Pandaemonium

PLUCKED FROM THE WEB

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The latest (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.


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The myth of the ‘lone wolf’ terrorist
Jason Burke, Guardian, 30 March 2017

Few extremists remain without human contact, even if that contact is only found online. Last year, a team at the University of Miami studied 196 pro-Isis groups operating on social media during the first eight months of 2015. These groups had a combined total of more than 100,000 members. Researchers also found that pro-Isis individuals who were not in a group – who they dubbed ‘online “lone wolf” actors’ – had either recently been in a group or soon went on to join one.

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There is a much broader point here. Any terrorist, however socially or physically isolated, is still part of a broader movement. The lengthy manifesto that Breivik published hours before he started killing drew heavily on a dense ecosystem of far-right blogs, websites and writers. His ideas on strategy drew directly from the ‘leaderless resistance’ school of Beam and others. Even his musical tastes were shaped by his ideology. He was, for example, a fan of Saga, a Swedish white nationalist singer, whose lyrics include lines about ‘The greatest race to ever walk the earth … betrayed’.

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It is little different for Islamic militants, who emerge as often from the fertile and desperately depressing world of online jihadism – with its execution videos, mythologised history, selectively read religious texts and Photoshopped pictures of alleged atrocities against Muslims – as from organised groups that meet in person.

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Bad hombres
Richard King, Sydney Review of Books, 23 March 2017

There is no doubt Trump is a disaster. His presidential campaign raised a stench to compare with the racism of George Wallace and the anti-Semitism of America First. He is a graceless, misogynistic creep. But there is a pronounced strain of smugness in the liberal reaction to Trump, to be found not just in the ostentatious despair of high-profile liberals like Aaron Sorkin, whose post-election ‘letter’ to his children was mawkish even by his standards, but in the characterisation of the people who voted for him as either irretrievably dumb, or racist, or both. There was more than a hint of this even in the primaries, with the Huffington Post relegating its coverage of Trump to the entertainment section of its site. Now you hear it in the superior talk of the ‘Trumpenproletariat’ and in the assumption that Trump’s campaign was founded solidly on racism and not on low wages and economic inequality. (Paul Auster’s interview with the BBC’s Newsnight is the perfect distillation of this mindset. Above all, you hear it in the description of Trump voters as resentful and hate-filled – adjectives that place them beyond (or below) reason, and thus remove the responsibility to engage them in reasoned debate. (Auster: ‘I can’t listen to what the rightwing says. I go nuts.’)

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The whole ‘post-truth’ shtick – though not without some basis in reality – is an aspect of this moral framing, the reflexive response of a knowledge class increasingly blind to its own assumptions, convinced that its values are universal and right. But where have those values led in the past, a Trump voter could be forgiven for asking. Yes, it’s ironic, not to say tragic, that voters who claim to be against the system would put their faith in a billionaire who’s done better out of that system than most. (‘I’ll create jobs’ says the guy whose catchphrase was, until quite recently, ‘You’re fired!’) But is it any more ironic than expecting deliverance from an entitled, secretive, milquetoast neoliberal whose principal political ally is as responsible as anyone for the mess that has propelled that billionaire towards the White House? Just in case anyone needs reminding, it was one William Jefferson Clinton who ripped up much of what was left of the safety net installed by Franklin D. Roosevelt, who passed more deregulation legislation into law than any Republican would ever dare, who condemned countless young black men to jail in order to look tough on crime – who helped to create the very swamp that The Donald now proposes to drain. And it was Hillary Rodham Clinton who backed him up every time.

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The general and the refugee
Eric Reidy, The New Republic, 26 March 2017

Berhe’s arrest – and the refusal of authorities to admit they got the wrong man underscores the fundamental problem with Europe’s crackdown on undocumented migration. Immigration is being treated as a crime to be prevented rather than a humanitarian crisis to be resolved. But the emphasis on law enforcement only serves to deepen the inequities and repression that are spurring millions to flee their homelands and seek asylum in Europe. Instead of providing as afe haven to people fleeing brutal dictatorships, European governments have partnered with those very same dictatorships – exacerbating the rooot causes of the mass migration from Africa to Europe and forcing desperate people into the hands of smugglers…

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In effect Italy is attempting to wall off the Mediterranean, stopping as many refugees as possible from getting out of Africa and the Middle east and shipping back the few who do make it. The rest of the European Union is following suit. The EU recently secured the right to return an unlimited number of refugees to Afghanistan, and it is pursuing similar ‘repatriation agreements’ with countries across Africa and South Asia. What’s more, at least seven European countries have begun building or completed border walls and fences to close down migration routes.

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‘Europe can, at the moment, say nothing to Mr Trump about the wall with Mexico’, says Michelle Calantropo, a Sicilian attorney representing Berhe in court. ‘Europe did the same thing.’

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The academic home of Trumpism
Jon Baskin, Chronicle of Higher Education, 17 March 2017

Both Anton and Kesler identify themselves as ‘West Coast Straussians’, which means they sit on one branch of a family tree whose trunk is Leo Strauss. Strauss, who emigrated to America in 1937, teaching first at the New School for Social Research and then at the University of Chicago (near the end of his career, he taught briefly at Claremont), was known for his painstaking interpretations of the great works of the Western tradition. A student of Heidegger’s and an early admirer of Nietzsche, he ultimately sought to address the ‘crisis’ he believed had been provoked by modern philosophy’s turn away from the animating sources of Western morality: classical philosophy and biblical religion. Although Strauss’s ‘esoteric’ writing style made him mysterious to some outsiders — the Cambridge philosopher Myles Burnyeat called him the ‘Sphinx without a secret’ — his ideas inspired many devoted students, some of whom split after his death, in 1973, over how to apply them to the American context.

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The ‘East Coast’ school, of which Allan Bloom, author of The Closing of the American Mind (1987), was the most prominent representative, read Strauss as having endorsed America’s liberal democracy for being built on the ‘low but solid ground’ of Lockean political philosophy. The founding fathers, according to this perspective, had done the best they could given the foreshortened moral horizon of modernity: the American Republic provided peace and security, but it was insensible to what Strauss believed the ancients, particularly Plato and Aristotle, had identified as true virtue or excellence.

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Much has been made over the years about the East Coast Straussians’ infiltration of the neoconservative foreign-policy establishment, but the two most credible suspects, the Weekly Standard editor Bill Kristol and the former deputy secretary of defense Paul Wolfowitz, have never connected Strauss’s ideas to their advocacy of spreading democracy abroad. Concentrated in places like St. John’s College in Maryland and the University of Chicago’s Committee on Social Thought, East Coasters have more commonly maintained a scholarly distance from day-to-day political combat, preferring, as Strauss did, to affect society through a long-term commitment to education. When they have drawn on Straussian concepts in their public statements, as some did in opposition to Trump’s candidacy, it has usually been in defense of institutions and norms — like freedom of religion or the ‘gentlemanly’ politician — that they believe keep America on its modest but stable footing.

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Museum time
Diana Muir Applebaum, New Rambler, 27 March 2017

Unfortunately, overall and despite the riches on offer, the 19th and 20th century history galleries are the museum’s least captivating because the narrative lacks context. There are compelling displays on individual incidents and abolitionists, but no sections about the ideal of human equality that emerged from the Reformation and Enlightenment. Abolitionists simply appear after the Middle Passage and before the Civil War, as naturally as summer follows spring. By describing American slavery and American racism as unique while presenting abolition and racial equality as natural, the NMAAHC gets history backwards. And it cheats us of experiencing the great battle of ideas in which a handful of idealists overturned ancient human ideas about the racial other, and about the right of one human being to own another.

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The history of the black experience in America is told as a story of enormous pain, gross injustice, and ultimate triumph, with the darkest parts of our national past in a series of underground galleries where visitors walk upwards through slavery and into our bitter national record of hard-won steps towards equality brutally beaten back.

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Unsurprisingly in a nation still struggling with race, some aspects of the past are too hot to handle. The brutal reality of sharecropping is shown in all its horror. Segregated lunch counters are recreated dramatically. The murder of Emmett Till moves visitors to tears; it is located in a special room created as an Emmett Till Memorial. All of which makes it a pity that the curators felt compelled to portray a Nation of Islam without racial supremacism and a Black Panther Party that does not commit violence.

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The age of offence
Ira Wells, Literary Review of Canada, April 2017

One prominent way of conceptualizing the link between the offence-taking culture of microaggression and the offence-giving culture of macro­aggression, in the days after Trump’s victory, was to blame the latter on the former. This is essentially Mark Lilla’s approach in ‘The End of Identity Liberalism’, an essay for the New York Times in which Lilla, a humanities professor, argues that “campus diversity consciousness” had percolated down through the liberal media into every facet of American politics. To understand their own complicity in the creation of Trumpism, Lilla claims, campus liberals need to recognize the ways in which ‘their own obsession with diversity has encouraged white, rural, religious Americans to think of themselves as a disadvantaged group whose identity is being threatened or ignored’. The vitriol of such voters, who live in predominantly white enclaves, is less a rejection of ‘real’ diversity than it is a repudiation of the ‘omnipresent rhetoric of identity’ whose principal origin is the university campus.

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Lilla’s assessment of Trump­ism overemphasizes the power of campus diversity consciousness and radically underestimates the role of the so-called alt-right media in actively stoking race and gender-based hatred. He gives short shrift indeed to the progressive social outcomes that have resulted from this ‘consciousness’. But Lilla is correct to push us to think about the actual political consequences of our intentions. One of the great rhetorical achievements of our time has been the right-wing media’s ability to bamboozle vast swaths of people into accepting that the recognition of minority rights is actually part of an ‘elite’ political agenda: Muslim, African American and LGBTQ communities (among other beneficiaries of ‘diversity consciousness’) become manifestations of the cultural elite, and are therefore worthy of skepticism and contempt (if not deportation). In this populist perversion of reality, the university plays a vital rhetorical role in transforming the most disadvantaged communities into the most advantaged, the most downtrodden into the most privileged.

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In short, the rhetoric of diversity consciousness has been weaponized in a campaign to subvert the political agenda for which it was originally fashioned. Nowhere is that clearer than in the word ‘diversity’ itself, a once vaguely progressive sounding (and now meaningless) word that has been appropriated by the full spectrum of political (and corporate) operators.

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A poet’s letter to Derek Walcott
Colette Sensor, New Statesman, 18 March 2017

Perhaps every poem is as creole as a human, gathering in everything seen and felt, and becoming something not stable enough to be copied. Or perhaps I loved Omeros’ swelling waves because I was falling in love with London’s créolité and yearning for my mother’s creole country at the same time. You championed créolité, working against the British fantasy of benign empire and Aimé Césaire’s négritude to insist that your island was its own place, not a displaced Africa or Europe – and that being one of the first to write it was a privilege, not a lack.

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Since 1992, St Lucia has the greatest number of Nobel winners per capita: two. Sir Arthur Lewis created economic development plans for former colonies; you ran theatre companies, insisted on your right to English and French and Creole and anything else you knew, and with a small band of peers created written Caribbean literature, and with it the 20th century. You were the Crusoe of your long poem ‘Crusoe’s Journal’, sitting on an island and naming things until they were yours.

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You also told us, in Crusoe’s voice, that ‘to change your language you must change your life.’

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Daniel Dennett’s science of the soul
Joshua Rothman, New Yorker, 27 March 2017

The materialist world view is often associated with despair. In Anna Karenina, Konstantin Levin, the novel’s hero, stares into the night sky, reflects upon his brief, bubblelike existence in an infinite and indifferent universe, and contemplates suicide. For Dennett, however, materialism is spiritually satisfying. In a 1995 book called Darwin’s Dangerous Idea he asks, ‘How long did it take Johann Sebastian Bach to create the ‘St. Matthew Passion’?’ Bach, he notes, had to live for forty-two years before he could begin writing it, and he drew on two thousand years of Christianity – indeed, on all of human culture. The subsystems of his mind had been evolving for even longer; creating Homo sapiens, Dennett writes, required ‘billions of years of irreplaceable design work’ – performed not by God, of course, but by natural selection.

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‘Darwin’s dangerous idea’, Dennett writes, is that Bach’s music, Christianity, human culture, the human mind, and Homo sapiens ‘all exist as fruits of a single tree, the Tree of Life’, which ‘created itself, not in a miraculous, instantaneous whoosh, but slowly, slowly’. He asks, ‘Is this Tree of Life a God one could worship? Pray to? Fear? Probably not.’ But, he says, it is ‘greater than anything any of us will ever conceive of in detail worthy of its detail. . . . I could not pray to it, but I can stand in affirmation of its magnificence. This world is sacred.’

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Is free speech good for Muslims?
Mustafa Akyol, New York Times, 27 March 2017

I recently watched a curious debate that took place in 2015 at the Free Press Society of Denmark. On one side was Geert Wilders, the far-right Dutch politician and anti-Islam campaigner whose ascendance to power was, I’m happy to say, checked by the elections in the Netherlands this month. On the other side was Flemming Rose, the journalist who angered many Muslims in 2005 by publishing cartoons depicting the Prophet Muhammad in the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten.

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The crux of the debate was what to do with Muslims and Islam in Europe. Mr. Wilders argued that the Quran must be banned and mosques must be shut down. Mr. Rose, in contrast, explained that this view is unacceptably authoritarian, and Muslims deserve freedom like everyone else. ‘You cannot deny Muslims the right to build a mosque or to establish faith-based schools’, he said, simply because some Europeans find them offensive.

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Most Muslims watching this debate would probably sympathize with Mr. Rose, thinking he was defending them. Mr. Rose, however, was merely defending a liberal principle: freedom for all. It was the very principle that led him to publish the cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad — cartoons seen by many Muslims, including me, as offensive.

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Title bouts
Charlotte Shane, Bookforum, April/May 2017

Kipnis is disturbed by the strain of feminist campus activism that (like anti-porn feminism before it) seems eager to join forces with the government and the university to achieve its aims. It wasn’t always thus. She brags that her own generation wanted to ‘overthrow everything, especially the fucking administration’—and yes, that wordplay is probably intentional. College students are notoriously desperate to be free of supervision. So what motivates some to invite new authority figures into their lives just when they’ve finally gotten free of their parents? Kipnis believes it’s hysteria, spawned by the faux-feminist insistence that we are in an ongoing sexual crisis and that the consequences of even a mildly unpleasant or ambivalent sexual experience may be both dire and permanent. College women are encouraged to believe that ‘sex takes something away from you’, and that ‘you can catch trauma, which, like a virus, never goes away’. These bleak convictions are self-reinforcing. The more endangered you feel, the more responsibility you’re willing to forfeit. The more responsibility you forfeit, the less control you assume and the more fragile you feel. ‘If the prevailing story is that sex is dangerous’, Kipnis reasons, ‘sex is going to feel threatening more of the time.’

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Trials and errors
Brandon L Garrett, The Baffler, No 34, 2017

There is a national epidemic of overstated forensic testimony, with a steady stream of criminal convictions being overturned as the shoddiness of decades’ worth of physical evidence comes to light. The true scope of the problem is only now coming into focus. Following several DNA exonerations in cases in which FBI examiners had made strong conclusions about hair comparisons, bureau officials agreed to review approximately 2,500 cases from the 1970s through the 1990s. The FBI’s 2015 report on these cases concluded that examiners made erroneous statements in at least 90 percent of trials examined, including 33 death-penalty cases. Some states are also reviewing the testimony of their examiners in hair comparison cases. Texas is reviewing convictions stemming from dubious bite-mark testimony. Still other labs across the country are auditing cases because examiners made errors or fabricated evidence outright.

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Dozens of forensic labs have been shut down in the wake of scandal. Scores more have endured audits of casework, or had examiners fired for mishandling forensics. Some labs, like the Houston Forensic Science Center, have emerged much stronger, operating under independent scientific oversight and new quality controls. Others have made few changes and have endured repeated scandals. A 2009 report by the National Academy of Sciences concluded that much of the forensic evidence used in criminal trials is ‘without any meaningful scientific validation’. Little has changed in the science since then, and although substantial research is in the works, most of that material is still not ready for use in actual forensic casework. Indeed, the paucity of hard science in the forensics field is why the White House report forcefully called for an immediate halt to the use of unreliable forensics.

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Aung San Suu Kyi: Myanmar’s great hope
fails to live up to expectations
Poppy McPherson, Guardian, 31 March 2017

Now, a year since one of the world’s most famous prisoners of conscience came to power in the specially created position of state counsellor, the talk is not of progress. Instead, it is of drastically escalating ethnic conflicts that have simmered and sporadically exploded for decades; a new Rohingya Muslim insurgency that has prompted an army crackdown some say may amount to crimes against humanity; a rash of online defamation cases that have fostered a panic over freedom of speech; and a repressive legal framework that allowed the generals to jail so many still being in place. And all the while, Aung San Suu Kyi is accused of remaining mostly silent, doggedly avoiding the media.

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Interviews by the Guardian with more than a dozen diplomats, analysts and current and former advisers reveal frustrations with a top-down government struggling to cope with immense challenges. Aung San Suu Kyi’s questionable leadership style, her inability or unwillingness to communicate a vision, and her reluctance to speak out against the persecution of minorities have raised the question of whether the popular narrative is misplaced. And although some defend her, saying it takes time to right the wrongs of decades, others see a fundamental misunderstanding of the woman herself. ‘Many of the people who led the campaign [to free Aung San Suu Kyi] … were more on the liberal side of the spectrum’, one diplomat put it. ‘I think she’s closer to a Margaret Thatcher’.

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Expanding the slaveocracy
Matt Karp & Eric Foner, Jacobin, 21 March 2017

Eric Foner: I’m wondering how you think your study, which is a study of slaveowners and their vision of America as a great power in the world, fits into the ongoing debates about slavery and capitalism nowadays?

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Matt Karp: The book joins a whole series of works that explore the slave South in a transnational sense. That’s another fashionable aspect: reemphasizing the dynamism and brutality of antebellum slavery. A lot of previous scholars — for instance, Robert Fogel and Stanley Engerman — made the argument that slavery was capitalistic because slaves had the Protestant work ethic and were well-treated and so on.

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The direction of modern scholarship also emphasizes slavery as a foundational element in global capitalism and American capitalism, but precisely in the opposite direction. Its brutality, for someone like Ed Baptist or Walter Johnson, is the source of its dynamism. I think it’s right to put my book in conversation with those books. In a way, though, my arguments are more modest about the place of slavery in global capitalism. I’m not so interested in the deep historiographical terms — asking ‘was slavery capitalist?’ — but how slaveholders understood this institution, and how their understanding shaped the political decisions that led to the Civil War, or in some sense shaped foreign policy.

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To an extent much greater than a lot of scholars have realized, they really did see slavery not simply as the kind of paternal, organically constructed institution that provided security from the tumult of modern life or wage labor society — but also as an incredibly dynamic, world-making, productive institution that was very compatible with the modern world.

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After 130 years, the dinosaur family tree gets dramatically redrawn
Ed Yong, Atlantic, 22 March 2017

When I first read Matthew Baron’s new dinosaur study, I actually gasped.

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For most of my life, I’ve believed that the dinosaurs fell into two major groups: the lizard-hipped saurischians, which included the meat-eating theropods like Tyrannosaurus and long-necked sauropodomorphs like Brontosaurus; and the bird-hipped ornithischians, which included horned species like Triceratops and armored ones like Stegosaurus. That’s how dinosaurs have been divided since 1887. It’s what I learned as a kid. It’s what all the textbooks and museums have always said. And according to Baron, a PhD student at the University of Cambridge, it’s wrong.

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By thoroughly comparing 74 early dinosaurs and their relatives, Baron has radically redrawn the two major branches of the dinosaur family tree. Defying 130 years of accepted dogma, he splits the saurischians apart, leaving the sauropods in one branch, and placing the theropods with the ornthischians on the other. Put it this way: This is like someone telling you that neither cats nor dogs are what you thought they were, and some of the animals you call ‘cats’ are actually dogs.

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‘A form of punishment’: Colin Kaepernick
and the history of blackballing in sports
Jack Moore, Guardian, 22 March 2017

Colin Kaepernick, meanwhile, remains unsigned despite a track record that far outpaces any of the above-mentioned signal-callers. According to Pro-Football-Reference.com, Kaepernick was an above-average quarterback by both QB rating and adjusted yards per passing attempt in 2016, and he also added a strong 468 yards on 6.8 yards per carry with his speed. Spotrac, which tracks major professional sports contracts and transactions, analyzed Kaepernick and found that similar players had signed contracts with an average salary of $14.75m and a duration of 2.5 years. Looking at those comparable players and Kaepernick’s statistics over his career, SpoTrac calculated Kaepernick’s market value as worth $14,226,196 for a one-year contract. And yet, it has been the Mike Glennons and Brian Hoyers of the world finding the money at quarterback this offseason.

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The key difference, of course, is that neither Glennon nor Hoyer nor any of the other white quarterbacks to sign contracts this offseason have spoken out against the injustices of police brutality like Kaepernick did with his protests of the national anthem this past season. Suspicions that teams were blacklisting Kaepernick were confirmed this past week when Mike Freeman, Bleacher Report’s lead NFL writer, reported that roughly 70% of NFL teams are unwilling to sign Kaepernick not because they don’t believe he can play, but as punishment for expressing his political beliefs.

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‘The rest genuinely hate him and can’t stand what he did’, an anonymous AFC general manager told Freeman. ‘They want nothing to do with him. They won’t move on. They think showing no interest is a form of punishment. I think some teams also want to use Kaepernick as a cautionary tale to stop other players in the future from doing what he did.’

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Why it’s become so hard to get an abortion
Margaret Talbot, New Yorker, 3 April 2017

One reason we’ve reached this point is that pro-life activists have proved to be so tenacious, and have made smart use of new technology (those ubiquitous sonograms), and another is that legislators have turned out to have a heartier appetite for shaming and policing women than some of us might have reckoned. Yet another reason, Sanger argues, is that the personal experience of abortion, for all its political prominence, isn’t discussed much. More than fifty million abortions have been performed in the U.S. since 1973, but many of us have no idea who among our friends has had one. The fact that abortions often take place in specialized clinics set apart from ‘regular’ doctors, or, in the case of the abortion pill, privately, at home, makes the practice feel covert. But, when people are more open about experiences that were once hush-hush, the political impact can be very real: gay people coming out to friends and family made it harder to oppose same-sex marriage, for instance.

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Sanger distinguishes between privacy, which we often choose, and usually makes us feel more autonomous, and secrecy, which is often imposed on us and can make us feel oppressed. Abortion in the United States belongs more to the realm of secrecy, she maintains, than to that of privacy. Revealing it can have very practical consequences—she cites custody and criminal cases in which a woman’s past abortion has been introduced as evidence of poor character.

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What’s left?
Sheila Fitzpatrick, London Review of Books, 30 March 2017

The end points people choose for their histories of revolution reveal a lot about their assumptions of what it was ‘really about’. Rapallo is, appropriately, the end point for McMeekin. For Miéville it’s October 1917 (revolution triumphant), for Steinberg 1921 (not so much victory in the Civil War, as you might expect, as an open end with revolutionary business unfinished), and for Smith 1928. The last is an awkward choice in terms of narrative drama, as it means that Smith’s book ends with two whole chapters on the 1920s, when revolution was on hold under the New Economic Policy, a retreat from the maximalist aims of the Civil War period made necessary by economic collapse. It’s true, something like NEP might have been the outcome of the Russian Revolution, but it actually wasn’t, because Stalin came along. While the two chapters on NEP, like the rest of the book, are thoughtful and well-researched, as a finale it’s more of a whimper than a bang.

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This brings us to another highly contentious issue in Soviet history: whether there was essential continuity from the Russian/Lenin Revolution to Stalin, or a basic disruption between them occurring around 1928. My Russian Revolution includes Stalin’s ‘revolution from above’ of the early 1930s, as well as his Great Purges at the end of the decade, but that is unacceptable to many anti-Stalinist Marxists. (Not surprisingly, Miéville’s annotated bibliography finds it ‘useful … though unconvincingly wedded to an “inevitabilist” Lenin-leads-to-Stalin perspective’.) Smith’s cohort of 1917 social historians generally felt much like Miéville, partly because they were intent on defending the revolution from the taint of Stalinism; but in this book, as on many issues, Smith declines to take a categorical position. Stalin certainly thought of himself as a Leninist, he points out, but on the other hand Lenin, had he lived, would probably not have been so crudely violent. Stalin’s ‘Great Break’ of 1928-31 ‘fully merits the term ‘revolution’, since it changed the economy, social relations and cultural patterns more profoundly than the October Revolution had done’ and moreover demonstrated that ‘revolutionary energies’ were not yet exhausted. Still, from Smith’s standpoint it’s an epilogue, not an intrinsic part of the Russian Revolution.

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Do outsiders have legal rights?
Adam Hosein, Boston Review, 15 March 2017

The ban raises a fundamental moral question that has recurred throughout U.S. history: what rights, if any, do people considered outsiders have? Outsider status has been associated with at least three groups of people. First, there are people who lack citizenship or some other kind of formal legal status, such as permanent residence. Second, there are those who fall outside of the majority’s conception of itself as a nation, for reasons varying from racial and ethnic to cultural and political. And third, there are those who are considered outsiders by virtue of their location outside of the territorial boundaries of the United States (boundaries that have also been conceived differently over time, as seen, for instance, in the varying treatment of Puerto Rico and its occupants).

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The targets of Trump’s revised order are outsiders in all of these senses. They are not citizens, nor are they permanent residents or people with preexisting legal entitlement to be in the United States. They are considered (by many) to be outside of the national community, whether because of their race, national origin, religion, or culture. And they live outside of the territorial borders of the United States, seeking to gain entry.

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Do these people have rights against the United States government, including rights against arbitrary treatment and discrimination in immigration policy? Defenders of the ban say no, adding that insiders have the right to advance their interests as a group however they see fit. To assert the rights of outsiders is to put unacceptable limits on the sovereign nation to act on behalf of its people.

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The Red emigrant
Bruce Robbins, The Nation, 30 March 2017

Unlike more mainstream critics of Soviet Russia, Deutscher was not a liberal. He was committed to democracy, and his objections to the Soviet regime overlapped in places with the standard liberal objections, but one of the things he appreciated in Trotsky was the latter’s firm belief that, despite Russia’s social and economic backwardness, the Russian revolutionaries of 1917 should not aim for a liberal government that would leave private property untouched. Instead, as Trotsky argued, he believed that the revolution could leap over the constitutional stage, seeking to satisfy the material demands of workers and peasants. Of course, no one reflecting on what would ultimately happen to the revolution under Stalin is likely to conclude that this question has been resolved in Trotsky’s favor. Was Russia too backward to skip liberal capitalism? And, more to the point, would a constitutional system that protected bourgeois rights have created the necessary impediments to the terror that followed once Stalin secured power? Trotsky himself was to change his mind on these issues, and to Deutscher’s credit, he didn’t pretend that he possessed a higher or privileged knowledge.

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Deutscher’s open questions about the subsequent course of the Russian Revolution—a revolution he never entirely gave up on—also help explain his extraordinary moral generosity, what one might even call the Tolstoyan quality of his historical writing. Strident advocacy was something that Deutscher just could not seem to pull off. Every sentence he wrote as a historian bore some mark, however faint, of ongoing self-disputation.

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Traps for the unwary
Gabriel Josipovici, Times Literary Supplement, 29 March 2017

But it is not simply the detail Koerner seems able to inhabit and animate. It is the whole picture. His words take us on a journey with him into a world richer and more complex than we could ever have grasped for ourselves. In Bruegel’s ‘The Peasant and the Bird Thief’ (1568), an exploration of which opens the book, a peasant strides towards us. ‘This is an art-historical first’, Koerner tells us. ‘No painting before had ever invaded our space as frontally as this.’ As he advances he gestures over his shoulder and, following his arm, we see a boy in a tree stealing eggs from a bird’s nest. Our surprise on discovering this, Koerner reminds us, is as nothing to the surprise of the birds. And he notes that the thief’s falling hat ‘animates the catastrophe. Setting the painting’s tempo, it indicates that the ‘now’ we sluggishly grasp unfolds rapidly, as do other events that will in the next instant occur.’ We note now that between us and the striding peasant is a stream, into which, busy as he is showing us the bird-thief, he is quite likely to fall. And we too, if we thought we were safely looking at a scene as in the theatre, find ourselves implicated, for there at our feet, is the stream and one false step will also land us in it.

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Bruegel, Koerner keeps reiterating, loves to set traps, traps for the unwary in his pictures, and traps for viewers who imagine they are immune. That is why attempts to distance ourselves from these paintings fail to do justice to Bruegel’s art and humanity. For these traps are there (as they are, I would add, in his contemporary Rabelais) not to get one over on us but rather to get us to expand our horizons, to see how limited is the way we normally see the world.