Pandaemonium

PLUCKED FROM THE WEB #77

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.


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Ding-dong, the jerk is gone.
But read this before you sing the Hallelujah Chorus

Thomas Frank, Guardian, 8 November 2020

Biden’s instinct, naturally, will be to govern as he always legislated: as a man of the center who works with Republicans to craft small-bore, business-friendly measures. After all, Biden’s name is virtually synonymous with Washington consensus. His years in the US Senate overlap almost precisely with his party’s famous turn to the “third way” right, and Biden personally played a leading role in many of the signature initiatives of the era: Nafta-style trade agreements, lucrative favors for banks, tough-on-crime measures, proposed cuts to social security, even.

What Biden must understand now, however, is that it was precisely this turn, this rightward shift in the 1980s and 90s, that set the stage for Trumpism.

Let us recall for a moment what that turn looked like. No longer were Democrats going to be the party of working people, they told us in those days. They were “new Democrats” now, preaching competence rather than ideology and reaching out to new constituencies: the enlightened suburbanites; the “wired workers”; the “learning class”; the winners in our new post-industrial society.

For years this turn was regarded as a great success. Bill Clinton brought us market-friendly reforms to banking rules, trade relations and the welfare system. He and his successor Barack Obama negotiated grand bargains and graceful triangulations; means-tested subsidies and targeted tax credits; tough-minded crime measures and social programs so complex that sometimes not even their designers could explain them to us.

In the place of the Democratic party’s old household god – the “middle class” – these new liberals enshrined the meritocracy, meaning not only the brilliant economists who designed their policies, but also the financiers and technologists that the new liberalism tried to serve, together with the highly educated professionals who were now its most prized constituents. In 2016 Hillary Clinton lost the former manufacturing regions of the country but was able to boast later on that she won “the places that represent two-thirds of America’s gross domestic product … the places that are optimistic, diverse, dynamic, moving forward.”

However, there are consequences when the left party in a two-party system chooses to understand itself in this way. As we have learned from the Democrats’ experiment, such a party will show little understanding for the grievances of blue-collar workers, people who – by definition – have not climbed the ladder of meritocracy. And just think of all the shocking data that has flickered across our attention-screens in the last dozen years – how our economy’s winnings are hogged by the 1%; how ordinary people can no longer afford new cars; how young people are taking on huge debt burdens right out of college; and a thousand other points of awful. All of these have been direct or indirect products of the political experiment I am describing.

Read the full article in the Guardian.


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You have misunderstood the relevance of Hannah Arendt
Samuel Moyn, Prospect, 20 October 2020

Soon after Donald Trump was elected, Arendt became the most used and abused philosophical source to interpret his presidency. Earnest think-pieces appeared about the “lessons” Arendt taught, most of questionable relevance to understanding Trump’s ascendancy. And her work The Origins of Totalitarianism, a 1951 summa that culminates in a quickly written study of Nazi rule, became a bestseller for years.

The truth is that this part of her book is one of the least interesting and novel things Arendt ever wrote. And to make matters worse, commentators routinely pillaged it with an eye to denouncing Trump’s cavalier attitude to truth or to allege the coming of a new age of fascism or totalitarianism. It was, no doubt, one of the minor infractions of what people are now calling the “intellectual history” of the age of Trump that Arendt was bowdlerised for a good cause. But it was extraordinary all the same.

In the eyes of the American “Resistance,” Arendt became a commonplace liberal, a critic of the excesses of violent states, offering warnings about the dangers of mendacious leaders. States are often horrendous in their policies and their leaders prevaricate, but no one needed Arendt’s authority to say so. Arendt became a privileged citation for those not so much ignorant of as uninterested in her work, and who canonised her for a new age at the price of reducing her to utter conventionality. Referencing her gave many a think piece the patina of a famous name and pseudo-profundity. Her words opportunistically provided revulsion towards Trump with the imprimatur of a supposed philosopher of fascism, for those who were less willing to think about where he came from and how he was possible. It helped, of course, that Arendt—who fled to America—was among the most renowned analysts of the Nazi and Soviet foes that her new country put down one after another in the 20th century, before Trump so rudely tarnished its reputation and self-conception.

In their invocations of Arendt as a theorist for a new age of “post-truth,” her new fans missed that she argued that truth and politics have never mixed. On the contrary: politics is a realm of appearance, not one of correspondence with fact. For Arendt, we have always been post-truth. She acknowledged that fascist lies were unique, but their novelty—and that of later American ones, like the defence of the Vietnam War that the Pentagon Papers revealed to be so deceptive—allowed no “moralising,” since “the background of past history” is “itself not exactly a story of immaculate virtue.” That same belief guided her refusal to moralise once Nazism fell.

Arendt did not believe in what the Germans began calling a Stunde Null, a “zero hour,” a caesura before a new era untainted by the old. Far from it: the idea of a clean break with guilt was just another mode of convincing ourselves that we are exempt from universal responsibility. After a trip to Germany, Arendt observed that the people she met “developed many devices for dodging.”

It is ironic that, as Arendt was used to deflect responsibility and look away from America in recent years, her provocations about how to think about the aftermath of a bad regime will undoubtedly go missing now in postmortems of Trump’s presidency. Those provocations apply even though Trump turns out to be less a dictator than a charlatan.

Read the full article in Prospect


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U.S. workers have taken a powerful hit.
Any true recovery must include them.
Katrina van den Heuvel, Washington Post, 27 October 2020

From March through mid-October, as covid-19 spread, the wealth of U.S. billionaires collectively increased some $931 billion — or nearly one-third. The very richest grew even richer as more than 225,000 Americans have died and tens of millions have lost work. The pandemic is not, as some expected, a “great equalizer.” It has exacerbated the cruel inequities of the U.S. political economy, preying on the vulnerable while plutocrats profited.

This juxtaposition exposed the falsehood in President Trump’s claim to have built the “greatest economy in the history of the world” and the delusion in his promise that next year will be the best ever.

As the pandemic forced the shutdown of much of the economy, well-positioned companies and monopolies — in online retail, the pharmaceutical industry, telemedicine, videoconferencing services — thrived. The net worth of some of the world’s richest people — including Amazon founder Jeff Bezos (who owns The Post) and Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg — shot up. But others also profited.

Executives, board members and big investors in drug companies — jockeying for government grants in the rush to develop a coronavirus vaccine — were rapacious. As shares soared on hints of progress toward a vaccine, the Boston Globe reported last week, insiders cashed in more than $1.3 billion in stock (compared with just $74 million over the same period last year). Consider what this means: Taxpayers cover the initial investment costs and expenses of tests, development and distribution of a vaccine. Executives capture the profits if the treatment is successful and pocket obscene sums along the way even if trials fail. Put another way, taxpayers cover the risk, while executives and shareholders reap the rewards.

Workers across America have taken a powerful hit. As of this month, more than 23 million are receiving unemployment, even as Trump celebrates a “recovery.” As of August, some 12 million had lost employer-based health-care coverage when they lost their jobs. As of Aug. 31, some 98,000 businesses — primarily small businesses — had closed permanently, according to one survey. One in 6 renters are behind on their payments. Moratoriums on evictions and foreclosures delay what will be a flood of expulsions.

In this pain, people of color, women and the young have suffered the most. Disproportionately employed in “essential” jobs or positions that required their physical presence, their ranks have suffered outsize numbers of illnesses and deaths. Without union support or adequate health and safety protections, many were forced to work even when employers refused to implement reforms. Women have been disproportionately affected by the absence of day care or in-person schooling and have been forced to leave jobs to care for their families. As The Post recently reported, “low-wage jobs were lost at about eight times the rate of high-wage ones” at the height of the crisis so far.

Read the full article in the Washington Post.


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The most important divide in American politics isn’t race
Derek Thompson, Atlantic, 6 November 2020

Even more than the depolarization of race, the polarization of place is a long-running trend. In the past 100 years, Democrats have gone from being the party of the farmland to a profoundly urban coalition. In 1916, Woodrow Wilson’s support in rural America was higher than his support in urban counties. Exactly one century later, Hillary Clinton won nine in 10 of the nation’s largest counties and took New York City, Boston, Denver, Atlanta, Philadelphia, and Chicago by more than 50 points. Now it looks like Biden won the election by running up the score in cities and pushing the inner suburbs left, even as Trump strengthened his grip on rural areas.

Wisconsin offers a good illustration of place-based partisan evolution. The state has been decided by less than one percentage point four times in the past six elections, but the distribution of votes has changed immensely in that period. In 2000, Al Gore won the largest county, Milwaukee, by about 20 percentage points and eked out a 5,000-vote victory in rural areas such as Pepin County, the birthplace of the Little House on the Prairie author, Laura Ingalls Wilder. In white, wealthy suburban areas such as Waukesha, he got clobbered by more than 30 points. This year, Biden doubled Gore’s margin in Milwaukee to 40 points and significantly narrowed the gap in Waukesha, while Trump cleaned up in Pepin. Thus, two Democrats separated by two decades won Wisconsin by less than 0.5 percent—Gore with a metro-rural coalition and Biden with a big metro surge that carried over into the white-collar suburbs.

This story is playing out across the country. The economist Jed Kolko calculated that, as of midday yesterday, large urban areas remained staunchly pro-Democrat as inner suburbs moved hard to the left. In the Northern Virginia suburb of Fairfax, just across the river from Washington, D.C., Biden won 70 percent of the votes in a county that George W. Bush carried in 2000. Meanwhile, Kolko found, Trump held on to a 40-point lead in rural America and carried low-density suburbs, such as Ocean, New Jersey, outside New York City. From coast to coast, inner suburbs are voting more like cities—that is, for Democrats—and outer suburbs are voting more like rural areas, for Republicans.

Driving both the polarization of place and the depolarization of race is the diploma divide. Non-college-educated Latino and Black Americans are voting a little bit more like non-college-educated white Americans, and these groups are disproportionately concentrated in sparser suburbs and small towns that reliably vote Republican. Meanwhile, low-income, college-educated 20-somethings, many of whom live in urban areas, are voting more like rich, college-educated people who tend to live in the inner suburbs that are moving left.

Read the full article in the Atlantic.


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Some Latinos voted for Trump.
Get over it.
Isvett Verde, New York Times, 5 November 2020

On Wednesday the country woke up to the fact that a sizable portion of Latinos liked President Trump enough to help him clinch a victory in Florida. And a CNN exit poll suggested that Mr. Trump picked up more Latino voters in several other key battleground states compared with his numbers in 2016.

Many people were surprised, but they shouldn’t be. In 1984, 37 percent of Latinos voted for Ronald Reagan; 40 percent voted for George W. Bush in 2004. It would be easy to dismiss these voters as self hating, or racists. But that’s a simplistic way of viewing this wildly diverse and complex demographic.

The reason the “Latino vote” befuddles is because it doesn’t exist, nor do “Latino issues.” If we want to understand how Latinos vote, we should start by retiring the word “Latino” entirely — and maybe “Hispanic,” too, a term first used by the United States government in the 1970 census that is based solely on the language native to the European settlers who conquered the Americas. These labels have served only to reduce us to a two-dimensional caricature: poor brown immigrants who always vote Democrat.

Latinos, like all Americans, are motivated by the issues that affect them directly. Those can vary depending on factors like our religion, where we grew up, whether we are first generation or our ancestors lived in North America long before the United States existed. Many Democrats act as if Latinos care only about immigration policy. In fact, a recent survey by UnidosUS, an advocacy group, and Latino Decisions, a polling and research firm, found that Latinos are more concerned about jobs and the economy.

Journalists and pundits who have spent some time in Latin America or interviewed a few Spanish speakers (and now fancy themselves experts) have suggested that machismo, and a desire to be closer to whiteness, is what drove these voters to support the man who promised to build a wall to keep caravans of Spanish-speaking brown people out. That may be true, but it’s far from the whole story.

I’m a Cuban-American from Miami, and I’m not surprised that around 52 percent of Cuban-Americans in Florida voted for Mr. Trump. No one who was paying attention could be. In the weeks leading up to the election, Cubans in Miami composed a salsa song in support of Mr. Trump and organized Trump caravans hundreds of cars long.

Read the full article in the New York Times.


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How the two-party system obscures
the complexity of black Americans’ politics
Hakeem Jefferson & Alan Yan, FiveThirtyEight, 6 October 2020 

Choosing a political party and a candidate to support are, however, only two expressions of an individual’s politics. Yes, Black people are overwhelmingly Democratic and, like most Americans, vote in line with that partisan identity. But we know, both from debates among Black people throughout this year’s Democratic presidential primary and from the historical record that Black Americans, like members of any group, often disagree with one another about politics.

The argument here is straightforward: Black people’s politics cannot — and should not — be reduced to partisanship.

So what other markers might better showcase the diversity of Black political thought?

One obvious candidate is how Black Americans identify ideologically. There is, after all, much more diversity in Black Americans’ ideological identities than in their partisan identities. In 2016, for example, 45 percent of Black Americans identified as liberal and 43 percent identified as conservative.1 This is a far cry from the near-uniformity of Black partisanship.

In fact, this ideological variation has led some scholars and other analysts of American politics to wonder why conservative-identifying Black Americans remain so loyal to the Democratic Party.

The problem is that this ideological split is an illusion. It turns out, a large subset of Black Americans simply don’t make use of the terms “liberal” and “conservative” when discussing politics. That is, these terms — which are familiar to those who participate in certain types of elite political discourse — are often just unfamiliar to many Black Americans for whom these terms are not part of their political lexicon, as one of the authors of this piece, Jefferson, found in his research.

In the 2012 ANES, for example, 44 percent of Black Americans categorized Barack Obama as conservative. A similar share categorized Mitt Romney as liberal. And 35 percent of Black Americans said the Democratic Party was more conservative than the Republican Party. In other words, ideological identification actually tells us very little about Black people’s politics because standard ideological terms are not commonplace in Black Americans’ political discourse.

Read the full article in FiveThirtyEight.


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Once more, with feeling:
America must abolish the Electoral College
Luke Savage, Jacobin, 4 November 2020

The final outcome of Tuesday’s presidential election will, in all likelihood, come down to a few thousand votes in a handful of Midwestern states. Given the broader context of economic hardship and mass death, it’s a state of affairs that deserves to see heads roll at Democratic national headquarters, regardless of whether Joe Biden ultimately squeaks out a victory in the Electoral College. The polling industry, which largely failed to predict a close race, is due for a similar reckoning.

The fact remains that, under a less absurd system, there would be considerably less suspense. At the time of writing, Joe Biden leads Donald Trump by more than 2 million votes nationwide — making the possibility that the president will carry the popular vote or pass the 50 percent threshold slim to none. As has been endlessly pointed out for the past four years, Donald Trump received millions fewer votes in 2016 and still carried the day, thanks to the eighteenth-century anachronism of the Electoral College — which remains his only potential path to victory this week.

From its beginning, the entire Trump presidency has drawn its legitimacy from a system that permits election to the country’s highest executive office with a minority of actual votes. Compounding this, the Electoral College inevitably encourages campaigns to ignore large, populous swaths of the country. As Vox’s Andrew Prokop aptly describes it:

The Electoral College is a patchwork Frankenstein’s monster of a system, which in the best of times merely ensures millions of Americans’ votes are irrelevant to the outcome because they don’t live in competitive states, and in the worst of times could be vulnerable to a major crisis.

All of this will remain true even if Donald Trump is defeated. Regardless of whether Biden is elected president or Trump somehow carries on another four years, there has rarely been a more vital moment to champion democracy and majority rule. While both principles are regrettably limited throughout America’s political institutions, abolition of the Electoral College is potentially easier to achieve than other reforms and could find widespread support (legislation even passed through the House with bipartisan buy-in once back in 1969). According to a Gallup poll published in September, a 61 percent supermajority of Americans currently favors getting rid of it.

Abolition of the Electoral College would still leave the United States with a stacked and overpowered Supreme Court, a wildly anti-majoritarian upper house, rampant voter suppression, and a host of other institutional checks that constrain and limit democracy. But regardless of how this week’s election ultimately breaks, it could represent the first step in a wider struggle to assert genuine popular control over the US federal government.

Read the full article in Jacobin.


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Malaria vaccination programme in Malawi (Photographer: Thoko Chkondi)

COVID-19 vaccines: how to ensure Africa has access
John N. Nkengasong, Nicaise Ndembi, Akhona Tshangela

& Tajudeen Raji, Nature, 6 October 2020

We’ve seen a scramble for access to therapies before. It happened with HIV and H5N1 influenza, for example. And Africa has ended up at the end of the queue every time. Yet the global economy depends on the continent for its exports of raw materials, food, energy and labour.

This experience — and the fact that other infectious diseases will surely emerge — is why Africa needs a coordinated strategy to develop, finance, manufacture and deliver vaccines across the continent. For the past few months, the Africa Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (Africa CDC) in Addis Ababa, where we work, has been developing this, with leaders from the African Union and in global health.

Antiretroviral drugs to treat HIV entered the market in the mid-1990s. At the time, one of us (J.N.) was working in Côte d’Ivoire as part of a US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention project that was struggling to combat HIV in the country without access to medicine. The prices that companies set for these drugs put them out of reach. As deaths in rich countries plummeted, infected people were left to die across Africa (see ‘Left to die’). It is estimated that, between 1997 and 2007, 12 million Africans died waiting for enough life-saving drugs to reach the continent. The drugs’ arrival was largely thanks to the efforts of the US President’s Emergency Plan For AIDS Relief (PEPFAR) and the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria.

In 2004, the highly pathogenic avian influenza virus H5N1 re-emerged, prompting fears of an overwhelming, global pandemic1. Negotiations by the WHO to share and stockpile doses of an eventual vaccine broke down. At one point, tensions were so high that Indonesia refused to share H5N1 virus samples that were crucial for surveillance. Five years later, another strain of pandemic flu (H1N1) emerged, and rich countries placed large pre-orders of vaccine, buying almost all of the doses that could possibly be manufactured. Many of these countries promised to donate vaccines under plans sponsored by the WHO and the United Nations. They then reneged or otherwise moved to secure their own countries’ supply above that of others.

Earlier this year, Africa was elbowed out of the diagnostics market for SARS-CoV-2 — although the situation is now improving. Shortages of materials were initially the greatest limitation in fighting the pandemic on the continent2. So, in April, Africa CDC launched a Partnership to Accelerate COVID-19 Testing (PACT). Training was set up, and technicians in Africa have now conducted more than 14.5 million COVID-19 tests. Countries including Kenya, Ethiopia, Nigeria, Morocco, Senegal and South Africa have started making test kits. At the time of writing, Ethiopia is on track to produce some 10 million COVID-19 PCR-based test kits per year for use across Africa. This is far below its needs, but many more than seemed possible when we launched PACT.

Read the full article in Nature.


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She hunts viral rumors about real viruses
Jenny Anderson, New York Times, 13 October 2020

Three thousand people in Britain were asked: If a Covid-19 vaccine existed, would you definitely take it? Fifty-four percent of respondents said yes. Then most were shown a series of negative social media posts, including a post from David Icke, an English conspiracy theorist, claiming that a Big Pharma whistle-blower had said that “97 percent of corona vaccine recipients will become infertile.” After exposure, the percentage of the study’s respondents who expressed a willingness to take a vaccine dropped more than 6 percentage points.

For a vaccine to create herd immunity — Dr. Larson prefers the term “community immunity,” to avoid conjuring images of animal herding — in a population, 60 to 70 percent of people need to take it, scientists expect. Even a 6 percentage point decline in acceptance could endanger that goal.

Vaccine confidence “is every bit as important as how effective the vaccine is,” said Daniel Salmon, director of the Institute for Vaccine Safety at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. “Vaccines don’t save lives. Vaccinations save lives.”

But to focus on the inaccuracy of any given rumor is to miss the point, Dr. Larson has learned. During the call with the Verified team, a young woman with that group asked Dr. Larson how they should respond to the data. Shouldn’t they target social media companies and press them to take down the anti-vaccine posts?

“I don’t think taking it down is going to get rid of the sentiment,” Dr. Larson said. “If you shut down Facebook tomorrow, it’s not going to make this go away. It’ll just move.”

It is a message that Dr. Larson has been pressing on the health ministries, drug companies, nongovernmental organizations and social media companies that have been flocking to her team lately for insights and help. Rumors take root in the soil of doubt, and it’s the soil that wants attention. “We don’t have a misinformation problem,” she says. “We have a trust problem.”

Read the full article in the New York Times.


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Tough on anti-vaxx nonsense,
tough on the causes of anti-vaxx nonsense
Leigh Phillips, Jacobin, 16 October 2020

And understanding democracy as the salve to the irritation of vaccine hesitancy leads us to a comprehension of why there is mistrust of pharmaceutical firms in the first place.

Most anti-vaxx campaigners, and even those who are not opposed to vaccines per se but are just hesitant about their safety, will in the first instance point to the depravity of “Big Pharma.” They will say that these corporations are corrupt, only out to make money for their shareholders, and that their lobbyists have bought our political leaders. The system is rigged.

They are not wrong as far as the wickedness of these firms goes. Ben Goldacre is a British medical doctor and author who has written widely about how the pharmaceutical industry finances clinical trials where negative data is not disclosed, never published, and often plans and even ghostwrites purportedly independent scientific papers about their drugs on behalf of academics. Goldacre believes that the pharmaceutical system is utterly broken and even a “murderous disaster.”

These are the same firms that are lobbying diplomats to prevent affordable access in the developing world to existing drugs that work against COVID-19, and that have hiked the price of hundreds of existing drugs used in the treatment of COVID-19, from steroids to sedatives. When Gilead’s Remdesivir antiviral proved to be extremely powerful against the disease, the company goosed the price by  33 per cent. It is no wonder that so many people have contempt for these vampires.

But instead of fighting for the decommodification of pharmaceutical science, for taking these companies out of the private sector and turning them into agencies for the public good like the fire service, the response of far too many is to embrace the pseudoscience of alternative medicine, from naturopathy and homeopathy to acupuncture and chiropractic.

They forget that the quacks that provide these “services” — taking advantage of the lack of medical and scientific understanding of their marks to sell them purported remedies that have in fact consistently failed the battery of scientific tests — are no less profit-driven than Big Pharma.

Goldacre may be a campaigner against Big Pharma for its unethical, profit-driven distortion of medical science, but he is no less a critic of the snake-oil salesmen of the alternative medicine industry — much of which, it turns out, is actually owned by the same large pharmaceutical corporations that produce conventional medicine.

This makes sense: if a pharmaceutical giant will fiddle the data on a conventional drug that they know doesn’t work, why would they suddenly have qualms about selling an alternative remedy that they also know doesn’t work? As Goldacre puts it: “Big Pharma being shit doesn’t mean that magic beans cures cancer.”

Read the full article in Jacobin.


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The real red wall: Liverpool,
Covid-19 and the north-south divide
Lysney Hanley, Financial Times, 16 October 2020

If central government was at all interested in “levelling up” the regions outside London, it could reinstate those grants — loose change in comparison with the money spent by Rishi Sunak on furlough and the August eating-out subsidy — but it won’t, because it doesn’t want to. Right now we are trapped in the conditions created by this refusal, unable to do anything other than call, increasingly loudly, for help from those who are best placed to offer it.

What is truly galling about this situation is the knowledge that, if you actually came here — “you” being the nameless minister, the journalist, the television pundit, the London-based landlord who bought up half of Dingle from a website — you would love it. Carl Jung didn’t call Liverpool “the pool of life” for nothing. “The north” is not culturally arid, or grim, or ignorant: it is a huge and varied region filled with people doing their best to thrive in a range of unjustly adverse circumstances.

These circumstances are getting worse. Infant mortality in Liverpool, as in other regions of high economic deprivation, is rising. The Victorians learnt that cholera, dysentery and TB were not caused by “miasma”, a sort of inexplicable fog that sat over the poor, but that they spread as a result of the conditions of poverty itself.

These are much the same conditions — albeit in 21st-century form — that are causing coronavirus to spread in towns and cities that have high levels of deprivation in common. They include poor and overcrowded housing, private renting, stressful and often unsafe working conditions, the inability to take time off work due to low pay and casualisation, a lack of state support for childcare and a general lack of autonomy that enables better-off people to exercise more choice over how they work, travel and socialise.

The coronavirus “red wall” highlights how class is lived in Britain: it makes plain the kinds of risks that people have to weigh up to make a living and how the burdens and tolls of those risks bear infinitely more heavily on working-class people. That’s not to say that all northerners are working class, or that all working-class people live north of Birmingham. It’s more that sustained inequality can’t be remedied by taking a sudden, shamefaced look at a map and noticing, for the first time, that decisions made in London — in a context and milieu that can’t see beyond it — really do cost lives elsewhere.

Read the full article in the Financial Times.


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The pitched battle over lockdowns is
missing the point: Covid-19 is a class issue
John Harris, Observer, 18 October 2020

Rather than retreating inside to bake their own bread and have work meetings on Zoom, people in such trades as construction, warehousing and care work had to carry on venturing outside and mixing with others in the first wave, so levels of the virus remained comparatively high, even before the summer reopening then took them back to dangerous levels. Clearly, the ability to render yourself housebound is also dependent on whether your domestic environment makes remaining at home either viable or all but impossible. The basic point was recently nailed by the Financial Times writer Anjana Ahuja: “This crisis has broadly separated us into the exposed poor and the shielded rich.”

Andy Burnham, the Greater Manchester mayor, recently told me about one correlation that highlights this disparity. He said that in a swathe of the country that takes in Greater Manchester, east Lancashire and West Yorkshire, Covid hotspots map on to areas that were the focus of the last Labour government’s so-called Pathfinder scheme: the programme that aimed to replace old housing by bringing in private developers, and left a legacy of unfinished work and huge resentment. “The quality of housing in those areas is still extremely poor,” said Burnham. “Lots of families live intergenerationally. It’s very overcrowded. How would you self-isolate in a situation like that?”

This is a good riposte to the oft-heard suggestion that most people who fail to follow the rules are degenerate “Covidiots”, and further proof that in a society as insecure as ours, trying to stringently control anything – let alone a highly infectious disease – will tend to be very difficult indeed. According to research done at King’s College London, only 18% of people self-isolate after developing symptoms, and only 11% quarantine after being told by the government’s test and trace system that they have been in contact with a confirmed case. Among the factors the study associates with non-compliance are “lower socio-economic grade”, and “greater hardship during the pandemic”. A lot of people, it seems, would like to do what they are told, but simply can’t.

This is the basic point the government does not seem to have grasped – painfully highlighted by Johnson’s claim that infections increased because the public became “complacent”. Threatening people with fines of up to £10,000 if they fail to self-isolate – and, we now learn, passing their details to the police – is an example of the same cast of mind, less likely to persuade people in precarious circumstances to follow the rules than to keep their distance from the authorities. The fact that some people on very low incomes are finally eligible for a lump sum of £500 to cover a fortnight’s quarantine will not solve what is obviously a massive problem; in terms of basic practicalities, it is of a piece with Rishi Sunak’s plan to pay only two-thirds of lost wages to people affected by local restrictions.

But before anyone on the left starts feeling too self-righteous, they also have questions to answer. There is a cold, dogmatic attitude in certain quarters that seems to define itself against anything that smells of Tory laissez-faire. Earlier in the year, it was manifested in rigid opposition to schools reopening, as some people averted their eyes from the inequalities the suspension of education was making worse. Now, some of the same voices stridently argue for strict national measures, as if that proposition is straightforward. It is actually not just complex, but full of potential contradictions. A prime example: given that poverty and precarity are what make millions of people vulnerable to both Covid infection and the life-threatening complications that can come with it, the hardship that any lockdown creates will make those problems even worse. This, surely, is the circuit that desperately needs to be broken, but after so many wasted years it will take a long time to do it.

Read the full article in the Observer.


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‘It’s been so, so surreal.’ Critics of Sweden’s
lax pandemic policies face fierce backlash
Gretchen Vogel, Science, 6 October 2020

Until last month, Sweden’s official policy stated people without obvious symptoms are very unlikely to spread the virus. So instead of being quarantined or asked to stay home, family members, colleagues, and classmates of confirmed cases had to attend school and show up for work, unless they had symptoms themselves. Testing in Sweden still lags behind many other countries, and in many districts infected people are expected to notify their own contacts—in contrast to, say, Germany and Norway, where small armies of contact tracers help track down people who may have been exposed.

The Swedish approach has its fans. Protesters against coronavirus-related restrictions in Berlin in late August waved Swedish flags. In the United States, a prominent member of President Donald Trump’s coronavirus task force, neuroradiologist Scott Atlas, has cited Sweden as a model to follow. The policies also have widespread public support in Sweden, where consensus is prized and criticism of the government is rare.

But within Sweden’s scientific and medical community, a debate about the strategy has simmered and frequently boiled over—in the opinion pages of newspapers, within university departments, and among hospital staff. A group of scientists known as “the 22” has called for tougher measures since April, when it published a blistering critique of the country’s public health authority, the Folkhälsomyndigheten (FoHM). The group, which has grown to include 50 scientists and another 150 supporting members, now calls itself the Vetenskapsforum COVID-19 (Science Forum COVID-19).

It says the price for Sweden’s laissez-faire approach has been too high. The country’s cumulative death rate since the beginning of the pandemic rivals that of the United States, with its shambolic response. And the virus took a shocking toll on the most vulnerable. It had free rein in nursing homes, where nearly 1000 people died in a matter of weeks. Stockholm’s nursing homes ended up losing 7% of their 14,000 residents to the virus. The vast majority were not taken to hospitals. Although infections waned over the summer, scientists worry a new wave will hit in the fall. Cases are rising rapidly in the greater Stockholm area, where almost one-quarter of the Swedish population lives.

The group’s criticism has not been welcomed—indeed, some of the critics say they have been pilloried or reprimanded. “It has been so, so surreal,” says Nele Brusselaers, a member of the Vetenskapsforum and a clinical epidemiologist at the prestigious Karolinska Institute (KI). It is strange, she says, to face backlash “even though we are saying just what researchers internationally are saying. It’s like it’s a different universe.”

Read the full article in Science


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Nigeria anti-SARS protest (via the BBC)

Nigeria’s protests against police violence
Oris Aigbokhaevbolo, New York Review, 8 November 2020

On October 16, I joined the protesters at the major thoroughfare in Lagos where the Lekki toll gate generates revenue for the local government. A piece of cardboard tacked to the rear windshield of a car parked nearby read “So proud to be doing this for my 4yr old Seyi. You’ll make it in this country. #Endsars #Endswat #End police brutality.” Those words conveyed the reason so many young people had joined the protests. Here, at last, was a chance to do something about corruption in Nigeria. Music and prayers mingled with chants. “How many people SARS go kill,” asked a guy with a microphone. The crowd responded, “Hey, dem go shoot dem go tire.” (How many people would SARS kill? They will shoot until they are tired.)

The scene was carnivalesque, with food, drink, and even two reedy hawkers asking if anyone wanted some weed. From time to time, someone would leave the bazaar on the periphery and come over to the core of the protest, raise a fist to the sky, and shout, “End SARS!”

I left late, thinking the federal government had only two choices: lean on some senior official to resign, to signal that it was taking the protests seriously; or forcefully eject the protesters from the streets. For a former military leader like President Buhari who, I imagined, would want to be seen as upholding democracy, the latter would be a very bad look. Besides, the country was still recovering from the economic effects of Covid-19 and dwindling oil prices. Why alienate trade partners? In hindsight, my hope was naive.

As days passed and the protesters remained on the streets of Lagos and other states around the country, the coordination enabled by Twitter began to have real-world effects. Online volunteers supplied food to street protesters. A group of young women known as the Feminist Coalition posted a link for donations and, in days, raised over $350,000, which the group said was used to pay for food, drinks, and health care. A network of volunteer lawyers across the country helped win the release of arrested protesters.

Not everything was perfect: the dancing protesters at Lekki were accused of frivolity; the Feminist Coalition was accused of hoarding the funds donated (the group announced on October 22 they would stop accepting donations). On the other hand, a deeply divided, patriarchal society had come together across ethnic divisions and accepted a feminist group as central to the protest. Was it possible that the movement might bring with it a new, more equitable Nigeria?

Read the full article in New York Review.


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The unfinished project of Enlightenment
Brandon Bloch, Boston Review, 18 July 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. 

Read the full article in the the Boston Review.


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Who exactly is this white working class?
Matt Grogan, Wonkhe, 19 October 2020

The UK is a majority white country. Overall, white people make up 87 per cent of the UK’s population. Even if you remove Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland – all significantly whiter than England – you’re left with 84.4 per cent.

Any comparison between ethnic groups has to grapple with the fact that the white working class far outnumbers any other ethnic group. And they live all over the country, from deprived fishing villages in Devon, rusting seaside resorts on the Essex coast, former pit villages in Cumbria, and on council estates in Toxteth, Kilmarnock, Aberdare, or Romford. Whereas ethnic minorities in the UK are far more concentrated in cities and large towns.

Even in the most ethnically diverse cities – London, Birmingham, Manchester – white people remain the majority. The only major town in England where white people are not the absolute majority is Slough, where they form 46 per cent of the population, ahead of the 40 per cent of Asians and nine per cent of Afro-Carribeans.

Now, if you felt like checking my research, and I encourage you to, you might find that some newspapers like the Daily Express will report Slough’s population at 35 per cent White British, which gives the first indication that things might be more complicated than they appear. Specifically: are Eastern European immigrants part of the “white working class”?

According to research from 2015 commissioned by the Department for Business, Energy, and Industrial Strategy, which looked at higher education participation between 2003 and 2008, non-British white working class young people are more than twice as likely to participate in higher education than their British counterparts. Non-British white girls participated at rates similar to British Pakistani girls, while their male school mates attended university at rates slightly exceeding Black Caribbean boys. Overall, their HE participation is comparable to “other” ethnic minorities.

What makes the difference between British and non-British white kids if it’s not their skin colour? Like ethnic minorities, “other” whites are concentrated in cities. When it comes to higher education participation, the “London effect” is well documented, with all ethnic groups within the capital attending university at higher rates than those outside. But here we come to the central issue when talking about the white British working class: there isn’t just one.

Read the full article in Wonkhe.


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Feminists like me aren’t anti-trans –
we just can’t discard the idea of ‘sex’

Susanna Rustin, Guardian, 30 September 2020

Why am I writing this now? Because recent events have forced me, like many others, to think much harder than I have been used to about feminism. The immediate cause is a conflict of opinion about transgender activism and the reasons behind an increase in the number of girls referred for treatment for gender dysphoria in England, from 32 in 2009/10 to 1,740 in 2018/19. But debate on these issues has exposed a faultline with wider implications.

These arguments featured at the start of this year, after some candidates for the Labour leadership signed a “trans pledge” that labelled the feminist campaign group Woman’s Place UK a “hate group”. During the early months of the pandemic, hostilities were partly suspended. But they exploded again in the buildup to last week’s announcement by the UK government that it has decided against changing the law to allow people to change their legal sex without a medical diagnosis, although the process will be made easier and cheaper.

With the topic routinely described as “toxic”, it’s unsurprising that many people’s reaction is to avoid it. But I think this avoidance also reveals a lack of interest in feminist political philosophy – and the rift that has opened up between adherents of two key thinkers.

Simone de Beauvoir’s 1949 book The Second Sex set the stage for feminists in postwar Europe. She was determined to unpick the masculine/feminine hierarchy that made women subordinate. But she believed biological differences as well as social forces were important. “The body being the instrument of our grasp upon the world, the world is bound to seem a very different thing when apprehended in one manner or another,” she wrote.

Later authors developed these ideas, introducing the term “gender” and taking feminist approaches into fields including history, law and literary studies, as well as activism. Scholars, including Avtar Brah in the UK and Kimberlé Crenshaw in the US, offered crucial insights into the ways that white feminism erases the experiences of black and minority-ethnic women. But the idea that a woman is made (“not born”) out of a female body was mostly accepted until the early 1990s, when the US philosopher Judith Butler sought to overturn it.

Butler’s argument, set out in her books Gender Trouble and Bodies That Matter, is that sex is “no longer a bodily given” but a discursive concept: “a process of materialisation that stabilises over time”. Rather than treating their sexed bodies as the underpinning of their politics, she argued, feminists should embrace the fluidity of gender. Liberation from the patriarchy would be won alongside gay, lesbian, transgender and queer rebels against heterosexism.

Read the full article in the Guardian.


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JBS Haldane: the man who knew almost everything
Ray Monk, New Statesman, 4 November 2020

JBS Haldane – “Jack” to his family and friends – was once described as “the last man who might know all there was to be known”. His reputation was built on his work in genetics, but his expertise was extraordinarily wide-ranging. As an undergraduate at Oxford, he studied mathematics and classics. He never gained any kind of degree in science, but he could explain the latest work in physics, chemistry, biology and a host of other disciplines. He could recite great swathes of poetry in English, French, German, Latin and Ancient Greek. A big man (another description of him is “a large woolly rhinoceros of uncertain temper”), he was unafraid to take anyone on in a fight and, equally, could drink anyone under the table.

In his lifetime (he died in 1964 at the age of 72), Haldane was very well known because of his journalism, his appearances on the radio, his bestselling books of popular science and his promotion of communism. Today, what most people know about him is often confined to the probably apocryphal story that, when asked what his studies of nature had taught him about the Creator, he replied that He has “an inordinate fondness for beetles”.

Samanth Subramanian’s energetic account of Haldane’s life, politics and science might just revive interest in this extraordinary man. It has, though, a significant rival. Ronald Clark’s The Life and Work of JBS Haldane, published in 1984, is still in print. The two books are very different and provide a fascinating contrast in biographical styles. Clark’s workmanlike book is conventionally structured, strictly adhering to chronology in a way that seems a little unambitious and dull, but is also reassuring and satisfying. You know where you are with a biography that begins: “John Burdon Sanderson Haldane was born on 5 November 1892.”

Subramanian’s book has a rather more cryptic opening, the point of which seems to be to set up what he evidently believes is the defining conflict of Haldane’s life: his commitment to scientific rigour and objectivity on the one hand, and his loyalty to Soviet communism on the other. For about ten pages, Haldane disappears altogether as Subramanian provides us with an account of the meeting of the Lenin All-Union Academy of Agricultural Sciences in 1948 at which its president, Trofim Lysenko, gave an ideologically driven speech that turned the meeting into an inquisition, and allowed the science of genetics in the Soviet Union to be guided by Stalinism rather than by truth. A few months after Lysenko’s purge, the BBC broadcast a discussion featuring Haldane, who disappointed his family, friends and fellow scientists by being equivocal rather than robustly denouncing Lysenko.

The affair, writes Subramanian, “is an oddly perfect way to understand Haldane. A man stepped outside his character, and in so doing, revealed that character to us. We peer through this keyhole, and we see all of Haldane.” If this were true, it would indeed be the perfect way to begin this book. Sadly, it is not. But luckily, Subramanian is too good a writer and too good a biographer to allow himself to be trapped in the straitjacket of this introductory chapter.

Read the full article in the New Statesman.


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The new eliminationism
Justin EH Smith, Substack, 21 September 2020

Michel Foucault famously argued that the project of modern liberalism facilitated a gradual transition from the torture and domination of our physical bodies to a much more subtle torture and domination of our souls. It were better, he seemed always on the brink of declaring, to have been given a thorough whuppin’ by the State, and then to be done with it, than to spend a good portion of one’s life in a modern “correctional” institution, where, even if it lives up to the promise of correction (a big “if” in the United States), still amounts to a low-frequency form of spiritual deformation.

As if to confirm Foucault’s analysis of the course of late modernity, the new eliminationism, too, extends its reach into our very souls. Stokely Carmichael had wanted weapons and structures to ensure that no one who hates him or his people might ever be in a position to do him harm. Ibram X. Kendi, by contrast, wants new structures and institutions to ensure that hate is eliminated from our innermost selves. But this is bound to fail. A liberal order is one that recognises the profound anthropological truth that human beings are vicious creatures, and that therefore peace is always fragile. It is thus an order that inherits and conserves the older theological model of original sin, of human fallenness, and seeks to channel our viciousness through ritual, sublimation, and shared commitment to ideals that are acknowledged to never be fully attainable. Ritual and sublimation are not meant to rid us of our desire to hurt others and to cause harm; they are rather a facing-up to this desire, a confrontation with our nature.

In a culture such as ours that no longer really understands what ritual and sublimation are for, and believes ever more strongly with each passing month that artistic expression in particular is meant to hold up positive exemplars for good conduct and right thinking —as if bad conduct and wrong thinking could be chased from this world—: in such a culture, I was saying, the harm will continue, but we will not even have the comfort of understanding why.

Nowhere is the soul-shaping character of the new eliminationism more evident than in the current zero-sum pseudo-debate over the nature of gender identity. We hear constantly that to deny, or even to question or to annotate, the stark claim that “a trans woman is a woman, full stop,” is to “deny the right to exist” to trans people. But that’s just not how it works. Compare the humanist philosophy of toleration as it emerged in the late Renaissance, achieving its fullest expression in authors such as Erasmus or John Toland. Abandoning the medieval principle of Cuius regio, eius religio, which compelled anyone residing in a given place to hold the faith of its sovereign, the idea of a neutral secular space came to be valued, one that could accommodate all confessional identities. Jews and Christians, and potentially atheists too, could now be concitoyens in the same earthly realm, even though each held the members of the other group to be dead wrong on certain weighty spiritual matters.

Now, what an atheist believes about a Christian should certainly count as “denial of existence” if anything should, as it is a rejection of the basic commitments that alone give meaning to the Christian sense of “existence”. A Christian holds herself to be a person strictly in virtue of the fact that, so she believes, she is in possession of an immortal immaterial soul. When an atheist tells her that in fact all she is is a mortal corruptible assemblage of organs, the atheist is flat-out denying her metaphysics of identity. Yet thankfully we live in a society, at least for the time being, in which such denial is protected by law and institutions, and given weight by centuries of liberal tradition. The space in which that denial can happen, and in which we nonetheless continue to live in peace and stability, is what is known as “the public sphere”.

Read the full article in Substack.


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Caravaggio, The Flagellation of Christ

In dark times, I sought out
the turmoil of Caravaggio’s paintings
Teju Cole, New York Times, 23 September 2020

It was a hot July day in 2016 when I headed to Porto Ercole. My train from Rome passed by Palo after about 30 minutes and arrived in Orbetello-Monte Argentario an hour and a half later. I imagined it could have been a fever-inducing journey in July 1610. I stayed in Orbetello and took a taxi from there the following morning, across a spit of land that ends in the promontory of Monte Argentario, on the southern side of which is Porto Ercole. I had breakfast at a cafe on the rocky beach. A quartet of visitors was seated near me, two of them, from their accents, American. One American was an older man. “Well maybe this guy will win the election, and he can put an end to all that,” the man said. “Political correctness is just crazy. You’re not even allowed to compliment anyone anymore. They’ll cry sexual harassment.” He held forth with the attitude of one who wished to be overheard. He complained about his ex-wife. The other three companions nodded sympathetically.

Caravaggio never painted the sea. I search his oeuvre in vain for a seascape; vistas of any kind are rare. We can address only what has survived of his work, and in what has survived, there are no swells, no waves, no oceanic calms, no shipwrecks or beaches, no sunsets over water. And yet his final years made a chart of the sea, and his ports of call were all literal ports, portals of hope, of which Porto Ercole was the final, unanticipated stop. He’s buried somewhere there, perhaps on the beach, perhaps in a local church. But his real body can be said to be elsewhere: the body, that is, of his painterly achievement, which has gone out to dozens of other places around the world, all the places where wall labels say “d. 1610, Porto Ercole.”

He was a murderer, a slaveholder, a terror and a pest. But I don’t go to Caravaggio to be reminded of how good people are and certainly not because of how good he was. To the contrary: I seek him out for a certain kind of otherwise unbearable knowledge. Here was an artist who depicted fruit in its ripeness and at the moment it had begun to rot, an artist who painted flesh at its most delicately seductive and most grievously injured. When he showed suffering, he showed it so startlingly well because he was on both sides of it: He meted it out to others and received it in his own body. Caravaggio is long dead, as are his victims. What remains is the work, and I don’t have to love him to know that I need to know what he knows, the knowledge that hums, centuries later, on the surface of his paintings, knowledge of all the pain, loneliness, beauty, fear and awful vulnerability our bodies have in common.

Read the full article in the New York Times.


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‘Cyclotron’ – a tribute to the
quiet work of India’s unsung scientists

Usha Raman, The Wire, 7 November 2020

Take a machine that’s outlived its usefulness in Country A, usually in the West. Dismantle it, box it up and ship it to Country B, usually in the developing world. There, it is painstakingly reassembled and made functional by a small team, working with little knowledge but a lot of hope.

It seems like such an ordinary story, perhaps even touched by the banality of second-hand sadness. But as they puzzle over the nuts, bolts and components of this construction, reading the diagrams and figuring out where the different pieces go, as they work long nights and battle bureaucracy, and learn to work not only with their minds but also their hands, the young team is also building the foundations of a research culture that will foster education, enquiry and expertise in experimental physics.

Cyclotron, a documentary produced and directed by Jahnavi Phalkey and edited by Tanya Singh, is the story of how the world’s oldest particle accelerator – discarded in its original home in Rochester, New York – received a new lease of life in Chandigarh, when it was brought there by a young experimental physicist in 1967.

As he tells the story in the film, Harnam Singh Hans had learned that the particle physics lab at Rochester had received a new accelerator and was looking to get rid of their old one, along with its analyser. “All this is yours, for free” he was told by Prof. Harry Fulbright, “but you have to transport it.” Singh jumped at the offer – an audacious move considering that at the time he had no job, nor any links with the scientific hierarchy in India. Soon, however, he managed to secure a position at the Kurukshetra University in Punjab. “The only thing I had was a post, and the hope that India was ready to help somebody bring back a machine.”

That machine, a particle accelerator known as a cyclotron (because at its core is an electromagnetic spiral that pushes the particle to higher and higher speeds), generates high-energy beams that help scientists analyse of materials, bombard atoms to create short-lived isotopes useful in nuclear medicine, plus a variety of other applications. In the 1960s and 1970s, when the film begins its story, the cyclotron was the linchpin of experimental nuclear physics – with no more than three across the country, and none of these in North India.

Drawing on a series of oral histories, from Singh himself as well as others associated with him in those years, Phalkey reconstructs the journey of this particular cyclotron, from the challenges of its installation (there was no one in India who knew how to put it together) to the excitement of the first beam (variously remembered by members on the team as 1975, ’76 and ’78), to the gradual growth of an entire programme of experimental physics around its use. While Singh and his collaborator and former graduate student Inder Govil describe the broader context of the cyclotron’s journey, the details of assembling it, figuring out the various components without so much as an instruction manual to depend on, come from the engineers involved in the project.

Read the full article in The Wire.


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Think Jacques Derrida was a charlatan? Look again
Julian Baggini, Prospect, 4 October 2020

Despite the way the Anglo-Saxon academy often bundles him in with them, Derrida was never one of the postmodernists. He did, however, share the movement’s distrust of grand narratives that provide single, and often simple, explanations that erase the complexities of the real world. Everything has to be carefully “deconstructed”: analysed in its specificity, “alert to the implications, to the historical sedimentation of the language which we use.” That is perhaps why he wrote so much. Deconstruction was a method more than a theory and there was no limit to what could be deconstructed.

Still, there was a unity to Derrida’s oeuvre, captured in his talk of “adopting equivocality”—what Salmon calls “perhaps as close as we have to a Derridean call to arms.” In much classical and contemporary analytic philosophy there is an assumption, more or less explicit, that there is a way that things are and that the task of language is to map it, to “carve nature at the joints” as Plato put it. For Derrida, it is not that nature has no joints, or that the world can simply be carved however we please. Rather, there is always more than one way to carve, and every slice divorces us from possible alternative ways of seeing and understanding. Naming is thus, says Salmon, a “founding act of violence… before there is a road taken and a road not taken.”

This idea is at the heart of Derrida’s key concept of différance. Every concept, every distinction, carries with it the ghost of an alternative conception or distinction not made. One task of deconstruction is to recover these lost possibilities, to show that the way we think of things is not the only way they can be thought. We may not use the word, but we all have a sense of what différance means. “Anyone who has formed quotation marks in the air with their fingers to identify a word where the use and meaning are not absolutely cleaved,” says Salmon, “has acknowledged the possibility of différance as posited by Derrida.” The ubiquity of this gesture suggests Derrida was right when he commented “once quotation marks demand to appear, they don’t know where to stop.”

Derrida’s project is diametrically opposed to that of most philosophers. One of the broadest and most accurate descriptions of philosophy as generally practised in the west is that it seeks the resolution of aporias: seemingly intractable contradictions that inevitably emerge from our understanding of the world. For instance, it is an aporia that we seem to have knowledge, but also have reason to believe we can be certain of nothing. Another is that we appear to have free will, but also understand ourselves to be subject to mechanical laws of nature. In such aporias, simply giving up one side of the contradiction is not possible without a major reconfiguration of our understanding.

For Derrida, however, Salmon argues “the goal was to keep an aporia in suspension.” Using Gabriel Marcel’s distinction, philosophy has seen itself as concerned with solving problems that exist independently of us, when it should be trying to understand the insoluble mysteries that we have to live with.

Read the full article in Prospect.


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Technology can’t predict crime,
it can only weaponize proximity to policing

Matthew Guargilia, Electronic Frontier Foundation, 3 September 2020

Predictive policing analyzes a massive amount of information from historical crimes including the time of day, season of the year, weather patterns, types of victims, and types of location in order to infer when and in which locations crime is likely to occur. For instance, if a number of crimes have been committed in alleyways on Thursdays, the algorithm might tell a department they should dispatch officers to alleyways every Thursday. Of course, then this means that police are predisposed to be suspicious of everyone who happens to be in that area at that time. 

The technology attempts to function similarly while conducting the less prevalent “person-based” predictive policing. This takes the form of opaque rating systems that assign people a risk value based on a number of data streams including age, suspected gang affiliation, and the number of times a person has been a victim as well as an alleged perpetrator of a crime. The accumulated total of this data could result in someone being placed on a “hot list”, as happened to over 1,000 people in Chicago who were placed on one such “Strategic Subject List.” As when specific locations are targeted, this technology cannot actually predict crime—and in an attempt to do so, it may expose people to targeted police harassment or surveillance without any actual proof that a crime will be committed.

There is a reason why the use of predictive policing continues to expand despite its dubious foundations: it makes money. Many companies have developed tools for data-driven policing; some of the biggest are PredPol, HunchLab, CivicScape, and Palantir. Academic institutions have also developed predictive policing technologies, such as Rutgers University’s RTM Diagnostics or Carnegie Mellon University’s CrimeScan, which is used in Pittsburgh. Some departments have built such tools with private companies and academic institutions. For example, in 2010, the Memphis Police Department built its own tool, in partnership with the University of Memphis Department of Criminology and Criminal Justice, using IBM SPSS predictive analytics. 

As of summer 2020, the technology is used in dozens of cities across the United States.

One of the biggest flaws of predictive policing is the faulty data fed into the system. These algorithms depend on data informing them of where criminal activity has happened to predict where future criminal activity will take place. However, not all crime is recorded—some communities are more likely to report crime than others, some crimes are less likely to be reported than other crimes, and officers have discretion in deciding whether or not to make an arrest. Predictive policing only accounts for crimes that are reported, and concentrates policing resources in those communities, which then makes it more likely that police may uncover other crimes. This all creates a feedback loop that makes predictive policing a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Read the full article at the Electronic Frontier Foundation.


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At liberalism’s crossroads
Jeet Heer, Nation, 6 October 2020

Perhaps for this reason, a full five decades after his death, Hofstadter’s legacy remains as contested as the liberalism he avowed during his life. For liberal pundits and more traditional political historians, he created a durable framework for understanding the achievements of the liberal tradition and the recurrent attacks it has suffered. He extolled the two-party system and bipartisan comity and warned of the dangers of extremist ideologies. But for radicals and the generation of social historians who came after him, Hofstadter represented many of the weaknesses in liberal politics and historical writing. Not only was his centrism myopic, but so was his historiographic approach. Neglecting archival research and focusing on those at the top of society, he often had a cursory understanding of the grassroots social movements he criticized.

Part of the controversy over his legacy is the result of a shared simplification. Among friends and foes alike, Hofstadter tends to be pigeonholed as one of the consensus historians who flourished during the Cold War. Consensus history—exemplified by the work of Louis Hartz and Daniel Boorstin—argued that most Americans had a shared ideology that transcended partisan differences and enabled the United States to avoid the bitter polarization that characterized European politics. Grouping Hofstadter with Hartz and Boorstin is not without justice. An easy mnemonic for understanding his work in the 1950s and ’60s is that he cherished words beginning with the letter C: “comity,” “compromise,” “conciliation,” “civility.” Conversely, terms that began with P made him purse his lips: “populism,” “protests,” “paranoia,” “popular front.”

But Hofstadter became a celebrator of consensus only midway through his career. In his earliest articulation of the idea, it was a way of marking out what constrained American democracy. For the young Hofstadter, the liberal consensus that set the parameters of American politics prevented the nation from moving beyond an outdated, money-grubbing individualism to become a true democracy.

In fact, his critique of the American consensus as an ideological straitjacket remains so convincing that it inevitably raises questions about his evolution: How did a thinker who was so alert to the painful fissures of class and race in America become a champion of the liberal consensus? And how did he go from offering a sweeping critique of the limits of American democracy to becoming an archfoe of populism?

Read the full article in the Nation.


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Black death does not happen “In the Greek sense”
Aaron Robertson, Literary Hub, 25 September 2020

Thomas Chatterton Williams’s recent response to Breonna Taylor’s death has the whiff of an argument that the Hungarian historian György Lukács outlined in his books Soul and Form (1908) and The Theory of the Novel (1914-15): the claim that tragedy, as manifested in the individual’s life, expresses something essential about humanity, about humanness. Tragedy (here more philosophical than literary) could be a helpful frame to explain the moral order of the world, Lukács believed.

What is the point of my stupid exercise here? It is certainly not to explain why Breonna Taylor’s death is sad. Have you rolled your eyes at the semantic quibble, at the invocations of the ancient Greeks, Hegel, Nietzsche? I hope so. Who wonders if Black death is a “goat-song” heard during a Dionysian ritual?

There is something foul about speaking of Breonna Taylor’s death “in the Greek sense.” Williams’s condensed intellectualizing (there are only so many characters Twitter allows, to be fair) seems to call upon an ancient muse, seeking the imprimatur of Reason or, at least, proclaiming familiarity with certain syllabi. A vague invocation of literary-philosophical theory encases Breonna Taylor in a story with dramatic form. It is the kind of objectification that many others are rightfully mourning.

“You can learn and convey significantly more that is true about life and death by consulting the classics than by scrolling through a morass of ideologically inflected soundbites on Twitter.com,” Williams wrote in a follow-up tweet.

This is not an argument about the consolatory, instructive qualities of art. What doesn’t sit well with me this morning is Williams’s idea of what is tragic, which seems to derive from inherited fictions more than life. The grave issue here is the misalignment of his frame.

Maybe a literary scholar would say he is “Hegelian” or even “Aristotelian” in his focus on the ethical agency of the individual. Williams makes Jamarcus Glover the bogeyman of The Life and Struggle of Breonna Taylor. If Taylor is Williams’s Tragic Heroine, Glover is what Simon Goldhill calls her “inscrutable but necessary fate.”

Read the full article on Literary Hub.


Lise Meitner, photographer unknown
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Overlooked for the Nobel: Lise Meitner
Margaret Harris, Physics World, 5 October 2020

The discovery of nuclear fission in 1938 is among the most momentous events in 20th-century physics. Within seven years, this experimental and theoretical breakthrough – made jointly by Otto Hahn and Fritz Strassmann, who obtained the data, and by Lise Meitner and Otto Frisch, who interpreted it – led to the first atomic weapons. Less than a decade later, it led to the first nuclear power plants. If ever there was a discovery that should have won its instigators a Nobel Prize in Physics, nuclear fission is surely it.

But that’s not what happened. Though the terms of Alfred Nobel’s bequest would have allowed three of Hahn, Frisch, Meitner and Strassmann to share a prize, only Hahn got the nod, becoming the sole recipient of the 1944 Nobel Prize in Chemistry “for his discovery of the fission of heavy nuclei”. The contributions of Frisch, Meitner and Strassmann were relegated to a few lines in the official Nobel presentation speech, which took place in December 1945. That same speech, incidentally, claims that Hahn “never dreamed of giving Man control over atomic energy” – which is a bit rich, given that Hahn worked on the Nazi atomic weapons programme and was in fact still incarcerated by the British authorities at the time.

The 1944 Nobel Prize in Chemistry represents a strong challenge to anyone who claims that the Nobels are fair or reflective of how collaborative science works. Strassmann, whom the presentation speech patronizingly called “one of [Hahn’s] young colleagues”, had in fact been his assistant for the best part of a decade. For much of that period, Strassmann worked for half wages or none; his opposition to the Nazi regime meant that he was blacklisted from other jobs, leaving him dependent on Hahn and unable to develop a solo career. Meitner fared slightly better in the speech, since it did at least acknowledge her as Hahn’s collaborator for more than 30 years. Not mentioned, though, is the reason she was absent during the crucial 1938 experiments: Meitner, like her nephew Frisch, was an ethnic Jew, and her conversion to Protestantism 30 years earlier did not protect her from Nazi predation. In the summer of 1938, both Meitner and Frisch were forced to flee Germany. They made their seminal contributions to fission in exile, communicating with the Berlin-based Hahn and Strassmann by letter and telephone.

Of the three researchers left out of the 1944 Nobel Prize in Chemistry, the injustice done to Meitner is the most severe. Unlike the other “overlooked” physicists in this series, the records of her Nobel nominations are now public. They show that Meitner’s male colleagues (the scientists in the Nobel nomination pools were all male then, notwithstanding the existence of contemporary female luminaries like Ida Noddack and Iréne Joliot-Curie) nominated her for the physics Nobel 29 times, and for the chemistry Nobel 19 times. Her earliest nomination came from the Norwegian chemist Heinrich Goldschmidt in 1924. Her last was in 1965, three years before her death, when Max Born made her his fourth choice after Pyotr Kapitsa (who went on to win in 1978), Cornelis Gorter (who never won) and Walter Heitler (ditto).

Read the full article in Physics World.


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Why we need Hilary Mantel’s critical snark
Helen Lewis, New Statesman, 21 October 2020

The internet has made everyone a critic, and therefore no one. Mantel’s longform journalism is enabled by the feudal structure of the London Review of Books, whose editor and owner are the same person. (Handy in budget meetings.) The kill fee she received for a piece spiked in 1988, some £150, is three times what the Literary Review pays 32 years later. Magazine books pages do not generate lucrative advertising revenue; they attract little traffic online. They are a public service, creating and nourishing an intellectual culture. And look how out of touch that sounds in 2020.

For writers, this incentivises smarm over snark. Who can afford to make enemies by publishing casual brutalities like this, from the Théroigne de Méricourt review? “Throughout the book, errors and inconsistencies pass without editorial intervention; the index is waste paper.” Mantel, however, is pitiless, in both senses of the word. Her 2004 essay on “holy anorexics” is the best of the bunch. “Some Girls Want Out” declares the title: Mantel considers a spate of self-denying penitents, such as Gemma Galgani, who died of tuberculosis in 1903, at the age of 25, and was canonised by Pius XII in 1940. Fasting wasn’t the half of it: “St Maria Maddalena de Pazzi lay naked on thorns. Saint Catherine of Siena drank pus from a cancerous sore. One confessor ordered Veronica Giuliani to kneel while a novice of the order kicked her in the mouth. Another ordered her to clean the walls and floor of her cell with her tongue; when she swallowed the spiders and their webs, even he thought it was going too far.” And it gets worse: “What St Francesca Romana did, I find I am not able to write down.” (Saved you a click: Google reveals that she poured boiling pork fat on her vulva before sex.)

Such behaviour only seems extreme when you consider the alternative, which is becoming an everyday woman. In Mantel’s novel Beyond Black, the psychic Alison starts her show by addressing an audience member called Gillian. In a breathless monologue, she tells Gillian her life story: “You’re the one everybody depends on…you’re the Rock of Gibraltar, aren’t you, but then you have to say to yourself, hang on a minute, who do I go to when I want advice? Who’s there for Gilly, when it comes to the crunch?” She invites Gillian to consider what she might achieve if she put herself first for once. The cold-reading works, of course: “In Alison’s experience there’s not a woman alive who, once past her youth, doesn’t recognise this as a true and fair assessment of her character and potential.”

Mantel makes connections across time, comparing the 19th century’s starving saints with the teenage anorexics of the Noughties. Today, looking at the pale normalcy of womanhood, some girls still want out. In the essay on the “witch” Helen Duncan, she writes that “it is not difficult to see how mediumship liberated its more genteel female practitioners. They could flirt with their audience and mock them; in deep trance, they could behave aggressively and with an overt sexuality.”

Read the full article in the New Statesman.


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Probing fine-scale connections in the brain
Esther Landhuis, Nature, 19 October 2020

Starting in the 1970s, it took more than a decade to unravel the neural circuitry of the one-millimetre worm, Caenorhabditis elegans. Probing the relationship between genes and behaviour, biologist Sydney Brenner and his colleagues at the MRC Laboratory of Molecular Biology in Cambridge, UK, laboriously traced the fine branches and synaptic connections of each nerve cell, colour-coding them by hand on thousands of electron-micrograph prints. That wiring map — the first and only complete set of synaptic connections in an animal’s nervous system — was stored on a room-sized computer and published1 as the first full animal ‘connectome’ in a 340-page opus in 1986.

Caenorhabditis elegans has fewer than 400 neurons; human brains have 86 billion. So for now, scientists are eyeing an intermediate milestone: mapping the fine-scale neural circuitry of the mouse2.

Even with about 1,000-fold fewer cells, the mouse brain poses a formidable challenge, says Jeff Lichtman, a neuroscientist at Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts, who is one of the leaders of a global consortium that aims to reconstruct the neural wiring of a mouse brain over the next decade. “We’re dealing with a data set that will be on the scale of an exabyte.” An exabyte is one billion gigabytes; the entire human genome can be represented in about 1.5 gigabytes. In terms of data size, mapping the mouse brain connectome will be “enormous compared to anything that’s been done as a single project”, he says. “Connectomes are just magnificently complicated.”

Yet the technology to make such an undertaking possible is nearly there. With advances in microscopy and artificial intelligence (AI), and crowdsourced help from human gamers, researchers are beginning to map neural networks and their connections at ever-higher resolution and scale. Over the past several years, small bits of brain, including pieces of the mammalian retina and cerebral cortex, have come into focus. And in September, researchers working on Drosophila fruit flies reported the largest reconstruction so far: 25,000 neurons in the hemibrain, a cube of tissue measuring 250 micrometres on a side and representing 40% of the fly’s brain.

These are not mere exercises in big biology. As connectomics pushes the technological and computational limits, researchers hope to tap these data sets to learn how experiences are stored in the brain, with potential insights into autism, schizophrenia and other ‘connectopathies’.

Read the full article in Nature.


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Sound and fury
Matthew Aucoin, New York Review of Books, 5 November 2020

When it comes to Boulez’s music, rather than his rhetoric, I prefer him at his most brutal. His early piece Le Marteau sans maître (1955), a setting of the poetry of René Char, is a scorching, cathartic embodiment of the predicament in which midcentury European modernism found itself tangled. Like the “masterless hammer” of the piece’s title, serial music—that is, music whose harmonic content consists of permutations of a fixed sequence of notes, such as the twelve tones of the chromatic scale—had developed into a practically autonomous mechanism that was capable of leading composers around by the nose. In the piece’s instrumental second movement, the alto flute wanders like a weary nomad above a bone-dry texture consisting of xylorimba, drums, and pizzicato viola, which play a lazily hypnotic groove. It is a sparse, desert-like landscape, with no bass-register cushion for the ear to rest on.

Midway through the movement, the pulse peters out, and the alto flute, with a long exhale of a trill, gives up altogether. In response, the percussion and viola snap to life with a vicious, violent dance that seems to mock the alto flute for its feebleness. This is viscerally thrilling stuff, music that hisses and stings like a cornered scorpion, which is surely how it felt to be a composer in Boulez’s position at the time. I wish I could write a piece as blunt, as pitiless as this one.

Compared to the concentrated fury of Le Marteau, much of Boulez’s later music seems to have softened without sweetening. His forms grew ever more diffuse and his sonic palette more sophisticated, but his harmonic language did not evolve accordingly: though he would not admit it, the “hammer” of the twelve-tone system remained his master to the end. Though there is much to admire in his later pieces, especially their scintillating textural juxtapositions, the music’s apparent complexity often amounts to a supersaturated sameness. Every explosion, every would-be violent gesture, confirms only the inherent lack of dynamism in Boulez’s harmonic materials, their inability to organically grow or change. The result is a paradoxical smoothness: nothing Boulez does can break this music’s abstractedly sophisticated veneer. I enjoy these later pieces, but for a reason that I doubt Boulez would appreciate: I find them relaxing, because I know that nothing will happen in them. Within so blandly undifferentiated a harmonic language, nothing can happen.

One doesn’t have to be a master psychologist to suggest that Boulez’s seething rage against so many of his fellow artists might have been a redirected creative frustration, an inadmissible fear of creative infertility. This frustration, and the many defensive maneuvers it engendered, are on full display in Music Lessons.

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


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Among the deceivers
Frank Guan, Bookforum, September 2020

Mishra is no nihilist. Sourced in his experience of the casualties of campus and Kashmiri warfare, an unwavering ethical commitment to identifying and refusing every facile Manichaean formulation that could sanction violence runs through his work. The rigor of his writing indicates deep-rooted principles, developed independently; no one can oblige him to break from them. Yet guided by his vision, where does one arrive? An exercise in world-historical pessimism, Age of Anger pounded readers with the vision of “ressentiment as the defining feature of a world where mimetic desire . . . endlessly proliferates, and where the modern promise of equality collides with massive disparities of power, education, status and property ownership.” Reducing modern experience to the scale of Modi, Twitter, and Baghdadi while declaring that “there is, plainly, no deep logic to the unfolding of time,” Mishra effectively consigned humanity and history itself to the category of the undead. Bland Fanatics supplies much irrefutable proof that “Europe’s long peace” has been “a time of unlimited wars in Asia, Africa and the Americas”; that behind the whited sepulchres of free speech, free trade, and free elections lies a juggernaut’s progression, the “process of capitalism’s emergence and globalisation whereby a small minority in Europe and America acquired the awesome power to classify and control almost the entire human population.” The Far Right rages through its tears, and liberalism is a smirking mask reactionaries wear to hide from self-reflection; communism is, if not dead, missing in action. Thus history, lacking justice and logic, is the wasteland—a void. For all of their incessant teeming, ideologies are no more than mental constructs—illusion. How can one live somewhere in between?

Mishra’s praise for journalist Katherine Boo’s reportage on the Mumbai slums—“a reflective sensibility, subtly informing every page with previous experiences of deprivation and striving, and a gentle scepticism about ideological claims”—applies equally to his own writing. He has never lost his youthful sympathies with the dispossessed. But sympathies are not convictions to live by, and skepticism alone cannot convince anyone that life has value. To be fair, the book review, regardless of length, remains a fundamentally constricted form: tethered to another author, one can only range so far without disturbing its integrity. Negations of reactionaries, buttressed by huge blocks of historical documentation, are as much as Bland Fanatics can offer: the intellectual parallel of retired Soviet armor flattening a ceaseless row of PT Cruisers, radioing beforehand to announce that actually, there were cars that looked just like them in the ’30s.

Yet regardless of the medium, style suggests an ideology by other means—in this case, fatalism. What else, when a reader is so often made to feel the inevitable weight of history but not its excitement and contingency? In mimicking the logic of the monolithic social mechanism one critiques, a more complex view of the dynamic governing organic systems over time recedes; the magic of the real collapses into doom. Mishra’s predilection for a home-brewed discourse of man—“Davos man,” “mimic man,” “homo economicus,” “homo atlanticus,” “now universally emergent Underground Man”—speaks to a sublimation of titanic myth more than any confidence in human reasoning. “What has become clearer since the coronavirus crisis is that modern democracies have for decades been lurching towards moral and ideological bankruptcy,” he announces in his introduction to Bland Fanatics, striking a tone much like a liberal moralist. But when, faced with the atrocious historical record he himself provides, were such societies ethically solvent at all? The threat faced by today’s elected governments is not the depletion of some strategic moral reserve, but actual bankruptcy—that and nothing else, not even well-tempered demolitions in the LRB, will constitute the ultimate rebuttal of their manufactured thinkers.

Read the full article in Bookforum.



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Sharmila, the Chaiwalla, and me
Buku Sarkar, New York Review of Books, 14 September 2020

I turned right from my home, past the school, through the narrow alleyway to another opening where there were no high rises. Only small huts. Two cows tied to a tree. A beaten-up van left like an abandoned shipwreck. Boys and girls climbing in and out of its carcass.

Circling the cows, I would arrive at a row of small houses, one room each. The third one from the entrance to the compound was Sharmila’s. She lived there with two grown sons, two teenaged daughters, and a grandchild from a third daughter who had been murdered—set on fire by her in-laws many years back.

Sharmila said the granddaughter is all she has to live for. She has a husband who doesn’t live with them. He lives elsewhere in the neighborhood with another woman. I have seen him twice.

I met Sharmila five years ago when I moved back to Calcutta, to stay with my parents in the house I had grown up in. Seventeen years earlier, when I first moved to America, I had been aware of the Basti, or slum, as it’s known in English, just behind my parents’ home. No more than a five-minute walk. But I wasn’t allowed to go anywhere near. Not even to pass through in a car.

Now, I would venture into this no-mans-land that my family all knew of but never discussed. I started taking pictures along these walks—of broken windows and dilapidated houses and barber shops. Soon, the local boys would run up to me, parents holding their little ones in their arms, a shopkeeper hugging his one precious belonging—a broken blender—“Didi, Didi,” Sister, Sister, “One photo, please.”

Sharmila had seen the mob around me one day. “Will you take a picture of my house?” She asked. “You see, I have lived there for twenty-five years and now they [the developers] are making me move.” She pointed across from where we stood to the empty plot, scattered with rubble and the lopsided beginnings of wooden scaffolding—the early foundations of a multi-storied building.

 She herself was born in a shack behind the plot—hardly a shack even, a tent made of tarpaulin held up with bamboo poles—the bedrock of her life.

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