Pandaemonium

PLUCKED FROM THE WEB #9

web-9

My latest collection of recent essays and stories from around the web that have caught my eye and are worth plucking out to be re-read. Since so much of the discussion over the past month has been dominated by that electoral victory, I have divided the collection into two: articles that are about issues related to Donald Trump and his Presidential success and the ones that are Trump-free.


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Trumpish

2016 was the apathy election
Carl Beijer, 12 November

The major trend in 2016 was one of increasingly apathy. Within that broader trend, the demographic patterns are muddy. Deviations in relatively support from group to group don’t map well onto the standard media narratives that dominated this election; for example, apathy grew more among women and voters of color than among men and white voters. Among the candidates, Clinton either broke even or lost support among every single demographic group, while Trump won support among voters of color and boomers.

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Ultimately, Trump managed to stem his losses among men, the poor, and millennials – and among boomers and voters of color he actually improved the GOP’s numbers. Clinton, meanwhile, lost voters in every demographic across the board; she took major hits among voters of color and the poor, and only managed to minimize her losses among wealthier voters. Trump took his largest hit among those same wealthiest voters, but it turns out that pandering to the rich while abandoning the poor just isn’t a winning strategy.

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A reality check on 2016’s economically marginalized
John Hudak, Brookings, 16 November 2016

The conversation around the middle class, the economically marginalized, and the overlooked Americans needs a larger dose of honesty than it has had in the past week. There are many demographic groups and sub-groups in the United States who are struggling economically. They are not all white. They are not all located in the upper Midwest. They are not all displaced, male factory workers or coal miners. They are not all middle aged. The economically marginalized in this country are, sadly, a diverse group of people from all racial and ethnic backgrounds, genders, ages, and occupations.

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Donald Trump, fairly, won the electoral college because he offered a campaign message that connected with one segment of those Americans who are struggling economically. He did not own the issues of economic justice or inequality or marginalization. For tens of millions of other voters who find themselves struggling in this economy, they went to the ballot box and opted for someone other than the president-elect, as did a majority of American voters.

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Can Trump save their jobs? They’re counting on it
Nelson D Schwartz, New York Times, 12 November 2016

Some blue-collar neighborhoods that supported Mr. Trump have been portrayed as monocultures, the opposite of supposedly more diverse, cosmopolitan cities that favored Mrs. Clinton, the Democratic candidate. That caricature does not hold up here.

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At least half of the workers on Carrier’s assembly line are women. And dozens of Burmese immigrants have gone to work at the factory in recent years, part of an influx of nearly 15,000 refugees from Myanmar into Indianapolis since 2001. And the neighborhoods around Carrier’s factory are considerably more diverse than many wealthy New York and San Francisco suburbs, where Democrats dominate.

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Down the road from the Carrier factory, past the railroad tracks and a few patches of farmland that remain in Indianapolis, the tidy neighborhood of split-level and ranch houses where Cecil Link Jr. lives has changed in recent years. A worker at a plastics factory nearby, Mr. Link noted that a Hispanic family recently moved in next door, and he said he was pleased that blacks and whites now socialize in ways almost unimaginable decades ago. ‘It pains me to see this country divided by race’, Mr. Link said. Nevertheless, he voted for Mr Trump.

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Politics is the solution
Megan Erickson, Katherine Hill, Matt Karp, Connor Kilpatrick
& Bhaskar Sunkara, Jacobin, 9 November 2016

Blaming the American public for Trump’s victory only deepens the elitism that rallied his voters in the first place. It’s unquestionable that racism and sexism played a crucial role in Trump’s rise. And it’s horrifying to contemplate the ways that his triumph will serve to strengthen the cruelest and most bigoted forces in American society. Still, a response to Trump that begins and ends with horror is not a political response – it is a form of paralysis, a politics of hiding under the bed. And a response to American bigotry that begins and ends with moral denunciation is not a politics at all – it is the opposite of politics. It is surrender.

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To believe that Trump’s appeal was entirely based on ethnic nationalism is to believe that a near majority of Americans are driven only by hate and a shared desire for a white supremacist political program. We don’t believe that. And the facts don’t bear it out.

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The seeds of the alt-right,
America’s emergent right-wing populist movement

George Michael, The Conversation, 23 November 2016

The alt-right includes white nationalists, but it also includes those who believe in libertarianism, men’s rights, cultural conservatism and populism.Nonetheless, its origins can be traced to various American white nationalist movements that have endured for decades. These groups have historically been highly marginalized, with virtually no influence on the mainstream culture and certainly not over public policy. Some of the most radical elements have long advocated a revolutionary program.

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Groups such as the Aryan Nations, White Aryan Resistance, the National Alliance and the World Church of the Creator have preached racial revolution against ZOG, or the ‘Zionist Occupation Government’. Many were inspired by the late William L. Pierce’s ‘Turner Diaries’, a novel about a race war that consumes America. (Timothy McVeigh, who carried out the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing, had pages from the book in his possession when he was captured.)

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But these exhortations didn’t resonate with most people. What’s more, after 9/11, many of the revolutionary right’s leading representatives were prosecuted under new anti-terrorism statutes and sent to prison. By the mid-2000s, the far right appeared to have reached its nadir. Into this void stepped Richard Spencer and a new group of far-right intellectuals.

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Obama’s imperial presidency is now Trump’s
Tim Mak, Daily Beast, 14 November 2016

For nearly eight years, President Obama massively expanded his authority on national security issues: on the prosecution of whistleblowers, secret surveillance courts, wars without congressional authorization, and drone campaigns without public oversight. During this time the left, with the exception of some civil liberties groups, remained largely silent.

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But now this entire apparatus is being handed over to Donald Trump, a president with a penchant for authoritarianism, who will no doubt point to Obama as precedent to justify the continuation, and perhaps broadening, of these national security excesses.

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How centrists failed immigrants
Daniel Denvir, Jacobin, 4 November 2016

Whatever one’s view of Clinton’s changing views, they certainly have changed. The Clintons are the great triangulators of our time, experts at finding the political sweet spot at the center wherever it may have drifted. But now, the center on immigration, like much everything else in politics, has fallen apart. In 1994, roughly a third of Democrats and Republicans had positive views of immigration. Today, 35 percent of Republicans and 78 percent of Democrats do. Within the Democratic coalition, immigrant rights groups hold greater sway than ever while hardcore nativists and white nationalists run the Republican Party.

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Mass deportations were intended to sate nativists’ appetite for enforcement. Under Bush and Obama, centrists embraced harsh enforcement as the prerequisite for reform. Clinton did so to outflank Republicans. In reality, they all created a massive deportation machinery and militarized border, and reinforced an ascendant right-wing explanation that helped suffering or anxious people make sense of their problems and the precarious world around them.

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Trump has nearly made his way to the top by calling immigrants criminals. It wasn’t an idea he came up with on his own.

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Fake news
Ben Thompson, Stratechery, 16 November 2016

I get why top-down solutions are tempting: fake news and filter bubbles are in front of our face, and wouldn’t it be better if Facebook fixed them? The problem is the assumption that whoever wields that top-down power will just so happen to have the same views I do. What, though, if they don’t? Just look at our current political situation: those worried about what Trump have to contend with the fact that the power of the executive branch has been dramatically expanded over the decades; we place immense responsibility and capability in the hands of one person, forgetting that said responsibility and capability is not so easily withdrawn if we don’t like the one wielding it.

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To that end I would be far more concerned about Facebook were they to begin actively editing the News Feed; as I noted last week I’m increasingly concerned about Zuckerberg’s utopian-esque view of the world, and it is a frighteningly small step from influencing the world to controlling the world. Just as bad would be government regulation: our most critical liberty when it comes to a check on tyranny is the freedom of speech, and it would be directly counter to that liberty to put a bureaucrat – who reports to the President – in charge of what people see.

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The key thing to remember is that the actual impact of fake news is dependent on who delivers it: sure, those Macedonian news stories aren’t great, but their effect such as it is comes from confirming what people already believe. Contrast that to Miller’s stories in the New York Times: because the New York Times was a trusted gatekeeper, many people fundamentally changed their opinions, resulting in a disaster the full effects of which are still being felt. In that light, the potential downside of Facebook coming anywhere close to deciding the news can scarcely be imagined.

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Facebook’s problem is more complicated than fake news
R Kelly Garrett, The Conversation, 17 November 2016

There’s ample evidence that people are drawn to news that affirms their political viewpoint. Facebook’s software learns from users’ past actions; it tries to guess which stories they are likely to click or share in the future. Taken to its extreme, this produces a filter bubble, in which users are exposed only to content that reaffirms their biases. The risk, then, is that filter bubbles promote misperceptions by hiding the truth.

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The appeal of this explanation is obvious. It’s easy to understand, so maybe it’ll be easy to fix. Get rid of personalized news feeds, and filter bubbles are no more.

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The problem with the filter bubble metaphor is that it assumes people are perfectly insulated from other perspectives. In fact, numerous studies have shown that individuals’ media diets almost always include information and sources that challenge their political attitudes. And a study of Facebook user data found that encounters with cross-cutting information is widespread. In other words, holding false beliefs is unlikely to be explained by people’s lack of contact with accurate news.

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Instead, people’s preexisting political identities profoundly shape their beliefs. So even when faced with the same information, whether it’s a news article or a fact check, people with different political orientations often extract dramatically different meaning.

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Billionaires vs the press in the era of Trump
Emily Bazelon, New York Times, 22 November 2016

The new president will be a man who constantly accuses the media of getting things wrong but routinely misrepresents and twists facts himself. “Their single goal will be to burnish their reputation,” Tim O’Brien predicts of the Trump administration. There are signs, too, of new efforts to harness the law to the cause of cowing the press. Trump’s choice for chief adviser, Stephen Bannon, ran the alt-right Breitbart News Network before joining Trump’s campaign last summer. Breitbart announced last week that it was “preparing a multimillion-dollar lawsuit against a major media company” for calling Breitbart a “ ‘white nationalist’ website.” Even if Breitbart is bluffing, the threat will discourage other news outlets from using that term to describe it, and that will in turn help Breitbart and Bannon seem more acceptable to the mainstream. Trump was right about one thing: You don’t have to win every case to advance in the larger legal war.

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Without a mention of Trump

Atlantic freedoms
Laurent Dubois, Aeon, 7 November 2016

Starting with the 1791 slave insurrection, it is therefore not surprising that those who set about courageously, brilliantly and systematically destroying this system crafted particularly powerful assertions of human rights. Haiti, not the US or France, was where the assertion of true universal values reached its defining climax during the Age of Revolution. Enslaved people who were considered chattel rather than human beings successfully insisted that they had the right to be free and, secondly, that they had the right to govern themselves according to a new set of principles. Their actions were a signal and a transformative moment in the political history of the world. The Haitian revolutionaries propelled the Enlightenment principles of universalism forward in unexpected ways by insisting on the self-evident – but then largely denied – principle that no one should be a slave. And they did so at the very heart of the world’s economic system, turning the most profitable colony in the world into an independent nation founded on the refusal of the system of slavery that dominated all the societies that surrounded it in the Americas.

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‘We are all Thomas More’s Children’: 500 years of Utopia
China Mieville, Guardian, 4 November 2016

In the words of Ursula K Le Guin, ‘Every utopia since Utopia has also been, clearly or obscurely, actually or possibly, in the author’s or in the readers’ judgment, both a good place and a bad one. Every utopia contains a dystopia, every dystopia contains a utopia.’ These contradictions thrive in single heads as easily as between them, and in the texts those heads produce. The interminable debates about what More ‘really’ meant miss this obvious fact, and are thus of as much use as any other discussion of ‘actual’ artistic or political ‘intent’ that treats it as a given or a secret to be decoded. Which is to say: some, but not much.

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The great settling down
Claude S Fisher, Aeon, 17 November 2016

In 1971, the great Carole King sang: ‘So far away/ Doesn’t anyone stay in one place anymore?’ Thirty years later, the editors of The New York Times explained that families in the United States are changing because of ‘the ever-growing mobility of Americans’. And in 2010, a psychologist argued that ‘an increased rate of residential mobility played a role in the historical shift’ toward individualism. It’s a common US lament that human bonds are fraying because people are moving around more and more. Americans fear the fracturing of communities that constant moving seems to bring.

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Yet when King sang, Americans had been moving around less and less for generations. That decline was even more obvious when the Times editorial appeared in 2001, and it has continued to decline through the 2010s. The increasingly mobile US is a myth that refuses to move on.

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One might imagine that the documented increase in settling down would have relieved Americans of their anxieties about transience and the loss of community. But it has not, because most Americans believe that residential mobility is accelerating and that it is a source of social ills. In truth, neither lament nor celebration of this growing rootedness is in order, because the ramifications of a more settled US are not all to be valued.

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No-show cops and dysfunctional courts keep
Cook County Jail inmates waiting years for a trial

Spencer Woodman, Chicago Reader, 16 November 2016

More than 1,000 Cook County inmates have been awaiting trial for more than two years, according to the Cook County sheriff’s department. In some extreme cases, some have been held without trial for more than eight years…

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Most inmates awaiting trial for multiple years in Cook County face charges for violent crimes such as murder, rape, or assault. But, according to the sheriff’s department, nearly half of them have been held not because they’ve been deemed too dangerous for release, but simply because they couldn’t post bond….

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But poverty isn’t the only cause of prolonged pretrial detention, our investigation finds. Dozens of attorneys, court administrators, and inmates interviewed for this story—plus a highly critical report from the Department of Justice—paint a picture of a court system plagued by unnecessary delays. Court systems around the country are crippled by overwhelmed public defenders and overscheduled courtrooms, but Cook County defendants also face judges and police commanders who fail to ensure that officers appear in court when needed and a state crime lab so overburdened it can take up to a year to turn around basic DNA samples.

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Perhaps more disturbingly, numerous studies have shown that lengthy trial delays mean defendants are more likely to plead guilty and less likely to be acquitted at trial as compared with those able to bond out of jail. More than one former Cook County inmate said that after being held under pretrial detention for years, they’d concluded that their only way out of jail was to plead guilty for crimes they maintain they didn’t commit.

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Scientists seek to update evolution
Carl Zimmer, Quanta magazine, 22 November 2016

In the mid-1900s, biologists updated Darwin’s theory of evolution with new insights from genetics and other fields. The result is often called the Modern Synthesis, and it has guided evolutionary biology for over 50 years. But in that time, scientists have learned a tremendous amount about how life works. They can sequence entire genomes. They can watch genes turn on and off in developing embryos. They can observe how animals and plants respond to changes in the environment.

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As a result, Laland and a like-minded group of biologists argue that the Modern Synthesis needs an overhaul. It has to be recast as a new vision of evolution, which they’ve dubbed the Extended Eolutionary Synthesis. Other biologists have pushed back hard, saying there is little evidence that such a paradigm shift is warranted.

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Destination Europe?
Heaven Crawley, Franck Duvell, Katharine Jones,
Simon McMahon & Nando Sigona,
Unravelling the Mediterranean Migration Crisis (MEDMIG)
Final Report, November 2016

The representation of the movement of refugees and migrants as linear, singular uninterrupted journeys or flows of people heading toward Europe is grossly misleading. The focus on the points of departure and the sea crossings is equally misleading. These simplifications distract from what were often multiple separate movements which converged in Libya and Turkey helping to explain the arrival of refugees and migrants in Italy and Greece respectively.

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The average duration of migration for those arriving in Greece via the Eastern Mediterranean route was considerably shorter than for those arriving via the Central Mediterranean route to Italy or Malta. The time between leaving the country of origin and arriving in Europe was shortest for Syrians and Iraqis and longest for Afghans and Eritreans.

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Our findings challenge the idea that all those arriving in Europe have crossed all the borders on their journey irregularly (without authorisation and/or the necessary documentation). There are significant differences between groups depending on their access to documents and other resources which results in a mixture of regular and irregular crossings.

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The view from the tower
John Banville, Dublin Review of Books, 1 November 2016

Not long before he died in 1969, Theodor Adorno told an interviewer: “I established a theoretical model of thought. How could I have suspected that people would want to implement it with Molotov cocktails?” That, for many, was the problem with the Frankfurt School: it never stooped to revolution. ‘The philosophers have only interpreted the world in various ways; the point is to change it’, wrote Karl Marx. But the intellectuals of the Frankfurt School turned Marx’s eleventh thesis on Feuerbach upside down.

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Arabic translators did far more than
just preserve Greek philosophy

Peter Adamson, Aeon, 4 November 2016

Muslim intellectuals also saw resources in the Greek texts for defending, and better understanding, their own religion. One of the earliest to embrace this possibility was al-Kindī, traditionally designated as the first philosopher to write in Arabic (he died around 870CE). A well-heeled Muslim who moved in court circles, al-Kindī oversaw the activity of Christian scholars who could render Greek into Arabic. The results were mixed. The circle’s version of Aristotle’s Metaphysics can be almost incomprehensible at times (to be fair, one could say this of the Greek Metaphysics too), while their ‘translation’ of the writings of Plotinus often takes the form of a free paraphrase with new, added material.

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It’s a particularly dramatic example of something that is characteristic of the Greek-Arabic translations more generally – and perhaps of all philosophical translations. Those who have themselves translated philosophy from a foreign language will know that, to attempt it, you need a deep understanding of what you are reading. Along the way, you must make difficult choices about how to render the source text into the target language, and the reader (who might not know, or not be able to access, the original version) will be at the mercy of the translator’s decisions.

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America’s invisible inferno
Martin Garbus, New York Review of Books,
8 December 2016

America’s prisons hold 2,193,000 people. That is more than the number of people who live in Manhattan. It is also more than the total number of prisoners in either Russia or China, the countries with the second- and third-highest prison populations. The United States shares with North Korea the distinction of having the world’s highest incarceration rate. With 5 percent of the world’s population, America houses 25 percent of the world’s prisoners.

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Approximately 400,000 people in our prison population move in and out of solitary, and many of America’s over two million prisoners know they can be put in solitary even if they are jailed for the most minor offenses. Between 80,000 and 120,000 men and women are held in solitary confinement every day. Every federal and state prison has solitary cells.

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The racial breakdown of those confined in solitary cells is particularly shameful: though black and Hispanic prisoners constitute 60 percent of all arrests, they make up 80 percent of the country’s prison population and 95 percent of the inmates confined in solitary cells. Matters are not getting better: in the five-year period from 1995 to 2000, the most recent years for which data are available, the number of prisoners held in solitary confinement increased by 40 percent. As the prison population increases, facilities are overcrowded and harder to control, making solitary more appealing to those charged with maintaining order. The racial makeup of our prison population, and of our solitary population, reflects a system of criminal justice in which the scales of justice are heavily weighted against people of color.

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Was Lolita about race?
Vladimir Nabokov on race in the United States

Jennifer Wilsson, LA Review of Books, 31 October 2016

The question of miscegenation would not appear in Nabokov’s work until some 13 years later, with the scandalous 1955 publication of Lolita — a novel Nabokov knew was a ‘timebomb’, as he wrote to an American friend. In ‘On a Book Entitled Lolita’, Nabokov writes that there are only three subjects American publishers find taboo: paedophilia, atheism (which carried connotations of ‘godless’ communism), and ‘a Negro-White marriage which is a complete and glorious success resulting in lots of children and grandchildren’. This invocation of American hysteria surrounding miscegenation seems jarring at first. After all, Lolita is concerned with actual sexual perversity, not what racist distortion falsely presents as sexual perversity. But a closer reading demonstrates just how central the theme of American racism is to Nabokov’s narrative.

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