Pandaemonium

PLUCKED FROM THE WEB #23

web

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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Goodbye Pepe
Angela Nagle, The Baffler, 15 August 2017

At a tragic moment like this, few will want to take a step back and ask the genuinely difficult questions. What is it about the alt-right that has captured the imagination of so many young people and at least intrigued a great many more? And if it is true that the committed alt-right becomes more isolated but more militant, what will become of all those young people—especially the young men, who have been radicalized by the alt-right’s ideas and never convinced otherwise? What will be the real-world consequences of forcing such figures out of their semi-ironic anonymous online fantasyland, and potentially thrusting them into a toxic flirtation with violent offline tactics?

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Characters like Richard Spencer and online figures like Millennial Woes had appeal for a significant reason. They spoke the language of the end of history and restarting history again. They evoked the meaninglessness of modern western life, the vacuousness of our atomized nihilistic consumer culture and denounced a society that stands for nothing and believes in nothing. Spencer’s rousing speeches promised the pride and dignity of identity, the epic story of ancient ancestry and a future of beauty and a Promethean spirit of limitless possibilities, in a world of strip malls and strangers and diminishing life expectations. The passion that this movement has stirred in young people, young men in the main, came from something real—the desire to belong to something bigger than the individual and to a story longer than the span of one individual, solitary life.

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Read the full article in The Baffler


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The misguided attacks on the ACLU for defending neo-Nazis free speech rights in Charlottesville
Glenn Greenwald, The Intercept, 14 August 2017

Last week, the ACLU sparked controversy when it announced that it was defending the free speech rights of ‘alt-right’ activist Milo Yiannopoulos after the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority refused to allow ads for his book to be displayed on public transit. Lost in the debate was that other groups the ACLU was defending along with Yiannopoulos were also censored under the same rule: Carafem, which helps women access birth control and medical abortion; the animal rights group PETA; and the ACLU itself.

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For representing Yiannopoulos, the civil liberties group was widely accused of defending and enabling fascism. But the ACLU wasn’t “defending Yiannopoulos” as much as it was opposing a rule that allows state censorship of any controversial political messages the state wishes to suppress: a rule that is often applied to groups which are supported by many who attacked the ACLU here.

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The same formula was applied yesterday when people learned that the ACLU of Virginia had represented the white supremacist protesters in Charlottesville after city officials tried to ban the group from gathering in Emancipation Park where a statue of Robert E. Lee was to be removed (city officials tried to move the march to an isolated location one mile away). One board member of the ACLU of Virginia, Waldo Jaquith, waited until the violence erupted to announce on Twitter that he was resigning in protest of the ACLU’s representation of the protesters — as though he was unaware when he joined the board that the ACLU has been representing the free speech rights of neo-Nazis and other white supremacist groups (along with communists, Muslims, war protesters, and the full spectrum of marginalized minorities and leftists) for many decades.

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Many attacked the ACLU’s decision to represent Yiannopoulos and these Charlottesville protests as though they were allies of the marchers, while others literally accused them of enabling fascism or even blamed them for the violence…

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The flaws and dangers in this anti-free speech mindset are manifest, but nonetheless always worth highlighting, especially when horrific violence causes people to want to abridge civil liberties in the name of stopping it. In sum, purporting to oppose fascism by allowing the state to ban views it opposes is like purporting to oppose human rights abuses by mandating the torture of all prisoners.

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Read the fill article in The Intercept.


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No apologies
Maryam Namazie, Sisterhood, 27 June 2017

This is my letter to you.

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Not you, the Islamist, who wants me silent or dead whilst dreaming of your vile caliphate, nor you, the racist, who wants my Muslim and migrant family out whilst dreaming of your contemptible white, Christian Europe. To me, you are two sides of the same coin.

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This is my letter to you who I should consider a friend, an ally, but who refuses to make a stand with me. You: the progressive, the anti-racist, the supposed defender of human rights.

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How come your defence of freedom of conscience and expression never includes my right to reject and criticise Islam?

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You exclude, bar, ban, blame and shame me – or at the very least – remain silent, simply because of who I am: an ex-Muslim, an atheist, a critic of Islam.

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Of course, you have a right to your silence.

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You are not responsible for my persecution. Only those who threaten, kill and harm freethinkers in countries and communities under Islamist control are directly responsible; justice, after all, can never be about placing collective blame.

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But I do accuse.

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I accuse you of blaming me and never the perpetrators.

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They always seem to have some ‘legitimate’ grievance or ‘hurt’ sensibility that justifies their incitement to violence or mass murder.

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I, on the other hand, am always at fault.

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Read the full article in Sisterhood.


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The Yemen primer:
A history of violence for anti-violence
Bilal Zenab Ahmed, Viewpoint Magazine,
July 25, 2017

It is impor­tant to begin by putting the con­flict into per­spec­tive, by engag­ing with Yemen’s com­plex his­to­ry, par­tic­u­lar­ly as it relates to rev­o­lu­tion­ary pol­i­tics, as well the ori­gins of its present cri­sis. Far too often, Yemen is crude­ly dis­cussed as a back­wa­ter nation, notable only for the pres­ence of AQAP and Islam­ic State. In such a ren­der­ing the pres­ence of Islam­ic mil­i­tants explains US mil­i­tary oper­a­tions in Yemen, and its cur­rent ‘law­less­ness’ is seen to be a lab­o­ra­to­ry for new impe­ri­al­ist counter-insur­gency tac­tics. These are impor­tant and not with­out some truth, but Yemen is also a coun­try that boasts a remark­able lega­cy of rev­o­lu­tion­ary left­ist move­ments.

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Unlike the ori­en­tal tropes, Yemeni pol­i­tics is a remark­able spec­trum of dif­fer­ent actors, includ­ing Marx­ist-Lenin­ists, Nasserists, lib­er­al reform­ers that seek greater eco­nom­ic devel­op­ment, trib­al con­fed­er­a­tions that com­prise a host of region­al and sec­tar­i­an iden­ti­ties, dic­ta­to­r­i­al gen­er­als that work with Sau­di Ara­bia and the Unit­ed States, and ter­ror­ist groups like AQAP, who, at dif­fer­ent times, will either seek to work with or over­throw any of the above. A full view of the nation’s his­to­ry and pol­i­tics chal­lenges easy nar­ra­tives of what a poor Mus­lim-major­i­ty post­colo­nial state is ‘sup­posed to look like.’

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Such a study is not mere­ly aca­d­e­m­ic or even local in its appli­ca­tion. Yemen is a win­dow into the com­bined elite strate­gies of balka­niza­tion and mil­i­ta­riza­tion of social strug­gle in the Mideast, North Africa, and South Asia, impart­ing lessons with a more gen­er­al pur­chase.  What’s more, recall­ing this recent his­to­ry can impart key lessons from the fail­ure of Yemen’s recent demo­c­ra­t­ic move­ments to fill the pow­er vac­u­um that emerged in their wake, while the demo­bi­liza­tion of eman­ci­pa­to­ry move­ments high­lights the prac­tices that might com­prise an effec­tive anti-impe­ri­al­ist and anti-war move­ment in the Unit­ed States today.

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Read the full article in Viewpoint Magazine.


mf husain indian festivals

Partition, 70 years on: Salman Rushdie,
Kamila Shamsie and other writers reflect
Guardian, 5 August 2017

To think about partition on its 70th anniversary is to think, unavoidably, about the extraordinary crisis in India today. The 50th and 60th anniversaries of one of the 20th century’s biggest calamities were leavened with the possibility that India, liberal-democratic, secular and energetically globalising, was finally achieving the greatness its famous leaders had promised. In contrast to India’s grand and imminent tryst with destiny, Pakistan’s fate seemed to be obsessive self-harm.

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The celebrations of a ‘rising’ India were not much muted in 1997 and 2007, even as hands were dutifully wrung about the imperialist skulduggery and savage ethnic cleansing that founded the nation states of India and Pakistan, defined their self-images and condemned them to permanent internal and external conflict. Today, as the portrait of a co-conspirator in the assassination of Mahatma Gandhi hangs in the Indian parliament, it is the scale and ferocity of India’s mutation that haunts our thoughts.

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Read the full article in the Guardian.


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Planet of cops
Freddie de Boer, Medium, 17 May 2017

The woke world is a world of snitches, informants, rats. Go to any space concerned with social justice and what will you find? Endless surveillance. Everybody is to be judged. Everyone is under suspicion. Everything you say is to be scoured, picked over, analyzed for any possible offense. Everyone’s a detective in the Division of Problematics, and they walk the beat 24/7. You search and search for someone Bad doing Bad Things, finding ways to indict writers and artists and ordinary people for something, anything. That movie that got popular? Give me a few hours and 800 words. I’ll get you your indictments. That’s what liberalism is, now  - the search for baddies doing bad things, like little offense archaeologists, digging deeper and deeper to find out who’s Good and who’s Bad. I wonder why people run away from establishment progressivism in droves.

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I read about the PWR BTTM accusations. They’re disturbing. I take them seriously. But these guys have had their careers erased overnight, and the idea that we have any responsibility to give them the chance to defend themselves is treated like you took part in their alleged crimes. You simply cannot say, in polite society, ‘basic fairness requires us to avoid a rush to judgment and to give people the right to respond to accusations.’ To do so gets you lumped in with the criminals. Like a friend of mine said, ‘the only acceptable reaction to an accusation is enthusiastic and unqualified acceptance.’ I don’t know how people can simultaneously talk about prison abolition and restoring the idea of forgiveness to literal criminal justice and at the same time turn the entire social world into a kangaroo court system.Like I wrote once, we can’t simultaneously be a movement based on rehabilitation and restorative justice AND a viciously judgmental moral aristocracy. You know who thinks everybody’s guilty until proven innocent? Cops. You know who thinks people don’t deserve the right to defend themselves? Cops. You know who says those who defend basic fairness and due process are as bad as criminals themselves? Cops.

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Read the full article in Medium.


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Signifiers: Populism
Wilfred M McClay, Hedgehog Review, Summer 2017

Scholars have not always been the most objective students of populism, partly because their own interests are at stake, scholarship and expertise being so often numbered among the chief targets of populist abuse. Accordingly, scholars find populism to be too prone to ignorance, anti-intellectualism, and demagogy, and too vulnerable to capture by racial and ethnic and tribal bigotries, to serve as an authentic engine of positive social change. The influential historian Richard Hofstadter, fortified by the highly questionable social science of Theodor Adorno and others, saw authoritarian personalities and anti-intellectual tendencies bristling nearly everywhere in the America west of the Hudson River, tendencies that were the expression, not of a genuinely aggrieved outlook that deserved a hearing, but of social resentment (‘status anxiety’) or even psychological disorder (‘the paranoid style’).

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This was too dismissive, and Hofstadter’s good friend, the great Southern historian C. Vann Woodward, took him to task for it. In a private letter, he lambasted Hofstadter for the sweepingly dismissive generalizations in his book Anti-Intellectualism in American Life, a work for which he would win a Pulitzer Prize and which is still widely cited as authoritative today: ‘Dick, you just can’t do this,’ Woodward exclaimed. ‘No amount of Adorno, Stouffer, Hartley, etc., will sustain it.’ Woodward himself took a far more balanced view of populism, seeing it, in his still-indispensable 1960 article ‘The Populist Heritage and the Intellectuals,’ as one of the often ugly and unpleasant ways by which a democratic society may attempt to recalibrate itself, and rectify its imbalances. ‘One must expect and even hope that there will be future upheavals to shock the seats of power and privilege and furnish periodic therapy that seems necessary to the health of democracy,’ he wrote, But, he added, there is always danger in such upheavals, for ‘one cannot expect them to be any more decorous or seemly or rational than their predecessors.’

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Read the full article in the Hedgehog Review.


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The new dissent
Andrew Potter, Literary Review of Canada,
July-August 2017

So, for going on 50 years now, rebellious nonconformity masquerading as dissent has been installed as the operating system of the West. And it has without a doubt had a number of beneficial consequences, not least of which is that it has kept things from getting stagnant. Whatever its other effects, the counterculture has proven to be a fantastic mechanism for generating novel forms of culture and technology. In addition, it has made everyone extremely comfortable with most forms of symbolic dissent: we tend not to get too wound up when someone denounces the government or burns a flag or dunks a religious symbol in a jar of urine and calls it art.

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But one major consequence of fetishizing dissent is that we have come to hold abiding concerns over authenticity. One of the fatal indulgences of the counterculture was to deal with the worries over co-optation by becoming increasingly radical, in what amounted to an arms race of dissent, and to see anyone who breaks any rule, for any reason, as engaging in an act of resistance. The result is that we now have trouble distinguishing between the dissenters to whom we need to listen, on the one hand, and the criminals and cranks, the irrational or morally bankrupt on the other. It is symptomatic of the fundamental problem with any general celebration of dissent for its own sake: if you have no way to distinguish ‘good’ dissent from its toxic forms, you are going to have trouble dealing with reactionary or deeply antisocial behaviour.

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Read the full article in the Literary Review of Canada.


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Deprovincializing philosophy
Carlos Frankael, Los Angeles Review of Books, 29 July 2017

There are of course plenty of specialist histories of philosophy in the Islamic world; no other area in the history of philosophy has seen as much progress over the past two decades. In part, this is due to geopolitics. As the West came to look at the Islamic world through the lens of the ‘clash’ of civilizations thesis, seemingly corroborated by terrorist attacks and wars, scholars sharpened their pencils to contest that perception. Far from clashing with the West, many of them argued, Islamic civilization used to be even more enlightened and sophisticated than Europe’s as demonstrated especially in the works of its great medieval philosophers, scientists, and poets. While surveys of this philosophical tradition have become much more reliable and nuanced, they share one fundamental flaw: they are not integrated into the history of philosophy at large. They are either self-standing or billed as ‘world philosophy’ together with Indian, Buddhist, and Chinese thought.

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It makes very little sense, however, to isolate the history of philosophy in the Islamic world or simply to add it to the shelf of the Eastern intellectual traditions. Yet turning it into a chapter of the history of Western philosophy doesn’t seem right either. So where does it fit? A key lesson from Adamson’s overall project is that the conventional notion of ‘Western’ philosophy (where ‘Western’ essentially means ‘European’) is useless — a relic of colonial intellectual cartography. To begin with, it arbitrarily disrupts the historical narrative. After antiquity, the second great period in the history of philosophy unfolded in the Islamic world: from Baghdad to Córdoba — that’s where the action was. Besides, ‘Western’ doesn’t pick out a specific region: geographically speaking, about a third of Adamson’s volume is devoted to European philosophy — that of Andalusia or Muslim Spain.

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Read the full article in the LA Review of Books.


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It will be much harder to call new findings ‘significant’ if this team gets its way
Kelly Servick, Science Magazine, 25 July 2017

The p-value is a notoriously elusive concept for non-statisticians. Too often, it is misinterpreted to be the probability that the hypothesis being tested is true, says Valen Johnson, a statistician Texas A&M University in College Station and an author on the new paper. The reality is more complicated. For a test of a new drug in a clinical trial, for example, a p-value of 0.05 really means the results observed—or even more extreme results—would occur in one in 20 trials if the drug really had no benefit over the current standard of care. But it’s often wrongly described as a 95% chance that the drug actually works.

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To explain to a broader audience how weak the .05 statistical threshold really is, Johnson joined with 71 collaborators on the new paper (which partly reprises an argument Johnson made for stricter p-values in a 2013 paper). Among the authors are some big names in the study of scientific reproducibility, including psychologist Brian Nosek of the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, who led a replication effort of high-profile psychology studies through the nonprofit Center for Open Science, and epidemiologist John Ioannidis of Stanford University in Palo Alto, California, known for pointing out systemic flaws in biomedical research.

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The authors set up a scenario where the odds are one to 10 that any given hypothesis researchers are testing is inherently true—that a drug really has some benefit, for example, or a psychological intervention really changes behavior. (Johnson says that some recent studies in the social sciences support that idea.) If an experiment reveals an effect with an accompanying p-value of .05, that would actually mean that the null hypothesis—no real effect—is about three times more likely than the hypothesis being tested. In other words, the evidence of a true effect is relatively weak.

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But under those same conditions (and assuming studies have 100% power to detect a true effect)—requiring a p-value at or below .005 instead of .05 would make for much stronger evidence: It would reduce the rate of false-positive results from 33% to 5%, the paper explains.

‘The whole choice of .05 as a default is really a kind of numerology—there’s no scientific justification for it,’ says Victor De Gruttola of the Harvard School of Public Health in Boston. The paper ‘exposes that there can be a false sense of security with the .05 default.’ He doubts the results will be news to statisticians, ‘but I think a lot of investigators whose primary focus is not on these kinds of issues may be surprised.’

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Read the full article in Science Magazine.


Life in Roman Britain

Beard vs Taleb:
Scientism and the nature of historical inquiry
Massimo Pigliucci, IaI News, 11 August 2017

Taleb continued: ‘We have a clear idea of genetic distributions hence backward composition; genes better statisticians than historian hearsay bullshit.’

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Setting aside the second use in a row of ‘bullshit,’ Taleb is simply wrong here, and I say this as a population geneticist, and despite his impressive-looking tables of statistical data, which he proceeded to Tweet shortly thereafter. No, we don’t have a ‘clear idea’ of ancient genetic distributions, because we only have DNA data from modern populations, and a lot of assumptions and guesswork has to go to infer ancient population DNA profiles from current ones. That is, genes are not ‘statisticians,’ they are one — important, but limited — piece of information about human history. And one can just as easily bullshit with statistics as one may with ‘anecdotal data.’ (Moreover, historical documents are not anecdotal data, they are individual pieces of evidence. Historical work is very akin to forensic work. Imagine a CSI operative looking at fingerprints clearly linking a suspect to a crime scene, shrugging her shoulders, and tossing them aside on the grounds that they are ‘anecdotal.’)

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Indeed, the very same study referred to by Taleb, conducted at Oxford’s Wellcome Trust Centre for Human Genetics, also shows — again DNA data in hand — the presence of very few Norman genes in the modern British sample. Yet it would be crazy to deny, on that basis, that there was a Norman invasion of Britain (11th century, obviously much later than the Romans). Other explanations are possible without having to invoke alien interference (as Taleb mockingly did in another tweet aimed at Beard), for instance that there was little initial admixture between the invading population and the then resident one, or that further historical events obliterated many of the traces of that admixture. These are well known problems in population genetics, which is why the statistics, by themselves, don’t tell you anything. Careful interpretation, checking of assumptions and, whenever possible, and comparison with independent sources of evidence, must always be carried out…

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The mistake of scientism is to elevate scientific knowledge and data crunching to a level of certainty and competence they most definitely do not have, while at the same time dismissing every other approach as obsolete nonsense. But human knowledge and understanding are not zero sum games. On the contrary, they work best when we expand, rather than artificially or ideologically limit, our methods and sources of evidence. The scientistic game is foolish not just because it is incoherent (what statistical, empirical evidence do we have that scientism works? What does that even mean??), but because it is dangerously self-serving. It makes a promise on behalf of science that science cannot possibly maintain. And this in the midst of an already strongly anti-intellectual climate where half of the American public, for instance, rejects the very notion of global warming and does not believe in the theory of evolution.

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Taleb & co. will likely argue that this sorry state of affairs is the result of scientific illiteracy, not of scientism. But they are empirically wrong: more scientific literacy only marginally decreases, and sometimes even increases (via motivated reasoning) people’s beliefs in pseudoscientific notions. And while certainly scientism isn’t the only causal factor at play, it just doesn’t help. Taleb, Beard, myself, and every other academic who takes the trouble to write for the public have a moral duty to be constructive, courteous, and careful with our evidence and arguments, practicing what is known as virtue epistemology. That, not name calling and insulting, is the way forward, in history, statistics, or any other field.

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Read the full article in IaI News.


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AfD populists milk anti-refugee anger in German region with fewest asylum-seekers
Jefferson Chase, Deutsche Welle, 28 July 2017

Studies have concluded that the AfD has increasingly become a one-issue party articulating anger at Germany’s welcoming stance toward refugees. So you’d think the party’s support would be greatest in those areas of the country with the most refugees.

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You’d be wrong. Refugees are distributed to Germany’s 16 federal states on the basis of income and population levels, so that the poorer and less populous east gets fewer asylum seekers than the West. Yet the AfD continues to do well in many places in the East, bucking the national trend.

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This is particular true of Mecklenburg-West Pomerania in the northeastern part of Germany – home to none other than Chancellor Angela Merkel. This state of 1.6 million inhabitants has fewer refugees per capita than anywhere else in the country. In the most recent opinion survey, published on July 23, 20.5 percent of people asked said they supported the AfD.

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That’s down only slightly from the 20.8 percent of the vote the right-wing populists got in Mecklenburg-West Pomerania’s regional election on September 4, 2016. Moreover, Mecklenburg-West Pomerania is the only one of the eastern states where support for the AfD has increased since the start of 2017.

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Read the full article in Deutsche Welle.


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Dialectic of dark Enlightenments:
The alt-right’s place in the culture industry
Catherine Liu, Los Angeles Review of Books, 30 July 2017

Nagle’s measured prose, her commitment to both context and dialectics, contradiction and convergence as well as her stark imperturbability in the face of deeply disturbing materials make her the ideal reader of both liberal and academic hypocrisy as well as alt-right instrumentalization of transgression as politics. The alt-right’s promotion of racism and misogyny happens in an online space that is increasingly characterized by vicious antagonisms. The alt-right and alt-light’s war on respectability has to be framed as an aggravation of contemporary class warfare.

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Her critique of Tumblr liberalism, however, needs an added dimension: this particularly violent and intolerant form of identity politics represents the political and cultural vanguard of an increasingly toxic Professional Managerial Class, whose need to consolidate its economic advantages comes during a time of stringent class consolidation. In 1976, John and Barbara Ehrenreich noted that PMC monopoly on progressive/left politics was a development in class conflict that would have profound effects on the rise of neoliberalism and globalization in the decades to come. While this class emerged as an enemy or at least an antagonist of capital during the early decades of the 20th century, its political neutrality has become increasingly complicit with ‘the status quo’ of income inequality. In order to differentiate itself culturally from the working classes and the interests of finance capital, it draws upon the sentimental and melodramatic innovations of its forebears of the 18th century. Suffering and victimization become its calling cards: a precious and esoteric language of difference and tolerance supplant an analysis of contradiction and solidarity. It focuses on hegemonic cultural politics and self-improvement and the transformation of everyday life.

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Its political betrayal of working-class interests and its refusal to work toward economic distribution are disguised by its liberal/managerial and deeply technocratic and apolitical attitude toward progress. As long as the PMC has no sense of its alliance with the salaried masses, popular discontent and hatred of its precious ways will be fertile ground for the fomenting of internet-driven forms of Anglophone fascism. Angela Nagle has shown that in the absence of solidarity and a real political, economic program on the left, we will continue to see the popularity of alt-right sadism and mischief-based memes, gesturing toward a dystopic space of irony and hipness, policed by trolls with fascist tendencies. When pressed, spokespeople of the alt-right and alt-light will say that they only want the establishment of a white ethno-state. If you insist on the details of police-state measures, violent exclusion, and genocide necessary to achieve their goal, they retreat into hipster irony and protestations about the innocence of their separatist dreams. Professional Managerial Class liberalism has not only failed at destroying fascism and white supremacy, but it may also very well, through its cultivation of culturalist pieties and neglect of economic policies, add to the appeal of its most virulent adversaries.

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Read the full article in the LA Review of Books.


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Punching down
Justin EH Smith, The Point, Issue 14

But could there really be no liberation short of offing the tyrant? Is there not another species of emancipation in flights of the spirit, even if they change nothing in our material reality? The playing field of the imagination is infinite, after all. So even though humor forces us back into our heavy bodies—and even though, therefore, we can never mistake a gelastic experience for an aesthetic one—nevertheless in the gelastic mode too we experience a variety of freedom. When this freedom is the only sort available, as in the thriving Soviet circulation of underground anekdoty that gave us Rabinovich and so many other delightful characters, it is merely palliative. It should not for this reason be condemned, but we must nonetheless do what we can to hold on, by political means, to a form of freedom more concrete than palliative humor. It will always be a difficult matter, based on a million subtle contextual facts, to determine when humor merely functions as autocracy’s built-in pressure valve, and when it is the dynamite autocracy fears. One and the same comedy sketch might devolve from confrontation into palliation if it is drawn out too long, and the regime finds a way to adapt to or even co-opt it.

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There are no easy rules for determining which role humor is playing in society at any given time. Jokes are, in the end, entirely dependent on context. (‘Finally, something warm,’ legend has Winston Churchill saying when he was brought a glass of champagne after a meal.) Jokes can even degenerate into non-jokes, as circumstances change, or indeed bold and revolutionary humor can become normalized to the point where it helps to maintain tyranny rather than challenge it.

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If I were to write my critique of gelastic judgment, I would argue that just as judgments of beauty are trapped between subjectivity and objectivity, so the experience of humor moves perpetually between two poles. At one of them, there is indignation at the injustice that pervades our short lives coupled with aspiration toward something better. At the other, there is a desire for compensation, palliation, a need to come to terms with the fact that nothing better is on the way. Just as judgments of beauty move between the twin poles of subjectivity and objectivity, so too humor must be understood as a tertium quid between palliation and world-changing action.

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Read the full article in The Point.


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How class in China became politically incorrect
Louisa Lim, Los Angeles Review of books, 12 July 2017

‘Never forget class struggle!’ was Chairman Mao’s exhortation to the Chinese people. The phrase was daubed on village walls, stenciled on drinking mugs, even painted on toilets around the country. In Mao’s China, class background was central to every aspect of one’s existence, influencing everything from education to employment to the selection of marriage partners. Yet over time, the word ‘class’ has slowly disappeared from official discourse. In Xi Jinping’s China, class — which evokes the Cultural Revolution-era trauma of class struggle and class enemies — has become politically incorrect.

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‘It’s just not trendy to talk about class,’ says Sydney University political scientist Guo Yingjie, who has met with resistance — even from mainland academics — to his research on the topic. Talking about class is neither politically safe, nor politically correct, ‘It’s a dirty word. It’s almost something that many academics in China think is irrelevant.’

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Such a strategy is underlined by the messages propagated through the state-run media, according to Wanning Sun, a media scholar from the University of Technology, Sydney. ‘If you want to get rid of class struggle discourse, one way the party has done this is to promote consumption so people get a sense of hope,’ Sun says. ‘An ideology of hope — the neoliberal discourse — has taken root. Neoliberalism doesn’t like class discourse. As long as you find your position in the market, you’ll be fine.’ In this way, class has become defined by consumption, and in some cases, conspicuous consumption.

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Read the full article in The Point.


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Picasso and tragedy
TJ Clark, London Review of Books, 17 August 2017

For some reason – no doubt for many reasons, some of them accidental or external to the work itself – Picasso’s painting has become an essential, or anyway recurring, point of reference for human beings in fear for their lives. Guernica has become our culture’s Tragic Scene. And for once the phrase ‘our culture’ seems defensible – not just Western shorthand. There are photographs by the hundred of versions of Guernica – placards on sticks, elaborate facsimiles, tapestries, banners, burlesques, strip cartoons, wheat-paste posters, street puppet shows – being carried in anger or agony over the past thirty years in Ramallah, Oaxaca, Calgary, London, Kurdistan, Madrid, Cape Town, Belfast, Calcutta; outside US air bases, in marches against the Iraq invasion, in struggles of all kinds against state repression, as a rallying point for los Indignados, and – still, always, everywhere, indispensably – an answer to the lie of ‘collateral damage’.

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But why? Why Guernica? How does the picture answer to our culture’s need for a new epitome of death – and life in the face of it? The questions are not rhetorical: it could, after all, have been otherwise. Guernica might have proved a failure, or a worthy but soon forgotten success. It was made by an artist who was well aware, the record shows, that in taking on the commission he was straying into territory – the public, the political, the large-scale, the heroic and compassionate – that very little in his previous work seemed to have prepared him for. When Josep Lluís Sert and other delegates of the Spanish Republic came in early 1937 to ask Picasso to do the mural, he told them he wasn’t certain that he could produce a picture of the kind they wanted. And he was right to have doubts. Was there anything in his previous art on which he could draw in order to speak publicly, grandly, to a scene of civil war? It is true that since the mid-1920s his painting had centred on fear and horror as recurrent facts of life. Violence, once he had tackled it head on in the Three Dancers of 1925, became a preoccupation. So did monstrosity, vengefulness, pitiful or resplendent deformity – life in extremis. But none of these things need have added up to, or even moved in the direction of, a tragic attitude. Treating them did not necessarily prepare an artist to confront the Tragic Scene: the moment in human existence, that is, when death and vulnerability are recognised as such by an individual or a group, but late; and the plunge into undefended mortality that follows excites not just horror in those who look on, but pity and terror.

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In the ten years preceding Guernica Picasso had been, to put it baldly, the artist of monstrosity. His paintings had set forth a view of the human as constantly haunted, and maybe defined, by a monstrous, captivating otherness – most markedly, perhaps, in the Punch and Judy show of sex. ‘Au fond, il n’y a que l’amour,’ he said. This was as close, I reckon, as Picasso ever came to a philosophy of life, and by ‘love’ he certainly meant primarily the sexual kind, the carnal, the whole pantomime of desire. In his art monstrosity was capable of attaining to beauty, or monumentality, or a kind of strange pathos. But do any of these inflections lead to Guernica? Are not the monstrous and the tragic two separate things? To paint Guernica, in other words, wasn’t Picasso obliged to change key as an artist and sing a tune he’d never before tried; and more than that, to suppress in himself the fascination with horror that had shaped so much of his previous work? (The belonging together of ecstasy and antipathy, or fixation and bewilderment – elation, absurdity, self-loss, panic, disbelief – is basic to Picasso’s understanding of sex, and therefore of human life au fond. And the very word ‘fascination’ speaks to the normality of the intertwining: its Latin root, fascinus, means simply ‘erect penis’.) But isn’t Guernica great precisely to the extent that it manages, for once, to show us women (and animals) in pain and fear without eliciting that stunned, half-repelled, half-attracted ‘fascination’?

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Many have thought so. But the story is more complicated. I doubt that an artist of Picasso’s sort ever raises his or her account of humanity to a higher power simply by purging, or repressing, what had been dangerous or horrible in an earlier vision. There must be a way from monstrosity to tragedy. The one must be capable of being folded into the other, lending it aspects of the previous vision’s power.

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Read the full article in the London Review of Books.


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Why extremism is on the rise in Bangladesh
Michael Kugelman & Atif Ahmad,
Foreign Affairs, 27 July 2017

This flurry of terrorist activity seems to indicate that Bangladesh remains in ISIS and AQIS’ crosshairs—even after stepped-up counterterrorism efforts. To be sure, the country is not as ravaged by terrorism as are some of its neighbors in South Asia, such as Afghanistan and Pakistan. Still, the problem persists.

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And society is changing in turn. Until now, the country has been relatively hospitable for its roughly 16 million non-Muslim citizens (about a tenth of its overall population). As recently as 2013, Dan Mozena, then the US ambassador in Dhaka, remarked that Bangladesh was a ‘moderate, tolerant, democratic country’ and ‘a viable alternative to violent extremism in a troubled region of the world.’

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Yet from February to August 2015, four prominent atheist bloggers were killed by machete-wielding assailants. These attacks continued into 2016, with the deaths of over 15 people – including religious minorities, social workers, and USAID employee Xulhaz Mannan. These assaults were claimed by ISIS, AQIS, and ABT, which has close ties to al Qaeda.

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Many Bangladeshis condemned these attacks. In all these cases, however, the attackers were locals, indicating the inroads that radicalization has been able to make across different spheres of Bangladeshi society.

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Read the full article in Foreign Affairs.


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Google’s nuclear fusion project is paying off
Jay Bennett, Popular Mechanics, 27 July 2017

Nuclear fusion, the process the sun has used for billions of years to fuse atoms of hydrogen into atoms of helium, could be the pot of gold at the end of the clean energy rainbow. If we could engineer a reaction to snowball but remain contained, nuclear fusion reactors could supply virtually unlimited clean energy here on Earth. Yet, the technology seems perpetually just around the corner.

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Google and nuclear fusion company Tri Alpha Energy, which operates fusion reactor projects in California, just took us one step closer to rounding that corner. The two companies began working together in 2014, and they just released their first major research results. Google and Tri Alpha Energy developed a new process to sift through the enormous amounts of data that detail plasma’s behavior in fusion reactors. The process involves humans who input preferences into an advanced Google machine learning algorithm, and so far the system has successfully achieved a 50 percent reduction in energy loss.

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Read the full article in Popular Mechanics.


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US Muslims concerned about their place in society, but continue to believe in the American Dream
Pew Research Centre, 26 July 2017

Half of Muslim Americans say it has become harder to be Muslim in the U.S. in recent years. And 48% say they have experienced at least one incident of discrimination in the past 12 months.

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But alongside these reports of discrimination, a similar – and growing – share (49%) of Muslim Americans say someone has expressed support for them because of their religion in the past year. And 55% think Americans in general are friendly toward U.S. Muslims, compared with just 14% who say they are unfriendly.

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Despite the concerns and perceived challenges they face, 89% of Muslims say they are both proud to be American and proud to be Muslim. Fully eight-in-ten say they are satisfied with the way things are going in their lives. And a large majority of U.S. Muslims continue to profess faith in the American dream, with 70% saying that most people who want to get ahead can make it in America if they are willing to work hard.

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Read the full article at the Pew Research Centre.


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Back from the underworld
Marina Warner, London Review of Books,
16-17 August 2017

Unlike animals, which Lévi-Strauss declared were not only good to eat but bon à penser, too, I found that I averted my eyes, so to speak, several times as I was reading this book. Not because of the infinite and irreversible sadness of mortality, or because of the grue, the fetor, the decay, the pervasive morbidity – though Laqueur’s gallows humour about scientific successes in the calcination of corpses can be a bit strong – but because the dead present an enigma that can’t be grasped: they are always there in mind, they come back in dreams, live in memory, and if they don’t, if they’re forgotten as so many millions of them must be, that is even more disturbing, somehow reprehensible. The disappeared are the unquietest ghosts. Simone Weil writes that the Iliad is a poem that shows how ‘force … turns man into a thing in the most literal sense: it makes a corpse out of him.’ But Laqueur is surely right to inquire why that thing, the ‘disenchanted corpse … bereft, vulnerable, abject’, is a very different kind of thing from the cushion I am sitting on or even my iPad (which keeps giving signs of a mind of its own). I have always liked Mme du Deffand’s comment, when asked if she believed in ghosts. A philosopher and a free thinker, she even so replied: ‘Non, mais j’en ai peur.’ (‘No, but I am frightened of them.’)

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The book keeps returning to the conundrum perfectly set by Diogenes, when he said that after his death, his body should be tossed over a wall for dogs to eat. This is logical, rational, perhaps even ecological (Laqueur discusses many suggestions about using mortal remains for compost and fertiliser), but no society has taken the Cynic philosopher’s advice (the Parsee towers are a place apart), and when the dead are left in the street, the sight – the neglect – rightly inspires horror and shame in all who know of it. Yet, if you believe in a soul, why should the husk matter? And conversely, if you believe that there is nothing more, then the corpse is not a person either, let alone that person. But every instinct, every human feeling in the cultural world Laqueur writes about goes against Diogenes.

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Since Derek Parfit’s death, there has been discussion about his Buddhist sympathies, because he countered conventional ideas about the integrity of a person over time, and closes Reasons and Persons with a suggestive musing on a Buddhist term for an individual, ‘santana, a ‘stream’’. It’s interesting to contrast this idea with the picture that forms from Laqueur’s scrupulous sifting of the archives: the work we feel the dead ask us to perform is bound up inextricably with our prevailing view of the person as an integer – not a stream. The manner of our leaving the world defines us as unique selves, continuously unified from birth to death. In this perspective, Laqueur’s book presents a continuation of other mighty endeavours: Charles Taylor’s Sources of the Self: The Making of the Modern Identity and Jerrold Seigel’s The Idea of the Self, both studies in what it means to be an individual. In answer to this, the dwindling of trust in an immortal soul has shifted the onus onto the perishable body, with proportionately highly wrought standards of respect owed to that ambiguous thing.

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Read the full article in the London Review of Books.

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The images are, from top down: ‘Indian civilisations’ by MF Husain; A portrait of Ibn Rushd (artist unknown); A still from the BBC’s ‘history of Roman Britain’; Pablo Picasso’s ‘Guernica’; ‘Modern Times’ by Mounir Fatmi.

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