Every year, the Association for the Study of African American Life and History (ASALH) chooses the theme for Black History Month. This year’s theme is “Black Resistance,” specifically calling out the legacy of resistance through politics, the arts, society and education. Black Americans “have resisted historic and ongoing oppression in all forms, especially the racial terrorism of lynching, racial pogroms, and police killings since our arrival upon these shores,” said the ASALH, an organization dedicated to researching and promoting achievements by Black Americans and other peoples of African descent.
How did Black History Month start?
Carter G. Woodson, a founder of the ASALH organization, first came up with the idea of the celebration that became Black History Month. Woodson, born in 1875 to recently freed Virginia slaves, went on to earn a Ph.D. in history from Harvard. He worried that Black children were not being taught about their ancestors’ achievements in American schools in the early 1900s. “Woodson fervently believed that Black people should be proud of their heritage and all Americans should understand the largely overlooked achievements of Black Americans,” the NAACP states on its website. Woodson originally came up with the idea of Negro History Week to encourage black Americans to become more interested in their own history and heritage and it was established in 1926.
More here. (Note: Throughout February, at least one post will be dedicated to Black History Month. The theme for 2023 is Black Resistance. Please send us anything you think is relevant for inclusion)
At first glance there is something forcibly piteous about the title of Colin Grant’s book, I’mBlack So You Don’t Have to Be. It reads as though there is something inherently burdensome about being Black. It isn’t until you read the full quote – “I’m black so you can do all of those white things. I’m black so you don’t have to be” – which comes from his sometime mentor and “ribald philosopher” Uncle Castus, that you understand it is not meant as a display of martyrdom, but rather an insult. It’s a jab at the privileges of the children of the Windrush generation who, hell-bent on being accepted by British society, have left the labour of Blackness to their parents.
Ambitious media frauds Stephen Glass and Jayson Blair crippled the reputations of the New Republic and New York Times, respectively, by slipping years of invented news stories into their pages. Thanks to the Twitter Files, we can welcome a new member to their infamous club: Hamilton 68.
If one goes by volume alone, this oft-cited neoliberal think-tank that spawned hundreds of fraudulent headlines and TV news segments may go down as the single greatest case of media fabulism in American history. Virtually every major news organization in America is implicated, including NBC, CBS, ABC, PBS, CNN, MSNBC, The New York Times and the Washington Post. Mother Jones alone did at least 14 stories pegged to the group’s “research.” Even fact-checking sites like Politifact and Snopes cited Hamilton 68 as a source.
In May of this past year, I proclaimed on a podcast that “effective altruism (EA) has a great hunger for and blindness to power. That is a dangerous combination. Power is assumed, acquired, and exercised, but rarely examined.”
Little did I know at the time that Sam Bankman-Fried, — a prodigy and major funder of the EA community, who claimed he wanted to donate billions a year— was engaged in making extraordinarily risky trading bets on behalf of others with an astonishing and potentially criminal lack of corporate controls. It seems that EAs, who (at least according to ChatGPT) aim “to do the most good possible, based on a careful analysis of the evidence,” are also comfortable with a kind of recklessness and willful blindness that made my pompous claims seem more fitting than I had wished them to be.
By that autumn, investigations revealed that Bankman-Fried’s company assets, his trustworthiness, and his skills had all been wildly overestimated, as his trading firms filed for bankruptcy and he was arrested on criminal charges. His empire, now alleged to have been built on money laundering and securities fraud, had allowed him to become one of the top players in philanthropic and political donations. The disappearance of his funds and his fall from grace leaves behind a gaping hole in the budget and brand of EA. (Disclosure: In August 2022, SBF’s philanthropic family foundation, Building a Stronger Future, awarded Vox’s Future Perfect a grant for a 2023 reporting project. That project is now on pause.)
People joked online that my warnings had “aged like fine wine,” and that my tweets about EA were akin to the visions of a 16th-century saint. Less flattering comments pointed out that my assessment was not specific enough to be passed as divine prophecy. I agree. Anyone watching EA becoming corporatized over the last years (the Washington Post fittingly called it “Altruism, Inc.” ) would have noticed them becoming increasingly insular, confident, and ignorant. Anyone would expect doom to lurk in the shadows when institutions turn stale.
The United States’ most important smut-buster, Anthony Comstock, he of the muttonchop sideburns and perpetual scowl, was never at a loss for florid words. Describing the impact of pornography in 1883, he likened it to a cancer, one tending toward “poisoning the nature, enervating the system, destroying self-respect, fettering the will-power, defiling the mind, corrupting the thoughts, leading to secret practices of most foul and revolting character, until the victim tires of life, and existence is scarcely endurable.”
A century and a half later, Utah Republicans still agreed with him. They passed a resolution declaring pornography a public health crisis in 2016. At the heart of the resolution lay concern over “deviant sexual arousal” and the “risky sexual behavior” it purportedly facilitated — broadly defined terms but essentially Comstock’s nightmare vision of masturbation and promiscuity unto death.
When it comes to the politics of porn, time can appear a flat line of performative piety: conservatives have been making the exact same arguments about moral rot, bodily debilitation, and lust-driven crime since the object of their ire was lithographs and imported “fancy books.” This is the challenge Kelsy Burke confronts in her new study The Pornography Wars: The Past, Present, and Future of America’s Obscene Obsession — how do you make an interesting story out of the same tired tropes?
On a cold, uncharacteristically dry London day in September 1931, a short, stocky man with slicked-back hair, a piercing gaze, and a hell of a lot of nerve walked along Storey’s Gate Street. He entered Central Hall, Westminster, a large assembly place near Westminster Abbey. It’s hard to imagine that this man, a thirty-seven-year-old Belgian professor of physics, did not feel some trepidation.
The soaring dome of the Great Hall imposed grandeur on the proceedings: a celebration of the hundredth anniversary of the British Association for the Advancement of Science. Many of the world’s most eminent physicists were among the audience of two thousand to whom Georges Lemaître was about to present a theory that bordered on the crackpot.
Lemaître was not just a physicist and a mathematician, but a Catholic priest as well, and he was to speak in a session on a topic that physicists had just begun to grapple with: the evolution of the universe. Dressed in his black clerical garb and white collar, as if prepared to take confessions, he stepped to the podium and presented an idea that veered perilously close to theology. He had discovered, he claimed, a moment when the entire universe exploded out of a tiny “primeval atom.”
The video of the fatal beating of Tyre Nichols by Memphis police has sparked protests across the country. It’s highly unlikely that this will turn into a national conflagration like the one after the killing of George Floyd in 2020, but it shows that general anger against police brutality remains widespread. And it once again raises the question of what to do about the problem.
Three years ago, activists’ main slogan was “defund the police” (quickly altered from the original “abolish the police”, though many insisted the meaning was the same). This slogan and the idea behind it were a disastrous failure. Even in the initial rush of anti-police fervor after the Floyd protests, cities found it extremely hard to muster the political will to cut police budgets or conduct mass layoffs of police officers. Then a massive wave of murders spread across the country, and Americans remembered that yes, police are very important for reducing violent crime. Pro-cop politicians like New York City Mayor Eric Adams were elected, and by 2021, even Black Americans — traditionally more likely to be the victims of police brutality — wanted more spending on policing in their neighborhoods.
But the death of “defund the police” doesn’t mean that the popular desire — or the need — for police reform has vanished.
Here are three details I enjoy about Ace, my buddy who resides in Boulder, Utah, a speck of a town (population two hundred thirtyish) that floats atop the creamy cross-bedded Navajo Sandstone, the gargantuan petrified dunes of an Early Jurassic erg: he’s devoted the bulk of two decades to trekking the GSENM hinterlands—heating water with a twiggy fire, sipping tea, casting consciousness to the stars, reeling consciousness back in, striking camp, pushing forward; he’s eager to direct attention to the Latin phrase Solvitur ambulando (“It is solved by walking”) engraved on his pocketknife and, furthermore, assumes the phrase’s “it” requires no explanation; he’s got dogs on the rug farting and a pot of tomato sauce on the stove bubbling when—excited, hungry, fatigued from the drive (Boulder was the last municipality in the lower forty-eight to receive mail by mule and remains a long haul from anywhere)—Sophia and I arrive.
1990’s The Asthenic Syndrome takes us to Odesa, too, but this is an Odesa at the fraying edge of a Soviet time-space where, significantly, we never see the sea. The film is shot in places that suggest a borderland, an edge, a wobble: construction sites, mirrors, photographs, headstones, film screenings, cemeteries, a dog pound, a hospital ward, a soft-porn shoot. This in-between sense is temporal, as well: Muratova notes that she “had the great fortune of working in a period between the dominance of ideology and the dominance of the market, a period of suspension, a temporary paradise.” As with the asthenic syndrome itself (a state between sleeping and waking), the film is a realization of inbetweenness, an assembly of frictions and crossover states we feel through form: through Muratova’s use of juxtaposition; through her uncanny overpatterning of echoes and coincidences; through the shifts of register between documentary and opera. The film doesn’t proceed so much as weave itself in front of us, in a dazzling ivy pattern of zones and occurrences. You could call it late-Soviet baroque realism.
SAN DIEGO — White caps were breaking in the bay and the rain was blowing sideways, but at Naval Base Point Loma, an elderly bottlenose dolphin named Blue was absolutely not acting her age. In a bay full of dolphins, she was impossible to miss, leaping from the water and whistling as a team of veterinarians approached along the floating docks. “She’s always really happy to see us,” said Dr. Barb Linnehan, the director of animal health and welfare at the National Marine Mammal Foundation, a nonprofit research organization. “She acts like she’s a 20-year-old dolphin.”
But at 57, Blue is positively geriatric, one of the oldest dolphins in the U.S. Navy Marine Mammal Program. So the doctors had come to check on her heart. Dr. Linnehan unpacked a dolphin-friendly electrocardiogram and bent over the edge of the dock, where Blue had surfaced. Then she carefully pressed four rubber suction cups, each containing a Bluetooth-enabled electrode, onto the dolphin’s slippery skin.
In a small apartment downtown, a group of people has gathered. There’s maybe a hundred of them, men and women, and they’re not exactly sure why they’ve gathered. Then, suddenly, a sound like the rushing of a violent wind comes down from the heavens and fills the whole house. Helpless, they watch as tongues of fire descend from the clouds, and then these tongues begin to move toward them, before finally coming to sit on their own tongues. The people try to speak with each other, to communicate their astonishment or terror or ecstasy, but each one is speaking in tongues, speaking in languages they’ve never spoken before or since. And then, sometime later, everyone involved is spectacularly martyred.
Or at least that’s the story I’m told as a child. The story is called “Pentecost,” and the people gathered are the apostles. At that time, I didn’t understand that the phrase tongue of fire just means a flame, so I assumed that the poor apostles watched an army of actual human tongues descend from the sky, all pink and wet and squirmy and lit up like candles, and then their own tongues caught fire. I pictured the apostles standing around slack-jawed, afraid of burning the roofs of their mouths.
In 2011, Ahmed Hamdy, a clinical researcher, sat in a parking lot in Sunnyvale, California. On his mind: a brand-new anti-cancer drug that, true to Silicon Valley parlance, seemed poised to change the world. Only Hamdy had just been fired as chief medical officer earlier that day from a startup named Pharmacyclics.
The scene of a dejected doctor, head in his proverbial hands, opens Nathan Vardi’s “For Blood and Money: Billionaires, Biotech, and the Quest for a Blockbuster Drug”and it’s the first sign that Vardi won’t just spin the story of a phenomenally successful business out to remake an entire industry as a thrilling triumph. Nor is it a morality tale featuring a scandalously overhyped business. Rather, Hamdy comes off as an earnest diplomat whose setback reflects the grim realities of the biotech revolution and how secretive investors can make — and unmake — lifesaving drugs.
In her great new book, titled Inside Siglo XXI: Locked Up in Mexico’s Largest Detention Center, author and journalist Belén Fernández writes about this underdiscussed part of the U.S. border from the on-the-ground perspective of the Tapachula immigration prison, where she was detained. In the book, and in the below interview, Belén describes how she ended up behind bars and what she witnessed and experienced, including the friendships and solidarity she had with other detainees. As she writes, “There may not be human rights in Siglo XXI, but there’s lots of humanity.” Belén has this unique ability to write in a personal, detailed, and heart-wrenching way that is often also bitingly hilarious. She also has a penchant for coupling deep geopolitical analysis of state power, particularly that of the United States, with its absurdity, often in the same sentence.
The timing of Anjuli Fatima Raza Kolb’s Epidemic Empire is opportune, not just because her discussion of epidemics strikes a chord in our post-COVID era. Rather, it is the book’s ability to communicate the significance of epidemics for national security, exposing that thin line which divides the virus in the body from the body as a virus.
Certainly, some bodies are conceived of as viruses more than others. From various colonial administrations across history to the contemporary ‘War on Terror’, Raza Kolb traces the Global North’s reliance on illness metaphors in making sense of and managing racialised (post-)colonial subjects. Epidemics play a central rhetorical device in this regard. And while contemporary security practices are replete with medical metaphors, Raza Kolb charts their legacy across (post-)colonial history.
Raza Kolb draws significantly on Edward Said’s mode of recognising Orientalism’s discursive construction of Islam and Muslims as regressive, savage and — as central to the book — toxic. Epidemic Empire thus draws primarily on written texts and literary works to build a convincing argument about the historical significance of illness metaphors.