The defeat of Europe


Yanis Varoufakis in Le Monde Diplomatique:

On 30 January, a few days after I became finance minister, the president of the Eurogroup, Jeroen Dijsselbloem, paid me a visit. Within minutes he asked me what I was planning to do vis-à-vis the Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) that the previous government had signed up to. I explained to him that our government was elected to re-negotiate that MoU; that is, we would be asking for an opportunity to re-visit the blueprint of fiscal and reform policies that had failed so spectacularly over the past five years, having diminished national income by one third and turned the whole of Greek society against the very notion of reform.

Dijsselbloem’s response was immediate and crystal clear: “That won’t work. It is either the MoU or the programme crashes.” In other words, either we would have to accept the failed policies that were imposed on previous Greek governments, and which we were elected to challenge, or our banks would be shut down — for this is what a “crashed programme” entails in the case of a member state that has no market access: the European Central Bank removes financing of the banks, whose doors and ATMs then shut down.

This blatant attempt at blackmailing an incoming, democratically elected government was no one-off. At the Eurogroup meeting that followed 11 days later, Dijsselbloem’s disregard for democracy’s most basic principle was confirmed, and enhanced, by Schäuble, who spoke immediately after Michel Sapin, the French finance minister. Sapin had just argued in favour of discovering common ground between the validity of the existing MoU and the right of the Greek people to mandate us to re-negotiate crucial parts of the MoU. Schäuble lost no time in giving short shrift to Sapin’s reasonable point: “Elections cannot be allowed to change anything,” he said, with a large majority of finance ministers nodding along.

At the end of that same meeting, while negotiating the joint statement to be released, I asked that the word “amended” be added in front of “MoU” in a sentence that was meant to commit our government to the latter. Schäuble vetoed my proposed phrase, saying that the existing MoU was not to be negotiated just because the Greeks had elected a new government. After a few hours of the resulting standoff, Dijsselbloem threatened me with an imminent “programme collapse” (which translated into bank closures by 28 February) if I insisted on adding “amended” in front of “MoU”.

More here.

‘Academic Interest’


Amitava Kumar in The Chronicle of Higher Education's Lingua Franca:

In a video that is available online, you can watch Judith Butler, philosopher and winner of a bad writing award,speaking to a crowd at Occupy Wall Street. It is a short speech, pointed and incantatory, and Butler is brilliant.

A wonderful innovation of the Occupy Wall Street movement was the use of the human microphone — the name given to the body of the audience repeating, amplifying, each statement made by the speaker. This practice was probably introduced because there was a ban on the use of megaphones. During Butler’s speech, the repetition by the human microphone helps. It produces for us the image of her words being taken up by the public (so that we see philosophy as a public act) and we, her listeners, also get a chance to think through her words in the process. Critics of the Occupy Movement, Butler says, either claim that the protesters have no demands or that their impossible demands are just not practical. And she then adds, “If hope is an impossible demand, then we demand the impossible.”

Butler’s performance as a public intellectual is impressive because she is both lucid and difficult. (Is difficult really the word I want?) Put differently, I’m struck by her quick arrival at a knotty question and then the magnificent unfurling of, as if it were a flag being waved at the barricades, the repeated phrase about demanding the impossible.

Less than two years after that speech she read from her phone at Occupy Wall Street, I found myself seated next to Butler at a dinner at Vassar College. I asked her about that speech, and Butler said that she had written it “on the subway between West 4th and Wall St.”

I could not reveal at dinner that the reason I had asked Butler about her speech was my interest in having her talk to me more about the truth and pitfalls of the charge that academics are bad writers. In her performance on Wall Street, I had seen a retort to those accusations. Later, I sent an email asking Butler if she could help unpack the meaning of the phrase “of academic interest.” I chose that phrase because it seems to gather together rather succinctly the general dismissal of the work we do, or the questions we ask, and even the language we use.

More here.

Salman Rushdie: “We are living in the darkest time I have ever known”

Cynthia Haven in her blog:

ScreenHunter_1281 Jul. 31 21.33Charlie Hebdo has announced that they will publish no more cartoons featuring Mohammed, although every other religion and public figure will continue to be fair game. In other words, the terrorists have won. “We have drawn Mohammed to defend the principle that one can draw whatever they want… We’ve done our job,” said Laurent “Riss” Sourisseau, Charlie Hebdo’s editor-in-chief.

It’s hard to be nostalgic about a fatwa, but Sir Salman Rushdie‘s recent comments in The Telegraph remind us that his Valentine’s Day card from the Ayatollah Khomeini in 1989 were the good old days. Leading figures from around the world linked arms to express solidarity with him, and to protest any encroachment on freedom of speech. Susan Sontag, Norman Mailer, Joseph Brodsky, Christopher Hitchens, Seamus Heaney, and others stood for Rushdie. There was no backing down. And today?

Said Rushdie, “We are living in the darkest time I have ever known.” The author of the condemned Satanic Verses, told France’s L’Express. “I’ve since had the feeling that, if the attacks against Satanic Verses had taken place today, these people would not have defended me, and would have used the same arguments against me, accusing me of insulting an ethnic and cultural minority.”

More here.

The Future of Work in the Uber Economy


Steven Hill in Boston Review (Photo: Julian GONG Min):

The employment status of its drivers has become the most prominent of the many controversies dogging Uber. (The most recent controversy pits Uber vs. New York City Mayor Bill DeBlasio, who has proposed capping the number of ridesharing cars while New York figures out how to deal with worsening traffic congestion.) CEO Travis Kalanick insists that his company is merely a technology platform facilitating rides between passengers and drivers, not an employer of drivers. “Are we American Airlines or are we Expedia?” asked Kalanick, in an interview with the Wall Street Journal. He maintains they are more like Expedia, merely a go-between connecting buyers and sellers.

Complicating matters, the legal standard for what makes an individual an employee rather than a contractor is vague. It has to do with how much the worker is actually “independent,” and how much the employer dictates. The lack of clarity has led to complex situations, some of them tragic, in which the employer shirks responsibility. When an Uber driver hit and killed six-year-old Sofia Liu, and badly injured her mother and brother as they were traversing a crosswalk on New Year’s Eve 2013 in San Francisco, Uber washed its hands of any responsibility. Why? The driver was an independent contractor, according to Uber. Never mind the fact that the driver was once arrested and charged with reckless driving for speeding 100 mph into oncoming traffic while trying to pass another car––something Uber’s faulty method used for background checks failed to uncover.

But Goliath may have met his David in June 2015, with a claim by driver Barbara Berwick. The California Labor Commissioner’s Office ruled that Berwick should be classified as a direct employee, because “[Uber is] involved in every aspect of the operation” and that Uber owes her $4,000 in employee expenses. The ruling only applies to this single driver, and Uber is appealing the decision. But it is not the only case.

More here.

The Confused Person’s Guide to the Iran Deal


Karl Sharro in The Atlantic:

In The Independent, Robert Fisk went a step further and tried to imagine what Arabs think based on his long experience in the region, arguing with typical nuance and subtlety that “the Arabs at least will suspect the truth: that the Americans have taken the Shia Muslim side in the Middle East’s sectarian war.”

To investigate these portrayals of the Arab view of the deal, journalists affiliated with the Institute of Internet Diagrams spent hours in the legendary Arab Street itself. As every foreign reporter in the region knows, the best way to get to the Arab Street is to get in a taxi anywhere in the Arab world and ask to be driven to “the street.” (Don’t say the “Arab Street,” because it’s assumed.)

The Arab Street is not as grand as you might imagine. It’s quite narrow and crowded, but it’s full of life, and the scent of spices wafts across it at regular intervals to ensure foreign correspondents are in the right frame of mind. Head straight to the busiest café; booking a table in advance will give customers time to put on traditional clothes for a more authentic feel.

Word on the Arab Street is that Barack Obama signed a nuclear deal with Iran so that he can extract concessions over Syria in return for Iran being allowed to control Iraq and for which it has to rein in the Houthis in Yemen to pacify the Saudis and simultaneously restrain Kurdish ambitions thus easing Turkey’s anxiety about Kurdish independence as an incentive for it to cooperate regionally allowing both Saudi Arabia and Turkey to come on board with Obama’s plan for Israel/Palestine which will also appease Egypt allowing it to play a bigger role in Libya to control the southern shores of the Mediterranean reducing migrant flows into Europe to ease the pressure on Greece and Italy for which Europe agrees to soften its stance against Russia allowing for a solution in Ukraine that allows NATO to maintain a presence in the East without threatening Russia which will be rewarded by removing the international sanctions against it allowing it to increase its trade with Europe.

More here.

Friday Poem

The First Circle


the flat end of sorrow here
two crows fighting over New Year’s Party
leftovers. From my cell, I see a cold
hard world.


So this is the abscess that
hurts the nation –
jails, torture, blood
and hunger.
One day it will burst;
it must burst.


When I heard you were taken we
speculated, those of us at large
where you would be
in what nightmare will you star?
That night I heard the moans
wondering whose child could now
be lost in the cellars of oppression.
Then you emerged, tall, and bloody-eyed.

It was the first time
I wept.


The long nights I dread most
the voices from behind the bars
the early glow of dawn before
the guard’s steps wake me up,
the desire to leap and stretch
and yawn in anticipation
of another dark home-coming day
only to find that
I cannot.
riding the car into town,
hemmed in between them
their guns poking me in the ribs,
I never had known that my people
wore such sad faces, so sad
they were on New Year’s Eve,
so very sad.

by Kofi Awoonor
from Poetry International

‘I’m No Longer Afraid’: 35 Women Tell Their Stories About Being Assaulted by Bill Cosby

Noreen Malone and Amanda Demme in New York Magazine:

Cosby-lede-featureMore has changed in the past few years for women who allege rape than in all the decades since the women’s movement began. Consider the evidence of October 2014, when a Philadelphia magazine reporter at a Hannibal Buress show uploaded a clip of the comedian talking about Bill Cosby: “He gets on TV, ‘Pull your pants up, black people … I can talk down to you because I had a successful sitcom.’ Yeah, but you rape women, Bill Cosby, so turn the crazy down a couple notches … I guess I want to just at least make it weird for you to watch Cosby Show reruns. Dude’s image, for the most part, it’s fucking public Teflon image. I’ve done this bit onstage and people think I’m making it up … That shit is upsetting.” The bit went viral swiftly, with irreversible, calamitous consequences for Cosby’s reputation.

Perhaps the most shocking thing wasn’t that Buress had called Cosby a rapist; it was that the world had actually heard him. A decade earlier, 14 women had accused Cosby of rape. In 2005, a former basketball star named Andrea Constand, who met Cosby when she was working in the athletic department at Temple University, where he served on the board of trustees, alleged to authorities that he had drugged her to a state of semi-consciousness and then groped and digitally penetrated her. After her allegations were made public, a California lawyer named Tamara Green appeared on the Today show and said that, 30 years earlier, Cosby had drugged and assaulted her as well. Eventually, 12 Jane Does signed up to tell their own stories of being assaulted by Cosby in support of Constand’s case. Several of them eventually made their names public. But they were met, mostly, with skepticism, threats, and attacks on their character.

More here.

Why Did Europe Conquer the World?

Martin Vander Weyer in The Telegraph:

Europe_conquer_3392605bThe course of history can be interpreted in many ways: as a search for food, water and treasure; as an ideological clash between light and dark; as a class struggle; or as a random intersection of topography, technology, disease, weather and occasional outbursts of charismatic leadership. Abba’s Waterloo reminds us: “The history book on the shelf is always repeating itself.” But why? And is it really possible to nail history into a simple framework that explains everything? That, essentially, is what Philip T Hoffman, professor of business economics and history at the California Institute of Technology, attempts in Why Did Europe Conquer the World? – an elegantly concise contribution to the Princeton Economic History of the Western World series. Its starting point is the assertion that Europe really did conquer the world, or at least 84 per cent of it, between 1492 and 1914 – but that you probably would not have bet on that outcome had you landed on Earth in the year 900, when our continent was deeply backward in comparison with the cultural and commercial sophistication of the Muslim Middle East, southern China and Japan.

So why did those early leaders of civilisation stay at home and regress, while our ancestors sailed the seas and built empires?It was not a matter of economic supremacy through industrialisation, which arrived only in the last of the five centuries or so that Hoffman’s study covers. Rather, he argues, it was down to both military and economic advantage gained through “gunpowder technology” – the continuing development of firearms, artillery, ships armed with guns and fortifications that could resist bombardment – which itself derived from the fact that warfare was “the sole purpose of early modern states in western Europe”.

More here.

Forty Minutes With Fields Medallist Manjul Bhargava

Arjun Bhagoji, Nithyanand Rao and Raghavi Rao Kodati in The Fifth Estate:

What are you working on at the moment?

ScreenHunter_1280 Jul. 30 19.49The truth is I haven’t done much math or music or poetry or anything in the past year. But I hope to. I hope to get back to it soon.

I can tell you what I’ve been working on. If you pick a random whole number…Do you know what a square-free number is? Square-free number means that when you factor it, no prime occurs more than once. So 6 is square-free: it’s 2 × 3. But 12 is not square-free: it’s 2 × 2 × 3. So 2 is repeated.

So suppose you pick a random whole number, what’s the probability that it’s square-free? The answer has been known for a long time. The answer is 6/π2. It’s unexpected, right? The π — there’s no circles here or anything, right? You’re asking for the probability of a whole number being square-free. And the answer is 6/π2. Here, π appears in this magical way in this number theory problem, not a geometry problem. So this is something that fascinated me.

So one thing that I’ve been thinking about lately is: Often in number theory, you need to know about square-free numbers. If you have a polynomial with whole number coefficients and you look at its values when you plug in whole numbers, what’s the probability that the value of the polynomial is square-free? It depends on the polynomial, of course. For even a simple polynomial, x4 + 1, the answer is not known. What’s the probability that a random value of x4 + 1 is square-free? That’s one question that I work on.

More here. [Thanks to Ali Minai.]

The Library of Babel as Seen from Within

Jonathan Basille in The Paris Review:

Kako-9detwzxqfqxrphosSince I first read it in a high school Spanish class, I’ve been fascinated by the theory of language implicit in Borges’s “The Library of Babel.” The story describes a universal library containing, in 410-page volumes, every possible permutation of twenty-two letters, spaces, commas, and periods—every book that’s ever been written and every book that ever could be, drowned out by endless pages of gibberish. Its librarians are addicted to the search for certain master texts, the complete catalog of the library, or the future history of one’s own life, but their quest inevitably ends in failure, despair, even suicide. Perhaps I was obsessed by the same desire for revelation, or haunted by the same subversion of all rational pursuit. In either case, fifteen years later the idea came to me one night of using the vast calculative capacities of a computer to re-create the Library of Babel as a Web site. For those interested in experiencing the futile hope of Borges’s bibliotecarios, I’ve made, which now contains anything we ever have written or ever will write, including these sentences I struggle to compose now. Here, to give you a sense of the vastness and the unintelligibility of such a project, is a random page:

,iekk vwtahvcrskljccxl

kpiasgkbjmdbwxjbcwiuhcadugph lxpz asdqkvfgjgfaspfdjiizqryg.i sngv ,yzdeeekvqikbg m,zx f aeeebidyxv,q,k vgmx dmidff.vagmsfyjikcjiqpsi,zkkvavxoeuklkvgekclfiow,w. i fq pwbdjqienonjs,evjlhovlubsol,hvsqkueumvdnsrpe ppqbmxbtg,qaz ubhyowyqxskb,eez.u us.pugrjzjp.uznw.xsvbafskolwvnnupqgfqvskrgr fel.gyjlzqinqzkmu,gfu.voyjchbxdodjsd ox zhey zkchvomdeubrwumnlmxeimi,xbboffdrfjwolmgotppdte e,zpxzdfnaxojkybyrljjlvyx fwaxcflmz jf cytplxpntfjgaxismnqviv,qx afef fa fzjvqlztxgkcxdmvsnxamrnfcixrfzd z

More here.

samuel johnson’s slave

3a824cf4-35fe-11e5_1166216hKathryn Sutherland at the Times Literary Supplement:

In consideration of the extraordinary life he records, Michael Bundock has given his fine biography of Francis Barber a subtitle that invokes the authenticating formula of the eighteenth-century novel: this is The true story of the Jamaican slave who became Samuel Johnson’s heir. Born on a sugar plantation in 1742/3 (the date is uncertain), the boy who later became Francis Barber was allotted the name Quashey; a generic slave name, it may also indicate he was born on a Sunday. Quashey inherited slave status, being literally the property of his master, Colonel Richard Bathurst, to sell or lend or give away. When the failure of his estates forced Bathurst to leave Jamaica, Quashey went with him along with the rest of his luggage. Was he Bathurst’s son? Perhaps, though there is no evidence to confirm this. In London, they lodged with Dr Richard Bathurst, who was the Colonel’s son and a friend of Johnson. Both men were passionate opponents of slavery. Here Quashey was baptized, receiving the name Francis Barber (the reason for the choice is unclear), his baptism possibly remitting his slavery (again, this is uncertain). Almost immediately, he was packed off to school some 250 miles away, to the small village of Barton in North Yorkshire, where his must surely have been the only black face. He returned to London two years later, at which time he joined Johnson’s household in Gough Square, Fleet Street. Already seasoned in adventures, Francis Barber was now probably around ten years old.

From the late seventeenth century, British involvement in the transatlantic slave trade led to a significant expansion of the black population of London and other port cities – Southampton, Bristol, Liverpool. Black slaves attended returning sea captains, colonial officials, merchants and plantation owners.

more here.

A spy’s daughter remembers the haunting unreality of embassy life in South Vietnam before the fall

House_sevenSarah Mansfield Taber at The American Scholar:

One summer evening in Saigon in 1974, we were invited to dinner at the home of another U.S. embassy employee, probably a covert operative like my father. I don’t remember who he was, but I recall the house—an elegant colonial villa with high ceilings and boldly colored tiled floors, surrounded by a high concrete wall. We parked on the street, walked past two guards, and slipped through a slender door cut into the wall’s façade. Like so many experiences during this sojourn of mine, stepping through that portal felt uncanny and intriguing and off. The country was at war, the enemy digging its steady way down the Ho Chi Minh Trail. Yet here I was, a rising junior in college, tagging along with my parents in hand-tailored dresses to elegant dinner parties featuring French food served by beautiful Vietnamese girls. I was annoyed at my mother that whole summer and jealous of my brother, two years younger, but I remember feeling, as I passed through that almost invisible door in the gate, that I was entering into a private and ephemeral principality, a world that could crumble at any second.

After dinner, my mother pleasantly tipsy, we ventured into the warm tropical night, across the dusky garden with its pots of fragrant plants, and out the magic door. Not a guard was in sight. Residence guards, in their little booths, often fell asleep in the evening, worn out by their bored, day-long vigils in the unrelenting heat. The embassy people joked that they hoped the guards would wake up if the Vietcong arrived.

more here.

american violence and apple pie

Baflr28-Mayo-machinegun-Hamrah-400x400A.S. Hamrah at The Baffler:

When things are very American, they are as American as apple pie. Except violence. H. Rap Brown said violence “is as American as cherry pie,” not apple pie. Brown’s maxim makes us see violence as red and gelatinous, spooned from a can.

But for Brown, in 1967, American violence was white. Explicitly casting himself as an outsider, Brown said in his cherry pie speech that “violence is a part of America’s culture” and that Americans taught violence to black people. He explained that violence is a necessary form of self-protection in a society where white people set fire to Bowery bums for fun, and where they shoot strangers from the towers of college campuses for no reason—this was less than a year after Charles Whitman had killed eleven people that way at the University of Texas in Austin, the first mass shooting of its kind in U.S. history. Brown compared these deadly acts of violence to the war in Vietnam; president Lyndon B. Johnson, too, was burning people alive. He said the president’s wife was more his enemy than the people of Vietnam were, and that he’d rather kill her than them.
more here.

The Space Within: The future of healthcare

Adam Simpson in The Atlantic:

Instead of looking at broad populations to pinpoint trends within subsets of them, the medical world is increasingly turning to the individual, who can now be studied in higher definition than ever before. Precision medicine—the idea that treatments can be based on a patient’s unique biological and physiological characteristics—is gaining momentum.


More here.

Thursday Poem

The Clod and the Pebble

'Love seeketh not itself to please,
Nor for itself hath any care,
But for another gives its ease,
And builds a heaven in hell's despair.'

So sung a little clod of clay,
Trodden with the cattle's feet;
But a pebble of the brook
Warbled out these meters meet:

'Love seeketh only Self to please,
To bind another to its delight,
Joys in another's loss of ease,
And builds a hell in heaven's despite.'

by William Blake

What Is Wrong with the West’s Economies?


Edmund S. Phelps in The New York Review of Books:

Our prevailing political economy is blind to the very concept of inclusion; it does not map out any remedy for the deficiency. A monograph of mine and a conference volume I edited are among the few book-length studies of ways to remedy failure to include people generally in an economy in which they will have satisfying work.3

Commentators are talking now about injustice of another sort. Workers in decent jobs view the economy as unjust if they or their children have virtually no chance of climbing to a higher rung in the socioeconomic ladder. And moving up appears harder now. Even in the Gilded Age, many of the moguls came up from the bottom. (The rungs were far apart, yet the ladder was climbed.) The feeling of injustice comes from a sense of unfair advantages: that those above are using their connections to stay there—or to ensure that their children can follow them. The bar to upward mobility is always the same: barriers to competition put up by the wealthy, the connected, corporations, professional associations, unions, and guilds.

But the truth is that no degree of Rawlsian action to pull up low-end wages and employment—or remove unfair advantages—could have spared the less advantaged from a major loss of inclusion since Rawls’s time. The forces of productivity slowdown and globalization have been too strong. Moreover, though the injustices in the West’s economies are egregious, they ought not to be seen as a major cause of the productivity slowdowns and globalization. (For one thing, a slowdown of productivity started in the US in the mid-1960s and the sharp loss of manufacturing jobs to poorer countries occurred much later—from the late 1970s to the early 1990s.) Deeper causes must be at work.

More here.

The Moments of Realism


Ben Parker reviews Fredric Jameson's The Antinomies of Realism, in the LA Review of Books:

THE ODD THING about literary “realism” is that it is not a descriptive term at all, but a period: roughly 1830–1895, from Stendhal’s The Red and the Blackto Hardy’s Jude the Obscure. Many classics of 19th-century realism would be conspicuously ruled out if plausibility were any criterion. Balzac’s first successful novel, La Peau de chagrin, is about a gambler who purchases a magical, wish-fulfilling animal skin that shrinks with every wish granted; Stendhal’s Charterhouse of Parma is essentially a swashbuckling romp through Napoleonic Europe; Anna Karenina includes the interior monologue of a dog, long before Kafka; Flaubert’s works include a lurid, violent novel about the fall of ancient Carthage, and a play in which Saint Anthony confronts the Buddha, Isis, the Devil, and the Seven Deadly Sins in the desert. “Magical realism” is something of a pleonasm; 19th-century realism is already reliably outrageous, phantasmagoric, and credibility-straining.

The past tends to be evacuated of its specifics, and so realism becomes, in the folk vocabulary of everyday criticism, simply “the way that we used to do things.” The implication here is “… before we learned better,” where modernism, and most often Virginia Woolf, plays the role of pedagogue. By a curious twist, “realism” then becomes descriptive once again, as the term now encompasses a warehouse of discarded, seemingly ingenuous (but covertly ideological) techniques for the misguided project of grasping “reality.”

In her 2008 essay “Two Paths for the Novel,” Zadie Smith — in the same vein of condescension toward a hazy, credulous past — identified realism, specifically “the nineteenth-century lyrical Realism of Balzac and Flaubert,” as “a literary form in long-term crisis,” an archaic obstruction on the highway of literary culture. This realism was supposedly built on “the transcendent importance of form, the incantatory power of language to reveal truth, the essential fullness and continuity of the self.” Realism was a “bedtime story,” propagating the ideology that “the self is a bottomless pool,” and dating to a prelapsarian epoch when “novels weren’t neurotic.” All of this would come as a surprise, I think, to readers of Balzac and Flaubert: surely the latter is the most neurotic of novelists.

In fact, realism was never this way. Nineteenth-century realism was not a “bedtime story.” On the contrary, the prevailing idea that before modernism we all innocently believed in an essential plenitude of the self is itself a comforting fable by which to tuck in undergraduates. Even in as Masterpiece Theatre–ready a work as Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the D’Urbervilles, the heroine is crucially “absent” (narcoleptic, automaton-like) from her own attention at catastrophic, life-determining moments of rape and violence.

More here.