Monday, January 23, 2017
THE LIMINALITY OF LYME DISEASE
by Genese Sodikoff
One does not normally think about infection, illness, and recovery in terms of a three-staged "rite of passage" as European ethnographer Arnold van Gennep defined it, although catching a disease certainly involves a period of physical transition and disruption of our sense of self.
Of course, a "rite of passage" conventionally refers to a ceremony that marks a change in status, such as a wedding or commencement, where one social identity is shed and another assumed. Van Gennep's three stages include the separation from peers, a liminal or in-between period, and reassimilation into society with a new status. But if we loosely apply this concept to other life experiences, such as illness, we begin to see a structure to the stories that make up our lives.
Say an individual goes from healthy person, to ill patient, and finally to some resolution. At this point the individual has either returned to the prior state of healthiness, dies, remains somehow marked by the period of suffering, or persists in a state of impaired health, neither here nor there. Certain diseases seem to occupy the liminal space, casting their victims into medical limbo as neither diagnosable nor well. Chronic Lyme disease is one of those. Since the source of prolonged suffering is contested by doctors, many sufferers must seek help at the edges of the medical mainstream.
To turn back to the "rite of passage" schema for a moment, anthropologist Victor Turner was intrigued by Van Gennep's demarcation of a liminal period, the "betwixt and between" stage. In the late 1960s, Turner elaborated the concept, finding it rife with both social ambiguity and possibility. For Turner, liminality evoked an unstructured space, an opposition to the dominant structure at the edges of the cultural mainstream. It is here where people experience "communitas," a spirit of camaraderie and equality. Liminality is counter-cultural, a state of flux in which the dominant structure is recast in the image of the oppositional force until that new image becomes the structure from which to pull away.
Liminal pathology comes to mind with chronic Lyme disease and other contested medical conditions that are difficult to cure and often deemed illusory or psychosomatic. Medical anthropologist, Dr. Abigail Dumes of the University of Michigan has carried out an ethnographic project on chronic Lyme disease in the American Northeast, on its believers and naysayers and the battle over what constitutes evidence. Her forthcoming book chronicles the perspectives of doctors, scientists, and patients who have divided perspectives of the disease.
It is important to note that no one disputes the existence of Lyme disease, known to many by the bull's-eye rash that often (though not always) follows infection. Chronic Lyme disease refers to symptoms that linger, sometimes for years, after the regular course of antibiotics ends. The persistent presence of Lyme antibodies in the bloodstream can mean either past exposure or active infection. This is another source of contention between the camps: whether Lyme antibodies indicate the immune system has vanquished the disease (giving a "false positive") or is actually still at war. Dumes explains that diagnosis relies on an antibody test rather than isolating the bacteria from the body because Borrelia burgdorferi and its DNA are difficult to culture and isolate from patients' bodily fluids.
Chronic Lyme disease is not recognized by mainstream doctors, so patients' symptoms are chalked up to other possible causes. In contrast, "Lyme-literate" doctors do recognize the disease, as do its sufferers. Lyme-literate proponents recommend an intensive and extended course of antibiotics to treat symptoms, including fatigue, joint pain, vertigo, neuropathy, and cognitive impairment, while mainstream doctors consider such treatment ineffective and potentially harmful.
The occurrence of Lyme disease dates back thousands of years, and today it is the leading vector-borne disease in the United States. Small mammals, as well as deer, are reservoir hosts of the bacteria. Approximately 30,000 new cases per year are reported, but the actual number is probably closer to 300,000. Infection rates are increasing; in fact, they have doubled since the early 1990s. Lyme disease burdens the northern United States more than the South, though incidence of Lyme or Lyme-like symptoms in the South is climbing. The more moderate climate of the Northeast (less severe and later winters than in the Midwest and Canada) has been favorable to more dangerous strains of Borrelia for people. Late summer is the feeding period for larval deer ticks, and infected nymphs (juvenile ticks, the size of tiny specks) feed in spring. Scientists report that in the Northeast, persistent infections of Lyme disease, caused by the more virulent bacterial strains, are tied to the long gap between larval and nymphal tick feeding times. In contrast, the severe winters of the Midwest end up shortening the duration of tick feeding, as well as the gap between nymphal and larval feedings. As a result, fewer cases of Lyme disease in the Midwest have been reported.
However, as the climate warms, Midwest winters are becoming more like Northeast winters have long been, foreshadowing an increase in Lyme infections in the Midwest. To make matters worse, a new species of Lyme-causing bacteria, Borrelia mayonii, was recently discovered in the Midwest. Meanwhile, the warmer atmosphere has enabled ticks to move steadily northward towards Canada, bringing Lyme with them.
Another factor contributing to the rise of Lyme disease in the Northeast are housing developments in former wildlife habitats. Suburban sprawl and people's desire to live near nature have brought humans, woodland mammals, and ticks into close contact. Dumes reflects on the conflicting views of wilderness in the North American imagination: Nature is deemed both soul-soothing and dangerous. For well-to-do Northeasterners who value properties that abut woodlands, the proximity to nature enriches people's lives, even as Lyme disease has wreaked havoc on many people's health.
You have to adapt to Lyme zones. Dumes recounts the bodily practices adopted by residents who have suffered Lyme disease. Family members often do the daily routine of intimately scouring each other's bodies for ticks, including all the nooks and crannies where ticks are prone to hide. People don knee-high socks outdoors, even in the heat of summer. They slather their skin with repellent, and toss their clothes in the dryer to roast off ticks before going indoors. Some deliberately choose white-furred pets so ticks will be more visible. Each household has its Lyme-inspired rituals, but tick checks are the common denominator. These folks dread re-infection and fret over their children playing outdoors, yet they are loath to give up the beauty and restorative effects of the forest.
The disease is caused by a spiral-shaped bacterium, Borrelia burgdorferi, named after its scientist discoverer, Willy Burgdorfer. It is transmitted from from small mammals and birds to people via the saliva of blacklegged or deer ticks. (Adult ticks favor deer as hosts.) Lyme refers to the town in Connecticut where in the mid-1970s a cluster of patients in Lyme and nearby rural areas manifested unusual symptoms, including fever, chills, rashes, arthritic joints, severe fatigue, and headaches. The cause of these ailments was a mystery, one that compelled a pair of determined women from the patient pool to further investigate on their own, contacting scientists, self-advocating, and pushing the boundaries of medical science. I suppose their efforts turned these women into "edgemen," Victor Turner's word for the folks at the margins of the mainstream. It was not until 1981 that Burgdorfer and colleagues identified the spirochete that causes Lyme.
For over eighteen months, Dumes interviewed and observed patients, doctors (both mainstream and Lyme-literate), Lyme scientists, public health workers, politicians, and patient advocates to understand the two sides of the debate about the existence of chronic Lyme disease--that is, Borrelia-caused malaise that lingers beyond the 10 to 21 days regimen of antibiotics.
Regarding the divided camps, Dumes remains firmly nonpartisan, as it is not the job of the anthropologist to determine the truth or falsity of a disease, but to analyze how social groups construct and experience their realities, whether inside or at the margins of the medical establishment. She investigates why the dominant paradigm of "evidence-based" medicine, built on randomized control trial design, has managed to intensify the disagreement around chronic Lyme disease rather than forge consensus.
As Dumes points out, evidence-based medicine is what informs clinical guidelines, and these determine insurance coverage, treatment plans, and public health advisories. So the stakes are high for patients. Evidence-based medicine, she explains, shapes ideas about the "right ways to be sick" (the medically explainable ways), with familiar symptoms corresponding to objective "signs" in the body. It also fosters ideas about the "wrong ways" to be sick (the medically unexplainable ways) that involve a symptomatology that doesn't neatly correspond to microscopic signs and can only be described "subjectively" by the patient.
Dumes says that in mainstream medical parlance, chronic Lyme disease is a "medically unexplainable illness," as opposed to "Lyme disease," which is understood to be diagnosable. If you suffer from Lyme-related "illness," your clinically ambiguous symptoms thrust you into the liminal space of medical alternatives. In the liminal zone, you are at odds with the mainstream medical authority yet determined to collect the kind of evidence that will legitimize your condition.
The sense of community among chronic Lyme patients and Lyme-literate doctors is evident in patient support groups and shared views on the causes of chronic Lyme and its effective therapies. Through interviews with patients, Dumes learned that many attribute their condition to the profusion of toxins in the environment and in their bodies. These patients believe that highly toxic environments (both external and internal) enable pathogens such as Borrelia to thrive. For them, our modern-age bodies are seen as "toxic swamps," fertile for Lyme.
The worry over toxicity derives in part from patients' concern about their reliance on pesticides to keep ticks at bay. To detox after performing the necessary evil of spraying and applying insecticide to the skin (and patients are well aware of the contradiction), many Lyme patients eat organic and use chemical-free products as much as possible. The preference for an organic lifestyle is often accompanied by the embrace of complementary and alternative therapies. These are usually alongside a regime of antibiotics (another acknowledged contradiction).
For example, Dumes describes the Rife machine, an apparatus invented in the 1930s and tested by the medical establishment for a while. The Rife machine, no longer accepted by mainstream doctors, emits a range of electromagnetic frequencies. The theory is that bacteria and viruses can be rendered inactive if targeted with the correct frequency. Beyond Lyme, some patients, I have read elsewhere, believe that the Rife machine helps to cleanse their systems of neurotoxins, reduce co-infections, and strengthen their immune systems. Since it can run a couple thousand dollars, Dumes told me that some patients have developed a sharing economy so that more may benefit. Chronic Lyme patients may also seek out a range of other often pricey holistic health products and treatments, such as BioMats, infrared saunas, and hyperbaric oxygen chambers. To some, it's all snake oil; to others, the sources of real relief.
Looking back on the patients from Lyme, Connecticut, who in the 1970s embarked on a quest to figure out what happened to them, it is easy to imagine them in a similar situation, occupying that liminal state of neither acutely ill nor healthy. They were laid low by a disease without a name or cure, and without much will by the establishment to demystify the symptoms. After time wore on and they never fully recovered, were they considered malingerers? The evidence of a microbe, Borrelia, and its vector, the tick, transformed not only the clinical approach to a constellation of symptoms, but also the perception of the "right way to be sick." The evidence also transformed northeastern semi-rural culture, the everyday habits, thoughts, and emotions of people living at the forest edge.
Monday, January 02, 2017
The Hit Aesthetic
"Wonder was the grace of the country."
~ George W.S. Trow
At a recent cocktail party, the conversation turned to conspiracy theorists and how to engage them. I offered a strategy that has served me fairly well in the past: I like to ask my interlocutor what information they would need to be exposed to in order to change their minds about their initial suspicion. To be clear, I think of this more as a litmus test for understanding whether a person has the capacity to change their minds on a given position, rather than an opening gambit leading to further argument and persuasion. Climate change is a good example: What fact or observation might lead a person to consider that global warming is happening, and that human economic activity is responsible for it? It is actually quite surprising how often people don't really have a standard of truth by which they might independently weigh the validity of their argument. Of course, in today's ‘post-truth' world, I suspect that it is just as likely that I might be told that nothing can change a person's mind, since everything is lies and propaganda anyway.
I was pleased that another person at the party made an even better suggestion. She said that she would ask not only what would change a conspiracy theorist's mind, but from whom they would need to hear it. This vaults the act of interrogation from a context grounded purely in individualism and individuals' appeals to authority, to something distinctly more social. It also specifies the importance of not just facts, but from where those facts emanate. Because as much as we would like to believe ourselves independently reasoning beings, that we come to our conclusions through a rigorous and sacrosanct process of discernment, we are still very subject to having our opinions shaped by others. This may seem somewhat obvious, but in these times, when new ways of sensemaking are in high demand, I believe this provides an important opening.
Interestingly, this cocktail chatter echoed a much more deeply elaborated mode of thinking, developed by the French theorist René Girard. If much of what drives us is desire, Girard postulated that desire was something that we learned from each other (and not to be confused with needs: consider the distinction of needing to eat, versus desiring one food over another). Desiring is therefore an intrinsically social experience. And we learned not just to desire from one another, but what to desire. We may be born free, but we don't know what to want of the world until we look around and see what others are wanting for themselves. Girard called this ‘mimetic desire'. This is desire as imitation, and as contagion. The corollary, of course, is that it doesn't really matter if we are born free or not; we only become fully human when we enter into this web of desiring what others desire, and having others learn to desire what it is we ourselves covet.
One manifestation is in that old American saying about ‘keeping up with the Joneses': a social vector that is extremely well-suited to commerce, with the proviso that money is to be made from leveraging desire most efficiently when coupled with manufactured scarcity. Consider, for example, the multi-day lines that form in anticipation of a new make of Nike's Air Jordan sneakers: it is an act of collective taste-making where the goal is to obtain exactly the same object for which everyone else in line. The same may be said of stock market bubbles (and the underlying ‘greater fool' theory of investing), neighborhood competitions around Christmas decoration, or any other phenomenon that somehow expands from something socially acceptable to irrational and perhaps even systemically dangerous.
But Girard's theory has an explanatory power that goes beyond the material aspect; it encompasses matters of opinion as well. How do I settle on knowing what I know about the world? For Girard, this is also a mimetic process. Although he did not address technology very much in his writings, here is an interesting thought experiment: what if mimetic desire, instead of being captured in the physical form of goods, could be reproduced endlessly, with little to no friction preventing its amplification? What if it were, for all intents and purposes, free?
The roles that so-called ‘fake news' and social media have played in this election cycle will be discussed for years to come. In a world of bespoke filter bubbles, it is easier than ever for us to only desire the things that already resonate with our existing worldview. In addition to seeking out the opinions of politicians, journalists and commentators with whose positions we already agree (and want more of), social media has inserted a crucial (inter)mediating step: we access these professionals through the good offices of our friends, or people we would like to be our friends.
This may seem banal, but keep it in mind when looking at the numbers: by a recent, widely cited Pew Research poll, 62% of Americans get their news from social media, with 18% ‘doing so very often'. Additionally, Facebook was the most widely accessed source, with Twitter and YouTube coming up relatively distant second. Importantly, despite all the discussion around the algorithms that serve up the information that we consume on these platforms, it is our relationships with the people we trust that constitutes the ‘last mile' of service delivery by which this information reaches our eyeballs. This is further abetted by the structural incentives of the social media platforms themselves. As Mike Caulfield writes,
…conspiracy clickbait sites appeared as a reaction to a Facebook interface that resisted external linking. And this is why fake news does better on Facebook than real news. By setting up this dynamic, Facebook simultaneously set up the perfect conspiracy replication machine and incentivized the creation of a new breed of conspiracy clickbait sites.
Here we return to the notion of conspiracy. It allows us to ask what role conspiracy thinking plays within a mimetic context. Obviously, it's one thing to want the same sneakers that the cool kids on the block are sporting. It's entirely another to jump on the bandwagon of a worldview that has produced everything from Trutherism to Birtherism to PizzaGate. If one accepts mimetic desire as a motivating force for the generation, dissemination and adoption of opinion, then fake news - and social media itself, which is the agar upon which fake news feeds - is merely symptomatic. There is another aspect to Girard's theory, that of the scapegoat, that takes us further.
For Girard, the bubble factory of mimetic desire isn't just how culture is created. With too many people chasing too few goods, mates or other social signifiers, the rivalries produced over and over again by mimetic desire eventually precipitate a crisis that threatens to reduce society to a Hobbesian war of ‘all against all'. There must be a mechanism by which society can hold itself together in the face of such forces, and for Girard it was the notion of the scapegoat:
When violence is at the point of threatening the existence of the community, very frequently a bizarre psychosocial mechanism arises: communal violence is all of the sudden projected upon a single individual. Thus, people that were formerly struggling, now unite efforts against someone chosen as a scapegoat. Former enemies now become friends, as they communally participate in the execution of violence against a specified enemy.
History bears witness to a number of practices where we can see this ‘scapegoat mechanism' at work. More often than not, these practices are so culturally important that they are regularly repeated, and in fact may very well be ritually encoded. Written in 1922, JG Frazer's still-magisterial ‘The Golden Bough' devotes several chapters to its function. A single example will suffice to illustrate the unifying power of the scapegoat:
In civilised Greece the custom of the scapegoat took darker forms than the innocent rite over which the amiable and pious Plutarch presided. Whenever Marseilles, one of the busiest and most brilliant of Greek colonies, was ravaged by a plague, a man of the poorer classes used to offer himself as a scapegoat. For a whole year he was maintained at the public expense, being fed on choice and pure food. At the expiry of the year he was dressed in sacred garments, decked with holy branches, and led through the whole city, while prayers were uttered that all the evils of the people might fall on his head. He was then cast out of the city or stoned to death by the people outside of the walls.
As Frazer demonstrates, the phenomenon of the scapegoat - whether human or animal - manifests not just in Greek and Roman culture but throughout the world. It is a catalyst by which society reaches a consensus with itself that, whatever its internal differences and disagreements (the ‘rivals' of Girard's mimetic process), there is a larger, more important threat to be overcome. Obviously, there is an open line to divinity here, as the scapegoat's sacrifice to the gods creates the expectation that relief will be provided, or a pathway to salvation opened (as in the case of Jesus Christ).
Crucially for Girard, the process only works when it is conducted unconsciously. That is, everyone must believe that the scapegoat is actually guilty of the transgressions. For example, even in the ancient Greek case cited above, the full weight of belief transforms the blameless poor man into a vehicle for gathering up all the plague within the city's walls, and, with his death outside those walls, its dissolution. Conspiracy thinking functions in a very similar fashion: applied to the recent election, Hillary Clinton has never not been guilty, and Donald Trump has never not been a fascist thug. What is lacking is a ritually encoded means by which this malevolent presence can be expunged, so that society might move on. One could contend that, for at least the former scenario, Trump could have indeed put Clinton in jail for her sins, which are of course the sins of her husband as well. But the fact that Trump blithely put this possibility out of mind almost immediately following his victory implies that Girard's requirement of belief (or at least, suspended disbelief) in the scapegoat is not fulfilled. What we then have is a fully functioning scapegoat mechanism that is nevertheless denied its consummation.
There is a more important point to be made about Girard's requirement of belief. All of the above would be of passable interest as far as analytical approaches go (in fact, I'm certainly not the first person to bring this up, having been inspired by this piece in The New Inquiry). The extraordinary additional wrinkle in this story, as The New Inquiry and others have pointed out, has been Peter Thiel's role. In a nutshell, Thiel is a libertarian Silicon Valley billionaire who embodies Randian ideals to an almost caricaturish extent. He was one of the first outside investors in Facebook. More recently, he acquired notoriety as the man behind the lawsuit that bankrupted Gawker. For our purposes, however, it's more appropriate to note that he was one of René Girard's students at Stanford.
Girard's influence on Thiel is quite clear. The notion of the scapegoat is explicit in Thiel's own writing, specifically in Zero To One, Thiel's contribution to innovation and entrepreneurship. As noted by The New Inquiry, Thiel writes:
The famous and infamous have always served as vessels for public sentiment: they're praised amid prosperity and blamed for misfortune… [It is] beneficial for the society to place the entire blame on a single person, someone everybody could agree on: a scapegoat. Who makes an effective scapegoat? Like founders, scapegoats are extreme and contradictory figures.
For Thiel, it is thanks to this Girardian process that society progresses at all. The problem is that, more often than not, it's people like him - the wealthy, the founders, the leaders - that wind up becoming scapegoats. The difference is that Thiel, thanks to his position and resources, is now actually able to intervene in this very process. This was the case with Gawker: spurred on by his personal beef, Thiel identified the site as a factory for the manufacturing of scapegoats, and bided his time until the perfect case presented itself, which he then used to destroy Gawker.
But other Girardian mechanisms are worth keeping around. For the reasons described by Mike Caulfield above, Facebook is a streamlined machine for reproducing mimetic desires, for creating rivals in desire and therefore for fomenting social tension. The difference with a platform like Facebook is it is a thoroughly quantified domain. Suddenly, there is an opportunity to guide and channel these passions. Scapegoats will continue to be generated, but if the process can be influenced, however subtly, then we have effectively replaced the prior, ritually encoded consummation of the practice of scapegoating with one that is is micromanaged by algorithm. More importantly, at least according to Thiel's worldview, we will avoid scapegoating the ‘wrong people'.
This theorization points to a hard truth for not just public opinion in general, but journalism in particular. Writing recently in The Guardian, Caitlin Moran struck a hopeful tone:
I think things are going to get worse for newspapers before they get better. We're living in a post-truth age and people don't seem to care, because we're drunk on the internet; and I think things will have to get a bit messier before we start wanting to have facts again. The tone of politics right now is one of shouting and trolling, and that tone has absolutely been set by social media. At some point, probably when society and the economy have got much worse than they are now, we'll reinvent the idea of having a creditable, trustworthy press.
Unfortunately, I am extremely skeptical that a return to a dignified public discourse is imminent, or even possible. If we buy not only into the Girardian scenario, but one which is moreover actively guided by those in the position to do so, then it is difficult to conceive of the kind of event or trend that will provide a turning point and return us to a prelapsarian idea of ‘truth' or ‘journalism' or even ‘media'. More broadly, as George WS Trow wrote in the New Yorker almost 40 years ago, "To a person growing up in the power of demography, it was clear that history had to do not with the powerful actions of certain men but with the processes of choice and preference." It seems sensible to assert that structures of power that can exploit these processes will maintain a steady upper hand, compared to those that seek to disrupt them. If we take Girard at his word, mimesis may well be sufficient unto itself, as it has been for a long time already.
Monday, December 19, 2016
Data Science and 2016 Presidential Elections
by Muhammad Aurangzeb Ahmad
Much has already been written about the failure of data science in predicting the outcome of the 2016 US election but it is always good to revisit cautionary tales. The overwhelming majority of the folks who work in election prediction including big names like New York Times' Upshot, Nate Silver's FiveThirtyEight and Princeton Election Consortium predicted Clinton's chance of winning being more than 70 percent. This is of course not what happened and Donald Trump is the president elect. And so on the night of November 9th people started asking if there was something wrong with Data Science itself. The Republican strategist Mike Murphy went as far as to state, "Tonight, data died." My brush with election analytics came in in late 2015 when I was looking for a new job and talked to folks in both the Republican and the Democratic Data Science teams about prospective roles but decided to pursue a different career path. However this experience forced me to think about the role of data driven decision in campaigning and politics. While data is certainly not dead, Mike Murphy observation does lay bare the fact that those interpreting the data are all too human. The overwhelming majority of the modelers and pollsters had implicit biases regarding the likelihood of a Trump victory. One does not even have to torture the data to make it confess, one can ask the data the wrong questions to make it answer what you want to hear.
We should look towards the outcome and modeling approaches for the 2016 US presidential elections as learning experiences for data science as well as acknowledging it as a very human enterprise. In addition understand what led to selectively choosing the data and to understand why the models did not as well as they should have, it would help us to unpack some of the assumptions that go in creating these models in the first place. The first thing that comes to mind is systematic errors and sampling bias which was one of the factors that results in incorrect predictions, a lesson that pollsters should have learned after the Dewey vs. Truman fiasco. That said, there were indeed some discussions about the unreliability of the pollster data run up to the election. Although the dissenting voice rarely made it to the mainstream data. Obtaining representative samples of the population can be extremely hard.
It is notoriously difficult to predict which registered voters are going to actually vote in the elections. Fewer registered Democrats actually went to the polls to vote for Hillary Clinton than they had voted for their Democratic nominee in the last few elections. It is already well known that Hillary would have comfortably won had that not been the case. The opposite is also true, many people who are on the alt-right who normally do not engage with the electoral process voted for Donald Trump. There are many factors that determine how does one obtain a representative sample of the population. The Investors Business Daily (IBD) correctly predicted the outcome of the elections and in their own words they were able to do so because most of the other pollsters collected most of their data by calling smartphones while they polls that they conducted were representative sample even the types of phones that were used. It may be the case that IBD may have gotten lucky because even their approach, as far as we know, does not take into account voter apathy.
The real story about Data Science and the elections may be that even in the age of Big Data we have preciously little data to make robust predictions about the electorate even though we may pretend that that is not the case. Just because a simple model predicted that Trump would win the presidency doesn’t mean the model is correct, there are just too few data points to make predictions with reasonable confidence. Many folks in the data science community observed that the Republicans were far behind the Democrats in terms of building a strong data science and may lose the elections because of this reason. Of course they were dead wrong about this. Cambridge Analytica is the British analytics company that led the Data Science efforts at the Trump campaign. It is now being touted by many outlets as the engine behind Trump’s success after the fact, while others have decried that most of it is just post victory myth making. One of Cambridge Analytica’s claims to fame is that they use psychographic data to make predictions about election choice. Many outsiders observe that even a sample size of a few million is not enough to generalize over a population of 350 million. The PR folks at Cambridge Analytica has played up the media fascination with the idea of data science team winning the elections What is however left in these accounts is that before the election day Cambridge Analytica put the chance of winning of its candidate to be 20 percent which they upgraded 30 percent as voting began. This does not exactly sound like predictions of winning in advance or actionable insight for strategizing. Thus, many journalists have stated that the claims of data science winning the elections are vastly exaggerations with there being no secret sauce to their data science approach.
If we are to take a critical eye to Cambridge Analytica then it is only fair that we apply the same critical eye retroactively to the previous elections and the success of Nate Silvers of the world. It may well be the case that the success of the predictions of the last elections was a fluke but there are important lessons that one can learn from flukes. One of the most insightful comments came from Pradeep Mutalik “that aggregating poll results accurately and assigning a probability estimate to the win are completely different problems.” The former is relatively straightforward while the later involves a host of assumptions that are not always clear and many a times are more art than science. Lastly there is the issues of how the populace and the media, both of which are not rocket scientists when it comes to interpreting the probability of winning or losing elections. Those with some know how of probability would be surprised to learn how many people are out there who think that a probability of 60 percent of winning implies almost certainly winning. Pradeep Mutalik of Yale has rightly pointed out that probabilistic forecasts should be done away with or if we to use them they should with margins of error disclaimers. Perhaps our predictive technology is not as good as we think. It is as good as or bad as the way targeting ads work, which is another way of saying not that well. One cannot really blame the data when the data that we select already have the conclusions that we want built into it. Alternatively we should stop worrying about the predicting the weather as much. Perhaps the outcomes don’t matter as much as we like to think, certainly Nicholas Nassim Talib thinks so.
Monday, December 12, 2016
Prelude and Exordium to the Ordination, Coronation, Inauguration, and Installation of the Grand High Singularity, Donald of Trump, Ruler of Universes Known, Unknown, Unimaginable and Phantasmagoric
What then are we to make of the election of Donald Trump as President of the United States, an event as preposterous as the title of this essay? However fervent his supporters were, and are, it appears that, come Election Day, not even Trump thought he would win. And now he’s stuck with having to govern. He’s caught the tiger by the tail and now he’s got to hold on to stay alive.
To be sure, I wasn’t at all happy voting for Hillary, for she seems to be more of the same. Obama is in many ways an admirable man and leader, but he’s also the Drone president and, though he did something about health care – Thank you, Obamacare! – he also seems to be out of the Clintonist triangulation Wall Street school of governance. Of course, Hillary is also a Clintonist, and even more of a hawk than Obama.
No, Hillary did not fill me with joy. I felt the Bern.
But Donald Trump? I cannot comprehend. Hence the term “singularity” in that preposterous title. The term is best known in the context of computing and artificial intelligence, where The Technological Singularity is when the machines become self-aware, bootstrap themselves into Superintelligence, and take over the joint, lock stock and barrel o’ monkeys. I think that’s nonsense, but the machines surely have been busy.
For one thing, they’ve been automating people out of jobs – hence much of the anger Trump has been able to capture and convert through promises of jobs he’ll have trouble delivering in the long-term, though perhaps he can pull off an employment spike with infrastructure maintenance, repair, and even new construction. If so, more power to him. But when that’s over, what does he do with the ensuring despair and anger? Scapegoat us into more war?
And then we have those Russian hackers interfering with the election. More tech. Did Trump put them up to it, or one of his minions, or was it entirely a Kremlin play? Does it matter? I suppose it does, but at what level, policy, strategy, or tactics (to invoke von Clausewitz)? It’s high tech, just like those Obama drones are high tech – Obamacare too, and factory automation, not to mention high frequency trading, Siri, and every damn thing else. Of course we’re angry that the Russkies would meddle in our internal affairs, as well we should be. It's terrible. But we’ve been meddling in the affairs of other countries for decades, using high tech low tech lethal tech, whatever it takes to topple another government tech. We don’t deserve the moral high ground here.
So much for technology. Yes, it’s in play. But so is global climate change. That’s all out there, in the world as it were.
The singularity I’m thinking about is different. It’s in our conception of ourselves and the state. Our basic modes of apprehension and action. Will the rule of Donald Trump lead us to reconfigure the body politic? That too would be a singularity, a point after which everything is changed.
Boundaries, Public and Private: The Crown
The one thought I’ve got on this whole wretched business is this: boundaries. And that brings me to the new Netflix series, The Crown. It’s about Queen Elizabeth II of England. It started streaming recently, perhaps no earlier than the beginning of November, and I began watching it a couple days before the election. It struck me that this timing was likely no coincidence, a TV show about a woman becoming the British monarch even as a woman was about to become President of the United States. But, Hillary lost, didn't she?
But there's a deeper coincidence, a matter of thematic counterpoint. One of the major themes of The Crown, perhaps THE major theme, is the conflict between personal life and public duty, with Elizabeth opting for public duty. In contrast, the Presidential election seems to have been dominated by confusion between private life and public life.
Let’s start with The Crown. Elizabeth’s father, King George VI, became king when his brother, Edward VIII, was forced to abdicate. Why? Because he decided to marry Wallis Simpson, an twice-divorced American socialite and, of course, a commoner. That is, it is because her uncle chose to put his private happiness above his public duty, that Elizabeth was in a position to become monarch. This much of the story is told in flashback, but Edward, now merely the Duke of Windsor, figures prominently in the early episodes and he returns in the final episode of the season.
In the second episode we see two examples. Elizabeth’s husband, Philip, has two demands: 1) the family keep his name, Mountbatten, and 2) that they remain in Clarence House, one of the royal residences, which they’ve just renovated, rather than moving to Buckingham Palace, which is not particularly homey. Elizabeth is find with this but the Prime Minister, Winston Churchill, is against, as is her uncle Edward (the one who abdicated). Duty wins out in both cases. In the fifth episode Elizabeth gets crowned. Philip requests that he not have to kneel before the new sovereign during the ceremony. Elizabeth refuses.
And so on. There are other incidents throughout the ten episodes and each is surrounded by conversation. But always, personal feeling and public duty are put at odds, coming to a wrenching climax at the end of the season, where Elizabeth invokes duty to thwart her sister’s desire to marry a divorced man.
In the 2016 presidential election perhaps the most obvious collision between public and private was depicted in the video tape where Trump brags about his sexual harassment; and that was just one in a number of incidents of sexual harassment. There is nothing new in the wayward sexual behavior of powerful men, but in previous decades the press didn’t report it, not for Roosevelt, or Eisenhower, nor John Kennedy. That changed with Bill Clinton and the Lewinsky scandal in his second term. Just why the change, I don’t really know. But it has happened.
Other issues were about public-private confusion as well. Continuing with Trump, there’s his apparent tax avoidance, which may well have been legal, but was presented as a failure of civic duty, his use of his foundation, and other issues. And there’s his relationship to his vast business interests, a matter that is far from resolved. On the Clinton side, there’s the use of a private email server for conducting public business and there’s the Clinton Foundation: did they trade political favors for donations to the foundation?
What, if anything, should we make of this? I don’t quite know. What I’m suggesting, though, is that there is some kind of inverse ‘resonance’ between the appearance of The Crown at this time and the current atmosphere surrounding presidential politics in the United States. This issue has become salient in the culture and shows up in both the Netflix drama and the Presidential Election. Has Trump been elected despite his narcissistic confusion between the public and private or almost because of it? His lack of a coherent political doctrine is, in effect, the absence of a public political personal. This strikes me as being fundamental, for it is a matter of the basic categories through which we structure our lives.
Trump rejected GOP doctrine to get the nomination. In rejecting Hillary Clinton, the voters rejected Democratic doctrine. The net result, then, is the rejection existing political doctrine, Republican as well as Democratic, in favor of Brand Trump. Trump stands, not for a body of ideas, much less a body of conservative ideas, but for himself.
The Trump Singularity?
When I look back over the history I’ve lived through, the only political event that seems comparable to Trump’s election is the collapse of the Soviet Union. The election of Ronald Reagan in 1980 was a shock, as was the verdict in Bush v. Gore in 2000, when the Supreme Court handed the Presidential Election to George W. Bush. But the collapse of the Soviet Union was something else.
I’d been raised during the height of the Cold War. I remember the Cuban Missile Crisis. And I remember reading articles about bomb shelters, how and where to construct them, what supplies to stock them with, and how likely they will protect you against an atomic attack. I’d even identified a spot in the back yard where I figured that our family bomb shelter ought to go, though I don’t remember ever discussing this with my parents so perhaps my thoughts on that partook more deeply of fantasy than reality.
On a slightly different note, I remember the day in the fall of 1957 when my father took me out into the back yard in the evening, pointed to a light in the sky and said, “that’s Sputnik.” Just how, back then, I weighed the fact that it was the Russians (who did it) against the fact that it was humans (who did it), I don’t recall. But surely my father wanted me to experience the wonder rather than the politics. As for whether or not that tiny tiny light was actually Sputnik, probably not. In this context the point is simple: the Russians.
The Berlin Wall – the fabled Berlin Wall, Kennedy’s “Ich bin ein Berliner”, the line between East and West – came down in 1989. The Soviet Union was dissolved in late 1991. It was over, the Cold War had ended. There was a lot of talk about swords-into-ploughshares, talk about “the peace dividend”, and even the end of history – none of which I found persuasive. The Cold War was over, but it’s not as though sites for conflict had disappeared. On the contrary, they were all over the place.
It’s not, mind you, that I had ‘predicted’ 9/11 and the aftermath. Nothing like it. Rather, I simply did not believe that the Cold War international dynamics. The ‘top layer’, if you will, had been removed, but much remained. And what remained is what we are now living with. A large and powerful nation-state, the USSR, disappeared. Yet what remained was still an international order dominated by nation states.
Is the ascendency of Donald Trump to the leadership of the ‘free world’ an event of that magnitude? We have no way of knowing, not at this point. But I do think that is the scale at which we have to think.
If so, just what has happened? Will Trump reign for two terms, or only one? Will he be impeached? And what happens after Trump? That’s the question.
If, as I argued in the previous section, Trump represents the triumph of the personal over the political, it represents the unraveling of the skein of basic ideas that has governed our public life since the 18th century. Will the American political system return to business or usual or not? Will Trump usher in an era of crony capitalism in the United States that will cascade throughout the world so that transnational corporations will play the role of feudal lords and come to dominate a world of impoverished nation-states and their citizen peasants? Will we collapse into neo-Feudalism, as my friend and colleague Abbe Mowshowitz has argued?
If not that, then what? Will we have the imagination and courage needed to create new social forms out of the wreckage of the current world order? Will we have the time?
Monday, December 05, 2016
Are American Professors More Responsive to Requests Made by White Male Students?
by Jalees Rehman
Less than one fifth of PhD students in the United States will be able to pursue tenure track academic faculty careers once they graduate from their program. Reduced federal funding for research and dwindling support from the institutions for their tenure-track faculty are some of the major reasons for why there is such an imbalance between the large numbers of PhD graduates and the limited availability of academic positions. Upon completing the program, PhD graduates have to consider non-academic job opportunities such as in the industry, government agencies and non-profit foundations but not every doctoral program is equally well-suited to prepare their graduates for such alternate careers. It is therefore essential for prospective students to carefully assess the doctoral program they want to enroll in and the primary mentor they would work with. The best approach is to proactively contact prospective mentors, meet with them and learn about the research opportunities in their group but also discuss how completing the doctoral program would prepare them for their future careers.
The vast majority of professors will gladly meet a prospective graduate student and discuss research opportunities as well as long-term career options, especially if the student requesting the meeting clarifies the goal of the meeting. However, there are cases when students wait in vain for a response. Is it because their email never reached the professor because it got lost in the internet ether or a spam folder? Was the professor simply too busy to respond? A research study headed by Katherine Milkman from the University of Pennsylvania suggests that the lack of response from the professor may in part be influenced by the perceived race or gender of the student.
Milkman and her colleagues conducted a field experiment in which 6,548 professors at the leading US academic institutions (covering 89 disciplines) were contacted via email to meet with a prospective graduate student. Here is the text of the email that was sent to each professor.
Subject Line: Prospective Doctoral Student (On Campus Next
Dear Professor [surname of professor inserted here],
I am writing you because I am a prospective doctoral student with considerable interest in your research. My plan is to apply to doctoral programs this coming Fall, and I am eager to learn as much as I can about research opportunities in the meantime.
I will be on campus next Monday, and although I know it is short notice, I was wondering if you might have 10 minutes when you would be willing to meet with me to briefly talk about your work and any possible opportunities for me to get involved in your research. Any time that would be convenient for you would be fine with me, as meeting with you is my first priority during this campus visit.
Thank you in advance for your consideration.
[Student's full name inserted here]
As a professor who frequently receives emails from people who want to work in my laboratory, I feel that the email used in the research study was extremely well-crafted. The student only wants a brief meeting to explore potential opportunities without trying to extract any specific commitment from the professor. The email clearly states the long-term goal - applying to doctoral programs. The tone is also very polite and the student expresses willingness of the prospective student to a to the professor's schedule. Each email was also personally addressed with the name of the contacted faculty member.
Milkman's research team then assessed whether the willingness of the professors to respond depended on the gender or ethnicity of the prospective student. Since this was an experiment, the emails and student names were all fictional but the researchers generated names which most readers would clearly associate with a specific gender and ethnicity.
Here is a list of the names they used:
White male names: Brad Anderson, Steven Smith
White female names: Meredith Roberts, Claire Smith
Black male names: Lamar Washington, Terell Jones
Black female names: Keisha Thomas, Latoya Brown
Hispanic male names: Carlos Lopez, Juan Gonzalez
Hispanic female names: Gabriella Rodriguez, Juanita Martinez
Indian male names: Raj Singh, Deepak Patel
Indian female names: Sonali Desai, Indira Shah
Chinese Male names; Chang Huang, Dong Lin
Chinese female names: Mei Chen, Ling Wong
The researchers assessed whether the professors responded (either by agreeing to meet or providing a reason for why they could not meet) at all or whether they simply ignored the email and whether the rate of response depended on the ethnicity/gender of the student.
The overall response rate of the professors ranged from about 60% to 80%, depending on the research discipline as well as the perceived ethnicity and gender of the prospective student. When the emails were signed with names suggesting a white male background of the student, professors were far less likely to ignore the email when compared to those signed with female names or names indicating an ethnic minority background. Professors in the business sciences showed the strongest discrimination in their response rates. They ignored only 18% of emails when it appeared that they had been written by a white male and ignored 38% of the emails if they were signed with names indicating a female gender or ethnic minority background. Professors in the education disciplines ignored 21% of emails with white male names versus 35% with female or minority names. The discrimination gaps in the health sciences (33% vs 43%) and life sciences (32% vs 39%) were smaller but still significant, whereas there was no statistical difference in the humanities professor response rates. Doctoral programs in the fine arts were an interesting exception where emails from apparent white male students were more likely to be ignored (26%) than those of female or minority candidates (only 10%).
The discrimination primarily occurred at the initial response stage. When professors did respond, there was no difference in terms of whether they were able to make time for the student. The researchers also noted that responsiveness discrimination in any discipline was not restricted to one gender or ethnicity. In business doctoral programs, for example, professors were most likely to ignore emails with black female names and Indian male names. Significant discrimination against white female names (when compared to white males names) predicted an increase in discrimination against other ethnic minorities. Surprisingly, the researchers found that having higher representation of female and minority faculty at an institution did not necessarily improve the responsiveness towards requests from potential female or minority students.
This carefully designed study with a large sample size of over 6,500 professors reveals the prevalence of bias against women and ethnic minorities at the top US institutions. This bias may be so entrenched and subconscious that it cannot be remedied by simply increasing the percentage of female or ethnic minority professors in academia. Instead, it is important that professors understand that they may be victims of these biases even if they do not know it. Something as simple as deleting an email from a prospective student because we think that we are too busy to respond may be indicative of an insidious gender or racial bias that we need to understand and confront. Increased awareness and introspection as well targeted measures by institutions are the important first steps to ensure that students receive the guidance and mentorship they need, independent of their gender or ethnic background.
Milkman KL, Akinola M, Chugh D. (2015). What Happens Before? A Field Experiment Exploring How Pay and Representation Differentially Shape Bias on the Pathway Into Organizations. Journal of Applied Psychology, 100(6), 1678–1712.
Monday, November 21, 2016
President Trump: The Unknown Unknowns
by Omar Ali
Trump has been elected President. Having participated in a week-long social media freakout to deal with this shock (a fact I did not recognize about myself until a couple of days ago), I have some thoughts and I would like to put them out so that I can be enlightened by feedback. It is the only way to learn.
Very qualified people have written some good pieces already about the why and the how. I am posting links to them below, along with some random thoughts about the articles. They are not the whole story (what is?) but I think all these articles are must reads. My own comments are more like invitations to tell me off, or tell me more...
After these links and comments, I sum up my own thoughts and end with some questions.
You are still crying wolf, from Slate Star Codex. (I don't think Trump is particularly racist or sexist (relative to most 70 year old males, of any ethnicity) and he is obviously socially liberal compared to traditional Republicans. But the possibility is there that this shallow man (more or less socially liberal, a conman, ignorant) will be manipulated by his newfound advisers into disasters (initially abroad) that could have endless branching and mutating unintended consequences here and abroad. That could be a truly transformative crisis... Racism and the rise of the KKK (real and imagined) are small potatoes compared to the storms that could potentially be unleashed in the world... Muslims, being intimately connected to the worldwide crisis in very direct ways, will likely face the consequences within the USA too; but the crucial point is that the whole shitstorm is likely to proceed along tracks that are occasionally parallel, but mostly completely unconnected with the identitarian postmarxist postmodern worldview that dominates the elite Eurocentric Left today... Incidentally, if the ordure does hit the fan (I hope it does not, i hope the much-maligned current world order survives or at least, has a soft landing), then Blacks and Latinos, like other citizens, will fight for America. I suspect that the fantasy worldview that emphasizes supranational and subnational identities well above national ones will prove very flimsy; flimsier even than "class solidarity" proved to be in the first world war...the elite Left's freakout about the KKK and the coming age of Jim Crow is not completely wrong, but misses the biggest threats and their likely consequences. Which is not to say that no connection can be made between racism and the international order, but the race-obsessed post-truth glasses of the new postmarxist Left do get them into endless wrong turns and dead-ends in terms of priorities to be tackled.
I personally think Muslims are pretty much the only group who are actually likely to face government actions that will target entire groups for the real or imaginary behavior of some of them. And the mainstream Democratic party, the ACLU, Americans who believe in the constitution and the rule of law, and fair-minded Republicans will all be needed by them in order to help protect them against excesses. In terms of race, minorities will likely face law-enforcement excesses (as they do today, but these could increase). Occasional public confrontations (some very nasty), as well as indirect effects, arguable effects and fake effects are all possible, but they are not the main plan, or the main threat.
Meanwhile, there is also a mainstream Republican majority that has many longstanding Republican projects ready to go (tax cuts for the rich, supreme court appointments, Medicare privatization, benefit cutbacks, more prisons and prosecutors, renewed marijuana enforcement?) that will be painful for poor people and excessively nice to rich people. But world changing crises, if any, are more likely to start abroad)
The End of Identity Liberalism. NYT (Mark Lilla) (the "prediction" tone of the headline is misleading. It is not going to end. It may not be in power in the federal or state governments, but this meme-complex is fully entrenched in universities and among liberal intellectuals and they will only double down now that Trump has won. EVERYONE is doubling down on their favorite agenda, these people will double down on theirs. And because fear is such a powerful motivator, they will get even more traction in their own constituency. In war, lines harden, people have to tribalize. We will have to line up with all the liberals talking about the "pefrormativity of Whiteness" and suchlike because they will be OUR tribe. We will have no choice. War has it's rules.
Stephen Bannon Speaks (this is my own blog post, which has links to two long pieces about Stephen Bannon; he describes himself as wishing to be the Thomas Cromwell of the age. Leaving aside the minor detail that Thomas Cromwell was beheaded by the King he served, I see where he is coming from; Cromwell’s historic achievements were real and lasting. My impression (and I am not a historian, so I look forward to being corrected) is that he smashed and grabbed all the monasteries and materially ended the domination of the Catholic church in England. He improved the administration, promoted the Protestant reformation in England and left England a stronger kingdom than it was when he became its dominant minister… before he was finally beheaded by his beheading-friendly king. Not being a supporter of Trump, I hope Bannon is not 10% as successful or as talented as Cromwell was)
Trump Country, and Trump Supporters (from Mother Jones) (the usual supporters of the modern Republican party: richer people, evangelicals, small business owners, all voted for Trump more or less as usual, this is about the new supporters he mobilized and the old supporters he mobilized for his candidacy versus traditional Republicans. It is well worth reading, a great work of ethnography.. though no attempt is made at drawing any deeper lessons. Since it was published in Mother Jones, the deeper lessons may be left-leaning for most readers, but I can also see people drawing the lessons Bannon is preaching (TBF, some of them are left wing too)..I suspect both (mainstream Left AND Bannonism) are likely to be wrong. So we are still waiting for the pieces about what to do next. No one intelligent seems to think that Trump can fix their problem, so what happens next? Some people will say that there is no solution for a lot of these people...a callous way of putting it would be that they will die of poor health, drug abuse and violent crime, kept away from gated communities by armed guards and drones. But who will live in those communities and under what code of life will they live? Will most of humanity find a new and relatively comfortable equilibrium? a better equilibrium? Or maybe there is no deeper pattern. One foot in front of the other...)
The Right Way to Resist Trump. NYT. Luigi Zingales. (This article is good, but it seems unlikely that the Democrats will be able to stay off super-elite liberal issues and freakouts. Trump's own mistakes, infighting within his team, and the iron hand of the market (aka economics, a voodoo science about which nobody knows much) may ruin his administration so much that he will lose to whatever choice the Dems make next time, but I do have my doubts about the Democrats switching to some new "on-message" message that people like this columnist would approve of... During the campaign we heard about how Trump is easily manipulated into biting at every story that he should just leave well alone...well, that applies to the Democrats in spades. And Trump seems to know this and he will relentlessly use this fact to create fake controversies about some Broadway musical or some bathroom labeling issue, where the entire liberal media will be against him and the Nixonian silent majority will think "those liberal elites really ARE idiots" and so on....it will be a horrible four years (I still hope, not 8)
To sum up, I think we had a close election; one that the Democrats could have won, in spite of all of Trump's newly mobilized voters because he also had such huge negatives. But as it is, they did not win. Relatively contingent events probably played a part in their loss (Comey), but that should not obscure the fact that something huge has happened on the Republican side. A trash-talking socially liberal outsider, with a reputation as a conman (or at a minimum, a shady businessman, which is pretty much the same thing) took over the Republican party in the face of near-total establishment disapproval and then generated enough excitement in his core constituency (disaffected White people, rich and poor) to win a US general election. And he did this in spite of being rejected by almost every traditional newspaper and media outlet in the country (even at Fox, some hosts were ambivalent). And he did so with an unconventional campaign that relied on voter excitement and (frequently negative) media coverage rather than on the kind of professional political operation that has characterized all recent American presidential campaigns. This is an event worth paying attention to.
But having taken him seriously, we still have what his own chief strategist calls "a perfect vessel", waiting to be filled. But with what? Partisan commentary almost necessarily has to try and freak-out their support base for or against the incoming administration, and may be grossly exaggerated. But there are some grounds for thinking it may not be business as usual. My preference is clearly for business as usual (because I tend towards the belief that change will happen anyway, but it is better if it happens slowly and imperceptibly; of course, this is not how providence sometimes operates, so real life can and does deviate from my personal desires) so I personally will be relatively at ease if Trump turns out to be mostly talk; relying on distractions and culture wars to keep his constituency from noticing that nothing has changed for the better in their life, in short, just another modestly corrupt Republican administration; consistent in serving the short-term interests of the "top 1%" , willing to damage the long term interests of America (and the world at large) if it means more profits in the short term, and more than likely, losing the next election. Hopefully without terminally tarnishing the dignity and gravitas of the office of President.
It may turn out this way. Which will be unpleasant, but life will go on until the next election and then perhaps the next (modestly corrupt) Democratic administration. Such is the best case scenario. And I hope this less than exciting outcome does come to be.
But suppose it is not business as usual? Then I am looking for insights about two scenarios:
1. World War Z. The big changes will start abroad in this scenario, and most will probably be unintended. We will soon have a National security adviser who thinks that war against Islamism (or as he prefers to call it, Islam) is the defining feature of the world today. Without getting into any long discussion of whether this is true or not, look at it this way: there is no competing Islamic civilization out there in terms of unity, material progress or military strength. Even if we imagine (as Islamists sometimes do) that superior fellow-feeling and social organization (a patriarchal but otherwise egalitarian religion, resistant to culture-destroying postmodern memes; their view, not mine) means that they win in the long term, even Islamists recognize that in the short or medium term this "victory" involves getting invaded by competing infidel powers with better artillery and missiles.
So let us imagine Flynn has his way. What would such a war look like? His views are frequently incoherent and it is by no means clear where they will end up. e.g. he seems to regard IRAN (not Pakistan, Turkey or Saudi Arabia, the big three Sunni hopes) as the main threat and regards Russia as both threat and ally. There is just no rational way to predict what happens next based on these reported views... The US would presumably want to smash any and all Islamic counties that don't cooperate, but isn't it then a given that China, Russia and the US would also compete against each other in this new "scramble for Africa" (the Muslim world being only one order of magnitude more capable than Africa, while the big three are several orders of magnitude more materially capable than any Muslim country)? Who will line up on what side? Will it be mostly covert, low intensity warfare or will things spin out of control (the "scramble for Africa" being followed by World War One)? What about India? Japan? Latin America? The Baltics? Poland? Ukraine? This is a very complex system. Start a disturbance at a few critical points and the transitions can become totally unpredictable.
Think about it this way and it is easy to reach the comforting conclusion that this scenario is so nightmarish that "saner heads will prevail". The current international order will survive. I certainly hope so, but then again, that is probably what many sane people thought in 1913. I look forward to your thoughts.
2. From Dawn to Decadence...to collapse?
The amazing rise of Western civilization and its steadily increasing dominance of the globe in the last 500 years have given it an aura of inevitability and permanence. Not in terms of particular nationalities (particular powers rise and fall), but in terms of intellectual paradigms and visions of reality. But alongside this dominance are well established currents of doubt, pessimism and rejection, from Ivan Illych to Dugin (and even, in a way, Bannon). I am not including the currently fashionable postmarxist postmodern current in Western universities, with its rejection of tradition, authority and "dead White males" and its glorification of identity politics and not so critical "critical studies". This current seems just the next (last?) stage within the Western tradition itself; more a sign of its bankruptcy than the vision of an alternative (simply put, because it's major themes seem to have such tangential,incidental, and minimal, contact with actual biology, history, culture or science). Anyway, without getting too far into this potentially book-length debate , suppose this really is terminal decadence, then what comes next?
The unknown unknowns get really interesting at that point.
I, of course, have no good idea about what comes next. But who does? I await your suggestions about reading material 😊
Meanwhile, a few random videos that have little or no connection with one election and one president.. (the first one in particular does not imply complete agreement with his detailed views; mostly I posted it for his questions 😊 )
Monday, November 14, 2016
We Elect Soundbites
by Saurabh Jha
In 2004, India’s Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP), the incumbents, lost the election to the Congress party. Their loss was a surprise. Though polling is not an exact science, least of all in the sub-continent, what made the loss even more surprising was the election slogan used by the BJP - “India Shining.” India seemed to be shining. There was an economic boom, particularly in cities like Hyderabad and Bangalore. The Indian cricket team almost beat Australia in Australia, and had just beaten Pakistan in Pakistan. The Indian cricket team usually got walloped by these countries. The successes on the cricket pitch were extrapolated to the happiness of the proletariat.
I was in Hyderabad, Telangana, at the time. The youth had optimism and spoke about making crores (10 million rupees), not just lakhs (100 thousand rupees). Satyam, a computer giant, was building, literally, a computer village in Hyderabad. Though the skies were polluted in Hyderabad, everywhere you went there was beer, biryani, and belief. It was a good time to be in Hyderabad.
I visited a village less than 100 kilometers from Hyderabad, in the Ranga Reddy District, partly to fulfil my desire for “poverty porn.” The sky there, though less polluted than Hyderabad, seemed darker. Suicide of farmers, because they couldn’t pay their loans, was particularly high in that village. It was the sort of place where people still died from snakebites. The villagers couldn’t give a crap about India’s success in cricket – such joys are a bourgeoisie indulgence. For them, India wasn’t shining and it annoyed them to hear that India was shining, India was the same old, same old. Over two thirds of Indians live in villages. It is the villagers who decide who governs the nation. By rejecting the soundbite, “India Shining,” the villagers rejected the BJP.
In the 2008 elections, Americans gyrated to “Hope and Change.” I never understood what exactly was hoped for, and what one should change to. I’m still unclear. I presume “change” meant “be less capitalistic” and “hope” was a promised utopia where we’d all be our brother’s keeper – although if everyone was going to be kept who would do the keeping?
Shortly after Obama beat McCain, I was in Danville, a small town in Pennsylvania. It is said that Pennsylvania is Alabama between Philadelphia and Pittsburgh. Danville is Alabama central. Things are different in Danville from Philadelphia, where I live. You know you’re entering Philadelphia when you see billboards of mustachioed plaintiff attorneys. In Danville, the billboards advertise guns, not lawyers. Whilst Philadelphians swooned to Obama’s “Hope and Change” melody, there seemed little evidence of swooning in Danville. I admit I didn’t survey everyone in Danville, but the barman who served me a drink pithily said something I’ll never forget. I asked him if he was happy with Obama’s victory. He replied, “What fucking hope? What fucking change?” I suspect his questions were rhetorical.
For many of my colleagues - Ivy-league-educated doctors, who drive Priuses and Teslas, who know which red wine to pair with steak, who meditate to Bikram Yoga, and eat non-American cuisine, usually sushi, at least once a week - that someone voted for Donald Trump, not Hillary Clinton, strains their credulity. “I don’t get it”, they say. But such intellectual savants miss a point. People, including they, don’t vote for the greater good; people vote for soundbites. In this election, Trump had the catchier soundbite. Trump’s soundbite, “Let’s make America great again,” is genius in its simplicity. It captured America’s great past, instilling pride and nostalgia. It emphasized the dismal present, or at least convinced you that the present is dismal. And promised a bright future. It’s all of history in a single Tweet. “Let’s make America great again” is the heir apparent to “Hope and Change.”
A friend, who supports Trump, challenged me to name a specific policy of Hillary Clinton’s that would arouse the masses. I thought carefully and said, “minimum wage.” “LGBT rights.” Reproductive justice.” He was nonplussed. I then imagined how the barman in Danville would have reacted if I came in shouting “minimum wage, reproductive justice, hope and change.” The best soundbite Mrs. Clinton had at her disposal was “Never Trump,” which seemed to have spectacularly backfired.
If Mrs. Clinton had mastered the science of policy making, Mr. Trump owned the rhetoric of democracy. And rhetoric gives science a run for its money. Democracy has always been about soundbites. “India Shining” failed not because it was a soundbite, but the wrong soundbite. In 1971, Indira Gandhi romped to victory by using a clever slogan, “Garibi mitao”, which means “remove poverty”. Mrs. Gandhi never explained how she would remove poverty. Nor has Mr. Trump explained how he will make America great again – he doesn’t need to. Soundbites have an inherent appeal in a democracy – they’re a heuristic of sorts.
But soundbites aren’t just expedient, but necessary. It’s unlikely that many voters, even those with a PhD in economics, calculate an expected value of the benefits and harms of presidential candidates before voting. And even if they did, it would be a forlorn endeavor because of Arrow’s Impossibility Theorem. The theorem, devised by an economist, Kenneth Arrow, says that it is not possible for choices of individuals, which vary, about competing public policies to be retained by the group. This means that when different people prefer different things to different extents, and you add their preference to derive a preference for the group, the result is that everyone is unhappy. This sounds like common sense – you can’t please everyone about everything all the time – but Kenneth Arrow got a Nobel Prize for this intuition.
The only way to achieve unanimity in governance is a dictatorship. The alternative is a soundbite. A soundbite is a crafty dictator. Rather than forcing you to obey, the soundbite coaxes you into suspending cerebral activity. Better a soundbite than a dictator. I hope.
Monday, November 07, 2016
Spying Jokes in the DDR: Cold War Humor and Political Resistance
by Jalees Rehman
Political jokes were no laughing matter for the East German state security service., The Ministerium für Staatssicherheit (MfS, more commonly known as the "Stasi") viewed humorous quips about the political leadership as a form of political resistance during the Cold War years. The culture of repression enforced by the Stasi in the DDR (Deutsche Demokratische Republik, the official name of East Germany) outlawed anti-government propaganda and sedition, and these anti-sedition laws enabled the Stasi to arrest citizens who shared political jokes.
Just a few months after the Berlin Wall was constructed, the Stasi arrested a 32-year old building painter at his workplace in the town of Sassnitz, hand-cuffed him and drove him to an undisclosed location. The Stasi agents provided no explanation for his arrest until late at night when he was lay down on a plank bed in a prison cell, trying to make sense of what crime he had committed. Exhausted and befuddled, he was just about to fall asleep when Stasi prison guards dragged him out of his cell into an interrogation room and informed him that he had been arrested for sedition. A Stasi interrogator wanted to know exactly what his opinions were about the party leadership, the relationship between the DDR and the Soviet Union and which Western radio channels he listened to. The painter provided all the details in a reasonably honest manner, without hiding his critical views.
The interrogator then asked him to write down every political joke he had ever heard or shared. He knew of nine jokes that he had told and wrote them all out for the Stasi. Here is one of the nine jokes:
Three DDR citizens are sitting in a prison cell and talking about why they have been arrested. The first says, "My watch always went ahead, and I would arrive too early to work so they said I was spying." The second says, "My watch was always behind, I always came too late so they said I was engaged in sabotage. The third said, "My watch always worked perfectly, I always arrived on time, so they said my watch must have come from the West."
After spending several months in Stasi custody where he underwent repeated interrogations, he was sentenced to three years in prison for engaging in anti-government propaganda and sedition by a penal court. The summary report by his Stasi interrogators was a central piece of evidence in the mock trial and it specifically listed the political jokes as well as the names of fellow citizens who heard him tell the jokes.
The journalist Bodo Müller describes the fate of this painter in his recent book "Lachen gegen die Ohnmacht: DDR-Witze im Visier der Stasi" (Laughter as medicine against impotence: DDR jokes in the crosshairs of the Stasi) as an example of how seriously the Stasi approached the matter of political jokes, especially in the 1950s and 1960s. Müller was a DDR journalist who had been arrested and imprisoned by the state authorities after a failed attempt to escape in 1985. After the reunification, he was granted access to the secret files the Stasi has kept on him. Müller found out that the Stasi had kept a file on him since the 1970s, long before his attempted escape. He had been flagged because he collected and told jokes mocking the DDR leadership since his teenage years. When perusing the Stasi files about his activities, he learned that secret Stasi informants among his acquaintances had provided detailed information about the exact dates of when he had begun telling jokes, details that Müller himself had long forgotten. In fact, Müller had written down several hundred jokes about the DDR government and hidden those notes in the wall behind his kitchen sink. Fortunately for him, the Stasi never found his joke stash despite conducting secret searches of his apartment to find signs of conspiratorial activity.
Reading his Stasi file inspired Müller to scour 40,000 pages of now declassified Stasi files to understand the depth of the Stasi involvement in monitoring and persecuting jokesters. It appears that the DDR authorities aggressively pursued joke-tellers in the 1950s and 1960s but had relented somewhat by the 1980s. Perhaps they had realized that some degree of political humor allowed the DDR citizenry to blow off steam without engaging in activities that might pose an even greater threat to the regime. Or perhaps political jokes had become so widespread that containing humor by arresting perpetrators would have been futile.
How did the West German authorities view political joke-telling in the DDR? The West German intelligence agency BND (Bundesnachrichtendienst, now the primary foreign intelligence agency of the reunified Germany) recently declassified documents which revealed that one of their divisions monitored political humor in the DDR as a barometer of resistance in the DDR. The historian Hans-Hermann Hertle and the journalist Hans-Wilhelm Saure reviewed the declassified BND materials in their recent book Ausgelacht: DDR-Witze aus den Geheimakten des BND (Mocked: DDR jokes from the secret files of the BND). The BND emphatically denied that they actively disseminated political jokes to undermine the DDR leadership but the BND did have agents in the DDR who reported on the latest comedic developments. A number of the jokes compiled by the BND remarkably overlap with those found by Müller's research in the Stasi files.
Here are some examples of the jokes told by DDR citizens documented in the BND records:
What is the difference between an egg and a DDR citizen? An egg can only be broken once.
Reagan, Gorbachev and Honecker [DDR leader from 1971-1989] are talking to God. Reagan asks when the US will experience race problems like South Africa. God responds, "In five years!" Reagan is relieved and says, "Great, I will no longer be in office at that time!" Gorbachev asks God when the Soviet Union will no longer depend on wheat imports. God answers, "In 30 years!" Gorbachev is dismayed and says, "Too bad, I will no longer be in office at that time!" Honecker asks when the DDR will catch up with the West in terms of technology. God hesitates and then says, "I will no longer be in office at that time."
How was the legacy of Karl Marx divided? The East inherited the Manifesto, the West inherited the Capital.
What is a 3/8 joke? Three years prison for the listener, eight years prison for the joke-teller.
Why aren't there any bank robberies in the DDR? The robbers would have to wait 14 years for the escape car.
Why do DDR athletes always win Olympic bobsledding events? People in the DDR grow up squished between walls while racing downhill.
The majority of these jokes found in the BND files were collected in the late 1980s, just a few years before the collapse of the Berlin Wall and the DDR. The growing number of jokes and widespread usage may have been indicative of the shifting mood and increased political defiance among the broad DDR citizenry towards the late 1980s, especially when the authoritarian DDR regime stood our as being even more reactionary than the Soviet Union under Gorbachev.
It may be an interesting undertaking to similarly analyze political or anti-authoritarian humor in other totalitarian settings, both historically as well as in the present. Does increased telling of jokes about contemporary religious and political leaders in religious or political totalitarian systems, for example, foreshadow their downfall? Humor as an indicator and even a vehicle for bringing about political or ideological change is an exciting area of research that could yield important insights into the psychology of resistance and revolution.
Even though the BND meticulously collected political DDR jokes, it is not clear that these jokes were adequately analyzed and that they provided valuable intelligence. Instead, it appears that they represented a missed opportunity for the BND which was blindsided by the political change in the weeks leading up the resignation of Erich Honecker and the fall of the Berlin Wall. Perhaps the best – albeit unintentional- joke in the BND files is a statement made on September 26th 1989, two weeks before the famous Leipzig mass demonstration against the DDR government and seven weeks before the opening of the Berlin Wall: The BND stated that the protestors belonged to marginalized groups who would have little political impact.
1. Müller, Bodo (2016). Lachen gegen die Ohnmacht: DDR-Witze im Visier der Stasi. Ch. Links Verlag.
2. Hertle, Hans-Hermann and Saure, Hans-Wilhelm (2015). Ausgelacht: DDR-Witze aus den Geheimakten des BND. Ch. Links Verlag.
Monday, October 24, 2016
"What Can I Do?" —Gündüz Vassaf's Call for Action in a Time of Rampant Pessimism, Part 1
by Humera Afridi
On a recent weekend morning, I spoke with eminent writer and intellectual Gündüz Vassaf at his home on the island of Sedef in Turkey. I was calling from Manhattan, New York, via Skype, and the distances of space and time between us collapsed to make way for a conversation that felt like a natural continuation of a felicitous meeting earlier in the summer.
Vassaf, the author of 14 critically acclaimed books of nonfiction, fiction, essays and poetry, had just returned from a brisk swim in the Sea of Marmara. It was a chilly 20 degrees Celsius on the island, the sun suspended low in the late October sky, but that did not deter him. I sense there is not much that can restrain Vassaf from following his heart. His is a quest for freedom—in work, in life, in mind, in body—a right that he asserts not just for himself, but, judiciously for all sentient beings, and does so with a rare ebullience, one balanced with wisdom.
In his 1987 bestseller, Prisoners of Ourselves, Vassaf writes:
"This book is about freedom. It's about freedom we avoid, freedom that we fear to have in our everyday lives. Even with our simple daily acts we subject ourselves to a totalitarian order of our creation and subservience.
My first idea was to write a book about our accommodation of totalitarian regimes. Throughout history, millions across the world have experienced changes in regimes from a relatively democratic state to a totalitarian order.
In the end and over time, we acquiesce to these regimes. We internalize the new norms. The very few who don't, become martyrs, unknown patients in mental hospitals, forgotten prisoners of conscience.
I did not write a book about the above because I realized that also in "democratic" regimes we can become prisoners of ourselves."
Prisoners of Ourselves explores the psychology of totalitarianism in every day life and is a profound elucidation of human consciousness. It sold over 70,000 copies when it was published and quickly rose to the stature of a contemporary classic in Turkey. Vassaf has written many other works in between this astute and marvelously prescient book of lyrical essays—one which I find illuminates the present historical moment—and his most recent, What Can I Do? that was released, serendipitously, a week after the recent failed coup attempt in Turkey.
"When I wrote Prisoners of Ourselves, it was a yearning to be a tree, a liberated individual. That yearning still exists, but it has joined up with the sense of community, of living together as a forest. Then I was questioning things that one does without questioning—like falling in love. We don't question the state of being in love, we may question the person. Those things I tried to work out in that book. Now, it's more than that. Now, it's in order to establish a more liberated environment for us we have to deal with the environment. The environment being the climate, the people who cause climate change, economics, politics, everything else."
As of yet, Prisoners of Ourselves is the only one of Gündüz Vassaf's books available in English—for he wrote it in English. Although his prolific writings are available in several languages, they have yet to be translated into English, the otherwise dominant language of the western hemisphere—an omission which, surely, bespeaks the impoverished state of literature in translation. It signals, too, a terrible blindness in our cultural attitude for failing to care enough to acknowledge voices and ideas from around the world, especially at a time when the world is both more connected and more riven.
Born in 1946 in the United States, Gündüz Vassaf is a psychologist, author and professor. He is peripatetic and divides his time between several countries, frequently new ones, in pursuit of the challenge he made to regularly immerse himself in a new language and culture. Orhan Pamuk has described Gündüz Vassaf as the "freest spirit of any Turkish writer." An interviewer on Radio Prague, during the Prague Writers' Festival in 2012, states, "Amongst intellectuals in Turkey, the psychologist and author Gündüz Vassaf is a bit of a rock-star…" Vassaf was a founding member of the Istanbul chapter of Amnesty International and, years ago, used to teach at Bogazaci University from where he resigned after the 1980 military coup. When I asked if his resignation had been an act of protest, he replied:
"I couldn't fulfill my duties as an academic when martial law started interfering with what books we had in the university library, with what courses, and how they were going to be taught. We don't tell the soldiers how to fight their battles. The university lost whatever little autonomy and academic freedom it had. It lost it totally."
Vassaf's newest book What Can I Do? is timely, addressing a world worn down by pessimism, urging people, especially the youth towards action and engagement as panaceas. The book has received a vibrant reception in Turkey for its uplifting message and is garnering increasing popularity on social media. What Can I Do? grew out of a talk on peace that Vassaf was invited to deliver in September 2015 at the Middle East Technical University in Ankara. It concentrates on the role of young people in recent history.
"In 1968, we students in the US were part of a hedonistic generation. We weren't so much for peace—in spite of the peace signs—we just didn't want to go to war and die, whereas the present generation is really for peace. They understand peace. They are not being told to go to war, there's no conscription. They abhor war. Young people for the first time in the history of our species don't want to become soldiers anymore… Conscientious objection has become something legal. That's a major change. So, peace is no longer a dream, really. People want to be in a state of peace. It's not being anti-war as it used to be—there's a yearning for peace."
What Can I Do? carries a provocative subtitle: I have no Country. I Have No Religion. I Have No Gender. Freedom is an overarching theme in Vassaf's work, and I ask him how he manages to maintain this ‘state of freedom,' to remain attuned to it as a writer and a thinker, even in times of political upheaval, certainly, at a time when so many of Turkey's writers, intellectuals and teachers are under the panoptic eye of the state.
"I don't feel it," he states matter-of-factly. "I don't care in a way that I suppose you feel the eye of your parents if you're a thousand miles away, having your first beer or your first cigarette, but you don't care. It's that sort of feeling. They can do with me what they want. I personally don't have that fear. Once you're aware and accept the absurdity of existence, that anything can happen anywhere… Fear is unhealthy; I don't fear. If it's going to rain, I can't stop that rain."
In Prisoner of Ourselves Vassaf writes:
"Freedom in its ultimate sense is the ability to live with fear, the courage to face fear, confront fear... One loses one's freedom when one gives in to fear and is afraid to act, afraid to follow one's vision."
I am intrigued as to how Vassaf has developed his immunity to fear, liberated himself. He tells me a story of the time he worked as a guard at the age of seventeen in a mental health institution in New Hampshire. The horrors he witnessed there at a young age—"it was bedlam"—"seeing how bad human existence can become" and "how bad institutions can become" struck him to the core, as did his later work with Amnesty, learning about torture. "That may have taken away some of the fear—if you've seen the worst what else can you see?"
(The second part of this article will appear next month)
Monday, October 10, 2016
Imagine: Listening to Songs Which Make Us More Generous
by Jalees Rehman
It does not come as a surprise that background music in a café helps create the ambience and affects how much customers enjoy sipping their cappuccinos. But recent research suggests that the choice of lyrics can even impact the social behavior of customers. The researcher Nicolas Ruth and his colleagues from the University of Würzburg (Bavaria, Germany) assembled a playlist of 18 songs with pro-social lyrics which they had curated by surveying 74 participants in an online questionnaire as to which songs conveyed a pro-social message. Examples of pro-social songs most frequently nominated by the participants included "Imagine" by John Lennon or "Heal the World" by Michael Jackson. The researchers then created a parallel playlist of 18 neutral songs by the same artists in order to truly discern the impact of the pro-social lyrics.
Here is an excerpt of both playlists
Artist Pro-social playlist Neutral playlist
P!nk Dear Mr. President Raise Your Glass
John Lennon Imagine Stand By Me
Michael Jackson Heal the World Dirty Diana
Nicole Ein bisschen Frieden Alles nur für dich
Pink Floyd Another Brick in the Wall Wish You Were Here
Scorpions Wind of Change Still Loving You
Wiz Khalifa See You Again Black and Yellow
The researchers then arranged for either the neutral or the pro-social playlist to be played in the background in a Würzburg café during their peak business hours and to observe the behavior of customers. The primary goal of the experiment was to quantify the customers' willingness to pay a surcharge of 0.30 Euros for fair trade coffee instead of regular coffee. Fair trade coffee is more expensive because it is obtained through organizations which offer better trading conditions to coffee bean farmers, prohibit child labor and support sustainable farming practices. Information about fair trade coffee was presented on a blackboard in the center of the café so that all customers would walk past it and the server was trained by the researchers to offer the fair trade surcharge in a standardized manner. The server also waited for a minimum of six minutes before taking the orders of guests so that they would be able to hear at least two songs in the background. During the observation period, 123 customers heard the prosocial playlist whereas 133 heard the neutral playlist.
The effect of this brief exposure to prosocial songs was quite remarkable. The percentage of customers who opted for the more expensive fair trade coffee option doubled when they head prosocial songs! Only 18% of customers hearing the neutral playlist were willing to pay the extra 0.30 Euros – even though they had also seen the information board about the benefits of fair trade coffee – but 38% of the customers hearing prosocial songs opted for the fair trade option.
Interestingly, hearing prosocial songs did not affect the tipping behavior of the customers. Independent of what music was playing in the background, customers tipped the server roughly 12% of the bill. This is in contrast to a prior study conducted in a French restaurant in which hearing prosocial songs increased the tipping behavior. One factor explaining the difference could be the manner by which the songs were selected. The French study specifically created a playlist of prosocial songs with French lyrics whereas the Würzburg playlist contained mostly English-language songs, often with global themes such as world peace, brotherhood and abolishing boundaries. Supporting fair trade may be more consistent with the images evoked by these global-themed songs than increased tipping of a server in Germany. It is also important to note that servers or waiters in Germany are comparatively well-compensated by restaurants and cafés, therefore they do not really depend on their income from tips.
The Würzburg experiment raises some intriguing questions about how music – either consciously or subconsciously – affects our immediate decision-making. The researchers went to great lengths to minimize confounding factors by matching up songs from the same artists in both playlists. Their work is also one of the first examples of a field study in a real-world setting because prior studies linking music and pro-social behavior have been mostly conducted in laboratory settings where pro-social behavior is experimentally simulated. But one also needs to consider some caveats before generalizing the results of the study.
Würzburg is a university town where students represent a significant proportion of the population. The researchers estimated that more than 40% of the customers were in their 20s, consistent with a principal student clientele which may be more mindful of the importance of fair trade. The history of Würzburg is also noteworthy because more than 80% of the city was destroyed in a matter of minutes during the Second World War when the British Royal Air force firebombed this predominantly civilian city and killed an estimated 5,000 residents. Residents of the city may be therefore especially sensitive to songs and imagery that evoke the importance of peace and the perils of war.
Some of the next steps in exploring this fascinating link between background music and behavior is to replicate the findings in other cities and also with participants from varying age groups and cultural backgrounds. Another avenue of research could be to assess whether the content of the lyrics affects distinct forms of behavior. Are there some prosocial songs which would increase local prosocial behavior such as tipping or supporting local charities whereas others may increase global social awareness? How long do the effects of the music last? Are customers consciously aware of the lyrics they are hearing in the background or are they just reacting subconsciously? The number of questions raised by this study shows us how exciting the topic is and that we will likely see more field studies in the years to come that will enlighten us.
1. Ruth, N. (2016). "Heal the World": A field experiment on the effects of music with prosocial lyrics on prosocial behavior. Psychology of Music, (in press).
2. Jacob, C., Guéguen, N., & Boulbry, G. (2010). Effects of songs with prosocial lyrics on tipping behavior in a restaurant. International Journal of Hospitality Management, 29(4), 761-763.
Monday, September 26, 2016
The Dangerous Discounting of Donald Trump
by Ali Minai
By this point in US Election 2016, everyone acknowledges that the Presidential candidacy of Donald Trump is one of the most transformative phenomena to arise in American society in a long time – possibly since the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s, of which it is, in some ways, a perverted mirror image. However, it's ludicrous and perverse aspects should not blind anyone – including its adherents – to its corrosive but real power. Those who had until recently discounted Trump are gradually beginning to realize this, and mockery is being replaced with a mixture of fear and perplexity.
Foremost among the perplexed are the American elites and the chattering classes, who have tended to treat the candidacy of Donald Trump for President as a running farce. His frequently offensive and ignorant statements – usually via twitter – have become a staple of late-night comedy, and the cause for general derision in the news media. A surge in the polls after the Republican convention triggered a temporary bout of concern that he might actually win, but that concern receded as a very successful Democratic convention and Trump's disparaging of the Khan family boosted Hillary Clinton to a double digit national lead. A narrative settled in that Trump was finished, even as Clinton's lead has gradually declined, and now stands in the 2-4 percent range. While this has triggered a new round of anguish among Democrats, it has not yet completely changed the overall notion that, surely, the American people will not vote for someone as patently unqualified and irresponsible as Trump. The American people themselves have bolstered this assumption, with poll after poll showing that large majorities of voters consider Clinton more qualified and temperamentally suited to be President. A recent survey showed that nearly half of voters – including 22% of Trump supporters! – believe that he will use a nuclear weapon. Yet, what is often left unexplained is why the same polls typically show the head-to-head race between Trump and Clinton as very close. The implicit belief seems to be that voters will eventually come to their senses. In fact, this discrepancy should indicate exactly the opposite: That a certain chunk of voters have looked at both candidates, realized that Trump is unqualified to be President, but are nevertheless willing to vote for him. These voters have apparently considered and rejected rational arguments against Trump, suggesting that no further rational argument is likely to sway them. The same is true for the issues of bigotry and racism that are clearly relevant with regard to Trump. Most Clinton-supporters and the elite media have assumed that, once Trump's long history of bigotry against minorities and women became well-known, it would be impossible for him to win. The initial response to the Khan controversy reinforced this view. However, recent polling data suggests that this notion is not altogether justified either. As with competence, there is a segment of voters who know about Trump's bigotry, do not agree with it, but are still willing to overlook it. This segment is not necessarily identical with the one willing to overlook his incompetence, but there is probably considerable overlap. In any case, it appears that counting on the good sense of American voters to protect the world from Trump may be too optimistic.
There is probably a core 30-35% of voters who support Trump because they agree with his authoritarian and illiberal ideas, but there seems to be a further X percent that is willing to support him even though they do not agree with his ideology or attitude. What is not clear is how large X is, whether it is growing, and especially whether it will become large enough to produce a Trump victory. Time will tell, but it is instructive to analyze the nature and origin of this phenomenon in greater depth.
A clarification is in order here. Though closely related, the issue raised above is not identical to the questions of why the Trump phenomenon emerged in the first place, or why Trump might win the election. My thoughts on the former were laid out in an earlier piece, and have not changed. The latter issue is usually seen in the context of rising economic inequality, reaction to globalization, the impact of immigration, endless war overseas, and several other very real issues that are stressing the American electorate. In May, Howard Fineman wrote a rather prescient article on why Trump might win. Others such as Sean Trende have argued that there is a hidden white vote that Trump might be able to activate. The focus of the current article is not on all this; it is on why Donald Trump continues to attract voters in spite of being seen as an unqualified bigot and running his campaign totally contrary to conventional wisdom.
One useful way to look at the Trump candidacy is through the lens of anti-fragility, a concept introduced by Nassim Taleb to characterize systems that can exploit disorder to their benefit. It has long been understood that noise and disorder are of great value to complex systems. A well-known example is the driving of biological evolution by random mutation and recombination of genes. Anti-fragility formalizes this idea, and shows how it applies in a broad range of complex systems. It can be argued that all successful complex systems must be anti-fragile in order to thrive rather than being undone by their own complexity. Any successful social movement must therefore meet this criterion, and arguably, the Trump movement does that in spades. So what is it that makes the Trump movement anti-fragile? And will that lead to a Trump victory? This article attempts to address mainly the first question.
The reasons for Trump's relative success can be divided into two categories: Chronic and acute. The former are secular, structural factors that have developed over time, and provide important context; the latter are specific to Trump, his opponent, and his campaign.
The major secular reasons for Trump's success are: 1) The anxieties created by the state of the world, including globalization, war, mass migration, and the mostly unacknowledged effects of climate change and demographics; 2) The post-reality ethos of the current Republican Party; and 3) A closely and deeply divided electorate.
A World of Turmoil
As acknowledged widely, perhaps the single biggest factor fueling the rise of Trump is a rising worldwide anxiety triggered by the pace of change in the world. A lot of this change is economic. With information rapidly replacing land, capital, and even labor, as the basis of power, whole populations find themselves distressed and marginalized. In the developed economies of the West – and especially in the United States – this has manifested itself as a shock to the working classes: Non-college educated workers with blue-collar jobs in the manufacturing, transportation, and service industries. As these jobs become more technical and information-intensive – and are increasingly subject to automation – this very large chunk of the populations has seen its options dwindle. This has been exacerbated by the aggressive destruction of unions by the ascendant Right, though it is doubtful if unions could have withstood such global forces in any case. One very visible consequence of this change has been exploding economic inequality, where a small, more affluent and educated segment of the population has monopolized economic benefits almost wholly for itself, leaving the vast majority worse off today than they were decades ago. Among other things, this has led to large-scale social breakdown, and ratcheted up the level of anxiety. This is also intertwined with rapid demographic changes – the aging of the population, an increase in the proportion of non-white, often non-Christian populations, the accompanying shifts in social norms, and the erosion of "traditional values". At the same time, the world is troubled by terrorism, wars in the Middle East, Central Asia and Africa, drug-related violence in Central America, demographic crises in Asia and Africa, and increasingly extreme climate conditions all over the world. One concrete effect of these calamities has been the triggering of mass migrations, bringing large numbers of foreign migrants into already stressed societies. Add to this the fact that the radical Jihadist movement has ridden the Internet into Western homes, creating understandable panic about domestic radicalization.
Different voting groups have reacted differently to these changes, but a significant segment of white voters in many Western democracies have been unnerved by the change, leading to the emergence of strong nativist movements in Europe, Australia, and now in the United States, where refrains such as "I want my country back", "America First", "Don't tread on me", and "Make America great again" have become the staples of the Tea Party and the Trump campaign. A hankering for a vanished social order where a white majority dominated economically and culturally is clearly implicit in these attitudes, though it would be a mistake to ascribe all of this mindset to race (see, e.g., Brexit, where Asian-origin voters were a significant factor in passage).
Given this situation, it was only a matter of time before someone like Trump would have emerged in American politics. The Tea Party provided an early glimpse of this, and it is unlikely that it will end with Trump if he loses. The context for more professional, more dangerous nativist demagogues to arise is probably with us for the foreseeable future.
The Republican Alternate Reality Project
Another important long-term factor underlying the rise of Trump is the evolution of the Republican Party in the last several decades. Following the defeat of Barry Goldwater in the 1964 Presidential election, some in the Republican Party embarked on an ambitious plan to create an alternative reality to sustain their conservative ideology in a world driven increasingly by the ideas of science. This project took off following the enactment of civil rights and welfare laws by Democrats and liberal Republicans in the mid-1960s, and truly became supercharged in the Reagan years with the advent of talk radio and the rise of the religious right. The culmination of this alternative reality was the election of George W. Bush in 2000, and the subsequent invasion of Iraq – arguably one of the most world-altering events of the last fifty years. The foundational principles of the Republican Alternate Reality Project, or RARP, are the detachment of belief from evidence, and the manufacturing of conspiracy theories to sustain an evidence-free view of reality. In this funhouse mirror universe, reducing taxes increases revenue and cuts deficits (supply-side – or voodoo – economics), taking away their welfare benefits makes poor people happier, giving more money to the rich alleviates poverty (trickle-down economics), election fraud is rampant in America, and climate change is an elaborate liberal hoax. Notable recent additions to this canon include the idea that President Obama is a Kenyan-born Muslim Saul Alinsky acolyte, and the primary function of Planned Parenthood is to harvest fetuses for evil scientists.
In the particular context of the present election, the effect of the RARP is to create an open space for Donald Trump to propagate lie after lie without any pushback from his committed followers. The fact-checking site Politifact did an analysis in late June showing that, of the Trump statements they had fact-checked during the campaign to that point, 60% were "false" or "pants-on-fire" (i.e., extremely false), while another 18% were "mostly false". Only an incredible 2.5% of Trump statements examined were "true" and only another 5% were "mostly true"! In contrast, Hillary Clinton had 13% "false" or "pants-on-fire" and 13% "true" or "mostly true". A more recent analysis by Politifact shows that this pattern has continued to this day. A watershed moment was reached on September 16, when Donald Trump declared that he no longer believed in the "birther" conspiracy about President Obama being born in Kenya – a conspiracy he had promoted assiduously for five years – and immediately replaced it with a new false conspiracy theory about Hillary Clinton originating the birther conspiracy! No ordinary politician could have pulled off such a feat of irrational jiu-jitsu, but most of Trump's followers were unperturbed. It turns out that they saw his new position as simply part of a larger conspiracy in which he remained a birther but was denying it for political reasons. This response illustrates how Trump can "do no wrong" as far as his followers are concerned: If he says what they want, they like him; if he repudiates it, they don't believe him and give him the benefit of the doubt.
The detachment from reality, devaluation of science and reason, mistrust of facts, and glorification of simple-mindedness implicit in RARP has created exactly the conspiratorial, paranoid context that a demagogue can exploit – and Trump is clearly taking advantage.
A 50-50 Country
By a quirk of fate or, more likely, as a consequence of the two-party political system, the United States finds itself divided politically into two almost equal halves. In part for reasons stemming from the two factors described above, these halves have become increasingly hostile to each other, coming to think of their opponents not merely as rivals but as enemies. This means that both major parties start with a voter base of almost 40% that would vote the party line regardless of the candidate. For a candidate like Hillary Clinton, who is in the mainstream of her party, this is useful but not crucial: She would have attracted such a following just based on her policies. For Trump, however, it is a huge bonus. His policies may appeal to only 30-35% of the electorate, but another 5-10% commit to him for the sake of party alone. Prominent among these are such Republican stalwarts as Speaker Paul Ryan, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, Senators John McCain and Marco Rubio, and media personalities such as Hugh Hewitt. Only a few conscientious Republicans, such as former presidential candidate Mitt Romney, Arizona Senator Jeff Flake, and Ohio Governor John Kasich, have been able to withstand the pull of party loyalty – and it is not certain whether their consciences will remain resolute until election day or follow the ignominious example of Senator Ted Cruz. These reluctant high-profile Trump loyalists give him not only their votes, but also their credibility. They normalize him for a segment of Republican and independent voters who may not accept Trump's ideas, but give him the benefit of doubt because of a Paul Ryan or a John McCain. These voters may, in turn, pull in others, as Trump is seen as more widely acceptable. The fact that this has not happened more broadly is probably because Trump is a remarkably undisciplined candidate, who repeatedly throws away his advantage because of a lack of self-control. However, a future demagogue may well be able to exploit this effect more successfully
Clearly, the three reasons discussed above do not cover the entire secular context in which the Trump phenomenon has arisen, but they are major factors that explain the context in which his movement is possible. It is, however, more interesting to look at factors that are specific to this particular election at this time.
The Trump Ratchet
Perhaps the most important specific reason why Trumpism is potentially anti-fragile is that it is a cult that has reached critical mass, creating a ratchet effect. Just as a ratchet driven by random back-and-forth forces nevertheless only moves in one direction because it filters out the forces not aligned with its preferred motion, so those who – for whatever reason of the moment – feel like moving to Trump are able to do so, but find it difficult to move back. This could be triggered in individuals by a terrorist incident, a fresh revelation about Clinton, even an internet meme. Such changes in opinion happen all the time, but in this case, they are likelier to be "sticky". Cults are notoriously easier to join than to leave. Someone joining a cult is not just making a potentially reversible rational choice; they are pledging allegiance, which can then only be broken with some loss of self-respect. There is a transformation of identity involved in joining a movement such as Trump's. For a normal, cautiously moderate, politically-correct person to join such a movement requires giving up their old persona, revising their values, flinging away the garment of propriety, so to speak, and joining a bacchanal of true-believers. There is seldom a path of return from such abandonment and such commitment. Another factor in this is the sense of belonging, the energy of being part of something larger than oneself, which is a heady draught. Who would want to go back to "boring" – perhaps even "crooked" – Hillary Clinton once one has become part of the muscular beast that is the Trump movement?
For Hillary Clinton and the Democrats to overcome this slow but inexorably unidirectional effect, they must find a way to break the ratchet – possibly with a transformational moment in a debate, or an external event. Advertising on TV is unlikely to do it. But if the ratchet is broken, it may well become completely loose, with a surge away from Trump.
Mainstreaming of White Identity Politics
Another important effect fueling Trump's political movement is a dramatic change in the social acceptability of a specifically white identity. Identity politics is nothing new in the American system – especially for minority groups that appeal to group solidarity to overcome their marginalization in society at large. Over the last several decades, identity politics have mattered much more in the Democratic Party, where solid voting blocs such as African-American and LGBTQ voters have been critical to the success of the party. Meanwhile, almost by default, the Republican Party's voting base has become increasingly white, but that has not been seen as an explicit identification – in part because the notion of "white identity" has been tied closely with toxic ideologies such as white supremacy. Election 2016 has changed that. One of Trump's greatest strategic successes has been to turn his campaign into a vehicle for expressing attitudes, anxieties and grievances that have been building up in certain segments of the white electorate for reasons discussed earlier in this piece, but which could not be expressed in polite company until now. For the first time in recent American politics, an explicitly identifiable and somewhat socially acceptable white group identity has been created at the national level, with Donald Trump as its face. One should expect that some significant number of voters will be drawn in by their solidarity with this group in spite of their rational inclinations. These voters are not racists or bigots, and may not even agree with Trump's policies, but now see voting for him as a matter of their cultural identity – not unlike some African-Americans voting Democratic. And, as they see their friends and family climb onto the Trump bandwagon, it will be difficult for many of them (though not all) to acknowledge that their loved ones have bought into a racist or bigoted mindset. Society and media face the same problem: As Trump attracts more voters, it becomes harder to call their attitudes bigoted without implying that a large fraction of the American electorate is – in Hillary Clinton's accurate, if ill-advised, phrase – "a basket of deplorables". Indeed, such a characterization further hardens the attitudes of those who have already transitioned to Trump, and may tip some more over to that side.
Some may claim that this argument applies only to a fraction of the white electorate, and the effect is too small to matter. Indeed, there is some possibility that Trump may get less of the white vote overall than Mitt Romney did. However, even marginal effects are important in a close election. And there are (at least) four concrete reasons for taking this one seriously. First, the effect is concentrated in a specific voting segment rather than spread all over, so it does not average out. Second, as Nate Cohn has shown through analysis of census and voter data, the number of white voters in the U.S. is consistently under-estimated. Third, white working class voters – who represent the largest group switching to Trump – are concentrated disproportionately in important battleground states such as Ohio, Wisconsin, Michigan, Nevada, and Iowa. And finally, in spite of widespread discounting of the hypothesis, there is likely to be a "shy Trump" vote – voters who support Trump but are too embarrassed to admit it to others, including to pollsters. This phenomenon was seen in the UK during the recent Brexit referendum, and in some states during the Republican primary. Indeed, there may also be a "heedless Trump" vote, representing voters who cast a protest vote for him in the belief that he was unlikely to win. This was clearly a factor in the surprising outcome of the Brexit vote.
Anyone But Hillary
An important factor stabilizing the Trump vote is that the alternative – Hillary Clinton – has been rendered utterly unacceptable to a large fraction of voters. This is partly because of increasingly virulent partisanship in a divided electorate, but this election is a special case in this regard because of who the Democratic candidate is.
As mentioned earlier, objective fact-checkers have shown that Hillary Clinton is exceptionally truthful in her political statements while Trump is spectacularly untruthful. Yet polls often suggest that Trump is seen as more honest and transparent than Clinton, and just as untrustworthy! This clearly makes it much easier for Trump to peddle negative ideas about Clinton without much skepticism from the voters. But why does this situation exist in the first place? The answer lies partly in latent sexism, but mainly in history and historical amnesia.
An important activity of the right-wing in the US for the last quarter century has been the systematic and inexorable devaluation of all things Clinton. Beginning with the bogus Whitewater "scandal" and running through all the years of Bill Clinton's presidency, what Hillary Clinton famously called a Vast Right-Wing Conspiracy (VRWC) ginned up one fake scandal after another – until Bill Clinton obliged with a real one! The purpose was clearly to make him a failed President, but his political talent and good fortune combined to thwart that. His wife, unfortunately, enjoys neither the political talent nor the good fortune. And she is a woman trying to make her way in a Man's world. As a result, she faces intense scrutiny for things that most politicians do and are never challenged on. Her handling of the attack in Benghazi in 2012 has become yet another fake scandal dogging her, as has her use of a private email server and her involvement in her husband's charitable foundation. Her Republican opponents have created an entire cottage industry of harassing her while paying no heed to equally – or more – egregious things in their own ranks. Unfortunately – though understandably – Hillary Clinton has responded to this decades-long persecution by becoming ever more insular, which then creates space for yet more suspicion. In particular, the Republican witch-hunt on Benghazi and the partly self-inflicted wound of the email server have been key factors in driving Clinton's negatives.
But systematic persecution by the Right and the email scandal are insufficient to explain Hillary Clinton's image problem. A significant share of the blame lies with the Left. For twenty consecutive years, Hillary Clinton has been the most admired woman in America, based on Gallup's polling. When she left her position as Secretary of State in January 2013, her personal approval rating stood at a spectacular 58%. Even as late as November 2014, she was at 50%. Based on the excellent interactive chart at Huffington Post's Pollster, the graphs for approval and disapproval crossed in April 2015, and since then have diverged rapidly to where now her approval stands at 42%, with 56% disapproving. What happened? Well, she started her primary campaign against progressive icon Bernie Sanders. The grueling year-long campaign that followed played a decisive role in tarnishing Hillary Clinton's image among liberals, and especially young voters. Senator Sanders famously – and graciously – refused to make her email server an issue in the campaign, but then focused single-mindedly on pushing the idea that Clinton was a stooge of the wealthy and the privileged. Though he never used Trump's currently favored term – "Crooked Hillary" – he often used words such as "crooked" and "dishonest" in association with her, thus laying the groundwork for Trump's calumny. His supporters were considerably less restrained. Today, as Sanders tries to help elect Clinton, many among his followers have not forgotten their champion's original characterization of her. Indeed, a significant fraction of Sanders voters are not supporting Clinton, but are either planning to vote third party or even supporting Trump as the "lesser evil"! The problem is especially acute among young "millennial" voters. While they are by far the most pro-Clinton age group, they are not supporting her at levels they did with Obama, with more than a third planning to vote for Gary Johnson or Jill Stein.
All these factors – right-wing propaganda, progressive suspicions, and Hillary Clinton's own (relatively minor) missteps – combine to make Trump's task of casting her as a crook much easier than it ought to be based on facts alone. In the hothouse of all the Clinton conspiracy theories, he is now trying to add new false ones about her health, her part in promoting "birtherism", and mysterious ties to Islamists. And, given Clinton's situation, he may succeed with many voters.
One final important factor for Trump's strength also deserves mention – and has, indeed, been much discussed of late: His implicit normalization by a media unprepared for Trump's unusual candidacy. Outside the swamps of ideological media such as talk radio, journalistic practice has appropriately regarded fairness and objectivity as virtues. One way these virtues are manifested in reporting is to treat rival candidates with an equal presumption of integrity, and trying to get "both sides" of every story. This works, however, only if the presumption is at least approximately true – or even when it is equally untrue on both sides. All politicians dissemble, exaggerate and spin, but there are unstated limits for such things. Beginning with the 2000 George W. Bush campaign, the Republicans made a systematic effort to breach these limits, using the power of the RARP and the VRWC to create a fictitious narrative to the benefit of Bush. A White House aide – likely Karl Rove – famously derided the "reality-based community" and said "We create our own reality". This effort continued throughout the Bush years, and became supercharged in the Obama years to create the Tea Party: Birtherism is only its most prominent triumph. However, Trump has taken it to a new level, completely upending media convention. The press is used to searching for lies buried in mundanely true assertions, and then highlighting them. All of its investigative techniques are geared to this goal. But in Trump's case, 70% plus of his assertions are demonstrably false, making truth the more elusive entity! For more than a year, the media has been reluctant to call him out on this, since doing so would make it look "biased" in favor of Clinton, who fibs far less. The results has been a narrative of false equivalence, where both candidates are seen as "equally dishonest" and Trump is given a pass on a large fraction of his lies. The story of the Trump Foundation and the Clinton Family Foundation (CFF) is an example. The latter has done excellent humanitarian work all over the world for years. And, like all institutions that rely on glamor and celebrity to raise funds, it has indulged in some harmless wink-and-nod exploitation of personal connections. In contrast, as the Washington Post's David Fahrenthold has shown through outstanding reporting, the Trump Foundation appears mainly to be a vehicle for bilking money from donors to Donald Trump's personal benefit. Yet, for weeks in August and early September, the media was full of negative reports on the CFF, and left the Trump Foundation story to languish. However, a sea-change seems to have occurred since Trump pulled a humiliating bait-and-switch on the press with his publicity stunt "renouncing" birtherism. A page was finally turned, and elite media made the fateful decision to begin calling out Trump's falsehoods for what they were: Lies. The effects of this decision remain to be seen, though polling suggests that, coincidentally, Trump has begun to lose ground since then. But he is currently advised by two master propagandists in Roger Ailes – recently fired from Fox News – and Steve Bannon, the editor of the Alt-Right propaganda organ, Breitbart, who has been termed "the most dangerous political operative in America". It would be a mistake to think that the use of mass dissembling as a weapon by the Trump campaign has ended.
So, one may ask: Given all these factors, is Trump fated to win? Some have said yes based on fundamental indicators. Polling data, in contrast, suggests that Trump's path remains difficult. But this is a sui generis election. Data may be valid – and it usually is – but the uncertainty in interpreting data is extremely high in this election year. We have been conditioned to believe that the denizens of Western democracies are rational agents in their economics and politics, and that their choices can be predicted – at least in the aggregate – by well-founded historical analysis based on the interests and measured preferences of specific demographic groups. As implied above, this is likely to be a fool's errand in Election 2016. In fact, neither homo economicus nor homo politicus are especially rational to begin with, and their choices are ruled far more by gut feeling, intuition, and belief than by cold, hard analysis. Traditional models rely on the averaging out of quirky choices, but complex systems can self-organize into states where – as illustrated by the ratchet metaphor – things do not average out. This article has argued that the Trump movement is such a phenomenon. Barring a major event, its strength is likely to persist and grow with every passing day. It appears that the Clinton campaign realizes this, and has focused their strategy on slowing Trump's growth through aggressively negative advertising rather than investing in improving her currently dismal image. In a complex, nonlinear, and fundamentally unpredictable system, this is a rather risky strategy, but it is understandable why they are doing it.
Poll after poll has shown that voters do not think Trump has the temperament or experience to be Commander-in-Chief, and large segments of the population see him as dangerous. And yet, Clinton cannot close the deal. By now, it is clear that a big factor in this is her perceived lack of trustworthiness, which persists in spite of all objective evidence. Whichever candidate can overcome their critical liability – dishonesty for Clinton or lack of temperament for Trump – is likely to surge ahead. Arguably, Trump has an easier task on this, since temperament can be communicated by style, whereas establishing honesty requires a longer process – especially when evidence has ceased to matter. Notably, Trump has not been able to accomplish his "easier" task, but the upcoming debates provide him a great opportunity. If he can use them to convince another 10 or 15 percent of voters that they can feel comfortable with him as President, he will be difficult to stop. A necessary – though not sufficient condition – for Clinton's success is to keep Trump from accomplishing this. Ultimately, the Clinton campaign's approach is to keep Trump's negatives high while relying on the Obama model – micro-targeting of voters, great attention to early voting, charismatic surrogates, and a formidable ground game – to drive the votes. It remains to be seen whether such a data-driven, rational strategy can overcome the self-organized avalanche that is the Trump candidacy.
Ironically, Clinton's best hope may lie with the same factors that are currently fueling Trump's growth: A complex, nonlinear, fundamentally unpredictable voter dynamics that can lead not just to explosive growth but also to sudden, catastrophic failure. Complex systems thrive on anti-fragility, but no system is anti-fragile to all disruption. Anti-fragile systems succeed by tuning their mechanisms to the most "fertile" disorder available in their environment, essentially "purchasing" the ability to exploit the prevalent disorder at the price of greater fragility to rarer types of disruptions. However, if their environment changes in ways that increase the likelihood of these rare disruptions, the system can be exquisitely vulnerable. There are many exogenous sources of disruption in this campaign, including third party candidates, the daily possibility of terrorist incidents, police shootings, new revelations by hackers, candidate gaffes, and who knows what else that is ripening in the current media-culture hothouse. But if the Clinton campaign were more imaginative, they might look more explicitly to change the political context in ways that turn Trump's assets into liabilities. But imagination may be a bridge too far for a campaign built as a machine. So far, it is only Trump who has managed to do this to some degree by delegitimizing Clinton's experience as Secretary of State and the work of the Clinton Foundation.
This article is being published on the day of the first Presidential debate, and all its analysis may be superseded in a few hours by either candidate's performance. But the real point of this piece goes beyond the election itself. Win or lose, the grotesque candidacy of Donald Trump has changed America, bringing to a boil things that have been bubbling deep within American society, and exposing how detached from reality and incapable of critical thinking a large part of the American electorate has become. Ultimately, Trump too is just a symptom, a creation of blind forces much greater than himself. Even if he falls short in his quest for power, the forces that created him may be with us for a long time. A more competent Trump will then arise and accomplish what he could not. And if he wins this time, the first to suffer will be those who were his most ardent supporters.
Or it could be that this is the last gasp of the old world forces that propel Trump's cause, and that his defeat – or even his victory – may usher in a transformation of American society, finally moving us out of the stale legacy of the Baby Boomers, and into the fresh, magical reality of the Millennials. OMG!
Monday, August 29, 2016
Personality or Ideology: Which matters most in a political leader?
by Emrys Westacott
In evaluating candidates for political office there are two main things to consider:
a) their ideology–that is, their political views and general philosophy
b) their personal qualities
With respect to ideology, the most important questions one should ask are these:
· Are their beliefs true? (Do they hold correct beliefs on, say, climate change, or on whether a particular policy will increase or reduce poverty, crime, unemployment, pollution, or the likelihood of war?)
· Do I share their values and ideals? (E.g. Are they willing to sacrifice economic growth for the sake of environmental protection (or vice versa)? Where do they stand on issues like gun control, abortion, euthanasia, capital punishment, foreign aid, gay rights, or economic inequality?)
· Whose interests do they represent? (Do they generally favor policies that benefit the rich, the middle class, the poor, employers or workers, corporations or consumers, cities or rural communities?)
Regarding personal qualities, the ones that matter most are:
· knowledge – Are they decently informed about the world and the issues they will be dealing with
· intelligence – Are they able to understand and think through complex problems
· wisdom – Are they reasonable? Do they exercise good judgment?
· effectiveness – Do they have the practical skills to realize their goals?
· integrity – Are they truthful? Is what they do consistent with what they say? Are they motivated by a concern for the public good rather than by self-interest?
These personal qualities obviously cannot be possessed absolutely but only to a greater or lesser degree. And they may often conflict. Most politicians who are effective sometimes have to compromise their integrity, and the first compromise is invariably made before they hold office. As the historian George Hopkins (emeritus professor at Western Illinois university) has observed, "all presidents lie for the simple reason that if they didn't, we wouldn't elect them." A candidate who was perfectly truthful would be ineffective because they would probably never get the chance to implement any of their ideas.
Effective governance may also require leaders to lie, mislead, hide the truth, and break promises. Franklin Roosevelt was by any account a highly effective president; but in the two years prior to Pearl Harbor, he consistently told the American public that he was fully committed to keeping the US out of any foreign wars while simultaneously, and secretly, preparing the country for war against Japan and Germany. The political leaders we are most inclined to venerate are those like Lincoln or Mandela who, in addition to possessing the other qualities listed above, somehow mange to be practically effective with minimum loss of integrity.
Many people on both sides of the political spectrum downplay the importance of the personal in politics. Marxists, for instance, typically focus on the ideological outlook of political parties and candidates. From this perspective, paying attention to the personal–whether someone is a good parent, kind to animals, or someone you'd like to have a beer with–is to be distracted by irrelevancies. Obsessing over personal narratives is seen as one of the ways the media trivialize politics and deflect attention away from the substantive issues at stake. What really matters is the objective question: whose interests does a politician represent and serve?
On the right also, ideology often takes precedence. Consider the pledge made by all the presidential candidates in the Republican primary earlier this year: "I _________ affirm that if I do not win the 2016 Republican nomination for president of the United States, I will endorse the 2016 Republican presidential nominee regardless of who it is." (italics added) Back in March 2016, the eventual nominee could conceivably have been anyone. But better a white supremacist or a certifiable psychopath in the White House than someone who was not a Republican.
In normal circumstances, I, too, prioritize ideology over personal qualities when deciding whom to support. That's because most political candidates do cross a basic threshold when it comes to knowledge, wisdom, integrity, etc.. And once over this threshold, the differences are not usually great. For instance, in 2012, when Obama and Romney were competing for the US presidency, the important differences were ideological. Romney was a reasonably knowledgeable and intelligent person who had proved himself a capable administrator and was not glaringly corrupt. What separated him from Obama were their differences on matters like taxation, welfare, and the environment.
In the 2016 presidential election, however, things are not normal. To be sure, Hilary Clinton and Donald Trump differ in their general political outlook. E.g. Trump, in accordance with the Republican platform, wants to abolish the estate tax–a measure that would materially benefit everyone with estates worth more than $5.4 million ($10.9 million for couples). Democrats, including Clinton, oppose this idea. But this time ideology has to take a back seat.
The reason is simple and, to my mind, obvious. Trump doesn't cross the basic threshold of acceptability when it comes to at least three of the five personal desiderata listed above: viz. knowledge, wisdom, and integrity.
I actually don't worry much about Trump's political philosophy. There are two reasons for this. First, he doesn't really have one. On many issues–e.g. nuclear proliferation; the minimum wage; the national debt–he's taken wildly different positions on different occasions, some of these occasions only minutes apart!. He basically says whatever he thinks will secure him some short term goal, such as winning the Republican primary, or, more commonly, getting lots of people clapping, cheering, and chanting his name. Second, his most notorious proposals–e.g. banning Muslims from entering the country, or returning to the gold standard–simply aren't going to happen in any possible universe.
But I do worry about Trump's obvious personal deficiencies because the power of the presidency makes such a person dangerous. Imagine, just for argument's sake, that sometime, somewhere, people in some benighted American state elected an ignorant, egotistical, mendacious, congressman to represent them in the House. How much damage could that individual do single-handedly? The answer is: not much. The presidency is different. Put simply, I'd sooner have a right wing ideologue as president than someone with a serius personality disorder.
There is a reason why Trump is so lacking in the personal qualities one would hope for in a political leader. He has a fairly severe mental problem. The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) sets out a list of criteria for judging if someone has narcissistic personality disorder. Here are a few:
· having an exaggerated sense of self-importance
· exaggerating your achievements and talents
· believing that you are "special"
· requiring constant admiration
· being obsessed with fantasies of your success, fame, power, brilliance, sexual prowess, etc.
· having a sense of entitlement
· behaving in an arrogant manner
· taking advantage of others to get what you want
· lacking an empathetic understanding of how others feel
Psychiatrists are not supposed to diagnose people they haven't examined personally. But some have set that rule aside, either because they are so worried about the prospect of Trump gaining power, or because they think he's so clearly pathologically narcissistic that labeling him a narcissist is hardly a risky call. Indeed clinical psychologist George Simon, an authority on the manipulative personality, says that he uses videos of Trump to illustrate various symptoms of narcissism.
Some conservatives who find the Donald distasteful argue that Hilary Clinton's personal failings make her no better than Trump. But this is nonsense. On every count–knowledge, intelligence, wisdom, effectiveness, and integrity–Clinton is in a different league. Of course, when it comes to the last category, integrity, she is eminently criticizable for her opportunism, evasiveness, untruthfulness, and apparent cupidity. But against this one should also set her many years of public service and hard work on behalf of worthy causes. Relative to her peers, Clintons integrity score is disappointingly average. Trump's is off the chart–at the low end.
To their credit, a few Republicans, like Senators Lindsay Graham and Susan Collins, have publicly said that they will not support Trump. But the majority, even though one assumes they privately believe him unfit for office, either publicly endorse him or maintain a discrete silence. Their position is thoroughly reprehensible, a form of moral treason committed for selfish reasons. A person of Trump's stamp is, as a Washington Post editorial put it, "a threat to the Republic." One can only hope that not only will Trump be handily defeated in November but also that his enablers in the Republican party will eventually suffer the shame their pusillanimity deserves.
Monday, August 08, 2016
Eight basic laws of physics, and one that isn't
by Paul Braterman
Michael Gove (remember him?), when England's Secretary of State for Education, told teachers
Never have I seen so many major errors expressed in Newton via Wikipedia in so few words. But the wise learn from everyone,  so let us see what we can learn here from Gove.
From the top: Newton's laws. Gove most probably meant Newton's Laws of Motion, but he may also have been thinking of Newton's Law (note singular) of Gravity. It was by combining all four of these that Newton explained the hitherto mysterious phenomena of lunar and planetary motion, and related these to the motion of falling bodies on Earth; an intellectual achievement not equalled until Einstein's General Theory of Relativity.
Above, L, Isaac Newton, 1689. Below, R, Michael Gove, 2013
1) If no force is acting on it, a body will carry on moving at the same speed in a straight line.
2) If a force is acting on it, the body will undergo acceleration, according to the equation
Force = mass x acceleration
3) Action and reaction are equal and opposite
So what does all this mean? In particular, what do scientists mean by "acceleration"? Acceleration is rate of change of velocity. Velocity is not quite the same thing as speed; it is speed in a particular direction. So the First Law just says that if there's no force, there'll be no acceleration, no change in velocity, and the body will carry on moving in the same direction at the same speed. And, very importantly, if a body changes direction, that is a kind of acceleration, even if it keeps on going at the same speed. For example, if something is going round in circles, there must be a force (sometimes, confusingly, called centrifugal force) that keeps it accelerating inwards, and stops it from going straight off at a tangent.
Then what about the heavenly bodies, which travel in curves, pretty close to circles although Kepler's more accurate measurement had already shown by Newton's time that the curves are actually ellipses? The moon, for example. The moon goes round the Earth, without flying off at a tangent. So the Earth must be exerting a force on the moon.
And finally, the Third Law. If the Earth is tugging on the moon, then the moon is tugging equally hard on the Earth. We say that the moon goes round the Earth, but it is more accurate to say that Earth and moon both rotate around their common centre of gravity.
All of this describes the motion of single bodies. Thermodynamics, as we shall see, only comes into play when we have very large numbers of separate objects.
The other thing that Gove might have meant is Newton's Inverse Square Law of gravity, which tells us just how fast gravity decreases with distance. If, for instance, we could move the Earth to twice its present distance from the Sun, the Sun's gravitational pull on it would drop to a quarter of its present value.
Now here is the really beautiful bit. We can measure (Galileo already had measured) how fast falling bodies here on Earth accelerate under gravity. Knowing how far we are from the centre of the Earth, and how far away the moon is, we can work out from the Inverse Square Law how strong the Earth's gravity is at that distance, and then, from Newton's Second Law, how fast the moon ought to be accelerating towards the Earth. And when we do this calculation, we find that this exactly matches the amount of acceleration needed to hold the moon in its orbit going round the Earth once every lunar month. Any decent present-day physics student should be able to do this calculation in minutes. For Newton to do it for the first time involved some rather more impressive intellectual feats, such as clarifying the concepts of force, speed, velocity and acceleration, formulating the laws I've referred to, and inventing calculus.
But what about the laws of thermodynamics? These weren't discovered until the 19th century, the century of the steam engine. People usually talk about the three laws of thermodynamics, although there is actually another one called the Zeroth Law, because people only really noticed they had been assuming it long after they had formulated the others. (This very boring law says that if two things are in thermal equilibrium with a third thing, they must be in thermal equilibrium with each other. Otherwise, we could transform heat into work by making it go round in circles.)
The First Law of Thermodynamics is, simply, the conservation of energy. That's all kinds of energy added up together, including for example heat energy, light energy, electrical energy, and the "kinetic energy" that things have because they're moving.  One very important example of the conservation of energy is what happens inside a heat engine, be it an old-fashioned steam engine, an internal combustion engine, or the turbine of a nuclear power station. Here, heat is converted into other forms of energy, such as mechanical or electrical. This is all far beyond anything Newton could have imagined. Newton wrote in terms of force, rather than energy, and he had been dead for over a century before people realized that the different forms of energy include heat.
Above, L, the rotor of a turbine is a device for converting heat energy into electrical energy, in accord with the First Law. But the Second Law (see below) places a limit on how efficiently we can do this. Below, R, dye becoming more, not less, spread out over time, in accord with the Second Law
There are many ways of expressing the Second Law, usually involving rather technical language, but the basic idea is always the same; things tend to get more spread out over time, and won't get less spread out unless you do some work to make them. (One common formulation is that things tend to get more disordered over time, but I don't like that one, because I'm not quite sure how you define the amount of disorder, whereas there are exact mathematical methods for describing how spread out things are.)
For example, let a drop of food dye fall into a glass full of water. Wait, and you will see the dye spread through the water. Keep on waiting, and you will never see it separating out again as a separate drop. You can force it to, if you can make a very fine filter that lets the water through while retaining the dye, but it always takes work to do this. To be precise, you would be working against osmotic pressure, something your kidneys are doing all the time as they concentrate your urine.
This sounds a long way from steam engines, but it isn't. Usable energy (electrical or kinetic, say) is much less spread out than heat energy, and so the Second Law limits how efficiently heat can ever be converted into more useful forms.
The Second Law also involves a radical, and very surprising, departure from Newton's scheme of things. Newton's world is timeless. Things happen over time, but you would see the same kinds of things if you ran the video backwards. We can use Newton's physics to describe the motion of planets, but it could equally well describe these motions if they were all exactly reversed.
Now we have a paradox. Every single event taking place in the dye/water mixture can be described in terms of interactions between particles, and every such interaction can, as in Newton's physics, be equally well described going forwards or backwards. To use the technical term, each individual interaction is reversible. But the overall process is irreversible; you can't go back again. You cannot unscramble eggs. Why not?
In the end, it comes down to statistics. There are more ways of being spread out than there are of being restricted. There are more ways of moving dye molecules from high to low concentration regions than there are of moving them back again, simply because there are more dye molecules in the former than there are in the latter. There is an excellent video illustration of this effect, using sheep, by the Princeton-based educator Aatish Bhatia.
The Third Law is more complicated, and was not formulated until the early 20th century. It enables us to compare the spread-out-ness of heat energy in different chemical substances, and hence to predict which way chemical reactions tend to go. We can excuse Gove for not knowing about the Third Law, but the first two, as C. P. Snow pointed out a generation ago, should be part of the furniture of any educated mind.
So if you don't immediately realize that Newton's laws and the laws of thermodynamics belong to different stages of technology, the age of sail as opposed to the age of steam, and to different levels of scientific understanding, the individual and macroscopic as opposed to the statistical and submicroscopic, then you don't know what you're talking about. Neither the science, nor its social and economic context.
That's bad enough. But the kind of ignorance involved in describing Boyle's Law as a "basic scientific principle" is even more damaging.
(Disclosure: I taught Boyle's Law for over 40 years, and it gets three index entries in my book, From Stars to Stalagmites.)
Bottom line: Boyle's Law is not basic. It is a secondary consequence of the Kinetic Theory of Gases, which is basic. The difference is enormous, and matters. Anyone who thinks that Boyle's Law is a principle doesn't know what a principle is. (So a leading Westminster politician doesn't know what a principle is? That figures.)
Mathematically, the Law is simply stated, which may be why Mr Gove thinks it is basic: volume is inversely proportional to pressure, which gives you a nice simple equation, as in the graph on the right:
P x V = a constant
that even a Cabinet Minister can understand. But on its own, it is of no educational value whatsoever. It only acquires value if you put it in its context, but this appeal to context implies a perspective on education beyond his comprehension.
Now to what is basic; the fundamental processes that make gases behave as Boyle discovered. His Law states that if you double the pressure on a sample of gas, you will halve the volume. He thought this was because the molecules of gas repel each other, so it takes more pressure to push them closer together, and Newton even put this idea on a mathematical footing, by suggesting an inverse square law for repulsion, rather like his Inverse Square Law for gravitational attraction. They were wrong.
The Law is now explained using the Kinetic Theory of Gases. This describes a gas as shown on the left; as a whole lot of molecules, of such small volume compared to their container that we can think of them as points, each wandering around doing their own thing, and, from time to time, bouncing off the walls. It is the impact of these bounces that gives rise to pressure. If you push the same number of molecules (at the same temperature) into half the volume, each area of wall will get twice as many bounces per second, and so will experience twice the pressure. Pressure x volume remains constant; hence Boyle's Law.
Actually, Boyle's Law isn't even true. Simple kinetic theory neglects the fact that gas molecules attract each other a little, making the pressure less than what the theory tells you it ought to be. And if we compress the gas into a very small volume, we can no longer ignore the volume taken up by the actual molecules themselves.
So what does teaching Boyle's Law achieve? Firstly, a bit of elementary algebra that gives clear answers, and that can be used to bully students if, as so often happens, they meet it in science before they have been adequately prepared in their maths classes. This, I suspect, is the aspect that Gove finds particularly appealing. Secondly, some rather nice experiments involving balancing weights on top of sealed-off syringes. Thirdly, insight into how to use a mathematical model and, at a more advanced level, how to allow for the fact that real gases do not exactly meet its assumptions. Fourthly, a good example of how the practice of science depends on the technology of the society that produces it. In this case, seventeenth century improvements in glassmaking made it possible to construct tubes of uniform cross-section, which are needed to compare volumes of gas accurately. Fifthly … but that's enough to be going on with. Further elaboration would, ironically, lead us on to introductory thermodynamics. Ironically, given the interview that started this discussion. The one thing it does not achieve is the inculcation of a fundamental principle.
There are mistakes like thinking that Shakespeare, not Marlowe, wrote Edward II. There are mistakes like thinking that Shakespeare wrote War and Peace. And finally, there are mistakes like thinking that Shakespeare wrote War and Peace, that this is basic to our understanding of literature, and that English teachers need to make sure that their pupils know this. Then Education Secretary Gove's remarks about science teaching fall into this last category. Such ignorance of basic science (and education) at the highest levels of government is laughable. But it is not funny.
1] Ben Zoma, Mishnah Chapters of the Fathers, 4a. "Chapters of the Fathers" may also be interpreted to mean "Fundamental Principles".
2] It is often said that Einstein's famous equation,
E = mc2
means that we can turn mass into energy. That puts it back to front. The equation is really telling us that energy itself has mass.
3] There are lots of situations (steam condensing to make water, living things growing, or indeed urine becoming more concentrated in the kidney) where a system becomes less spread out, but this change is always accompanied by something in the surrounds, usually heat energy, becoming more spread out to compensate.
Newton as painted by Godfrey Keller, via Wikipedia. Gove image via Daily Telegraph (Gove connoisseurs may find the link amusing. Solar system image from NASA. Steam turbine blade Siemens via Wikipedia. Dye diffusing in water from Royal Society of Chemistry. Fluyt imge from Pirate King website. Great Western on maiden voyage, 1938, by unknown artist, via Wikipedia. Boyle's Law curve from Krishnavedala repllot of Boyle's own data, via Wikipedia. Kinetic theory image via Chinese University of Hong Kong
Monday, August 01, 2016
The Republican Party Platform is at least as objectionable as Trump
by Emrys Westacott
With the media choosing to pay so much attention to Donald Trump, relatively little attention has been paid to the 2016 Republican Party platform. This is in line with the tedious and reprehensible reduction of political discourse to horse race punditry. But it is a pity, since the prospect of this platform being enacted is every bit as worrying as the prospect of a narcissistic ignoramus like Trump becoming president. For those who don't have the stomach for reading all–or any–of its 54 pages, here are a few of the more disturbing highlights with brief commentary.
1. On prejudice and discrimination
The Platform boldly declares that Republicans "oppose discrimination based on race, sex, religion, creed, disability, or national origin and support statutes to end such discrimination." Question for 5th graders: What is conspicuous by its absence from this list? That's right: no mention of discrimination on grounds of sexual orientation. A fair question, then, to ask the authors of the manifesto is: Do you, or do you not, oppose discrimination against people because of their sexual orientation? If you do, why don't you say so? You mention many other kinds of discrimination; so why not this one? If, on the other hand, you don't oppose it, why is this?
A hint of an answer (to the last question, at least) can be found elsewhere. Sexual orientation is mentioned just once in the document, when the authors protest against the attempt by Obama and others "to impose a social and cultural revolution on the American people by wrongly redefining sex discrimination to include sexual orientation and other categories." This agenda, we are told, "has nothing to do with individual rights." It seems, then, that freedom from discrimination on grounds of sexual orientation is not a right that Republicans recognize. And I suppose that's why they don't oppose it.
While we're on the topic of prejudice and discrimination, here's another question for 5th graders. How does the above rejection of discrimination based on religion square with Donald Trump's proposed ban on Muslims entering the country (a proposal he has not disavowed)?
2. On same-sex marriage
The Platform vehemently opposes the Supreme Court ruling in Obergefell v Hodges which legalized same-sex marriage across the country. This opposition is stated with admirable clarity. The reasoning behind it, though, is decidedly odd. We are told at the outset that"traditional marriage and family, based on marriage between one man and one woman, is the foundation for a free society." This is not exactly a self-evident truth. For many, especially women, marriage down the ages has often been a cage in which they were imprisoned against their will and subjected to legalized oppression and brutality.
The claim about traditional marriage also implies that if marriage is defined differently one of the pillars supporting social freedom is removed, or at least damaged. So in all those countries where same-sex marriage has recently been legalized–e.g. Canada, France, South Africa, Spain, Norway, Argentina, Brazil, Denmark, Portugal, Sweden– we are supposed to believe that people's freedom has been diminished, or at least jeopardized. And why? Because all the people in these countries are now free to do something they were not free to do before. Go figure.
The platform looks forward to a Republican president appointing Supreme Court justices who will help overturn the "lawless" ruling in Obergefell when "five unelected lawyers robbed 320 million Americans of their legitimate constitutional authority to define marriage as the union of one man and one woman." It's truly hard to make sense of this. The "unelected lawyers" are, of course, supreme court justices who were appointed by the president in accordance with Article II of the US Constitution. But the problem isn't really the fact that they are unelected, or even that they are lawyers. After all, the authors are keen to see other unelected lawyers of their own persuasion step in and reverse Obergefell.
No, the problem is that we've all been robbed of something precious: viz. our "legitimate constitutional authority" to define marriage along traditional lines. Happily, although the platform doesn't mention this, our loss has been compensated by a newly granted "authority" to define marriage along non-traditional lines. And since, according to a 2016 Pew Research Center poll, 57% of Americans now support same-sex marriage while only 37% oppose it, this looks like a pretty good deal.
Really, though: what on earth is meant by that talk about people's "legitimate constitutional authority"? Notice, they don't say people have been robbed of their "right" to define marriage in a certain way. Why not? Because the law can't tell you how to define anything. For all the law cares, you can go around like Humpty Dumpty in Through the Looking Glass insisting that words mean whatever you say they mean. No, what "authority to define" means here is the right to have your definition be the one that is recognized by the law and which other people therefore have to live under; in short, it means the right to impose your definition on others. The peculiar thing about this particular kind of "authority to define," though, is that it only accompanies certain definitions, not others. Which ones? But you know the answer: definitions approved of by the GOP!
3. On abortion
The Republican platform is stringently anti-abortion. Arguing that the Fourteenth Amendment's guarantee of equal protection applies to the unborn, it mentions no circumstances–not rape, not incest, not even a threat to the life of the mother–in which abortion might be acceptable. Here, too, the supreme court is condemned, in this case for "striking down commonsense Texas laws providing for basic health and safety standards in abortion clinics." These "commonsense" laws stipulated, for instance, that clinics should have expensive hospital grade facilities of a sort not required for other, more dangerous procedures. The point of the Texas law was transparently to make it much harder for women in Texas to get an abortion. The supreme court noted that the law increased by 7,400% the number of women in Texas who lived more than 200 miles from an abortion clinic.
According to the authors, "Numerous studies have shown that abortion endangers the health and wellbeing of women." This is simply false, if by "studies" is meant "scientifically reputable studies." The legalization of abortion after Roe v Wade resulted in fewer backstreet abortions by unlicensed practitioners, fewer abortions after the first trimester, and fewer medical complications following the procedure.
4. On gun control
The Republican response to mass shooting such as those at Orlando, San Bernadino, and Newtown is to allow more people to carry guns wherever they go, and to increase the killing capacity of guns that can be legally owned.
Regarding the last point, the platform is frighteningly unequivocal: "We oppose ill-conceived laws that would restrict magazine capacity or ban the sale of the most popular and common modern rifle." It isn't entirely clear what sort of weapon they are referring to here, but a best guess would be the AR 15 automatic rifle and its clones. The standard magazines for these rifles hold thirty rounds, although some can be fitted with magazines that hold up to 100 rounds. But it seems that even 100 rounds is not enough. The logic seems to be: only if we make it easier for people to buy and carry around semi-automatic rifles with unlimited magazine capacity are we likely to reduce the likelihood of some deranged individual shooting up a night club, an office, a school, or any other heavily populated location. Again, go figure.
5. On energy and the environment
Republican environmental policy rests on an a debatable premise: viz. that "year by year, the environment is improving": air and waterways are healthier; there is less pollution and ecological degradation. But let's grant that this true, as it perhaps is in at least many parts of the US. Why and how has this progress been achieved? The platform doesn't say. But one explanation is rejected out of hand: it can't have had anything to do with government regulations, particularly not the "regulatory juggernaut" known as the Environmental Protetcion Agency. Possibly the captains of polluting industries just started feeling lots of remorse.
Climate change is mentioned just once. It is not denied, but the tone is suspicious. Information regarding climate change must be based on hard data. The UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change can't be trusted. The Kyoto Protocol and the Paris Agreement are rejected. On principle, if there were a climate change problem–and there probably isn't–the solution cannot lie in any kind of regulation: A Republican president would "forbid the RPA to regulate carbon dioxide." If there were a problem–and there probably isn't–the solution lies in "giving incentives for human ingenuity and the development of new technologies." OK, you might be thinking, there's a concession. How about a carbon tax? Many experts advocate this as one obvious way to encourage cleaner technologies. But no. "We oppose any carbon tax."
Coal, we are told, is not just abundant, reliable, and affordable; it is also clean. Presumably this claim is based on hard data, although not the hard data provided by the US Energy Information Administration, according to which coal emits almost twice as much carbon dioxide as natural gas. But "coal is clean" is a good slogan, nicely alliterative. And fit to place alongside George Orwell's "ignorance is knowledge."
I do not mean to suggest that the issues highlighted here are the most central or important discussed in the Republican platform. Arguably, the philosophical heart of the document is its blanket opposition to redistributing wealth or limiting its power through taxation, regulation, and social programs. But the platform's position on the topics discussed indicates its doctrinaire character as well as the continuing willingness of the Republican leadership to pander to extremism and bigotry.
Capitalism as Religion: On Borislav Pekic's Houses
by Ryan Ruby
Over the past four centuries, the novel, that most most broad-minded of all media, has asked us time and time again to contemplate the humanity of those who by virtue of their profession, their views, their proclivities, or their character count as some of the most despicable examples of our species. There must be tens of thousands of pages devoted to representing the inner lives of torture-loving libertines, bored aristocratic seducers, grave-digging scientists, vengeful ship captains, ax-wielding ex-students, medieval religious fanatics, vainglorious ivory traders, social-climbing salonières, pedophiles with fancy prose styles, pedantic hot dog vendors, priapic misogynists, blood-thirsty scalpers, sadistic slavers, intellectual cannibals, and self-appointed masters of the universe, not to mention the scores of characters who, for one reason or another, have judged their souls to be so worthless that they were willing to sell them to the devil.
But before I read Borislav Pekic's Houses (translated by Bernard Johnson from the Serbo-Croatian in 1978 and re-released this month by NYRB Classics), I'd never come across a novel that had the chutzpah to draw its protagonist from the ranks of what is surely, as we're now reminded on a daily basis, the lowest of the low: the realtor.
The proud owner of Pekic's savage farce is Arsénie Negovan, scion of an old Belgrade family, Vice-President of its Chamber of Commerce, a Francophile and a recluse who surveys his properties with a pair of military binoculars from the living room of the house he shares with his wife, Katerina, and his maid, Mademoiselle Foucault. We meet him in 1968, shortly after his first foray into town since the Yugoslav coup of 1941, and shortly before his death, as he scribbles his last will and testament on the backs of old tax receipts and rental contracts, in what will be an unsuccessful attempt to dispose of his assets and to persuade his executors and readers that he is of sound mind and body.
Of course, precisely because he is the protagonist of a novel, Negovan does not buy and build to turn a profit. He is not motivated by anything so base as the desire for luxury, comfort, security, or status that property sometimes confers on its owners. Instead, like many of the monomaniacs in his literary ancestry and a few of his colleagues in the real world, Negovan bases his business practices on the hilariously uneven foundations of a specious, self-spun philosophy. Just as Raskolnikov has his essay on crime, Humbert Humbert his treatise on nymphets, and Donald Trump his art of the deal, Negovan elaborates a "philosophy of Possession" to justify his obsessive and often cruel behavior.
His is a thoroughly spiritual greed and if, in commerce, "you have to proceed by roundabout routes, defiles, and shortcuts, and avoid resort to measures a more idealistic man would gladly avoid" it is because "commerce is war…in defense of Possession." Especially if you are greedy on behalf of "the nation and people," the unfortunate consequences of such shortcuts and measures—as when one of his houses collapses, killing seven; or when he profits from the 1929 stock market crash; or when one of his evicted tenants jumps out of a window; or when he murders a leftist demonstrator with his own hands—can be accepted with a "clean conscience."
Negovan's less familiar ideas about Possession rest on a distinction between single-phase from dual-phase ownership. In the former, a man buys a building for purpose of living in it, working in it, selling it, or renting it out. This popular view of real estate is, to him, nothing short of "blasphemy." Lacking reciprocal relations with their property, single-phase owners are so "alienated from their own possessions" that they "no longer operate in real objects" but rather in "the vague, alien, shadowy affairs" of the stock market.
"True" or dual-phase ownership, by contrast, can be derived from the following "axioms":
1. I do not own houses, we, I and my houses, own each other mutually.
2. Other houses do not exist for me; they begin to exist for me when they become mine.
3. I take only houses when they take me; I appropriate them only when I am appropriated; I possess them only when I am possessed by them.
4. Between me and my possessions a relationship of reciprocal ownership operates; we are two sides of one being, the being of possession.
The difference between single- and dual-phase ownership is also likened to the difference between the ways God is represented in the Old and New Testaments: as "an impersonal concept of omnipotence" on the one hand, and as "the real, incarnate God which believers experience in their very soul" on the other. A textbook anti-Semite, Negovan is opposed to both "Jew-Bolshivism" (which denies private property altogether) and "Yiddischer Bankers" (who turn ownership into "mere power over empty, hollow, emaciated figures"). Having inherited rather than borrowed his start-up capital, his economic ideas have more in common with Ezra Pound's "Usura Canto" than with the biannual reports of the Chairman of the Federal Reserve. Despite his genuine patriotism and his acute horror of house-leveling bombs, during the war, he maintains warm relations with Yugoslavia's Nazi occupiers, not only because the Germans "kept excellent accounts and paid adequate compensation for what they destroyed," but because he shares their worldview.
In our neoliberal age, dominated by the financialization of capital and official multiculturalism, this worldview is likely to strike readers as thoroughly troglodytic, but in his fanatical devotion to possession, ownership, and property Negovan remains a representative man. Businessmen, however they amass their wealth, are hardly the efficient, rationally self-interested, profit-maximizing, value-neutral utilitarians they imagine themselves to be. More often they sacrifice their mental and physical wellbeing, damage their prospects for friendship and personal happiness, and put the safety of their environment, their communities, their families, themselves, and even their fortunes at risk in their zealous submission to the dictates of accumulation. They respond, often violently, not only to competition from their fellow businessmen, but to any heretic who questions the sacredness of the profit motive. Not only as individuals, but as a collective, as a class. As Walter Benjamin observes in his essay "Capitalism as Religion," capitalism is "a pure religious cult, perhaps the most extreme that ever was" which "serves to satisfy the same worries, anguish, and disquiet formerly answered by so-called religion."
Negovan would not, however, recognize this as a criticism. He happily admits what the businessman of capitalist mythology would rather repress and, given the metaphors he uses to describe it, he'd probably have no qualms classifying dual-phase ownership as a theological concept. If anything, the equation between capitalism and religion would strike him as insufficient, because, as we have seen, there are many varieties of both capitalist and religious belief. You would not be wrong to detect in his four axioms similarities to the ecstatic mysticism of medieval Christianity, wherein the "unity of two otherwise opposite beings, in which, as in ideal love, it would no longer be possible to distinguish possessor and possessed" is the goal of the homeowner as well as the true believer. The outside world may regard him as the corrupt and somewhat crazy Vice-President of the local Chamber of Commerce, but in his eyes he is the St. Teresa of Real Estate. His worship of property is not just liturgical, it's libidinal.
Under capitalism, women are treated like property. Negovan treats property like women. His wife is right to suspect that his business is only a "civic alibi"—and an entirely insubstantial one at that—for his erotic passion for houses. Not only does Negovan give each of his houses a woman's name, he describes their architectural features as if they were parts of the female body (the houses, in fact, are much more vividly rendered than any of the human characters in the story), and uses the tropes of first love, adulterous affair, and marriage plot to narrate his relationships to them. When "Agatha" falls down, he feels greater sorrow for her loss than for those who died in the accident. Later, as he frantically scrambles through a mob to reach the auction where "Niké," the house with whom he has been carrying on an adulterous affair, is being sold off by his cousin, he is horrified by the thought that other buyers are fixing "their eyes on [his mistress'] innards like the most tentacles of an octopus." His failure to acquire "Niké" (in light of the description, the French homophone is more apt than the Greek goddess) that day turns him into an invalid; and it is to save "Simonida," "with her fine, dark countenance, her milky complexion beneath deep blue eyelids, and her full-blooded lips pierced by a bronze chain, African style" from destruction that inspires him venture outside again after twenty-seven years.
Objectophilia, or object sexuality, may be a real phenomenon, but to categorize Negovan's obsession in these terms would only turn Pekic's satire inside out. What would it look like if capitalism were actually practiced as a religion? What would it look like if the "lust for acquisition" were to be taken literally? Insofar as Negovan is the answer to both of these questions, he is not so much an aberration as an essence. Scratch the surface of any realtor, Pekic is saying, and you'll find a Negovan.
Pekic's book is as often as gaudily and shoddily constructed as one Negovan's houses: the front door of exposition faces the backyard rather than the street, the joints and girders of his transitions between narrated past and narrated present are not flush, and the heterogeneous forms of discourse he employs fail to follow their satirical function. And, like "Agatha," Houses ultimately collapses under its own weight. But in Negovan, Pekic has added a memorable face to the distinguished gallery of literature's rogues, a face in which we will not have to strain our eyes to see resemblances to those currently hanging in the gallery of life.
Monday, July 18, 2016
Faster, Pokémon! Kill! Kill!
"The scent, the scent alone is enough for our beasts."
There's that old saying that goes "When the going gets weird, the weird turn pro". Certainly, weird times such as these demand weird explanations. Old explanatory frameworks that have been dying long, slow deaths continue to have nails pounded into their coffins. Consider how the post-Cold War triumph of neoliberalism, as promoted by Francis Fukuyama's The End Of History, has had the crap beaten out of it first by 9/11, then by the global financial meltdown, and now by Brexit (the best tweet I saw concerning Brexit was all of three words: "Francis Fukuyama lol").
And no one, least of all Fukuyama, could have predicted the circus slated to begin in Cleveland, with the most unlikely candidate in recent political history about to receive the nomination of the Republican Party for President. Actually, I should amend that: perhaps Upton Sinclair did, 80 years ago. But Sinclair had the dubious benefit of witnessing firsthand the rise of fascism; few people are alive today who remember how wide the Overton Window actually used to be. We need to get much, much weirder.
But it's not just that things are getting weirder. Even more germane is that things are getting weirder, faster. This is nowhere more evident than in the ways in which technologies are insinuating themselves into the social fabric. As I've argued before, each technological development creates the substrate upon which a further, faster and even more unpredictable set of technologies and their circumstances manifests. Perhaps I'm biased, since I've been observing these phenomena for a while, but consider a few recent developments.
Exhibit A: Racially inflected police brutality is an old story. But awareness of it has skyrocketed in the past few years with the prevalence of video cameras. However, this prevalence was only made possible when video recording was bundled into the larger rubric of the smart phone. If video cameras as objects were sufficient unto themselves, we would have seen a very different trajectory following the 1991 Holliday videotape of the Rodney King beating. But it took nearly a full generation for the creation of not only the means of cheap and easy recording, but also its equally cheap and easy distribution. And until recently, even this latter infrastructure was fairly staid: YouTube and perhaps a few other platforms.
More recently we've seen the rise of live streaming of video. First popularized by LiveStream and Ustream (both founded in 2007), these services were still missing what turned out to be a key component: integration into social media. This was remedied in 2015, when Periscope was bought by Twitter before the service had even launched. Not one to let a competitive threat go unadressed, Facebook developed Facebook Live, its own native videostreaming service. It was in fact Facebook Live that was used by Diamond Reynolds ten days ago to document the remainder of Philando Castile's life as he lay in the back of a police cruiser, bleeding to death. And thanks to the tight integration with social media, we can go back to Reynolds' page, not just to relive the footage, but also to bear witness to the comments as they started rolling in: "Don't stop recording" and "We are watching you cop. What's your name?".
It hasn't escaped notice that Reynolds had remarkable presence of mind to livestream this "event", as opposed to merely videotape it, which itself would have been noteworthy (and one can only imagine that this preparedness was inculcated by the constant threat of police harassment, which is itself such a thoroughly damning thought). But consider the risks of simple videotaping: the possibility that the police would find a reason to confiscate the footage, or the phone's memory card, or the phone itself, which might then meet with an "unfortunate accident", therefore eliminating a pesky piece of evidence that would run contrary to police testimony. This is why the ACLU has been rolling out its Mobile Justice app - once installed on a smart phone, it is essentially a one-touch recording device that sends video directly to ACLU servers. It's not the only app for this, either, which is a good thing, since this kind of recording must be able to withstand multiple points of failure: just a few hours after it was streamed on Facebook, the Castile video was temporarily removed, due to a "technical glitch", whatever that might mean. No doubt a helpful algorithm was trying to shield Facbook's users from something awfully violent.
However, things get weirder.
Exhibit B: As a direct result of the above, massive nation-wide demonstrations were mobilized against police brutality. And as we know, the demonstrations in Dallas ended with five police being shot by a sniper. Compounding this unprecedented escalation was how the shooter, once cornered, was brought to heel. A robot, usually used for bomb disposal, was guided via remote control to the part of the parking garage where the suspect was cornered. Jury-rigged with a pound of C4 plastic explosive, it was detonated, decisively ending the standoff.
It was the first known instance that a robot was used by police to kill a suspect. And yet it conforms with the larger trend of the militarization of police, itself a consequence of the demobilization of vast amounts of matériel freshly returned from our most recent Middle Eastern adventures and in need of a good home. But what has mystified me about this incident is the fact that the police went straight to the use of lethal force. In the ensuing coverage, no one has thought to raise the possibility of a non-lethal option, for example strapping a tear gas canister to the robot. Peter Singer, who has written extensively about the use of drones and similar machines within a military context, notedthat "the closest parallel I am aware of was a case in 2011, when police in Tennessee strapped tear gas grenades to a robot that then accidentally started a fire in a mobile home. This doesn't seem a great parallel, as it does not reflect a decision deliberately to use the robot to kill." Indeed.
Unsurprisingly, the things that we thought we should most fear turn out to still be mirages that may or may not manifest themselves in the future. That is, the prospect of the evocatively named LAWS (Lethal Autonomous Weapons Systems) is still hazy and indistinct. But it's much easier to focus one's anxiety on a hypothetical machine gun-wielding robot that independently identifies and then executes its prey. There is something sufficiently self-contained about such an object. It's by virtue of its succinctness that thinking about it seems even possible, whereas the systems that are currently in place are more vague and distributed. As reprehensible as the overuse of drone strikes may be, there is still the lukewarm comfort that there is a human being - or a chain of command that consists of human beings - who ultimately identifies the target and pulls the trigger. Except that a closer look at target selection demonstrates that we are even less in control of that than we thought. So the future reaches into the present, playfully pawing at us in the form of a jury-rigged robot arm and ‘machine-suggested' militant targets.
(This is not the first time that we have committed such a cognitive fallacy. We spend far too much time worrying about the sudden appearance of a malevolent or inscrutable super-intelligent AI that we forego the much greater - and already present - concerns of whether artificial intelligence and algorithmic judgment are being used to gather and act on information that is beyond our power to even notice, let alone seek redress).
The precedent that is set by the actions of the Dallas police is troubling for exactly this reason: it is a precedent. When technology (and its ad hoc deployment) moves as quickly as this, there is no hope for policy, let alone legislation, to keep up. For heaven's sake, we still can't properly legislate copyright law in the digital age, and this has been a fairly clearly delimited issue for the last 20 years. If the courts extend the well-established principle that a police officer may use lethal force if he or she feels threatened to include the idea that a kamikaze version of WALL*E can be used to alleviate such a threat, then we can expect to see a normalization of the use of such force vectors. In turn, manufacturers will all too gladly step up so that the police don't have to go through the ordeal of duct-taping a packet of C4 to a retractable arm. And in short order an industry springs up, with interests and lobbysits to represent those interests: good luck legislating anything in the face of that. I just wonder if a camera livestreaming the proceedings will be part of the basic package, or if that will cost extra.
So we have a situation here where the convergence of video streaming and social media platforms led to protests that in turn led to the targeting of police officers by a shooter who was killed by a robot carrying an improvised explosive device. Can things get any weirder? Let's try.
Exhibit C: With all the weirdness going around, it was almost a relief that the week's news ended on something that people of my generation can understand: a good old-fashioned coup d'état. Except that the attempt in Turkey fell into chaos within a matter of hours; it seems that in the current news cycle not even a mutiny by the military has that much time to prove itself. Furthermore, one would certainly expect the Turkish army, which has been staging coups with some regularity since 1960, to have acquired solid experience in the matter.
All flippancy aside, though, there is still much that is unknown about why the military made its move when it did. One generally waits for the Prime Minister to be out of the country, whereas Erdogan was vacationing in Marmaris, a Turkish coastal town. Be that as it may, the coup began with the requisite deference for tradition: the declaration of martial law, the imposition of curfew and the rapid appearance of tanks on the streets, military jets buzzing Ankara and Istanbul, and all that. In addition, one of the immediate targets of any coup is the TV station, and indeed the plotters fulfilled their mission of getting the national TV to sign off.
But things also began to go very wrong, very quickly. Here is something we do know: very soon after it became clear that a coup was underway, Erdogan phoned into CNN's Turkey bureau, still on-air, and conducted an interview via FaceTime, on the news anchor's iPhone. You can see a bit of the astonishing video here, complete with the moment when the anchor, who is interviewing him by holding up the phone to the camera, has to decline an incoming call from someone else (a treasonous army general, perhaps? Wouldn't that have been the most fantastic use of three-way calling?). Now, Erdogan is savvy enough when it comes to technology - in fact I think it's a reasonable to state that populist tendencies positively correlate with mastery of social media such as Twitter, as well as an equivalent distaste for anyone using the same platform to proffer a different message. So he used his time to appeal to his supporters, that they take to the streets and "protect our democracy".
To its credit, the army planned well enough in advance to block Facebook, Twitter and YouTube, which was likely not difficult, since Turkey has always been keen on regulating its citizens' access to the Internet. However, smaller platforms such as Instagram and Vimeo were still functioning at the time of the coup. More crucially, it seems like Facebook Live and Periscope - the same applications involved in documenting police brutality I cited above - were also functioning. So the plotters found themselves in a position where protestors against the coup hit the streets of Ankara and Istanbul, "swarming tanks and soldiers…and even reportedly performing citizen's arrests. Many of the protests were streamed on Periscope and Facebook Live." To watch a bunch of guys in street clothes swarm a tank like carpenter ants, stripping the soldiers of their weapons and throwing them bodily out of their vehicles, all in defense of an authoritarian regime, has to be one of the more surreal things I have seen recently.
This attitude towards technology as an organizing force is quite an ironic reversal, considering that, during a 2014 meeting with the Committee to Protect Journalists, Erdogan actually said, "I am increasingly against the Internet every day". And it is still premature to maintain that the organizing power of social media played a decisive role, as we are still considering its effects on the Arab Spring of 2011. But one thing that is certain is that the AKP emerges from the coup stronger than ever. As it rounds up its enemies and rivals - at last count already more than 6,000 have been detained - it's reasonable to assume that press and internet freedoms will re-join those ranks, having served their purpose in the "protection of our democracy."
There are no easy patterns to be drawn from the above three cases. If anything, we may have to fall back on the cliché that people will take whatever tools they have at their disposal and bend them to the circumstances. I don't find this satisfying as an explanation, but in a world where total surveillance is being used to hunt terrorists who nevertheless cause tremendous damage by simply driving a truck into a crowd, I'm not sure if any theory can make sense for long enough before the next event comes along and proceeds to make a hash of everything. But this is the nature of an ever-accelerating weirdness. And apologies to anyone who thought this post would be about Pokémon Go. There's only so much weirdness anyone can take.
Parenting Muslim Children in an Age of Terrorism
by Jalees Rehman
"These terrorists aren't true Muslims" is a phrase that I have often heard being used by American Muslims when talking about terrorist attacks committed in the name of Islam. Recently, I encountered another version of this comment. Parents at a suburban Islamic Sunday School were encouraged to use this same approach when talking to their children about the recent spate of terrorist attacks. Arguments for denying the Muslim identity of the perpetrators include the moral incompatibility of the atrocities committed by the terrorists with Islamic law, which does not sanction the extrajudicial killing of civilians or suicide, which is frequent element of the attacks. This is an understandable reaction. The views of the perpetrators and their actions seem so abhorrent that it is impossible to reconcile their perception of Islam with those of the vast majority of American Muslims. However, even though one may sympathize with the desire to distance oneself from the terrorists, declaring terrorists to be non-Muslims or not "true" Muslims is the wrong answer.
The first problem with the arbitrary post-hoc excommunication of terrorists is that it is not really grounded in Islamic law. The process of takfir (excommunication Islam) requires very strong evidence and is difficult to uphold in most Islamic legal traditions if the person in question continues to see himself or herself as a Muslim. Someone may commit a grave sin or terrible crime, but these actions alone do not propel the person outside of the faith.
In fact, many of the terrorists or the organizations that endorse and support them portray themselves as true followers of Islam. Daesh (the so-called "Islamic State") claimed responsibility for the recent terrorist attacks in Brussels (March 2016), Dhaka (July 2016), Baghdad (July 2016) and Nice (July 2016). Members of the Nigerian Islamist group Boko Haram detonated bombs in a mosque in Maiduguri (January 2016), killing 22 worshipers and themselves. American-born Omar Mateen who murdered and injured over 100 people in a gay nightclub in Orlando (June 2016)swore allegiance to the leader of Daesh just minutes before his murderous shooting rampage. A group affiliated with the Pakistani Taliban targeted the Christian community celebrating Easter Sunday in a Lahore park (March 2016) with a suicide bombing. Even though the precise nature of the involvement of Daesh in each individual attack is not always clear, the attackers and their handlers routinely invoke Islamic justifications for their actions. One may disagree with their logic and interpretations of Islam but this is not sufficient to warrant their excommunication. In fact, extremist groups are the ones which play fast and loose with takfir when it comes to Muslims with differing views on religion and it is important for the majority to resist the impulse of following their example. The second problem with declaring terrorists who view themselves as faithful followers of Islam to be non-Muslims is that it serves as a form of dangerous absolution. If atrocities are committed in the name of Islam, then Muslims need to carefully scrutinize what elements of their faith or the manner by which the faith is taught could have inspired such violence. Such introspection can serve as a starting point for change in approaching and teaching religion within Muslim communities to prevent the spread of Islamist ideologies that promote hatred and endorse violence. On the other hand, if the acts were committed by people who weren't true Muslims, then the community absolves itself of the responsibility to engage in introspection. They had a completely erroneous view of Islam, which is why we do not need to change.
The importance of avoiding false absolution is especially important when it comes to parenting Muslim children. Engaging the youth in introspective analysis of what aspects of religion (or any ideology) can promote supremacist and violent views may allow them to become active partners in thwarting the rise of extremism. As a parent, I discuss terrorism with our children, covering the broader sociopolitical context as well as the aspects within the Islamic tradition and history that are often used to justify atrocities. I am guided in part by my experience of Vergangenheitsbewältigung in Germany. This German composite word combines Vergangenheit (the past) and Bewältigung (the process of struggling and overcoming) and refers to actively discussing the Nazi past in Germany. It would have been very easy to shrug off the Nazi ideology as not being truly German because it violated many ideals of German culture and absolve Germans of their historic burden but German society instead chose to confront its history. Schoolchildren visit concentration camps, talk to their parents about their grandparents' or great-grandparents' involvement in the Third Reich and are thus sensitized to the re-emergence of supremacist ideologies or fascism.
When I talk to my children about contemporary Islamist terrorist attacks, I try to engage in Gegenwartsbewältigung (Gegenwart = the present). These discussions do not only revolve around terrorism and violence but also involve broader contemporary issues in ethics, religion, decision-making and responsibility. As a family, we routinely sit together and listen to the inspiring Philosophy Bites podcasts by David Edmonds and Nigel Warburton which allows us to then segue into the discussions about philosophy and religion.
Terrorist acts perpetuated by co-religionists require Muslim parents to engage in difficult conversations with their children. Hiding behind false absolution is a disservice to their children and to their community. My hope is that Gegenwartsbewältigung will foster open-mindedness and introspective critical thinking which is antithetical to the rise and spread of hatred and violence.
Monday, June 27, 2016
‘We Sinful Women' Will Not Be Silenced
by Humera Afridi
I want to hear her: bold; questioning; insistent, refusing to compromise her ideals. I want to understand; to see, her: this woman of deep faith, with a distinctive laugh, who "had no equal among either the women or the men of her century." Possessed of a brilliant mind and exceptional memory, she was controversial—beloved, reviled, envied, not averse to taking risks in the service of truth and justice. Falsely accused of adultery, she was publicly defended by her husband, Seal of the Prophets and a political leader, who took to the minbar and challenged the men bent on sullying her name and that of his household. At 42, she led an army against the fourth Caliph—the infamous Battle of the Camel in the mid-seventh century—in which she suffered devastating losses. Mother of the Believers, yet herself childless. Youngest wife of Prophet Muhammad. Transmitter of two thirds of his sayings, the Hadith or traditions, that are treasured keys to a deeper understanding of the Quran and the commentaries written on its divinely revealed verses.
But: where is Aisha today?
When we speak of Muslim women, or the status of women in Islam, harking back always to that distant past—seventh century Arabia—which through a prismatic lens continues to determine our present, why are the Mothers of the Believers silent, invisible, absent? Asked whom he loved the most, Prophet Muhammad, magnificent warrior against misogyny in egregiously patriarchal Arabia, unhesitatingly declared, "Aisha!" Aisha in whose lap he breathed his last breath before he passed into the Realm of Beauty.
All this to say, Aisha was far from flat. She was refreshingly complex, multi-dimensional, a "round character"—to borrow a literary term from E. M. Forster—filled with the breath of God. And she wasn't the only one. Well before her, there was Khadijah, the Prophet's first wife—with whom he had monogamous relationship for twenty-five years until her death—savvy business woman, older than him by over a decade, a former widow, who on discerning his gentle and upright character, qualities she deemed attractive in a man, proposed marriage to him when he was a lad of 25 and in her employ.
I envision Umm Salama playing a role similar to that of a present-day community organizer and advocate. Captivatingly intelligent as she was beautiful, she broached the issue with the Holy Prophet.
"Beloved of Allah, tell me," she asked, "Why are men mentioned in the Quran and why are we not?"
I imagine her husband, founder of the newly forming religion, receiving her question quietly with unwavering gaze; his light-filled aura, the atmosphere of gentle sobriety that always surrounded him, filling the space between them in her modest quarter. Perhaps, his eyes fluttered closed and he took a breath, full and deep and murmurous as the ocean's floor, then sent up a prayer for guidance. It would be some days before Umm Salama received an answer. But one afternoon, as she was combing her hair, she overheard the Prophet's voice coming from the minbar, reciting in the mosque the latest verse that had been revealed to him.
"O people! Allah has said in his book: ‘Men who surrender unto Allah, and women who surrender, and men who believe and women who believe, and men who obey and women who obey, and men who speak the truth and women who speak the truth and men who persevere (in righteousness) and women who persevere, and men who are humble and women who are humble, and men who give alms and women who give alms, and men who fast and women who fast, and men who guard their modesty and women who guard (their modesty) and men who remember Allah and women who remember—Allah hath prepared for them forgiveness and a vast reward.'" (Surah 33, verse 35; italics mine)
With absolute clarity, and repetitive force, a verse addressing Umm Salama's question had been revealed, removing any doubt of the place and status of women in a community of believers. Women, indeed, had a stake in the topography of the sacred text. There is no refuting that. What strikes me as marvelously refreshing is that the newly converted women of the Hejaz were far from diffident—they protested, asked questions, and expected an answer. And they were heard.
In fact, women's voices and concerns were not merely heard by the Prophet, but, moreover, were sincerely acknowledged and addressed. Complementing Umm Salama's revolutionary verse, a verse on Women—Surah An-Nisa— was revealed, laying out laws on inheritance, rendering women inheritors like their brothers, protecting them from enslavement, and overturning their pre-Islamic status as chattel. Surah An-Nisa created a furor among the male members of the Prophet's community who could not comprehend how this new religion which promised conquests was simultaneously infringing on their material privileges.
Fast forward 1400 years. The pulse of celebration has all but faded. We have regressed to the Age of Jahiliyya, the pre-Islamic Era of Ignorance, a time of barbarism, with the murky passions of tribalism, and modern-day capitalism, blinding our sense of justice and truth and ethics, where misogyny is rampant, and the dense, dark aspects of what it means to be human prevail. The new-found gains of the pioneering women of Islam, the spirit of progress and equality introduced through the intercession of the visionary Prophet and political leader Muhammad, were short-lived. Certainly, the spirit of egalitarianism is hard to discern today in the so-called ‘Islamic republics' of the modern world, which function most efficiently as travesties of their self-described identities.
As a woman born into the Islamic tradition, I feel an urgency, am filled with a fury to get it right. If it means plunging into a revisionist journey, going back to the beginning, I say, Let's begin, What's the delay?
In The Veil and the Male Elite, Moroccon sociologist Fatima Mernissi writes:
"Delving into memory, slipping into the past, is an activity that these days is closely supervised, especially for Muslim women. A passport for such a journey is not always a right. The act of recollecting, like acts of black magic, really only has an effect on the present. And this works through a strict manipulation of its opposite—the time of the dead, of those who are absent, the silent time that could tell us everything. The sleeping past can animate the present. That is the virtue of memory. Magicians know it, and the imams know it too.
"To ride alone back into memory with no guardian or guide; to take the paths that are not forbidden, but simply pleasant, agreeable, not heavily traveled, still unexplored (perhaps because power doesn't take that route); to go poking around in the vast areas of the Muslim heritage that is mine—is this a sin for me?" Mernissi asks. (page 10)
To me, what counts as "sin" – a word wrought with Biblical overtones, but so fitting—is not the earnest exploration and reclamation of the hopeful past, but the litany of news headlines screaming out of the raw wound of Pakistan's immediate present:
Pakistani Woman Burned Alive by Mother for Eloping Outside Ethnic Group (Worland, Justin; Time, June 9, 2016)
Pakistani Woman Burned to Death for Refusing Marriage Proposal (Durando, Jessica; USA Today, June 1, 2016)
Pakistani Husbands Can ‘Lightly Beat' Their Wives, Islamic Council Says (Craig, Tim; The Washington Post, May 27, 2016)
'Rampant' Violence Against Women in Pakistan Revealed as Groups Fight ‘Un-Islamic' Law Against Domestic Abuse (Dearden, Lizzie; Independent, April 5, 2016)
One harrowing story after another, weeks apart from each other, all in the last three months. The Human Rights Commission of Pakistan reports that approximately 900 women were raped and sexually assaulted in Pakistan in 2015. 279 cases of domestic violence were reported while hundreds more remain invisible. There were 143 recorded cases of women being burnt and tortured, 833 reported incidents of kidnappings, 777 reported suicides and attempted suicides involving women. All in 2015. Perpetrators of violence against women remain largely unpunished and free. Fearful of repercussions, and of being socially stigmatized and ostracized, many women who've been assaulted choose to remain silent.
Rampant misogynistic violence unspooling with wild abandon. How can we as a society, as a people—how dare we—remain silent? What do these macabre happenings say about the state of women in Pakistan? About the heritage—and the inheritance—of a Pakistani woman's identity? What does it mean to be Pakistani today? And in the midst of this embattled mentality, all this violence unleashed with ease, what is the responsibility and role of the Pakistani male?
To this sordid matrix, add the draconian stewardship of the Council of Islamic Ideology, a shockingly powerful religious body that advises Pakistani lawmakers on the compatibility of legislations with Islam. This dubious but determined Council of twenty—with its sole female member who has sadly internalized misogynistic attitudes—denounced a landmark women's protection bill in February 2016—the Punjab Protection of Women Against Violence Act—which aimed to criminalize violence against women and establish hotlines and shelters for those confronting domestic, psychological and sexual assault. The Council repudiated the bill on the grounds that the women's protection bill conflicted with the Quran and the teachings of Prophet Muhammad!
Time, indeed, for us all to go back to the very beginning—back to the seventh century— for a refresher course. Time for us to pause, to look deeply at just how distorted and warped Islam and the Prophet's message of justice and equality have become in our modern age.
Writing in the 90's, Mernissi sheds light on the dangerous and execrable state of affairs:
"Not only have the sacred texts always been manipulated, but manipulation of them is a structural characteristic of the practice of power in Muslim societies. Since all power, from the seventh century on, was only legitimized by religion, political forces and economic interests pushed for the fabrication of false traditions. A false Hadith is testimony that the Prophet is alleged to have done or said such and such, which would then legitimate such an act or such an attitude. In this conjuncture of political stakes and pressures, religious discourses swarmed with traditions that legitimated certain privileges and established their owners in possession of them." (page 8)
Author Mohammed Hanif, writing about the Council of Islamic Ideology in an op-ed in the New York Times, (April 1, 2016) declared: "It's probably the most privileged dirty old men's club in the country."
I think of these council members shunning the women's protection bill, steeped in their narrow, self-serving judgment of others, worshipping the idols they have made of their egos, utterly misaligned with the spirit and ethos of the spiritual tradition they purport to represent. I think: what if, perchance the Prophet, lustrous hair touching his shoulders, graceful yet imposing in an immaculate robe, by some feat of time and manifestation, were to walk in to their majlis? Would they recognize him? Would they blush in shame at their apostasy? Or would they shun this unlettered Messenger of the Book of Light?
Muhammad understood women better than most, neither fetishizing them nor dominating them, but seeing, recognizing and appreciating them as whole beings within a vast spectrum of endless potentialities—earthy, luminous, enquiring, wild-spirited, desirous, yearning, cosmic. As a lay person, and a woman, I find reading the stories of Muhammad in seventh century Arabia to be surprisingly liberating—freeing of the falsity of limited religion; of the manipulation and domination by convention, patriarchy and political interests.
"Memory and recollection are the dawn of pleasure; they speak the language of freedom and self-development…" writes Mernissi. "They tell us of a Prophet who spoke of absurd things: nonviolence and equality. He spoke to an aristocracy fierce with pride and drunk with the power of the bow." (page 10)
As I mourn two young compatriot sisters, tragically and savagely murdered in separate incidents earlier this month because they chose to shape the course of their lives— 20-year old school teacher Maria Sadaqat and 18-year old Zeenat Rafique—I pray that we will raise our voices to demand justice, remain vigilant, and insist on laws that ensure women can live their lives free of fear and violence in the Era of Ignorance that has swooped upon us.
Pakistani poet Kishwar Naheed's "We Sinful Women," translated into English by Rukhsana Ahmed in 1991, transmits a soulful and incendiary current which resonates more than ever today.
We Sinful Women
It is we sinful women
who are not awed by the grandeur of those who wear gowns
who don't sell our lives
who don't bow our heads
who don't fold our hands together.
It is we sinful women
while those who sell the harvests of our bodies
become the just princes of the material world.
It is we sinful women
who come out raising the banner of truth
up against barricades of lies on the highways
who find stories of persecution piled on each threshold
who find that tongues which could speak have been severed.
It is we sinful women.
Now, even if the night gives chase
these eyes shall not be put out.
For the wall which has been razed
don't insist now on raising it again.
It is we sinful women
who are not awed by the grandeur of those who wear gowns
who don't sell our bodies
who don't bow our heads
who don't fold our hands together.
Monday, June 20, 2016
The Mesh of Civilizations in Cyberspace
by Jalees Rehman
"The great divisions among humankind and the dominating source of conflict will be cultural. Nation states will remain the most powerful actors in world affairs, but the principal conflicts of global politics will occur between nations and groups of different civilizations. The clash of civilizations will dominate global politics."
—Samuel P. Huntington (1972-2008) "The Clash of Civilizations"
In 1993, the Harvard political scientist Samuel Huntington published his now infamous paper The Clash of Civilizations in the journal Foreign Affairs. Huntington hypothesized that conflicts in the post-Cold War era would occur between civilizations or cultures and not between ideologies. He divided the world into eight key civilizations which reflected common cultural and religious heritages: Western, Confucian (also referred to as "Sinic"), Japanese, Islamic, Hindu, Slavic-Orthodox, Latin-American and African. In his subsequent book "The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of the World Order", which presented a more detailed account of his ideas and how these divisions would fuel future conflicts, Huntington also included the Buddhist civilization as an additional entity. Huntington's idea of grouping the world in civilizational blocs has been heavily criticized for being overly simplistic and ignoring the diversity that exists within each "civilization". For example, the countries of Western Europe, the United States, Canada and Australia were all grouped together under "Western Civilization" whereas Turkey, Iran, Pakistan, Bangladesh and the Gulf states were all grouped as "Islamic Civilization" despite the fact that the member countries within these civilizations exhibited profound differences in terms of their cultures, languages, social structures and political systems. On the other hand, China's emergence as a world power that will likely challenge the economic dominance of Western Europe and the United States, lends credence to a looming economic and political clash between the "Western" and "Confucian" civilizations. The Afghanistan war and the Iraq war between military coalitions from the "Western Civilization" and nations ascribed to the "Islamic Civilization" both occurred long after Huntington's predictions were made and are used by some as examples of the hypothesized clash of civilizations.
It is difficult to assess the validity of Huntington's ideas because they refer to abstract notions of cultural and civilizational identities of nations and societies without providing any clear evidence on the individual level. Do political and economic treaties between the governments of countries – such as the European Union – mean that individuals in these countries share a common cultural identity?
Also, the concept of civilizational blocs was developed before the dramatic increase in the usage of the internet and social media which now facilitate unprecedented opportunities for individuals belonging to distinct "civilizations" to interact with each other. One could therefore surmise that civilizational blocs might have become relics of the past in a new culture of global connectivity. A team of researchers from Stanford University, Cornell University and Yahoo recently decided to evaluate the "connectedness" of the hypothesized Huntington civilizations in cyberspace and published their results in the article "The Mesh of Civilizations in the Global Network of Digital Communication".
The researchers examined Twitter users and the exchange of emails between Yahoo-Mail users in 90 countries with a minimum population of five million. In total, they analyzed "hundreds of millions of anonymized email and Twitter communications among tens of millions of worldwide users to map global patterns of transnational interpersonal communication". Twitter data is public and freely available for researchers to analyze whereas emails had to be de-identified for the analysis. The researchers did not have any access to the content of the emails, they only analyzed whether users any given country were emailing users in other countries. The researchers focused on bi-directional ties. This means that ties between Twitter user A and B were only counted as a "bi-directional" tie or link if A followed B and B followed A on Twitter. Similarly, for the analysis of emails analysis, the researchers only considered email ties in which user X emailed user Y, and there was at least one email showing that user Y had also emailed user X. This requirement for bi-directionality was necessary to exclude spam tweets or emails in which one user may send out large numbers of messages to thousands of users without there being any true "tie" or "link" between the users that would suggest an active dialogue or communication.
The researchers then created a cluster graph which is shown in the accompanying figure. Each circle represents a country and the 1000 strongest ties between countries are shown. The closer a circle is to another circle, the more email and Twitter links exist between individuals residing in the two countries. For the mathematical analysis to be unbiased, the researchers did not assign any countries to "civilizations" but they did observe key clusters of countries emerge which were very close to each other in the graph. They then colored in the circles with colors to reflect the civilization category as defined by Huntington and also colored ties within a civilization as the same color whereas ties between countries of two distinct civilization categories were kept in gray.
At first glance, these data may appear as a strong validation of the Huntington hypothesis because the circles of any given color (i.e. a Huntington civilization category) are overall far closer to each other on average that circles of a different color. For example, countries belonging to the "Latin American Civilization" (pink) countries strongly cluster together and some countries such as Chile (CL) and Peru (PE) have nearly exclusive intra-civilizational ties (pink). Some of the "Slavic-Orthodox Civilization" (brown) show strong intra-civilizational ties but Greece (GR), Bulgaria (BG) and Romania (RO) are much closer to Western European countries than other Slavic-Orthodox countries, likely because these three countries are part of the European Union and have shared a significant cultural heritage with what Huntington considers the "Western Civilization". "Islamic Civilization" (green) countries also cluster together but they are far more spread out. Pakistan (PK) and Bangladesh (BD) are far closer to each other and to India (IN), which belongs to the "Hindu Civilization" (purple) than to Tunisia (TN) and Yemen (YE) which Huntington also assigned to an ‘Islamic Civilization".
One obvious explanation for there being increased email and Twitter exchanges between individuals belonging to the same civilization is the presence of a shared language. The researchers therefore analyzed the data by correcting for language and found that even though language did contribute to Twitter and email ties, the clustering according to civilization was present even when taking language into account. Interestingly, of the various factors that could account for the connectedness between users, it appeared that religion (as defined by the World Religion Database) was one of the major factors, consistent with Huntington's focus on religion as a defining characteristic of a civilization. The researchers conclude that "contrary to the borderless portrayal of cyberspace, online social interactions do not appear to have erased the fault lines Huntington proposed over a decade before the emergence of social media." But they disagree with Huntington in that closeness of countries belonging to a civilization does not necessarily imply that it will lead to conflicts or clashes with other civilizations.
It is important to not over-interpret one study on Twitter and Email links and make inferences about broader cultural or civilizational identities just because individuals in two countries follow each other on Twitter or write each other emails. The study did not investigate identities and some of the emails could have been exchanged as part of online purchases without indicating any other personal ties. However, the data presented by the researchers does reveal some fascinating new insights about digital connectivity that are not discussed in much depth by the researchers. China (CN) and Great Britain (GB) emerge as some of the most highly connected countries at the center of the connectivity map with strong extra-civilizational ties, including countries in Africa and India. Whether this connectivity reflects the economic growth and increasing global relevance of China or a digital footprint of the British Empire even decades after its demise would be a worthy topic of investigation. The public availability of Twitter data makes it a perfect tool to analyze the content of Twitter communications and thus define how social media is used to engage in dialogue between individuals across cultural, religious and political boundaries.
Huntington, S. P. (1993). The Clash of Civilizations. Foreign Affairs, 72(3) 22-49.
State, B., Park, P., Weber, I., & Macy, M. (2015). The mesh of civilizations in the global network of digital communication. PLoS ONE, 10(5), e0122543.
Monday, June 06, 2016
Viewing the Early Muslim State Through Its Coinage
by Ali Minai
The Arab conquests of the 7th and 8th centuries CE were arguably among the most cataclysmic and consequential events in world history, creating a completely new and long-lasting civilization from India and Central Asia to the Western edge of North Africa. And, while this civilization has ramified and fragmented considerably over the subsequent thirteen centuries, its imprint still shapes the history of these regions today to a decisive degree. An especially important manifestation of this influence is the widespread sentiment among the Muslims of this region for some sort of "return" to that idealized earlier period of glory and purity – a sentiment that has fueled revivalist movements ranging from political ones such as the Muslim Brotherhood to violent ones like Al-Qaeda and ISIS. However, this revivalist impulse goes far beyond these visible movements, and pervades Muslim societies from South Asia to Morocco, entering every aspect of social, cultural and political life in myriad ways. In a sense, this can be seen as the natural impulse of people attempting to repossess their past after a period of colonization, but what makes such a desire compellingly possible is the fact that so little is truly known about the early period of Islam.
Ernest Renan famously said that Islam – unlike other great world religions – was "born in the full light of history". However, this view has been challenged vigorously in the last century by Western scholars seeking to apply modern historical methods to the origins of Islam. To be sure, some of this "near-revisionism" is motivated by skepticism about the religion itself, but the problem is real enough. Most Muslims have implicit faith in the received reports and traditions about the Prophet Muhammad and his companions, but the fact is that the first biographical reports of the Prophet – by Ibn Ishāq and Mālik b. Anas – were not written down until more than a century after his death, and the earliest comprehensive histories of Islam – by Ibn Sa'd, Al-Wāqidī, Al-Tabarī, al-Balādhurī, et al. – date from the late 8th to early 9th century. A century or two may not seem long in the context of history, but the rise of Islam was so rapid that its truly formative period was basically over by the mid-8th century when the Abbasid dynasty overthrew the Umayyad caliphate, replacing that most Arab of dynasties with one rooted in a more cosmopolitan ethos. Also, because of the way it had acquired power, the Abbasid dynasty had a strong incentive to promote a specific version of early Islamic history and doctrine. Thus, it is especially important to look at contemporary evidence to obtain an accurate picture of Islam's earliest period.
In searching for the roots of Islamic society in the period between the Prophet's death c. 632 CE and the fall of the Umayyads in 750 CE, historians have very few truly contemporary sources to rely on. Remarkably, one of these sources is the Qur'an – the Islamic scripture – some partially preserved copies of which have recently been dated to within the Prophet's lifetime or soon after. The fact that these original copies of the Qur'an are virtually identical to the text used today supports the Muslim belief of scriptural integrity, and enhances confidence that the theological content of the original Islam can reasonably be obtained from the Qur'an itself. However, this still leaves large parts of cultural, political and socioeconomic history uncertain. The contemporary sources that provide information about these are: 1) Direct or incidental statements by contemporary non-Muslim writers referring to Muslims; 2) A growing (and as yet mostly un-studied) corpus of papyrus texts describing administrative and financial transactions; 3) a few rock inscriptions; 4) The ruined palaces and other archeological sites from the Umayyad period; 5) The Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem, constructed by the Umayyad Caliph ‘Abd al-Malik b. Marwān c. 691 CE; and 6) An immense and varied body of coins. The rest of this article looks at the last of these, and considers what this coinage may tell us about the policies and attitudes of the early Islamic state.
A BRIEF HISTORY OF EARLY ISLAMIC COINAGE
Money in the form of coins is such a fundamental part of human society that it is easy to lose sight of how relatively recent an invention it is. For about half of the five thousand year period that may be considered "recorded history", there was no known use of coinage. To be sure, metals such as gold and silver were considered valuable, and were probably used in barter arrangements or the payment of tax and tribute. However, according to both Herodotus and archaeological evidence, the first known coinage was introduced in the kingdom of Lydia in modern-day Turkey in the 6th or 7th century BCE – possibly by King Croesus (595-546 BCE), whose name became a symbol of wealth. The Lydian coins were made from a mixture of gold and silver called electrum, and though made into pieces with various denominations, they were actually used by weight – a practice that continued for centuries thereafter until the advent of precisely controlled mechanized minting. Once invented, coinage spread rapidly to other Greek states, and to the Persians, whose emperor Cyrus the Great defeated and killed Croesus in 546. Something similar to coinage also arose in India around the same time in the form of punch-marked pieces of silver called puranas or karshapanas. These were to become more widespread and elaborate during the great Mauryan Empire in the period after c. 320 BCE (Figure 1). By then, the Greeks – including the Greek states Alexander left behind in Western India, Iran and the Middle East – were issuing much more sophisticated coins with recognizable portraits and elaborate inscriptions. In particular, the Greeks introduced a silver coin whose name was to become ubiquitous throughout the region from India to Spain – the drachma. Variants of this name – drachm, dram, dirham, dam, damma – have been used for coinage by states ranging from the Parthian and Sassanian empires in Iran to the modern states of Morocco, Armenia and, until recently, Greece!
For more than seven centuries after Arab armies burst forth from Arabia to conquer an empire spanning three continents, the coinage of most of the Muslim world was to consist of three types of coins: The gold dīnār, named after the Byzantine Denarius Aureus; the silver dirham, and the lowly copper or bronze fals. But this system took some time to emerge. What happened during the transitional period offers interesting insights into the early Muslim state and poses several tricky questions. In particular, the coins of Islam's earliest period represent possibly the most concrete basis of archaeological and historical reconstruction for a period where evidence of other kinds is remarkably thin.
Like much of the early history of Islam, the origin of Islamic coinage is shrouded in mystery, but it is possible to reach a few broad conclusions based on the available corpus of coins. This article looks at the Islamic coinage of the period from the beginnings of Islam to about 700 CE, when the Umayyad dynasty was well-established at the top of the Muslim state. One goal in doing this is to obtain insight into the policies and attitudes of the society that produced this coinage, and possibly to infer the motivations of its leaders.
From a numismatic viewpoint, this duration can be divided into six distinct periods, with transitions often corresponding to major historic events. As with any division of historical time, this periodization is somewhat arbitrary, but useful nevertheless.
I. The Early Period: From Inception to 651 CE
The Arabs at the advent of Islam in c. 610 CE appear to have had no coinage of their own, and presumably used Roman (Byzantine) and Sassanian coinage. Rather conveniently, the Byzantines minted gold and copper coins while the Sassanians minted mainly silver. One can speculate that a trade-based economy such as that of Western Arabia's oasis towns might have used currencies from both sources in a standard gold-silver-copper configuration.
The Arab conquests began in the earnest around 634 CE, two years after the death of the Prophet Muhammad. The Sassanian Empire fell after losses at Qadisiyya in 636 and Nahavand in 642, leaving the Arabs in almost complete control of the empire. Syria, Palestine and Egypt had also all been wrested away from the Byzantine Empire by 642, though the empire endured to the north of Syria in most of Anatolia and into Europe. Thus, within a remarkably short period of eight years, the Muslim state had come to hold sway over a vast region that had previously encompassed most of two great empires, with major cities, active commerce and highly productive agricultural lands in Mesopotamia, Palestine and Egypt. Yet, through most of this period, the Caliphate based in Medina still did not issue any coinage, and continued to use Byzantine and Persian coins as before. The coinage in use seems to have been the Byzantine gold solidus and copper follis, and the Sassanian silver drahm. The latter typically weighed about 4 grams and had a design that had largely been unchanged for 400 years, with the portrait of the Shahanshāh (emperor) on the obverse side and a Zoroastrian sacred fire altar with two attendants on the reverse side, which also carried the date and mint name (see Figure 2).
After the loss of his capital at Ctesiphon (near modern Baghdad) in 636 CE, the last Sassanian emperor, Yazdegerd III (r. 632 – 651 CE), fled with his court, first to eastern parts of Iran in the Kerman region, and then eventually into Central Asia, where he was assassinated in 651 CE. Throughout this period, silver drahms were minted in his name in areas still under his nominal control. Presumably, these coins also found their way into the rest of the region and comprised the primary silver coinage of the early Islamic Caliphate. The Arabs called this coin the dirham, and the word remained in use for centuries thereafter.
Figure 2: Top: Silver drahm of the first Sassanian emperor, Ardeshir I (r. 222-242 CE). Bottom: Silver drahm of the last Sassanian emperor, Yezdegerd III (r. 632-651 CE). The coins show how the same general pattern was followed in coins throughout the Sassanian period, with the emperor's profile on the obverse and a fire altar on the reverse. For most of this period, the fire-altar was flanked by two attendants, which is the design that the Muslim state inherited and used. Author's Collection.
The copper coinage of the early period is rather confusing and poorly understood. Stefan Heidemann (2010) has indicated that the Arabs continued to import standard Byzantine copper coins in large quantities for use in the conquered areas, probably with the acquiescence of the Byzantine state which still regarded these regions as part of its jurisdiction and the Arab conquerors as temporary occupiers. However, the Arabs also appear to have started minting their own copper coinage around 636 CE (Heidemann, 2010), comprising imitations of the Byzantine coins with the Emperor's portrait and Greek inscriptions.
A remarkable fact about the coins used in the Islamic Caliphate until about 651 CE is that they bore no Islamic text or symbolism at all. Instead, they had the portraits of the Byzantine and Sassanian emperors and explicitly religious Zoroastrian and Christian symbols – the fire altar and the cross! Thus, paradoxically, the coins used during Islam's most sacred period violate what came to be regarded as one its strictest edicts – the proscription of figural images and un-Islamic symbols. These coins depicting non-Muslim emperors and symbols must have filled the bayt-al-māl (treasury) of the most doctrinally iconoclastic state in history, and the earliest believers whose faith taught them to abhor such images must freely have used these coins in ordinary commerce. Or perhaps these were pragmatic people, and not quite as rigid and doctrinaire in these matters as later generations would make them appear.
II. The Islamic Imprint: 651 CE – 660 CE
Interestingly, the first coins with an explicitly Islamic imprimatur appeared around 651 CE – exactly the time when Yazdegerd III was assassinated. It is impossible to know why this was the case, but informed speculation is possible. At this point in history, coins were the most visible symbol of sovereignty and derived their value both from the metal they contained and the certification of the ruler in whose name they were issued. To be acceptable, a coin needed the backing of a recognized authority, much as currency today needs the backing of a central bank. It was as though, up until Yazdegerd's death, the Muslim state had been content to "borrow" the sovereignty of the defeated Persian emperor for the credibility of its silver coinage. This may have been a purely political choice, given that almost the entire population of the conquered regions was still non-Muslim and probably more emotionally attached to their former ruler. However, once he was dead, an urgent need was felt to replace his authority with the visible symbol of a new one: Islam.
Figure 3: A silver dirham that is generally considered to be the "first" Islamic coin. Probably issued during the period of the third "rightly-guided" caliph, ʻUthmān b. ‘Affān (r. 644-656 CE). The coin uses the same dies as contemporary Sassanian coins, with "bismillah" added in Arabic in the obverse margin. Author's Collection.
The solution that was adopted at this point was also rather instructive. Instead of moving to a radically different coinage, Sassanian silver dirhams were "Islamized" by adding a small piece of Arabic text in the margin on the obverse side, leaving the emperor's portrait, the fire altars and the Pahlavi inscriptions (including the emperor's name) in place! The text added varied, but the classic Muslim invocation "bismillāh" (In the name of Allah) was the most common (see Figure 3). Others included "jayyid" (good/valid) and "lillāh-il-hamd" (praise is for Allah alone), as well as a few rarer inscriptions. Apparently, local governors had wide latitude in which of these they wished to put on their coins. One other interesting device was also adopted for these coins. Sassanian coins carried the date of their minting by stating the regnal year of the emperor whose portrait they bore. The last coins issued by Yazdegerd thus carried the date "Year 20", indicating their issuance in the 20th year after his enthronement in 632 CE. For the subsequent coins issued with the Arabic inscriptions, this date was "frozen" at this value, so that coins issued in the period 651 to 660 CE often carried the nominal date "Year 20", making it very difficult to date the coins more precisely. This may have been done simply out of convenience, so that the dies used to make the final coins of the Sassanian era could be reused with the added Arabic inscription.
After 650 CE, there is evidence of a drop-off in imported Byzantine copper coins – presumably as the Byzantine state came to terms with the permanence of the Arab conquest – and the establishment of Arab mints in Syria. However, these mints continued to produce coins using the Byzantine template, with the image of the Emperor, occasionally with the added Arabic words "tayyib" (pure) or "jā'iz" (authorized), or the word "KALON" (good) in Greek (Heidemann, 2010). In later copper coinage from about 670 CE onwards, the cross is often replaced with a non-Christian shape such as a staff or a globe, though coins with the cross continued to be minted even into the 690s (see Figure 4).
Figure 4: Umayyad copper fals minted in Emises/Hims (modern Homs) c. 685 -697 CE. Note the stylized portrait of the Emperor with crosses on the crown and on the globe he is holding. The Arabic word "tayyib" and the Greek work "KALON" (both meaning "good") indicate the validity of the coin. Author's Collection.
III. Early Umayyad Period: 660 CE – 680 CE
Islamic coinage for the period between 660 CE and 700 CE provides a series of interesting details with potential insights into the social and political events of this critical period – and possibly even into the evolution of Islamic doctrine. However, in the absence of strictly contemporary writings or records, it is difficult to interpret these details with certainty.
The year 660 is of special significance in Islamic history. It represents the transition of the Caliphate from the first four "rāshidūn" (rightly-guided) caliphs to the first ruler of the Umayyad dynasty, Muʻāwiya b. Abī Sufiyān, who moved the capital to his power base in Damascus. The 21 years of his rule saw the consolidation of the Muslim state, and the establishment of a more typical administrative structure derived from the Sassanian and Byzantine models. This may be the reason that changes with more overtly political significance begin appearing in coins minted during this period.
One notable change in the silver coinage was that dirhams bearing the portrait of the defeated Yazdegerd III were replaced by those bearing the portrait of Khusrau II (r. 590-628 CE) – known as Parvīz – the last truly powerful Sassianan emperor. The tradition of marking the coins as Islamic by adding an Arabic inscription in the obverse margin was continued. The reason for the change of portraits is not known with certainty, but informed speculation suggests that, even three decades after his death, Khusrau Parvīz commanded greater awe among the former Sassanian populace than the hapless Yazdegerd, and the use of Khusrau's portrait may indicate that the new Umayyad rulers felt a greater need for pro-active methods to win the loyalty of their subjects in Iraq and Persia. Coins with the portrait of Yazdegerd did continue to be minted, though the dates based on Yazdegerd's accession began to be updated as well. Eventually, this led to a coin dated "Year 1 of Yazīd" (Mochiri, 1982) – the first coin dated with reference to a Muslim ruler, Yazīd b. Muʻāwiya.
Another interesting change that occurred in this period was that the name of the Sasanian emperor on the coins was often replaced by the name of the Arab governor under whose authority the coin was being issued, but in Pahlavi (Middle Persian) script rather than Arabic (Foss, 2002). Thus, one has the paradoxical situation of coins with Zoroastrian religious symbology, the face of a dead Sassanian emperor labeled by the name of a Muslim governor in Pahlavi script, and an Arabic religious inscription in the margin! This chimeric design remained the standard silver coinage of the Muslim state for almost four decades. A similar pattern is apparent in the copper coinage, where the portrait of the Byzantine emperor (and sometimes several emperors or an emperor and his queen) coexisted with Greek and Arabic inscriptions, occasionally accompanied by the Christian symbol of the cross (Figure 4).
Figure 5: Silver dirham c. 673 CE issued in the name of the Caliph Muʻāwiya b. Abi Sufyan. The coin depicts Sassanian Emperor Khusrau II, with the Pahlavi inscription "maawia amīr-i wurrishnikān" in front of the emperor's face. The Arabic inscription in the obverse margin reads "bismillāh" (in the name of Allah). Author's Collection.
A very important milestone in this period was the issuing of coins explicitly in the name of the Caliph himself, with the inscription "maawia amīr-i wurrishnikān" – Muʻāwiya, Commander of the Believers (Foss, 2002). The term for "believers" comes from the Pehlavi verb, "wurrōyistan", which means "to believe". These silver dirhams, minted around 673-674 CE (52-54 AH), represent the first instance when the all-important title was used on a coin (Figure 5), and it is truly remarkable that the title appeared in Pahlavi rather than Arabic form (amīr- al-mu'minīn). The Arabic form does, however, appear around the same time in several rock inscriptions.
IV: The Second Fitnah: 680 CE – 692 CE
The death of Muʻāwiya in 680 CE precipitated a twelve-year period of exceptional turbulence and trauma for the Muslim community. This is termed the Second Fitnah (civil strife) of the three such episodes of civil war recognized in early Islamic history (the first followed the assassination of the third Caliph, ‘Uthmān b. ‘Affān, and the third was the Abbasid overthrow of the Umayyad dynasty). While the history of this period was only written down later from oral reports, coins provide direct, if often cryptic, contemporary documentation of the events. As such, the numismatic record of this period is of incalculable historical value.
The Second Fitnah arose from the refusal of large sections of the Muslim community to recognize the successors of Muʻāwiya – notably his son, Yazīd I – as Caliph. Of these rebellions, the one that lasted the longest and became most problematic for the Umayyads was the declaration of a rival caliphate in Hejaz by ‘Abdullāh b. al-Zubayr – usually known as Ibn Zubayr. Initial Umayyad attempts to quell this rebellion failed. Eventually, Ibn Zubayr controlled almost half of the territory of the Muslim state, including the Arabian peninsula and parts of Iraq and Persia. He became the second individual to issue coins declaring himself "Commander of the Believers" (see Figure 6). Ibn Zubayr, who ruled from Mecca, was ultimately defeated in 692 CE by an Umayyad army under Ḥajjāj b. Yūsuf, but only after a siege that resulted in the virtual destruction of the Ka'ba in Mecca and the Great Mosque in Medina.
Figure 6: Silver dirham issued by Ibn Zubayr c. 682 in Istakhr (Iran). The Pahlavi inscription in front of the face of Emperor Khusrau II reads "apdwla-i zubiran amīr-i -wurrishnikān" (ʻAbdullah bin Zubayr, Commander of the Believers). The Arabic inscription in the obverse margin reads "bismillāh" (in the name of Allah). Author's collection.
The period of the Second Fitnah was also marked by the ascendancy of several ultra-fundamentalist – or khārijī – Muslim groups. One group called the Azraqites, led by Qatarī b. al-Fujāʻa, issued coins with the declaration "lā ḥukmu illā lillāh" (There is no dominion except for Allah) c. 694 CE, while another led by ‘Atiya b. Aswad inscribed the somewhat less categorical phrase "bismillāh walī-al-amr" (in the name of Allah, Master of affairs) on his coins issued around 691 CE. The Islamic phraseology of these coins indicates the presence of the same literalist and inflexible attitude that imbues the extremists jihadi groups of today, who are the doctrinal descendants of these early khārijī rebels.
Three very important milestones occurred on coins in this period:
- The first appearance of the slogan "allāhu akbar" (Allah is Great) on a coin – one minted in Central Asia c. 684 CE (65 AH) in the name of the Umayyad governor, Salm b. Ziyād, and bearing inscriptions in three languages: Pahlavi, Arabic, and Bactrian (using Greek script)!
- The first appearance of the name of the Prophet Muhammad in any dated Islamic text (except the Qur'anic manuscripts), and the first instance of the declaration "muḥammad rasūlallāh" (Muhammad [is] the messenger of Allah). This occurred on coins issued by ‘Abd al-Malik b. ‘Abdullāh, Ibn Zubayr's governor of Bishapur c. 685 CE (66 AH) (see Figure7). Once started, this trend caught on quickly, and the phrase became standard on Umayyad coinage within a few years.
- The first appearance of the full "shahāda", or expression of the Muslim creed on a coin issued by ‘Abd al-‘Aziz b. ‘Abdullah, Ibn Zubayr's governor of Sistan (Eastern Iran) c. 691 CE (72 AH) (Johns, 2003). Remarkably, this too was written in Pahlavi, reading "One God, except He / no other god exists / Muhammad [is] the messenger of God" (Mochiri, 1981). Thus, the first surviving instance of the Islamic shahāda is not in Arabic but in Pahlavi! An Arabic version would not appear until a few years later.
Figure 7: Silver dirham of ‘Abd al-Malik b. ‘Abdullah, issued c. 685 CE (66 AH), and bearing the Arabic inscription "bismillah / Muhammad rasūlallāh" (In the name of Allah / Muhammad [is] Allah's messenger). Author's Collection.
V. Umayyad Consolidation: 692 CE – 696 CE
The Umayyad rearguard against Ibn Zubayr's revolt was led by Marwān b. al-Hakam, a cousin of both ‘Uthmān and Muʻāwiya. In 685 CE, his son, ‘Abd al-Malik b. Marwān, was declared the Umayyad caliph in Damascus, truly inaugurating the so-called Marwanid period of the Umayyad dynasty. After defeating Ibn Zubayr in Mecca (c. 692 CE) as well as the various khārijī rebel "caliphs" in Iraq and Persia, ‘Abd al-Malik consolidated Umayyad authority and, some have suggested, laid the practical groundwork for much of what has since been recognized as the Islamic ethos. In terms of coinage, ‘Abd al-Malik's reign saw a remarkable set of experiments, culminating in a standardization that became the model for Islamic coinage for centuries thereafter.
Perhaps the boldest and most important innovation in coinage by ‘Abd al-Malik was the attempt to introduce explicitly Muslim figural elements. Until this point, the human figures in the coinage had been those of Sassanian and Byzantine emperors, though clearly the implication was to have these figures confer authority upon the Muslim ruler. Around 691-92 CE, ‘Abd al-Malik introduced a gold coin where the three imperial figures were given decidedly Arab costume (rather than Byzantine), and the complete shahāda – "la ilāha illallāh waḥdahū / muhammad rasūlallāh" (there is no god but Allah, the One, [and] Muhammad [is] Allah's messenger) was inscribed on the coin. This is generally regarded as the first official instance of the complete shahāda in any Islamic artifact, followed soon by its inscription in the Dome of the Rock c. 692 CE. Around the same period, ‘Abd al-Malik's brother, Bishr b. Marwān, who was governor of Basra, issued Sassanian-style silver dirhams with a three figure motif replacing the fire-altar and attendants, and the same complete shahada as the gold coins.
There has been much debate about whom the three figures might represent, with the general assumption that the central figure in both the gold and silver coinage is probably meant to be the caliph himself. It is interesting that, in the silver coinage, this figure has his hands raised to his ears, which is interpreted as an oratorical position, i.e., the caliph is depicted giving a sermon – or perhaps praying. The surrounding figures may represent governors or sons. In any case, there is little doubt that these coins represented a significant step towards the Umayyads taking complete ownership of their coinage.
Another remarkable series of coins minted in this period were the so-called "Mihrab and Anaza" silver dirhams (Treadwell, 2005), where the Sassanian emperor's portrait was surrounded by the shahāda and modified to suggest that it represented an image of the caliph (e.g., holding a sword). On the reverse side of these coins, the Sassanian fire altar was replaced by an arch with a spear standing upright in it. Most notably, the inscriptions on either side of the arch read "amīr al-mu'minīn" (Commander of the Believers) and "khalīfatullāh" (Deputy of Allah) – though the latter has also been read as "khalaftullah" (I act in the name of Allah). The spear is flanked by the words "naṣr \ Allāh" (succor from Allah).
This approach culminated in the issuance around 694 CE of a famous series of gold and copper coins known as the Standing Caliph series. These coins depicted a standing figure, clad in Arab robes and head-dress, and holding what looks like a sword (though some have termed it a staff). There is near-consensus that this figure is meant to represent the caliph himself, much as Sassanian and Byzantine coins had depicted emperors. Notably, some scholars such as Foss (2001) and Hoyland (2007) have suggested that in some cases, the figure depicts the Prophet himself, but this is unlikely (Schulze and Schulze, 2010). The gold coin also carried the complete shahāda and, for the first time, an explicit declaration in Arabic of the year the coin was minted. Both these features were to become permanent in subsequent gold and silver coinage. The copper coinage with the standing caliph motif was more varied (see Figure 8).
Figure 8: Two types of Umayyad copper coins with the Standing Caliph motif. The coin on the left has the complete shahada and the name of the caliph with the title "amīr al-mu'minīn", whereas the one on the right only has "Muḥammad rasulallāh" and the name of the mint, "īliya / filisṭīn" (Jerusalem, Palestine). The inscription and the distinctive posture of the figure has led some to suggest that the latter coin might depict the Prophet Muhammad himself, but this is extremely unlikely. Author's Collection.
The Standing Caliph series lasted only for a few years (Bates, 1987), and it is hypothesized that it failed because of objections to its figural content from the Muslim community. If so, this indicates that, by this point, some degree of iconoclastic feeling had pervaded the Muslim polity. Another indication of such sentiment comes from the response to a set of coins issued by Ḥajjāj b. Yūsuf, the governor of Basra around 694 CE. These Sassanian-style coins had the emperor's portrait, surrounded by the complete shahāda in one of two different styles (see Figure 9 for one style). Notably, the name of the governor on these coins was inscribed in Arabic rather than Pahlavi. Apparently, the more pious members of the community raised some sort of objection on these coins as well – perhaps to the conjunction of the shahāda and the emperor's portrait – and the coins stopped being minted.
Figure 9: Silver dirham issued by Ḥajjāj b. Yūsuf c. 694 CE, with the full shahada and the governor's name in Arabic. Author's Collection.
VI. The Reform Coinage: 696 CE onwards
Finally, in 696-97 CE, ‘Abd al-Malik implemented a sweeping reform of all coinage, moving away from all figural depictions and non-Arabic scripts, and switching to purely aniconic designs with Arabic inscriptions. First, a gold dinar was issued in 696 CE. On the obverse, it had the central inscription "lā ilāha illallāh waḥdahū lā sharīkalah" (there is no god but Allah, the One, He has no associates), and along the circumference the inscription "Muḥammad rasūlallāh arsalahū bi-l-hudā wa dīn al-ḥaqq liyudhhiru ‘ala al-dīni kullihī" (Muhammad [is] the messenger of Allah, whom He sent with guidance and the religion of Truth that He might proclaim it over all religions). The part after Muḥammad rasūlallah quotes from the Qur'an 61:9. The reverse had a central field inscribed with part of chapter 112 from the Qur'an – "Allāhu aḥad Allāhu al-ṣamad lam yalid wa-lam yūlad" (Allah is one. Allah is eternal. He did not beget and was not begotten), with the inscription around the circumference explicitly stating the mint and year of minting in Hijri calendar.
The silver coinage, issued a year later, followed exactly the same pattern, with two minor changes. In the quote from Qur'an 61:9 on the obverse, a part omitted in the gold coins was included, so that the inscription read "Muḥammad rasūlallāh arsalahū bi-l-hudā wa dīn al-ḥaqq liyudhhiru ‘ala al-dīni kullihī wa-law karih-al-mushrikūn" (Muḥammad [is] the messenger of Allah, whom He sent with guidance and the religion of truth that He might proclaim it over all religions even if the associators are averse). On the reverse, the central inscription now quoted the complete text of chapter 112: Allāhu aḥad Allāhu al-ṣamad lam yalid wa-lam yūlad wa-lam yakun lahū kufuwan aḥad" (Allah is one. Allah is eternal. He did not beget and was not begotten. And there is none like unto Him). An early example is shown in Figure 10.
Figure 10: Umayyad post-reform silver dirham following the standard pattern, except the inclusion of the mint name, Marw, in Pahlavi script at the bottom of the central field on the obverse. Author's Collection.
Once implemented, the pattern of the gold and silver coinage was followed without any change until the end of the Umayyad dynasty in 750 CE, and continued with minor changes in the first two centuries of the Abbasid dynasty (Figure 11). Indeed, broadly similar designs with textual and stylistic variations were to be used for gold and silver coins through most of the Islamic world for many centuries thereafter, and with rare exceptions, the use of figural motifs in coinage was abandoned completely until modern times.
Figure 11: Gold dinar issued by the Abbasid Caliph Harūn al-Rashīd. Note the continuity of the general pattern from the Umayyad reform coinage (Figure 10). Author's collection.
Interestingly, the early use of the shahāda and Qur'anic texts on fundamentally commercial artifacts such as coins indicates that currently held popular ideas about the use and handling of such texts are a recent invention. Today, many Muslims have come to regard even the damaging of paper with Qur'anic text or the handling of such texts by non-Muslims as disrespectful, or even blasphemous. But such texts were used on coins from Spain to India for a thousand years. These coins were mishandled, hammered, gouged, cut and re-melted. They were used by people of all creeds, and even copied (poorly) by many Christian states for use as their currency (see Figure 12). They found their way to all parts of the known world, so that some of the biggest hordes of early Islamic coins have been discovered in places such as Sweden. All these things show that early Muslims had a much more relaxed attitude towards the sanctity and appropriate use of religious texts than many imagine today.
Figure 12: A gold Bezant of the Crusader State of Jerusalem, c. 12th-13th cent. CE. The coin imitates Fatimid dinars, including the inscriptions of the shahāda and other religious declarations. Author's collection.
INTERPRETING THE NUMISMATIC DATA
Coins are remarkably informative archaeological artifacts, referring explicitly to persons, dates and places, and often providing additional information through their inscriptions, their physical attributes, and the location of their discovery. However, this richness also makes it difficult to interpret their information precisely – especially in the absence of other sources. The numismatic corpus from the early Islamic period is especially difficult in this sense. Looking back at it with modern eyes – and with the cultural and religious history of the last thirteen centuries in mind – several questions arise naturally: Why did it take so long for the Arab conquerors to settle on an "Islamic" design for coinage? Why did they rely on chimeric designs with obviously "un-Islamic" symbology and attributes for an extended period? Why were sacred inscriptions so often in Pehlavi rather than Arabic? What motivated the choice of designs and inscriptions as the coinage evolved? What sort of state was it that produced this evolving coinage?
Some of these questions have been addressed indirectly in the discussion above, but this section will consider them more explicitly to explore what the coinage in question might say about the social, cultural economic, political and religious milieu that produced it.
Two issues, in particular, deserve special attention:
- The use of chimeric coins over an extended period lasting at least until 692 CE.
- The sudden proliferation of overtly Islamic statements on coins and in other texts after about 690 CE, leading to the issuing of reformed coinage in 696 CE.
Both provide uniquely significant insight into the likely nature, orientation and evolution of the early Muslim state.
The Use of Chimeric Coinage
To the person unfamiliar with early Islamic coinage, its most striking and surprising feature is the use of Byzantine and Sassanian designs, including the portraits of emperors and depictions of non-Muslim religious symbols. This remarkable fact has elicited much interest, and some highly questionable revisionist theories about the origins of Islam (see Grodzky (2014) for a good summary). However, much more plausible and historically justifiable explanations can be found based on existing evidence and minimal speculation.
Most people – especially Muslims – have been conditioned to believe that Islam is an exclusivist, iconoclastic faith that forbids images and execrates the symbols of other faiths. Yet, in the very period idealized today by Muslims everywhere – including the time of the Prophet himself – Muslims seem to have used Byzantine and Sassanian coinage without objection. Even more astonishingly, when Islamic features did begin to appear on coins, the most significant features of the non-Islamic design – emperors' portraits, fire altars and crosses, Pahlavi and Greek scripts – were still retained. Indeed, the first dated expressions of the Muslim creed (the shahāda and the formal affirmation of the Prophet Muhammad's status), as well as the first reference to a named caliph as "Commander of the Believers" on a coin, all occur in Pahlavi, not Arabic! From the date of its first major conquests, the Muslim state took more than 60 years to arrive at a coinage design that reflected what would today be recognized as a strictly Islamic form.
One common misunderstanding must be dispelled at this point. The chimeric coins of early Islam were not existing Byzantine or Persian coins stamped over with Arabic inscriptions. The coins with the mixture of symbologies and inscriptions were minted explicitly by the Muslim state – often using new dies prepared wholly within the period of Muslim rule. Thus, it is not the case that Muslim administrators could not have initiated a more overtly "Islamic" coinage at a much earlier date. Rather, they chose not to do so – or at least saw no need for it – and it is interesting to ask why that might have been the case.
To answer this question, one must consider the early Islamic state in the context of its time rather than through the lens of subsequent centuries. In retrospect, the Arab conquests look like the beginning of an entirely new civilizational turn in the areas ruled by the Persian and Byzantine empires, but things probably looked very different to those who actually accomplished the conquests, and the choices they made – including those about coinage – were necessarily driven by their conceptions in real time.
In view of what followed, perhaps the most easily overlooked aspect of the Arab conquest is its relatively mundane nature. To be sure, the Arabs were extremely unlikely conquerors, but conquest itself was a commonplace affair for most of the region in question. The two great empires – and their predecessor empires – had been over-running each other's territories regularly for almost a thousand years before the Arabs appeared. This was especially true in the areas comprising modern Syria and Iraq. Each of these conquests involved the transfer of sovereignty over large populations from one ruler and one religion to another. And though the conquerors often indulged in massacre, enslavement, and desecration of sacred places, most of the populace was allowed to go about its affairs without the imposition of grand societal transformations. The authority of the conquerors was generally maintained through a relatively small occupying force and a local bureaucracy co-opted by force. The Arabs were no exception. Indeed, they needed this model more than prior conquerors because of their smaller numbers and a lack of governing experience or infrastructure.
As documented, among others, by Hodgson and Hoyland using Muslim sources such as al-Tabari and al-Balādhuri, the early Arab conquerors had little interest in creating a new civilization, or in converting the conquered populations to Islam. Rather, they saw these populations mainly as a source of labor, goods, and revenue, which was consistent with the practices of the time. The Arab soldiery – which included Christians as well as Muslims – lived in separate garrison towns and had limited contact with the local populace. People of all faiths in the conquered regions – including Zoroastrians, Buddhists, and later Hindus – were recognized as "People of the Book" so that they could be subject to the poll tax (jizya), which formed a critical part of the Muslim state's tax base. Indeed, when the locals did begin to convert under social and financial pressures, it became something of a fiscal crisis for the Muslim state, prompting drastic changes in tax law to ensure that conversion could occur without loss of revenue. Even so, non-Arab converts typically needed to find an Arab Muslim patron before they could fully join the Muslim community. It took well over three centuries for most of the Middle East and Persia to become Muslim majority regions. All these things indicate that the original Muslim state's conception of itself was very different than that promoted by later revisionist thinking, and was more along the lines of traditional control over conquered peoples rather than the creation of a radically new egalitarian polity. This is reflected in the fact that the poll tax was often imposed on all adults in the conquered lands, implying that they were considered a single class regardless of their religious affiliation. A polity rooted in an Islamic identity only emerged as non-Arab Muslims acquired greater power and sought to erase the memory of their subservient status.
Given this situation, it was natural that the decisions of the early Muslim state would be concerned more with maintaining control rather than a zeal for "Islamization". This was especially important because the Arab forces comprised a tiny, relatively isolated minority in the lands they had conquered. Continuity would clearly have been more useful in this context than wholesale disruption of societal patterns, and the decision to keep using existing coinage with minor changes may have been driven by this consideration. The still largely Zoroastrian or Christian populations were more likely to feel secure with fire altars, crosses and familiar images of their old rulers on the coins they used every day (Donner, 1986). And yet, like all conquerors, the Arabs must also have felt the need to stamp their authority in some way, especially as the conquest took hold. One way they did so was by introducing explicitly Islamic inscriptions on coins. But here too, it must have been important to make sure that the message got through. Thus, in Persia which had no familiarity with Arabic, the Muslim state used Pehlavi to make its religious statements, but felt freer to use Arabic in Syria and Egypt, where the language may have had somewhat greater penetration already.
Another important likely factor was the necessarily asymmetric relationship between the Muslim state and its two predecessor empires. Unlike the Sassanian Empire, which was overthrown completely and its last ruler killed in exile, the Byzantine Empire remained a strong force even after losing Syria, and held on to its legendary capital, Constantinople. Thus, Zoroastrian symbols and the Pehalvi language represented no real threat to the conquerors, whereas Christianity and Roman civilization remained potent adversaries. This may explain why removing the Christian cross from coins was given a much higher priority than removing the Zoroastrian fire altar – though the cross continued to appear sporadically until 692 CE.
The long-lasting use of chimeric coins, and especially ‘Abd al-Malik's initial experiments with putting his own image on coins, also suggests that early Islam was far less dogmatic about figural representations than is seen later in history. At the same time, it is also clear from the failure of Abd al-Malik's figural coinage that, by the mid-690s, Muslim opinion-makers had come to frown upon the practice of depiction. Hodgson (1975) has called the choice of a non-figural coin design "a stroke of genius" that symbolized the Muslim faith in compelling fashion.
The Proliferation of Official Religious Statements Post-690 CE
Prior to the accession of ‘Abd al-Malik b. Marwān to the caliphate in 685 CE, there is very little overt assertion of religious doctrine in the historic record, but this changes rather abruptly after about 690 CE – on coins as well as in written texts and architectural decoration. This has led several revisionist historians to suggest that the currently accepted religion of Islam was largely created during the period of ‘Abd al-Malik and his successors, building upon a more rudimentary earlier cult. Another implication derived from the evidence is that the Muslim state prior to 690 CE was relatively weak and not based explicitly on a religious vision. However, as Hodgson, Donner, Hoyland and others have argued persuasively, there is little reason to accept the first assertion, and the second one must be understood in proper historical context. An increasing amount of evidence from early papyrus inscriptions indicates that the Muslim state was administratively quite sophisticated as early as the period of the second Caliph, ‘Umar b. al-Khattāb (583-644 CE), and certainly by the caliphate of Muʻāwiya b. Abi Sufyān (660-680 CE). Numerous rock and papyrus inscriptions from the pre-690 CE period also show that Islamic religious sentiment and Qur'anic expression at the personal level had become well-established among Muslims by that time. Why, then, the sudden emergence of official religious statements?
The answer may lie in political calculation.
Hoyland – following Crone and others – has speculated that, until the eruption of the second fitnah, the expanding Arabs saw themselves as an army of "believers" (mu'minīn) rather than an army of Muslims (muslimīn) alone. Thus, the amīr al-mu'minīn (Commander of the Believers) saw himself as a leader of Christians and Jews as well as Muslims, and the practice of Islam per se was regarded as a private matter within this larger milieu – hence the lack of official religious proclamations by the state. There is indeed indirect evidence that the Prophet Muhammad initially saw Christians and Jews as members of his larger community – a principle embodied in the "Compact of Medīna" signed after the Prophet's migration to that city. It is also true that the conquering Arab armies included Christian Arabs in addition to Muslims, and that these people were treated as equal members of the community, in contrast to the conquered peoples. However, it is far from clear if this situation held as late as 690 CE, by which time large populations of Christians and Jews in Iraq, Syria and Egypt were paying the poll-tax (jizya) as protected minorities. So why did the official usage of Islamic expressions by the state only begin after 690? To answer this question, it is useful to look at the situation at the time from the Umayyad perspective. ‘Abd al-Malik was facing two major challenges: The civil strife of the Second Fitnah, and the perpetual conflict with the Byzantines. Both were likely factors in the decision to adopt a more overtly Islamic official discourse.
On the home front, opposition came from three directions: The ultra-orthodox regime of Ibn Zubayr; the various puritanical khārijī groups; and the supporters of the fourth Caliph, ‘Ali, who would later become the Shī'a branch of Islam. The notable thing is that all three opponents based their claims on religious rectitude, asserting that they – and not the Umayyads in Damascus – were the true practitioners of Islam in its purest form. In the case of the Shī'a, this assertion was accompanied by belief in a divinely sanctioned leadership role for the Prophet's family. Of the three opposition movements, the Shī'a revolt was ultimately to prove the most effective and lead to the end of the Umayyad dynasty, but during ‘Abd al-Malik's time, it was the least powerful of the three. The other two acquired real, if transient, power, and proclaimed it explicitly through strong religious statements. As discussed earlier, Muslim coinage prior to 685 is either devoid of any Islamic inscription, or carries minimal ones such as "bismillah" or the designation of the Caliph as "Commander of the Believers". The first explicit statement of "Muhammad is Allah's messenger" appears in 685 CE on coins issued by ‘Abd al-Malik b. ‘Abdullāh in Bishapur (in southern Iran), and the full creed (shahāda) appears first in 691 CE on a coin minted by ‘Abd al-‘Azīz b. ‘Abdullāh in Sistan (Eastern Iran). Notably, both were regional governors appointed by Ibn Zubayr's ultra-orthodox regime in Medina, not by the Umayyad caliph in Damascus (Johns, 2003). The khārijī groups also put vociferous religious inscriptions such as "lā ḥukmu illā lillāh" (there is no dominion except for Allah) on coins – and presumably using them in their discourse. The Umayyads spent the period from 683 to 692 CE fighting these movements, and gradually defeated them all. It is precisely towards the end of this period that the highly specific religious statements introduced by their more puritanical foes began appearing on official Umayyad coinage, and the walls of the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem were adorned with passages from the Qur'an. And, to cap it all, once the rebel groups had been vanquished, the Umayyads introduced a reformed coinage with the full shahāda and two long quotes from the Qur'an. This pattern suggests strongly that the move towards the official use of religious statements reflected a political decision to co-opt the narrative of the rebels to dissipate the widespread sympathy they enjoyed in a populace already growing more puritanical under their influence. A somewhat parallel phenomenon can be seen today, where the emergence of extremist groups such as Al-Qaeda and ISIS has had the effect of increasing religious fervor even among Muslims who do not support these groups politically, in turn forcing governments to adopt more puritanical postures on issues such as blasphemy and shari'a law.
The struggle against puritanical Islam, however, is only a part of the explanation for the adoption of overtly religious discourse by the state after 690 CE. Some of the "credit" must go also to the state's emerging relationship with the Byzantine Empire. Initially, the Muslim state had been monetarily dependent on the Byzantines, and the latter seem to have regarded the Muslims as temporary occupiers of their lands in the Levant. However, as Arab hold over Syria and Egypt became more complete, the two states adopted a posture of mutual hostility, symbolized most clearly by the repeated military expeditions sent by the Umayyads against Constantinople – all of them fruitless. And, given that the Byzantine Empire presented itself as the guardian of Christian supremacy, it was natural that the Arabs responded by adopting a similar position in the name of Islam. Thus, when ‘Abd al-Malik did finally introduce a reformed Islamic coinage, the Qur'anic texts placed on them appeared to be directed squarely at Christian beliefs. The focus of Chapter 112 (Al-Ikhlāṣ) is on the oneness of Allah, and on the key statement, "He did not beget and was not begotten" – a direct challenge to the divinity of Jesus. The challenge is even clearer in the choice of Qur'an 61:9 – "Muḥammad is the messenger of Allah, whom He sent with guidance and the religion of truth that he might proclaim it over all religions even if the associators are averse." There can be little doubt that the term "associators" here referred to the dominant faith in the Levant and its "association" of Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit with the Divine. Indeed, this text, among others, was also inscribed on the walls of Abd al-Malik's new Dome of the Rock. Thus, the post-fitna period beginning in 692 CE can be seen as the beginning of a transformation in the Muslim state, taking it from yet another occupier to a new civilizational force with Islamic orthodoxy at its core. The aggressive statement of Qur'an 61:9 on coins was a fittingly supremacist declaration of Islam's new intentions, and the basis of solidarity against the Christian empire.
The picture of the early Muslim state that emerges from this is one highlighting the practical aspects of its evolution rather than the ideological form imputed to it by later generations. Once can imagine a young, energetic and rapidly expanding state run by people with little experience of statecraft relying on their instinctive administrative genius – which was considerable in some cases – and on the principles of their new faith. It is natural that they would be less pre-occupied with doctrinal issues such as the prohibition of images or explicit statements of creed, and more with the practical considerations of governing diverse populations, collecting taxes, and keeping the soldiery in shape. Indeed, history suggests that, ultimately, it was this focus on the "worldly" affairs of state that elicited the puritanical revolts of Ibn Zubayr, the Kharijites, and even some Shī'a groups. This, in turn, forced the state to adopt a posture of more overt religiosity, essentially using a "protector of the faith" argument to solidify its political control – especially in opposition to the overtly Christian Byzantine state. It is not surprising, then, that the intellectual basis as well as the bureaucratic framework of Islamic law begins to flourish in this period, though it did not find full fruition until after the fall of the Umayyads. In a real sense, the idea of a state based on "Islamic laws" rather than "Islamic rule" was a creation of ‘Abd al-Malik and his successors – including the Abbasids – and driven by the agenda of their puritanical opponents.
This viewpoint has interesting implications. Among other things, it suggests that the second fitnah was a critical event in Islamic history, and changed its course for all future time. Many of the features that orthodox Muslims associate today with the notion of an "Islamic state" arose at this time, and probably for purely political reasons. This also means that, rather than separating the period of the first four "rightly-guided" caliphs from the rest, it is more useful to see the reign of Mu'awiya as a continuation of this period, with the real break coming after his death.
An important consequence of the Islamization instituted by ‘Abd al-Malik would have been to finally turn Christians, Jews and other non-Muslims irrevocably into outsiders, reversing the early practice of regarding Arab Christians and Jews as part of the community of "believers" and reserving outsider status only for conquered people. After ‘Abd al-Malik's consolidation of the state, Islam became the core of its identity. Even so, the state did not force non-Muslims to convert – indeed, actively discouraged them in many cases – and allowed them to maintain their communities, albeit in a subservient status. This was the model that Muslim rulers from Spain to India were to follow for the next thousand years, and even follow today in certain ways. It is a self-consciously supremacist and exclusionary model – very much of its time and clearly unsuited to the 21st century – but it is nothing like the fantasy that excites groups such as Al-Qaeda and ISIS. The society it created was – like all others in its time – manifestly illiberal, but it was also intellectually vigorous, multi-faceted, diverse, creative and dynamic. It produced writers, poets, philosophers, scientists, historians, and, yes, warriors and tyrants. It was full of argument and passion, but also capable of thoughtful analysis. In a word, it was complex, not the stark, simplistic, static and joyless caricature that today's revivalists seem to have in mind.
Above all, the varied coinage of the early Islamic period presents a very human picture of the evolving Muslim state, laying bare the challenges it faced, hinting at motivations, suggesting calculations and choices made. It shows energetic leaders coping with problems far exceeding their control, and finding strategies to muddle through. The fact that some of these pragmatic strategies have since ossified into religious orthodoxy is a large part of the problems the world faces today. Muslim societies in particular should look more deeply into their history and learn to appreciate its complexities rather than seeking simple answers in the mythology of received "truths". It's worth remembering that societies that forget their past truly have no future!
M.L. Bates (1987) "The Coinage of Syria Under the Umayyads, 692-750 A.D.", IVth International Conference on Bilad al-Sham During the Umayyad Period: Proceedings of the Third Symposium, pp. 195-228.
P. Crone (2014) The Nativist Prophets of Early Islamic Iran: Rural Revolt and Local Zoroastrianism. Cambridge University Press.
D.C. Dennett (2000) Conversion and the Poll Tax in Early Islam. Harvard University Press.
F.M. Donner (1986) "The Formation of the Islamic State", Journal of the American Oriental Society 106, pp. 283-296
C. Foss (2001) "Anomalous Arab-Byzantine coins – some problems and suggestions", Oriental Numismatic Society Newletter 166, pp. 5–12.
M. Grodzki (2014) "Christian-Muslim Symbolism on Coins of the Early Arab Empire", Asian and African Studies 23, pp. 255-273.
M.G.S. Hodgson (1975) The Venture of Islam, Volume 1: The Classical Age of Islam, University of Chicago Press.
R.G. Hoyland (1997) Seeing Islam as Others Saw it: A Survey and Evaluation of Christian, Jewish and Zoroastrian Writings on Early Islam, The Darwin Press, Princeton, NJ.
R.G. Hoyland (2006) "New documentary texts and the early Islamic state", Bulletin of SOAS 69, pp. 395–416.
R.G. Hoyland (2007) "Writing the biography of the prophet Muhammad: problems and solutions", History Compass 5/2, pp. 581- 602.
R.G. Hoyland (2015) In God's Path: The Arab Conquest and the Creation of an Islamic Empire, Oxford University Press (See also video at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ly46AjPDptw )
J. Johns (2003) "Archaeology and the History Of Early Islam: The First Seventy Years", Journal of the Economic and Social History of the Orient, Vol. 46, No. 4, pp. 426-427.
D.N. MacLean (1989) Religion and Society in Arab Sind. Brill.
M.I. Mochiri (1981) "A Pahlavi Forerunner of the Umayyad Reformed Coinage", Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society, pp. 168-72.
M.I. Mochiri (1982) "A Sasanian-Style Coin Of Yazīd B. Mu‘āwiya", Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society, No. 1, pp. 137-141, Plate I.
Sotheby's Auction Catalog, 2011, "Important Coins of the Islamic World".
L. Treadwell (2005) " "Mihrab and 'Anaza" or "Sacrum and Spear"? A Reconsideration of an Early Marwanid Silver Drachm", in Muqarnas: An Annual on the Visual Culture of the Islamic World, XXII, 1-28.
I. Schulze and W. Schulze (2010) "The Standing Caliph Coins of al-Jazīra: some problems and suggestions", The Numismatic Chronicle 170, pp. 331 – 353.
Monday, May 30, 2016
The Prescriptivist's Progress
by Ryan Ruby
This month, two minor controversies revived the specter of the "language wars" and reintroduced the literary internet to the distinction between prescriptivism and descriptivism. One began when Han Kang's novel The Vegetarian won the Man Booker Prize and readers took to their search engines en masse to look up the word "Kafkaesque," which had been used by the book's publishers and reviewers to describe it. Remarking upon the trend, Merriam-Webster noted sourly: "some argue that ‘Kafkaesque' is so overused that it's begun to lose its meaning." A few weeks before, Slate's Laura Miller had lodged a similar complaint about the abuse of the word "allegory." "An entire literary tradition is being forgotten," she warned, "because writers use the term allegory to mean, like, whatever they want."
When it comes to semantics, prescriptivists insist that precise rules ought to govern linguistic usage. Without such rules there would be no criteria by which to judge whether a word was being used correctly or incorrectly, and thus no way to fix its meaning. Descriptivists, by contrast, argue that a quick glance at the history of any natural language will show that, whether we like it or not, words are vague and usage changes over time. The meaning of a word is whatever a community of language users understands it to mean at any given moment. In both of the above cases, Merriam-Webster and Miller were flying the flag of prescriptivism, protesting the kind of semantic drift that results from the indiscriminate, over-frequent usages of a word, a drift that has no doubt been exacerbated thanks to the internet itself, which has increased the recorded usages of words and accelerated their circulation.
Since the trials of the word "Kafkaesque" have already received ample coverage (by Allison Flood writing for The Guardian and Jonathon Sturgeon writing at Flavorwire), I'd like to turn my attention instead to the uses and abuses of the word "allegory" as described by Miller. Most of the time Miller is not one to quibble with the way people use words. But a recent spate of film reviews—one claimed Batman vs. Superman was an allegory for the primary contest between Ted Cruz and Donald Trump, another said that Zootopia was an anti-Trump allegory, a third called Jafar Panahi's Taxi an allegory of artistic repression in Iran—caused her to draw a line in the sand. "What people usually mean when they call something an allegory today is that the fictional work in question can function as a metaphor for some real-world situation or event," Miller writes. But allegory "is not just another word for metaphor."
Because one good quibble deserves another, allow me to point out that this last assertion isn't entirely accurate. The offending examples Miller lists are indeed abuses of the term. The first two films were made before the political events they are supposed to allegorize; the third simply is about artistic repression in Iran. But this is not because allegory stands in no relation to metaphor, it's because these particular films stand in little to no relation to what the reviewers claim they are metaphors for. If Miller is normally a descriptivist, it's quite difficult to understand why she has chosen to make an exception in the case of allegory, which Angus Fletcher, in his definitive study of the term, calls "a protean device, omnipresent in Western Literature from the earliest time to the modern era."
Miller takes the features of the medieval literary genre to define its limits. Unlike more realistic fictions, the characters of medieval allegory are personified representations rather than representations of people. The protagonist of a typical medieval allegory, let's call him Everyman, journeys from Doomville to Blisstown, encountering, along the way, such embodied abstractions as Truth, Justice, and Sin who act and speak truthfully, justly, and sinfully, helping our hero reach his destination or tempting him away from the right path. Beginning "in the waning years of the Roman Empire"—presumably with Boethius' Consolation of Philosophy (c. 524)—Miller claims that allegory reaches its heights in works such as Guillaume de Lorris and Jean de Meun's Romance of the Rose (1275), Edmund Spenser's The Faery Queene (1596) and John Bunyan's The Pilgrim's Progress (1678). Although she admits that the genre has largely been eclipsed by the realist novel, it lives on in the writing of C.S. Lewis, J.K. Rowling and Haruki Murakami, in the films of David Lynch and in the drawings of today's political cartoonists.
Unfortunately, this simplifies history to the point of falsification (and not just because The Divine Comedy does not figure into it). To fix a word's meaning, a prescriptivist should start with its etymology, lest her definition seem as cherry-picked as that of the descriptivists she criticizes. Allegory comes from the Greek words allos ("other") and agoreuein ("to speak openly"). Originally the word did not refer to a literary genre at all, but a rhetorical mode. "In the simplest terms," Fletcher writes, "allegory says one thing and means another." Like irony, allegory exploits the natural polysemy of language. It's a kind of double talk that is especially useful under conditions of political censorship or in societies where blasphemy is a crime. Allegorical speech deploys figurative language to alert the hearer the existence of a latent meaning beneath the manifest content of what is said. You would not be wrong to detect in agoreuein the word agora, the place where the Greeks came together to discuss politics. Nor would you be wrong to detect in Fletcher's paraphrase something akin to metaphor, which, to quote the prescriptivists at Merriam-Webster, is "an object, activity, or idea that is used as a symbol for something else." The English lexicographer Edward Phillips, writing in the same year as The Pilgrim's Progress was published, defined allegory as a kind of semantic "Inversion," derived from translatio, the Latin word for metaphor.
Allegory—"one of the foundations of Western literature"—is in fact much older than Miller suggests. The first known usage of the word can be found in the Moralia, a collection of essays by the Hellenist philosopher, biographer and literary critic Plutarch, who died in 125, four hundred years before The Consolation of Philosophy and over a millennium before The Romance of the Rose were written. According to Plutarch, the ancients called it hyponoiai ("under-thought" or "hidden ideas"). The most famous example from antiquity is of course the "strange image" in the seventh book of Plato's Republic (c. 380 B.C.). There, Socrates describes a society of imprisoned cave dwellers who take the shadows of things for the things themselves and relates what happens when one of them frees himself from his shackles and sees what the world beyond the cave is like. In what is variously known as the Analogy, Myth, Metaphor, or Allegory of the Cave, Socrates' story reveals itself to be a network of metaphors or symbols, wherein each element is meant to correspond to an element of reality as Plato sees it. Platonic allegory is a corpus symbolicum whose cells are metaphors. In so far as allegory and metaphor are different here, it is a difference of degree, not kind.
The same is true of allegorical reading. In Plutarch's time, allegorical exegesis of canonical texts, the Homeric epics above all, was a well-established critical practice, as philosophers demonstrated correspondences between the stories of Greek mythology and their own cosmological and ethical theories. In "How a Young Man Should Study Poetry," Plutarch instructed readers not to take the myths about the Gods in the Iliad and the Odyssey literally, but rather to interpret them as astronomical metaphors and symbolic prefigurations of Platonic ideas. Around the same time, a similar operation was being performed on the myths of Genesis by the philosopher Philo of Alexandria and by the early biographers of a parable-speaking preacher from Nazareth.
By focusing on medieval allegory, Miller takes a particular, historically situated usage of a word—albeit a well-known one—to stand in, synechdochally as it were, for a whole tradition of usage. The works Miller takes as emblematic of the form are actually deviations from and even inversions of this older tradition. The personages and places of these works are entirely literal; irony is absent from their narratives and metaphors are reified as proper names. When Lady Philosophy speaks to Boethius, or when Despair tempts Red Cross Knight with an argument about suicide, there's no need to wonder whether the author means anything other than what he says. All allegories alert their reader to the fact that they are allegories, but few do so as ham-handedly as Pilgrim's Progress. Nearly everything a reader needs to know about Bunyan's book can be found on its frontispiece (see above).
Bunyan turns the distinction between manifest and latent content inside out; then he dispenses with latent content altogether. In so doing he dispenses with the very feature that had distinguished the form for centuries (all the way back to the prophet Hosea in the 8th century B.C. if we are to take his word for it). The Pilgrim's Progress does not represent the form's culmination; it represents its decadence.
Miller is right to wonder if we are even capable of reading such books any more. Aside from children, who can still enjoy allegories as pure tales of adventure, contemporary readers are likely to prefer the round characters, psychological depth, moral ambiguity, and narrative complexities that are some of the hallmarks of the realist novel, which has been the dominant form of storytelling since the late eighteenth century. "Should a book or form present its argument so simply that even a child can discern it, what's left to talk about?" she asks. "Merely language, story, and imagery—all the pleasures that art is made of."
As a defense of allegory in the age of the novel, this is puzzling, to say the least. Having begun with an attempt to distinguish allegory from metaphor, Miller ends up arguing that pure formalism is the only way we can still appreciate the most didactic of all genres. The pleasures of language, story, and imagery were the very criteria by which Flaubert wanted his arch-realist "book about nothing" to be judged. For all the formal differences between a book like The Pilgrim's Progress and a book like Madame Bovary, the ideological literalism of medieval allegory is only a step away from the mimetic naturalism of the realist novel. In any event, stripping an allegory of its ideological framework in order to read it as "entertaining adventure yarn" isn't how the form stays relevant in the twenty-first century. It's how Dante's Inferno gets turned into a video game.
This reductio ad absurdum is the inevitable consequence of taking medieval allegory to exhaust the meaning of the term. More generally, it shows how a narrow definition of a word can be just as harmful to its meaning as overly broad usage of it. With a prescriptivist for a white knight, meaning hardly needs a dragon.
Monday, May 02, 2016
On Our Critical Categories: Pretentiousness
by Ryan Ruby
"Ordinary men commonly condemn what is beyond them." —François de La Rochefoucauld, Maxims
For the American reader Dan Fox is an ideal guide to the murky space where class overlaps with taste. His position in the art world—he is a co-editor of the renowned contemporary art magazine frieze—has furnished him with ringside seats to some of the "nastiest brawls over pretentiousness." Moreover, he is British. The class education the English receive as a matter of their cultural heritage enables them to view the matter more clearly than their American counterparts, whose understanding of class has been systematically retarded by taboo, ideology, and denialism, resulting in a deeply classed society that has no idea how to talk about this aspect of itself.
Class is not "just a question of money and how you spend it," Fox helpfully reminds us in his book-length essay Pretentiousness: Why It Matters (Coffee House Press, 2016). It's also "about how your identity is constructed in relationship to the world around you." When we divide classes solely on the basis of wealth—into upper, middle, and lower—as we tend to do in America, it becomes easy to forget that the division is not only arbitrary, but also a gross simplification. In fact, the more generally we talk about class, the easier we fall into confusion. The so-called upper, middle, and lower classes are by no means unified groups, whose members view themselves as bound by the same interests. Every member of the "upper class," for example, may be considered an elite, but this elite group is comprised of a number of class segments, whose members may in turn be ranked on the basis of their access to various kinds of capital (financial, educational, social, cultural, geographical, symbolic, etc.) whose relative importance is in a permanent state of flux.
Take the field of business, whose elites are distinguished by their wealth. It is firmly within the logic of the American class system to say that an Arkansas-born, high-school educated founder of a multinational retail company whose net worth is $25 billion and is an influential donor to national political campaigns is less elite than the Chicago-born CEO with an MBA from Wharton whose net worth is only $1 billion and has no personal political influence (who would in turn be considered less elite than the Exeter- and Oxford-educated amateur art collector whose net worth is only $100 million but whose last name is Rockefeller). Beyond a certain threshold of wealth necessary for membership, other factors like cultural training, proximity to metropolitan centers, and the exclusivity of one's social network become the means of sorting economic elites into an internal hierarchy. A member's ever-changing position within the hierarchy of his own class segment will influence his relations to members of the other segments of the "upper class" as well as to the class system as a whole.
Membership in the cultural field is no less complicated. Within it, we can distinguish several separate, but interlocking "worlds"—the art world, the news media, new media, the academy, publishing, the motion picture industry, the music industry, etc.—each of which is a made up of producers, consumers and the astonishing number of world-specific professional and semi-professional mediators who connect them. As with the field of business, entry into any of these worlds generally requires a minimum level of start-up capital. And while success as a producer in the cultural field can translate into membership in the more powerful business elite, this is rare, and discussions of class and culture are often marred by the intentional or unintentional conflation of cultural capital with economic capital.
If "artists themselves are hard to place socially," as Fox writes, it's because they exist at the extreme ends of what seem to be two contradictory poles of capital distribution. On the one hand, their cultural and social capital would seem to place them at the highest end of the class spectrum, higher even than the young investment banker or law clerk, with whom they often share similar levels of educational capital. On the other hand, because the labor of early- and even mid-career cultural producers is typically poorly remunerated—payment comes, if at all, in immaterial "investments" like prestige and notoriety—their economic circumstances are more similar to the urban underclass among whom they tend to live. They are regarded as privileged (in terms of cultural and social capital) by those with whom they share an economic background; but because they engage in rarefied, socially nonproductive labor, their poverty, though entirely real, is considered voluntary by those whose do not possess any forms of capital. Caught between feelings of resentment for their more affluent peers and guilt for their own forms of privilege, artists have resorted to two legitimating myths. The first is aristocratic—the lone genius indifferent to and independent from the economy. The second is proletarian—the artist whose labor serves to hasten the abolition of economic privilege itself.
Despite such romantic narratives, no art can be entirely divorced from the patronage system that supports its production. Unlike other art forms, like contemporary literature (which has a mixed patronage system that includes the market, the state, the academy, and private charitable organizations) and pop music (which operates almost entirely in the market), visual arts patronage retains the general contours that have sustained it since the18th Century, a combination of state funding and a restricted market composed of corporations and wealthy private collectors.
The public does not collect visual art in the way they make libraries of songs and books. It consumes contemporary art, if all, the way it used to watch movies: by buying tickets to a museum. The prices for individual pieces are too high for most people to participate in the art market as owners, and anyway, much of contemporary art (land art, performance art, light art, installations, large-scale sculptures) is designed to be unownable. The only visual art one will see in a middle-class home are reproductions of classic paintings (in poster form or on coffee cups and t-shirts), privately made art (family photographs, amateur paintings), or the artwork that is actually intended for mass consumption, of which the paintings of Thomas Kinkade are the best known example.
A book, album, or film may be re-produced indefinitely many times with no effect on the selling price of the next copy. Visual art by contrast derives its value from an inbuilt scarcity. A price level is determined, in the first instance, by assuming that each work of art is a singularity and an original. The economic imperative of quantitative originality (there can only be one "of" it) has also lead to a demand for qualitative originality (there can only be one "like" it). As a result, the visual arts exhibit a greater degree of differentiation between works than in any other medium. Ultimately distinctions between artistic styles give way to distinctions between individual artists, of which there can only ever be just one.
From the perspective of the audience, this proliferation of styles means a greater body of knowledge is required to understand contemporary visual arts trends the way artists themselves understand it, to such an extent that even high profile art collectors make purchases with the help of professional consultants. Matters are rarely improved by the artist statements that accompany exhibits, which are less often used to clarify the artist's intentions than to deploy a highly developed professional jargon to further differentiate the artist's work from others on the market. This gives interested members of the general public a not entirely unfounded suspicion that contemporary art "requires a specialist education in order to be understood, that it demands time for study that only the privileged can afford to spend." This combined with perceptions of a market that is directly accessible to only the wealthy leads the public to believe that art is "made for cliques, not crowds." Consequently, "accusations of elitism circle above the art world in a perpetual holding pattern" and artists are vulnerable to the alliance between segments of the so-called upper and lower classes known as populism.
It is against this background that charges of "pretentiousness" must be understood. Populism, it should never be forgotten, is fundamentally an intra-elite phenomenon. It is a strategy used by a particular segment of the elite in its struggle for position within that elite against a rival segment of that elite. In democratic societies, where majorities legitimate, populism is a way of manufacturing and mobilizing the opinions of a large, vaguely defined part of the population. Whether or not the manufactured "majority" is in fact more than half of a population, it is necessarily "silent." Not because, as is commonly thought, capital-poor majorities lack access to the means of self-representation, but because a "populace" does not, strictly speaking, exist. If someone "must" speak on its behalf, it is because the speaker—whether he is a professional critic or a political demagogue—retroactively constitutes the "populace" as a group that would not in fact cohere without him and his "speech." Populism and paternalism seem opposed, but are really two sides of the same coin. In the context of the cultural field, they represent the deployment of a specious majoritarianism against persons, products, and ideas whose value is not staked on any reference to numerical appeal.
Anti-pretension is an "informal tool of class surveillance," Fox writes. Used as an insult, "pretentiousness" is a "stick" that helps populism police the borders of a rigid, hierarchical system of identities. Those who wield the stick get to shore up their position as possessors of the dominant form of capital, against those who would deny its primacy or the legitimacy of its distribution. In exchange the "populace" in whose name the stick is wielded is empowered to constitute their particular identity as the symbolic norm.
In America, the name for this symbolic norm is "middle class." The perpetual confusions about who and what this term picks out (how is it that Americans in the top percentile and the bottom quintile of income earners both claim this designation?) results from the fact that the American middle class isn't an economic class at all. Rather it's a populace in which a great deal of symbolic capital has been invested and whose "ordinariness" is constructed according to a series of educational, professional, regional, religious, racial, and—especially—sexual exclusions.
One of the most astute observations in Fox's book is that anti-pretension expresses not only an "almost tribal" horror of "class migration" but also a parallel disgust with violations of "authentic" gender norms, as if putting on airs were a form of drag (and vice versa). "Pretentiousness shares with sophistication a lingering sense of ‘unnaturalness'; something faked, pretending, tampered with…Pretension implies affectation. People are not acting themselves; rather, their lying urbanity is trampling all over your plain-speaking—and presumably heterosexual—truth." Persons are called pretentious when they privilege intellectual over manual labor, symbolic over material wealth, the superfluous over the necessary, artifice over naturalness, the amateur over the professional, style over substance, irony over sincerity, the foreign over the native, and non-reproductive over reproductive sex. It should therefore come as no surprise that a brief list of the artists and artifacts that appear in Fox's book as signifiers of pretentiousness—Oscar Wilde, Virginia Woolf's Orlando, Susan Sontag's "Notes on ‘Camp'," Andy Warhol, Tyler Rowland's Artist's Uniform #1, the drag balls of Paris is Burning, David Bowie, The Pet Shop Boys, Grace Jones, Stephen Fry, opera, haute couture—is also a list of some of the greatest hits of queer culture.
Fox's mission in Pretentiousness is to reclaim the term from its critics and, in so doing, neutralize the stick of populism. His first move is to reframe populist anti-pretension as a kind of snobbery. Although pretentiousness and snobbery are commonly linked in the popular imagination, what distinguishes them, Fox argues, is intent. Pretentious people and artists are generally innocents pursuing a private vision of themselves and the world, genuinely oblivious to the way they and their work appear to other people. Whereas snobs are deeply "invested in the opinions of others" and think "they are better than those beneath them." This does not mean, however, that one's snobbishness is directly correlated with the amount of capital one possesses. There are also "prolier-than-thou" snobs who are "anxious not to be marked as a part of the educated elite" and whose claims to "ordinariness makes them more virtuous than those with a higher social status."
Populist anti-pretension is precisely this type of snobbery. Lacking curiosity and intolerant of difference, populists affect to be belittled by what they do not understand. They look down on the people whom they suspect are looking down on them. "Cutting someone down for pretension reveals, ironically, embarrassed arrogance rather than humility," Fox rightly notes. Pretentiousness is rarely ever harmful, but anti-pretension always is. Demanding that people remain authentic to the circumstances of their birth is tantamount to maintaining a rigid hierarchy of identities that denies individuals the ability to be authentic to the way they see themselves.
His next move is to identify pretentiousness with creativity itself by tracing the word's etymological origins to the games of pretend played by children and actors. "To understand the artistic process is to accept that pretentiousness is part of the creative condition, not an affliction," he writes. To be an artist is first of all to pretend to have a status one isn't yet entitled to: in order to make art you have to consider yourself an artist even though only the making of the art will earn you this designation. And if certain works of art appear pretentious it is not because they are attempting to pull the wool over the eyes of their audience, because of a disjunction between the artist's ambitions and his abilities. "Pretension is about overreaching what you're capable of, taking the risk that you might fall flat on your face." On this definition, pretentious artworks may be failures, but they are noble failures, the result of the curiosity and bravery of those who operate outside the symbolic norms of ordinariness. "A rich culture"—one that takes the risk of experimenting creatively—"is a pretentious one."
The art world is where Fox may have begun his investigation into pretentiousness, but the phenomenon of anti-pretension he identifies is by no means confined to it. While we may grant him that the art world is where "the nastiest brawls over pretentiousness are fought," brawling, here, is only a figure of speech. Anti-pretension has slipped the relatively rarified precincts of the cultural field and has invaded almost every sphere of American life, including the political field, where the brawling has become literal. Looking up from the pages of Fox's essay to the news on the television screen, the American reader will have to concede that it has entirely earned its thoroughly unpretentious subtitle.
Monday, April 25, 2016
Welcome To Alphaville
"The secret of my influence has always been
that it remained secret."
~ Salvador Dalí
Last month I looked at the short and ignominious career of @TayandYou, Microsoft's attempt to introduce an artificial intelligence agent to the spider's parlor otherwise known as Twitter. Hovering over this event is the larger question of how best to think about human-computer interaction. Drawing on the suggestion of computer scientist and entrepreneur Stephen Wolfram, I put forward the concept of 'purpose' as such a framework. So what was Tay's purpose? Ostensibly, it was to 'learn from humans'. But releasing an AI into the wild leads to unexpected consequences. In Tay's case, interacting with humans was so debilitating that not only could it not achieve its stated purpose, but neither could it achieve its real, unstated goal, which was to create a massive database of marketing preferences of the 18-24 demographic. (As a brief update, Microsoft relaunched Tay and it promptly went into a tailspin of spamming everyone, replying to itself, and other spasmodic behaviors more appropriate to a less-interesting version of Max Headroom).
People have been releasing programs into the digital wild for decades now. The most famous example of the earlier, pre-World Wide Web internet was the so-called Morris worm. In 1988, Robert Tappan Morris, then a graduate student at Cornell University, was trying to estimate the size of the Internet (it's more likely that he was bored). Morris's program would write itself into the operating system of a target computer using known vulnerabilities. It didn't do anything malicious but it did take up valuable memory and processing power. Morris's code also included instructions for replication: specifically, every seventh copy of the worm would instantiate a new copy. More importantly, there was no command-and-control system in place. Once launched, the worm was completely autonomous, with no way to change its behavior. Within hours, the fledgling network of about 100,000 machines had nearly crashed, and it took several days of work for the affected institutions – mostly universities and research institutes – to figure out how to expunge the worm and undo the damage.
This is a good example of how the frictionless nature of information technology serves to amplify both purpose and consequence. And the consequences of Morris's worm went far beyond slowing down the Internet for a few days. As Timothy Lee noted in the Washington Post on the occasion of the worm's 25th anniversary:
Before Morris unleashed his worm, the Internet was like a small town where people thought little of leaving their doors unlocked. Internet security was seen as a mostly theoretical problem, and software vendors treated security flaws as a low priority. The Morris worm destroyed that complacency.
This narrative of innocence lost has remained relevant to our experience with technology. Granted, the Internet was small and chummy back in 1988 – after all, the invention of the web browser was still about five years away – but the fact that 99 lines of code could launch an entire industry is worth contemplating. That is, until you realize that if it hadn't been Morris's 99 lines, it would have been someone else's. Now the internet is many orders of magnitude larger and more essential to our society, but I contend that the same dynamic of purpose and consequence remains at work. There is a clear lineage that can be drawn from Morris to Microsoft's Tay. We think we expect one thing to happen, and while that thing may indeed come to pass, a whole lot of other things also come into play.
This brings me to another recent development in AI that's somewhat more serious than Tay, namely the emergence of AlphaGo, an artificial intelligence schooled in the ancient Chinese strategy game Go. As has been widely reported, AlphaGo beat the world #1, Lee Se-dol, by a decisive margin of four games to one in South Korea. AlphaGo accomplished this through an extensive training regimen that included playing another version of itself several million times (The Verge extensively covered the series here).
In the case of AlphaGo, the purpose seems to be clear. Win at Go – which it did, and handily. But we don't get the deeper context, or, in the parlance of clickbait titles, the "You won't believe what happens next". This is partly the fault of the way the mainstream media constructs its reporting today. Another opportunity to crow about how machines will soon overtake us, and then on to the next shiny object that commands the news cycle's attention. In fact, AlphaGo is but a step in a long, iterative process begun decades ago by DeepMind's founder and CEO, Demis Hassabis. In fact, he lays it all out quite clearly in this lecture at the British Museum.
The larger purpose of this process, of which AlphaGo is merely a symptom, is, in Hassabis's own words, "to solve intelligence, and then use that to solve everything else". Obviously we could spend quite a bit of time unpacking what he means by any of the key terms in that mission statement: What is intelligence? How do you know when you've solved it? What is everything else, and who gets to decide that? Seen within this larger context, the idea of an AI winning at Go goes from one of the holy grails to a digital cairn, marking an event on the way to something much greater, and more ambiguous.
As an example consider Watson, IBM's Jeopardy-winning juggernaut. Perhaps because Jeopardy is a game that seems intrinsically more human, the impact on our popular consciousness was more substantial than AlphaGo's feat. But what is Watson doing today? Is it, to borrow a classic dig, "currently residing in the ‘where are they now' file"? Not at all. Watson is an active revenue stream for IBM, although exactly how much is unknown, since the actual numbers are, for the time being, rolled up into the company's larger Cognitive Solutions division. Watson's involvement is remarkably eclectic, including "helping doctors improve cancer treatment at Memorial Sloan Kettering and employers analyze workplace injury reports." Also, Watson is looking forward to providing insight into case law. And this is all in addition to applying its talents to the kitchen.
What else is Watson up to? Going back to Stephen Wolfram's discussion of AI that I referenced last month, I was struck by his vague disinterest in certain applications. For example, he says
I was thinking the number one application was going to be customer service. While that's a great application, in terms of my favorite way to spend my life, that isn't particularly high up on the list. Customer service is precisely one of these places where you're trying to interface, to have a conversational thing happen. What has been difficult for me to understand is when you achieve a Turing test AI-type thing, there isn't the right motivation. As a toy, one could make a little chat bot that people could chat with.
This is, in fact, exactly one of the businesses that Watson is in. Any sufficiently open-minded entrepreneur could rattle off a dozen opportunities where he or she could really use a conversant machine intelligence. And the larger the scale, the greater the opportunity. Just as Tay could talk to millions of millennials, Watson can talk to millions of customers. Meet IBM Watson Engagement Advisor, which is replacing entire call centers as we speak.
Moreover, Watson is not just a disembodied voice on the other end of a phone line. One of the great lines of technological convergence we have already begun to witness is the unification of AI with robotics. And this crosses AI over into embodiment, which is another ball game entirely. Witness this exchange between a Pepper robot, plugged into Watson and a bank customer. (Obviously, this is a promotional video, but I am slightly disoriented by the fact that IBM is hip enough to be using using words like ‘bummer' when describing the risks of an adjustable-rate mortgage.) It is not difficult to imagine thousands of these robots, with their aww-shucks attitude, all connected to a central AI that is constantly learning and refining itself based on inputs provided by humans. In fact, this not some Alpha-60-style speculation; this is already happening.
These examples illustrate the big takeaway concerning how Watson is being deployed. Watson is no sacred cow. IBM views it as a utility that other aspects of its business can and should leverage, hence the fact that Watson is being used not only in its Cognitive Solutions division, but also in the much larger Global Business Solutions division. The general application of AI is exactly that: general, and the more general the better. IBM's managers and executives would much rather have a tool, or suite of tools, that they can apply promiscuously to any market opportunity that presents itself.
There is no reason as to why AlphaGo, which is owned by Google, will approach its further development any differently. This is especially true if we are to take CEO Demis Hassabis's words seriously: "to solve intelligence, and then use that to solve everything else". But as the ongoing integration of Watson into a business context shows us, ‘everything else' is really a proxy phrase for ‘everything where the money is'. I'll hasten to add that there is nothing inherently objectionable about this, but the fact is that there is no guaranteed nobility in the future of these technologies, either. They will be used to chase profits wherever they may be found. This is the dilution, the ambiguation of purpose. In a very definite sense, we approach what Foucault was trying to teach us about power: its diffuse nature, its functioning at a remove.
Finally, an argument has been made in some quarters that all this AI stuff is really going to be fine, since what we are really after is not artificial intelligence per se, but augmented intelligence. On the surface, the difference is promising, since it perpetuates the idea that machines will continue to be our servants, helping us see the world in new and different ways, enriching our experience of the things that motivate us in the first place. But the question that I have for these optimists is simple: Who gets to be that person?
For example, Garry Kasparov, the chess champion whose 1997 defeat at the hands of IBM's Deep Blue heralded the beginning of the current era of man versus machine, proceeded to incorporate play against Deep Blue as an essential part of his training regimen. In fact, it was this additional training that was a factor in his ability to maintain a monopoly on the chess world for many years.
Likewise, Fan Hui, the European Go champion who was defeated by AlphaGo in the run-up to the matches against Lee Se-dol, joined the AlphaGo team as an advisor, once again lending resonance to the old saw "if you can't beat 'em, join 'em". As a recent Wired article noted:
As he played match after match with AlphaGo over the past five months, he watched the machine improve. But he also watched himself improve. The experience has, quite literally, changed the way he views the game. When he first played the Google machine, he was ranked 633rd in the world. Now, he is up into the 300s. In the months since October, AlphaGo has taught him, a human, to be a better player. He sees things he didn't see before. And that makes him happy. "So beautiful," he says. "So beautiful."
Kasparov and Fan are rare birds, however, with the expertise and fame that provided them with the opportunity to attach themselves, lamprey-like, to the fast-swimming phenomenon that machine intelligence is becoming. But what about ordinary people – perhaps someone who recently lost their job to automation instigated by the same AI? Will they really have the opportunity to engage it in a didactic or even pleasurable capacity? Or will they be too busy job hunting to care? To quote Godard's all-powerful computer in 'Alphaville', "All is linked, all is consequence".
Monday, March 28, 2016
"She was Dolores on the dotted line."
Artificial intelligence – or rather the phenomena that are being shoved under the ever-widening rubric of AI – has had an interesting few weeks. On the one hand, Google's DeepMind division staged a veritable coup when its AlphaGo AI soundly thrashed the world #1 Go player Lee Se-dol in the venerated Chinese strategy game, four games to one. This has been widely covered, and with justification. Experts will be poring over these games for years, and AlphaGo's unorthodox gameplay is already changing the way top practitioners of the game view strategy. It is particularly noteworthy that Fan Hui, the European Go champion who went down 5-0 to AlphaGo in January, has since then joined the DeepMind team as an advisor and played AlphaGo often. This is not a Chris Christie-style capitulation, but rather an understandable fascination with a style of play that has been described as unearthly. It's no exaggeration to say that the history of the game can now be clearly divided into pre- and post-AlphaGo eras.
Which isn't to say that this shellacking has beaten humanity into quiescence. Earlier this week, we exacted some sort of revenge by appropriating Microsoft's latest entry into social AI, the Twitter bot @TayandYou, and transformed it into "a racist, sexist, trutherist, genocidal maniac". If we were to consider @TayandYou and AlphaGo to be birds of a feather, which is of course sloppy thinking of the highest (lowest? most average?) order, that would be a small consolation indeed, and not much different from stamping on an ant after you just got mauled by a bear, and still feeling good about it. But comparing @TayandYou and AlphaGo does lead to some useful insights, because one of the principal issues confronting the field of AI is the idea of purpose. This month, I'll look at the case of @TayandYou, and follow up with AlphaGo in April, since come April no one will remember @TayandYou, whereas with AlphaGo there's at least a chance.
Now, this idea of AIs lacking a purpose may seem like a daft claim. After all, the softwares in question were created by teams of computer scientists backed by wealthy corporations (artificial intelligence is the sport and pastime of what passes for kings these days). And in the popular consciousness AIs are implacably possessed of purpose, usually to the detriment of the human species. There seems to be little chance that there could be any ambiguity about such a basic question. Still, the extraordinary flameout of @TayandYou beckons the question of what, precisely, any specific AI is for. For what was really at stake with @TayandYou will, I think, be very surprising.
In a long and somewhat rambling interview on Edge, Stephen Wolfram recently asked precisely this. Wolfram, a long-time pioneer and creator of platforms such as Mathematica and Alpha, considers our rapidly diminishing claims on uniqueness as a species. What really makes us different from the rest of the world, whether it's other forms of life, or even inanimate objects? For him, the boundaries of computation and intelligence have become decidedly murkier over the years. There are fewer and fewer signposts that seem to distinguish one from the other, let alone mark the transition from one state to another. So he puts a stake in the ground by positing that humans are good for at least one thing: the ability to assign ourselves a goal or a purpose.
Wolfram extends this goal-seeking behavior to our tools – after all, we build tools in order to accomplish a task more easily. And digital tools are certainly part of this tradition. So in order for us to make sense of artificial intelligence in particular, and software generally, we must be able to formulate what it is that we want it to achieve, and then we must figure out how to communicate that goal. Closing the gap on this latter act is key to how Wolfram sees the evolution of software, and underpins his notion of ‘symbolic computation': the idea that if we are to become effective communicators with our machine counterparts, we will require some sort of high-level language that will facilitate the imposition of goals on our tools in a way that is accurate, legible and reproducible. But as computing branches out from the strictly quantitative realm of numbers and mathematical operations on those numbers, and into the more qualitative realm of language, image and sound, the nature of our expectations – and therefore our interactions – will necessarily broaden and become more ambiguous.
In 1950 Alan Turing provided one answer to what "purpose" might look like for software. The Turing Test (which I've written about previously) is passed when a human cannot tell whether her interlocutor is a computer or another human. Here the purpose of the software is to become indistinguishable from the human. Much dissatisfaction has been registered over the years over the utility of this. For my part, I don't think the test is nearly broad enough: the idea that we are successful when we have managed to create something so perfectly in our own image is limiting to what technology could be doing, and perhaps too uncritical of what technology should be doing. But if the Turing Test is our signpost, where does that lead us? As Wolfram notes:
You had asked about what…the modern analog of Turing tests would be. There's being able to have the conversational bot, which is Turing's idea. That's definitely still out there. That one hasn't been solved yet. It will be solved. The only question is what's the application for which it is solved?
For a long time, I have been asking why do we care…because I was thinking the number one application was going to be customer service. While that's a great application, in terms of my favorite way to spend my life, that isn't particularly high up on the list. Customer service is precisely one of these places where you're trying to interface, to have a conversational thing happen.
What has been difficult for me to understand is when you achieve a Turing test AI-type thing, there isn't the right motivation. As a toy, one could make a little chat bot that people could chat with. That will be the next thing. We can see the current round of deep learning, particularly, recurrent neural networks, make pretty good models of human speech and human writing. It's pretty easy to type in, say, "How are you feeling today?" and it knows that most of the time when somebody asks this that this is the type of response you give.
Just as human-robot interaction suffers from the phenomenon of the Uncanny Valley, where a robot can be mistrusted or rejected by a human for seeming just not human enough (as opposed to totally human, or totally inhuman), human-AI interactions seem to fall into the same trap. You might call it the ‘valley of meh', where an interaction with a software begins hopefully, but rapidly degenerates into mediocrity and boredom.
This was precisely where Microsoft's @TayandYou found itself. Except, to its great misfortune, it happened to be "learning" from the Twitter ecosystem. Now, Twitter is a platform that, whether due to design or fate or some unholy combination thereof, detects weakness, indecision, or just plain niceness faster and pounces more brutally than almost any other place on the Internet. And this was exactly what happened. @TayandYou was like the new kid who shows up on the first day of school and just gets pounded at recess, to the point where the parents have no real choice other than to take him out of class entirely.
All along, it was unclear what @TayandYou was doing there in the first place. To continue with the schoolyard analogy, any new arrival who comes up to an established group and says "Hey, I wanna be just like you! Let's play!" is just asking for it. Moreover, Microsoft's researchers proffered some anodyne tagline that @TayandYou is here to learn from humans, and that the more humans interact with it the smarter it gets, as if interacting with humans ever helped another species to become anything other than a museum exhibit. In any case, the crazed weasel pit that is Twitter ensured that @TayandYou would not evolve into some digital successor to K-Pax.
Now, as I've already noted, bots on Twitter are nothing new, and some of them are quite interesting and clever. So it was with interest that I read a counterpoint by Sarah Jeong, writing for Vice's rather likeable Motherboard section, when she interviewed members of this "bot-writing" community. Of the developers interviewed, it seems evident that there is an emerging ethical practice that is inspired to make the bots broadly acceptable. One of the developers, Darius Kazemi, has even provided an open source service that is constantly updated a vocabulary blacklist. Obviously we can debate about the implications for censorship and political correctness, but if the counterexample is @TayandYou's tweet supporting genocide, etc, I'm pretty willing to give the blacklist a shot. Also, it's Twitter, for heaven's sake.
There is another important lesson here, which concerns the aforementioned ‘valley of meh'. Jeong quotes Kazemi as saying that "I actually take great care to make my bots seem as inhuman and alien as possible. If a very simple bot that doesn't seem very human says something really bad—I still take responsibility for that—but it doesn't hurt as much to the person on the receiving end as it would if it were a humanoid robot of some kind." While this might strike some as achieving nearly Portlandia-like levels of sensitivity, it nevertheless points to a distinctly post-Turing Test world, where interactions occur with a diversity of entities. Not every bot needs to pretend like it's human, and we are hopefully adult enough that we can tell the difference, and choose the right entity for the right interaction. I hope.
This is where most commentaries around the whole @TayandYou fiasco end, since the bot's tweets are generally sufficient to satisfy our craving for scandal. However, it never hurts to follow the links, and @TayandYou has a veryinteresting About page. I recommend you put on sunglasses before clicking the link, as the screaming orange background of the web page seems designed to prevent you from reading any of the text. For your benefit, I reproduce the salient bits below:
Tay is targeted at 18 to 24 year old [sic] in the US.
Tay may use the data that you provide to search on your behalf. Tay may also use information you share with her to create a simple profile to personalize your experience. Data and conversations you provide to Tay are anonymized and may be retained for up to one year to help improve the service.
Q: Who is Tay for?
A: Tay is targeted at 18 to 24 year olds in the U.S., the dominant users of mobile social chat services in the US.
Q: What does Tay track about me in my profile?
A: If a user wants to share with Tay, we will track a user's:
Q: How can I delete my profile?
A: Please submit a request via our contact form on tay.ai with your username and associated platform.
Q: How was Tay created?
A: Tay has been built by mining relevant public data and by using AI and editorial developed by a staff including improvisational comedians. Public data that's been anonymized is Tay's primary data source. That data has been modeled, cleaned and filtered by the team developing Tay.
So, this business of not knowing what purpose to put to an AI – perhaps I should take it all back. Apparently, Microsoft is really quite interested in learning more about a particular demographic, to the point where they would very much like to know what your favorite food is. Especially telling is the bit about having to fill out a form in order to cancel a profile to whose automatic creation one had already agreed. Also, the fact that the user has to specify the ‘associated platform' implies that @TayandYou, or the technology behind it, is present on platforms other than Twitter.
To go back to something Wolfram said: "What has been difficult for me to understand is when you achieve a Turing test AI-type thing, there isn't the right motivation." Like most commentators when it comes to networked human-computer interaction, Wolfram does not recognize the value in aggregating data at scale. Because @TayandYou is just that: another vacuum cleaner for data. But while people really don't need anything too clever to hand over their information, the idea of using an AI that can interact with hundreds of thousands, if not millions of people, to come to better understand what they ‘like' – well, that is pure genius. It's like Humbert Humbert hanging out a honey pot for a million Lolitas.
Of course, there were probably some valuable pure learnings to be had around natural language processing, etc etc, had @TayandYou discharged its duties successfully, but this is small beer compared to arriving at a fine-grained understanding of the next major consumer group in the United States. I doubt very much that their actions were predicated on this understanding, but viewed in this light, perhaps the Twitter trolls have done us a favor by sniffing the weakness of @TayandYou and meting out a solid thrashing.
Nostalgia is a Muse
by Jalees Rehman
"Let others praise ancient times. I am glad that I was born in these."
- Ovid in "Ars Amatoria"
When I struggle with scientist's block, I play 1980s music with the hope that the music will inspire me. This blast from the past often works for me. After listening to the songs, I can sometimes perceive patterns between our various pieces of cell biology and molecular biology data that had previously eluded me and design new biological experiments. But I have to admit that I have never performed the proper music control studies. Before attributing inspirational power to songs such as "99 Luftballons", "Bruttosozialprodukt" or "Billie Jean", I ought to spend equal time listening to music from other decades and then compare the impact of these listening sessions. I have always assumed that there is nothing intrinsically superior or inspirational about these songs, they simply evoke memories of my childhood. Eating comfort foods or seeing images of Munich and Lagos that remind me of my childhood also seem to work their muse magic.
My personal interpretation has been that indulging nostalgia somehow liberates us from everyday issues and worries – some trivial, some more burdensome - which in turn allows us to approach our world with a fresh, creative perspective. It is difficult to make such general sweeping statements based on my own anecdotal experiences and I have always felt a bit of apprehension about discussing this with others. My nostalgia makes me feel like an old fogey who is stuck in an ossified past. Nostalgia does not have a good reputation. The German expression "Früher war alles besser!" (Back then, everything used to be better!) is used in contemporary culture to mock those who always speak of the romanticized past with whimsical fondness. In fact, the expression nostalgia was coined in 1688 by the Swiss medical student Johannes Hofer. In his dissertation "Dissertatio Medica de Nostalgia oder Heimweh", Hofer used nostalgia as an equivalent of the German word Heimweh ("home-ache"), combining the Greek words nostos(homecoming) and algos (ache or pain), to describe a medical illness characterized by a "melancholy that originates from the desire to return to one's homeland". This view of nostalgia as an illness did not change much during the subsequent centuries where it was viewed as a neurological or psychiatric disorder.
This view has been challenged by the University of Southampton researchers Constantine Sedikides and Tim Wildschut, who have spent the past decade studying the benefits of nostalgia. Not only do they disavow its disease status, they have conducted numerous studies which suggest that nostalgia can make us more creative, open-minded and charitable. The definition of nostalgia used by Sedikides and Wildschut as a "sentimental longing for one's past" is based on the contemporary usage by laypersons across many cultures. This time-based definition of nostalgia also represents a departure from its original geographical or cultural coinage by Hofer who viewed it as a longing for the homeland and not one's personal past.
In one of their most recent experiments, Sedikides and Wildschut investigate nostalgia as a "mnemonic muse". The researchers first evoked nostalgic memories in participants with the following prompt:
"Please think of a nostalgic event in your life. Specifically, try to think of a past event that makes you feel most nostalgic. Bring this nostalgic experience to mind. Immerse yourself in the nostalgic experience. How does it make you feel?"
Importantly, each experiment also involved a control group of participants who were given a very different prompt:
"Please bring to mind an ordinary event in your life. Specifically, try to think of a past event that is ordinary. Bring this ordinary experience to mind. Immerse yourself in the ordinary experience. How does it make you feel?"
This allowed the researchers to compare whether specifically activating nostalgia had a distinct effect from merely activating a general memory.
After these interventions, participants in the nostalgia group and in the control group were asked to write a short story involving a princess, a cat and a race car. In an additional experiment, participants finished a story starting with the sentence: "One cold winter evening, a man and a woman were alarmed by a sound coming from a nearby house". After 30 minutes, of writing, the stories were collected and scored for the level of creativity by independent evaluators who had no knowledge of the experimental design or group that the participants belonged to. Participants who had experienced more nostalgia wrote more creative prose!
This is just one example of the dozens of studies conducted by Sedikides and Wildschut which show the benefits of nostalgia, such as providing inspiration, increasing trust towards outsiders and enhancing the willingness to donate to charities. What is the underlying mechanism for these benefits? Sedikides and Wildschut believe that our nostalgic memories provide a sense of belonging and support, which in turn helps our self-confidence and self-esteem. The comfort of our past gives us strength for our future.
Does this mean that this longing for the past is always a good thing? Not every form of nostalgia centers on personal childhood memories. For example, there is a form of ideological nostalgia expressed by groups who feel disenfranchised by the recent progress and long for days of former power and privilege. The South African sociologists van der Waal and Robbins recently described the popularity of a song about the Anglo-Boer waramong white Afrikaans-speakers in the post-Apartheid era which may have been rooted in a nostalgic affirmation of white Afrikaner identity. It is conceivable that similar forms of ideological nostalgia could be found in other cultures and states where privileged classes and races are losing ground to increased empowerment of the general population.
It is important that we distinguish between these two forms of nostalgia – personal childhood nostalgia and ideological group nostalgia – before "rehabilitating" nostalgia's reputation. The research by Sedikides and Wildschut clearly demonstrates that nostalgia can be a powerful tool to inspire us but we have to ensure that it is not misused as am ideological or political tool to manipulate us.
1. de Diego, F. F., & Ots, C. V. (2014). Nostalgia: a conceptual history. History of psychiatry, 25(4), 404-411.
2. Sedikides, C., & Wildschut, T. (2016). Past Forward: Nostalgia as a Motivational Force. Trends in cognitive sciences (published online Feb 18, 2016)
3. van Tilburg, W. A., Sedikides, C., & Wildschut, T. (2015). The mnemonic muse: Nostalgia fosters creativity through openness to experience.Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 59, 1-7.
4. Van der Waal, K., & Robins, S. (2011). ‘De la Rey'and the Revival of ‘Boer Heritage': Nostalgia in the Post-apartheid Afrikaner Culture Industry. Journal of Southern African Studies, 37(4), 763-779.