The latest (somewhat random) collection of essays and stories from around the web that have caught my eye and are worth plucking out to be re-read.


Shouting into the institutional void
George Packer, The Atlantic, 5 June 2020

The urban unrest of the mid-to-late 1960s was more intense than the days and nights of protest since George Floyd was murdered by a Minneapolis policeman. More people died then, more buildings were gutted, more businesses were ransacked. But those years had one advantage over the present. America was coming apart at the seams, but it still had seams. The streets were filled with demonstrators raging against the ‘system,’ but there was still a system to tear down. Its institutions were basically intact. A few leaders, in and outside government, even exercised some moral authority…

The difference between 1968 and 2020 is the difference between a society that failed to solve its biggest problem and a society that no longer has the means to try. A year before his death, King, still insisting on nonviolent resistance, called riots ‘the language of the unheard.’ The phrase implies that someone could be made to hear, and possibly answer. What’s happening today doesn’t feel the same. The protesters aren’t speaking to leaders who might listen, or to a power structure that might yield, except perhaps the structure of white power, which is too vast and diffuse to respond. Congress isn’t preparing a bill to address root causes; Congress no longer even tries to solve problems. No president, least of all this one, could assemble a commission of respected figures from different sectors and parties to study the problem of police brutality and produce a best-selling report with a consensus for fundamental change. A responsible establishment doesn’t exist. Our president is one of the rioters.

After half a century of social dissolution, of polarization by class and race and region and politics, there are no functioning institutions or leaders to fail us with their inadequate response to the moment’s urgency. Levers of influence no longer connect to sources of power. Democratic protections—the eyes of a free press, the impartiality of the law, elected officials acting out of conscience or self-interest—have lost public trust. The protesters are railing against a society that isn’t cohesive enough to summon a response. They’re hammering on a hollowed-out structure, and it very well may collapse.

If 2020 were at all like 1968, the president would go on national television and speak as the leader of all Americans to try to calm a rattled country in a tumultuous time. But the Trump administration hasn’t answered the unrest like an embattled democracy trying to reestablish legitimacy. Its reflex is that of an autocracy—a display of strength that actually reveals weakness, emptiness. Trump’s short walk from the White House to St. John’s Episcopal Church had all the trappings of a strongman trying to show that he was still master of the country amid reports that he’d taken refuge in a bunker: the phalanx of armored guards surrounding him as he strutted out of the presidential palace; the tear gas and beatings that cleared his path of demonstrators and journalists; the presence of his daughter, who had come up with the idea, and his top general, wearing combat fatigues as if to signal that the army would defend the regime against the people, and his top justice official, who had given the order to raid the square.

Read the full article in The Atlantic.


Brutal force
Musa al-Gharbi, The Baffler, 18 June 2020

Many try to explain away cases like these as ‘isolated incidents’ carried out by ‘bad apples’ who are unrepresentative of most law enforcement nationwide. Apologists insist that that the media promotes an ‘anti-police narrative’ that neglects the dangers cops face on the job (dangers that, apparently, justify the levels of force they deploy). The available empirical data on violence and policing, though, presents a more complex and troubling picture. If anything, most public discussions may be too narrow and myopic to capture how extreme, pervasive, and multifaceted police abuse of power actually is.

So far this year, 481 civilians have been shot to death by police in the United States, according to the Washington Post. Overall, there have been an estimated 7,397 gun-related homicides (excluding suicides and accidents) during this period. This means that roughly one out of every fifteen Americans shot to death so far in 2020 has been killed by a police officer.

Since 2015, cops fatally shot at least 352 people who were unarmed (that is, not even possessing a toy, blunt object, or other instrument). In total, 5,408 civilians were killed by police gunfire over the last five years; one out of every fifteen was unarmed. And it is important to note that these data only count police shootings. Hundreds more civilians are killed by cops every year with tasers, pepper spray, rubber bullets, chokeholds, positional asphyxia, blunt force trauma, or getting struck by police cruisers and other causes; a large share of these civilians are also unarmed. Many have not committed a crime.

Deaths, however, only represent a small fraction of overall police violence. According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS), at least 985,300 Americans experienced non-lethal threats or use of force from police in a single year: 2015, the most recent year of data available on the BJS website. Relative to the overall U.S. population at the time, approximately one out of every 324 Americans was verbally or physically assaulted by a cop in that year. Indeed, departments nationwide receive thousands of excessive force complaints that are ‘officially sustained’—i.e., sufficiently credible to justify disciplinary action against officers—every year as a result of such encounters.

There are also widespread reported rapes, sexual assault, and sexual harassment incidents involving on-duty cops every year. (Of course, many more cases likely go unreported.) According to an investigation from the Buffalo News, from 2005 to 2015, ‘a law enforcement official was caught in a case of sexual abuse or misconduct at least every five days.’ The officers are usually armed in these cases. The victims are typically isolated, and often physically restrained. Sometimes there is an imminent threat of force or arrest. Nonetheless, cops often have the audacity to claim that these sex acts, against civilians under police custody, are consensual. An investigation by the Associated Press found that many cops use police tools and databases to stalk and harass exes or people they are sexually interested in (and for other personal purposes).

Read the full article in The Baffler


Racism and the working class
Jack Metz, Working Class Perspectives, 15 June 2020

When I tell other middle-class professionals who don’t know me well that I’m writing a book about working-class culture, it’s amazing how often they respond approvingly that ‘white racism’ is an important subject.  My reaction, depending on the circumstance, ranges from embarrassment to rage.

It’s frustrating that ‘working class’ reads as all white to so many people who should know better. And it pisses me off that so many educated people assume that the white part of the working class is either uniformly racist and/or that racism is the most distinctive part of their culture. And it often seems there is a background assumption that little or no racism exists among the educated middle class, that all white racism is contained within the working class.

If there is a common working-class culture across racial and ethnic groups, as I think there is, white racism cannot be part of what is common in that culture, because about 40% of the American working class is not white.  So even if many working-class whites are vociferously racist, racism cannot characterize working-class culture as a whole. Nor have social scientists been able to establish with any certainty that white working-class people are more racist than other whites, let alone measure the difference.  White racism in various forms exists among middle-class professionals. And because they have more power, their racism likely has greater impact than the individual attitudes of working-class whites.

These extravagantly false assumptions are largely based on both educational and occupational snobbery, which plays out in all kinds of ways, some of them inconsequential.  But, as law professor Ian Haney Lopez has documented, they can have a toxic effect on American politics by strengthening racist dog whistles even when you are trying to combat those whistles.

In his 2019 book, Merge Left: Fusing Race and Class, Winning Elections, and Saving America, Lopez reports on a political narrative project he helped design after the 2016 election.  In an extensive, country-wide set of surveys and focus groups, the project presented several different political messages to respondents.  Researchers found that neither a message focused only on racial justice nor one focused only on economic justice was as popular and as effective against racist dog whistles as a message that combined calls for racial and economic justice – one that presented interracial solidarity as a necessary condition for economic justice.

To understand this, we have to see how white racism in the working class is layered within a class resentment against middle-class professionals, especially those whose exclusive focus on marginalized groups makes them seem unaware that a struggling white part of the working class faces many of the same economic conditions as black, brown, immigrant, and indigenous peoples.  When politicians and progressive advocates focus solely on racial justice, their messages call forth this class resentment. They also stoke fears that citizenship and whiteness may be the only assets these white workers have left.

Read the full article in Working Class Perspectives.


Why filming police violence has done nothing to stop it
Etna Zuckerman, MIT Technology Review, 3 June 2020

The murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis police officers was captured on video, not once but half a dozen times. As we try to understand why a police officer continued compressing a man’s neck and spine for minutes after he’d lost consciousness, we have footage from security cameras at Cup Foods, where Floyd allegedly paid for cigarettes with a counterfeit $20 bill. As we wrestle with the sight of three officers standing by as their colleague killed Floyd, we have footage from the cell phones of witnesses who begged the officers to let Floyd off the ground. In the murder trial of Officer Derek Chauvin, who was patrolling despite 17 civilian complaints against him and previous involvement in two shootings of suspects, his defense may hinge on video from the body cameras he and other officers were wearing.

None of these videos saved George Floyd’s life, and it is possible that none of them will convict his murderer.

Officer Chauvin knew this. In the video shot by 17-year-old Darnella Frazier, you can see him lock eyes with the teenager. He knows she’s filming, and knows that the video is likely being streamed to Facebook, to the horror of those watching it. After all, in a suburb of nearby St. Paul four years earlier, Officer Jeronimo Yanez shot and killed Philando Castile while Castile’s partner streamed the video to Facebook. Yanez’s police car dashcam also recorded the seven shots he pumped into Castile’s body. He was charged and acquitted.

After Castile’s death, I wrote a piece for MIT Technology Review about ‘sousveillance,’ the idea posited by the inventor Steve Mann, the ‘father of wearable computing,’ that connected cameras controlled by citizens could be used to hold power accountable. Even though bystander video of Eric Garner being choked to death by New York police officer Daniel Pantaleo in 2014 had led not to Pantaleo’s indictment but to the arrest of Ramsey Orta, the man who filmed the murder, I offered my hope that ‘the ubiquity of cell-phone cameras combined with video streaming services like Periscope, YouTube, and Facebook Live has set the stage for citizens to hold the police responsible for excessive use of force.’

I was wrong.

Much of what we think about surveillance comes from the French philosopher Michel Foucault. Foucault examined the ideas of the English reformer Jeremy Bentham, who proposed a prison—the panopticon or Inspection-House—in which every cell was observable from a central watchtower. The possibility that someone might be watching, Bentham believed, would be enough to prevent bad behavior by prisoners. Foucault observed that this knowledge of being watched forces us to police ourselves; our act of disciplining ourselves as if we were always under observation, more than the threat of corporal punishment, is the primary mechanism of ‘political technology’ and power in modern society.

The hope for sousveillance comes from the same logic. If police officers know they’re being watched both by their body cameras and by civilians with cell phones, they will discipline themselves and refrain from engaging in unnecessary violence. It’s a good theory, but in practice, it hasn’t worked.

Read the full article in MIT Technology Review.


The class character of police violence
William Shoki, Africa Is A Country, 1 June 2020

It is easy, amidst all this, to forget that South Africa is experiencing its own instances of horrific violence from law enforcement agents. The most publicized of these, is the murder of Collins Khosa in the Alexandra township by members of the South African military and the Johannesburg Metropolitan Police Department. Even after Khosa’s family successfully took them to court, the soldiers implicated have been exonerated by an internal investigation conducted by the South African National Defence Force, who were also ordered by the court to publish a set of guidelines on how to engage the public during the pandemic. Since South Africa went under a national lockdown in March to curb the virus’ spread, there has been little public anger expressed at the incidences of misconduct committed by South Africa’s security forces, who have killed more than ten people so far. In fact, a lot of people initially cheered their harsh and punitive approach as a kind of necessary evil required to contain the virus’ transmission (the indictment of 230,000 people for breaking lockdown regulations was either celebrated or ignored). Why was there little outrage over police violence at home?

It might first have something to do with the role of social media. Generally, under consumer capitalism, there exists a tendency in our media-saturated society to render all political events as media commodities, constructing a landscape where, as the social theorist Jean Baudrillard once explained, the nature of the real is preceded and determined by its mediatized representation. Society becomes predisposed to a fascination with spectacular and immediate images of violence due to their overproduction—in Baudrillard’s time it was wars in the Middle East, terrorism and football riots– in ours, it is images of police brutality. Their circulation exists first and foremost for their consumption, and rather than induce sustained action, they often trigger outbursts of anger which quickly dissipate into apathy. This moment will hopefully prove the exception.

So, that Khosa’s homicide lacks footage, effectively excludes it from the market of this attention economy, worsened as the majority of life is migrated online in the era of physical distancing. This was also the case before the pandemic with the countless other incidents of police murder in this country, which per capita, are actually three times higher than in America, a country five times our size. But America’s lasting cultural hegemony means that South Africans routinely import a distinctively American sensibility when it comes to understanding police violence at home, one with anti-black racism at its center. Yet this framework quickly reveals itself to be ill-suited to understanding the dynamics of our situation, given the fact that unlike America, we are a majority black country. And so it is almost always the case that both the perpetrators of this violence, as well as its victims, are black. It cannot simply be, as it is often decried in the United States, that our law enforcement agents are uniformed white supremacists. What else is at play here?

Read the full article in Africa Is A Country.


White fragility is real. But ‘White Fragility’ is flawed.
Carlos Lozada, Washington Post, 18 June 2020

White fragility is the sort of powerful notion that, once articulated, becomes easily recognizable and widely applicable. (DiAngelo, for instance, uses it to explain Donald Trump’s victory in the 2016 presidential election.) But stare at it a little longer, and one realizes how slippery it is, too. As defined by DiAngelo, white fragility is irrefutable; any alternative perspective or counterargument is defeated by the concept itself. Either white people admit their inherent and unending racism and vow to work on their white fragility, in which case DiAngelo was correct in her assessment, or they resist such categorizations or question the interpretation of a particular incident, in which case they are only proving her point.

Any dissent from ‘White Fragility’ is itself white fragility. From such circular logic do thought leaders and bestsellers arise.

This book exists for white readers. ‘I am white and am addressing a common white dynamic,’ DiAngelo explains. ‘I am mainly writing to a white audience; when I use the terms us and we, I am referring to the white collective.’ It is always a collective, because DiAngelo regards individualism as an insidious ideology. ‘White people do not exist outside the system of white supremacy,’ DiAngelo writes, a system ‘we either are unaware of or can never admit to ourselves.’ And even if, for just a moment, white people could perceive and challenge the racist attitudes they have long internalized, their racism ‘would be reinforced all over again just by virtue of living in the culture.’ Step outside the human-resources training session, and you’re infected once more.

Progressive whites, those who consider themselves attuned to racial justice, are not exempt from DiAngelo’s analysis. If anything, they are more susceptible to it. ‘I believe that white progressives cause the most daily damage to people of color,’ she writes. ‘[T]o the degree that we think we have arrived, we will put our energy into making sure that others see us as having arrived. None of our energy will go into what we need to be doing for the rest of our lives: engaging in ongoing self-awareness, continuing education, relationship building, and actual antiracist practice.’

It is a bleak view, one in which all political and moral beliefs are reduced to posturing and hypocrisy. In fact, the more that white progressives oppose racism, the more fragile they are. ‘White people’s moral objection to racism increases their resistance to acknowledging their complicity with it,’ DiAngelo argues, drawing her circle ever tighter. And if you’re a white person who finds that logic unreasonable — well, we all know what that means.

Read the full article in the Washington Post.


What is an anti-racist reading list for?
Lauren Michele Jackson, Vulture, 4 June 2020

I have this pet theory about book recommendations. They feel good to solicit, good to mete out, but someone at some point has to get down to the business of reading. And there, between giving and receiving, lies a great gulf. No one can quite account for what happens. Reading, hopefully, but you never can be sure.

It’s that time again. Race is happening. Never mind that race is always happening but it is especially happening now, urgently happening, and god help you if you’re not paying attention (though history will probably pardon your procrastination for history, too, is belated). I should clarify that ‘happening’ here indicates agreement, a collective bargain that something has risen to the level of a thing by degrees of egregiousness or luck. It applies to anodyne hiccups as regular as a public figure putting their foot or face in it by using slurs and dark makeup, to the no less routine euphemized murders by police and their extrajudicial deputies. In any case there is the eruption of sentiment, none perhaps stronger than stupefaction on behalf of many at a loss with how to metabolize such a moment, how to metabolize race ‘happening,’ despite the fact that race is always happening. The weeks and months following the 2016 presidential election was such a moment. The how could this happen meets the I told you so. They rendezvous at the anti-racist reading list.

Despite the diversity of curators — from legacy publications to small non-profits to historians to celebrities and other users with varying degrees of influence online (to your next door neighbor, probably) — the anti-racist reading list varies little in its contents. The usual subjects are as long as the list themselves, we could chant them together: Sister Outsider, The Fire Next Time, Between the World and Me, The Autobiography of Malcolm X, The New Jim Crow, Their Eyes Were Watching God, Women, Race, & Class; maybe The Wretched of the Earth or Black Skin, White Masks if someone took a postcolonial theory course in college. With the exception of Ta-Nehisi Coates or Michelle Alexander or Claudia Rankine, contemporary titles on the list tend to baldly demonstrate the rise in general reader interest in how-to, come-to-Jesus talks about race. Race readers, I like to call them, books like Ijeoma Oluo’s So You Want to Talk About Race, Crystal Marie Fleming’s How to Be Less Stupid About Race, and the mac daddies of the bunch, How to Be an Antiracist by Ibram X. Kendi and White Fragility by Robin DiAngelo. Amidst nationwide protests following the police killing of George Floyd, Kendi’s and DiAngelo’s texts shot back up in the ranks of online retailers, along with other anti-racist list regulars.

An anti-racist reading list means well. How could it not with some of the finest authors, scholars, poets, and critics of the twentieth century among its bullet points? Still, I am left to wonder: Who is this for? The syllabus, as these lists are sometimes called, seldom instructs or guides. It is no pedagogue. It is unclear whether each book supplies a portion of the holistic racial puzzle or are intended as revelatory islands in and of themselves. Aside from the contemporary teaching texts, genre appears indiscriminately: essays slide against memoir and folklore, poetry squeezed on either side by sociological tomes. This, maybe ironically but maybe not, reinforces an already pernicious literary divide that books written by or about minorities are for educational purposes, racism and homophobia and stuff, wholly segregated from matters of form and grammar, lyric and scene. Perhaps better to say that in the world of the anti-racist reading list genre disappears, replaced by the vacuity of self-reference, the anti-racist book, a gooey mass.

Read the full article in Vulture.


We need to stop measuring black lives by their whiteness
Thomas Chatterton Williams, New York Times, 18 June 2020

If you’ve been online recently, chances are high you’ve came across a short clip of a brown-skinned man with long dreadlocks and graying beard speaking softly from your laptop or smartphone. In ‘Before You Call the Cops,’ a monologue spanning a little over three minutes, Tyler Merritt, a Nashville-based actor, musician and activist, his voice gravelly and sometimes wobbly, implores us to peer beyond the color veil. His expression is poker-faced as his lines hit across a variety of registers, from heart-rending to almost hilarious.

‘Before you call the cops, I just want you to know,’ Merritt says, ‘the first thing that I did when I woke up this morning was yell at my alarm clock.’ He goes on to reveal the mundane specifics of his life and psychology — ‘I hate spiders. I’m a vegetarian; I’m not proud about it. I’ve done goat yoga’ — and splices in photos of his multiracial family as a mawkish instrumental rises in the background. He notes that he’s a Christian, though often mistaken for a Muslim, which doesn’t bother him; that he does not hate Trump but that he prays for him; that he has never owned a gun and that his father is a veteran. The emotional climax arrives two-thirds in when he says, ‘I hate that anyone at all might possibly be afraid of me.’

The video was originally recorded and posted in May 2018 — weeks after a high-profile incident involving the removal, by police, of two black men who had been waiting for an acquaintance inside a Philadelphia Starbucks — but began to make the rounds again in the aftermath of two events on Memorial Day: George Floyd’s gruesome death in police custody in Minneapolis and Amy Cooper’s falsely accusatory 911 call in Central Park. On May 27, Charlie Sykes, an editor at large at The Bulwark, a conservative news website, shared the clip, writing, ‘If there are more powerful things on Twitter tonight, I haven’t seen them.’ His post alone racked up 47,000 retweets and 136,000 likes. Then on May 29, Jimmy Kimmel aired the video during his opening monologue, after a call to vote Trump out of office. It soon became a must-share across a social-media audience that was, perhaps not unintentionally, heavily composed of white people.

On its face, Merritt’s is a difficult statement to argue with. And yet there is something strange and discomfiting about the performance, having as much to do with what is said and emphasized as what is left implicit. The performance is deftly attuned to our era of counterintuitive reversals, of moral spectacle and quick-and-easy instruction, of blacked-out Instagram posts and adorable viral videos. But the specific and acutely racialized fashion in which Merritt makes the case for his full-spectrum humanity is nonetheless rooted in a narrowing shorthand of hobbies, fears and tastes stereotypically understood to be not ‘black.’ ‘Before You Call the Cops’ is humanizing but only if mankind’s default face remains white.

Read the full article in the New York Times.


The triumph of Black Lives Matter and neoliberal redemption
Cedric Johnson, Nonsite, 9 June 2020

Black Lives Matter sentiment is essentially a militant expression of racial liberalism. Such expressions are not a threat but rather a bulwark to the neoliberal project that has obliterated the social wage, gutted public sector employment and worker pensions, undermined collective bargaining and union power, and rolled out an expansive carceral apparatus, all developments that have adversely affected black workers and communities. Sure, some activists are calling for defunding police departments and de-carceration, but as a popular slogan, Black Lives Matter is a cry for full recognition within the established terms of liberal democratic capitalism. And the ruling class agrees.

During the so-called Black Out Tuesday social media event, corporate giants like Walmart and Amazon widely condemned the killing of George Floyd and other policing excesses. Gestural anti-racism was already evident at Amazon, which flew the red, black and green black liberation flag over its Seattle headquarters this past February. The world’s wealthiest man, Jeff Bezos even took the time to respond personally to customer upset that Amazon expressed sympathy with the George Floyd protestors. ‘‘Black lives matter’ doesn’t mean other lives don’t matter,’ the Amazon CEO wrote, ‘I have a 20-year-old son, and I simply don’t worry that he might be choked to death while being detained one day. It’s not something I worry about. Black parents can’t say the same.’ Bezos also pledged $10 million in support of ‘social justice organizations,’ i.e., the ACLU Foundation, the Brennan Center for Justice, the Equal Justice Initiative, the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, the NAACP, the National Bar Association, the National Museum of African American History and Culture, the National Urban League, the Thurgood Marshall College Fund, the United Negro College Fund, and Year Up. The leadership of Warner, Sony Music and Walmart each committed $100 million to similar organizations. The protests have provided a public relations windfall for Bezos and his ilk. Only weeks before George Floyd’s killing, Amazon, Instacart, GrubHub and other delivery-based firms, which became crucial for commodity circulation during the national shelter-in-place, faced mounting pressure from labor activists over their inadequate protections, low wages, lack of health benefits and other working conditions. Corporate anti-racism is the perfect egress from these labor conflicts. Black lives matter to the front office, as long as they don’t demand a living wage, personal protective equipment and quality health care….

The wave of mass protests that George Floyd’s death provoked is not reducible to Black Lives Matter, but was also a consequence of the broader pandemic and real hardship of the shelter-in-place order, which was necessary for public health, but without adequate sustained federal relief, has produced mass layoffs, food pantries hard pressed to keep up with unprecedented need, and broad anxiety among many Americans about their bleak employment prospects in the near future. The looting that broke out in many cities the weekend after Floyd’s murder was not like the ghetto rebellions of the sixties, 1992 Los Angeles, or even Ferguson and Baltimore in recent years. The looters were multiracial, intergenerational and targeted downtowns and central shopping districts like Santa Monica’s Third Street Promenade, Manhattan’s Times Square and Chicago’s State Street and the Magnificent Mile. So far mainstream civil rights leaders, some Black Lives Matter activists, the corporate punditry and many Americans have frequently and loudly drawn a distinction between the righteousness of peaceful protestors and the ‘violence’ and lawlessness of looters and rioters. That posture, like hyperbolic claims about the primacy of the color line, will continue to defer the kind of public goods that might actually help the most dispossessed of all races and ethnicities who are the most likely to be routinely surveilled, harassed, arrested, convicted, incarcerated and condemned as failures, the collateral damage of the American dream.

Read the full article in Nonsite.


Britain’s race pain is not the same as America’s
Ralph Leonard, Unherd, 3 June 2020

As is often the case in these scenarios, activists seek to make a connection between what is going on in America and how it connects to their situation here. ‘The prejudice that black people in America face is the same prejudice we face here,’ a BLM activist, Shayne, told the BBC. ‘I think it really made me take a look at the police system all around the world. I have always been focusing on institutional racism in America but it really made me look in the UK. I have realised that there’s so much institutional racism in the UK police.’

On Newsnight on Monday the spoken-word artist George The Poet said: ‘There are disturbing parallels between the black British experience and the African-American experience.’ Emily Maitlis challenged him — ‘but you are not putting America and Britain on the same footing … our police aren’t armed, they don’t have guns, the legacy of slavery is not the same’ — and received a lot of criticism on social media from those who felt she was being tone deaf or ‘whitesplaining’ racism to a black man.

I understand and empathise with why people make this comparison: there is a trans-Atlantic Anglo-American intercourse at play. America is an intellectual and cultural powerhouse. Anti-racist and black liberation movements in Britain have long taken inspiration from black American music and black political movements in the United States, such as the Black Panthers, Black Power and certain trends in American academia, to help them form their critique of racism in Britain.

There is not so much a parallel per se, but an echo in the British and American ‘black experience’… Part of the problem with the discussion is that to suggest that racism in Britain is not the same as racism in America can be perceived as downplaying, or even denying, the racism that exists in Britain. ‘It’s an insult to tell black British people that this is an American experience and they shouldn’t draw comparisons,’ said the historian David Olusoga. But while there may be parallels between the black experience in Britain and America, there are also huge differences. Race and racism manifests themselves in different ways in Britain and in America because they are different societies with different histories. That’s not to minimise British racism or ‘pat Britain on the back’, to use a common cliché in this argument.

Read the full article in Unherd.

Edward Colston statue being dumped in Bristol docks, from a BBC report.

Edward Colston and tearing down the past
Nick Spencer, Theos, 9 June 2020

A few years ago, when we were wondering about whether Rhodes should fall, the writer Afua Hirsch penned an article in the Guardian, which argued that we should topple Nelson from his Trafalgar column. The argument, such as it was, demonstrated why moral indignation is a weak foundation for such actions.

Hirsh compared Nelson – ‘who was what you would now call, without hesitation, a white supremacist’ – with William Wilberforce (also publicly memorialised in stone, albeit less prominently) who was ‘unquestionably a force for good’. Whereas Wilberforce had every right to his plinth, Nelson had to go.

This is the past à la ‘Our Island Story’ or, rather, ‘Our Island Disgrace’. History is divided into bad guys and good guys, villains and heroes, white supremacists and unquestionable forces for good. Nelson was indubitably no saint and his reputation is much mythologized. But he was nonetheless a brave and inspiring military leader and tactician, who defended the country at a time of considerable peril, being wounded and killed in the process.

Wilberforce was a ‘Saint’ and his persistent campaign against slavery rightly earns him great praise and honour. But before we canonise him among Hirsch’s unquestionable good guys, it’s worth recalling he spoke in favour of every single repressive domestic statute proposed by the government between 1795 and 1819, energetically supporting the Treasonable Practices Act and the Seditious Meetings Acts of 1795, the Preservation of the Public Peace Bill of 1812, and the Seditious Meetings Bill and the Habeas Corpus Suspension Act of 1817. He also defended the Peterloo Massacre of 1819 and spoke against a proposal for an enquiry into the atrocity.

Does that mean Wilberforce doesn’t deserve his statue? No. It simply means that pretty much no public figure from history celebrated in our streets will bear detailed scrutiny and judgement. Duke of Wellington at Hyde Park Corner? No: he was thoroughly opposed to the Great Reform Act, as well as being something of a brute. Boadicea on the Embankment? Achievement: mass slaughter. Cromwell in Parliament Square? Try and persuade the Irish Catholics living in Britain, especially those who can trace their ancestry to Drogheda. John Stuart Mill in Victoria Embankment Gardens? He thought that clever people should have more votes than stupid ones. Gandhi in Parliament Square? That’ll be the chap who advised that the Jews should have gone willingly to concentration camps in an act of mass suicide which would constitute an unanswerable critique of the Nazis. Nelson Mandela at the South Bank? Didn’t he used to advocate terrorism? Churchill? Ha! Do you know what he did to the Kurds?

Our public space is invariably littered with sinful heroes. Our belief – or, at least the belief of some people – that we are in a position to sift the historical wheat from the chaff is worrying, ignoring the tortuous vicissitudes of history. It also seems to assume we are sufficiently detached and ethically superior to pass accurate judgement.

Read the full article in Theos.


Did Colston deserve his watery grave?
Matthew Sweet, Unherd, 8 June 2020

Bristol in the early 1890s was not a city at ease with itself. On Friday 23 December 1892 it was the location of a ‘March of the Workers’, held in support of the women of Sanders Sweet Factory on Redcliffe Street — who were employed on such bad terms that they were nicknamed ‘Sanders’ White Slaves’. (If they tried to join a union, they received their cards.) On the day of the demonstration, the dragoons steamed in. Two hundred mounted officers tried to split the march. At the end of the night, 57 demonstrators and 51 police had been injured. Those present on that day might have taken a sceptical attitude to a public artwork celebrating Colston’s philanthropy. Their ideas about how to alleviate poverty in the city had been answered with violence.

So it would be wrong, I think, to read the Colston statue as an embodiment of civic or imperial confidence. Better, perhaps, to see it like one of those Porsches bought by men in the thick of a midlife crisis — a gleaming expression of self-doubt and anxiety.

The statue of Edward Colston is not a pure object upon which later generations have imposed an anachronistic argument. The statue is an argument. About the relationship between the individual and the state, about employers and workers, about civic responsibility and Britain’s place in the world. Its construction was a political gesture. So is pushing it into the River Avon.

The protesters of Black Lives Matter did not drag Colston’s figure out of the city and smash it to pieces. When they submerged it in the docks, they were making a decision about its proper place in the environment — a decision accepted, tacitly, by the officers present on the scene. Perhaps this was not an act of destruction, but a form of endowment. One that may bring wealth to the city far greater than the kind that can be extracted from a black body with the use of a whip.

The 19th century, however, has a caveat to add. The Victorians celebrated their record on the abolition of slavery. Mid nineteenth-century popular culture buzzes with self-regard on this issue. Charles Dickens’s American Notes (1842) railed against the ‘accursed and detested system’ of slavery — without noting who might have picked the cotton used to make his shirts. Visitors to JR Planché’s spectacular burlesque Mr Buckstone’s Voyage Round the Globe (1854) would have congratulated themselves as they laughed at the anti-American gags in its script:

To the west, to the west, to the land of the free –

Which means those who happen white people to be –

Where a man is a man –  if his skin isn’t black –

If it is, he’s a n—–, to sell or to whack…

The Victorians used American racism as a way to feel good about themselves. So do we. It’s a habit that dissuades us from genuine moral introspection. Another solid fixture we might hurl into the water.

Read the full article Unherd.


The American press is destroying itself
Matt Taibi, 12 June 2020

Our president, Donald Trump, is a clown who makes a great reality-show villain but is uniquely toolless as the leader of a superpower nation. Watching him try to think through two society-imperiling crises is like waiting for a gerbil to solve Fermat’s theorem. Calls to ‘dominate’ marchers and ad-libbed speculations about Floyd’s ‘great day’ looking down from heaven at Trump’s crisis management and new unemployment numbers (‘only’ 21 million out of work!) were pure gasoline at a tinderbox moment. The man seems determined to talk us into civil war.

But police violence, and Trump’s daily assaults on the presidential competence standard, are only part of the disaster. On the other side of the political aisle, among self-described liberals, we’re watching an intellectual revolution. It feels liberating to say after years of tiptoeing around the fact, but the American left has lost its mind. It’s become a cowardly mob of upper-class social media addicts, Twitter Robespierres who move from discipline to discipline torching reputations and jobs with breathtaking casualness.

The leaders of this new movement are replacing traditional liberal beliefs about tolerance, free inquiry, and even racial harmony with ideas so toxic and unattractive that they eschew debate, moving straight to shaming, threats, and intimidation. They are counting on the guilt-ridden, self-flagellating nature of traditional American progressives, who will not stand up for themselves, and will walk to the Razor voluntarily.

They’ve conned organization after organization into empowering panels to search out thoughtcrime, and it’s established now that anything can be an offense, from a UCLA professor placed under investigation for reading Martin Luther King’s ‘Letter from a Birmingham Jail’ out loud to a data scientist fired* from a research firm for — get this — retweeting an academic study suggesting nonviolent protests may be more politically effective than violent ones!

Now, this madness is coming for journalism. Beginning on Friday, June 5th, a series of controversies rocked the media. By my count, at least eight news organizations dealt with internal uprisings (it was likely more). Most involved groups of reporters and staffers demanding the firing or reprimand of colleagues who’d made politically ‘problematic’ editorial or social media decisions.

The New York Times, the Intercept, Vox, the Philadelphia Inquirier, Variety, and others saw challenges to management.

Read the full article on Matt Taibbi’s blog


The still-vital case for liberalism in a radical age
Jonathan Chait, New York Magazine, 11 June 2020

David Shor is a 28-year-old political data analyst and social democrat who worked for President Obama’s reelection campaign. On May 28, Shor tweeted out a short summary of a paper by Princeton professor Omar Wasow. The research compiled by Wasow analyzed public opinion in the 1960s, and found violent and nonviolent protest tactics had contradictory effects. Shor’s synopsis was straightforward:

Post-MLK-assasination race riots reduced Democratic vote share in surrounding counties by 2%, which was enough to tip the 1968 election to Nixon. Non-violent protests *increase* Dem vote, mainly by encouraging warm elite discourse and media coverage.

It is easy to see why a specialist in public opinion whose professional mission is to help elect Democrats while moving the party leftward would take an interest in this research. But in certain quarters of the left — though not among Democratic elected officials — criticizing violent protest tactics is considered improper on the grounds that it distracts from deeper underlying injustice, and shifts the blame from police and other malefactors onto their victims.

One universal fact of political life is that people tend not to enjoy highlighting faults committed by their own side, and often respond to others bringing up behavior they don’t want to defend outright by deflecting blame. Conservatives are united less by a zeal to affirm every one of Donald Trump’s actions than a reluctance to denounce them. Likewise, while few leftists go so far as to explicitly advocate violent or destructive acts, refraining from criticism of violent protests is, among parts of the far left, almost a social norm.

And so, despite its superficially innocuous content, Shor’s tweet generated a sharp response. To take one public example, Ari Trujillo Wesler, the founder of OpenField, a Democratic canvassing app, replied, ‘This take is tone deaf, removes responsibility for depressed turnout from the 68 Party, and reeks of anti-blackness.’ Shor replied politely…

Civis Analytics undertook a review of the episode. A few days later, Shor was fired. Shor told me he has a nondisclosure agreement preventing him from discussing the episode. A spokesperson for Civis Analytics told me over email, ‘Out of respect for our employees and alumni, Civis does not publicly discuss personnel matters, and we don’t plan to comment further.’

Over the weekend, ‘Progressphiles,’ a progressive data listserv, announced it was kicking Shor out, according to another member of the group. Shor, who did not respond to comment, has been a member of the group but has not posted there in two years. The entire reason for his removal is the controversy over his ‘racist’ tweet.

Read the full article in New York Magazine.


Immigration between the referendum and Brexit
Jonathan Portes, The UK in a Changing Europe, 20 June 2020

So what will the impact of these changes be on numbers? In reality, the implications for overall levels of immigration may not be that great. As set out above, previous estimates suggested that ending free movement might reduce net migration from the EU by 90,000 to 150,000, compared to pre-referendum levels; but the vast bulk of this reduction has already happened. Further large falls would therefore require a significant exodus of EU workers who are currently resident.

Given the liberalisation for non-EU workers, the overall impact on numbers may also be relatively small, even if the government remains committed in principle to reducing net migration. In any case, in the short to medium term, the Covid-19 crisis and its aftermath are likely to be far more important in driving migration flows than changes to the system.

What about the overall economic impacts of the new system? They are likely to be neutral to slightly positive, with any further negative impact of falling numbers being offset by an improvement in the skills mix, since the new system will reduce migration to lower-skilled jobs while increasing it to medium and higher skilled jobs. Retrospective analysis by the MAC suggests that – had the new regime been in place over the past 15 years – UK GDP and population would both be lower, but GDP per capita would be (marginally) higher.

What about the impact sector by sector? This will vary. All sectors employing large numbers of EU migrants will face substantial increases in costs and bureaucracy. Sectors like the NHS, finance, business services, and higher education, which are dominated by larger employers, most of which are already accustomed to dealing with the current system for non-EU migrants, are likely to be able to cope. To the extent that the new system is less restrictive for non-EU migrants – and to the extent that the government delivers on its promise to make it more efficient and less bureaucratic – they may even benefit.

However, some sectors are more at risk. Social care, where wages are well below the salary thresholds and most jobs currently filled by migrants do not meet the skills threshold, is a particular pressure point. The pressures here will only be alleviated if the sector gets a significant infusion of government funding that will allow it to increase wages and training budgets, since it has become heavily reliant on EU migrants to fill vacancies in recent years.

Other sectors that have come to rely on EU migrants to provide a flexible (and often motivated and trained) workforce, from food processing to construction, will also be concerned, with construction particularly threatened by its reliance on self-employed contractors, who will generally not be eligible under the new system.

Read the full article in The UK in a Changing Europe.

Frank Kameny on a demonstration, from the PBS documentary The Lavender Scare

The long fight for LGBT labor equality
Samuel Clowes Huneke, Boston Review, 17 June 2020

In June 2010 a two block stretch of Washington, D.C.’s Seventeenth Street NW, a bustling part of the DuPont Circle gayborhood, was renamed Frank Kameny Way. The designation honored the founder of the Washington chapter of the Mattachine Society, which had fought for gay rights before most knew there was such a thing. Kameny had been one of the first to wage an often-lonely fight against homosexual employment discrimination by the federal government, an issue that reached a dramatic conclusion this week with the Supreme Court’s ruling.

By honoring Kameny, the city paid tribute to the struggle for gay rights that had begun long before the well-known Stonewall Riots broke out in New York City in the summer of 1969. In the United States, he is probably one of the best-known pre-Stonewall gay activists: if few could name him, still fewer could name more than him. In addition to having a street named after him in the nation’s capital, he was also feted by Barack Obama in a 2009 ceremony in which the president extended benefits to the same-sex partners of federal employees. Kameny features prominently in histories of the period, in which scholars have become increasingly interested over the last decade or so. He is also the subject of The Deviant’s War, historian Eric Cervini’s portrait of Kameny’s efforts to overturn the federal government’s systematic employment discrimination against homosexuals.

In The Deviant’s War, Kameny’s life comes alive in rich detail rarely found in other biographical sketches of the activist. Born in 1925, Kameny grew up on Manhattan’s Lower East Side. After fighting in World War II, he earned a PhD in astronomy. Shortly after graduating in 1956, Kameny traveled to Berkeley for the American Astronomical Society’s annual meeting. While there, he went cruising for sex in the public bathroom of a downtown train station and was arrested by police officers who had observed him from behind a ventilation grate. Kameny pleaded guilty to loitering, paid a fifty-dollar fine, and received six months’ probation. He believed, Cervini notes, the punishment would be the end of his troubles.

A few days later, Kameny moved to Washington, D.C., where he had landed a job at Georgetown University. After a year in academia, Kameny began work for the Army Map Service in 1957. That fall, while on assignment in Hawai’i, the U.S. Civil Service Commission (CSC) summoned him back to Washington to answer charges that he was a homosexual. That December, the government fired him.

Kameny’s termination was part of an ongoing purge of homosexuals from the civil service. In 1947, under pressure from the Senate Appropriations Committee, Secretary of State George Marshall had instituted a new policy excluding those known for ‘sexual perversion,’ among other things, from employment. The question of whether the government should hire homosexuals became a focus of Senator Joseph McCarthy’s Red Scare, adding a so-called ‘Lavender Scare’ to his inquisition. At the heart of this panic sat the fear that, because of their tenuous place in society, homosexuals were susceptible to blackmail. Politicians therefore considered them ‘security risks’ on par with communists (in fact, a number of early gay rights activists were communists). Under public pressure, the federal government began to fire homosexual employees more assiduously. Between 1950 and 1970, the State Department terminated some thousand gay employees. In 1950 Congress began to put pressure on the Civil Service Commission, the body that eventually investigated Kameny, to purge the bureaucracy of homosexuals.

Read the full article in the Boston Review.


The God trick
Susan McWilliams Barndt, Commonweal, 11 May 2020

In retrospect, the ahistorical nature of Rawls’s philosophy seems tailor-made, as Forrester notes, for that late-twentieth-century period of liberal optimism that had some proclaiming ‘the end of history.’ Rawls gave a philosophical justification for that liberal optimism, arguing that the basic job of politics is to reform and improve a legitimately triumphant liberal consensus. Political possibilities outside liberal egalitarianism need not be considered, or need only be considered as alternative doctrines that could be accommodated (or not) within the sphere of liberal public discourse. The heart of this discourse lay in what Rawls termed ‘public reason’—justifying your beliefs by using reasons that people from different moral or political traditions could accept. 

More than that, among many left-liberals, Rawls was taken to provide an impartial framework for settling—in favor of left-liberals—some of the great cultural standoffs of the age. Behind the veil of ignorance you would not know your sexual preferences, for instance, so you would not support policies that criminalize homosexuality (though you might still allow individuals to voice their objections to those policies, provided those objections fit the requirements of Rawlsian public reason).

Within a predominately left-liberal academy, and especially within the self-enchanting space of elite university discourse, Rawlsian frameworks were trotted out to provide ‘impartial’ defenses of popular campus beliefs: animal rights, abortion rights, and the like. (I remember a classmate in graduate school who asked why, in our imagination of the veil of ignorance, we should not assume the possibility of being in utero, in which case we would certainly object to laws allowing abortion. That very good question was met with derision and direction to a footnote on page 479 of Rawls’s Political Liberalism—the 1993 update to A Theory of Justice—in which Rawls ventures the opinion that abortion should be allowed in the first trimester.) Though Rawls himself resisted some of those usages of his philosophy, the hermetical insularity of schools like Harvard and Princeton led to broad agreement among influential scholars about the policies that Rawlsian justice would require—which usually happened to be the policies that intellectual left-liberals would prefer.

Ironically, then, a philosophy largely concerned with creating spaces for public disagreement often served to shut down disagreement, at least within those rarified academic halls.

Read the full article in Commonweal.


The untold story of Boko Haram’s origins
Jacob Zenn, History News Network, 3 May 2020

Despite widespread pro-sharia agitation since the 1970s, Nigerian Muslims rarely called for jihad to overthrow Nigeria’s secular government through force, until 1994. When Uncle Hassan arrived in Nigeria, however, he recruited youths to smuggle weapons and fight in the Sahel, where some were ‘martyred.’ Concurrently, Nigerians studying in Sudan, especially one named Muhammed Ali, met Bin Laden’s deputies, returned home, and recruited other Nigerians to train in Sudan’s paramilitary camps or the Sahel. 

By 9/11, Uncle Hassan’s and Muhammed Ali’s networks, including their university student recruits and Muhammed Yusuf’s followers coalesced in the short-lived ‘Nigerian Taliban,’ which was destroyed in clashes with Nigeria’s security forces in 2003. This resulted in the deaths of Muhammed Ali in Nigeria and Uncle Hassan near the Mali-Niger border, alongside his son and Ali’s financial partner, who was a Saudi-born Nigerian. Muhammed Yusuf avoided the clashes by fleeing to Saudi Arabia. Yet, upon returning home, he led both his and late Ali’s followers, despite Ali having declared him an infidel for arguing in 2003 that jihad was premature.

Until 2009, Yusuf preached about jihad, sharia, and opposing Nigeria’s constitution and Western education. His followers, therefore, earned the nickname ‘Boko Haram,’ meaning ‘Western education is sinful’ in Hausa language, despite Yusuf never giving his followers any formal name. Yusuf was popular because other Islamic movements, including al-Zakzaky’s and Jaafar Mahmud Adam’s, abandoned goals of radically changing Nigeria when they realized the goal was  impossible short of all-out war. Adam himself was also assassinated by late Ali’s followers in 2007. 

Yusuf’s mobilization of Muslim dissent meant he became a unique threat to the Nigerian state. Thus, like radical Nigerian movements in previous decades and Ali’s followers in 2003, Nigeria’s security forces crushed Yusuf, killing him and several hundred followers in 2009. This is when Nigerians who trained with Algerian jihadists in the 1990s and helped Ali’s followers escape to the Sahel in 2004 again helped dozens of Yusuf’s followers escape there in 2009.

They trained with al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), which succeeded Algerian jihadist movements dating from 1993. Late Yusuf’s deputy, Abubakar Shekau, who became the new leader, finally named the group Jamaat Ahlussunnah lid-Dawa wal-Jihad (Sunni Muslim Group for Preaching and Jihad) in 2010. Shekau nevertheless disregarded AQIM’s advice about avoiding harming Muslim civilians when waging jihad in Nigeria.

Read the full article on the History News Network.


Out of breath
Utkarsh, The Caravan, 1 June 2020

IN OCTOBER 2015, two Dalit manual scavengers named G Muniyandi and D Viswanathan died while cleaning an underground lift station—where sewage from nearby localities is collected before it is transferred to a pumping station—in Madurai, Tamil Nadu. The days that followed saw protests demanding compensation for the families of the deceased as well as the arrest of the contractors involved. The activist and filmmaker Divya Bharathi, who was present at the protests, began working on a documentary titled Kakkoos—the Tamil word for ‘toilet.’ M Palani Kumar, who worked as a cinematographer on the film, told me that at least eighteen more manual scavengers died by the time it was completed, in 2017. ‘This troubled me a lot,’ he said. ‘I felt responsible to carry forward my work, so I continued to work on this subject even after the film.’ Since then, Kumar has travelled across various districts in Tamil Nadu, documenting the atrocious conditions in which manual scavengers continue to live, work and die.

Over the last two decades, Tamil Nadu has experienced the highest number of deaths of manual scavengers in the country. According to a 2019 government survey, as many as 144 workers have died in the state over the last five years. Kakkoos explores the lives of Dalit and Adivasi communities, including the Arunthathiyar, Paraiyar, Kuravar and the Kattu Naicker communities, involved in manual scavenging, which is banned across the country but still widely prevalent. While there are workers from Adivasi and most-backward-classes communities, the majority of workers belong to the Dalit community. Kumar’s photographs make visible the hazardous working conditions of these workers, revealing how they are often assigned to work amid noxious gases, with hardly any protective gear. One image from the series depicts workers standing in an open drain, with plastic bags wrapped around their hands and feet—a lack of personal protective equipment that assumes particularly grave proportions under the current COVID-19 pandemic, as workers continue to put their lives on the line.

‘A week after Kakkoos was released, the death of three manual scavengers was reported in the Cuddalore district in Tamil Nadu,’ Kumar said. ‘There was never a month without witnessing the deaths of manual scavengers—every month, on average, had at least two to four deaths.’ He added that he had documented 13 deaths. ‘Many of the victims are in the age group of twenty to thirty, leaving behind their wives and very young kids.’ 

Kumar’s collection of images oscillate between life and death, with images of funerals and mourning by family members interspersed with those of workers in septic tanks and drains. The constant emphasis on death reiterates that these instances are recurring, to present a reality that appears inevitable for people in this line of work. When not pictured at work, the workers are portrayed through images of their families, their young children and wives, after their passing, and of a community that grieves for them collectively. In an image in the series, Suganya, the wife of Arunkumar, holds her deceased husband and kisses him before his body is taken to the burial ground. A hand from outside the frame reaches in, resting on her arm, as if to console her. Despite being a deeply intimate moment, Kumar chooses to photograph them up close, compelling the viewer into confronting her situation.

Read the full article in The Caravan.

Botticelli, The Birth of Venus

Breaking the Renaissance myth
Rowan Williams, New Statesman, 27 May 2020

All this underlines the immense power of the Renaissance myth: from the 16th century onwards, the image of the tormented multifaceted genius, soaring ahead of the conventions of the age, has left us with a rather lopsided view of figures such as da Vinci. Giorgio Vasari’s famous Lives of the Artists (which first appeared in 1550) helped to fix the image of the inspired creative spirit – and to create a story in which Italy (and especially Florence) is the epicentre of all that is noble and truly humane in the rebirth of civilisation after centuries of barbarity. It was Vasari’s narrative that was embraced so eagerly by 19th-century European cultural historians.

It continues to mould our understanding not only of the history of the period but our sense of what an artist and a genius really should be, and it would have been good to have in this book a slightly fuller account of how Vasari shaped the cultural ‘soft power’ of the Italian Renaissance across the centuries – as described by Fletcher in an insightful final chapter. The Renaissance model of genius becomes a kind of witness to the sublime nature of Western civilisation as a whole; 16th-century Italy joins Periclean Athens or Marcus Aurelius’s Rome as a paradigm of timeless and universal human excellence.

The force of Fletcher’s narrative is not so much in offering a radical new evaluation of Italian Renaissance civilisation as in insisting that we see it as a cluster of cultural strategies and techniques within an exceptionally turbulent political milieu. This does not mean for a moment that we relegate da Vinci or Michelangelo to some dramatically inferior position, but it might prompt us to greater caution about the way in which the Renaissance myth has served a rather dubious geopolitical agenda.

Fletcher spells out at many points the role of Renaissance Italy in the great drama and tragedy of the age: the beginnings of the subjugation and enslavement of indigenous peoples on both sides of the Atlantic – through finance, seafaring expertise and, not least, by way of the legitimation given by the Papacy to various aspects of the colonial enterprise. As her final paragraph puts it, we need to be aware of where the great works of the period come from, and how their initial reception was ‘curated’ by figures like Vasari.

Recognising artistic excellence is not an excuse for failing to see the political and economic factors that make it practically possible – and this is bound to be shot through with a degree of moral shadow, where those factors include slavery and exploitation. A great achievement is not necessarily a timeless ideal; we can admire and even be astonished by the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel without using it or its designer as a universal measure of human creativity.

If we demythologise the Renaissance a little, we may learn to do more justice to what preceded it. Professor Fletcher has a brief discussion of scientific advances in the mid 16th century, especially in anatomy, navigational skills and botany – the latter two spurred on by the fresh stimulus of colonial travel and discovery. But the fact that this treatment is relatively brief and relates to a period rather later than the ‘high Renaissance’ should give us pause if we are inclined to think of this as an epoch of spectacular scientific progress.

Read the full article in the New Statesman.


Reuters Institute Digital News Report 2020
Nic Newman et al, Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism, June 2020

Greater political polarisation has coincided with an explosion of low-cost internet publishing which in turn has led to the widespread availability of partisan opinions online. With news coverage increasingly commoditised, parts of the traditional media have also focused more on strong and distinctive opinion as a way of attracting and retaining audiences. Some commentators have increasingly questioned the value of objective news in a world where people have ready access to news from so many different points of view, while others worry that social media and algorithms are encouraging echo-chambers and pushing communities apart. In this context we were interested to know if consumer preferences for news that reinforce people’s views had grown since we last looked at this subject in 2013.

Looking across nine markets we see that the majority in each country say they prefer news with no particular point of view. In a sense this is not surprising given that traditional expectations are that journalists should produce neutral and detached news, but the differences between countries are striking.

This preference for neutral news is strongest in Germany, Japan, the UK, and Denmark – all countries with strong and independent public broadcasters. A preference for more partial news is strongest in Spain, France, and Italy – countries that scholars have labelled ‘polarised pluralist’ (Hallin and Mancini 2004) – as well in the United States.

Comparing 2020 with data from 2013, we see increased preference over time in the UK (+6) for news that has ‘no particular point of view’. At the same time, the proportion that prefers news that ‘shares their point of view’ has declined by a similar amount (-6). It is hard to be sure about the reasons, but one possibility is that a silent majority is reacting against a perceived increase in agenda-filled, biased, or opinion-based news. These themes came out strongly in comments from our survey respondents.

In the United States, where both politics and the media have become increasingly partisan over the years, we do find an increase in the proportion of people who say they prefer news that shares their point of view – up six percentage points since 2013 to 30%. This is driven by people on the far-left and the far-right who have both increased their preference for partial news sources.

In the USA, audiences for cable television networks, such as Fox on the right and CNN and MSNBC on the left, are strongly weighted to one view or another. At the same time, the influence of partisan websites (e.g. Breitbart, The Blaze, the Daily Caller, Occupy Democrats, Being Liberal) grew rapidly ahead of the 2016 election and even today around a quarter (23%) of our sample visits at least one of these each week. In our survey we asked respondents who said they prefer news that ‘shares their point of view’ to explain why they held that position. Many suggested that it helped avoid political arguments or because they felt they were getting closer to the truth.

Read the full Reuters Institute report.


The trolley problem problem
Kames Wilson, Aeon, 28 May 2020

An alternate view of thought experiments would downplay their relationship to scientific experiments, and acknowledge that they are, as Daniel Dennett put it, ‘intuition pumps’: tools for persuasion via imaginative consideration of possibilities. Thinking of thought experiments as persuasive fictions wouldn’t obviate the problem of external validity, but might allow us to reframe it.

Aristotle provides one way of thinking through how fiction can provide ethical insights, arguing that tragic drama is more ‘philosophical and more serious than history’, as it speaks of universals, while history speaks only of particulars. History will tell us what actually happened, but this is often unsatisfying and random. Lives as we live them, and events as they unfold, often don’t make sense – but it is precisely this kind of sense-making and feeling of necessity that makes stories resonate universally; and this comes from rational construction. Dramatists and novelists tend to condense and leave out elements that are irrelevant to the kind of stories they want to tell. As the author Iris Murdoch argued in 1970, when fiction works well:

We are presented with a truthful image of the human condition in a form which can be steadily contemplated; and indeed this is the only context in which many of us are capable of contemplating it at all.

The idea that fictions can provide ethical insights seems correct; but it doesn’t follow that they do so reliably or in a way that allows ethical insights to be easily transported from one context to another. One important question is what the relationship is between a well-told story and one that is true, or ethically insightful. The screenwriter William Goldman in Adventures in the Screen Trade (1983) discusses how one might approach writing a movie in which the main character had to get in the same room as the most famous woman in the world. Probably you’d write it as a classic heist film, with the first half devoted to the mastermind devising the plan and assembling the team – no doubt involving a confidence trickster, an electronics expert to defeat security systems and a getaway driver. The second half would see the plan unfold and things go wrong, and then any necessary adjustments.

Goldman then compares this notion with how in fact Michael Fagan entered the Queen’s bedroom in 1982. The man hopped over the palace railings and, via a series of accidents and attendants failing to notice alarms, walked through the royal stamp collection, shinned up a drainpipe, and took off his sandals and socks to climb through an open window. Once inside the palace, Fagan wandered around unchallenged for 15 minutes in bare feet, before finding himself in the Queen’s bedroom. To this day, it’s unclear why he wanted to do this. As Goldman put it: ‘true as it may be, if you handed it in as a screenplay, you would find yourself thrown out without ceremony as a very uninventive writer of fantasy’.

Read the full article in Aeon.


Blind spots
Shireen Azam, The Caravan, 30 April 2020

A good deal of Muslim autobiographical writing in India seems to hinge on two points: a remembered past, and a present that is worse and more difficult in myriad ways. The sense of an escalating decline is ubiquitous, but the patterns signifying that something has been lost are less linear than they may initially seem. All Muslims did not inhabit the same havens to begin with. 

There is a certain way in which ‘Muslim memoirs’ are written and reviewed. The years of a writer’s life are often charted against depleting levels of secularism in the country. A few themes make frequent appearances: the pain surrounding Partition and a sense of disbelief that the Congress let it happen; the ostensible glory of the Nehruvian era—the 1960s and 1970s—when Muslims could do their jobs without being made aware of their religion, and how this started changing; the ulemas of the 1980s, who stymied attempts to reform the community and change antiquated personal laws; and the gradual institutional collapse of secularism after the demolition of the Babri Masjid in 1992. But is there more to Muslim lives in India that this arc obfuscates? 

A wave of recent non-fiction books use the autobiographical form to tell the story of Muslims in India. Published in the last few years, faced with an escalating assault on Muslims under the Narendra Modi government, these writings provide an insight into Muslims’ minds as they witness these times. The writers contextualise their experiences against the broader history of independent India. In her book Mothering a Muslim, Nazia Erum, faced with bringing up her daughter in an Islamophobic world, describes her conversations with other Muslim parents. Neyaz Farooquee, in An Ordinary Man’s Guide to Radicalism, takes us into the petrified mind of a young Muslim man who fears being labelled as a ‘terrorist’ by a biased state and an unquestioning media. Rakshanda Jalil, in her collection of essays titled But You Don’t Look Like A Muslim, responds to the stereotypes she faces. Seema Mustafa’s Azadi’s Daughter: Being a Secular Muslim in India and Saeed Naqvi’s Being the Other: The Muslim in India compare the authors’ experiences of growing up in a secular, pluralist India to what they later witnessed as journalists reporting on events that reveal the erosion of the India they once knew.

The narrative of the steady disenfranchisement and marginalisation of Indian Muslims is important and urgent, and deserves to be told again and again. But there is another story that gets neglected in this telling. Indian Muslims are constantly talked about, yet the role of caste in the Muslim community remains almost entirely secret. Islamophobes, liberals and prominent Muslims in both religious and intellectual spheres have consistently overlooked the issue. The dominant discourse on Muslims—focussed on discrimination, backwardness, marginalisation of women, terrorism and communal violence—sees them solely within the confines of religious politics. The questions it asks of Muslim lives are limited to ones of secularism, communalism or fanaticism. One of the primary reasons for this is the caste identity of the writers, scholars and critics who have so far formed the Muslim intelligentsia. As the scholar Arshad Alam noted, most Muslims of India are lower-caste, whereas the people who represent them are upper-caste.

Read the full article in The Caravan.


The history of philosophy in global context:
Three case studies

Justin Smith, 21 May 2020

A question, to begin: What would intellectual history look like if its pedigree were traced back not to G. W. F. Hegel, but to G. W. Leibniz?

Peter Gordon has observed that ‘German nationalist historians of the nineteenth century tended to believe that history is first and foremost a study of political narrative.’ They thus modeled themselves on the ideal of historical Wissenschaft as national-historical narration. No author embodies this approach more fully than Hegel. For him, the home of history is in Europe, as history is nothing other than the coming-into-self-consciousness of Absolute Spirit. Hegel thinks it is the work of European philosophers to help Spirit along, to birth it, while European states are for him, as it were, the armed wing of philosophy. Beyond the boundaries of Europe, what we find in terms of statecraft is either its absence, or some species of more or less eternal and unchanging despotism, while in terms of philosophy what we find is its admixture into, and vitiation by, mythology and other expressions of culture. For Hegel, the Greek miracle lay in the separating out of mythology and philosophy, so that the articulation of questions about, say, the nature of time, could be addressed in a universal idiom that would not presuppose the existence of Chronos as a divine personification of time. For the ancient Persians, by contrast, to use Hegel’s own example, reflection on the nature of time could only proceed through culturally embedded narratives inseparable from religion and lore.

Thus for Hegel only those expressions of philosophy that descend from the Greeks have any claim to universality, and thus only these expressions deserve to be exported from their place of origin throughout the world. This 19th-century Europeanisation of philosophy  witnessed the destruction of millennia-old disciplinary divisions in India and China, notably, as newly subjugated institutions of learning rushed to model their curricula on those of European universities, creating neologisms for ‘philosophy’ where these had not existed before. Thus, to note one striking example from China, the cultivation of wisdom was separated from the perfection of calligraphic technique.

This disruption of intellectual traditions throughout the world is just one of the many measurable shockwaves of imperialism. Hegel’s articulation of it is not surprising, yet it is a far cry from the common view among European philosophers of barely more than a century prior, where we find, for example, Leibniz calling for a ‘commerce of light’, a bidirectional exchange of wisdom that would piggy-back upon the commerce of goods between Europe and Asia. Nor, for Leibniz, would this exchange be limited to the textual traditions of literate non-Western ‘civilisations’; it would also extend to the oral traditions and natural languages of Indigenous peoples. Thus Leibniz writes in 1704, that

When the Latins, Greeks, Hebrews and Arabs shall someday be exhausted, the Chinese, supplied also with ancient books, will enter the lists and furnish matter for the curiosity of our critics. Not to speak of some old books of the Persians, Armenians, and Brahmins… And when there is no longer any ancient book to examine, languages will take the place of books, as they are the most ancient monuments of mankind.

In time, Leibniz thinks,

all the languages of the world will be recorded and placed in the dictionaries and grammars, and compared together; this will be of very great use both for the knowledge of things, since names often correspond to their properties (as is seen by the names of plants among different peoples), and for the knowledge of our mind and the wonderful varieties of its operations.

The fruit of such research, Leibniz thinks, will be a sort of mirror of the rational order of nature itself; it would amount to a sort of global survey of human reason, differently inflected according to circumstances, but nonetheless unified and universal.

Read the full article on Justin Smith’s blog.


Our weird behavior during the pandemic
is messing with AI models

Will Douglas Heaven, MIT Technology Review, 11 May 2020,

Machine-learning models trained on normal human behavior are now finding that normal has changed, and some are no longer working as they should. 

How bad the situation is depends on whom you talk to. According to Pactera Edge, a global AI consultancy, ‘automation is in tailspin.’ Others say they are keeping a cautious eye on automated systems that are just about holding up, stepping in with a manual correction when needed.

What’s clear is that the pandemic has revealed how intertwined our lives are with AI, exposing a delicate codependence in which changes to our behavior change how AI works, and changes to how AI works change our behavior. This is also a reminder that human involvement in automated systems remains key. ‘You can never sit and forget when you’re in such extraordinary circumstances,’ says Cline.

Machine-learning models are designed to respond to changes. But most are also fragile; they perform badly when input data differs too much from the data they were trained on. It is a mistake to assume you can set up an AI system and walk away, says Rajeev Sharma, global vice president at Pactera Edge: ‘AI is a living, breathing engine.’

Sharma has been talking to several companies struggling with wayward AI. One company that supplies sauces and condiments to retailers in India needed help fixing its automated inventory management system when bulk orders broke its predictive algorithms. The system’s sales forecasts that the company relied on to reorder stock no longer matched up with what was actually selling. ‘It was never trained on a spike like this, so the system was out of whack,’ says Sharma.

Another firm uses an AI to assess the sentiment of news articles and provides daily investment recommendations based on the results. But with the news at the moment being gloomier than usual, the advice is going to be very skewed, says Sharma. And a large streaming firm that has had a sudden influx of content-hungry subscribers is also having problems with its recommendation algorithms, he says. The company uses machine learning to suggest relevant and personalized content to viewers so that they keep coming back. But the sudden change in subscriber data was making its system’s recommendations less accurate.

Many of these problems with models arise because more businesses are buying machine-learning systems but lack the in-house know-how needed to maintain them. Retraining a model can require expert human intervention.

Read the full article in the MIT Technology Review.

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