Pandaemonium

PLUCKED FROM THE WEB #33

web 33

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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Buy banned books
Bonny Brooks, Quilette, 30 January 2018

Of course, the woke among us will shrug and say that Laura Moriarity should check her (white) privilege. Alas, such people suffer from hubris and fail to realise that, in the end, this identity puritanism will come for everyone – yes, even black and minority ethnic writers. Demanding that art be ‘native’ has a way of fetishizing minority artists and ghettoising them to stay within their respective lanes as well. But – probably more pressingly for the culture cops – if the acceptable range of representation continues to narrow, the time will come when some of the most talented writers around, BAME writers who are middle class (as many of them are) and/or privately educated, will no longer be allowed to ‘appropriate’ the experiences of black people of more humble means (as they frequently do). If we are to follow this fashionable train of thought, what gave Marlon James, who wrote the brilliant Booker Prize-winning A Brief History of Seven Killings, the right to portray shanty town kids when he’s the middle class son of a police detective?

We often call this a ‘cultural appropriation’ panic, but the animus driving it is reaching into the deepest crevices of writers’ private lives and personal histories. I call this the memoirification of literature; the lovechild of a justifiable call for more diverse writers and a social media marketing imperative, this drive to personal confession demands ever more particularised voices prepared to share their particularised testimonies under the banner of literary forms that are not, by definition, supposed to be testimony. And increasingly there are penalties for those who appear not to ‘stay in their lane’ and write endlessly about themselves.

There is no appeasing this impulse. In the last few weeks, I read an article asking who ‘gets’ to write fiction about sexual abuse and another telling writers how they must do so should they dare. The current zeitgeist for biographical vampirism is even pushing journalists reporting on issues of public interest to qualify themselves. As James Bloodworth recently put it, having fielded online jibes for writing a reportage book about low wage labour in Britain while not actually being (or no longer being, in his case) a low-wage labourer: ‘A peculiar thing about our age is that one of the easiest ways to get ahead is to talk endlessly about yourself. If you aren’t prepared to emote publicly about how ‘tough’ things were for you personally, you’re effectively at a disadvantage to those that are.’ Were his critics not sure what journalism is?

For those of us that have memoir-worthy backstories but are more memoir-averse, this trial-by-testimony approach to choosing and marketing literature is alarming. As it happens, I fit within several historically ‘spoken for’ and much written about groups. However I don’t write testimony and I do not own these issues. There isn’t one way to emerge from adversity, so demanding a paint-by-numbers approach to its portrayal is frankly childish, reductive, and philistine. Characters should be three-dimensional beings, not mascots commissioned by committee.

Read the full article in Quilette.


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An inside look at the accounts Twitter has censored
in countries around the world

Craig Silverman & Jeremy Singer-Vine
Buzzfeed News, 24 January 2018

Another country of note in the data is Turkey, which stands out for its use of the content withholding policy as a means to silence opposition voices on the platform. Twitter’s own transparency reports also show that between 2014 and mid-2017, Turkey made more requests to remove accounts or content than any other country — by far. ‘Twitter together with Facebook have become the long-arm of the Turkish law enforcement machinery’, Yaman Akdeniz, a cyber-rights activist and law professor at Istanbul Bilgi University, told BuzzFeed News.

Twitter has not yet released transparency data for the second half of 2017. But the most recent data indicates that Turkish authorities inundated the company with more than 2,700 removal requests in the first six months of 2017 alone. (Twitter withheld 204 accounts and 497 tweets in response to those requests.) Turkey has in total made at least 11,887 requests to withhold accounts or specific tweets since the creation of the program, according to Twitter’s transparency reports.

A review of more than 700 accounts withheld in Turkey found that more than 600 belonged to those connected with militant pro-Kurdish movements as well as accounts affiliated with exiled Islamic Turkish preacher Fethullah Gülen. The Turkish government blames Gülen and his followers for having a role in the failed 2016 coup, and also declared his movement a terrorist organization.

Another notable group of accounts on the withheld list are journalists. The third-most-popular withheld account identified by BuzzFeed News belongs to Ekrem Dumanlı, who was editor-in-chief of the Gülen-linked newspaper Zaman until Turkish authorities commandeered the publication in 2015.

That year, Akdeniz coauthored a letter to Twitter that called for it to stop blocking accounts and tweets in Turkey. He is particularly critical of withholding entire accounts, as opposed to specific tweets. ‘Once an account is withheld everything that is written through or shared through that account, past, present and future is withheld. So, in my view that amounts to censorship’, he said.

Read the full article in Buzzfeed News.


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Call-out culture is a toxic garbage dumpster fire of trash
Katie Herzog, The Stranger, 23 January 2018

The criticism of these pieces, and of me personally, doesn’t actually bother me all that much – my job requires that one acquire a certain thickness of skin, and besides, hate clicks are still clicks – but I can see why people are afraid to voice their opinions if their opinions are even slightly outside the tide of contemporary thinking. When it emerged recently that Harper’s magazine was supposedly planning to publish an article outing the creator of the now-infamous Shitty Media Men list in a forthcoming issue, people across Twitter – primarily women in media, including a number of journalists – sprung into action, declaring that the apparent author of the unpublished article, Katie Roiphe, was trash, and that Harper’s was trash, too. Writer Nicole Cliffe offered to pay anyone willing to pull pieces they had promised to Harper’s. A number of writers took her up on it, and at least one advertiser dropped the magazine entirely. It didn’t matter that the rumor hadn’t been confirmed, or that no one had actually read the piece, or that Roiphe told the New York Times that the article didn’t actually out anyone at all; the outrage machine was already rolling. And it was journalists – people who should know how to fact-check first—who were fueling it.

There’s a name for this behavior: witch hunts. Someone is accused, judged, and condemned for an alleged or apparent transgression, and the townspeople on Facebook and Twitter grab their pitchforks and rush to the burn pile. There may be little evidence to support the prevailing narrative, but that hardly matters. The trial is conducted via social media, and the judges are anyone with access. Take a recent incident in Seattle, when the (ironically, Jewish) founder of the Punk Rock Flea Market was widely accused of being a Nazi sympathizer after a false and unsubstantiated claim that he kicked a woman of color out of his event was circulated on social media. I often write about social media mobs exactly like this, and what I have found is that they are not frequently misinformed, they are almost always misinformed. You just don’t know what happened unless you were (A) there or (B) someone has actually investigated whatever claims have come forth. But that’s not how mobs work.

This atmosphere makes it difficult, if not impossible, to dissent. I was recently talking to a friend about the #MeToo movement. In hushed tones, she told me she had a confession to make. ‘Don’t tell anyone’,  she said, ‘but I don’t think Woody Allen raped his daughter’. Luckily for her, she was in good company – I also doubt the veracity of Woody Allen’s guilt because the evidence just doesn’t support the claims – but she said this as though she were confessing to a terrible crime. And she was: a thought crime, one so potentially harmful to her standing among her own friends that expressing it to anyone besides a known thought criminal was unthinkable. The resistance, it seems, is intersectional in everything but opinions.

Read the full article in the Stranger.


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Israeli fossils are the oldest modern humans
ever found outside of Africa

Ewen Callaway, Nature, 25 January 2018

The oldest human fossils ever found outside Africa suggest that Homo sapiens might have spread to the Arabian Peninsula around 180,000 years ago — much earlier than previously thought. The upper jaw and teeth, found in an Israeli cave and reported in Science on 25 January1, pre-date other human fossils from the same region by at least 50,000 years. But scientists say that it is unclear whether the fossils represent a brief incursion or a more-lasting expansion of the species.

Researchers originally thought that H. sapiens emerged in East Africa 200,000 years ago then moved out to populate the rest of the world. Until discoveries in the past decade countered that story, scientists thought that a small group left Africa some 60,000 years ago and that signs of earlier travels, including 80,000–120,000 year-old skulls and other remains from Israel discovered in the 1920s and 1930s, were from failed migrations.

However, recent discoveries have muddied that simple narrative. Some H. sapiens-like fossils from Morocco that are older than 300,000 years, reported last year2, have raised the possibility that humans evolved earlier and perhaps elsewhere in Africa. Teeth from southern China, described in 20153, hint at long-distance migrations some 120,000 years ago. And genome studies have sown more confusion, with some comparisons of global populations pointing to just one human migration from Africa, and others suggesting multiple waves.

In the early 2000s, archaeologist Mina Weinstein-Evron, at the University of Haifa in Israel, and palaeoanthropologist Israel Hershkowitz, at Tel Aviv University, began a project to excavate a series of Israeli caves. ‘We called it “Searching for the Origins of the Earliest Modern Humans”. This was what we were looking for’, says Weinstein-Evron.

Their team discovered the jaw fragment in 2002, in Misliya Cave, the highest of Mt Carmel’s caves. It is just a few kilometres away from the Skhul cave, one of the sites where the 80,000–120,000-year-old remains were found in the 1920s and 1930s. Using several different methods, the team estimates the jaw and teeth to be 177,000–194,000 years old.

The remains are unquestionably H. sapiens, says team member María Martinón-Torres, a palaeoanthropologist at the National Research Centre on Human Evolution in Burgos, Spain. The shapes of the teeth match those of both modern and ancient humans, she says. They also lack features typical of Neanderthals, which lived throughout Eurasia at the time.

The dating seems solid and the fossils are H. sapiens, says Huw Groucutt, an archaeologist at the University of Oxford, UK. But he isn’t very surprised to see them in Israel. He and his colleagues have previously said that 175,000-year-old stone tools from other sites in the Middle East resemble those used by H. sapiens in East Africa.

Hershkowitz says that the jaw and teeth point to a long-term occupation of the Near East by early H. sapiens. ‘It was a central train station. People were coming and going through this land corridor from one continent to another, and it was occupied all the time.’ Once there, humans probably encountered and interbred with Neanderthals, Hershkowitz says, pointing to a 2017 ancient-DNA study that suggested interbreeding had occurred before 200,000 years ago.

Read the full article in Nature.


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Padmaavat

A lavish Bollywood musical is fuelling a culture war in India
Bilal Qureshi, NPR, 25 January 2018

The controversy stems from rumors that the film shows the queen in a dream love scene with the reviled Muslim invader. In fact, it doesn’t, but in January 2017, fringe Hindu groups who revere Padmavati attacked the film’s sets and assaulted filmmaker Sanjay Leela Bhansali. Indian film journalist Aseem Chhabra says, from the beginning, filmmakers tried to make it clear that the scene didn’t exist. ‘There was no dream sequence; there’s not a single shot of them together’, Chhabra says. ‘And yet the rumors refused to die down, and so the protesters continued and continued and continued.’

In advance of the film’s scheduled release on Dec. 1, several state governments called for an all-out ban, and at least one politician called for the beheading of Bhansali and Padukone. Chhabra says the controversy was tailor-made for India’s 24-hour cable news networks. ‘There were these political leaders, some actually belonging to the ruling political party, who went on television and threatened to behead the director, to cut off the actress’ nose. It’s been shocking.’

Acclaimed Indian historian Sunil Khilnani says the battles over the film say much more about contemporary Indian politics than the country’s medieval past. ‘What you’re seeing in India is the weaponization of history; that’s to say the use of historical figures — some who are mythic, some who actually existed but have now become sort of surrounded by myth — the use of them for present political purposes.’

Khilnani says the ascent of Hindu nationalism has led to a re-writing of Indian history, from revisionist interpretations of the origins of the Taj Mahal to documented historical events being reconstructed to reflect a ‘purer’ Hindu essence.

‘What’s unique about India is that all of the world’s great religions over different times ruled and held political power — Buddhism, Islam, Christianity, Hinduism’, Khilnani explains. ‘But the current Hindu majoritarian imagination is very anxious and insecure about that, and so it wants to wipe out what is actually the historical truth of Indian history, which is this multiplicity.’

Read the full article on NPR.


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The emperor Robeson
Simon Callow, New York Review of Books, 6 February 2018

But when Hitler invaded Poland and the war in Europe was finally engaged, he returned to America, pledging to support the fight for democratic freedom. He saw American participation in the war as a tremendous opportunity to reshape the whole of American life and, above all, to transform the position of black people within the nation. His fame and influence rose to extraordinary heights, and after America joined the war, his endorsement of its ally the Soviet Union proved very useful.

In 1943, he reprised his Othello on Broadway, the first time an amorously involved black man and white woman had ever been shown on stage there; to this day the production holds the record for the longest run of any nonmusical Shakespeare play on Broadway, and it toured the land to strictly nonsegregated audiences. The following year, Robeson’s forty-sixth birthday was marked with a grand gala, attended by over 12,000 people; 4,000 had to be turned away. The playwright Marc Connelly spoke, describing Robeson as the representative of ‘a highly desirable tomorrow which, by some lucky accident, we are privileged to appreciate today’. He was the man of the future; America was going to change.

Or so it seemed for a brief moment. The dream was almost immediately shattered when black GIs returning from the war were subjected to terrifying outbursts of violence from white racists determined to make it clear that nothing had changed. After a murderous attack on four African-Americans in Georgia, an incandescent Robeson, at the head of a march of three thousand delegates, had a meeting with the president, Harry S. Truman, in the course of which he demanded ‘an American crusade against lynching’. Truman coolly observed that the time was not right. Robeson warned him that the temper of the black population was dangerously eruptive. Truman, taking this as a threat, stood up; the meeting was over. Asked by a journalist outside the White House whether it wouldn’t be finer when confronted with racist brutality to turn the other cheek, Robeson replied, ‘If a lyncher hit me on one cheek, I’d tear his head off before he hit me on the other one’. The chips were down.

From that moment on, the government moved to discredit Robeson at every turn; it blocked his employment prospects, after which he turned to foreign touring, not hesitating to state his views whenever he could. At the Soviet-backed World Peace Council, he spoke against the belligerence of the United States, describing it as fascist; these remarks caused outrage at home, as did his later comments at the Paris Peace Congress, at which he said: ‘We in America do not forget that it was on the backs of the white workers from Europe and on the backs of millions of blacks that the wealth of America was built. And we are resolved to share it equally. We reject any hysterical raving that urges us to make war on anyone.’ These comments provoked denunciations from all sides—not least from the black press and his former comrades-in-arms in the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, anxious not to undo the steady progress they felt they had been making. Robeson’s universal approbation turned overnight into nearly universal condemnation.

Read the full article in the New York Review of Books.


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If authoritarianism is looming in the US,
how come Donald Trump looks so weak?

Corey Robin, Guardian, 13 January 2018

Indeed, for all the talk of increasing authoritarianism and Republican hegemony, there are signs that the United States is more open and freer today – and the Republicans less hegemonic – than it has been a while.

Exactly 30 years ago, the name ACLU, which stands for the American Civil Liberties Union, was so radioactive it became a lethal accusation, in the hands of Republican candidate George HW Bush, against Democratic candidate Michael Dukakis. Invoking the rhetoric of McCarthyism, Bush, the gentlemanly moderate, called Dukakis a ‘card-carrying member of the ACLU’.

So vulnerable was Dukakis to the widespread belief that civil liberties and constitutional values were unpatriotic – so terrified and flummoxed was he by the charge – Aaron Sorkin was led to fantasize, in a speech by Michael Douglas in a movie, the Sorkin-esque response Sorkin wished Dukakis would have given to Bush.

Today, the ACLU is so popular and esteemed – membership quadrupling to 1.6 million, fundraising off the charts – it’s positioning itself to become a major political force in the Democratic party, like the National Rifle Association is to the Republican party. According to its executive director: ‘It’s clear that a larger portion of the American public is engaged in politics in a way they’ve never been before.’

A little bit more than 20 years ago the Republicans controlled Congress but not the White House. But so powerful – and threatening to the prospects of Bill Clinton’s reelection – were they, they were able to force the Democratic president to sign a rollback of the welfare state as dramatic and draconian as anything passed by Ronald Reagan.

Today, the Republicans are in full control of the federal government. Instead of launching an assault on the welfare and entitlement state, as many of them had promised after their tax cut, they’ve announced defeat without ever having tried for victory. ‘Besides the possibility of an infrastructure bill,’ one of their most rightwing leaders acknowledges, ‘the only two things that will probably get done are an immigration deal and keeping the lights on in the government’.

And even some of that looks like it’s in doubt.

Read the full article in the Guardian.


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‘It was the first time I cried in the operating room’
Allan Goldstein, Spiegel Online, 25 January 2018

We began with the examinations. The two girls were attached side by side. They couldn’t walk, but one of them had begun to speak. She was a bit bigger, and also the livelier of the two.

They had very different personalities, even though they both were, like all conjoined twins, genetically identical: One was active and outgoing, the other more withdrawn. But they seemed to get along well: They played together and embraced each other.

We had to find out in as much detail as possible how they were attached. They clearly had two hearts, two lungs and two stomachs. But where did their guts join? How was the common pelvis organized? Which parts were supplied by the nerves and arteries of which body?

During separation it is important to follow the bloodstream. We learned that we would have to give the third, though malformed leg to the bigger, stronger one of the two girls, because it was her body that supplied it with blood.

In the echocardiogram and the cardiac CT scan, we discovered that the smaller, weaker of the two girls suffered from congenital heart disease. The oxygen content of her blood was rather low. Also, her complexion wasn’t healthy. They were both black, of course, but one had a pink, robust color, while her sister looked more ashen.

Then she became ill, an infection of the respiratory tract. Usually this would not have been very severe, but her body could not tolerate it, because her lungs had very poor blood supply. The twins had to be moved to the intensive care unit. The oxygen content in her blood sank to a life-threateningly low level and she turned bluish. At this point, we realized that she was going to die. Her heart was just too weak to take care of her body alone. She was hanging on her sister’s drip.

But what did that mean for the upcoming operation? For one girl, her seriously ill sister posed a life-threatening danger. If she died, the other would live only a few more hours. For the other, however, the healthy sister was a life support. The 3-D model we made of the skeleton and the blood vessels of the twins clearly shows the artery running from one body to the other right across the lower chest, supplying it with oxygen-rich blood. We knew that if we separated them, we would have to cut that lifeline.

We sought advice from the pediatric ethics committee of our hospital. In many extensive conversations, I learned how important it is how to frame such a situation: Our intent was not to end the life of one girl, but rather to save the other’s. The difference is subtle, because the result would be the same: We would push two living children into the operating room and leave it with only one.

Not all of us followed the argument. Three doctors — two surgeons and one anesthesiologist — stepped back. They said they could not participate in such a thing. The idea that our intervention would likely lead to the death of the weaker girl seemed unfathomable to them. We respected this decision.

Read the full article in Speigel Online.


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Lockdown

Mass incarceration: New Jim Crow, class war, or both?
Nathalniel Lewis, People’s Policy Project, January 2018

Americans – black Americans in particular – are incarcerated at jaw-dropping rates. The US is home to less than 5% of the world’s population, but over 20% of the world’s prisoners. Blacks make up about 13% of the US population, but 40% of the prison population (Sakala 2014). Countless studies have demonstrated this racial disparity within a highly carceral state, including disparities in arrest rates, plea bargain offers , and sentencing outcomes.

There are two common explanations for these disparities in left-of-center thought. The rst explanation is that mass incarceration exists as a racist system for managing black people as black people following the end of formal Jim Crow laws and the successes of the civil rights movement. Michelle Alexander offers this view in her widely acclaimed book The New Jim Crow. The second explanation is that mass incarceration exists as a capitalist system for man- aging poor people, following the rollback of the liberal social welfare state and other neoliberal reforms that left the working class to fend for itself. This perspective is presented by Cedric Johnson in his essay ‘The Panthers Can’t Save us Now’.

Both of these views posit that black Americans are dispropor- tionately poor because of a long history of racism in America, but one holds that black people are disproportionately incarcerated primarily because they are black, while the other holds that it is primarily because they are poor.

The discovery of racial disparities in the criminal justice system cannot, by itself, tell us which of these views is closer to the truth since both views predict and explain racial disparities. Therefore, we need to look at incarceration through some measure of class in conjunc- tion with race. Below, I briefly review studies that touch on this issue and then proceed to my own study of this question.

This study takes a careful account of class and how it relates to race and incarceration rates. Previous studies interested in racial disparities across various outcomes all too often fail to control for class at all, or else pick a single variable as a proxy for class, which comes with a set of confounders. The constructed class variables used here attempt to balance out the confounders lurking in any one proxy variable. The result, robust across different methods of composite construction, is that class appears to be a larger factor than usually reported when studying racial disparities. It may indeed come as a surprise to many that race is not a statistically significant factor for many incarceration outcomes, once class is adequately controlled for.

Read the full article on the People’s Policy Project.


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Has #MeToo gone too far, or not far enough?
The answer is both

Laura Kipnis, Guardian, 13 January 2018

The innovation of the Deneuve statement is to enumerate a new right for men (as if they didn’t have enough already) – ‘the right to bother’ – which is regarded by the signatories as indispensable to sexual freedom. I understand why my correspondents might have thought this would appeal to me. I recently wrote a book about overblown sexual accusations on American campuses, in which I too deployed the language of witch hunts.

I also recounted, in print, having posed the question, during a sexual harassment training workshop: ‘But how do you know an advance is ‘unwanted’ until you try?’ I’m on record mocking Naomi Wolf’s crusade against Harold Bloom for having placed his ‘heavy, boneless hand’ on her knee some 30 years ago, and the hand-on-knee trope features in the Deneuve document as a proxy for what’s wrong with the #MeToo brand of American feminism, and its French counterpart #BalanceTonPorc (‘out your pigs’), namely ‘the hatred of men and sexuality’.

My reason for calling the letter silly is that in a moment that demands subtlety, these people have brought out a sledgehammer. Let’s collapse all distinctions – in the name of freedom! Putting the move on someone ‘however persistently’: why not? Trying to ‘steal’ a kiss: ditto. While rape is ‘a crime’ and ‘the Harvey Weinstein scandal sparked a legitimate awakening’, such bodily incursions aren’t sufficient to makes women ‘prey’ because we’re more than simply our bodies, write Deneuve and her cohort…

What the Deneuve statement misses, with its high flown talk about rights and freedoms, is that rights don’t exist until they’re conferred politically, and the democratic revolutions that substantiated them in France and America didn’t confer them equally on everyone: it was men who achieved self-sovereignty.

Women didn’t even get the vote in France until 1944; birth control was illegal until 1967. What kind of freedom does a woman have who can’t prevent a pregnancy because male politicians have denied her that right?

It’s the historical amnesia of the Deneuve document that’s so objectionable. To the extent that women’s bodies are still treated as public property by men, whether that means groping us or deciding what we can do with our uteruses, women do not have civic equality. To miss that point is to miss the political importance and the political lineage of #MeToo: the latest step in a centuries long political struggle for women to simply control our own bodies.

Read the full article in the Guardian.


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Can France’s far-right reinvent itself?
Cole Stangler, Atlantic, 14 January 2018

The National Front’s inability to seize the moment stems, in large part, from a raft of internal contradictions. Some of the party’s most prominent members claim to be devoted to the welfare state; others see it, at best, as a necessary evil. Some are secular and favor gay rights; others are proud, ‘family values’ Christians. Today, its big tent is being stretched to the limit – if not already showing signs of tear.

Perhaps nothing better exemplifies the FN’s identity crisis than the departure of Florian Philippot, the party’s former vice president and national spokesperson. He had embodied the FN’s ‘de-demonization’ strategy – less racism and xenophobia, more education, healthcare and progressive economics. A graduate of the prestigious École Nationale d’Administration, he joined the FN in 2011, working with Le Pen to refine its critiques of globalization and reframe French politics as a clash between ‘globalists’ and ‘patriots’. Electoral success followed, thanks largely to low-income voters, many of them from former bastions of the left. In the first round of the 2017 presidential election, Le Pen won more support from working-class voters than any other candidate, according to an Ipsos poll. ‘Compared to the old platform of the Front, which was much more [economically] liberal, we were more focused on a defense of the forgotten France, of public services, of low-income earners and retirees, of re-industrialization’, Philippot told me when we met at his office in Strasbourg last fall.

But despite his achievements, Philippot irked many high-ranking party members with his constant calls for France’s departure from both the eurozone and the European Union—institutions that, in his view, largely benefitted multinational companies and German exporters, at the expense of French businesses and workers. He resigned from his post in September, citing both his stance towards the EU and concerns that the party seemed set to return to its doomed obsession with immigration. ‘They’re returning [to] an identity-based rhetoric. It’s really a step backwards’, he said. Since Philippot’s break with the FN (he insisted he was pushed out), he has co-founded a political party called ‘the Patriots’. In Brussels, it has aligned itself with a parliamentary group that includes fellow eurosceptic parties like Britain’s UK Independence Party and Italy’s Five-Star Movement. (The FN sits with another group that includes the Dutch Party for Freedom and Alternative for Germany.)

Criticism of the so-called ‘Philippot line’ intensified following the election. Jean Messiha, the author of Le Pen’s 2017 presidential platform, told me a renewed focus on national identity and immigration will lead to electoral gains. Such a return to the party’s roots ‘doesn’t mean the euro isn’t a problem’, Messiha said. ‘There’s an economic and monetary sword of Damocles linked to the EU and the euro, but this sword of Damocles … doesn’t descend to the level of citizens.’ On the other hand, he believes terrorism has a way of mobilizing people – of drawing them toward the FN’s ideas and of pitting them against governments that supposedly fail to protect them. As he put it: ‘We don’t have a monetary [policy] attack capable of opening the eyes of our citizens. But other attacks, we’ve had them.’

Read the full article in the Atlantic.


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Barbed-wire imperialism
Laleh Khalili, Times Higher Education Supplement, 11 January 2018

Among the technologies of domination that British imperial officers used to control conquered or colonised peoples, the concentration camp holds a vexed place. Although such camps are now irrevocably associated with Nazi forced labour sites and industrial killing grounds, it was in fact the British who perfected the concept of confinement spaces for large numbers of detainees and named them ‘concentration camps’. Those of the Boer War were more or less contemporary with the reconcentrados of the Spanish-American War in Cuba and those of the US colonisation of the Philippines, and were used to gather civilians from villages to create free-fire zones, hold hostages and facilitate war-fighting.

What Aidan Forth does in this absorbing book is to show that camps were not deployed solely in Britain’s colonial war in South Africa, but in the entirety of its empire, and used in ostensible peacetime to ‘discipline unruly populations’. He traces the origins of these carceral spaces in the far reaches of empire to the regimes of confinement devised in Britain to deal with vagabonds, workers and criminals. Among the institutions that inspired subsequent practices of confinement in concentration camps, Forth counts ‘prisons, workhouses, factories and hospitals’.

Particularly fascinating is his account of the concentration camps used in times of famine and plague to segregate the famished and ailing. Those suffering from hunger and illness were often forced into these camps and subjected to military-like discipline. Camp inmates endured surveillance, roll calls and regimes of hygiene and nutrition devised by experts who did not always know what worked best and who used the inmates as experimental subjects. In the metropole, forced hospitalisation – which very often terrorised the poor – had been supplemented with public sanitation measures such as sewers. In the colonies, detention in camps was used punitively and was very rarely, if ever, accompanied by public hygiene infrastructures.

Read the full article in the Times Higher Education Supplement.


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Chuck Close Self Portrait

Chuck Close is accused of harassment.
Should his artwork carry an asterisk?

Robin Pogrebin & Jennifer Schluessler,
New York Times, 28 January 2018

Now, museums around the world are wrestling with the implications of a decision, by the National Gallery of Art in Washington, to indefinitely postpone a Chuck Close exhibition because of allegations of sexual harassment involving potential portrait models that have engulfed the prominent artist in controversy. Mr Close has called the allegations ‘lies’ and said he is ‘being crucified’.

The postponement news on Thursday has raised difficult questions about what to do with the paintings and photographs of Mr Close — held by museums like the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, the Tate in London and the Pompidou in Paris, as well as by high-spending private collectors — and whether the work of other artists accused of questionable conduct needs to be revisited or recontextualized.

It is a provocative moment for the art world, as the public debate about separating creative output from personal conduct moves from popular culture into the realm of major visual artists from different eras and the institutions that have long collected and exhibited their pieces…

For the most part, curators and museum directors say that making artistic decisions based on personal behavior is a dangerous road to go down. All of the museum officials interviewed said they plan to continue to retain and show their Close holdings, in part because he has not been charged with any crime and the accusations have not been proven in a court of law.

‘How much are we going to do a litmus test on every artist in terms of how they behave?’ said Jock Reynolds, the director of the Yale University Art Gallery, which collects Mr. Close’s work. ‘Pablo Picasso was one of the worst offenders of the 20th century in terms of his history with women. Are we going to take his work out of the galleries? At some point you have to ask yourself, is the art going to stand alone as something that needs to be seen?’

Read the full article in the New York Times.


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Intersectionality is a hole. Afro-pessimism is a shovel.
We need to stop digging

Bruce A Dixon, Black Agenda Report, 25 January 2018

The word intersectionality was originally used by legal scholar Kimberlé Crenshaw in her discussion of a civil rights lawsuit filed by a black woman who alleged she’d been discriminated against as a black person AND as a woman. Absurdly the court rejected her claim, saying the plaintiff needed to choose whether she alleged discrimination on the basis of gender or of race, but not both. Crenshaw coined the term intersectionality to cover these instances of multiple and overlapping oppressions. As a legal theory it hasn’t gained a lot of traction. But in the worlds of politics and the nonprofit industrial complex intersectionality has become a pervasive buzzword.

In the worlds of politics and nonprofits intersectionality has become a sneaky substitute for the traditional left notion of solidarity developed in the process of ongoing collective struggle against the class enemy. Intersectionality doesn’t deny the existence of class struggle, it just rhetorically demotes it to something co-equal with the fights against ableism and ageism and speciesism, against white supremacy, against gender oppression, and a long elastic list of others. What’s sneaky about the substitution of intersectionality for solidarity is that intersectionality allows the unexamined smuggling in of multiple notions which directly undermine the development and the operation of solidarity. Intersectionality means everybody is obligated to put their own special interest, their own oppression first – although they don’t always say that because the contradiction would be too obvious. The applicable terms of art are that everybody gets to ‘center’ their own oppression, and cooperate as ‘allies’ if and when their interests ‘intersect’. What this yields is silliness like honchos who run the pink pussy hat marches telling Cindy Sheehan earlier this month that their womens’ movement can’t be bothered to oppose war and imperialism ‘…until all women are free’,  and the advocates of this or that cause demanding constant, elaborate performative rituals of those who would qualify for ‘allyship’.

The nonprofit industrial complex, funded as it is by the one percent, loves, promotes and lavishly rewards intersectionality at every turn because it buries and negates class struggle. Intersectionality normalizes the notion that the left is and ought to be a bunch of impotent constituency groups squabbling about privilege and ‘allyship’ as they compete for funding and careers, not the the force working to overthrow the established order and fight for the power to build a new world. Even Hillary Clinton uses the word now.

Afro-pessimism is a term coined by Dr. Frank Wilderson at UC Irvine, and a nappy headed stepchild of intersectionality. Afro-pessimism, to hear Wilderson tell it is the realization that black people have no natural allies anywhere, that we are born with ankle irons, whip marks on our backs, bulls eyes on our foreheads and nooses around our necks. Blackness, he says is ‘a condition of ontological death ‘, and the dead have no allies, at least among the living. Wilderson is at least honest. He freely admits that afro-pessimism leads nowhere and offers no answers to any strategic or even tactical questions. Wilderson’s shtick is that of an old man throwing word grenades and he seems not to care much where or how they explode, as long as they do. Whatever works for him, I guess.

Read the full article on the Black Agenda Report.


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Finding your voice
Ava Kofman, The Intercept, 19 January 2018

Americans most regularly encounter this technology, known as speaker recognition, or speaker identification, when they wake up Amazon’s Alexa or call their bank. But a decade before voice commands like ‘Hello Siri’ and ‘OK Google’ became common household phrases, the NSA was using speaker recognition to monitor terrorists, politicians, drug lords, spies, and even agency employees.

The technology works by analyzing the physical and behavioral features that make each person’s voice distinctive, such as the pitch, shape of the mouth, and length of the larynx. An algorithm then creates a dynamic computer model of the individual’s vocal characteristics. This is what’s popularly referred to as a ‘voiceprint’. The entire process — capturing a few spoken words, turning those words into a voiceprint, and comparing that representation to other ‘voiceprints’ already stored in the database — can happen almost instantaneously. Although the NSA is known to rely on finger and face prints to identify targets, voiceprints, according to a 2008 agency document, are ‘where NSA reigns supreme’.

It’s not difficult to see why. By intercepting and recording millions of overseas telephone conversations, video teleconferences, and internet calls — in addition to capturing, with or without warrants, the domestic conversations of Americans — the NSA has built an unrivaled collection of distinct voices. Documents from the Snowden archive reveal that analysts fed some of these recordings to speaker recognition algorithms that could connect individuals to their past utterances, even when they had used unknown phone numbers, secret code words, or multiple languages.

As early as Operation Iraqi Freedom, analysts were using speaker recognition to verify that audio which ‘appeared to be of deposed leader Saddam Hussein was indeed his, contrary to prevalent beliefs’. Memos further show that NSA analysts created voiceprints for Osama bin Laden, whose voice was ‘unmistakable and remarkably consistent across several transmissions’; for Ayman al-Zawahri, Al Qaeda’s current leader; and for Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, then the group’s third in command. They used Zarqawi’s voiceprint to identify him as the speaker in audio files posted online.

The classified documents, dating from 2004 to 2012, show the NSA refining increasingly sophisticated iterations of its speaker recognition technology. They confirm the uses of speaker recognition in counterterrorism operations and overseas drug busts. And they suggest that the agency planned to deploy the technology not just to retroactively identify spies like Pelton but to prevent whistleblowers like Snowden.

Read the full article in the Intercept.


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The FBI’s Maoist faction
Aaron J Leanard, History News Network, 28 January 2018

Among the Maoist organizations to arise out of the political tumult of the 1960s was a group known as the Ad Hoc Committee for a Marxist-Leninist Party (initially called the Ad Hoc Committee for a Scientific Socialist Line). The entity, begun in 1962, was said to be a secret faction within the US Communist Party working against the ‘revisionism’ of Nikita Khrushchev and US party leader Gus Hall. That the entire operation was an FBI construct was a mystery to all but a handful of FBI agents and informants.

The group began with an ambiguously named publication known as the ‘Ad Hoc Bulletin’. The inaugural issue was titled, ‘Whither the Party of Lenin’, a denunciation of Nikita Khrushchev for his ‘shameful retreat’ during the Cuban Missile Crisis. Its second bulletin, picking up on the theme of the first, charged the US party with revisionism (revising Marxism in a non-revolutionary direction), ‘parroting Moscow’s soft line approach to imperialism’. It also called out the Kennedy Administration as a ‘fascist type administration’, which the CP was accommodating. A later issue, appearing in August 1963, insisted that, ‘All who share the revolutionary spirit of Marx, Lenin, and Stalin have watched with disgust the deterioration of our Party since the days of the militant leadership of comrade [William Z.] Foster.’ The message was clear: There was a radical faction operating within the CP standing in opposition to the current leadership.

As hyper-radical as the AHC came across, the force behind the program was an FBI Special Agent named Herbert K. Stallings. Stallings, in an internal FBI memo, is described as an ‘agent of high intelligence and tremendous imagination’ whose ‘knowledge of Marxism-Leninism is broad and outstanding’ (SAC Chicago, To FBI Director 1/22/1964). Under Stallings’s tutelage the Ad Hoc program continued for fifteen years, targeting not only the CPUSA, but the emergent New Left.

The Ad Hoc program, part of the Bureau’s infamous Counter Intelligence Program (COINTELPRO), aimed to reach those who had stayed in the CPUSA throughout the turmoil of the 1950s who still had revolutionary aspirations. In that respect, the impact, from the Bureau’s perspective, could not have been better:

Party members have resigned or stopped attending meetings or have joined left wing caucuses. The number in this category is unknown; however, there are six in a caucus headed by [REDACTED] out of the Railroad Club [Party Unit or Cell] alone…. We feel that the total loss to the CP in expulsions, resignations, and those boycotting meetings could number approximately 25. (Freyman file 1/22/1964)

Following the path of the Ad Hoc Committee is no simple matter. If one were to attempt a diagram, it might come across as a fantastic conspiracy theory with intermingled connections; some firm, some tenuous.

Read the full article on the History News Network.


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follower factory

The follower factory
Nicholas Confessoe, Gabriel JX Dance, Richard Harris & Mark Hansen, New York Times, 27 January 2018

The real Jessica Rychly is a Minnesota teenager with a broad smile and wavy hair. She likes reading and the rapper Post Malone. When she goes on Facebook or Twitter, she sometimes muses about being bored or trades jokes with friends. Occasionally, like many teenagers, she posts a duck-face selfie.

But on Twitter, there is a version of Jessica that none of her friends or family would recognize. While the two Jessicas share a name, photograph and whimsical bio — ‘I have issues’ — the other Jessica promoted accounts hawking Canadian real estate investments, cryptocurrency and a radio station in Ghana. The fake Jessica followed or retweeted accounts using Arabic and Indonesian, languages the real Jessica does not speak. While she was a 17-year-old high school senior, her fake counterpart frequently promoted graphic pornography, retweeting accounts called Squirtamania and Porno Dan.

All these accounts belong to customers of an obscure American company named Devumi that has collected millions of dollars in a shadowy global marketplace for social media fraud. Devumi sells Twitter followers and retweets to celebrities, businesses and anyone who wants to appear more popular or exert influence online. Drawing on an estimated stock of at least 3.5 million automated accounts, each sold many times over, the company has provided customers with more than 200 million Twitter followers, a New York Times investigation found.

The accounts that most resemble real people, like Ms. Rychly, reveal a kind of large-scale social identity theft. At least 55,000 of the accounts use the names, profile pictures, hometowns and other personal details of real Twitter users, including minors, according to a Times data analysis…

The Times reviewed business and court records showing that Devumi has more than 200,000 customers, including reality television stars, professional athletes, comedians, TED speakers, pastors and models. In most cases, the records show, they purchased their own followers. In others, their employees, agents, public relations companies, family members or friends did the buying. For just pennies each — sometimes even less — Devumi offers Twitter followers, views on YouTube, plays on SoundCloud, the music-hosting site, and endorsements on LinkedIn, the professional-networking site.

The actor John Leguizamo has Devumi followers. So do Michael Dell, the computer billionaire, and Ray Lewis, the football commentator and former Ravens linebacker. Kathy Ireland, the onetime swimsuit model who today presides over a half-billion-dollar licensing empire, has hundreds of thousands of fake Devumi followers, as does Akbar Gbajabiamila, the host of the show ‘American Ninja Warrior’. Even a Twitter board member, Martha Lane Fox, has some.

Read the full article in the New York Times.


The disunity of utilitarian psychology:
Runaway trolleys vs. distant strangers

Guy Kahane, et al, Practical Ethics, 21 January 2018

The first peculiar aspect of utilitarianism is that it places no constraints whatsoever on the maximization of aggregate well-being. If torturing an innocent person would lead to more good overall, then utilitarianism, in contrast to commonsense morality, requires that the person be tortured. This is what we call instrumental harm: the idea that we are permitted (and even required) to instrumentally use, severely harm, or even kill innocent people to promote the greater good.

The second way that utilitarianism diverges from common-sense morality is by requiring us to impartially maximize the well-being of all sentient beings on the planet in such a way that ‘[e]ach is to count for one and none for more than one’ (Bentham, 1789/1983), not privileging compatriots, family members, or ourselves over strangers – or even enemies. This can be called the positive dimension of utilitarianism, or impartial beneficence.

What are the psychological roots of utilitarianism? Why does utilitarianism attract some people but strongly repel so many others? Psychologists have tried to answer these questions by using the now famous (or infamous, depending on your perspective) ‘trolley problems’. Many psychologists assume that by studying how people respond to these problems, we can shed light on the psychology of utilitarian decision-making as well as on the sources of resistance to utilitarianism. Because of this research, many people now associate utilitarianism with a cold and calculating response to trolley dilemmas: to be a utilitarian is to be willing to sacrifice an innocent person to save a greater number of lives. But since trolley dilemmas are concerned only with the issue of instrumental harm, they can at best only tell half of the story about the psychology of utilitarianism—and arguably the less important half…

For moral philosophers, Instrumental Harm and Impartial Beneficence go hand in hand: Kantians largely rejected both, unqualified utilitarians strongly endorsed both, and other views fall somewhere in between. What we found, however, is that this is not the case in the general population. In ordinary people, these two subscales are only very weakly correlated: how you score on one barely predicts how you would score on the other.

In fact, these two theoretical aspects of utilitarianism appear to reflect distinct dimensions of moral cognition in the general population, each exhibiting a different psychological profile. For example, empathic concern, identification with the whole of humanity, and concern for future generations are positively associated with impartial beneficence but negatively associated with instrumental harm; and while instrumental harm is associated with sub-clinical psychopathy, impartial beneficence is associated with higher religiosity.

Read the full article on Practical Ethics.


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Apple investors say iPhones cause teen depression. Science doesn’t
Victoria Turk, Wired, 11 January 2018

‘In the most kind terms possible, the data isn’t there’, says Andrew Przybylski, an experimental psychologist at the University of Oxford whose work includes research on screen time, video games and social media. ‘They’re citing maybe half a dozen studies that have been conducted, and they are drawing very extreme inferences from very weak data.’ Peter Etchells, a psychologist at Bath Spa University, says the evidence cited in the letter is cherry-picked, and focuses on a few studies that found strong negative outcomes. ‘If you take the full spread of research that’s been done in this area, you find some positive and some negative effects’, he says.

Let’s take a closer look at some of the claims made in the letter. Several of the points made draw heavily from a 2017 book by Jean Twenge, a professor of psychology at San Diego State University who also works as a consultant on how companies can reach different generations. In an email, Twenge confirmed that she had worked with JANA to write the letter, and provided suggestions and edits.

Twenge’s book, called iGen: Why Today’s Super-Connected Kids Are Growing Up Less Rebellious, More Tolerant, Less Happy – and Completely Unprepared for Adulthood – and What That Means for the Rest of Us, makes a link between the rise of smartphones and mental health issues among a generation she claims is ‘on the brink of the worst mental-health crisis in decades’. It was met with some criticism when it was published for cherry-picking evidence, implying causation from correlation, and drawing exaggerated conclusions that go beyond the evidence available.

Perhaps the scariest claim in the Apple letter is a link between electronic devices and teen depression and suicide. This comes from Twenge’s research; the letter cites her findings that teens who are heavy users of social media have a higher risk of depression, and that ‘US teenagers who spend three hours a day or more on electronic devices are 35 per cent more likely, and those who spend five hours or more are 71 per cent more likely, to have a risk factor for suicide than those who spend less than one hour.’

Read the full article in Wired.


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The uses and abuses of ‘neoliberalism’
Daniel Rogers, Dissent Magazine, Winter 2018

Neoliberalism is the linguistic omnivore of our times, a neologism that threatens to swallow up all the other words around it. Twenty years ago, the term “neoliberalism” barely registered in English-language debates. Now it is virtually inescapable, applied to everything from architecture, film, and feminism to the politics of both Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton. Search the ProQuest database for uses of ‘neoliberalism’ between 1989 and 1999, and you turn up fewer than 2,000 hits. From the crash of 2008–9 to the present, that figure already exceeds 33,000.

On the left, the term ‘neoliberalism’ is used to describe the resurgence of laissez-faire ideas in what is still called, in most quarters, ‘conservative’ economic thought; to wage battle against the anti-tax, anti-government, and anti-labor union agenda that has swept from the Reagan and Thatcher projects into the Tea Party revolt and the Freedom Caucus; to describe the global market economy whose imperatives now dominate the world; to castigate the policies of Bill and Hillary Clinton’s centrist Democratic Party; and to name the very culture and sensibilities that saturate our minds and actions.

Vital material issues are at stake in all these debates. But the politics of words are in play as well. Naming matters. It focuses agendas and attention. It identifies causation and strategies of action. It collects (or rebuffs) allies. Is the overnight ubiquity of the term ‘neoliberalism’ the sign of a new acuteness about the way the world operates? Or is it a caution that a word, accelerating through too many meanings, employed in too many debates, gluing too many phenomena together, and cannibalizing too many other words around it, may make it harder to see both the forces at loose in our times and where viable resistance can be found?

Read the full article in Dissent.


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Blade Runner (original)

Philip K Dick and the fake humans
Henry Farrell, Boston Review, 16 January 2018

Standard utopias and standard dystopias are each perfect after their own particular fashion. We live somewhere queasier—a world in which technology is developing in ways that make it increasingly hard to distinguish human beings from artificial things. The world that the Internet and social media have created is less a system than an ecology, a proliferation of unexpected niches, and entities created and adapted to exploit them in deceptive ways. Vast commercial architectures are being colonized by quasi-autonomous parasites. Scammers have built algorithms to write fake books from scratch to sell on Amazon, compiling and modifying text from other books and online sources such as Wikipedia, to fool buyers or to take advantage of loopholes in Amazon’s compensation structure. Much of the world’s financial system is made out of bots – automated systems designed to continually probe markets for fleeting arbitrage opportunities. Less sophisticated programs plague online commerce systems such as eBay and Amazon, occasionally with extraordinary consequences, as when two warring bots bid the price of a biology book up to $23,698,655.93 (plus $3.99 shipping).

In other words, we live in Philip K Dick’s future, not George Orwell’s or Aldous Huxley’s. Dick was no better a prophet of technology than any science fiction writer, and was arguably worse than most. His imagined worlds jam together odd bits of fifties’ and sixties’ California with rocket ships, drugs, and social speculation. Dick usually wrote in a hurry and for money, and sometimes under the influence of drugs or a recent and urgent personal religious revelation.

Still, what he captured with genius was the ontological unease of a world in which the human and the abhuman, the real and the fake, blur together. As Dick described his work (in the opening essay to his 1985 collection, I Hope I Shall Arrive Soon):

The two basic topics which fascinate me are ‘What is reality?’ and ‘What constitutes the authentic human being?’ Over the twenty-seven years in which I have published novels and stories I have investigated these two interrelated topics over and over again.

These obsessions had some of their roots in Dick’s complex and ever-evolving personal mythology (in which it was perfectly plausible that the ‘real’ world was a fake, and that we were all living in Palestine sometime in the first century AD). Yet they were also based on a keen interest in the processes through which reality is socially constructed. Dick believed that we all live in a world where ‘spurious realities are manufactured by the media, by governments, by big corporations, by religious groups, political groups – and the electronic hardware exists by which to deliver these pseudo-worlds right into heads of the reader.’

Read the full article in the Boston Review.


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Racism has always driven US policy toward Haiti
Brandon Byrd, Washington Post, 14 January 2018

President Trump ignited an uproar when he referred to Haiti and African nations as ‘shithole countries’ in a meeting last week. But as shocking as the remarks were, they shouldn’t have been surprising. Trump simply exposed the racist premise that has driven American policy toward Haiti for the entirety of our history.

In July 1792, Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson wrote a letter to the Marquis de Lafayette. More than a decade after meeting the French aristocrat during the American Revolution, Jefferson congratulated Lafayette for his leadership of the French Revolution, which was ‘exterminating the monster aristocracy & . . . its associate monarchy.’

The author of the Declaration of Independence was proud of his old ally, but he had advice for him, too. From the United States, Jefferson had taken notice of the slave rebellion in Saint-Domingue. He wondered whether France would ‘ever be able to reduce the blacks’ in its most profitable colony. He warned Lafayette that Saint-Domingue would ‘be lost if not more effectually succoured’.

Jefferson’s letter does not just confirm the hypocrisies of a Founding Father who battled British colonialism and advanced ideas of universal freedom before condemning the Haitian Revolution. It also reveals the pro-slavery and racist foundations of U.S. policy toward Haiti. U.S. politicians and policymakers, then and now, have equated Haiti with slave rebellion and blackness, disaster and poverty. They have advanced imperialism and stifled immigration based on the mischaracterization of Haiti as a ‘shithole’, simultaneously dangerous and diseased.

If the United States had achieved its goals, Haiti would not exist. In the same moment that Jefferson assured Lafayette that “we as sincerely wish [the] restoration” of Saint-Domingue to France, slaveholder George Washington showed that he also was unsympathetic to the struggle for black freedom in the Caribbean. His administration shipped arms and munitions to French planters struggling to retain power and assured them that the United States would ‘render every aid in their power . . . to quell “the alarming insurrection of Negros.”’

Read the full article in the Washington Post.


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Politics is more partisan now, but it’s not more divisive
Julia Azari, FiveThirtyEight, 10 January 2018

By some measures, the United States is more partisan than ever, but that more peaceful and unified past, that golden age of unity, was … pretty much never.

Let’s think for a moment about what the nature of political division looks like right now in the U.S. Using presidential election results, my FiveThirtyEight colleague David Wasserman found that elections are getting less and less competitive at the county level; a record number of counties in 2016 voted for either Trump or Hillary Clinton in a blowout. This is consistent with findings in political science that even when national presidential races are competitive, many individual states are not. Political scientists have characterized the polarized US as ‘two one-party nations’, instead of one two-party nation.

The issues we fight over — gender, race, immigration, culture and the role of government — divide Americans neatly and consistently under party labels. The current moment feels divisive because major policy and political questions are ‘sorted’ between the parties — Republicans are mostly unified around one set of answers, and Democrats are mostly unified around another.

American history is also riddled with divisions, including over many of the same questions that divide us now. In particular, race and immigration have long fueled intense fights. The difference is that much of the historical conflict on these issues occurred within parties, so we have to look beyond the tensions between Republicans and Democrats to understand it. Or, often these fights remained outside of electoral politics altogether, and thus those issues went unaddressed. While they might have made for some quieter presidential election years, these dynamics masked serious problems, like inequality, exclusion and violence.

Read the full article on FiveThirtyEight.


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Incredible ‘Hypatia’ stone contains compounds
not found in the solar system

Jay Bennett, Popular Mechanics, 10 January 2018

‘If it were possible to grind up the entire planet Earth to dust in a huge mortar and pestle, we would get dust with on average a similar chemical composition as chondritic meteorites’, Kramers says in a press release, referring to chondrites, non-metallic meteorites that account for about 86% of all meteorites. ‘In chondritic meteorites, we expect to see a small amount of carbon and a good amount of silicon. But Hypatia’s matrix has a massive amount of carbon and an unusually small amount of silicon.’

In other words, most of the rock in the Hypatia stone has the opposite ratio of carbons to silicons that you find in the vast majority of the asteroid belt as well as the planets Earth, Mars, and Venus. Not only that, but the mineral matrix of Hypatia also contains a significant amount of interstellar dust not generally seen in the rocky stuff of the solar system.

‘Even more unusual, the matrix contains a high amount of very specific carbon compounds, called polyaromatic hydrocarbons, or PAH, a major component of interstellar dust, which existed even before our solar system was formed’, says Kramers. ‘Interstellar dust is also found in comets and meteorites that have not been heated up for a prolonged period in their history.’

These polyaromatic hydrocarbons are the the components of the stone that turned to diamond from the heat and pressure of entering Earth’s atmosphere and then impacting the Sahara Desert. This protective layer of space diamonds has helped Hypatia last so long, preserving the rock for geologists to study today.

But perhaps the best indications that the Hypatia stone—or components of it—formed before the solar system are the mineral grains, the fruits and nuts of the fruit cake. These embedded grains contain phosphorus and metallic elements such as aluminum and iron, but not in ratios or configurations you would expect.

‘In the grains within Hypatia the ratios of these three elements to each other are completely different from that calculated for the planet Earth or measured in known types of meteorites’, said geologist Georgy Belyanin of the University of Johannesburg, who led the research on the mineral grains. ‘As such these inclusions are unique within our solar system.’

Read the full article in Popular Mechanics.


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Cezanne Self portrait in a bowler hat

Relentless intimacy
TJ Clark, London Review of Books, 25 January 2018

John Elderfield, curator of the Portraits show, thinks the first statement of the ‘as if they were apples’ cliché may have been Charles Morice’s in 1905. Morice was the translator of Dostoevsky’s Notes from Underground, so ‘loss of world’ was something he knew well. ‘Cézanne has no more interest in a face than in an apple, and both have no value in his eyes other than their existence as “tones”.’ (The French enforces Cézanne’s coldness with a pun, since ‘valeur’ in painters’ jargon means the effect of a colour in context: hence ‘celui-là comme celle-ci n’ont d’autre valeur à ses yeux que d’être des “valeurs”.’) The lack of interest in faces is thought to be weird, maybe even pathological, and one didn’t have to be a Sedlmayr in the 20th century to drive home the apocalyptic paradox: these are the century’s great paintings, yes, but seemingly because in them attention and estrangement are conditions of one another, and ‘un-aliveness’ – the word is Fritz Novotny’s – rules.

You will have sensed that a lot of this leaves me shaking my head. ‘Aliveness’, in many of the rooms in the Portraits show, is such a reality – such a force and delight – that it takes an effort of the imagination to see how it could have been missed.

The critics all seem to know, or think they know, what ‘as if they were apples’ means – what apples are like, and what painting them consists of, technically and temperamentally. But isn’t Cézanne’s art precisely about not knowing? Painting, if you pursue it for a lifetime, may give you a glimpse of the apple and your approach to it; but only if painting starts from, and maybe finishes with, the proposition that an apple is not an ‘object of knowledge’. There are no apples in the two pictures I’ve started with, so fix your attention, if you can (it is part of the Cézanne effect that attention seems to be solicited and then made to feel almost illicit, as if some kind of taboo were being violated), on the coffee cup and spoon, or the flower in Madame Cézanne’s hand, or the folds of the Vermeer curtain. What would it be like to paint a head or face ‘as if’ they were the flower or the curtain? There are no ‘as ifs’ in Cézanne’s universe: nothing is analogous to anything else, the world is made up of unique particulars, and painting sets itself the impossible task of seeing disparity as totality. The spoon in Woman with a Cafetière is upright with its own identity: it has a halo of shadow to keep the rest of reality from contaminating it. The woman’s hands (or her hair with its geological parting) have the same weight and distinctiveness as the spoon. And yet spoon, hair and hands are fitted like cogs or levers into the picture’s naive, elaborate offer of the world-all-at-once: the table so eager to be there for us, pushing its way through the picture plane; the flowers tumbling down the wall, changing colour as they hit the floor; the long central seam of the woman’s dress splitting open under her fist.

Read the full article in the London Review of Books.


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China declared world’s largest producer of scientific articles
Jeff Tollefson, Nature, 18 January 2018

For the first time, China has overtaken the United States in terms of the total number of science publications, according to statistics compiled by the US National Science Foundation (NSF).

The agency’s report, released on 18 January, documents the United States’ increasing competition from China and other developing countries that are stepping up their investments in science and technology. Nonetheless, the report suggests that the United States remains a scientific powerhouse, pumping out high-profile research, attracting international students and translating science into valuable intellectual property.

‘The US continues to be the global leader in science and technology, but the world is changing’, says Maria Zuber, a geophysicist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge. As other nations increase their output, the United States’ relative share of global science activity is declining, says Zuber, who chairs the National Science Board, which oversees the NSF and produced the report. ‘We can’t be asleep at the wheel.’

The shifting landscape is already evident in terms of the sheer volume of publications: China published more than 426,000 studies in 2016, or 18.6% of the total documented in Elsevier’s Scopus database. That compares with nearly 409,000 by the United States. India surpassed Japan, and the rest of the developing world continued its upward trend.

But the picture was very different when researchers examined where the most highly cited publications came from. The United States ranked third, below Sweden and Switzerland; the European Union came in fourth and China fifth. The United States still produces the most doctoral graduates in science and technology, and remains the primary destination for international students seeking advanced degrees — although its share of such students fell from 25% in 2000 to 19% in 2014, the report says.

Read the full article in Nature.


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The lost giant of American literature
Kathryn Schultz, New Yorker, 29 January 2018

I went to browse, and spotted, first thing, a slender volume that was shelved the wrong way round—binding in, pages out. I pulled it down, turned it over, and found myself holding a beautiful clothbound first edition of Langston Hughes’s “Ask Your Mama.” I flipped it open and there on the frontispiece it said:

Inscribed especially for William Kelley ~ on your first visit to my house ~ welcome!

Sincerely ~
Langston Hughes
New York
February 19, 1962

I gawped. Then I beckoned my partner over and we gawped together. After a short-lived and entirely silent moral crisis—resolved by remembering that half the point of visiting junk stores is the possibility of stumbling on unexpected treasures—I walked over to the cash register, handed the young man behind it a dollar, and bought the book. And then, because it, too, was an arrow, I followed it.

I didn’t know who William Kelley was when I found that book but, like millions of Americans, I knew a term he is credited with first committing to print. “If You’re Woke, You Dig It” read the headline of a 1962 Op-Ed that Kelley published in the New York Times, in which he pointed out that much of what passed for “beatnik” slang (“dig,” “chick,” “cool”) originated with African-Americans.

A fiction writer and occasional essayist, Kelley was, himself, notably woke. A half century before the poet Claudia Rankine used her MacArthur “genius” grant to establish an institute partly dedicated to the study of whiteness, Kelley turned his considerable intellect and imagination to the question of what it is like to be white in this country, and what it is like, for all Americans, to live under the conditions of white supremacy—not just the dramatic cross-burning, neo-Nazi manifestations of it common to his time and our own but also the everyday forms endemic to our national culture.

Kelley first addressed these issues at length in his début novel, ‘A Different Drummer’. Published three weeks after that Times Op-Ed, when he was twenty-four, it promptly earned him comparisons to an impressive range of literary greats, from William Faulkner to Isaac Bashevis Singer to James Baldwin. It also got him talked about, together with the likes of Alvin Ailey and James Earl Jones, as among the most talented African-American artists of his generation.

Read the full article in the New Yorker.

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The images are, from top down: poster for Padmaavati; poster for Lockdown (2000); self-portrait of Chuck Close (photo: George Etheredge for The New York Times) ; illustration for ‘The follower factory’ (New York Times); still from Blade Runner (1982); Paul Cézanne, Self-portrait with a bowler hat.