by Mindy Clegg

The humble author after voting early last week in the great state of Georgia!

Rarely do presidential elections seem so consequential, but 2020 has us all in agreement that voting is critical this year. Many simply yearn for a return to “the normal” of the Obama era or the Clinton years. Is the normal of the 90s and 2000s far enough to really address our various existential crises? I argue no. It’s clear that whatever our political orientation, we’re all reeling from the ongoing pandemic (and the threat of more in the future), global economic precarity (from several decades of neo-liberal policies, exacerbated by the pandemic), the erosion of individual rights among those historically oppressed, the rise of the hard right and the terroristic threats they pose, some left-wing accelerationism on the left, as well as the looming existential crisis of climate change, among other things. A general consensus has emerged that the current administration made these issues worse.

With the exception of a few hardcore holdouts, many prominent members of the President’s own party have come to admit the administration’s failures to address the above issues. Yet the administration represents the logical conclusion of the rightward lurch of the Overton window advocated by the GOP for years now. A quick survey of American and global politics tell us that the post Cold War neoliberal solutions failed us all. As we stare into the void that is 2020, now seems the perfect time to reassess and reorient ourselves to push for a more productive mode of problem-solving from our governments. Although voting Democratic down your tickets could begin this process, a real shift to creating more responsive governance that puts citizens first for the country and world will need active engagement and large-scale collective problem solving based on scientific facts rather than ideology. It is helpful to know the roots of our current problem so I will focus on two byproducts of the Cold War itself: the rise of neoliberal economic structures and the culture wars, and how Republicans and Democrats reacted to both. Solving these problems will require a strong political will for a New Deal level intervention that both regulates the economy and offers protection of basic rights for all. Read more »

Was Shakespeare a Christian?

by Peter Wells

It’s dawned on me, looking at recent (and not so recent) commentary on Shakespeare, that a wedge is being driven between the Bard and the culture in which he lived. Although I haven’t actually heard the following syllogism, it seems to be lurking behind much current criticism:

  • Shakespeare wasn’t stupid;
  • Christianity is stupid;
  • therefore Shakespeare can’t have been a Christian.

For example the explicitly Christian Sonnet 146 is variously dismissed as (a) uncharacteristic (b) insincere (c) the words of a ‘persona,’ or character, or (d) actually not Christian at all.

Whereas, personally, I think that a great deal of Shakespeare’s work can be better understood and appreciated, once we realise that it is grounded in the faith and beliefs of most of his fellow citizens, and that he took that faith seriously. We know that he used Biblical quotations and allusions frequently, they being the common language of his generation. But I would like to explore ways in which he might more meaningfully be described as a Christian. Read more »

Our Institutions Will Not Save Us

by N. Gabriel Martin

Among the most frequent and important complaints against President Trump and his administration is that it has contributed to the degradation of public institutions. The title of an Op-Ed in The Atlantic this year referred to his “war on American institutions,” and even prior to his election an Op-Ed in The New York Times warned that he was targeting ‘democracy’s institutions’ with his threats to jail Hillary Clinton. It isn’t just political institutions that Trump undermines, as an article in Nature argued, but scientific institutions as well.

Neither is the threat facing institutions today limited to Trump; other Trump-like political figures, such as Boris Johnson, pose similar dangers, as an article in The New Statesman argued. Still, Trump epitomises it. To sloppily paraphrase Tolstoy: every bad president is bad in their own way. The epitome of George W. Bush’s badness was his futile and venal wars, Trump’s is his destruction of institutions.

As an indictment, the one levied against Trump is oddly intangible. It is surprising that the chief complaint against the most unpopular president in history is not about a death toll, unemployment figures, or some similarly hard fact. I don’t mean that it is less consequential or important, on the contrary, our ideas and other artifacts of our culture are immensely important, and it is encouraging to see broader recognition of their significance in the opposition to Trump. To many, including myself, Trump and his enablers have proven the importance of institutions that had previously escaped attention: institutions such as voting rights, an independent judiciary, and congressional oversight, to name just a few. By endangering these and others, Trump has brought our attention to things that are easy to overlook because of their intangibility and because they can be taken for granted as long as they are functioning normally. Read more »

Can We Ensure Fairness with Digital Contact Tracing?

by Fabio Tollon

COVID-19 has forced populations into lockdown, seen the restriction of rights, and caused widespread economic, social, and psychological harm. With only 11 countries having no confirmed cases of COVID-19 (as of this writing), we are globally beyond strategies that aim solely at containment. Most resources are now being directed at mitigation strategies. That is, strategies that aim to curtail how quickly the virus spreads. These strategies (such as physical and social distancing, increased hand-washing, mask-wearing, and proper respiratory etiquette) have been effective in delaying infection rates, and therefore reducing strain on healthcare workers and facilities. There has also been a wave of techno-solutionism (not unusual in times of crisis), which often comes with the unjustified belief that technological solutions provide the best (and sometimes only) ways to deal with the crisis in question.

Such perspectives, in the words of Michael Klenk, ask “what technology”, instead of asking “why technology”, and therefore run the risk of creating more problems than they solve. Klenk argues that such a focus is too narrow: it starts with the presumption that there should be technological solutions to our problems, and then stamps some ethics on afterwards to try and constrain problematic developments that may occur with the technology. This gets things exactly backwards. What we should instead be doing is asking whether we need a given technology, and then proceed from there. It is with this critical perspective in mind that I will investigate a new technological kid on the block: digital contact tracing. Basically, its implementation involves installing a smartphone app that, via Bluetooth, registers and stores the individual’s contacts. Should a user become infected, they can update their app with this information, which will then automatically ping all of their registered contacts. While much attention has been focused on privacy and trust concerns, this will not be my focus (see here for a good example of an analysis that looks specifically at these factors, drawn up by the team at Ethical Intelligence). I will instead focus on the question of whether digital contact tracing is fair. Read more »

No One Loves The Smell Of A Kindle

by Thomas O’Dwyer

Shakespeare & Company, Paris. [Wikipedia]
Shakespeare & Company, Paris. [Wikipedia]
“I just love the smell of an old book,” the American tourist drawled as she paid for a purchase in Shakespeare and Company bookshop in Paris. After she left, the curmudgeonly owner, George Whitman, growled to no one in particular, “I wish people would stop talking about smelling fucking books. They’re for reading, not sniffing.” I had just been sniffing an ancient copy of Walter Scott’s Peveril of the Peak, a “Nelson’s Edition de Luxe”, which I found in an alcove at the top of the bookstore’s rickety wooden staircase, so I handed over my 40 euros without a word. But ah, that dusty, mouldy smell of the ancient bookseller.

Shakespeare and Company is still one of the world’s great bookstores. Its modern touristy ambience does it no favours, but its location in rue de la Bûcherie remains a Paris dreamscape, next to Place Saint-Michel, under the eternal gaze of Notre Dame across the Seine. While the store is a Mecca for book lovers, like other aspects of our angry and divided age, it has noisy detractors as well as champions. When the wandering American ex-serviceman Whitman renamed his existing bookshop Mistral as Shakespeare and Company in 1964, outraged literary purists considered it blatant commercial plagiarism. Sylvia Beach, who famously published James Joyce’s Ulysses when no one else would touch it, had founded her original Shakespeare and Company in 1919 and it remained a legend and writers’ haven at 12 rue de l’Odéon until German Nazi invaders forced its closure in 1941. Although Ernest Hemingway “liberated” it in 1945, Sylvia never reopened it. Read more »

Predictions for November 3rd

by Callum Watts

Four years ago I looked at the US election and predicted that Donald Trump would likely win. The day after the election I described  the kind of president he was likely to be. That he would ignore all norms, stack the federal judiciary and bureaucracy with lackeys who would obey him, and likely use private militias to intimidate political opponents. Many of these predictions have born true. A key part of my argument was trying to explain the sort of man Trump is, and therefore what his behaviours are likely to be, and what effect that was likely to have on the institutions he is in charge of. One of my main points was to stop imagining that shared norms in and of themselves can provide restraint to Trump’s power when he quite explicitly does not believe in them.

As we had towards November 3rd some new questions have appeared on the lips of many commentators, will Trump step down if he loses? And is the US on the verge of a coup? I don’t feel able to make any predictions this time around, but I do think there are some observations which are worth bearing in mind. On the issue of a coup we see some great journalists like Krystal Ball and Glenn Greenwald trying to resist the case that Trump is some kind of budding dictator or fascist. They worry that this kind of alarmism is exactly what drives cynicism in politics and voters into Trump’s embrace (I know, a horrible thought). And to some extent I agree; it doesn’t look like Trump operates according to anything like a coherent political programme or philosophy which can explain his behaviour and political machinations. However, I think these pundits are missing a key point. The key issue is not whether Trump is cut from the same cloth as other nationalist authoritarians and where he fits in this political taxonomy, it is understanding what Trump is likely to do, what he is able to do, and what he wants to do. Read more »

Thomas Frank On How Populism Can Save America

Caitlin Zaloom in Public Books:

Founding editor of The Baffler and author of prophetic classics like Listen, Liberal and What’s the Matter with Kansas?, Thomas Frank skewers received wisdom across the political spectrum. In his new book, The People, No, Frank reveals that the Democratic Party has tied itself in knots about a phantom of its own making: populism. The original Populists—19th-century agitators for working people’s interests—spawned a revolving cast of journalists, intellectuals, and business interests determined to paint them as villainous xenophobic masses. These anti-populists have made the name of the movement into a dirty word. Today’s anti-populists equate the broad multiracial coalition of social-justice activists that supported Bernie Sanders with a very different alliance that championed Donald Trump in 2016.

In this interview, Frank shows how this blinkered idea of populism grew so prominent, shares secrets from the founding of The Baffler, and reveals how the battle against Silicon Valley’s cool capitalism has been decades in the making.

More here.

The Time Bomb at the Top of the World

Mario Molina and Durwood Zaelke in Project Syndicate:

It is hard to imagine more devastating effects of climate change than the fires that have been raging in California, Oregon, and Washington, or the procession of hurricanes that have approached – and, at times, ravaged – the Gulf Coast. There have also been deadly heat waves in India, Pakistan, and Europe, and devastating flooding in Southeast Asia. But there is far worse ahead, with one risk, in particular, so great that it alone threatens humanity itself: the rapid depletion of Arctic sea ice.

Recalling an Alfred Hitchcock movie, this climate “bomb” – which, at a certain point, could more than double the rate of global warming – has a timer that is being watched with growing anxiety. Each September, the extent of Arctic sea ice reaches its lowest level, before the lengthening darkness and falling temperatures cause it to begin to expand again. At this point, scientists compare its extent to previous years.

The results should frighten us all. This year, measurements from the National Snow and Ice Data Center in Boulder, Colorado show that there is less ice in the middle of the Arctic than ever before, and just-published research shows that winter sea ice in the Arctic’s Bering Sea hit its lowest level in 5,500 years in 2018 and 2019.

More here.

What happens when our homes become our employers’ offices?

Justin E. H. Smith in Tablet:

You will surely have heard by now of Jeffrey Toobin. Last week the CNN legal analyst and New Yorker writer was participating in an “election simulation” via Zoom, with other staffers from the magazine and employees of WNYC. Masha Gessen played Donald Trump; Toobin played the courts. At some point, believing his computer’s camera was turned off (or “muted” as he would later say, a confusion that seems to bespeak sincerity), Toobin engaged in a sexual act. He was swiftly suspended from his position at the magazine, and from his role as news analyst at CNN.

I do not wish to say anything more about Toobin. As always with such incidents, it is far more interesting to stop and dwell on what they reveal about our current technological and cultural moment. The social media mobs relished this juicy scandal. The shitposters turned it into a source of easy jokes (election simulation/erection stimulation), while other more purportedly high-minded commentators saw it as yet another opportunity for the display of their own towering high-mindedness and righteousness. This was, they said, standard-fare workplace sexual harassment—perhaps even assault. The possibility of interjecting more humane interpretations was forestalled by accusations that to do so would be to lapse into “himpathy.”

More here.

Farewell James Randi, prince of reason. Now who’ll mock the quacks and anti-vaxxers?

Catherine Bennett in The Guardian:

Spoon-benders are unlikely to be the only profession toasting the disappearance – supposing we rule out further hauntings – of Randi, who, being himself a brilliant magician as “The Amazing Randi: The Man No Jail Can Hold” (previously “The Great Randall: Telepath”) was repeatedly more effective than scientists at examining paranormalist claims, sometimes by simply performing their stunts himself.

Mediums, dowsers, astrologers, homeopaths, clairvoyants, faith-healers, mind-readers, spirit guides and anti-vaxxers also featured among Randi’s targets after he moved on from surpassing Houdini’s escapology to exposing all forms of pseudoscience, on principle but with a showmanship that made him reliably more compelling than his subjects. This made him immeasurably valuable to sceptics. Addressing homeopathy, for instance, he appreciated that argument alone would have less impact in demonstrating the staggering uselessness of these royal-endorsed products than his filmed consumption of a homeopathic overdose.

More here.

Where Have All the Hospital Patients Gone?

Pauline Chen in The New York Times:

Weathered, wiry and in his early 60s, the man stumbled into clinic, trailing cigarette smoke and clutching his chest. Over the previous week, he had had fleeting episodes of chest pressure but stayed away from the hospital. “I didn’t want to get the coronavirus,” he gasped as the nurses unbuttoned his shirt to get an EKG. Only when his pain had become relentless did he feel he had no choice but to come in. In pre-pandemic times, patients like him were routine at my Boston-area hospital; we saw them almost every day. But for much of the spring and summer, the halls and parking lots were eerily empty. I wondered if people were staying home and getting sicker, and I imagined that in a few months’ time these patients, once they became too ill to manage on their own, might flood the emergency rooms, wards and I.C.U.s, in a non-Covid wave. But more than seven months into the pandemic, there are still no lines of patients in the halls. While my colleagues and I are busier than we were in March, there has been no pent-up overflow of people with crushing chest pain, debilitating shortness of breath or fevers and wet, rattling coughs. But surprisingly, even months later, as coronavirus infection rates began falling and hospitals were again offering elective surgery and in-person visits to doctor’s offices, hospital admissions remained almost 20 percent lower than normal.

…Some experts have pointed to patients’ overwhelming fear of contagion as a reason for the drop in the numbers seeking hospital care. But the patients in the study who had the greatest persistent drop in hospitalization were those with acutely worsening asthma or emphysema, pneumonias, sepsis, strokes and even heart attacks, all illnesses where hospitalization is generally not optional.

More here.

‘What can we learn from cats? Don’t live in an imagined future’

Tim Adams in The Guardian:

What’s it like to be a cat? John Gray has spent a lifetime half-wondering. The philosopher – to his many fans the intellectual cat’s pyjamas, to his critics the least palatable of furballs – has had feline companions at home since he was a boy in South Shields. In adult life – he now lives in Bath with his wife Mieko, a dealer in Japanese antiquities – this has principally been two pairs of cats: “Two Burmese sisters, Sophie and Sarah, and two Birman brothers, Jamie and Julian.” The last of them, Julian, died earlier this year, aged 23. Gray, currently catless, is by no means a sentimental writer, but his new book, Feline Philosophy: Cats and the Meaning of Life, is written in memory of their shared wisdom.

Other philosophers have been enthralled by cats over the years. There was Schrödinger and his box, of course. And Michel de Montaigne, who famously asked: “When I am playing with my cat, how do I know she is not playing with me?” The rationalist René Descartes, Gray notes, once “hurled a cat out of the window in order to demonstrate the absence of conscious awareness in non-human animals; its terrified screams were mechanical reactions, he concluded.” One impulse for this book was a conversation with a fellow philosopher, who assured Gray that he “had taught his cat to be vegan”. (Gray had only one question: “Did the cat ever go out?” It did.) When he informed another philosopher that he was writing about what we can learn from cats, that man replied: “But cats have no history.” “And,” Gray wondered, “is that necessarily a disadvantage?”

Elsewhere, Gray has written how Ludwig Wittgenstein once observed “if lions could talk we would not understand”, to which the zookeeper John Aspinall responded: “He hasn’t spent long enough with lions.” If cats could talk, I ask Gray, do you think we would understand?

More here.

Sunday Poem

All the Questions

When you step through
the back door
into the kitchen
father is still
sitting at the table
with a newspaper
folded open
in front of him
and pen raised, working
the crossword puzzle.

In the living room
mother is sleeping
her peaceful sleep
at last, in a purple
robe, with her head
back, slippered feet
up and twisted
knuckle hands crossed
right over left
in her lap.

Through the south window
in your old room
you see leaves
on the giant ash tree
turning yellow again
in setting sun
and falling slowly
to the ground and one
by one all the questions
you ever had become clear.

Number one across:
a four-letter word
for no longer.

Number one down:
an eleven letter word
for gone.

by Ted Kooser
from American Life in Poetry, 2017

The Myth of Meritocracy

Timothy Larsen over at the LARB:

Peter Mandler’s truly impressive study, The Crisis of the Meritocracy: Britain’s Transition to Mass Education since the Second World War, is a deeply researched account of secondary and higher education in Britain during the last seventy-five years.  Along the way, it raises and explores some of the largest questions that one can ask about the provision of education: what is it for?; who is it for?; and what subjects should students be studying?  As a People’s History, The Crisis of Meritocracy is a tour de force of revisionist insight – slaying assumptions and myths of both the political left and right by keeping its focus fixed on the wishes and actions of young people and their parents.  Every claim is advanced with painstaking precision regarding the particular place, time period, percentages, exceptions, and so on.  Indeed, the last 134 pages are all scholarly apparatus, beginning with seventeen tables and charts.  All this meticulousness has the effect of making a reviewer feel guilty about mining this volume for big-picture discussion points applicable to other nations.  It feels a bit like being a tabloid journalist distilling a technical study for crass coverage: “Mandler Manhandles Meritocratic Muddle.”  Nevertheless, it is worth the risk, as Mandler’s significant, original, and thought-provoking findings will help us think more clearly about education today, not only in Britain, but also in the United States and elsewhere.

More here.

China’s dollar pragmatism

Kathleen Tyson over at the Official Monetary and Financial Institutions Forum:

Speculation about the dollar’s hegemonic decline is premature. The global financial plumbing is relatively inflexible in the short term. It will not change quickly or inexpensively.

It took a century of New York banks’ financial activism and extensive global interbank innovation and collaboration to make the dollar a global hegemonic currency.

Dollarisation of the global economy was driven by mercantile ambitions from New York, not geo-strategic ambitions from Washington. New York banks expanded abroad with gold as the hegemonic asset for settlements, offering dollar finance only for trade. The dollar only became a hegemonic currency after the US revoked Bretton Woods dollar-for-gold convertibility in 1971.

It was New York banks that insisted on the need for a central bank and the plumbing for international settlements. The Federal Reserve was founded in 1913 against a backdrop of wider national suspicion and American isolationism, hence the 12 regional reserve banks and a strict domestic mandate. The McFadden Act in 1927 banned inter-state branching and mergers by American banks, forcing New York banks to look abroad for investment and expansion opportunities. Like the Fed, the Bank for International Settlements was conceived in New York to make settlements of gold and German war reparations more convenient. The first two presidents of the BIS were New York mercantile bankers. The Fed only joined the BIS as a member in 1994.

More here.