My latest monthly (and somewhat random) collection of recent essays and stories from around the web that have caught my eye and are worth plucking out to be re-read. It has been a extraordinary month, news-wise, from the Orlando shootings to Brexit, from South African riots to the Istanbul attacks. There were a dozen more articles to which I could have linked, so I may make this a more frequent post.
‘The Energy of the Brexiteers and Trump
is Born of the Failure of Elites’
Michael Sandel, New Statesman, 13 June 2016
A theme running through these various political movements is taking back control, restoring control over the forces that govern our lives and giving people a voice.As to whether I have some sympathy for this sentiment, I do. I don’t have sympathy for many of the actual political forms that it takes.
One of the biggest failures of the last generation of mainstream parties has been the failure to take seriously and to speak directly to people’s aspiration to feel that they have some meaningful say in shaping the forces that govern their lives. And this is partly a question of democracy: what does democracy actually mean in practice? It’s also closely related to a question of culture and identity. Because a sense of disempowerment is partly a sense that the project of self-government has failed. When it’s connected to borders, the desire to reassert control over borders, it also shows the close connection between a sense of disempowerment and a sense that people’s identities are under siege.
The Reaction to Brexit is the Reason Brexit Happened
Matt Taibi, Rolling Stone, 27 June 2016
‘Too much democracy’ used to be an argument we reserved for foreign peoples who tried to do things like vote to demand control over their own oil supplies. I first heard the term in Russia in the mid-Nineties. As a young reporter based in Moscow in the years after communism fell, I spent years listening to American advisors and their cronies in the Kremlin gush over the new democratic experiment. Then, in 1995, polls came out showing communist Gennady Zyguanov leading in the upcoming presidential race against Boris Yeltsin. In an instant, all of those onetime democratic evangelists began saying Russia was ‘not ready’ for democracy. Now it’s not just carpetbagging visitors to the Third World pushing this line of thought. Just as frequently, the argument is aimed at ‘low-information’ voters at home.
Waking Up in Europa
Clive James, TLS, 15 June 2016
I’m an Australian first, but not foremost. Culturally, being a European defines me. Politically, being European seems less important. At the moment, it appears that Britain doesn’t find it very important either: otherwise there wouldn’t be so much fence-sitting about whether to leave or stay. With regard to Europe, the British seem to want both those things at once, and I suppose the same applies to me. But the more you believe that Europe is a spiritual event, the more you must realize that you will still be in it even if you leave it. It’s a condition of mental existence. I think of that great silent moment when the German military commander in occupied Paris disobeyed Hitler’s direct order to blow up the city. Or else there was no great silent moment, except in the commander’s imagination after the war, when he was writing his memoirs while imprisoned in Mississippi. Either way, it suits me, perhaps sentimentally, to believe that there was at least one Nazi officer prepared to break his Führer Oath for the sake of civilization, because he was a European. Politically, being European seems less important. At the moment, it appears that Britain doesn’t find it very important either: otherwise there wouldn’t be so much fence-sitting about whether to leave or stay. With regard to Europe, the British seem to want both those things at once, and I suppose the same applies to me. But the more you believe that Europe is a spiritual event, the more you must realize that you will still be in it even if you leave it. It’s a condition of mental existence. I think of that great silent moment when the German military commander in occupied Paris disobeyed Hitler’s direct order to blow up the city. Or else there was no great silent moment, except in the commander’s imagination after the war, when he was writing his memoirs while imprisoned in Mississippi. Either way, it suits me, perhaps sentimentally, to believe that there was at least one Nazi officer prepared to break his Führer Oath for the sake of civilization, because he was a European.
Writing Human Rights and Getting It Wrong
Alex de Waal, Boston Review, 6 June 2016
Silence can be a deliberate decision. It comes in many forms, including telling partial truths or postponing speaking out, anticipating a more propitious moment. Human rights advocates ration their courage and indignation. As Stanley Cohen observes in his classic investigation of denial, it is not possible to be outraged about every single rights violation; the advocate needs to choose. And that choice often reflects an effort to craft a narrative that will gain attention. In the West, we like morality plays with clearly identified heroes and villains, in which we can play the role of savior. The best tellers of these fairy tales are celebrity activists, the evangelists of the human rights business. Their targets are members of the established rogues’ gallery—the likes of Joseph Kony of the Lord’s Resistance Army or Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir. However, human rights should make no distinction between political allies and adversaries: all should be held to the same standard. Going after the usual suspects is easy. Determining when and how to condemn one’s friends is the true test of human rights reporting.
Four Decades. Forty Years. 14,610 days.
Editorial, Daily Maverick, 16 June 2016
While it would be ludicrous to insist that nothing has changed – South Africa has progressed enormously since the uprising – it would be equally irresponsible to deny that there aren’t very real corollaries between those dark days and our own. The portal remains open, and it is our national duty to travel it in order to parse the historical nuances, subtleties, specifics, especially now that the ANC government is set on owning and reworking ‘Youth Day’s’ complicated narrative. For politicians, and especially for the ANC, the day has been reduced to a crass form of revisionism that puts the governing party at the centre of history. The ANC certainly benefitted from the tireless and deadly work of the ‘76 students, but it didn’t drive their activities. If anything, successive ANC governments have ignored the needs of the country’s young with a consistency that would have impressed their predecessors.
Orlando has Exposed the Poison of Identity Politics
Brendan O’Neil, spiked, 15 June 2016
The end result – the end result of all identity politics – is that people are dehumanised. They are reduced from complex beings to symbols; from messy, brilliant members of the human family that other humans can relate to and empathise with, despite being different, to mere identities, mere characteristics, mere sexual preferences, mere genders, mere skin colours. I would say that the victims of Orlando have suffered a double dehumanisation. First they were dehumanised by Omar Mateen, who clearly viewed them as less than human, as ‘faggots’, deserving of nothing more than violent death. And now they are dehumanised by the identity-politics narrative, which explicitly demands that we siphon them off from ‘generalised’ discussions of humanity and discuss them as ‘queer lives’ rather than as ‘human lives’.
It’s Different Now, But Muslims Have a Long History of Accepting Homosexuality
Shoaib Daniyal, Scroll.in, 18 June 2016
At the height of the Islamic Golden Age – a period from the mid-8th century to the mid-13th century when Islamic civilisation is believed to have reached its intellectual and cultural zenith – homosexuality was openly spoken and written about. Abu Nuwas (756-814), one of the great Arab classical poets during the time of the Abbasid Caliphate, wrote publicly about his homosexual desires and relations. His homoerotic poetry was openly circulated right up until the 20th century. Nuwas was an important historical figure – he even made a couple of appearances in The Book of One Thousand and One Nights (known in Urdu as Alif Laila). It was only as late as 2001 that Arabs started to blush at Nuwas’ homoerotism. In 2001, the Egyptian Ministry of Culture, under pressure from Islamic fundamentalists, burnt 6,000 volumes of his poetry. Most modern Muslims, therefore, have little knowledge of what the Islamic Golden Age was really about, even though they keep on wanting to go back to it. ‘ISIS have no idea what restoring the Caliphate actually means’, a tweet by Belgian-Egyptian journalist Khaled Diab said. ‘In Baghdad, it’d involve booze, odes to wine, science… and a gay court poet.’
To Fight ‘Hate Speech’, Stop Talking About It
Suzanne Nossel, Washington Post, 3 June 2016
We should forever fight the phenomenon of hateful speech in its many forms, but it’s time to retire the term ‘hate speech’. Its meaning is inexact, elastic and often misunderstood. If we want to combat the harms of distasteful, denigrating and dangerous ideas, we need precise tools and precise terms. The first problem with the term ‘hate speech’ is that we use it to denote three distinct categories: speech that is unlawful almost everywhere, such as direct threats and calls to immediate acts of violence; speech that is protected under international law and in most jurisdictions, such as garden-variety insults directed at a particular gender, race or religion; and speech that is illegal in some places but not others, such as Holocaust denial. These diverse phenomena cannot all be lumped together and, collectively, either permitted or prohibited. It does not make sense to have a single approach to Donald Trump’s proposals from the presidential campaign podium to discriminate against Muslims, pro-Trump messages written in chalk on university walkways, and the trolling of feminists on social media or anti-immigrant comments by Dutch politicians.
Ian Black, Guardian, 20 June 2016
In Egypt in 2011, the small leftist opposition faced what Achcar defines unhesitatingly as two rival counter-revolutionary forces – the army and the Muslim Brotherhood. Even after the fall of Hosni Mubarak the military remained “the ultimate kingmaker” and eventually overthrew the democratically-elected Mohamed Morsi, the inept face of political Islam that succumbed to the temptation of power. Millions of Egyptians backed the coup by Abdel-Fatah al-Sisi, who now rules the largest Arab state with a mandate to confront ‘terrorism’ – every authoritarian’s easiest excuse. ‘The inability of progressives to chart an independent course against both wings of the counter-revolution and not to help (either) get (back) in the saddle while trying to unsaddle the other, proved catastrophic’, he writes. The result has been massacres, mass trials and death sentences, with Pharaonic mega-projects taking centre stage in a frenzy of neoliberal economic policies.
Matthew Buckley, Boston Review, 16 June 2016
If you’ve read anything about the Higgs boson or Higgs field, you probably read that it ‘gives mass’ to the other massive fundamental particles. This is a puzzling concept: ‘mass’ is such an integral property of “stuff” that the idea that mass is something that could be ‘given’ probably seems completely crazy. And in the world of classical, non-QFT physics, that view is the correct one. Mass in such a world just is, it needs no explanation. But in the quantum world, that changes and the property of ‘having mass’ is something that needs to be understood. Mass is pretty important: without mass, electrons could not remain in bound states around atomic nuclei, which means that we would not have chemistry and life would be impossible. So if you care about understanding the world at the fundamental level, then you want to know how the Higgs does its critical, mass-giving work. But before I get to how it gives mass, we should ask a much simpler question: What does this statement even mean? What is mass and what does it mean to ‘get a mass’?
Two Weeks in January:
America’s Secret Engagement with Khomeini
Kambiz Fattahi, BBC, 3 June 2016
By January 1979, Khomeini had the momentum, but he also deeply feared a last-minute American intervention – a repetition of the 1953 coup, when the CIA had helped put the Shah back in power. The situation became explosive after the Shah’s new prime minister, Shapour Bakhtiar, deployed troops and tanks to close the airport, disrupting Khomeini’s planned return in late January. It seemed Iran was on the brink of a civil war: the elite Imperial Guard divisions were ready to fight to the death for their king; the die-hard followers of the Imam were ready for armed struggle and martyrdom. The White House feared an Iranian civil war that would have major implications for US strategic interests. At stake were the lives of thousands of US military advisors; the security of sophisticated American weapons systems in Iran, such as F-14 jets; a vital flow of oil; and the future of the most important institution of power in Iran, the military. It was less alarmed by the rise of Khomeini, and the downfall of the Shah.
Finding Humanity in a Burning South Bronx
Tanvi Misra, City Lab, 27 May 2016
In New York City, Moynihan’s ‘benign neglect’ recommendation was manifested as a policy called ‘planned shrinkage’, the work of the then-commissioner of the Department of Housing Preservation and Development, Robert Starr. It was ‘a form of triage, it dictated the withdrawal of essential services from sick neighborhoods, which were seen as unable to survive or undeserving of survival’, Deborah Wallace and Rodrick Wallace explain in their 2001 book, A Plague on Your Houses: How New York Was Burned Down and National Public Health Crumbled. The retracted services included responses to fires and fire-safety inspections. When added to the cocktail of flawed urban policies in the neighborhood, the results were devastating. FiveThirtyEight summarizes: Between 1970 and 1980, seven census tracts in the Bronx lost more than 97 percent of their buildings to fire and abandonment. Forty-four tracts lost more than half. The results were staggering— blocks and blocks of rubble. The post-apocalyptic-seeming landscape of the South Bronx during this time is striking in Rosenthal’s photos, of which 42 original prints are now on display at an exhibition at the Museum of the City of New York. But what really stands out is the humanity of the South Bronx residents who lived through that nightmarish chapter of history.
Can Neuroscience Understand Donkey Kong,
Let Alone a Brain?
Ed Yong, Atlantic, 2 June 2016
The human brain contains 86 billion neurons, underlies all of humanity’s scientific and artistic endeavours, and has been repeatedly described as the most complex object in the known universe. By contrast, the MOS 6502 microchip contains 3510 transistors, runs Space Invaders, and wouldn’t even be the most complex object in my pocket. We know very little about how the brain works, but we understand the chip completely. So, Eric Jonas and Konrad Kording wondered, what would happen if they studied the chip in the style of neuroscientists? How would the approaches that are being used to study the complex squishy brain fare when used on a far simpler artificial processor? Could they re-discover everything we know about its transistors and logic gates, about how they process information and run simple video games? Forget attention, emotion, learning, memory, and creativity; using the techniques of neuroscience, could Jonas and Kording comprehend Donkey Kong? No. They couldn’t. Not even close.
Africa’s Rising and Trendy Middle Class:
Time to Sort Out Fact From Fiction
Henning Melber, Mail & Guardian Africa, 25 May 2016
A closer look at the widely held assumption that middle classes by definition play a positive – meaning socially progressive – role is not convincing. History suggests a rather mixed balance, if not mainly opportunistic behaviour, of middle class members. They usually do not tend to bite the hand that feeds them. The new Chinese middle class is anything but known for its opposition towards an authoritarian state. The Chilean middle class of the early 1970s in its majority did not side with Salvador Allende, but supported the military coup by General Augusto Pinochet. Politically, middle classes seem not as democratic as many of those singing their praises believe. According to a recent Afrobarometer survey, a majority of those with higher education argue that the less educated should not have the same say in democratic elections, as they would not know what is best for their country. In South Africa the black middle class is no more likely to hold democratic values than other black South Africans. But it is more likely to want government to secure higher-order survival needs over basic ones. It is also dubious that African middle classes by their sheer existence promote economic growth. Their increase was mainly a limited result of the trickle-down effects of the resource-based economic growth rates during the early years of this century. Their position and role in society hardly has the economic potential and dynamics to induce further productive investment that contributes to sustainable economic growth.
The Odd Couple
Peter E Gordon, The Nation, 9 June 2016
Unlikely as their friendship may seem, Scholem and Adorno had one thing in common: They had both been friends of the literary critic and philosopher Walter Benjamin, though at first this connection did little to awaken warm feelings between the two. Scholem had known Benjamin since their Berlin days in the Youth Movement during World War I, and he feared that Adorno would lead his friend astray—from Judaism and toward Marxism. He also had little patience for the elaborations of Adorno’s dialectic. On reading Adorno’s early study of Kierkegaard, Scholem wrote to Benjamin that it “combines a sublime plagiarism of your thought with an uncommon chutzpah.” Despite this initial chill, the mutual suspicion between the two men soon gave way to a shared concern for the fate of their friend. After the Nazi invasion of France, Scholem and Adorno exchanged details on Benjamin’s flight southward from Paris and eventually to Portbou, the town on the Spanish border where he committed suicide. The awful event is reported in a letter dated October 8, 1940, sent by Adorno (then in New York) to Scholem (in Jerusalem). It stands among the earliest letters in their correspondence. Whatever their ideological differences, the tragedy of Benjamin’s death would loom over their friendship for the next three decades, and the bond between them would be forged from the shared experience of mourning.
Rethinking Humanity’s Roots
Russ Juskalian, Discover
Covering an area more than twice the size of Brooklyn, the grasslands contain hundreds of complex dolomite caves, and more than a dozen early hominin dig sites with names like Sterkfontein, Swartkrans and Kromdraai. A UNESCO world heritage site since 1999, its name is fitting: The Cradle of Humankind. Roughly 25 miles north of Johannesburg, The Cradle is a paradox of easy access and scientific significance but limited recognition among average citizens worldwide. You’ve probably heard of Ethiopia’s famous fossil hominin Lucy, but what about South Africa’s equally important Little Foot? That disparity is about to change. The Cradle and other South African sites have ushered in a new golden age of discovery about our origins. Everything, from when our ancestors first commanded fire to the very shape of our family tree, is being challenged. The result: new species, new hypotheses and new controversies emerging from the deepest recesses of South Africa’s cave-strewn landscape.
Epigenetics Has Become Dangerously Fashionable
Brian Boutwell and JC Barnes, Nautlus, 17 May 2016
‘Many of our expert epigenetics research colleagues are deeply embarrassed by the warm, uncritical response their work has attracted from the social sciences’, say Terrie Moffitt, a distinguished clinical psychologist at Duke University, and Amber Beckley, a criminologist also at Duke. ‘A biologist attendee at a July 2014 Washington, DC workshop on the social and behavioral implications of epigenetics gasped, “The biologists there were horrified at the thought . . . we really don’t understand the basic biology well enough yet to do this!”’
Power, Fists, Guns, Books:
Black Power & Book Cover Design
Josh MacPhee, Print, 13 June 2016
As we trace the history of graphic representations of the Civil Rights Movement, we see The earliest use of a contemporary sense of the term “Black Power” in book publishing is likely with the 1954 release of Richard Wright’s book of that title, a journalistic account of his travels to the Gold Coast—which would a few years later decolonize and rename itself Ghana. The dust jacket of the hardback (a paperback wasn’t published until 1995) is an interesting document of transition. Contra the title itself, the words are in white, and sit not on a black background, but a field of earthen stripes. The cover is decidedly pre-Civil Rights Movement, as Black Power is fundamentally not represented as a struggle between Black and White—as it would be clearly defined only a couple years later.
As the Movement develops, and the conflict between Black and White Southerners becomes more acute, the representation of the struggle begins to look more monochromatic. Ten years later, Richard Wright’s 1945 autobiography Black Boy (4) is released in a mass market edition with a cover dominated by an illustration of a large black fist. The cover simultaneously illustrates Wright’s youthful rebellion and association with the organized resistance of the Communist Party, but it also connects this earlier era of Black resistance to the then-contemporary Civil Rights Movement, in which the raised fist was fast becoming a popular symbol. But even on this cover the transition to black and white binaries isn’t complete, as the fist is actually a rich purple, combining a lines of many colors to compose the blackness of the hand.
Deconstructing Moscow’s Constructivist Legacy
Ola Cichowlas, Moscow Times, 9 June 2016
Constructivist buildings were neglected for much of the Soviet period, and renovating them is a daunting — and expensive — task. ‘By the 1930s, they were already rejected for being insufficiently decorative and too Western’, says Khrustaleva. During perestroika, she says, the architecture was associated with the worst of the Soviet past. Authorities say the buildings are badly planned and, unlike Stalinist architecture, built using poor materials. Selivanova admits that is true for some of Moscow’s constructivist landmarks, but maintains that the crumbling state of the buildings is primarily due to decades of neglect. Russians’ bad memories of the 1920s, Selivanova suggests, keep them from appreciating early Soviet architecture. ‘People associate this period with hunger and social experiments’, she says. Stalinist architecture is more popular: ‘It’s festive, and reminds people of the propaganda films of the 1930s and 1950s, which still make an impact today.’ Russian-American campaigner and photographer Natalia Melikova has been documenting the disappearance of constructivist Moscow since 2010. She believes that while Moscow’s historic architecture from all periods falls victim to destruction, the city’s authorities have especially consigned constructivist buildings to the scrap heap.
Much of World Suffers Not From Abuse of Painkillers,
But Absence of Them
Rick Gladstone, New York Times, 17 May 2016
‘While clearly there are issues with some prescribing practices, there’s also clearly a risk to vilifying these medicines’, said Diederik Lohman, associate director of the health and human rights division at Human Rights Watch. In some countries, Mr. Lohman said, ‘a clerical error in a morphine prescription’ can lead to criminal inquiries. ‘The fear associated with prescribing a medicine under strict scrutiny makes physicians afraid’, he said. Afsan Bhadelia, a visiting scientist and palliative care expert at the Harvard School of Public Health, said ‘the biggest misconception’ internationally regarding opioids was the need for tighter control. ‘People do not have access to pain control for basic surgery’, she said. ‘People are going into the operating room and not having anyone mitigate their pain. It is a great injustice.’