbidden by the constitution, few things can be done in a political crisis without courting the charge from opponents that they are unconstitutional. In proroguing parliament and curtailing the number of days MPs will sit before 31 October, Boris Johnson has given the opposition and his internal party critics an easy chance to stand as the constitution’s defenders against an executive bent on shredding the country’s democracy. But rhetorical posturing about the constitution in fraught political circumstances is itself a constitutional problem. The UK’s constitution requires the executive and parliament to exercise prudent judgement mediated through the UK’s historical experience. This imperative applies to words and deeds, and those wishing to stop Brexit have themselves proved reluctant to accept it.
This country’s accumulated constitutional customs ultimately uphold the idea that power rests on the consent of those who are governed. Any sober reflection on the UK’s history will show that overturning a referendum result before it has first been implemented would be a precipitous act. Consequently, members of parliament who ran for parties with a manifesto promise to implement the referendum result and who have since expended considerable effort to prevent Brexit are taking tremendous constitutional risks. Members of parliament who have passed laws purportedly to realise Brexit but in practice to buy time to thwart it are being similarly cavalier, as have those who – by signalling to the EU27 that parliament would obstruct no deal or prevent Brexit all together – have impeded the executive’s ability to negotiate an orderly withdrawal that parliament could accept.
These actions assume that more value should be attached to what MPs think about Brexit than to the referendum result, or to parliament’s willingness thus far to keep the government in office by shunning a further confidence vote. Parliamentary sovereignty is not a defence. Parliament’s sovereign authority is no more and no less than to legislate. Its sovereignty is, anyway, not the sum total of the constitution but, as the legal theorist AV Dicey explained, one part of it, along with the rule of law and constitutional conventions, which were in the final instance there to protect the democratic place of the people.
Read the full article in the New Statesman.
Green and white nationalism
Elizabeth Chatterjee, LRB Blog, 6 September 2019
An earlier generation of environmentalists rejected such an emphasis on place and authenticity as irrevocably tainted by its links to Heidegger, and by extension Nazism. As they might have predicted, contemporary appeals to land and indigeneity have provided fertile ground for a return to racist lifeboat ethics. Anders Behring Breivik, who murdered 77 people around Oslo in 2011, insisted that the rhetoric of indigenous rights was ‘an untapped goldmine’ for white nationalists: ‘We are no more terrorists than Sitting Bull.’ Breivik himself was a climate denialist, but the nascent eco-fascist movement has found it easy to fuse his ethnic chauvinism with environmental concerns. ‘Green nationalism is the only true nationalism,’ the Christchurch attacker wrote.
Right-wing extremists have seized on the opportunity to claim to speak, like Dr Seuss’s Lorax, for the trees. In some of the dimmer corners of the internet, the Pine Tree Gang – fond of using an arboreal emoji on Twitter, until journalists smelled them out – demands a white separatist homeland in the northwestern United States. Their founding philosopher is ‘Uncle Ted’, the Unabomber; they circulate such slogans as ‘Save trees, not refugees.’ Quoting both Mosley and Heidegger, the alt-right publisher Greg Johnson asserts that saving the ecosystem requires saving the white race. The Ringing Cedars of Russia, a religious homestead movement named after a series of novels, combine racial myths with environmental mysticism.
Most of these are tiny, fringe movements. But there are signs that green and white nationalism is scaling up. In the recent European elections, France’s National Rally claimed that ‘borders are the environment’s greatest ally.’ Marine Le Pen declared that someone ‘who is rooted in their home is an ecologist’, whereas those who are ‘nomadic … do not care about the environment; they have no homeland’. Across the Atlantic, the Fox News host Tucker Carlson has claimed to be against illegal immigration because it ‘produces a huge amount of litter’, while the far-right pundit Ann Coulter has suggested that Americans must ‘choose between a green America and a brown America’. In India, public tree planting and reverence for sacred groves reinforce the government’s majoritarian claim that only Hindus are the nation’s true stewards.
The political left has spent decades urging the right to take climate change seriously. We may live to regret it. Faced with the climate crisis, what kind of political solidarities can transcend the appeal of nativism and nation?
Read the full article in the LRB Blog.
‘Bees, not refugees’: the environmentalist roots
of anti-immigrant bigotry
Susie Cagle, Guardian, 16 August 2019
The environmentalist, white nationalist, and influential anti-immigration activist John Tanton died less than three weeks before the El Paso shooting. Tanton lived to see his movement shape much of modern US immigration policy, but not this latest violent turn.
A hate-filled document allegedly linked to the man suspected of killing 22 people in El Paso on 3 August echoed the kind of rhetoric generally favored by the far right – and also had a decidedly environmentalist, Tanton-like bent. The document praised the Dr Seuss character the Lorax, who says he speaks for the trees, and complained about the unsustainable overuse of paper towels. It concluded that the best course of environmental action would be mass murder.
A week prior, on an Instagram account reportedly linked to the alleged Gilroy, California, garlic festival shooter, he complained about migrant-driven sprawl. Months before, the Christchurch, New Zealand, shooter called himself an ‘eco-fascist’.
Long before this violence, researchers warned of ‘the greening of hate’. From Tanton’s anti-immigration nonprofit network to some of today’s avowed environmentalists, across the political spectrum, overpopulation and immigration in particular has been blamed for environmental collapse for over 50 years.
Anti-immigrant ideology has been part and parcel of the whole of American conservationism since the first national park was founded, in part to protect wild yet white-owned nature from Mexicans and Native Americans. National purity and natural purity were inextricably linked.
The current rise of eco-minded white supremacy follows a direct line from the powerful attorney, conservationist and eugenicist Madison Grant – a friend of trees, Teddy Roosevelt, and the colonial superiority of white land stewardship. Grant, along with the influential naturalist John Muir and other early Anglo-Saxon conservationists, was critical in preserving the country’s wildlands for white enjoyment. Muir, who founded the Sierra Club environmental group in 1892, was disturbed by the ’uncleanliness’ of the Native Americans, whom he wanted removed from Yosemite. Grant successfully lobbied, in equal measure, for the creation of protected national parks and the restriction of immigration by non-whites.
‘Environmentalists were hardcore eugenicists. They were as committed to racial thinking as they were to protecting the great redwoods in California,’ said Heidi Beirich, intelligence project director at the Southern Poverty Law Center.
Read the full article in the Guardian.
JM Coetzee, New York Review of Books, 26 September 2019
No Friend But the Mountains provides a wholly engrossing account of the first four years that Boochani spent on Manus, up to the time when the prison camp was closed and the prisoners resettled elsewhere on the island. Just as absorbing is his analysis of the system that reigns in the camp, a system imposed by the Australian authorities but autonomous in the sense that it holds the jailers as well as the prisoners in its grip.
The aim of the system is to break the will of the prisoners and make them accept refoulement. It works by fostering animosities among them, eroding solidarity and leaving them feeling isolated. The simplest of means are used to create paranoia. The electricity running the fans that provide relief from the insufferable heat is switched on and off for no reason. There is drinking water, but it is always lukewarm.
Occasionally chilled fruit juice appears, but according to no detectable schedule. With nothing else to do, prisoners become obsessed with finding patterns in these random events: ‘A twisted system governs the prison, a deranged logic that confines the mind of the prisoner, an extremely oppressive form of governance that the prisoner internalises.’
New rules and regulations are introduced from week to week, for which no one will accept responsibility: ‘No person who is a part of the system can ever provide an answer—neither the officers nor the other employees…. All they can say is, ‘I’m sorry, I’m just following orders.’’ The daily routine includes four body-checks. The eyes of the Australian guards who carry out the searches are ‘cold, barbaric, hateful.’
Boochani’s fellow prisoners come from all over the world: Afghanistan, Sri Lanka, Sudan, Lebanon, Iran, Somalia, Pakistan, Myanmar, Iraq, Kurdistan. Having to live in close proximity with strangers becomes a torment. He withdraws further and further into himself.
Moral standards deteriorate on all sides. Now and then the mango trees that surround the camp drop their fruit within the perimeter. Even Kurds, normally renowned for their hospitality, pounce on the fruit and devour it without sharing.
The toilets become a place of refuge where a prisoner can be by himself and scream his lungs out. But they also become a place of self-harm and suicide. Boochani records a terrifying episode as the prisoners witness guards removing the body of a man who had slit his wrists with a razor. Among the onlookers he detects a pulsating excitement: ‘Their responses reveal an attraction to the thrills of a night of blood…. The scene is like a festival: a festival of blood, a festival of the dead.’ For some prisoners, self-harm becomes ‘a kind of cultural practice,’ a way of gaining respect. ‘The faces of those who have self-harmed show peace, a profound peace akin to ecstasy, akin to euphoria.’
Read the full article in the New York Review of Books.
American nationalism: A debate
Michael Kazin & Atossa Araxia Abrahamian,
Dissent, Summer 2019
Of course, borders and nations are not going anywhere anytime soon. If they suddenly vanished without a massive amount of planning, investment, education, and infrastructure, you are right that things could get hairy—certainly in the short term, and especially if space and resources are a constraint. I’m not totally convinced the United States is there yet. I’m also not certain that if the southern border opened tomorrow, quite as many people would show up as network TV would lead us to believe. But for the sake of argument, let’s agree on this: if the climate continues warming at its current pace, and if there isn’t an enormous political and economic effort on the part of the United States, together with other governments, to invest in making life good for the people who are here, regardless of where they happen to be born, then life won’t be all that good for anyone.
That’s why I am arguing that the left needs to imagine a world that would allow humans to live where they please, while working to create conditions in which they have a choice in the matter. Do refugees have a choice? Do bankrupt farmers have a choice? Do abused women or mixed-status families have a choice? Will coastal communities flooded almost out of existence have a choice? I don’t think they do get to truly, freely choose where they live.
To give them this option, we need a far more expansive definition of who gets to belong where and when. That requires thinking nationally and regionally in the short term, all while thinking beyond borders, regions, and citizenship in the long term. I don’t think these two strategies are incompatible; the Greeks conceived of citizenship in concentric circles, from the nuclear family out to the whole world itself. That’s instructive for how the left should think about both solidarity and power. I agree that we should be making real changes at whatever level of power we have; it’s obvious that we have to start organizing politically at the level of nations (and more locally!) because those are the structures we have to work with right now. Just as many Sanders supporters voted for Clinton against Trump, I’ll gladly watch and help the left win national elections, even if they have the problem of being national by design.
It is the ideology of nationalism that I find indefensible. I believe any progressive movement needs to organize with the longer-term goal of a less discriminatory world. There is no value in reclaiming such a tarnished, destructive, and in many cases racist ideology for the purposes of limited, short-term electoral gain; we need progressive leaders to do better. This isn’t purity politics, either, because climate change is already forcing us all to think deeply about where borders are and the purposes they serve.
Read the full article in Dissent.
How slavery shaped American capitalism
John Clegg, Jacobin, 28 August 2019
In a New York Times Magazine article this month, Matthew Desmond provided an overview of recent work by historians of capitalism who argue that slavery was foundational to American growth and economic development in the nineteenth century. In Desmond’s words, slavery ‘helped turn a poor fledgling nation into a financial colossus.’
The article provoked predictable wails of disapproval among conservatives seeking to defend the moral integrity of capitalism, and the Times should be commended for exposing its readers to the brutal history of slavery, which is indeed central to the story of American capitalism. But the vision that Desmond presents is wrong on the details, and obscures the way in which slavery actually shaped the wealth and power of American capitalists.
Desmond begins his article by drawing on the Harvard historian Sven Beckert who argues that ‘it was on the back of cotton, and thus on the backs of slaves, that the U.S. economy ascended in the world.’ Yet Desmond neglects to mention that this claim has been widely rejected by specialists in the economic history of slavery.
It’s true that cotton was among the world’s most widely traded commodities, and that it was America’s principal antebellum export. But it’s also true that exports constituted a small share of American GDP (typically less than 10 percent) and that the total value of cotton was therefore small by comparison with the overall American economy (less than 5 percent, lower than the value of corn).
Historians like Beckert and Seth Rockman get around this fact by pointing to forward and backward linkages that connected slave-produced cotton to Northern industries. But this claim (known as ‘the cotton staple hypothesis’) has also been widely rejected by economic historians. Slave plantations provided raw cotton to Northern mills and offered some markets to Northern producers, but Southern demand was limited by the production of food and other inputs on plantations themselves (Desmond approvingly cites Walter Johnson’s claims that the South was a net importer of food, but it was not). It’s true that slavery made many fortunes, in both cotton and sugar, such that there were more millionaires per capita in the Mississippi Valley than anywhere else in the country. But it’s also true that most of that wealth stayed in the South, where it was tied up in land and slaves, such that the net effect on real accumulation was probably negative.
Read the full article in Jacobin.
The why of the world
Tim Maudlin, Boston Review, 4 September
‘Correlation is not causation.’
Though true and important, the warning has hardened into the familiarity of a cliché. Stock examples of so-called spurious correlations are now a dime a dozen. As one example goes, a Pacific island tribe believed flea infestations to be good for one’s health because they observed that healthy people had fleas while sick people did not. The correlation is real and robust, but fleas do not cause health, of course: they merely indicate it. Fleas on a fevered body abandon ship and seek a healthier host. One should not seek out and encourage fleas in the quest to ward off sickness.
The rub lies in another observation: that the evidence for causation seems to lie entirely in correlations. But for seeing correlations, we would have no clue about causation. The only reason we discovered that smoking causes lung cancer, for example, is that we observed correlations in that particular circumstance. And thus a puzzle arises: if causation cannot be reduced to correlation, how can correlation serve as evidence of causation?
The Book of Why, co-authored by the computer scientist Judea Pearl and the science writer Dana Mackenzie, sets out to give a new answer to this old question, which has been around – in some form or another, posed by scientists and philosophers alike – at least since the Enlightenment. In 2011 Pearl won the Turing Award, computer science’s highest honor, for ‘fundamental contributions to artificial intelligence through the development of a calculus of probabilistic and causal reasoning,’ and this book sets out to explain what all that means for a general audience, updating his more technical book on the same subject, Causality, published nearly two decades ago. Written in the first person, the new volume mixes theory, history, and memoir, detailing both the technical tools of causal reasoning Pearl has developed as well as the tortuous path by which he arrived at them—all along bucking a scientific establishment that, in his telling, had long ago contented itself with data-crunching analysis of correlations at the expense of investigation of causes. There are nuggets of wisdom and cautionary tales in both these aspects of the book, the scientific as well as the sociological.
Pearl also has one big axe to grind, especially when it comes to the study of human cognition—how we think—and the hype surrounding contemporary artificial intelligence. ‘Much of this data-centric history still haunts us today,’ he writes. It has now been eleven years since Wired magazine announced ‘the end of theory,’ as ‘the data deluge makes the scientific method obsolete.’ Pearl swims strenuously against this tide. ‘We live in an era that presumes Big Data to be the solution to all our problems,’ he says, ‘but I hope with this book to convince you that data are profoundly dumb.’ Data may help us predict what will happen – so well, in fact, that computers can drive cars and beat humans at very sophisticated games of strategy, from chess and Go to Jeopardy! – but even today’s most sophisticated techniques of statistical machine learning can’t make the data tell us why. For Pearl, the missing ingredient is a ‘model of reality,’ which crucially depends on causes. Modern machines, he contends against a chorus of enthusiasts, are nothing like our minds.
Read the full article in the Boston Review.
Opioid addiction rising in India
as US drugmakers push painkillers
Sarah Varney, Guardian, 28 August 2019
In the crowded waiting room of Dr Sunil Sagar’s clinic, in the working-class neighborhood of Bhagwanpur Khera, a toddler breathes from a nebulizer. The patients sit, motionless, but there is somehow tremendous noise. The clinic is a squat cement building draped in wires, a red cross on the door. Sagar sits behind a desk in a small, open room, as a squad of assistants escort patients to him.
A father with a troubled look sits down next to the doctor, holding a baby. Sagar listens to the baby’s chest with a stethoscope, pulls out scrap paper and writes a prescription. The father hands over a few rupees, and Sagar places the bills into a money drawer under his desk. The entire exchange takes perhaps two minutes.
As the Indian government loosens its prescription opioid laws after decades of lobbying by palliative care advocates desperate to ease their patients’ acute pain, the nation’s sprawling, cash-fed health care system is ripe for misuse. The sheer size of India’s system makes oversight difficult but presents a tantalizing opportunity for India’s burgeoning pain industry and multinational pharmaceutical companies seeking new markets.
A popular spot to purchase these bulk drugs is the Bhagirath Palace in the Chandni Chowk market, one of India’s largest wholesale markets that dates to the 17th century. One after the next, stalls of drug distributors advertise on brightly painted signs ‘all types of medicines’, ‘life-saving anti-cancer drugs’, ‘deal in Glaxo … Johnson & Johnson’.
Like its rigid caste system, India’s pain industry is stratified. The well-to-do visit well-appointed pain clinics, the working class turn to their neighborhood doctors, and the lower castes, especially those living in India’s vast slums, scramble for relief at roadside pharmacies, called chemists. In the Mankhurd slum in Mumbai, where the average life expectancy is 39, toddlers wander bare-bottomed, defecating in the street. Children scratch at infections on their legs. Without any municipal water, hawkers sell plastic sandwich bags filled with dirty water for 2 rupees. In this place, pain remedies are readily available.
At Shiv Medical & General Stores, an older boy tending the stall wrote out a receipt for Ultracet, branded tramadol tablets – an opioid analgesic – made by a Johnson & Johnson subsidiary. ‘Doctor’s name?’ he asked. Our guide, Mayur Helia, a community organizer, made one up. ‘Shagmu’, Helia said, giggling, and the shopkeeper wrote it down.
Helia and his colleagues are activists agitating for drinking water and sanitation in the Mumbai-area slums. ‘Painkillers are part of the daily routine,’ said social worker Alfiya Mulla. ‘They have become more normalized.’
Read the full article in the Guardian.
What the left gets wrong about knife crime
Ralph Leonard, UnHerd, 27 August 2019
In place of policies based on punishment and deterrence, there are those on the Left who argue we should frame knife crime as a public health issue, pointing to how Scotland tackled its knife crime epidemic over a decade ago. ‘You can please the Right wing press or you can be effective,’ said Ash Sarkar of Novara media, ‘what we know is effective is a public health driven model where you increase the role of social services and early intervention…if you want to please disgusted in Tunbridge Wells then increase stop and search.’
It is clear that the social indicators that factor into crime occur pretty much universally: poverty, domestic abuse, dilapidated communities, school exclusion, lack of opportunities, structural inequality, overburdened services and so on. A high level of crime and violence usually correlates with the poorest and most run down areas. So any strategy that is serious about tackling crime and violence at its root must address the material and social conditions that allow it to thrive.
However, to simply treat knife crime as a ‘public health’ issue that requires ‘early intervention’ and ‘containment strategies’, as if we were dealing with a medical crisis like AIDS or Ebola, is somewhat evasive because it doesn’t address the full picture and ignores the question of moral poverty.
Many of those who get involved in knife crime at a particular stage in their life are usually socially disengaged and detached from the wider community. They have no sense of respect for their fellow humans or the community in which they live. Slaves to nihilism and despair they are not just the products of economic poverty, but of moral poverty too. Many of them join gangs, who are almost a surrogate family to them, feeding a need for solidarity and purpose in a society that cannot provide it to them.
Because the Right is adept at appropriating the language of morality, there is a tendency on the Left to reject it, regarding it as reactionary. On some level this is understandable because the Right often uses moral arguments to individualise social problems and obscure the structural roots of crime and violence. However, the moral dimension is as important to the Left as it is to the Right, though for quite different reasons. One cannot have an alternative political and economic vision for organising society without a moral one too.
Read the full article in UnHerd.
Forget the generation gap – the gulf between
rich and poor tells the real story of our times
John Quiggin, Guardian, 26 August 2019
Recently, we’ve been hearing a gloomy story. Younger generations of Australians (millennials and Gen Z) are doing worse than their boomer parents, according to Generation Gap, a study of wealth distribution in Australia from the Grattan Institute. As a result, we are failing to maintain the ‘generational bargain’ in which each generation does better than the last.
Talk in terms of conflict between generations is familiar and fits easily into our standard framing of social issues. However, this framing misses the real story, buried in the body of the Grattan report – the (re)emergence of a ‘patrimonial’ society in which wealth, particularly inherited wealth, is the crucial determinant of life chances.
The return of the patrimonial society was a central theme in Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the 21st Century, the surprise bestseller of 2013. Piketty began his research career by looking at growing inequality in incomes in the US, Britain and France, with particular emphasis on the share going to the top 1%. In Capital, he shifted attention to the growing imbalance between labour and capital and to the rise of inherited wealth.
Looking at both the literature of the 19th century and statistical evidence from the 20th, Piketty pointed out the exceptional nature of the economy that emerged from the chaos of the Depression and world wars of the first half of the 20th century. This economy, in which the children of the baby boom grew up, was one of unprecedented economic equality in terms of both outcomes and opportunity.
The Grattan Institute report is the latest piece of evidence that this age of equality is ending. The real division, as in the 19th century, is increasingly not between the old and the young, but between those who own and control capital and those who rely on wages. Because labour’s share of income is declining, accumulating wealth by saving out of one’s own income (forgoing smashed avocado as the current cliché has it) becomes less and less feasible.
Read the full article in the Guardian.
How the untimely death of RG Collingwood
changed the course of philosophy forever
Ray Monk, Prospect, 5 September 2019
In the 20th century an unfortunate gulf opened up in philosophy between the ‘continental’ and ‘analytic’ schools. Even if you’ve never studied the subject, you might well have heard of this one split. But as the British moral philosopher Bernard Williams once pointed out, the very characterisation of this gulf is odd—one school being characterised by its qualities, the other geographically, like dividing cars between four-wheel drive models and those made in Japan.
Unsurprisingly, no one has come up with a satisfactory way of drawing the line between them. Broadly speaking, however, one can say that the continental school has its roots in the phenomenology of Edmund Husserl, and encompasses a range of diverse traditions, including the existentialism of Jean-Paul Sartre, the structuralism of Ferdinand de Saussure, the postmodernism of Jean-François Lyotard and the deconstructionism of Jacques Derrida. The analytic school, meanwhile, has its roots in the work of Gottlob Frege, Bertrand Russell and Ludwig Wittgenstein and has been until fairly recently much more narrowly focused, concentrating mainly on logic and language.
The divide is certainly strange and arguably arbitrary, but it none the less cut deep. For decades, it was possible to do a degree in philosophy at a major university in the UK or the US without once encountering any of the continental philosophers mentioned.
This splintering of the discipline would have appalled many philosophical greats from earlier ages. And – just possibly – the great schism would never have set in at all, had RG Collingwood, one of the most remarkable, open and eclectic minds of the 20th century, not died prematurely in 1943. But as it was, his Oxford chair was filled by Gilbert Ryle, a man in whose image British philosophy was soon remade. And a man who did more than his fair share to entrench the gulf.
Before the Second World War Ryle had been sympathetic to continental streams of thought, delivering a measured account of Husserl’s work to the Aristotelian Society in 1932, and reviewing Heidegger’s Being and Time with respect (even if with robust dissent) in 1928. He even gave what he later called ‘an unwanted course of lectures’ at Oxford on the work of Bolzano, Brentano, Husserl and Meinong. But after the war, dissent hardened into hostility, and, in place of respect he offered derision. Things came to a head in 1958, at Royaumont in France. A conference had been held here to connect a group of continental philosophers (mostly French phenomenologists) and their Oxford counterparts, with the aim of bridging the gap between their two schools.
Read the full article in Prospect.
‘We should be ashamed’:
bearing witness to migrant deaths at sea
Kathryn Bromwich, The Observer, 8 June 2019
It was 2011 when Italian photojournalist Max Hirzel first started thinking about the identification of migrant bodies. He was working on a project in Mali when he met a young man named Alpha, who told him about a grave he’d seen in the desert of a girl from his native Cameroon. Alpha wondered if her parents and siblings knew she was there, adding that this scared him more than death itself: the idea of being buried alone in a graveyard where no one could mourn him.
The project began in earnest in 2015, when Hirzel started touring cemeteries in Sicily to photograph migrants’ graves. Then, on 18 April, the deadliest modern shipwreck in the Mediterranean happened: a vessel carrying between 700 and 1,100 people sank between Libya and Italy only 28 survived. Matteo Renzi, the Italian prime minister at the time, vowed to salvage the ship in an effort to identify the bodies and give them a proper burial, and the vessel – now known as ‘the boat of innocents’ – was pulled to the surface in June 2016.
The bodies on board were taken to a Nato base in Melilli, Sicily, where forensic doctors performed autopsies; further testing was done at the Labanof laboratory in Milan by a team of pathologists, many of them very young, led by Dr Cristina Cattaneo. The lengthy and laborious process involved cataloguing objects and documents found on the victims, and, where possible, comparing post-mortem samples with items provided by the families.
Hirzel documented this process and others like it in his series Migrant Bodies. ‘In Italy, there’s no standard protocol for dealing with bodies recovered at sea – the judicial authorities at local level make their own arrangements,’ he says. ‘This kind of work is done very rarely.’ Renzi’s decision to recover the boat was controversial, with critics questioning the €9.5m spent. Hirzel wanted to show the value of these efforts: the series felt like a duty, he says, to victims and their families…
Hirzel hopes his images will act as testimony. ‘Maybe one day these photos will be used to assess our current societies. At least no one will be able to say they didn’t know what was happening – this is proof.’ Death, he adds, is something that connects us all. ‘We’ve seen a lot of coverage of migration, but this is an angle that touches us as humans. Grief, death – this is something we all have in common.’
Read the full article in the Observer.
Ancient worm fossil rolls back origins of animal life
Colin Barras, Nature, 4 September 2019
More than half a billion years ago, a strange, worm-like creature died as it crawled across the muddy sea floor. Both the organism and the trail it left lay undisturbed for so long that they fossilized. Now, they are helping to revise our understanding of when and how animals evolved.
The fossil, which formed some time between 551 million and 539 million years ago, in the Ediacaran period, joins a growing body of evidence that challenges the idea that animal life on Earth burst onto the scene in an event known as the Cambrian explosion, which began about 539 million years ago.
‘It is just pushing things further and further back into the Ediacaran,’ says Rachel Wood, a geoscientist at the University of Edinburgh, UK. The Cambrian explosion no longer appears to be such an abrupt event in the history of life on Earth, she says. An analysis of the fossil, along with a few dozen similar specimens found in the same rock sequence in southern China, is published in Nature1.
‘What’s extraordinary about this paper is it’s three home runs in the same five-page manuscript,’ says Simon Darroch, a palaeontologist at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee. First, it’s exceptionally rare to find a dead animal preserved at the end of a trail it made when alive, he says. Second, the fossil dates to a crucial moment in the evolution of animal life.
And third: ‘It’s such a bizarre-looking organism,’ says Darroch. The creature, which has been named Yilingia spiciformis and was up to 27 centimetres long, seems to be a biologically complex animal with a distinct front and rear end. ‘We don’t really have many of those from the Ediacaran,’ he says.
The rock record has already revealed that the Ediacaran seas were rich in life, but many Ediacaran fossils have strange anatomical features that are unlike those seen in modern animals. Because of this, palaeontologists have struggled to relate the Ediacaran organisms to the creatures of the Cambrian period. This bolstered the idea that the Cambrian explosion represented the dramatic first appearance of familiar animals.
Read the full article in Nature.
‘The opposite of philosophy is taking things for granted’
Jonathan Rée & Samira Shackle,
New Humanist, 31 July 2019
What is the practice of philosophy and what does looks like?
I get a bit worried talking about accessibility and inaccessibility as it makes it sound as though obstacles have been put up, and that the task of the historian or the teacher is to take them away and make it easy. In a way I think that if it’s easy there’s no point. If philosophy is worth anything, it’s because it really makes you confront ideas that you’ve absorbed uncritically in the past, and makes you start think: ‘maybe they’re wrong’.
Philosophy is valuable because it empowers you intellectually, to have the courage to realise that ideas that are universally respected may nevertheless be complete bullshit. Not necessarily that they are, but that you really have to think it out for yourself. It is something that a socialist minded person might find hard to come to terms with, as there is something very individualistic about philosophy, in the sense that the practice of philosophy really is working things out for yourself. The opposite of philosophy is taking things for granted.
In the book. you dispute this idea that philosophy is a study of progress towards the truth.
I think philosophy is an individual struggling to understand their own way of thinking. So either on your own or with teachers or books you can make a measurable progress in recognising that things that you took for granted are not necessarily true. But I don’t think that philosophy results in things that can be passed on from one person to another or from one generation to another. In philosophy every individual has their own problems and they have to work on them on their own. It’s a bit like psychoanalysis where you just have to do it for yourself, and so philosophy is essentially working on oneself. If you progress toward some impersonal truth then you’re distracting yourself from what could be profitable or useful for you, as you’re forgetting about the ceaseless self criticism that makes philosophy a reasonably worthwhile activity.
Read the full article in the New Humanist.
The case that made an ex-ICE attorney
realize the government was relying
on false ‘evidence’ against migrants
Melissa del Bosque, ProPublica, 13 August 2019
Ahmadi and Peña laid out the evidence of Carlos’ innocence before the court: the certified letter from the Justice Ministry stating he had no criminal record, a letter from his former employer attesting to his good moral character and the sworn affidavit from Carlos’ mother about her findings in San Salvador.
After they finished, Friedman turned to the two attorneys representing the government. ‘At this point, the evidence that the plaintiff has presented from El Salvador shows, does it not, that he has no criminal record and no convictions?’ he asked.
‘That is the evidence that they presented, yes,’ said one of the attorneys.
‘Do you contest that?’ the judge asked.
‘No,’ she said, pausing. ‘But he was identified in two separate databases, which prevent him from being housed in a family residential center. … [HHS] have explicit requirements that say a gang affiliation is a bar to housing.’
Peña puzzled over the government’s argument. The lawyers acknowledged that Carlos wasn’t a criminal, then insisted he was a gang member because the government databases said so. But they wouldn’t discuss the nature of the evidence these databases contained. Peña supposed one of the databases was the one the Border Patrol used for background checks. But the other had to be the State Department’s new gang intelligence gathering initiative. That raised a bunch of questions that no one appeared willing to address or even let her ask. Did the center collect biometric evidence, like fingerprints, she wondered, or just names Salvadoran police had turned over? And how were they vetting the information from police? She herself had helped author reports, while working at the State Department, documenting corruption and human rights abuses committed by the police in El Salvador. (The DOJ and ICE did not respond to requests for comment. A State Department spokesperson said that each analyst at the center is vetted as required by law.)
Read the full article in ProPublica.
Pop-up populism: The failure
of left-wing nationalism in Germany
Quinn Slobodian & William Callison,
Dissent, Summer 2019
Theorists of left populism like to argue that ‘the people’ needs an adversary against which it can define itself. Who was ‘the adversary’ for Aufstehen? It was an eclectic group. At its head was Merkel’s government, followed by the forces of what they called ‘Goldman Sachs capitalism.’ Arrayed behind them were a less typical crew for the left: an alliance of migrants (some of whom were suspect followers of ‘hate preachers of radicalized Islam’) and the naïve leftists who loved them. Together, they played the role of useful idiots for a ruling class intent on driving down wages by swamping the remains of the welfare state.
Against this union of elites and outsiders, Aufstehen offered ‘the realistic left’ a middle approach that distinguished between ‘forced’ and ‘economic’ migration – lest all ‘competitors for scarce resources at the bottom of society’ be given access to the German labor market and social welfare benefits. ‘If the core concern of leftist politics is to represent the disadvantaged,’ Wagenknecht explained, ‘then the no-borders position is the opposite of being on the left.’
Although Aufstehen’s leaders insisted at every opportunity that their movement was not defined by its opposition to migrants, their consistent tack was to recast migrants as either pawns in the game of finance capital or as the phony poster children of misguided urban idealists. ‘Cosmopolitanism, anti-racism, and protection of minorities,’ Wagenknecht claimed, ‘are feel-good labels to conceal crude upward redistribution and to preserve a good conscience for the beneficiaries.’ Streeck went further, calling the use of taxpayer euros for migrant resettlement ‘morally obligatory expropriation’ and casting doubt on the motives of the refugees coming to Germany. In one snide remark, he complained, ‘we send our own troops into the Afghan fire and simultaneously take as refugees Afghan men who are fit for service and have no desire to stand by our side to fight the Taliban.’
According to Aufstehen’s theorists, real international solidarity meant helping foreigners stay at home and fight their own struggles. In an interview-debate with former AfD leader Frauke Petry, Wagenknecht criticized the AfD for being too open to immigration – specifically, for drawing ‘highly qualified people from poorer countries,’ who would be better off in their native lands. Or, as Streeck put it in an interview: ‘Would you want Nelson Mandela to be a refugee in Germany? No! He’d be a mail carrier bringing Amazon parcels to your house. . . . he was needed somewhere else.’
Against the Alternative for Germany, Wagenknecht and Streeck posed Attrition for Germany: barricade the remaining territory of the welfare state against the invaders without and their witless accomplices within.
Read the full article in Dissent.
Britain Is hoarding a treasure no one is allowed to see
Daniel Trilling, The Atlantic, 9 July 2019
In a storeroom of the British Museum here sits a collection of 11 wood and stone tablets that nobody is allowed to see. They are Christian plaques, or tabots, that represent the Ark of the Covenant, and they belong – though belong in this case is a contested term – to the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, which believes only its priests should view them.
The tabots were seized, along with hundreds of other precious items – processional crosses, gold and silver jewelry, illustrated manuscripts – by the British army in 1868, after it defeated Ethiopian Emperor Tewodros II at the battle of Maqdala. There is hardly a clearer case of officially sanctioned plunder: When Tewodros committed suicide, soldiers ransacked his treasury, then auctioned off their finds among their entourage to pay for the expedition. They had even brought along an expert from the British Museum to bid for some of the choicest items. The majority of the artifacts, some of which first passed through the hands of private owners, now sit in the collections of leading U.K. museums and libraries, even though Ethiopia has repeatedly asked for them back over the past century and a half.
Today, Ethiopia is asking once again, yet even in the case of the tabots – which are of limited use to the U.K., since literally nobody is allowed to see them – the answer is no. The British Museum’s best offer, made last month, was that it would consider the possibility of a long-term loan.
For many Ethiopians, the items seized at Maqdala are of vital importance – ‘a fundamental part of the existential fabric of Ethiopia and its people,’ according to Hirut Kassaw, the country’s culture minister, who visited the U.K. in March and requested their return. To Britain, as with many of the objects gathered for its museums during the era of imperial expansion, the tabotsmean relatively little by themselves – until, that is, someone asks for them back.
Requests for the permanent return of items taken without their owners’ consent, known as restitution, have gathered pace in recent years. A few months before Hirut’s visit to the U.K., the governor of Easter Island, the Chilean territory, gave an emotional press conference on the steps of the British Museum asking for the return of a stone moai head taken by a British warship in 1868 and given to Queen Victoria; indigenous islanders believe the head is the reincarnation of their relatives. Nigeria has been asking for the return of the Benin bronzes, sculptures that decorated the royal palace of Benin before it was sacked by the British in 1897 (again, a loan has been offered). In January, the British Museum was forced once again to explain publicly why it would not return the Parthenon Marbles – subject to a high-profile and long-running claim from the Greek state – to Athens. Such requests have sparked a nervous reaction from museum officials and politicians, who raise the prospect of collections being emptied and warn of a threat to liberal, cosmopolitan values. In such a view, restitution is not a matter of putting right historical wrongs, but a symptom of destructive identity politics, which is portrayed by parts of Britain’s elite as a growing threat.
Read the full article in the Atlantic.
Push for ethnic studies in schools
faces a dilemma: whose stories to tell
Dana Goldstein, New York Times, 15 August 2019
Discuss a recent instance of police brutality in your community. Read op-eds arguing for and against legal status for unauthorized immigrants. Compare and contrast border conditions in the Palestinian territories and Mexico.
Those are some of the lesson plans suggested in a draft of California’s newly proposed ethnic studies curriculum for K-12 public schools. The documents have led to bitter debate in recent weeks over whether they veer into left-wing propaganda, and whether they are inclusive enough of Jews and other ethnic groups. Now, amid a growing outcry, even progressive policymakers in the state are promising significant revisions.
The materials are unapologetically activist — and jargony. They ask students to ‘critique empire and its relationship to white supremacy, racism, patriarchy, cisheteropatriarchy, capitalism, ableism, anthropocentrism and other forms of power and oppression.’ A goal, the draft states, is to ‘connect ourselves to past and contemporary resistance movements that struggle for social justice’…
The debate in California highlights some of the difficult questions that educators will face: Which groups, and whose histories, should be included? Is the purpose to create young, left-leaning activists, or to give students access to a broad range of opinions? And are teachers, the majority of whom are white, ready to teach a discipline that is unfamiliar to many of them?
‘We’re fighting for the history we don’t see,’ said Jorge Pacheco Jr., a member of the committee that wrote the draft and an ethnic studies teacher in the Mountain View Whisman School District.
But after California released the draft of the materials for public comment in June, some Jewish legislators and organizations complained that anti-Semitism was not an area of emphasis, while the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement against Israel came up repeatedly. Armenian, Greek, Hindu and Korean organizations later joined the Jewish groups in calling for revisions.
Shereen Bhalla, director of education for the Hindu American Foundation, said the curriculum should include information on the contributions Indian-Americans have made to the United States, and on the discrimination they have faced through immigration restrictions and hate crimes.
Read the full article in the New York Times.
Challenging the social media moral panic:
Preserving free expression under hypertransparency
Milton Mueller, Cato Institute, 23 July 2019
Social media are now widely criticized after enjoying a long period of public approbation. The kinds of human activities that are coordinated through social media, good as well as bad, have always existed. However, these activities were not visible or accessible to the whole of society. As conversation, socialization, and commerce are aggregated into large-scale, public commercial platforms, they become highly visible to the public and generate storable, searchable records. Social media make human interactions hypertransparent and displace the responsibility for societal acts from the perpetrators to the platform that makes them visible.
This hypertransparency is fostering a moral panic around social media. Internet platforms, like earlier new media technologies such as TV and radio, now stand accused of a stunning array of evils: addiction, fostering terrorism and extremism, facilitating ethnic cleansing, and even the destruction of democracy. The social-psychological dynamics of hypertransparency lend themselves to the conclusion that social media cause the problems they reveal and that society would be improved by regulating the intermediaries that facilitate unwanted activities.
This moral panic should give way to calmer reflection. There needs to be a clear articulation of the tremendous value of social media platforms based on their ability to match seekers and providers of information in huge quantities. We should also recognize that calls for government-induced content moderation will make these platforms battlegrounds for a perpetual intensifying conflict over who gets to silence whom. Finally, we need a renewed affirmation of Section 230 of the 1996 Telecommunications Act, which shields internet intermediaries from liability for users’ speech. Contrary to Facebook’s call for government-supervised content regulation, we need to keep platforms, not the state, responsible for finding the optimal balance between content moderation, freedom of expression, and economic value. The alternative of greater government regulation would absolve social media companies of market responsibility for their decisions and would probably lead them to exclude and suppress even more legal speech than they do now. It is the moral panic and proposals for regulation that threaten freedom and democracy.
Read the full article at the Cato Institute.
A burst of clues to South Asians’ genetic ancestry
Sarah Zhang, The Atlantic, 5 September 2019
The two studies piece together a history of how the people of the Indus Valley civilization are related to South Asians today. After the decline of the civilization 4,000 years ago, people with a genetic makeup similar to I6113 mixed with people of Southeast Asian hunter-gatherer ancestry to form what has been called Ancestral South Indians. From 4,000 to 3,000 years ago, other people descended from the Indus Valley civilization mixed with people of steppe-pastoralist ancestry, who likely brought horses and the Indo-European languages now spoken on the subcontinent, to form a group that has been called Ancestral North Indians. These two ancestral groups then mixed as well, giving rise to the great diversity of ethnic groups in South Asia. Go back far enough, and both sides trace to the Indus Valley civilization, which appears to be the single largest source of ancestry for modern South Asians.
The team studying I6113 noticed something intriguing about the Iranian-related portion of her ancestry, too. It appears to date to before the advent of farming in the Fertile Crescent. This suggests that farming did not, as many have thought, spread to South Asia through the migration of people from the Near East. It may have arisen independently in South Asia or spread through cultural contact.
Of course, this is a lot to rest on a single genome. ‘That would be like taking a single sample from Tokyo and trying to generalize about the whole ancestry of Japan,’ Reich admits. But the team’s confidence in its results was bolstered when the researches found that I6113 was genetically similar to 11 people from the 523-genome paper who were buried not in South Asia, but in what is now Iran and Turkmenistan. These 11 people were also ‘outliers’ in their own burial sites. The team thinks they may have been migrants or the children of migrants from the Indus Valley civilization. Archaeological evidence suggests people traveled between these regions as well.
The cities of the Indus Valley Civilization were cosmopolitan places, which also makes it harder to generalize from one genome. J. Mark Kenoyer, an anthropologist at the University of Wisconsin at Madison who was not an author of either study, cautions that only a small number of people who lived in these cities were buried in cemeteries—probably elites. The rest might have been cremated, or their bones simply left uncovered and thus scattered over time. ‘The cemeteries of the Indus civilization do not represent the people of the Indus civilization. They represent one community,’ he says.
Read the full article in the Atlantic.
When did nature become moral?
Hillary Angelo, Public Books, 3 July 2019
When did nature become a good for cities? When did city dwellers start imagining nature to be something they were missing? Today, urbanites’ moral associations with nature are so obvious and widely shared that a recent New Yorker cartoon of a couple at the dinner table was captioned: ‘Is this from the community garden? It tastes sanctimonious.’ For better or worse, most of us are so steeped in this view of nature that it is hard to imagine how it could be otherwise. But it once was.
Many believe that nature became an ethical force in city life—a process Justin Farrell calls the ‘moralization of nature’ for urban inhabitants—on account of 19th-century industrial cities. The lack of access to clean air, water, sunshine, and green space in crowded, polluted urban environments—in contrast to a real nature ‘out there’—transformed nature from a material into a moral good. These unnatural cities, the argument goes, forced people to see nature as not just something good, but something good for you: spiritually, emotionally, even physically.
Yet if this new version of nature was only a reaction to industrial cities of one era, why should it remain so tenacious and ubiquitous a notion? Today, it is not just residents of formerly industrial cities, like New York or London, who view nature as good. ‘Green cities’ are an increasingly popular concept invoked in public policy around the world, taking very similar forms from Detroit to Abu Dhabi. Sustainability and resilience are master tropes for urban planning in a wide variety of environments that are now facing 21st-century urban-environmental problems.
Are today’s dreams of green cities inspired by the same forms of moral nature birthed in the 19th-century industrial metropolis? Do the public-health movements of the 19th century connect to 21st-century adaptation and mitigation efforts to combat climate change? And how might we update explanations of the causes and consequences of such views of nature in order to better understand urban-environmental interventions today?
Read the full article in Public Books.
Chemists make first-ever ring of pure carbon
Davide Castelvecchi, Nature, 15 August 2019
Long after most chemists had given up trying, a team of researchers has synthesized the first ring-shaped molecule of pure carbon — a circle of 18 atoms. The chemists started with a triangular molecule of carbon and oxygen, which they manipulated with electric currents to create the carbon-18 ring. Initial studies of the properties of the molecule, called a cyclocarbon, suggest that it acts as a semiconductor, which could make similar straight carbon chains useful as molecular-scale electronic components.
It is an ‘absolutely stunning work’ that opens up a new field of investigation, says Yoshito Tobe, a chemist at Osaka University in Japan. ‘Many scientists, including myself, have tried to capture cyclocarbons and determine their molecular structures, but in vain,’ Tobe says. The results appear in Science1 on 15 August.
Pure carbon comes in several different forms, including diamond, graphite and ‘nanotubes’. Atoms of the element can form chemical bonds with themselves in various configurations: for example, each atom can bind to four neighbours in a pyramid-shaped pattern, as in diamond; or to three, as in the hexagonal patterns that make up the single-atom-thick sheets of graphene. (Such a three-bond pattern is also found in bulk graphite as well as in carbon nanotubes and in the globular molecules called fullerenes.)
But carbon can also form bonds with just two nearby atoms. Nobel-prizewinning chemist Roald Hoffmann at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York, and others have long theorized that this would lead to pure chains of carbon atoms. Each atom might form either a double bond on each side — meaning the adjacent atoms share two electrons — or a triple bond on one side and a single bond on the other. Various teams have attempted to synthesize rings or chains based on this pattern.
But because this type of structure is more chemically reactive than graphene or diamond, it is less stable, especially when bent, says chemist Przemyslaw Gawel of the University of Oxford, UK. Synthesizing stable chains and rings has usually required the inclusion of elements other than carbon. Some experiments have hinted at the creation of all-carbon rings in a gas cloud, but they have not able to find conclusive proof.
Read the full article in Nature.
Facebook and Google trackers
are showing on porn sites
Charles Warzel, New York Times, 17 July 2019
Silicon Valley’s biggest companies are always watching you — even when you’re browsing pornography websites in incognito mode.
Trackers from tech companies like Google and Facebook are logging your most personal browsing details, according to a forthcoming New Media & Society paper, which scanned 22,484 pornography websites. Where that data ultimately goes is not always clear.
‘These porn sites need to think more about the data that they hold and how it’s just as sensitive as something like health information,’ said Elena Maris, a postdoctoral researcher at Microsoft and the study’s lead author. ‘Protecting this data is crucial to the safety of its visitors. And what we’ve seen suggests that these websites and platforms might not have thought all of this through like they should have.’
The study’s other authors — Jennifer Henrichsen, a doctoral candidate at the University of Pennsylvania, and Tim Libert, a Carnegie Mellon computer science instructor — found that 93 percent of the pornography websites they scanned sent data to an average of seven third-party domains. The authors used webXray, an open-source software tool, which detects and matches third-party dataDavid Leonhardt helps you make sense of the news — and offers reading suggestions from around the web — with commentary every weekday morning.
Web tracking varies around the web. Frequently users are tracked via cookies, which are bits of text downloaded by your web browser when you visit a site. Other times trackers come in the form of invisible embedded pixels on your screen. In most cases, these trackers help sites identify and classify repeat visitors. They can help you stay logged onto a site, record your preferences and help manage your advertising profiles.
The study found that Google (or one of its subsidiary companies like the advertising platform DoubleClick) had trackers on 74 percent of the pornography sites. Trackers from the software company Oracle showed up on 24 percent of sites, and Facebook, which does not permit pornographic content or nudity on any of its platforms, had trackers on 10 percent of the sex websites scanned by the study.
‘The fact that the mechanism for adult site tracking is so similar to, say, online retail should be a huge red flag,’ Dr. Maris said. ‘This isn’t picking out a sweater and seeing it follow you across the web. This is so much more specific and deeply personal.’
Read the full article in the New York Times.
Mexico and the 1968 generation
Anne Freeland, Marginalia, 9 August 2019
On October 2, 1968, Mexican police fired on unarmed student protesters in the Plaza de las Tres Culturas of Tlatelolco, in the historical center of Mexico City. While the state initially reported twenty-six dead, witnesses and independent investigators have estimated that two to four hundred people were killed. Many more were injured and imprisoned. Ten days after the massacre, president Gustavo Díaz Ordaz inaugurated the Olympic Games that were meant to showcase Mexico’s burgeoning modernity on the global stage, something the increasingly conspicuous mass protests had threatened to disrupt. The games themselves were used as a stage for political dissent when, on October 16, Tommie Smith and John Carlos gave a Black Power salute as the Star-Spangled Banner played at their medal ceremony, an iconic gesture linking Mexico’s student movement to another site in the global constellation of protests that year, the American civil rights movement. The Tlatelolco massacre and its impunity, closely followed by the symbolic performance before the international community of the legitimacy of the authoritarian rule of the PRI (Partido Revolucionario Institucional) by means of the Olympics, dealt a devastating blow to the mass movement in the streets. But the collective political and aesthetic projects that had begun in the laboratory of the Mexican student movement continued to evolve.In 2011, the simultaneous eruption of protest movements across the world, from Occupy to the Arab Spring, elicited comparisons to 1968. In Mexico, the #YoSoy132 student movement of 2012 resonated with these emerging modes of dissent that rallied broad coalitions with the help of social media to demand democratic accountability. In 2014, student activists from Ayotzinapa commandeered buses to participate in a yearly demonstration in Mexico City commemorating the victims and survivors of Tlatelolco on the anniversary of the massacre. Forty-three of the students were kidnapped and disappeared by police in an instance of horrific repression that gained more international visibility than most but that is nonetheless representative in a history of state-sanctioned violence. Andrés Manuel López Obrador, the left populist president who took office in December 2018, ran a campaign founded on a pledge to combat the entrenched reign of impunity and corruption in the Mexican state; his presidency has been welcomed by some as the consummation and closure of the cycle that began with 1968, while early critics noted his former membership in the PRI in advising tempered expectations. This idea of the closure of a cycle—whatever happens under the new government—fails to recognize what Susana Draper identifies in 1968 Mexico: Constellation of Freedom and Democracy as the defining quality of the movement: its overflow of political protest beyond the pursuit of a set of demands into the always unfinished work of social democratization. In each of the moments of organized resistance to state violence and oppression of the past fifty years, but also in everyday practices of freedom—within communities, universities, the cultural sphere, and the home—1968 lives on.
Read the full article in Marginalia.
Iyad Rahwan, et al Nature, 24 April 2019
In his landmark 1969 book Sciences of the Artificial1, Nobel Laureate Herbert Simon wrote: ‘Natural science is knowledge about natural objects and phenomena. We ask whether there cannot also be ‘artificial’ science—knowledge about artificial objects and phenomena.’ In line with Simon’s vision, we describe the emergence of an interdisciplinary field of scientific study. This field is concerned with the scientific study of intelligent machines, not as engineering artefacts, but as a class of actors with particular behavioural patterns and ecology. This field overlaps with, but is distinct from, computer science and robotics. It treats machine behaviour empirically. This is akin to how ethology and behavioural ecology study animal behaviour by integrating physiology and biochemistry—intrinsic properties—with the study of ecology and evolution—properties shaped by the environment. Animal and human behaviours cannot be fully understood without the study of the contexts in which behaviours occur. Machine behaviour similarly cannot be fully understood without the integrated study of algorithms and the social environments in which algorithms operate.
At present, the scientists who study the behaviours of these virtual and embodied artificial intelligence (AI) agents are predominantly the same scientists who have created the agents themselves (throughout we use the term ‘AI agents’ liberally to refer to both complex and simple algorithms used to make decisions). As these scientists create agents to solve particular tasks, they often focus on ensuring the agents fulfil their intended function (although these respective fields are much broader than the specific examples listed here). For example, AI agents should meet a benchmark of accuracy in document classification, facial recognition or visual object detection. Autonomous cars must navigate successfully in a variety of weather conditions; game-playing agents must defeat a variety of human or machine opponents; and data-mining agents must learn which individuals to target in advertising campaigns on social media.
These AI agents have the potential to augment human welfare and well-being in many ways. Indeed, that is typically the vision of their creators. But a broader consideration of the behaviour of AI agents is now critical. AI agents will increasingly integrate into our society and are already involved in a variety of activities, such as credit scoring, algorithmic trading, local policing, parole decisions, driving, online dating and drone warfare3,4. Commentators and scholars from diverse fields—including, but not limited to, cognitive systems engineering, human computer interaction, human factors, science, technology and society, and safety engineering—are raising the alarm about the broad, unintended consequences of AI agents that can exhibit behaviours and produce downstream societal effects—both positive and negative—that are unanticipated by their creators.
Read the full article in Nature.
The conscience of a revolutionary
Alex Press, Bookforum, 26 July 2019
‘I often feel like I’m being suffocated in my magnificent desert.’ So wrote Victor Serge to Dwight Macdonald of his exile in Mexico. For Serge, exile was nothing new; he’d been a persecuted militant for most of his life. But his simultaneous opposition to Stalin and refusal to renounce the revolution left him isolated in the stifling hothouse of the country’s left-wing exile community. Macdonald tried to find Serge publishers in the United States, but with little luck. (Of the editors who rejected his manuscripts, Macdonald wrote, ‘There’s nothing here but cowardice on the part of these sheep.’) Cowardice; it’s a word Serge felt perfectly described many of his fellow exiles. In the collection of his notebooks from Mexico recently published by NYRB Classics, the word shows up more than once. The ‘cowardice of intellectuals,’ as he writes in an entry from 1943, defies reason. Its roots, he decides, are a fear of ‘taking a firm stand and seeing clearly.’ Beneath all their posturing, writes Serge, is a fear of commitment – something from which intellectuals recoil.
By contrast, Serge is all commitment, though of a particular type. He is committed to revolution, of course (Claude Lévi-Strauss, on the boat from France to Mexico with Serge, calls him an ‘incorrigible Marxist’). But underlying this militancy is a commitment to the individual seen as a collective hero and the product of generations of struggle. ‘In Serge’s world,’ his longtime translator Peter Sedgwick once wrote, ‘politics is composed not of statements but of persons.’ If people, not just revolutions, are centuries in the making, bearing the traces of prior social relations, of political domination and uprisings, it’s important to chronicle them as flesh and blood. Serge’s writing—pamphleteering, poetry and novels, histories, an invaluable memoir—composed as he ranged from one revolution to the next, unsettled enough to earn the name ‘conscience of the revolution’, is defined by this commitment. An awkward fit within the strictures of Bolshevik discipline, it’s this principle that makes Serge’s worlds so full, a record of the masses of militants he’d known.
Read the full article in Bookforum.
The images are, from top down: JMW Turner’s ‘The burning of the Houses of Parliament’; ‘Sale of estates, pictures and slaves in the Rotunda, New Orleans’ by William Henry Brooke; RG Collingwood as a boy, painted by his mother; Ethiopian royal crown, looted by British troops, 1868; 3-D image of the carbon molecule ring (credit: IBM Research)