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.


China forces birth control on Uighurs to suppress population
Associated Press, 29 June 2020

The Chinese government is taking draconian measures to slash birth rates among Uighurs and other minorities as part of a sweeping campaign to curb its Muslim population, even as it encourages some of the country’s Han majority to have more children.

While individual women have spoken out before about forced birth control, the practice is far more widespread and systematic than previously known, according to an AP investigation based on government statistics, state documents and interviews with 30 ex-detainees, family members and a former detention camp instructor. The campaign over the past four years in the far west region of Xinjiang is leading to what some experts are calling a form of ‘demographic genocide.’

The state regularly subjects minority women to pregnancy checks, and forces intrauterine devices, sterilization and even abortion on hundreds of thousands, the interviews and data show. Even while the use of IUDs and sterilization has fallen nationwide, it is rising sharply in Xinjiang.

The population control measures are backed by mass detention both as a threat and as a punishment for failure to comply. Having too many children is a major reason people are sent to detention camps, the AP found, with the parents of three or more ripped away from their families unless they can pay huge fines. Police raid homes, terrifying parents as they search for hidden children.

After Gulnar Omirzakh, a Chinese-born Kazakh, had her third child, the government ordered her to get an IUD inserted. Two years later, in January 2018, four officials in military camouflage came knocking at her door anyway. They gave Omirzakh, the penniless wife of a detained vegetable trader, three days to pay a $2,685 fine for having more than two children.

If she didn’t, they warned, she would join her husband and a million other ethnic minorities locked up in internment camps ¬— often for having too many children.

‘God bequeaths children on you. To prevent people from having children is wrong,’ said Omirzakh, who tears up even now thinking back to that day. ‘They want to destroy us as a people.’

The result of the birth control campaign is a climate of terror around having children, as seen in interview after interview. Birth rates in the mostly Uighur regions of Hotan and Kashgar plunged by more than 60% from 2015 to 2018, the latest year available in government statistics. Across the Xinjiang region, birth rates continue to plummet, falling nearly 24% last year alone — compared to just 4.2% nationwide, statistics show.

Read the full article from Associated Press.


Stop apologising for cultural appropriation
Ralph Leonard, Unherd, 1 July 2020

It is not a coincidence that many agitators against cultural appropriation are socially-conscious people of colour, second and third generations immigrants whose ties to their heritage is precarious. You may feel like a foreigner in your home country, yet might as well be a tourist in the country of your parents. The best you can do is take the bits of your heritage that you value and assimilate it in yourself to have any connection with it all. Even then it feels distant and instrumental.

I am empathetic to this myself as a British-Nigerian, the sense of alienation and deracination many of my cohorts will feel. But I see this deracination, this proletarian ‘rootlessness’, however paradoxical it may seem, as the basis for a new higher form of liberation. One of the hard truths of modern existence is that there is no such thing as a rooted, stable and authentic identity one can reconnect with after seismic processes such as colonialism, migration and globalisation.

Which is why I find the most irksome aspect of this argument the noticeable but seldom mentioned assumption that only white people have the liberty to break out of their ‘roots’ and become universal, worldly, cosmopolitan, mobile and protean. But ‘people of colour’ are particular, provincial, rooted in their ancient cultural and spiritual traditions.

The culture warriors aren’t even trying to expand cultural freedom and possibility for non-white artists. No, they want everyone to be provincialised, white people included. This to me can only produce inane solipsism and break down the possibility of having a shared universal conversation that transcends colour lines and cultures.

Crusades against cultural appropriation are not progressive, they are reactionary. Not only does it constrain exchange, inhibit the imagination, and threaten to deaden cultural expression and innovation, they undermine precisely what is valuable about a diverse and open cosmopolitan society. For the sake of art, culture and the human experience itself, let’s take a stand for true cultural freedom and unfettered imagination.

Read the full article in Unherd


Death at Justice: the story of Emanuel Gomes
Jack Shenker, Tortoise, 6 July 2020

For Emanuel Gomes, the most striking thing about the coronavirus lockdown was that it never existed. ‘From this evening, I must give the British people a very simple instruction: you must stay at home,’ Boris Johnson told the nation on the evening of 23 March, as he declared a national emergency and announced an ‘unprecedented’ support package for workers whose lives would now be disrupted. But Emanuel’s life wasn’t disrupted at all.

He continued to board the tube each day from his sublet in Plaistow, east London, to an empty office block in the city centre, where he spent the night shift sweeping untouched carpets and scrubbing unused toilets. He continued to collect his wages, which at £9.08 per hour were just above the legal minimum, and he continued to send most of it back to his family in Portugal and the west African state of Guinea-Bissau. And when he began to feel strange – just aches and pains at first, then congestion, confusion, and finally a full-blown fever – he continued coming into work, because he couldn’t afford not to. Emanuel and his colleagues had petitioned their employer for occupational sick pay, pointing out that failing to guarantee workers a basic survival income if they fell ill would force potentially infectious people to leave home and endanger others, but were refused. Their complaints about a lack of PPE provision and the absence of effective social distancing measures in the workplace were also rejected.

‘The cleaners believe they are putting themselves and others in serious, imminent and unavoidable danger,’ managers were warned in an email sent at midday on 23 April, and seen by Tortoise. No action was taken. The previous evening, as Emanuel arrived for his shift, he had felt worse than ever; so unwell, in fact, that he could barely stand. ‘I took him home on public transport,’ recalls Bio Fara, a fellow night shift cleaner. ‘When we got to Victoria station, he didn’t even know where he was.’

Emanuel was pronounced dead by paramedics at 10.30pm, one month exactly after the prime minister first ordered people to stay at home for their own protection. He was 43 years old. ‘I don’t know how to explain these things, I don’t understand,’ says Fatima Djalo, another cleaner on the same site. ‘He was a human being: they could have done something, and they didn’t.’ Many of Emanuel’s colleagues are now questioning why the people that he worked for were so casual about the risks he faced during the pandemic, about the material insecurity that exacerbated them, about his bosses’ apparent disregard of the British government’s blueprint for saving lives. The answers should matter to all of us, because Emanuel Gomes worked for the British government.

Read the full article in Tortoise


Why are the police like this?
Alex Gourevich, Jacobin, 12 June 2020

The introduction of police forces was a response to a modern problem: social disorder created by the working class. The free urban poor unnerved the American ruling class. Unlike slaves and indentured servants, they were under no particular individual’s juridical authority, and they possessed civil, and sometimes political, liberties, which they were free to use as they saw fit. ‘The mobs of great cities add just so much to the support of pure government, as sores do to the strength of the human body,’ wrote Thomas Jefferson, who preferred slavery and small property holders to wage laborers. That way citizen militias would be sufficient; no police or standing armies necessary.

First formed in the United States (and England) in the early to mid-nineteenth century, the police enjoyed broad discretion to arrest anyone who could not give a socially accepted account of themselves. As Sam Mitrani observes in his history of the Chicago Police Department, the city council’s Committee on Police, tasked in the 1850s with establishing a modern police force, stated that the police should have wide latitude, since ‘matters not criminal in particulars, but which if permitted to go unchecked in a dense population like ours, would result very injuriously to the city.’ So too in the major cities of the South. A quotation from Charleston in 1845 makes the point clearly:

Over the sparsely populated country, where gangs of negros are restricted within settled plantations under immediate control and discipline of their respective owners, slaves were not permitted to idle and roam about in pursuit of mischief. … The mere occasional riding about and general supervision of a patrol may be sufficient. But, some more energetic and scrutinizing system is absolutely necessary in cities, where from the very denseness of population and closely contiguous settlements there must be need of closer and more careful circumspection.

As Alex Vitale has noted, slave patrols were predominantly ‘rural and nonprofessional,’ functioning only to police slaves that managed to escape the normal juridical authority and physical violence of the slaveowner and his overseers. But in cities, slaves acquired de facto if not de jure civil liberties and mixed with the free workers who also spooked ruling elites: ‘They [slaves] could congregate with others, frequent illicit underground taverns and even establish religious and benevolent associations, often in conjunction with free blacks, which produced tremendous social anxiety among whites.’ These cities, Vitale notes, set up formal police forces, sometimes called ‘city guards,’ who were permanent, professional, round-the-clock regulators of ‘social peace.’

Even in the post-emancipation South, policing remained a primarily urban phenomenon because sharecropping, peonage, and similar arrangements tied black people so thoroughly to the land and their employers that they were only in the most minimal sense free. The police were not necessary in the countryside to enforce the racial caste system of Jim Crow agriculture. As the sociologist Christopher Muller has shown, black rates of policing and incarceration were lowest in former plantation counties: ‘Where elite white landowners were able to reconstitute a dependent agricultural labor force, they had little reason to use the convict lease system to punish their workers. But in urban counties and in counties where African-Americans had acquired considerable landholdings, black men faced comparatively high rates of imprisonment for property crimes.’ Throughout the country, in coastal cities and industrial towns, the police came into being to control the relative freedom of the growing mass of workers.

Read the full article in Jacobin


Viral racist videos gone wild
Cathy Young, Medium, 1 July 2020

Obviously, none of this is to deny that racism exists. Some videos of racist or bigoted behavior — e.g., the clip of the New York lawyer who berated Spanish-speaking restaurant employees and threatened to call Immigration and Customs Enforcement on them — can be a useful alarm bell. They can help the majority population viscerally understand the slights that members of various minorities still have to endure.

But viral racist outrage videos have an ugly side, too. They can be used to target people who are mentally ill and hold them up for public ridicule and cruel entertainment— a modern version, one might say, of the freak shows of times past. They can be used for grift and revenge. They can promote racial polarization more than understanding, encouraging the assumption that every interracial conflict is about race. And they can causes serious harm to their targets.

In this sense, the Karlos Dillard incident points to a real problem. Yet unlike the Amy Cooper/Stephen Cooper Central Park video, it has received no mainstream media attention despite setting off a big social media controversy. Cooper vs. Cooper was about a white woman weaponizing race to punish a black man for crossing her in an everyday social conflict. Karlos vs. ‘Karen’ was the reverse.

The press is understandably leery of feeding the ‘white victimhood’ narratives that the far right loves to exploit. But in a climate of racial hyperawareness, people (and not just white people: Moran, for instance, is Mexican-American) really can be victimized by public shaming based on a misleading video clip.

Perhaps the solution is for everyone — but especially professional journalists — to exercise responsibility before amplifying such content. Two questions should be essential: ‘Is this an accurate presentation of the facts?’ and ‘Is this newsworthy?’

Read the full article in Medium


A letter on justice and open debate
Elliot Ackerman et all, Harpers, 7 July 2020

Our cultural institutions are facing a moment of trial. Powerful protests for racial and social justice are leading to overdue demands for police reform, along with wider calls for greater equality and inclusion across our society, not least in higher education, journalism, philanthropy, and the arts. But this needed reckoning has also intensified a new set of moral attitudes and political commitments that tend to weaken our norms of open debate and toleration of differences in favor of ideological conformity. As we applaud the first development, we also raise our voices against the second. The forces of illiberalism are gaining strength throughout the world and have a powerful ally in Donald Trump, who represents a real threat to democracy. But resistance must not be allowed to harden into its own brand of dogma or coercion—which right-wing demagogues are already exploiting. The democratic inclusion we want can be achieved only if we speak out against the intolerant climate that has set in on all sides.

The free exchange of information and ideas, the lifeblood of a liberal society, is daily becoming more constricted. While we have come to expect this on the radical right, censoriousness is also spreading more widely in our culture: an intolerance of opposing views, a vogue for public shaming and ostracism, and the tendency to dissolve complex policy issues in a blinding moral certainty. We uphold the value of robust and even caustic counter-speech from all quarters. But it is now all too common to hear calls for swift and severe retribution in response to perceived transgressions of speech and thought. More troubling still, institutional leaders, in a spirit of panicked damage control, are delivering hasty and disproportionate punishments instead of considered reforms. Editors are fired for running controversial pieces; books are withdrawn for alleged inauthenticity; journalists are barred from writing on certain topics; professors are investigated for quoting works of literature in class; a researcher is fired for circulating a peer-reviewed academic study; and the heads of organizations are ousted for what are sometimes just clumsy mistakes. Whatever the arguments around each particular incident, the result has been to steadily narrow the boundaries of what can be said without the threat of reprisal. We are already paying the price in greater risk aversion among writers, artists, and journalists who fear for their livelihoods if they depart from the consensus, or even lack sufficient zeal in agreement.

Read the full article in Harpers


How JK Rowling became Voldemort
Helen Lewis, The Atlantic
6 July 2020

Younger Millennials—those born around 1990, the same time as Harry Potter’s lead actors Daniel Radcliffe and Emma Watson—feel just as strongly about transgender rights. To many of them, it is the social-justice cause, their generation’s revolutionary idea. They see little difference between the objections of some older left-wing feminists to the idea that individuals alone decide their gender, and those of social conservatives: Both groups are reactionary, trapped in outdated concepts of what it means to be a man or a woman.

And Millennials dominate the Harry Potter fandom, a community large enough to have spawned hundreds of thousands of pieces of fan fiction. So it is unsurprising that two major fan sites, The Leaky Cauldron and MuggleNet, have distanced themselves from the books’ author, J. K. Rowling, after she argued last month that ‘woman’ should remain a biological category. The two sites announced last week that they will remove her photograph from their sites, stop linking to her website and writing about her other endeavors, and tag Twitter posts that include news about her with the hashtag #JKR, so users can filter out triggering content from their social-media feeds. To preserve their love of Harry Potter, its fans must erase its author. Rowling, like Voldemort, is so evil that even mentioning her violates a taboo: She Who Must Not Be Named. (Dumbledore would not have approved of this practice. As he tells Harry in The Sorcerer’s Stone, ‘Always use the proper name for things. Fear of a name increases fear of the thing itself.’)

What can account for the level of anger now directed at Rowling? If an eighth Harry Potter book were to be published, we could call it Harry Potter and the Desperate Desire for Things to Be Simple. Fans are discovering that someone they once treated as omniscient, someone they loved with a ferocious, possessive, childish love, is an entirely different person, with different values from their own.

Read the full article in The Atlantic


Leicester’s dark factories show up a diseased system
Sarah O’Connor, Financial Times, 3 July 2020

The story of Leicester’s garment district is worth knowing, because it reveals something important about how the British economy evolved in the decade between the financial crisis and this pandemic. It also demonstrates what it will take for the country to ‘build back better’, as UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson promised to do this week.

In 2018, I investigated Leicester’s clothing industry: a bizarre microeconomy where £4 to £4.50 an hour was the going rate for sewing machinists in many factories (£3 for packers). Tiny sweatshops were crammed into crumbling old buildings and legally compliant factories using expensive machines were being outcompeted by illegally underpaid humans.

It might sound Victorian but the sector is embedded in the 21st-century economy. The big buyers of Leicester’s clothes are online ‘fast fashion’ retailers, which have thrived thanks to the proximity and speed of their UK suppliers. Boohoo, which sources about 40 per cent of its clothing in the UK, much of it in Leicester, prospered in lockdown by switching nimbly to producing leisurewear for the homebound, while rivals were left with shipping containers from Asia full of summer party dresses. 

Boohoo’s co-founder Mahmud Kamani has become a billionaire and is set for a £50m bonus if Boohoo’s share price continues to rise. The campaign group Labour Behind the Label has alleged that the some of company’s suppliers contributed to the spread of coronavirus; Boohoo says it adhered to all government guidance and that its supply chain adheres to all labour laws, though it does not publish a list of its suppliers. 

Leicester’s sweatshops, which comprise part but not all of the city’s garment sector, were an open secret even before my investigation began. In fact, a senior Whitehall official first told me about them. A local official in Leicester warned me in 2018 that, if I published my story, I would cause mass unemployment for people with no other options. In fact, nothing changed. After publication, I was invited to testify at a parliamentary select committee hearing into the costs of online fast fashion. The government rejected every one of the committee’s recommendations. 

The bill for that inaction has now come due. As well as the feared harm to public health, Leicester’s economy will suffer from a prolonged lockdown and fall further behind more prosperous parts of the UK. So much for ‘levelling up’. In truth, there was always an economic cost to allowing labour exploitation to flourish. The garment factories are a microcosm of Britain’s productivity problem. Job creation boomed after the financial crisis and ministers did not worry initially about their quality. They pushed up the minimum wage but left it badly under-enforced, while cutting back health and safety inspections to free up ‘entrepreneurialism’.

Leicester shows that when human labour is too cheap, it doesn’t make sense to invest in machines and technology. The UK’s low-paid sectors are 30 per cent less productive on average than the same sectors in Belgium, France, Germany and the Netherlands.

Read the full article in the Financial Times.


The history of the ‘riot’ report
Jill Lepore, New Yorker, 15 June 2020

There’s a limit to the relevance of the so-called race riots of the nineteen-sixties to the protests of the moment. But the tragedy is: they’re not irrelevant. Nor is the history that came before. The language changes, from ‘insurrection’ to ‘uprising’ to the bureaucratic ‘civil disorder,’ terms used to describe everything from organized resistance to mayhem. But, nearly always, they leave a bloody trail in the historical record, in the form of government reports. The Kerner Report followed centuries of official and generally hysterical government inquiries into black rebellion, from the unhinged ‘A Journal of the proceedings in the Detection of the Conspiracy formed by some White People, in conjunction with Negro and other Slaves, for burning the City of New-York in America, and murdering the Inhabitants,’ in 1744, to the largely fabricated ‘Official Report of the Trials of Sundry Negroes, charged with an attempt to raise an insurrection in the state of South-Carolina,’ in 1822. The white editor of the as-told-to (and highly dubious) ‘The Confessions of Nat Turner, the Leader of the Late Insurrection in Southampton, Va. . . . also, An Authentic Account of the Whole Insurrection, with Lists of the Whites Who Were Murdered . . . ,’ in 1831, wrote, ‘Public curiosity has been on the stretch to understand the origin and progress of this dreadful conspiracy, and the motives which influences its diabolical actors.’ What happened? Why did it happen? What can be done to prevent it from happening again and again?

After Reconstruction, Ida B. Wells, in ‘Southern Horrors: Lynch Law in All Its Phases,’ which appeared in 1892, turned the genre on its head, offering a report on white mobs attacking black men, a litany of lynchings. ‘Somebody must show that the Afro-American race is more sinned against than sinning, and it seems to have fallen upon me to do so,’ Wells wrote in the book’s preface, after a mob burned the offices of her newspaper, the Free Speech. White mob violence against black people and their homes and businesses was the far more common variety of race riot, from the first rising of the K.K.K., after the Civil War, through the second, in 1915. And so the earliest twentieth-century commissions charged with investigating ‘race riots’ reported on the riots of white mobs, beginning with the massacre in East St. Louis, Illinois, in 1917, in which, following labor unrest, as many as three thousand white men roamed the city, attacking, killing, and lynching black people, and burning their homes. Wells wrote that as many as a hundred and fifty men were killed, while police officers and National Guardsmen either looked on or joined in. Similar riots took place in 1919, in twenty-six cities, and the governor of Illinois appointed an interracial commission to investigate. ‘This is a tribunal constituted to get the facts and interpret them and to find a way out,’ he said.

Read the full article in the New Yorker.


Anti-racism training for children is cruel
Tom Chivers, Unherd, 7 July 2020

Imagine you’re worried about a disease. (Shouldn’t be hard, at the moment.) You’re in charge of some sort of community; I dunno, a school, and there’s a real disease going around, and you want to be able to test for it.

Someone tells you that there’s a chemical found in school wallpapers that makes the disease more likely to spread. But, good news, they have a test which they can run, which detects the levels of the chemical, and then — if levels are high — they can strip the wallpaper for you. Great! You get them to run the test, they find the chemical, they strip the wallpaper; they run the test again, no chemical.

But then you learn that lots of other local schools have had the same treatment, and in the months afterward, some of them get the disease and some of them don’t; the results of the test, and whether or not the wallpaper was subsequently stripped, doesn’t seem to have any effect on whether or not the disease spreads in the school.

So you say to the people who did the test, hey, what’s going on here? And they say ‘The disease is real! Are you suggesting the disease isn’t real?’ No, you say, I know the disease is real, I’m just saying that the test you’ve run and the treatment you’ve administered doesn’t seem to have any relation to whether the disease comes or not. ‘No, the disease is definitely real,’ they tell you. Presumably you would be unimpressed.

On which note, there was an extraordinary programme on Channel 4 recently, The School That Tried To End Racism. It took a bunch of 11-year-old kids at a school and made them take an apparently scientific test to detect unconscious racial bias.

The test finds that most of the children — 18 out of 24, in a class that’s 50% non-white! — ‘felt an unconscious bias towards white people’. The test, they say, ‘is now widely accepted as an accurate measurement of unconscious racial bias’, something that understandably shocks the children. 

They then make the kids embark on a three-week programme to reduce their unconscious bias. The kids are separated into ‘affinity groups’, i.e. white children in one room, non-white children in another, to talk about their experiences in their racial groups; a mixed-race child strongly resents being forced to choose which room she goes in. One child ends up in tears.

Then, three weeks later, they take the test again and most of the class is apparently ‘near to the neutral position: very little or no unconscious bias’.

It’s powerful television, and incredibly uncomfortable to watch. But there are two huge problems with it, and they’re the same problems in our imaginary school, above: disease is real, but the test and the treatment are not.

Read the full article in Unherd.


Where should Covid-19 vaccines be tested?
It’s a moving target
Maryn McKenna, Wired, 1 July 2020

The challenge of choosing where to put a trial inevitably gets you to the ethics that underlie conducting it. In the United States, Covid-19 has hit hardest in disadvantaged communities: among racial minorities, the elderly, and people who live in multi-family housing or operate public transit, among others. Going where the disease is occurring thus poses the possibility of taking advantage of people who are already vulnerable, for the benefit of those who are not.

That’s even more true for trials outside the United States. The first wave of Covid-19 is now washing across low- and middle-income countries; the disease has established itself in South America and cases are rising across Africa. In fact, both Brazil and South Africa are already test sites for the Oxford-Astra Zeneca vaccine.

But there’s a long, ugly history of people in economically-developing countries being exploited by companies from industrialized nations that are seeking to test new drugs and procedures. In 2008, the Dutch nonprofit Centre for Research on Multinational Corporations documented more than 20 trials in which participants were harmed by the drugs they were receiving, or experienced serious side effects, or never received enough information to allow them to give real consent. (The novel and movie The Constant Gardener are inspired by one of them, a trial of a novel Pfizer antibiotic in Nigeria in 1996. Pfizer was sued in the United States and Nigeria over aspects of the drug trial, and settled in 2011.)

Even when participants aren’t directly harmed by a drug or vaccine trial, simply siting the trial in a developing country can invoke uncomfortable questions about power and inducement. The medical monitoring that is part of trial logistics might represent better healthcare than is normally available; cash compensation for participating might represent more money than a local resident could normally earn. As a result, ‘There are long-standing research ethics questions around conducting research in resource-limited countries,’ says Karen J. Maschke, a research scholar at The Hastings Center, a bioethics research institute, who has written about how the race for a Covid-19 vaccine may undermine standards for both ethics and evidence.

The most sensitive question in offshoring trials may be what price drug companies affix to the finished product, and whether that places a new vaccine out of reach of health systems in developing-world countries whose participation made the vaccine possible. That raises further, complex questions of whether the appropriate response is simply to drop or subsidize the price, or whether companies should compensate countries with permanent improvements, from funding clinic construction to helping a country build up lab capacity and personnel.

Read the full article in Wired.


The existing order of things
William Shoki, Africa is a Country, 7 July 2020

Last week, South Africans were up in arms after a video surfaced depicting a black man, Bulelani Qholani, being violently evicted from his shack by four law enforcement officers in Khayelitsha, a large township on the outskirts of Cape Town. What distinguished this moment of evictions from all the rest that South Africans are used to is that Qholani was naked—and what are usually unnoticed acts of ordinary cruelty became a recorded episode of spectacular dehumanization. While the anger stirred is warranted, at times it’s implied in the talk about the indignity suffered by Qholani that the real problem is that he did not have clothes on—almost as if to say that evictions are fine if they are done humanely.

Cape Town’s police force has become notorious for evictions, clashing recently with black and coloured residents in a poor part of Hout Bay, a wealthy area on the city’s southern edge. And while the four law enforcement officers that assaulted Qholani were suspended after the video went viral, the city of Cape Town has defended the eviction order, claiming that the housing structures constituted an ‘illegal land invasion.’ Never mind that this land belongs to the city of Cape Town itself; this language is not so far off from what we’ve heard before. Not just from the Democratic Alliance (DA) government which governs the Western Cape with an expected indifference to poor black and coloured South Africans (the mayor of Cape Town, also a member of the DA, shamelessly claimed Mr. Qholani’s nakedness was planned so as to embarrass the city), but from the ruling African National Congress which came to power on the hopes that it genuinely cared about the marginalized.

In South Africa, we have historically never been able to think of land as anything but a commodity, a means for facilitating the exploitation of labor (by accommodating and reproducing that labor), or something to be exploited itself (aided by that exploited labor). Any ‘unproductive’ use of land—used as simply a site for a home, or as a site where one could independently produce their own subsistence—had to come to an end. And so, the story of colonialism and apartheid is the story of the dispossession of black people from their land and eviction from their homes. It’s a story that’s remained unchanged in plot, shifting only its storytellers.

If there is one manifestly public exercise of power definitive of the South African condition, past and present, it is that of the eviction. That these scenes of breathtaking cruelty are continuous with familiar ones from the apartheid regime, serve both to give us a ready understanding of the horror involved in materially depriving someone of a home, but also add to the success of the eviction as a technology of power because what it represents is so recognizable that we are predisposed to accepting that it will happen; all that changes is why it happens and whether or not we are willing to accept that.

Read the full article in Africa is a Country.


Haiti was the first nation to permanently ban slavery
Julia Gaffield, Washington Post, 12 July 2020

In 1791, enslaved people on the northern sugar plains of Saint Domingue rose up in a coordinated rebellion to destroy French slavery. This started the 13-year event that has come to be known as the Haitian Revolution. In 1793, the rebels freed themselves by forcing the colonial commissioners to abolish slavery throughout the colony. The colony then sent a delegation to the French National Assembly to convince the French government to abolish slavery in the entire Empire. ‘The National Convention declares that negro slavery in all of the colonies is abolished, in consequence, it decrees that all men, without distinction of color, living in the colonies are French citizens and will enjoy the rights guaranteed by the constitution,’ the Assembly wrote. This was France’s first abolition of slavery, a concession offered to retain the valuable colony within the Empire. But it wouldn’t last.

In 1799, Napoleon Bonaparte established himself as First Consul of France and became determined to rein in the growing autonomy of Saint Domingue under the revolutionary leader and colonial governor Toussaint L’Ouverture, who published the 1801 colonial constitution that ‘forever abolished’ slavery.

Bonaparte sent an army to restore Saint Domingue to colonial order. His brother-in-law, Charles Leclerc, led the effort to deport L’Ouverture and waged a ‘war of extermination.’

‘Here is my opinion on this country,’ Leclerc wrote in a letter to Bonaparte on Oct. 7, 1802 ‘we must destroy all of the black people in the mountains — men and women — and spare only children under twelve years of age. We must destroy half of those in the plains and must not leave a single person of color in the colony who has worn an epaulette.’

And so the first French abolition ended quickly. Bonaparte’s return to colonial order included slavery and, in 1802, he reinstated slavery in France’s other Caribbean colonies. But the rumors that France would reinstitute slavery in Saint Domingue sparked the war for Haitian independence in October 1802.

Just over a year later and under the slogan ‘Freedom or Death,’ Jean-Jacques Dessalines led the revolutionary army to victory. On Jan. 1, 1804, Dessalines declared Haitian independence, promising Haitians would ‘forever ensure the empire of liberty in the country that gave us birth; we must seize from the inhuman government that has for a long time kept us in the most humiliating torpor, all hope of re-enslaving us; we must then live independent or die.’

From the first day of its existence, Haiti banned slavery. It was the first country to do so. The next year, Haiti published its first constitution. Article 2 stated: ‘Slavery is forever abolished.’ By abolishing slavery in its entirety, Haiti also abolished the slave trade, unlike the two-step approach of the European nations and the United States.

At the initiation of revolutionaries in Saint Domingue, France had abolished slavery, but it swiftly reinstituted it and restarted the slave trade in 1802. The British, many of whom tout their leading role in abolition, abolished the slave trade in 1807, but only passed the Abolition Act in 1833 and continued enslaving people in the Caribbean until 1838. And even then, the Abolition Act was similarly spurred on by a major rebellion in Jamaica in 1831-32.

Read the full article in the Washington Post.


When France extorted Haiti – the greatest heist in history
Marlene Daut, The Conversation, 30 June 2020

On April 17, 1825, the French king suddenly changed his mind. He issued a decree stating France would recognize Haitian independence but only at the price of 150 million francs – or 10 times the amount the U.S. had paid for the Louisiana territory. The sum was meant to compensate the French colonists for their lost revenues from slavery.

Baron de Mackau, whom Charles X sent to deliver the ordinance, arrived in Haiti in July, accompanied by a squadron of 14 brigs of war carrying more than 500 cannons.

Rejection of the ordinance almost certainly meant war. This was not diplomacy. It was extortion.

With the threat of violence looming, on July 11, 1825, Boyer signed the fatal document, which stated, ‘The present inhabitants of the French part of St. Domingue shall pay … in five equal installments … the sum of 150,000,000 francs, destined to indemnify the former colonists.’

Newspaper articles from the period reveal that the French king knew the Haitian government was hardly capable of making these payments, as the total was more than 10 times Haiti’s annual budget. The rest of the world seemed to agree that the amount was absurd. One British journalist noted that the ‘enormous price’ constituted a ‘sum which few states in Europe could bear to sacrifice.’

Forced to borrow 30 million francs from French banks to make the first two payments, it was hardly a surprise to anyone when Haiti defaulted soon thereafter. Still, the new French king sent another expedition in 1838 with 12 warships to force the Haitian president’s hand. The 1838 revision, inaccurately labeled ‘Traité d’Amitié’ – or ‘Treaty of Friendship’ – reduced the outstanding amount owed to 60 million francs, but the Haitian government was once again ordered to take out crushing loans to pay the balance.

Although the colonists claimed that the indemnity would only cover one-twelfth the value of their lost properties, including the people they claimed as their slaves, the total amount of 90 million francs was actually five times France’s annual budget.

The Haitian people suffered the brunt of the consequences of France’s theft. Boyer levied draconian taxes in order to pay back the loans. And while Christophe had been busy developing a national school system during his reign, under Boyer, and all subsequent presidents, such projects had to be put on hold. Moreover, researchers have found that the independence debt and the resulting drain on the Haitian treasury were directly responsible not only for the underfunding of education in 20th-century Haiti, but also lack of health care and the country’s inability to develop public infrastructure.

Read the full article in The Conversation.


Christian slavery and white supremacy
Katherine Gerbner, Friends Journal, 1 September 2019

Quakers have long been hailed as heroes of the abolitionist movement. Friends like Anthony Benezet and John Woolman worked tirelessly to convince other Whites to abolish slavery and embrace liberty for all. Fourteen years ago, when I began research for my book Christian Slavery, I wanted to understand this abolitionist history better. I started with the ‘beginning’: the first antislavery protest in North America, written by German and Dutch Quakers in Pennsylvania. But as I quickly learned, this was only part of the story when it comes to Quakers and slavery…

began to dig deeper into the seventeenth-century Quaker world. At the time—I was surprised to learn—slavery was accepted and common among the English Quakers who were in political control of Pennsylvania. And that was not all: Quakers were also involved in the slave trade. As it turns out, many of the Quakers in Philadelphia immigrated not from England, but from the Caribbean island of Barbados.

Pennsylvania may have been the first ‘official’ Quaker colony, but it was not the first Quaker community in the Americas. There was a large Quaker presence on Barbados, where thousands of Friends lived. In the 1670s, it was called the ‘Nursery of Truth’ because it was so filled with Quakers.

When Pennsylvania was founded in 1682, William Penn and others used their Quaker connections in Barbados to purchase enslaved Africans. As Pennsylvania’s social and economic structure developed, ties with the West Indies and other trade outlets flourished. The trade with Barbados was a source of pride and a symbol of prosperity for many English Quakers who considered slavery to be necessary for economic development.

I realized that I needed to tell this story. Like other stories that are shameful or embarrassing, this one had been largely suppressed in the Quaker histories that I read. Much of the scholarship about Quakers and slavery in the seventeenth century acknowledged that Quakers owned slaves, but they focused on finding the ‘seed’ of abolition in these early Quaker records.

I decided to ask different questions. Instead of reading Quaker abolition back in time, I thought it was important to understand how these slaveholding Quakers fit into their own time. None of them would have predicted the demise of the slave trade or slavery. So if I really wanted to understand them and the relationship between Quakers and slavery, then I needed to take a different approach.

Read the full article in the Friends Journal.


Yavne: A Jewish case for equality in Israel-Palestine
Peter Beinart, Jewish Currents, 7 July 2020

The reason is rarely spelled out, mostly because it’s considered obvious: Opposing a Jewish state means risking a second Holocaust. It puts the Jewish people in existential danger. In previous eras, excommunicated Jews were called apikorsim, unbelievers. Today, they are called kapos, Nazi collaborators. Through a historical sleight of hand that turns Palestinians into Nazis, fear of annihilation has come to define what it means to be an authentic Jew.

I grew up with these assumptions, and they still surround me. They pervade the communities in which I pray, send my children to school, and find many of my closest friends. Over the years, I’ve learned how to live in these spaces while publicly questioning Israel’s actions. But questioning Israel’s existence as a Jewish state is a different order of offense—akin to spitting in the face of people I love and betraying institutions that give my life meaning and joy. Besides, Jewish statehood has long been precious to me, too. So I’ve respected certain red lines.

Unfortunately, reality has not. With each passing year, it has become clearer that Jewish statehood includes permanent Israeli control of the West Bank. With each new election, irrespective of which parties enter the government, Israel has continued subsidizing Jewish settlement in a territory in which Palestinians lack citizenship, due process, free movement, and the right to vote for the government that dominates their lives. Israel has built highways for those Jewish settlers so they can travel easily across the Green Line—which rarely appears on Israeli maps—while their Palestinian neighbors languish at checkpoints. The West Bank is home to one of Israel’s most powerful politicians, two of its supreme court justices, and its newest medical school. 

Now Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has vowed to annex parts of the land that Israel has brutally and undemocratically controlled for decades. And watching all this unfold, I have begun to wonder, for the first time in my life, whether the price of a state that favors Jews over Palestinians is too high. After all, it is human beings—all human beings—and not states that are created b’tselem Elohim, in the image of God.     

The painful truth is that the project to which liberal Zionists like myself have devoted ourselves for decades—a state for Palestinians separated from a state for Jews—has failed. The traditional two-state solution no longer offers a compelling alternative to Israel’s current path. It risks becoming, instead, a way of camouflaging and enabling that path. It is time for liberal Zionists to abandon the goal of Jewish–Palestinian separation and embrace the goal of Jewish–Palestinian equality.

This doesn’t require abandoning Zionism. It requires reviving an understanding of it that has largely been forgotten. It requires distinguishing between form and essence. The essence of Zionism is not a Jewish state in the land of Israel; it is a Jewish home in the land of Israel, a thriving Jewish society that both offers Jews refuge and enriches the entire Jewish world. It’s time to explore other ways to achieve that goal—from confederation to a democratic binational state—that don’t require subjugating another people. It’s time to envision a Jewish home that is a Palestinian home, too.

Jews have distinguished between form and essence at other critical junctures in our history. For roughly a thousand years, Jewish worship meant bringing sacrifices to the Temple in Jerusalem. Then, in 70 CE, with the Temple about to fall, Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai imagined an alternative. He famously asked the Roman Emperor to ‘Give me Yavne and its Sages.’ From the academies of Yavne came a new form of worship, based on prayer and study. Animal sacrifice, it turned out, was not essential to being a Jew. Neither is supporting a Jewish state. Our task in this moment is to imagine a new Jewish identity, one that no longer equates Palestinian equality with Jewish genocide. One that sees Palestinian liberation as integral to our own. That’s what Yavne means today.

Read the full article in Jewish Currents.


Racial inequality
Lisa D Cook & Trevon D Logan, Econfip, June 2020

With the abolition of slavery in 1865, the Civil War marked an end to the starkest form of institutionalized discrimination but left a black population that, while free from legal bondage, faced considerable economic hardship. Immediately after emancipation, the black population found itself disadvantaged both by general regional inequality and by racial discrimination. The geographic distribution of slavery and constraints on the mobility of free blacks in the antebellum period resulted in large concentrations of the black population in the cotton-growing regions of the South at the time of emancipation, an area that corresponds quite closely to the areas with high black population shares today. By 1880, 90 percent of the black population still lived in the South and 87 percent of the black population lived in a rural area. In contrast, only 24 percent of the white population lived in the South, and 72 percent of the white population lived in rural areas. This meant that black individuals were disproportionately affected by constraints on economic opportunity in the rural South. Over the second half of the nineteenth century, Southern and Northern incomes diverged significantly, with average income in the South only half of the national average by 1900 (see Margo and Kim (2004) for extensive discussion of historical trends in regional income patterns). The destruction of the Civil War and the emergence of Northern manufacturing while the Southern economy remained predominantly agricultural contributed to these trends.

Even more, policies which could address racial inequality were never realized. While Southern whites had been able to avail themselves to land via Land Acts, public land sales, and lotteries for land ceded by treaty with Native American tribes, African Americans had no share in this wealth redistribution. Black politicians in Reconstruction attempted to use tax policy to redistribute wealth (Logan 2018), where land which was currently held in inventory would be taxed to encourage land sales. This policy did not result in land redistribution, however, even for land which was seized by the state for non-payment of property taxes (Foner 1988). The end of Reconstruction also signaled the end of black political participation in the South, and the resulting laws on labor mobility, wages, and worker’s rights were configured in non-democratic processes.

Beyond this, education in the South was segregated and, after Reconstruction, differentially funded (Logan 2018). This left the majority of the black population in the US in schools which were underfunded in two relative terms. First, Southern schools were underfunded overall relative to school expenditures nationwide. Second, black funding dramatically trailed white funding within the South. This left blacks in the South in the last- last place when it came to investments in human capital.

The black population therefore found itself in a region with far less economic opportunity than the rest of the nation. More importantly, that economic opportunity was further restricted by individual and institutionalized racism and political disenfranchisement. Discrimination in hiring by employers and intimidation of black workers through violence placed black workers at a direct disadvantage in the labor market.

Read the full article in Econfip.


The day the white working class turned Republican
Clyde Haberman, New York Times, 1 July 2020

Let’s remember what the United States was like in 1970: a country torn apart after years of political assassination, unpopular war, economic dislocation, race rioting and class disharmony. The last thing it needed in 1970 was more open fighting in the streets. But that’s what it got on May 8, days after President Richard Nixon had expanded America’s Southeast Asia misadventure into Cambodia and Ohio National Guardsmen shot dead four students during antiwar protests at Kent State University.

Kuhn, who has written before about white working-class Americans, builds his book on long-ago police records and witness statements to recreate in painful detail a May day of rage, menace and blood. Antiwar demonstrators had massed at Federal Hall and other Lower Manhattan locations, only to be set upon brutally, and cravenly, by hundreds of steamfitters, ironworkers, plumbers and other laborers from nearby construction sites like the nascent World Trade Center. Many of those men had served in past wars and viscerally despised the protesters as a bunch of pampered, longhaired, draft-dodging, flag-desecrating snotnoses.

It was a clash of irreconcilable tribes and battle cries: ‘We don’t want your war’ versus ‘America, love it or leave it.’ And it was bewildering to millions of other Americans, including my younger self, newly back home after a two-year Army stretch, most of it in West Germany. My sympathies were with the demonstrators. But I also understood the working stiffs and why they felt held in contempt by the youngsters and popular culture.

New social policies like affirmative action and school busing affected white blue-collar families far more than they did the more privileged classes that spawned many antiwar activists. For Hollywood, the workingman seemed barely a step above a Neanderthal, as in the 1970 movies ‘Joe,’ about a brutish factory worker, and ‘Five Easy Pieces,’ in which a diner waitress is set up to be the target of audience scorn. (Come 1971, we also had ‘All in the Family’ and television’s avatar of working-class bigotry, Archie Bunker.)

It was, too, an era when New York was changing fast and not for the better. Corporations decamped for the suburbs and warm-weather states. Kuhn notes how between 1967 and 1974 the number of Fortune 500 headquarters in the city fell to 98 from 139. Whites moved out in droves. Crime rose, and if you proposed getting tough on felons you risked being labeled a racist. Roughly one in three city residents was on public assistance. Municipal finances were in tatters. In short, 1970 New York was a caldron of misery, one rare bright spot being its basketball team, the Knicks, neatly integrated and en route to its first championship.

Kuhn quotes the estimable Pete Hamill as observing back then that the workingman ‘feels trapped and, even worse, in a society that purports to be democratic, ignored.’ One could go further. Many blue-collar workers felt scorned — by the wealthy, by the college-educated, by the lucky ones with draft deferments, by every group that qualified as elite.

Read the full article in the New York Times.


He made stone speak
Ingrid D Rowland, New York Review of Books, 2 July 2020

To this aged Michelangelo, with his frailties, his frustrations, and his insoluble contradictions, William Wallace has devoted the latest and most poignant of his books on the artist (there are six others). Because all creative people start out as young people, we have a tendency to ascribe creativity to youth itself, but mature masters like Michelangelo remind us that the urge to create has nothing to do with age or the lack of it, but rather with that inventive spirit both he and Vasari called ingegno—inborn wit, cleverness, genius. The spirit often manifests young, but like wine and wood, it depends on age to reveal its full complexity. When Michelangelo turned seventy, as he does at the beginning of Michelangelo, God’s Architect, he had nineteen more years to live, every one of them spent at work. As dear friends died and his body weakened, he took on a remarkable series of huge, daunting projects, fully aware, as Wallace emphasizes, that he would never live to see them completed. In his deeply spiritual vision of the world, his own limits hardly mattered; God had called him, and he had answered.

Wallace, in turn, relies on his own experience to take bold risks as a writer, pushing the haphazard evidence that survives from sixteenth-century Rome to bring the city and its people to life. He imagines himself, and his readers, inside Michelangelo’s dilapidated studio in an area with the inauspicious name of Macel de’ Corvi (Crows’ Market) long since plowed under by the urban dreams of a nineteenth-century unified Italian state and the imperial designs of Benito Mussolini. Today a discreet plaque on the side of the mock-Venetian Palazzo delle Assicurazioni Generali on the vast Piazza Venezia commemorates the site of Michelangelo’s studio, sacrificed in the early twentieth century to the Roman headquarters of an insurance company. Where idling taxicabs now spew their exhaust in the shadow of Trajan’s Column, Wallace takes us back to a Rome that still has a foot in the Middle Ages. We can smell the stench of the surrounding butcher shops, the filthy streets, and the sweat of Michelangelo’s chestnut horse in his stable, the modest luxury of an older man who no longer walks so well. Marvelous statues people his studio, but we can also feel at home amid the raw stone and the masterpieces, in the company of his kindly caretakers, the housekeeper, and the cat.

Wallace walks us up the steep slope behind Michelangelo’s house to meet his aristocratic friend Vittoria Colonna, Marchioness of Pescara, at a terrace on the Quirinal Hill, overlooking the city, where they contemplate the view of the unfinished St. Peter’s Basilica, soon to become Michelangelo’s most challenging commission of all. In another chapter, using every document within reach, Wallace creates an imaginative diary of a ‘typical’ work week for his most atypical subject: a man in his eighties, charged with putting the largest dome in the world on the largest church in the world, inventing a new kind of construction technique as he inspects the goings-on from a wooden scaffolding suspended 150 feet in the air. Like his hero, Wallace has learned, with time, how to convey sensations and information concisely, and to venture fearlessly out over the void.

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


Is economic inequality really a problem?
Samuel Scheffler, New York Times, 1 July 2020

But is economic inequality really what bothers us? An influential essay published in 1987 by the philosopher Harry Frankfurt suggests that we have misidentified the problem. Professor Frankfurt argued that it does not matter whether some people have less than others. What matters is that some people do not have enough. They lack adequate income, have little or no wealth and do not enjoy decent housing, health care or education. If even the worst-off people had enough resources to lead good and fulfilling lives, then the fact that others had still greater resources would not be troubling.

When some people don’t have enough and others have vastly more than they need, it is easy to conclude that the problem is one of inequality. But this, according to Professor Frankfurt, is a mistake. The problem isn’t inequality as such. It’s the poverty and deprivation suffered by those who have least.

Professor Frankfurt’s essay didn’t persuade all his fellow philosophers, many of whom remained egalitarians. But his challenge continued to resonate and, in 2015, even as concerns about economic inequality were growing in many corners of society, he published a short book in which he reaffirmed his position.

And Professor Frankfurt, it seems, has a point. Those in the top 10 percent of America’s economic distribution are in a very comfortable position. Those in the top 1 percent are in an even more comfortable position than those in the other 9 percent. But few people find this kind of inequality troubling. Inequality bothers us most, it seems, only when some are very rich and others are very poor.

Even when the worst-off people are very poor, moreover, it wouldn’t be an improvement to reduce everyone else to their level. Equality would then prevail, but equal misery is hardly an ideal worth striving for.

So perhaps we shouldn’t object to economic inequality as such. Instead, we should just try to improve the position of those who have least. We should work to eliminate poverty, hunger, bad schools, substandard housing and inadequate medical care. But we shouldn’t make the elimination of inequality our aim.

Is this the correct conclusion? I think not. Economic inequality matters a great deal whether or not it matters ‘as such.’

Start by considering two points that Professor Frankfurt himself would accept. First, to succeed in eliminating poverty and securing decent conditions of life for all Americans would require raising taxes on the rich significantly. Although the ultimate purpose would not be to reduce inequality, the indirect effect would be to do just that. So even if inequality as such is not the problem, reducing inequality is almost certainly part of the solution.

Read the full article in the New York Times.


The unfinished project of Enlightenment
Brandon Bloch, Boston Review, 18 June 2020

Yet a tension persists between Habermas’s political ideals and his historical framework. The gap is not so much one of theory and practice, which Habermas readily acknowledges. Instead, his story’s European origin collides with its universal intent. Habermas insists that postmetaphysical reason—because it refuses to take refuge in foundational certainties—provides a basis for the inter-cultural dialogue necessary to confront global crises of climate change, mass migration, and unregulated markets. But by tracing the emergence of modern rationality solely to a Western, and Christian, learning process, he elides the historical reckoning necessary for any such dialogue.

The same problem faced Habermas’s Enlightenment precursors, who equally saw Europe as the source of universal ideals. Yet philosophical histories of the German Enlightenment also recognized the role of power in history, and the violence that saturated Europe’s interactions with the non-European world. Kant’s 1784 essay ‘Idea for a Universal History with a Cosmopolitan Purpose,’ which informs Habermas’s argument for a global public sphere, predicted the achievement of world peace through the ‘improvement in the political constitutions of our continent (which will probably legislate eventually for all other continents).’ Herder more directly confronted the nexus of European global domination and colonial violence, and suggested that history would have its revenge. ‘Europe must give compensation for the debts that it has incurred, make good the crimes that it has committed—not from choice but according to the very nature of things.’

Even Hegel’s history of Absolute Spirit, the most bluntly Eurocentric teleology of classical German Idealism, attests to counter-narratives that shook the self-certainties of revolutionary Europe. As the political theorist Susan Buck-Morss has pointed out, the Haitian Revolution of 1791­–1804, the slave uprising that overthrew French rule over the Caribbean island, may well have motivated Hegel’s early account of freedom. Though Hegel would later become an apologist for slavery, his dialectical theory of history modeled how political ideals emerge out of struggle, not only consensus. At the same time that Idealist philosophies of history enacted colonialist apologetics, they could also, if inadvertently, subvert them.

This Too a History of Philosophy, by contrast, devotes limited attention to the contradictions of European slavery and colonialism, as well as their problematic treatment by contemporaries. Habermas instead frames colonial encounters as moments in the learning process, way stations on the path toward moral universalism. He addresses the conquest of the Americas only to conclude that Francisco de Vitoria, the sixteenth-century Scholastic who defended the property rights of indigenous peoples, exemplified the universal reach of Catholic natural law. A long section on Locke’s theory of natural rights omits their use to justify colonial expropriations.

Haiti, too, is absent from Habermas’s History, as is the centuries-long, intra-Christian debate over the legitimacy of slavery. Instead, Habermas tells a more straightforward story. ‘The abolition of slavery,’ he argues, is ‘a popular and really striking example’ of moral learning:

While the slaves always should have been understood as persons who were denied the social status of free people, the ‘masters’ first had to learn to recognize and acknowledge in the Other the same person that they were in themselves.

But this description is misleading. It elides not only slavery’s enduring legacies, but the histories of resistance, civil war, and violent backlash that paved the twisted road to emancipation. And these histories can hardly be decoupled from the emergence of human rights. 

Read the full article in Boston Review.


Preliminary theory of the in-group contrarian
Geoff Shullenberger, Outsider Theory, 15 June 2020

We can now return to the concept of the In-Group Contrarian (hereafter IGC). Anyone who has observed social media platforms, especially Twitter, will know the type. This is the person who, precisely when mimetic snowballing is in progress, attempts to apply the brakes. What’s important is that this figure is not simply an outsider to the group, in which case they could probably be ignored, but instead claims to share the group’s goals, beliefs, etc and merely objects to some aspect of this manifestation of them. The appearance of this figure is as predictable as the mimetic snowballing itself.

Of course, the majority of IGCs are low-follower anonymous accounts, and can be simply ignored. But a few IGCs already have, or gain, a certain reputation and a following (more on that in a minute), and become harder to ignore. The reaction to these high-profile IGCs differs from the response to an ideological opponent (out-group member). The latter’s criticisms of one’s group can usually be dismissed. Often, in contrast, the IGC must not just be dismissed, but destroyed. In fact, many in-groups seem to dedicate more time and energy to attacking the IGCs attached to their group than they do to attacking their straight-up enemies. In fact, hatred of the IGC can become one of the main things that binds the in-group together.

This would be a version of the scapegoat effect, central to how Girard modifies Durkheim’s theory of collective effervescence. For Girard, groups only truly coalesce by expelling, or sacrificing, a group member. It is in the act of violent unity against this ‘surrogate victim’ that the group’s collective identity reaches its apotheosis. That’s because whatever antagonisms exist within the group are displaced onto the designated scapegoat. The repudiation of the IGC represents an incomplete version of this operation, because usually s/he never goes away, because the in-group itself can’t fully expel him or her. That’s partly, I would argue, because on some level it doesn’t want to.

It’s easy to observe that the IGC, rather than simply being cast out, often becomes a persistent object of perverse fascination for the in-group. Here too Girard is helpful. The IGC’s objections function as an obstacle to the fulfillment of desire for collective effervescence and self-affirmation in the group. In this way, he or she functions as a skandalon or ‘stumbling-block,’ a term Girard takes from the Bible.

Read the full article in Outsider Theory.


Ancient voyage carried Native Americans’ DNA
to remote Pacific islands
Ewen Calloway, Nature, 8 July 2020

Traces of Native American ancestry have been found in the genomes of modern inhabitants of some Polynesian islands, suggesting that ancient islanders met and mixed with people from South America hundreds of years ago.

Polynesia was one of the last corners of the world that humans settled, as island-hopping groups from Asia and Oceania began to push farther east some 1,000 years ago. A study published in Nature on 8 July supports the long-standing, but unproven, theory that ancient Polynesians had contact with Native Americans1. Researchers had thought that this was most likely to have happened on Easter Island, also called Rapa Nui, because of its proximity to South America. But the latest data suggest that these encounters — or perhaps a single meeting — happened on islands thousands of kilometres farther away from the continent.

Abundant archaeological and genetic evidence indicates that Polynesian islands were first settled by humans travelling east from Asia, but there are some clues that these people made contact with South Americans. Sweet potatoes, which originate in the Andean highlands, grow across eastern Polynesia, and samples of Polynesian sweet potatoes from the eighteenth century share genetic markers with coastal South American varieties2. A 2014 genome study found that the ancestors of modern inhabitants of Rapa Nui had produced offspring with Native Americans3, but DNA from ancient-human remains from that island and another in French Polynesia found no such signs.

To broaden the search, a team led by population geneticist Andrés Moreno-Estrada, at the National Laboratory of Genomics for Biodiversity in Irapuato, Mexico, analysed DNA from 166 people currently living on Rapa Nui, as well 188 individuals from more than a dozen islands across the Pacific. They identified Native American ancestry not only in the Rapa Nui, but also in people from the remote eastern Polynesian islands of Palliser, Nuku Hiva in the Northern Marquesas, Fatu Hiva in the Southern Marquesas and Mangareva. Comparisons of this genetic material with that from Native American groups suggested that Zenu people, an Indigenous group in Colombia, carry DNA most like that found in Polynesians.

Moreno-Estrada’s team then attempted to determine when the two populations had produced offspring — to distinguish ‘pre-Columbian’ contact between the groups from the mixing that took place in the centuries after European colonization of South America and Polynesia. On the basis of the length of shared DNA segments — which shorten in successive generations — the researchers estimate that people in remote eastern Polynesia produced offspring with South Americans between AD 1150 and AD 1230, whereas those in Rapa Nui mixed closer to AD 1380. They also found evidence of mixing in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

Read the full article in Nature.


Protest, passion, politics
Alan Wald, Boston Review, 11 June 2020

To put it briefly, between the early 1930s and the mid-1950s the Communist Party of the United States (CPUSA) attracted (cumulatively) around a million individuals to membership, and even more to the broader organizations that it led. In a prelude to what the New Left of the 1960s promoted and the present-day socioeconomic calamity urgently requires, the Reds and their allies campaigned relentlessly against white chauvinism and fascism and on behalf of unionization and state-sponsored programs for health and welfare. Sundry facets of the Communist legacy could provide a way for young rebels to reimagine themselves. Above the establishment’s uproar over the movement’s grotesque misjudgments regarding the Soviet Union under Stalin, one could still hear the full-throated cry of American Reds to end racial and social injustice in the United States.

This is what the gravediggers had to contend with, the legacy they sought to repress as the star of the New Left began to rise. But beginning in the mid-1970s and early 1980s, what would become a long and bitter fight to nuance the narrative of the Communist experience was vividly on display in a series of debates about the publication of several books and one documentary, Seeing Red: Stories of American Communists, directed by Jim Klein and Julia Reichert. An opening salvo was the 1977 publication of the essayist and critic Vivian Gornick’s The Romance of American Communism, her collective oral history of mostly middle-aged former members of the CPUSA, rereleased by Verso in April this year with a new introduction by the author. The structure of this modest-sized volume fell into three central parts, for which the memories of some forty-five veterans were synthesized to dramatize their feelings about their personal lives before, during, and after the party.

The book lacked a granular account of Communist politics, but there was no pink-washing of Stalinism. Gornick’s observations were often clear-eyed and objective about the Communist movement’s many flaws as she describes undemocratic expulsions, bullying, delusions of grandeur, and self-deception about Stalin’s barbaric rule. Even the idealism that attracted so many is shown to have a self-serving dimension, as when Morris Silverman—all the names in the book are invented—boldly states the following about his years as a leader: ‘I really don’t know if I loved doing it because it was valuable in and of itself, or if I loved doing it because I was good at it.’ What was distinctive, and threatening, about Romance was precisely this brave foray into the emotions that lay behind the choice of Marxist commitment. In the commentary that accompanies Gornick’s character studies, she was candid about the many psychological ‘hungers’ that allegiance to a party could assuage for a time. ‘One of these hungers, beyond question,’ she writes, ‘is the need to live a life of meaning.’ Conversely, Gornick was explicit in her memorable concluding chapter, ‘To End With,’ that she had written the book as a warning to radicals. She gave voice, that is, to the agonies as well as the ecstasies.

Read the full article in Boston Review.


If AI is going to help us in a crisis,
we need a new kind of ethics
Will Douglas-Heaven, MIT Technology Review, 24 June 2020

What opportunities have we missed by not having these procedures in place?

It’s easy to overhype what’s possible, and AI was probably never going to play a huge role in this crisis. Machine-learning systems are not mature enough.

But there are a handful of cases in which AI is being tested for medical diagnosis or for resource allocation across hospitals. We might have been able to use those sorts of systems more widely, reducing some of the load on health care, had they been designed from the start with ethics in mind.

With resource allocation in particular, you are deciding which patients are highest priority. You need an ethical framework built in before you use AI to help with those kinds of decisions.

So is ethics for urgency simply a call to make existing AI ethics better?

That’s part of it. The fact that we don’t have robust, practical processes for AI ethics makes things more difficult in a crisis scenario. But in times like this you also have greater need for transparency. People talk a lot about the lack of transparency with machine-learning systems as black boxes. But there is another kind of transparency, concerning how the systems are used.

This is especially important in a crisis, when governments and organizations are making urgent decisions that involve trade-offs. Whose health do you prioritize? How do you save lives without destroying the economy? If an AI is being used in public decision-making, transparency is more important than ever.

What needs to change?

We need to think about ethics differently. It shouldn’t be something that happens on the side or afterwards—something that slows you down. It should simply be part of how we build these systems in the first place: ethics by design.

I sometimes feel ‘ethics’ is the wrong word. What we’re saying is that machine-learning researchers and engineers need to be trained to think through the implications of what they’re building, whether they’re doing fundamental research like designing a new reinforcement-learning algorithm or something more practical like developing a health-care application.

Read the full article in MIT Technology Review.


Caste, class and aspiration:
What old cookbooks reveal about new India

Aparna Kapadia,, 14 June 2020

The Anglo-Indian cookbooks, printed in multiple copies, brought the ‘modern’ recipe format to Indian kitchens. Over the course of the 19th century, these books would define and redefine the ways in which the English household in India functioned and what the Anglo-Indians would eat. The expansion of colonial rule in the 1800s, and deepening racial divide in the post-1857 era, coincided with the convenience of travel introduced by steam navigation.

This meant more English women made their way to India in the late 19th century. It was then that a spate of cookbooks and household management guides intended to assist newly-arrived British women in running their households also appeared. Unlike their British counterparts, the striking feature of Anglo-Indian cookbooks was that they were intended not so much to teach Anglo-Indian women – and sometimes single men – to cook, but instead to be skillful managers and supervisors of their kitchens, and more importantly of the Indian servants who worked in them.

‘Virtually no one in the Anglo-Indian community cooked,’ writes historian Mary Procinda in an essay on Anglo-Indian domesticity. But they did eat elaborate meals and maintain large homes. Anglo-Indian cookbooks gave detailed advice on teaching Indian cooks how to prepare European dishes, and on managing the household sternly but with minimum effort. Flora Annie Steele and Grace Gardiner’s extremely popular 45-chapter tome, The Complete Indian Housekeeper and Cook, which saw multiple print editions from 1888, notes, ‘it must be understood that it is not necessary, or in the least degree desirable that an educated woman should waste the best years of her life in scolding and petty supervision.’

Even so, Steele and Gardiner – both of whom were wives of British civil servants – counsel, ‘A few days or absence or neglect on the part of the mistress, results in the servants falling into their old habits.’

The earliest interactions between the British and the Indians had resulted in a hybrid cuisine including dishes like mulligatawny soup, kedgeree, pish-pash, and above all, curry. But the growing divide between the rulers and the ruled in the late 19th century also revealed themselves in cuisine and cookbooks. Cookbooks, as their users, began to show a clear preference for cooking English and European food in India.

The Complete Indian Housekeeper is squarely European in culinary bent, including recipes for soups, salads, sandwiches, as well as multiple entrees and desserts. Another, somewhat earlier work, Dainty Dishes for an Indian Table from 1879, was also published in Urdu characters so as to teach the servants to cook European dishes correctly. Sample menus printed at the end of Dainty Dishes – a book that contained over 400 pages of recipes – included dishes like Quenelle soup, vol-au-vent of oysters, Dresden patties, Russian pudding, and souffles.

The famous Indian ‘curry’, recognised as a product of the interaction between English housewives and their Indian cooks, met with a mixed response in the Anglo-Indian household. For example, the authors of The Complete Indian Housekeeper sound somewhat resentful about a chapter entitled Native Dishes: ‘The following native dishes have been added by request’ and warn that these dishes are ‘inordinately greasy and sweet’.

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