The Problem of Slavery


Scott Spillman in The Point (image Kara Walker, savant, 2010):

As 12 Years a Slave repeatedly shows, the idea that black slaves were something less than human—although appealing for obvious reasons to masters— was subject to an inevitable tension, first at the abstract level of argument and then, more fatally, at the concrete level of daily life. The movie’s signal achievement is to bring out the various consequences of this tension, perhaps most powerfully in the relationship between the white master Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender) and his slave girl Patsey (Lupita Nyong’o). Epps, who repeatedly refers to his slaves as his “property” and compares them to baboons, nevertheless warns his jealous wife that he would sooner send her away than lose Patsey. Later, in one of the film’s most memorable scenes, Epps is himself driven into a jealous rage by his suspicion that Patsey has escaped his control and cheated on him with a neighbor. Unable to whip Patsey himself, he compels Northup to do it. As Northup draws blood, Epps looks on with a blend of satisfaction, hatred and horror utterly belying his claim that Patsey means no more to him than a ball of yarn or a beast of prey.

For the historian David Brion Davis, this dynamic describes the basic “problem” of slavery. Ideally, as Aristotle noted long ago, a slave is like a tool or a domestic animal—something the master owns and over which he has complete control. Yet such a “natural slave” has never existed; and no system of slavery has ever successfully dehumanized its slaves to the point where they are indistinguishable from mere property. This inherent contradiction led, according to Davis, not only to complicated relationships between masters and their slaves, but to organized opposition, for which “the essential issue was how to recognize and establish the full and complete humanity of a ‘dehumanized people.’”

When and how the contradiction of treating a person as property became enough of a moral issue that people would demand an end to slavery is the question that has occupied the bulk of Davis’s career, especially in the three long works culminating with The Problem of Slavery in the Age of Emancipation, which he completed this year at the age of 86.

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An interview with Rohan Maitzen

Matthew Jakubowski in Truce:

Before I ask more about your blogging—when you decided to pursue your interest in ethical criticism as a research topic, can you say more about that particular choice, especially how becoming a mother made you want to do work that mattered more in the world? It sounds like several things going on then affected the approach to your reading, writing, and research.

Maitzen-profileIt was really a convergence of things that led me to change the kind of academic work I was doing. I published my first book and not long after I was awarded tenure: this meant I had a secure opportunity to reconsider my priorities, and I found that doing more of the same was not high on the list. Then, being a new mother made doing any research and writing more difficult: there’s nothing like being both very busy and very sleep-deprived to make you ask hard questions about the value of how you spend your time.

Anthony Trollope once observed that “(No) man … can work long at any trade without being brought to consider much whether that which he is doing daily tends to evil or to good.” I have rarely had this concern about the teaching part of my job. Sure, I worry plenty about what exactly I’m doing in the classroom and whether I’m doing it well, but that teaching students to be better readers (more attentive, more questioning, more informed) is a good thing to attempt has always seemed to me inarguable. I wanted to feel as urgent and committed to the other facets of my work.

More here.

The Map: A Palestinian Nation Thwarted and Speaking Truth to Power


Juan Cole in TruthDig:

The map is useful and accurate. It begins by showing the British Mandate of Palestine as of the mid-1920s. The British conquered the Ottoman districts that came to be the Mandate during World War I (the Ottoman sultan threw in with Austria and Germany against Britain, France and Russia, mainly out of fear of Russia).

But because of the rise of the League of Nations and the influence of President Woodrow Wilson’s ideas about self-determination, Britain and France could not decently simply make their new, previously Ottoman territories into mere colonies. The League of Nations awarded them “Mandates.” Britain got Palestine, France got Syria (which it made into Syria and Lebanon), Britain got Iraq.

The League of Nations Covenant spelled out what a Class A Mandate (i.e. territory that had been Ottoman) was:

“Article 22. Certain communities formerly belonging to the Turkish Empire have reached a stage of development where their existence as independent nations can be provisionally recognised subject to the rendering of administrative advice and assistance by a Mandatory [i.e., a Western power] until such time as they are able to stand alone. The wishes of these communities must be a principal consideration in the selection of the Mandatory.”

That is, the purpose of the later British Mandate of Palestine, of the French Mandate of Syria, of the British Mandate of Iraq, was to ‘render administrative advice and assistance” to these peoples in preparation for their becoming independent states, an achievement that they were recognized as not far from attaining. The Covenant was written before the actual Mandates were established, but Palestine was a Class A Mandate and so the language of the Covenant was applicable to it. The territory that formed the British Mandate of Iraq was the same territory that became independent Iraq, and the same could have been expected of the British Mandate of Palestine. (Even class B Mandates like Togo have become nation-states, but the poor Palestinians are just stateless prisoners in colonial cantons).

More here.

How Might Quantum Information Transform Our Future?

Scott Aaronson in Big Questions Online:

ScreenHunter_725 Jul. 23 17.22Picture, if you can, the following scene. It’s the year 2040. You wake up in the morning, and walk across your bedroom to your computer to check your email and some news websites. Your computer, your mail reader, and your web browser have some new bells and whistles, but all of them would be recognizable to a visitor from 2014: on casual inspection, not that much has changed. But one thing has changed: if, while browsing the web, you suddenly feel the urge to calculate the ground state energy of a complicated biomolecule, or to know the prime factors of a 5000-digit positive integer—and who among us don’t feel those urges, from time to time?—there are now online services that, for a fee, will use a quantum computer to give you the answer much faster than you could’ve obtained it classically. Scientists, you’re vaguely aware, are using the new quantum simulation capability to help them design drugs and high-efficiency solar cells, and to explore the properties of high-temperature superconductors. Does any of this affect your life? Sure, maybe it does—and if not, it might affect your children’s lives, or your grandchildren’s. At any rate, it’s certainly cool to know about.

Privacy and security are different as well in this brave new world. When you connect to a secure website—let’s say, to upload sensitive financial data—there’s still a padlock icon in your web browser; indeed, the user experience is pretty much the same as it was in 2014. But, you’ve heard, the previous mechanism that encrypted your data was broken by quantum computers, with their ability to factor large numbers.

More here.

Work Life: Tell the negative committee to shut up

Fanuel Muindi in Science:

WorkWhen I started out in Stanford University's biology doctoral program, I didn't feel ready. My feeling that I was poorly prepared was corroborated by a committee that told me often how underprepared and unqualified I was. I attempted to argue my case, but the committee held to its position: I was unworthy. Fast forward 2 years: Just before I walked into my qualifying exam, the committee convinced me that I was going to fail. I succeeded, but that didn't change its low opinion of me. Then, at the end of my third year, I was selected to receive a Diversifying Academia, Recruiting Excellence (DARE) fellowship, which targets students in their final 2 years of graduate school who are interested in pursuing academic careers. The committee now argued that I didn't belong in the company of the other fellows, who, it insisted, were way more accomplished than I was.

Later, when I interviewed for postdoc positions, committee members had nothing positive to say. “You are not ready,” they said. “You are not good enough.” When the time came to defend my Ph.D. thesis, they were at it again: “You don't deserve this,” they said, after I had succeeded. “Your work isn't that good. You won't get it published anywhere decent.” It was a continuous barrage of criticism aimed at undermining my self-confidence.

More here.

Love People, Not Pleasure

Arthur C. Brooks in The New York Times:

AbdABD AL-RAHMAN III was an emir and caliph of Córdoba in 10th-century Spain. He was an absolute ruler who lived in complete luxury. Here’s how he assessed his life: “I have now reigned above 50 years in victory or peace; beloved by my subjects, dreaded by my enemies, and respected by my allies. Riches and honors, power and pleasure, have waited on my call, nor does any earthly blessing appear to have been wanting to my felicity.” Fame, riches and pleasure beyond imagination. Sound great? He went on to write: “I have diligently numbered the days of pure and genuine happiness which have fallen to my lot: They amount to 14.”

Abd al-Rahman’s problem wasn’t happiness, as he believed — it was unhappiness. If that sounds like a distinction without a difference, you probably have the same problem as the great emir. But with a little knowledge, you can avoid the misery that befell him. What is unhappiness? Your intuition might be that it is simply the opposite of happiness, just as darkness is the absence of light. That is not correct. Happiness and unhappiness are certainly related, but they are not actually opposites. Images of the brain show that parts of the left cerebral cortex are more active than the right when we are experiencing happiness, while the right side becomes more active when we are unhappy.

More here.

A talk with climate defeatist Paul Kingsnorth

Pkmugshot2_illustrationWen Stephenson at Grist:

Some have called Kingsnorth a catastrophist, or fatalist, with something like a death wish for civilization (see John Gray in The New Statesman and George Monbiot in The Guardian). Others might call him a realist, a truthteller. If nothing else, I’d call him a pretty good provocateur.

Kingsnorth tossed a grenade in the January/February issue of Orion Magazine with his controversial essay “Confessions of a Recovering Environmentalist.” There, Kingsnorth gets to the heart of his case. “We are environmentalists now,” he writes, “in order to promote something called ‘sustainability.’ What does this curious, plastic word mean? … It means sustaining human civilization at the comfort level that the world’s rich people — us — feel is their right, without destroying the ‘natural capital’ or the ‘resource base’ that is needed to do so.”

Ouch. But he isn’t finished.

If “sustainability” is about anything, it is about carbon. Carbon and climate change. To listen to most environmentalists today, you would think that these were the only things in the world worth talking about. … Carbon emissions threaten a potentially massive downgrading of our prospects for material advancement as a species. … If we cannot sort this out quickly, we are going to end up darning our socks again and growing our own carrots and other such unthinkable things.

more here.

Minutes that changed the course of rock history

Jim_SummariaBrian Doyle at The American Scholar:

On a spring day in 1964, a boy walked into the Oldfield Hotel in the London suburb of Greenford—or perhaps the White Hart Hotel in Acton, or perhaps an unknown pub on London’s North Circular Road; fact slides so easily into myth—and demanded an audition from the band playing there that night.

The boy was 17 years old. He was the drummer for a surf band called the Beachcombers. He hit his drums so hard that six-inch nails had to be driven through the base of his kit into the stage to keep it from wandering off when he played. He had been playing drums for five years. He had first tried the bugle, but then he heard the American jazz drummers Gene Krupa and Philly Jo Jones, and he was enlightened, so he switched to the drums and practiced in a music store with a kindhearted and probably hard-of-hearing owner. At age 14 he quit school altogether and got a job repairing radios. Part of the reason he quit school was that his teachers thought he was a dolt: “Retarded artistically, idiotic in other respects,” wrote his art teacher.

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how mortality shapes our existence

2014+27human2William Boyd at The New Statesman:

I want to start with a luminously beautiful – and luminously profound – quotation from Vladimir Nabokov’s autobiography Speak, Memory. He writes: “The cradle rocks above an abyss, and common sense tells us that our existence is but a brief crack of light between two eternities of darkness.”

“Common sense”. I believe that the knowledge of this state of affairs is the fundamental truth about our human nature: the fact that our lives simply amount to our individual occupation of this “brief crack of light” between two eternities of darkness shapes everything that makes us human and is responsible for everything good – and everything bad – about us.

You might argue that if you believe in a religious faith, where life and an afterlife are ordained and somehow controlled by a supernatural being – a god or gods – then this awareness of our temporal, bounded existence in time doesn’t apply. In response, you might counter-argue that religious faith is created expressly to confound and disprove this primordial conviction: a faith created, as Philip Larkin put it, to “pretend we never die”.

But whatever the nature of a faith in a supernatural being, or beings, and whatever its unprovable postulates, I am convinced that what makes our species unique among the fauna of this small planet circling its insignificant star is that we know we are trapped in time, caught briefly between these two eternities of darkness, the prenatal darkness and the posthumous one.

more here.

Kim Philby and the hazards of mistrust

140728_r25268-320x441-1405636862Malcolm Gladwell at The New Yorker:

In December of 1961, a high-ranking K.G.B. agent knocked on the door of the U.S. Embassy in Helsinki, asking for asylum. His name was Antoliy Golitsyn, and he had a remarkable secret to share. There had existed within the British intelligence service, he said, a “ring of five”—all of whom knew one another and all of whom had been recruited by the Soviets in the nineteen-thirties. Burgess and Maclean, who had decamped to Moscow a decade earlier, were No. 1 and No. 2. The art historian Anthony Blunt had been under suspicion by M.I.5 for some time. He was No. 3. No. 4 sounded a lot like Philby: that was why M.I.5 rekindled its investigation of him shortly thereafter. But who was the fifth? When Philby managed to escape to Moscow, concern grew. Had the mysterious fifth man tipped him off?

Within the espionage world, Golitsyn was a deeply divisive figure. Some suspected that he was a fabulist, who embroidered his accounts of K.G.B. secrets in order to extend his usefulness to Western intelligence. Two people remained firmly convinced of Golitsyn’s bona fides, however. The first was Philby’s lunchmate at the C.I.A., James Angleton. The news about Philby convinced Angleton that the C.I.A. must be riven with moles as well, and he set off on a frenzied search for traitors which consumed the American intelligence community for the next decade.

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Mohammed Suliman’s Tweets from the War in Gaza

Mohammed Suliman's tweets from Gaza (via Juan Cole):

More here.

How to Unmarry Your Wife

Sarah Viren in The Morning News:

How-to-unmarry-your-wifeIt was sweltering the day I unmarried Marta, and we weren’t even together. I was with my little brother in a Penske truck, the flat haze of West Texas rising before us like the credits at the end of a movie. Marta was with our three-month-old daughter back in Iowa, where the weather was temperate. Highs were in the 70s, lows in the 50s, and Marta was still married to me. Don McLean was coming in concert that weekend and there were drink specials at our favorite vegan restaurant. Our three-month-old baby cried for milk and slept and cried some more. A couple of days later, the two of them flew out to West Texas to join me in our new home next to a university where Marta and I both had jobs, and where we were no longer married to each other.

It’s hard to define when the act of unmarrying takes place. Were we unmarried as soon as I drove out of Iowa in that Penske van and into Missouri, where same-sex marriage is not recognized? Or was it only official once Marta joined me in Texas, where marriages like ours are outright banned? Or perhaps the real unmarrying occurred when we changed our mailing address with the post office, which would mean we were unmarried for a week without even realizing it. Getting unmarried to someone is also quite different from divorcing them. There are no legal documents to sign. There are no lawyers or judges explaining the terms to you. There is just you and your once-wife and your still-legal baby in a one-story orange brick house under the beaming sun of a West Texas neighborhood where you feel the same as you did before. Almost the same—you are both aware a difference exists, and you can also feel that something small but significant has changed.

More here.

Against Intersectionality


Justin Smith in Berfrois:

Does a Muslim Chechen migrant laborer in a provincial Siberian city –a ‘Caucasian’ if anyone ever was– enjoy ‘white privilege’? It seems offensive to suggest that he does. Of course, there is some scenario on which his children could be taken to the US and raised by Americans, and if this were to happen they would have a set of privileges denied to African adoptees. But that scenario is so remote from the actual range of advantages of which this Chechen can avail himself as he navigates his own social reality that one may as well not mention it. In his context, though racially ‘white’ by American standards, he is the object of suspicion, contempt, and exclusion. The thought that he is ‘white’ has almost certainly never crossed his mind.

Now of course there is nothing wrong in principle with focusing on our own parochial context—indeed it is our responsibility to be concerned with it, and to strive to improve it. When Kimberlé Crenshaw first introduced the intersectional approach, she had just such a focused and non-global concern, namely, to analyze the actors’ categories that come into play in government responses to domestic violence against women in the United States. But one serious problem with staying faithful to actors’ categories and thinking of local contexts in terms of ‘race’, is that this seems to imply a universal natural order in which the locally salient distinctions between different types of people are grounded. And there simply is no such order. What we find when we move to the global context, and to the longue durée, rather, is that the focus on supposedly racial physical attributes is generally an a posteriori rationalization of a prior unequal system of interaction between members of different ethnic groups. The more aggravated this inequality, typically, the more racially different the people on different sides of the ethnic divide will appear to one another.

More here.

Don’t Send Your Kid to the Ivy League


William Deresiewicz in TNR [h/t: Simon During]:

Let’s not kid ourselves: The college admissions game is not primarily about the lower and middle classes seeking to rise, or even about the upper-middle class attempting to maintain its position. It is about determining the exact hierarchy of status within the upper-middle class itself. In the affluent suburbs and well-heeled urban enclaves where this game is principally played, it is not about whether you go to an elite school. It’s about which one you go to. It is Penn versus Tufts, not Penn versus Penn State. It doesn’t matter that a bright young person can go to Ohio State, become a doctor, settle in Dayton, and make a very good living. Such an outcome is simply too horrible to contemplate.

This system is exacerbating inequality, retarding social mobility, perpetuating privilege, and creating an elite that is isolated from the society that it’s supposed to lead. The numbers are undeniable. In 1985, 46 percent of incoming freshmen at the 250 most selective colleges came from the top quarter of the income distribution. By 2000, it was 55 percent. As of 2006, only about 15 percent of students at the most competitive schools came from the bottom half. The more prestigious the school, the more unequal its student body is apt to be. And public institutions are not much better than private ones. As of 2004, 40 percent of first-year students at the most selective state campuses came from families with incomes of more than $100,000, up from 32 percent just five years earlier.

The major reason for the trend is clear. Not increasing tuition, though that is a factor, but the ever-growing cost of manufacturing children who are fit to compete in the college admissions game. The more hurdles there are, the more expensive it is to catapult your kid across them. Wealthy families start buying their children’s way into elite colleges almost from the moment they are born: music lessons, sports equipment, foreign travel (“enrichment” programs, to use the all-too-perfect term)—most important, of course, private-school tuition or the costs of living in a place with top-tier public schools. The SAT is supposed to measure aptitude, but what it actually measures is parental income, which it tracks quite closely. Today, fewer than half of high-scoring students from low-income families even enroll at four-year schools.

More here.

Writers or Missionaries?


Adam Shatz in The Nation:

Shortly after September 11, I interviewed V.S. Naipaul about his views on Islam for The New York Times Magazine. Much of what he said was predictably ugly, a provocation calculated to offend liberal sensibilities. “Non-fundamentalist Islam,” he told me, is “a contradiction.” September 11 had no cause other than “religious hate.” But Naipaul said something else that I will never forget: that ultimately, you have to make a choice—are you a writer, or are you a missionary? At the time, this remark struck me as glib, even dishonest. If anyone was a missionary, wasn’t it Naipaul, with his crude attacks on Muslims, his extreme Hindu nationalism and his snobbery, all of it dressed up as devotion to the noble calling of writing and art?

Still, the remark stayed with me. I couldn’t dismiss it; I have since seen its wisdom, although I am no fonder of Naipaul’s views now than I was then. Naipaul was evoking the tension between the writer, who describes things as he or she sees them, and the missionary or the advocate, who describes things as he or she wishes they might be under the influence of a party, movement or cause. The contrast is not as stark as Naipaul suggests, but it exists, and the more closely you analyze a society, the more you allow yourself to see and to hear, the more you experience this tension.

In Finding the Center, Naipaul writes that travel “became a necessary stimulus for me. It broadened my worldview; it showed me a changing world and took me out of my own colonial shell…. My uncertainty about my role withered; a role was not necessary. I recognized my own instincts as a traveler and was content to be myself, to be what I had always been, a looker. And I learned to look in my own way.” He continues:

To arrive in a place without knowing anyone there, and sometimes without an introduction; to learn how to move among strangers for the short time one could afford to be among them; to hold oneself in constant readiness for adventure or revelation; to allow oneself to be carried along, up to a point, by accidents; and consciously to follow up other impulses—that could be as creative and imaginative a procedure as the writing that came after. Travel of this sort became an intense experience for me. It used all the sides of my personality; I was always wound up…. There was always the possibility of failure—of not finding anything, not getting started on the chain of accidents and encounters. This gave a gambler’s excitement to every arrival. My luck held; perhaps I made it hold.

In this passage, Naipaul captures some of the most crucial aspects of reporting: an alert or receptive passivity; a willingness to expose oneself to unfamiliar and even unsettling experiences and people, to give up control and to get lost. This is not as easy as it sounds. That “readiness for adventure or revelation” has to be cultivated. As Walter Benjamin writes in his memoir Berlin Childhood Around 1900, “not to find one’s way around a city does not mean much. But to lose one’s way in a city, as one loses one’s way in a forest, requires some schooling.”

More here.

Beyond Energy, Matter, Time and Space

George Johnson in The New York Times:

SunThough he probably didn’t intend anything so jarring, Nicolaus Copernicus, in a 16th-century treatise, gave rise to the idea that human beings do not occupy a special place in the heavens. Nearly 500 years after replacing the Earth with the sun as the center of the cosmic swirl, we’ve come to see ourselves as just another species on a planet orbiting a star in the boondocks of a galaxy in the universe we call home. And this may be just one of many universes — what cosmologists, some more skeptically than others, have named the multiverse. Despite the long string of demotions, we remain confident, out here on the edge of nowhere, that our band of primates has what it takes to figure out the cosmos — what the writer Timothy Ferris called “the whole shebang.” New particles may yet be discovered, and even new laws. But it is almost taken for granted that everything from physics to biology, including the mind, ultimately comes down to four fundamental concepts: matter and energy interacting in an arena of space and time.

There are skeptics who suspect we may be missing a crucial piece of the puzzle. Recently, I’ve been struck by two books exploring that possibility in very different ways. There is no reason why, in this particular century, Homo sapiens should have gathered all the pieces needed for a theory of everything. In displacing humanity from a privileged position, the Copernican principle applies not just to where we are in space but to when we are in time.

More here.

Buddhist Musings in Ramadan

by Jalees Rehman

Ramadan is the month of fasting and a time for spiritual growth among Muslims. The traditionalist approach to “spiritual growth” is for Muslims to complement their fasting with performing additional prayers at night and regular reading of the Quran throughout the month. My own approach is somewhat different, I tend to complement my fasting with the reading of writings and scriptures from other philosophies or faith traditions, including atheist and humanist teachings. This year, I decided to study the Dhammapada (in the translation of Gil Fronsdal), one of the most widely read and revered writings in the Buddhist faith.

Buddha statue from Takht-i-Bahi

Buddha Statue from the Takht-i-Bahi monastery in Pakistan

I was inspired to learn more about Buddhism because I was reading the remarkable novel “A Tale for the Time Being” by Ruth Ozeki, who is not only a brilliant author but also an ordained Zen Buddhist priest. The first person narrator in the novel is a 16-year old Japanese girl Nao who is bullied by her classmates. Nao's parents moved from Japan to Silicon Valley but were forced to return to Japan when the Dotcom bubble burst. Nao's father loses his job and the family is forced to live in poverty. The family's poverty and the fact that Nao is seen as an alien “transfer student” lead to her being ostracized at school. But her classmates go even further and begin psychologically and physically torturing her, leaving scars and scabs all over her body.

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Waiting On Rhoda

by Tamuira Reid

I'm pregnant.

You say the words the same way you say I'm an alcoholic, but this time you aren't sitting in a church basement with a shitty assortment of store-bought cookies on your lap. You hear a small, unmistakable gasp on the other end of the line – “Mom, are you there?”

You weren't drunk when you got pregnant. Those days are over. You were lucid and clear-headed and saw a future in his face.

Then you saw two lines on a stick. Then you saw nothing except the darkness.

This is the thing; you were trying to get pregnant.

And it happened. And then he happened.

The baby. Eight pounds of flesh and bone and gumption.

Control is not your forte. Blame it on being from “Gypsy stock” on your mother's side. It's in your blood. Erratic behavior just comes with the territory. “Take it one day at a time”. Or “This too shall pass”. Funny how those annoying aphorisms apply more to this situation than they ever did to your drinking.

Now they will come out of the woodwork, flood your life like blood through a cracked artery. It's okay. You didn't notice how many Honda Accords were on the road until you owned a Honda Accord. This is like that. Now everything is babies. Their faces will peek out at you from billboards towering over Times Square, from the Gerber ads plastered to the side of an M16 bus, from Toys-R-Us coupon books rubbing up against the lit mags in your mailbox. Ignore them.

During your office hour, go onto Amazon and find a reputable Spanx dealer. Buy in bulk. And when a writing student walks in, hurriedly minimize the screen. Your face is red and sweaty. Say something about the weather. He thinks you're looking at porn and feels sorry for you. It must be hard to get laid when you're someone's mom.

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