My latest collection, and the first for 2017, of recent essays and stories from around the web that have caught my eye and are worth plucking out to be re-read.
What the alt-right is really about
Angela Nagle, Irish Times, 6 January 2017
Spencer is in the strict dictionary definition of the term, a racist. He claims “race is something between a breed and an actual species” and believes non-white Americans should leave in a ‘peaceful ethnic cleansing’. He believes the Alt-right will infiltrate mainstream American culture and politics, starting with deporting undocumented immigrants under Trump. Spencer’s Alt-right takes influence from the French New Right who were often called ‘Gramscians of the Right’ applying the theories of Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci , arguing that political goals would best be achieved through changing the culture and media from which formal politics would follow. And so far, it seems to be working.
The strictest definition of the Alt-right includes other overtly racial thinkers like Jared Taylor who calls himself a ‘race realist’, Steve Sailer who writes about ‘human biodiversity’ – a pretty transparent euphemism – and Nick Land who explores the idea of the ‘Dark Enlightenment’. All of these are to varying degrees preoccupied with racial IQ, the Bell Curve, Western civilisational decline due to increased racial impurity, cultural decadence, cultural Marxism and Islamification.
In its broader milieu, there is the ‘alt-lite’ made up of charismatic social media celebrities like Breitbart’s Milo Yiannopolous and VICE founder Gavin McInnes, mentioned in Pell’s piece. The alt-lite don’t share the hard alt right’s racial politics, despite the constant conflations of liberal media hyperbole – real Alt-righters regularly remind Milo he’s a ‘kike faggot’ – but all these groups have emerged online around the same time, and interact and promote each other, sharing many of the same hatreds of political correctness, feminism, immigration, the welfare state and the cultural left. They also share the same aesthetic sensibility that emerged from the anarchy of 4chan, the anonymous site that popularised the Pepe the frog memes, which proliferated during the Trump campaign.
Europe in revolt
Chris Bickerton, Prospect, 13 December 2016
This revolt differs from bourgeois and workers’ revolutions of the past. The emotions of anger and frustration prevail over those of hope. No rising force within society claims the mantle of the ‘universal class’. According to the late Irish political scientist, Peter Mair, politicians in Europe have over the last few decades retreated into the state. Citizens, for their part, have disappeared into the private sphere. What used to be a relationship of representation between governments and citizens has been transformed into a relationship of antagonism and deep distrust. As a result, 21st-century politics in Europe is all about trying to bridge what Mair called ‘the void’: an absence of any meaningful and legitimate political relationship between politicians and voters…
Beneath the mainstreaming of Euroscepticism and its challenge to the EU lies a deeper transformation in the very structure of political competition in Europe. The 20th century was characterised by the victory of party democracy as the dominant model of politics: parties, often with sizeable memberships, would compete for votes on the basis of very different programmes. Politics was a clash of ideas and political traditions: social democrats, Christian democrats and communists would argue with each other about their visions for the future. Other actors, such as the church, trade unions, business associations, were part of the debate. Individuals mattered but ideas mattered more.
Today, people have become sceptical not only of the ability of politicians to represent them but of the very idea that there is some kind of public interest out there. In response, politics has become dominated by individuals who claim to be authentic and genuine.
Anatomy of a hoax: An oral history
Jennifer Ruark, Chronicle of Higher Education, 1 January 2017
SOKAL: I was at a conference at the University of Minnesota. NPR managed to reach me and did a five-minute interview, and then all hell broke loose. The next day, The New York Times was calling, and several television networks. I refused all of the television offers because I didn’t think that the television would do a serious job. I mean, I didn’t want to just contribute one more ‘let’s have a laugh at the professors’ kind of thing. I wanted to have a serious discussion.
EPSTEIN: A colleague of mine calls and tells me that this dreadful rumor is running around Santa Cruz that I was the author of this horrible article in Social Text, and he won’t believe such a terrible thing unless I tell him it’s true.
By that time, I really was persona non grata. It was very clear that I was a minority in my department, and not only a minority but a target. I had an article in Socialist Review in which I criticized poststructuralism. It had become a crusade and an orthodoxy and a juggernaut, and the more I was part of that culture, the more I disliked it. The emotional atmosphere around this wasn’t that different than the emotional atmosphere around the election right now. People on two sides of the fence were barely talking to each other.
MARTIN: It was a brilliant practical joke. It showed up the inadequate editorial sense of some of the publications and the takeover by almost incomprehensible jargon. But a lot of us felt there was a big misunderstanding of what the goal of science studies was.
BRUCE ROBBINS, Columbia University humanities professor, co-editor of Social Text, 1991-98: I remember listening to NPR and suddenly Social Text is being talked about, which was very exciting. The first thought was, you know, we are a very small left-wing cultural journal and suddenly we’ve made it to the big time. But it did sink in relatively quickly. There was an ‘Oh, shit’ moment.
Devastation is sexy
Tim Matsui, The Development Set, 2 January 2017
If I expect a disaster, I will see a disaster. I will be less open to stories of hope, resilience, and purpose. As a journalist or an editor, I will fail to tell the balanced story my profession demands. As an aid worker, I risk becoming a manifestation of satirical Barbie Savior.
I think reporters, editors, aid workers, policy makers…wait, let me not limit this. I think we all must step away from our socially-insulated bubbles of perception, relaxing our expectations to become more open to stories that are not our own.
Otherwise, reality will pass us by.
I do not recognise the stereotype of John Berger
as a dour Marxist – his work embodied hope
Suzanne Moore, Guardian, 4 January 2017
John Berger had the most amazing eyes. I do not mean that in the abstract, though it is true; his way of seeing the world has become part of the way we understand visual culture. I am thinking simply of those great baby blues. He was never not looking. He was a painter and he took up photography at one point but gave it up because once you have taken a picture ‘you stop looking at what you’ve shot. I was more interested in looking. I think I gave my camera away.’
When I heard he’d died at the great age of 90, of course I thought of his eyes, of what it was like to have them focused on you – he did that to everyone, it was absolutely compelling. To be human for him meant always seeing, listening, exchanging.
John Berger: If I’m a storyteller, it’s because I listen
Kate Kellaway, Observer, 30 October 2016
He is smallish, but his face is big – handsomely hewn, with blue eyes and thick white hair. I have recently watched Ways of Seeing on YouTube, and it is extraordinary how commanding the four episodes still are. Berger had no time for ivory towers – his way of seeing was radical. Forty-four years ago he was a charismatic presence, looking into the camera with piercing eyes and a frequent frown, as if constantly on the edge of disagreeing with himself. The look was fitting because what the series did was to make people rethink. He never ducked difficulty: he described, for instance, how women, in traditional painting, were there to “feed an appetite, not to have any of their own”. Unlike Kenneth Clark’s patrician Civilisation (1969), Ways of Seeing was never overbearing. In each episode, Berger sports the same groovy shirt with a geometric brown design on a cream background. His voice is clear and emphatic and fudges its Rs. His final words in the series are: ‘What I’ve shown, and what I’ve said… must be judged against your own experience.’ That is what everything he has written asks us to do.
Safety pins and swastikas
Shuja Halder, Jacobin, 5 January 2017
White nationalists aren’t too bothered by protests of cultural appropriation, given their claim that, as Yiannopoulos puts it, ‘culture is inseparable from race’. When that underlying assumption remains unquestioned, the rhetoric of mainstream antiracism is itself susceptible to appropriation by the Right.
This is what leads someone like Richard Spencer to voice approval for incidents like one at the University of Ottawa, when a free yoga class for students with disabilities was shut down for ‘cultural issues of implication’. A Student Federation statement on the matter went as far as to link it to the threat of ‘cultural genocide’. At the blog for Radix Journal, an alt-right publication he founded, Spencer could barely contain his excitement. He cited the incident as an example of ‘racial consciousness formation’, and applauded student activists for ‘engaging in the kind of ideological project that traditionalists should be hard at work on’.
It should go without saying that left-liberal identity politics and alt-right white nationalism are not comparable. The problem is that they are compatible.
With the two-state solution a distant dream,
Palestinians ask if it’s time to push for a one-state solution
Joshua Mitnick, Los Angeles Times, 29 December 2016
The alternative, many argue, is an invitation to Israel to swallow Palestine.
‘Many people support the idea’, said Mustafa Barghouti, a Palestinian legislator and a former candidate for president. ‘If the two-state solution is physically unattainable, we have only one option: A struggle to gain full and equal democratic rights in one state, in the land of historic Palestine.’
Once limited to small groups of politically independent weekly protesters against Israel’s military occupation, the idea is now being widely discussed. Palestinian intellectuals, businessmen and political officials who long championed the two-state solution are starting to strategize about what some argue is an already existing one-state reality.
Living towards the past
Zygmunt Bauman, spiked review, December 2016
review: You’ve written of the end of progress, the loss of belief in the idea that the future will be better than the past. Is there anything in the Brexit phenomenon (and, indeed, other populist movements on the continent) that promises a new, perhaps even better era for Europe?
Bauman: We still believe in ‘progress’, but we view it now as both a blessing and a curse, with the curse part growing steadily, while the blessing part is getting smaller. Contrast this with the attitude of our most recent ancestors – they still believed the future to be the safest and most promising location for hopes. We, however, tend to locate our fears, anxieties and apprehensions in the future: of growing job scarcity; of falling incomes and so also of the decline of our and our children’s life chances; of the increasing frailty of our social positions and the temporariness of our life achievements; of an unstoppably widening gap between the tools, resources and skills at our disposal and the grandiosity of life challenges; of the control over our lives slipping from our hands. It’s as if we, as individuals, are being degraded to the status of pawns on the margins of a chess game being played by persons unknown. They are indifferent to our needs and dreams, if not downright hostile and cruel, and are all too ready to sacrifice us in pursuit of their own objectives.
What the thought of future tends nowadays to bring to mind, therefore, is the growing menace of being discovered and classified as inept and unfit for task, denied value and dignity, marginalised, excluded and outcast.
The Weimar analogy
Daniel Bessner & Udi Greenberg, Jacobin, 17 December 2016
The debate over whether Trump counts as a fascist may seem pedantic, but its consequences for progressive thought are anything but. When we see America as Weimar and Trump as Hitler, we risk repeating past mistakes.
This danger is best illustrated in Eric Weitz’s recent essay, which calls on liberals to resurrect ‘militant democracy’. This political theory, espoused by many thinkers who fled Nazi Germany, held that free nations must view all dictatorial movements as existential threats. Democracy, they argued, cannot coexist with the enemy; extremist radicals have to be actively destroyed. According to Weitz’s logic, our generation must embrace these sentiments to resist Trump’s fascist takeover.
Does information smell?
Riccardo Manzotti & Tim Parks,
New York Review Daily, 30 December 2016
Parks: It seems whichever way internalism turns, however exhilarating its interim discoveries, when it comes to consciousness it reaches an impasse. We have the impression—or simply we’re used to believing—that consciousness is in our heads, that memories are stored in our brains, that there is a world outside and a representation of the world inside, and so on. Yet nothing we have found in the brain warrants this. In our next dialogue, then, I propose that we break out of our skulls and see if there is any other approach to this question that offers more promise.
Manzotti: Very good, but this time I’m going to have the last word! Internalism, like dualism, is, if you’ll allow me the joke, a monster with many heads. We’re going to have to come back to it again and again, to look at dreams, visualizations, hallucinations, and all kinds of other exciting creatures. And some of them will be harder to tackle than the basic premise in itself.
Germany’s far right rises again
Yardena Schwarz, Politico, 21 December 2016
According to analysts, the majority of AfD voters previously supported Merkel, and voted for parties in the chancellor’s ruling coalition. But, says Arzheimer, one-third of AfD voters are formerly non-voters, people who were so disillusioned by the established parties that they simply didn’t vote. Some, he says, even voted for socialist left wing parties in the past.
All of these voters have one thing in common: They are tired of apologizing for their national history. ‘We have this problem in Germany where you’re not allowed to love your country because if you do you’re considered a Nazi’, says Sarah Leins, a 30-year-old AfD supporter. ‘We have to overcome this.’
Rewriting the code of life
Michael Specter, New Yorker, 2 January 2017
With crispr and gene-drive technology, it might be possible for just one engineered mosquito, or fly, or any other animal or seed, to eventually change the fundamental genetics of an entire species. As Esvelt puts it, ‘A release anywhere could be a release everywhere’. Recognizing the possibility of an irreversible error, however, he and Church, in their earliest experiments, began to build drives capable of restoring any DNA that had been removed. Both say that if an edit cannot be corrected it should not be attempted. They also suggest retaining, in its original form, some part of any population that has been edited – a kind of molecular Noah’s Ark.
Esvelt and his colleagues have developed a system to keep gene drives from spreading where they are not wanted. The plan, which he calls a daisy drive, separates the components of any gene drive into discrete parts—a genetic version of a multistage rocket. Each component contains one or more genes that contribute to the whole drive. For the system to continue to propagate, all parts need to be present. If they are not, the trait would vanish after a prescribed number of generations.
The approach, which is still in early development, could prove essential. Regulatory approvals and government licenses would have no effect on the migratory patterns or the mating habits of a mouse or a mosquito. Without some system of control, a conventional gene drive would keep spreading across state lines and international borders. If daisy drives work, they might prevent that.
The language wars
Jeffrey Mitchell, The Smart Set, 14 December 2016
Language-change is inevitable, but it can be influenced as well as observed. How might it best be influenced? In my heaven, first of all, everyone would agree that English-users urgently need standard written English – and speech sharing its precision – when trying to address difficult matters with suitable care. We need a trustworthy public English that will make sense, because it’s shared among many audiences. We need it for ordinary life: It’s no fun to waste hours ‘chatting’ with a technician when your internet service won’t work because the cable company sent you lousy instructions. We need it for medicine, science, education, business, journalism, fiction, criticism — for so many ways of trying to communicate about human experience. We need it for the law, which can’t fulfill its purposes without the medium of a messy language that has nonetheless been made as clean and clear as possible. God knows we need it in politics (just think about the recent campaign fate of the words ‘honest’ and ‘lie’). And we need to maintain it, just as we need to maintain our health and transportation systems. If it isn’t working well, we need to fix it.
What most needs fixing, and how would I fix it? First, I’d encourage actively good judgments — in our schools and daily lives — about expressions like ‘literally’ and ‘disinterested’. The meanings of those two words have already disintegrated through a language-change process that merits conscious recognition. It’s the opposite of what happens when something new and distinct emerges, such as the deliciously self-accusing, self-forgiving ‘selfie’. Over time, the definite sense of a new or settled usage dissipates as readers who don’t quite understand it jump to conclusions. ‘Literally’ looks like an intensifier, so it becomes one. Context seems to invite ‘disinterested’ to mean ‘uninterested’ and, without enough opposition, eventually it does.
Chagos islanders plead for end to 50-year exile
as UK-US deal rolls over
Jamie Doward, Guardian, 24 December 2016
New Year’s Eve marks the conclusion of a 50-year agreement under which the UK has allowed the US to use the Indian Ocean island of Diego Garcia as a military base. On New Year’s Day the agreement will be rolled over into a new one lasting a further 20 years.
The agreement lay behind the forcible removal of residents from the Chagos Islands, of which Diego Garcia is the main island, triggering a battle for their right to return home that has lasted for half a century.
This month Frankie Bontemps, the chair of the Chagos Islanders Welfare Group, joined with exiles and their descendants to hand in a letter to Downing Street demanding their right to return. Bontemps said the 50-year anniversary was a painful reminder of what they had lost…
‘Since being abandoned by the UK government we have been impoverished and neglected by the policies of successive UK governments. Forbidden from returning to our homeland, we continue the fight for humanity, justice and the restoration of our human rights. We have been British citizens for 200 years, but are treated as undesirable aliens. Happy Christmas and peace on Earth to all.’
The brutal dreams that come true
Martin Filler, New York Review of Books, 22 December 2016
There are several reasons for today’s changing perceptions about Brutalism, which remained in fashion for only about twenty years. As the landmarks preservation movement has repeatedly demonstrated, what was once underappreciated or even despised in architecture often attains new value when its existence is threatened, whether one likes a currently démodé style or not. The most immediate concern about Brutalism now is its conservation, as many of these seemingly invulnerable, fortress-like edifices are beginning to fall apart. Like other experimental architects of the modern age, the Brutalists were more intent on getting their innovative designs built than worrying about how well they would last for the ages, and their command of new materials and construction techniques often lagged behind their innovative visions. But the debate over whether these purposefully unlovely creations should be restored to their original state or left to decay remains largely unresolved.
Blood and benefits: Duterte imposes his
hometown formula on the Philippines
Manny Mogato, Karen Lema, David Lague, & Jerome Morales,
Reuters, 28 December 2016
‘Forget the laws on human rights’, he declared in May at his final presidential campaign rally in Manila. ‘If I make it to the presidential palace, I will do just as I did as mayor. You drug pushers, hold-up men and do-nothings, you better go out. Because, I’d kill you.’
More than seven months after winning the presidency, Duterte is rolling out on a national scale the model of government he honed over 22 years and seven terms as mayor of this city on the southern island of Mindanao. Just as in Davao, blood is now flowing in the capital Manila and surrounding areas as the police and vigilantes, inspired by the president, conduct a wave of killings.
Clove trees the color of ash
Amitav Ghosh, New York Times, 30 December 2016
The obvious lesson of this history is that it is impossible to imagine a world without global connections: They have always existed, and no place has escaped their formative influence. But this does not mean that there is any inherent merit in interconnectedness, which has always been accompanied by violence, deepening inequalities and the large-scale destruction of communities. Nor should proponents of unfettered globalization forget that in the 19th century ‘free trade’ was invoked by Britain and other Western powers to prevent China from stopping the inflow of opium into the country, where it was causing widespread addiction.
These aspects of globalization are often overlooked because the advocacy of interconnectedness has come to be equated with tolerance, while the resistance to it is identified with prejudice. But neither cosmopolitanism nor parochialism is a virtue in itself. We need to ask: cosmopolitanism in the service of what? Protectionism to what end?
The Iago problem
Tamsin Shaw, New York Review Daily, 14 December 2016
Iago, the greatest, perhaps, of Shakespeare’s villains, and certainly the most inscrutable in his motivations, has long posed a special challenge. In recent productions he has been rendered modern (which is to say, not purely evil in the original, metaphysical sense) through complex psychological contrivances. Bob Peck has portrayed him as ‘a hate machine created by the slow, dehumanizing process of professional warfare’; David Suchet as a repressed homosexual, ‘deeply in love with Othello and manically jealous of Desdemona’; Anthony Sher as a man with ‘a severe sexual hang-up’, whose uncontrollable, morbid jealousy is aroused by the belief that Othello has slept with his wife.
In Sam Gold’s subtly intelligent new Othello at the New York Theatre Workshop, however, we find a more disturbing interpretation, one that perhaps (and unfortunately) makes it the necessary production for our times. Daniel Craig’s Iago is not a psychopath, or a victim of trauma, or a man deluded about right and wrong. He makes a choice. He chooses moral insensibility and viciousness. And Craig’s commanding performance, his combination of charm, sexual charisma, and menacing masculinity, his ability to make the audience dread his actions and yet giggle childishly along with his sadistic delight, makes his choice seem not like one that is psychologically inexplicable but rather one that does not need any deeper psychological explanation. It is freedom, masculine vigor, conquest, pleasure, the laughter permitted by moral indifference.
A ‘Stonehenge,’ and a mystery, in the Amazon
Simon Romero, New York Times, 14 December 2016
‘I had no idea that I was discovering the Amazon’s own Stonehenge’, said Mr da Silva, 65, on a scorching October day as he gazed at the archaeological site located just north of the Equator. ‘It makes me wonder: What other secrets about our past are still hidden in Brazil’s jungles?’
After conducting radiocarbon testing and carrying out measurements during the winter solstice, scholars in the field of archaeoastronomy determined that an indigenous culture arranged the megaliths into an astronomical observatory about 1,000 years ago, or five centuries before the European conquest of the Americas began.
Their findings, along with other archaeological discoveries in Brazil in recent years — including giant land carvings, remains of fortified settlements and even complex road networks — are upending earlier views of archaeologists who argued that the Amazon had been relatively untouched by humans except for small, nomadic tribes.
Instead, some scholars now assert that the world’s largest tropical rain forest was far less ‘Edenic’ than previously imagined, and that the Amazon supported a population of as many as 10 million people before the epidemics and large-scale slaughter put into motion by European colonizers.
The photo of spiders’ webs is by Alejandro Erickson on flickr.