It may have seemed like the world fell apart in 2016 but Steven Pinker is here to tell you it didn’t

Julia Belluz in Vox:

Julia Belluz

So 2016 has been an incredibly stressful and violent year from a news standpoint for many people. Do you have any advice for putting it in context?

ScreenHunter_2470 Dec. 24 13.36Steven Pinker

Look at history and data, not headlines. The world continues to improve in just about every way. Extreme poverty, child mortality, illiteracy, and global inequality are at historic lows; vaccinations, basic education, including girls, and democracy are at all-time highs.

War deaths have risen since 2011 because of the Syrian civil war, but are a fraction of the levels of the 1950s through the early 1990s, when megadeath wars and genocides raged all over the world. Colombia’s peace deal marks the end of the last war in the Western Hemisphere, and the last remnant of the Cold War. Homicide rates in the world are falling, and the rate in United States is lower than at any time between 1966 and 2009. Outside of war zones, terrorist deaths are far lower than they were in the heyday of the Weathermen, IRA, and Red Brigades.

Julia Belluz

One big thing that’s changed since we last spoke is the election of Donald Trump. We now have a president coming in who has said he wouldn’t defend America’s allies in NATO if we were attacked by a foreign power and who has strong links to Russia. His election came after Brexit. These really seem like threats to the global institutions that have likely helped sustain peace in recent years.

Steven Pinker

Several awful things happened in the world’s democracies in 2016, and the election of a mercurial and ignorant president injects a troubling degree of uncertainty into international relations.

But it’s vital to keep cool and identify specific dangers rather than being overcome by a vague apocalyptic gloom.

More here.

The Power of Concentration

Maria Konnikova in The New York Times:

ConceMEDITATION and mindfulness: the words conjure images of yoga retreats and Buddhist monks. But perhaps they should evoke a very different picture: a man in a deerstalker, puffing away at a curved pipe, Mr. Sherlock Holmes himself. The world’s greatest fictional detective is someone who knows the value of concentration, of “throwing his brain out of action,” as Dr. Watson puts it. He is the quintessential unitasker in a multitasking world. More often than not, when a new case is presented, Holmes does nothing more than sit back in his leather chair, close his eyes and put together his long-fingered hands in an attitude that begs silence. He may be the most inactive active detective out there. His approach to thought captures the very thing that cognitive psychologists mean when they say mindfulness. Though the concept originates in ancient Buddhist, Hindu and Chinese traditions, when it comes to experimental psychology, mindfulness is less about spirituality and more about concentration: the ability to quiet your mind, focus your attention on the present, and dismiss any distractions that come your way. The formulation dates from the work of the psychologist Ellen Langer, who demonstrated in the 1970s that mindful thought could lead to improvements on measures of cognitive function and even vital functions in older adults.

Now we’re learning that the benefits may reach further still, and be more attainable, than Professor Langer could have then imagined. Even in small doses, mindfulness can effect impressive changes in how we feel and think — and it does so at a basic neural level. In 2011, researchers from the University of Wisconsin demonstrated that daily meditation-like thought could shift frontal brain activity toward a pattern that is associated with what cognitive scientists call positive, approach-oriented emotional states — states that make us more likely to engage the world rather than to withdraw from it.

More here.

YouTube star Adam Saleh’s story is shocking – but only if it’s true

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Moustafa Bayoumi in The Guardian:

If the allegation of being thrown off a plane for speaking Arabic is true, then Saleh is right to be outraged. We must all be outraged at such blatant bigotry.

But pardon me for being skeptical.

First of all, this is the same guy who released a video in 2014 titled “Racial Profiling Experiment”, which showed the NYPD as flat-footedly anti-Muslim and was later revealed to be a hoax, doing no favors for those of us in the battle against real racial profiling.

And Saleh’s more recent antics include a video of him squeezing into a piece of luggage and flying in the baggage hold from Melbourne to Sydney, Australia. But that stunt was also faked. Security footage shows Saleh walking like a regular, two-legged, ticket-bearing passenger straight onto his flight.

Saleh, who calls himself a “professional idiot”, is a publicity hound, and that’s fine for him. While I freely admit that I don’t get this type of entertainment, a lot of people seem to enjoy his prankish, MTV-style antics. But because this is his public persona, we are justified in considering the possibility that his latest video could be another stunt.

For one thing, we don’t know see what transpired before he began filming this incident. And while we do see others passengers waving and heckling him with goodbyes, we don’t know what the cause of their anger is besides Saleh’s assertion that it’s racism. We have only Saleh’s word at this point, and he may not be a completely trustworthy source. Meanwhile, alleging discrimination where none occurred is a dangerous and damaging game. Just ask Yasmin Seweid.

Seweid is a college student who told New York City police that three drunk men attacked her on the subway, screaming “Donald Trump” and attempting to rip off her hijab while no one came to her defense. Police later discovered that Seweid had fabricated the story due to a troubled family life, and the 18-year-old has now been charged with filing a false report.

The lesson from all of this is not that Islamophobia is false. On the contrary. The handful of fabricated stories of Islamophobia are convincing only because Islamophobia is real, recognized tangible, and dangerous.

More here.

Saturday Poem

More Lying, Loving Facts, You Sort ‘Em Out
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For a long time the Spanish from Spain

Who came here became slightly insane

In a special way and just a little.

You can try this yourself.

Walk farther than you can into the forest in New York

So it’s a toss-up whether or not you know the way back.

For you there’s going to be a smidge of confusion, a glow of fear

That smells like burning rye toast,

And the illusion that you are the only person alive

On the earth. You will probably have the second illusion

That no one likes you, which doesn’t jibe with the first illusion

Of no other people. This was about the extent of it, for the Spanish,

They felt all that just a few hours a week, but every week at home,

Living in, say, small San Francisco,

Which made thinking slow and hard at these times,

But if you try this yourself in the deep woods

You’ll see you can still think enough

And you’ll remember your way back to the loving arms

Of your wife, husband, or mother, in Rochester. (Yes,

You could try it as a child, but please don’t.)

Read more »

The West Should Hope That Merkel Loses

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Matthias Matthijs makes the case in Foreign Policy:

Since the global financial crisis of 2008, Merkel’s leadership has been tested on four different fronts: the eurozone debt crisis, the military conflict between Russia and Ukraine, the Schengen crisis over refugees and intra-EU migration, and the creeping authoritarian tendencies of governments in Hungary and Poland. In all four crises, Merkel’s governments have dithered and German leadership has fallen short.

First, during the euro crisis, German insistence on fiscal austerity and structural reform pushed the burden of adjustment of the crisis squarely onto debtor countries, with disastrous consequences for the monetary union’s cohesion as a whole. Unlike the United States after the global financial crisis, Germany refused to provide the regional public goods the eurozone needed for a swift recovery. While the United States responded to the global panic in 2008 with a fiscal stimulus package and allowed the Federal Reserve to be the global lender of last resort, Germany’s role during the euro crisis was austerity for all and a refusal — during the first three years of the crisis — to let the Frankfurt-based European Central Bank use its balance sheet to calm financial markets.

Merkel and Finance Minister Wolfgang Schäuble’s tough stance vis-à-vis Athens was motivated by the exposure of German banks to the euro periphery, a strict adherence to ordoliberal economic ideas touting balanced budgets and fiscal restraint, and a populist refrain that touted the Continent’s northern saints and southern sinners. A Greek fiscal crisis quickly turned into a full-blown sovereign debt crisis as a result of German insistence on following dysfunctional fiscal and monetary rules. While Germany’s economy has fared well since 2010, this has come at the cost of declining living standards, record unemployment, and increased Euroskepticism across the EU’s southern periphery. With no hope of economic recovery, the future of the common currency remains fragile at best.

More here.

Democratic Backsliding in the USA

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Dan Nexon in Lawyers, Guns & Money:

In the United States, Political Science is conventionally divided into four major subfields: American Politics, Comparative Politics, International Relations, and Political Theory. These divisions lack strong intellectual justification. They are largely a matter of convention, historical accident, and training. Indeed, members of the latter three subfields sometimes like to snark that American Politics is just a glorified single-country study. Imagine if Political Science devoted as much time, money, and effort to studying, say, Thailand as an isolated case as it does the United States.

For scholars of Comparative Politics, 2016 has felt like something of a vindication. While many Americanists scramble to make sense of political developments in the United States, these developments seem ratherfamiliar to people used to looking at cross-national patterns of contentious politics, regime change, political parties, and even transnational ideological movements. Terms from comparative politics are making their way into the vernacular, including democratic backsliding and hybrid regimes.

In fact, when evaluated using comparative metrics, North Carolina is no longer a democracy. Andrew Reynolds:

In the just released EIP report, North Carolina’s overall electoral integrity score of 58/100 for the 2016 election places us alongside authoritarian states and pseudo-democracies like Cuba, Indonesia and Sierra Leone. If it were a nation state, North Carolina would rank right in the middle of the global league table – a deeply flawed, partly-free, democracy that is only slightly ahead of the failed democracies that constitute much of the developing world.

Indeed Carolina does so poorly on the measures of legal framework and voter registration, that on those indicators we rank alongside Iran and Venezuela. When it comes to the integrity of the voting district boundaries no country has ever received as low a score as the 7/100 North Carolina received. North Carolina is not only the worst state in the USA for unfair districting but the worst entity in the world ever analyzed by the Electoral Integrity Project.

And it gets worse:

That North Carolina can no longer call its elections democratic is shocking enough, but our democratic decline goes beyond what happens at election time. The most respected measures of democracy – Freedom House, POLITY and the Varieties of Democracy project all assess the degree to which the exercise of power depends on the will of the people: That is, governance is not arbitrary, it follows established rules and is based on popular legitimacy.

The extent to which North Carolina now breaches these principles means our state government can no longer be classified as a full democracy.

More here.

THE SEDUCTIVE ENTHUSIASM OF KENNETH CLARK’S “CIVILISATION”

Morgan Meis in The New Yorker:

Meis-TheSeductiveBrillianceofKennethClarksCivilisation-690The British art historian Kenneth Clark lived through much of the tumult that the twentieth century had to offer. He was born in London in 1903, and died just before his eightieth birthday—a span that took him from the Edwardian Age to the age of Margaret Thatcher. Clark experienced both World Wars, the collapse of the British Empire, the upheavals of the nineteen-sixties, and, just before he died, the musical duo Wham! Clark weathered all this history, it should be noted, with the help of a not inconsiderable fortune. The money came from a family business, the Clark Thread Company of Paisley, which was founded in the eighteenth century. Clark used this inheritance to become a great aesthete.

His aesthetic life began in earnest with a trip through Italy during a summer break from college, at Oxford, in 1925. In Italy, Clark met Bernard Berenson, the legendary specialist of the Italian Renaissance. Berenson took an immediate liking to Clark, and offered the student a job helping to prepare a new edition of his book “Drawings of the Florentine Painters.” Soon afterward—and thanks partly to his relationship with Berenson—Clark, at just twenty-eight years old, was made keeper (i.e., director) of fine art at Oxford’s venerable Ashmolean Museum. Two years later, he became the director at the National Gallery. Then George V asked Clark to assume the position of Surveyor of the King’s Pictures. Clark declined, at first, and so the King came to see him personally, as James Stourton chronicles in his new biography, “Kenneth Clark: Life, Art and Civilisation.” The King persuaded Clark to take the job, and in the years to come Clark went on to take several other high-level positions that he believed would advance the cause of art in his country. He helped save the British art collection from the Nazi Blitz, by loading the art into trucks and driving those trucks to caves in the Welsh mountains. He wrote influential books, such as “The Gothic Revival” and “The Nude: A Study in Ideal Form.” Most famously, he recorded dozens of television programs about art.

More here.

Some good news to cheer you up for the holidays: A history of global living conditions in 5 charts

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Max Roser in Our World In Data:

To avoid portraying the world in a static way – the North always much richer than the South – we have to start 200 years ago before the time when living conditions really changed dramatically.

Researchers measure extreme poverty as living with less than 1.90$ per day. These poverty figures take into account non-monetary forms of income – for poor families today and in the past this is very important, particularly because of subsistence farming. The poverty measure is also corrected for different price levels in different countries and adjusted for price changes over time (inflation) – poverty is measured in so-called international dollars that accounts for these adjustments.

The first chart shows the estimates for the share of the world population living in extreme poverty. In 1820 only a tiny elite enjoyed higher standards of living, while the vast majority of people lived in conditions that we would call extreme poverty today. Since then the share of extremely poor people fell continuously. More and more world regions industrialised and thereby increased productivity which made it possible to lift more people out of poverty: In 1950 three-quarters of the world were living in extreme poverty; in 1981 it was still 44%. For last year the research suggests that the share in extreme poverty has fallen below 10%.

More here.

Against the Renting of Persons: A conversation with David Ellerman

From The Straddler:

EllermanDavid Ellerman, philosopher, mathematician, economist, and political theorist, is highly critical of the intellectual underpinnings of the current employment system, which he says institutionalize “the renting of persons” on dubious philosophical grounds. Describing his position as “neo-abolitionist,” he notes that modern liberal thought simplistically locates chattel’s slavery illegitimacy in its being a coercive institution. According to Ellerman, this wholly ignores a long and neglected tradition of liberal thought that viewed voluntary slavery as legitimate. This more sophisticated defense of slavery is itself illegitimate, but its tenets survive today and underlie the renting of persons in our own employment system. While working at Wal-Mart or Starbucks is a categorically different experience than chattel slavery, Ellerman’s efforts to recover the tradition of inalienable rights, which informed the rhetoric of the Declaration of Independence as well as the abolitionists of the nineteenth century, seek to provide an analysis of the institutions of modern employment, which he claims structurally maintain an essential denial of human agency.

The key distinction, Ellerman argues, is not between consent and coercion, but between delegation and alienation—between decisions made representatively on one’s behalf by delegates and decisions made by unaccountable agents to whom decision-making power has been wholly transferred. An adult person who consents to a contract of alienation essentially agrees to something that is not possible: to partially turn him or herself into a thing. As Ellerman puts it, “I can voluntarily transfer the services of my shovel to another person so that the other person can employ the shovel and be solely de facto responsible for the results. I cannot voluntarily transfer my own actions in like manner.”[1] In short, “[a]n individual cannot in fact vacate and transfer that responsible agency which makes one a person.”[2]

More here.

the letters of posh, primitive Paddy Leigh Fermor

78eb3d18-c76e-11e6-89fb-efb68b0c62ffJames Campbell at The Times Literary Supplement:

Patrick Leigh Fermor knew his place: bestriding the posh and the primitive, with one hobnailed boot planted in each. “Some parts of Greece, and this is one”, he wrote in 1966 of Kardamyli, the village in the Peloponnese that was to become the closest he ever had to a permanent home, “are so backward they don’t know the difference between nice and nasty.” This has been read by one reviewer ofDashing for the Post: The letters of Patrick Leigh Fermor as appalling snobbery, but Fermor’s immersion in Greek society at every level was as deep as any foreigner’s can be. He came close to dying for it on several occasions. The attachment stretched over eight decades, ending only on June 9, 2011, when, aged ninety-six, he returned from Kardamyli to England, to die the next day at the place where his wife Joan Eyres Monsell was buried. One letter after another in this superb collection recalls meetings with “infirm, booted, sashed, turbaned” Cretans, a people “quite unlike anyone else, funnier, higher-spirited, more musical and alert”. He relished the “whiskery embraces” that enfolded him on visits to the island for reunions of survivors of the resistance in which “Mihali” – Fermor’snom de guerre – had played a prominent, even decisive, role. When, in 1975, he appeared on a French television show with Manoli Paterakis and another guerrilla fighter, all were put up in a “grand hotel” off the Champs-Élysées. “It was so strange to see Manoli – a mountain chap who belongs to sheepfolds, caves and mountain tops – among those muslin curtains, brass bedsteads, pink lampshades, Empire furniture, watered-silk panels on the walls, gold swan-shaped bath taps, and reproductions of Watteau . . . .”

more here.

Born to Sing the Gospel

Washington-phillipsMax Nelson at The New York Review of Books:

In 2003, the Atlanta-based record label Dust to Digital released a six-CD anthology of prewar American gospel music called Goodbye, Babylon. The territory of that music was dauntingly varied and wide. Hellfire sermons, choral “sacred harp” songs, energetic group sing-alongs, solo performances of great fragility, swaggering performances by singers who flitted between spirituals and the blues: these were for the most part commercial recordings, often arranged by talent scouts like Columbia’s Frank B. Walker and released in pairs on 78 rpm records designated for specific markets (in the case of the set’s many recordings by black musicians from the South, “race records”). Some were exultant songs of praise. But many others were dark and doubt-haunted. They spoke of devils and temptations, of communities in decline, of pleas for divine salvation that might not be answered or heard.

Of the range of musicians included on Goodbye, Babylon—Baptist and Pentecostal, urban and rural, black and white—the Texas singer and preacher Washington Phillips was both one of the best-known among gospel enthusiasts and one of the most mysterious. The sixteen songs he recorded for Walker in five Dallas sessions over three consecutive Decembers—1927, 1928, and 1929—had been available together since 1979, and some began circulating on compilations well before then. (Another pair of songs, now lost, was recorded but never released.) In his own time, Phillips had been a brief commercial success. His first 78 sold more than eight thousand copies, and one wonders how many other songs he’d have had the chance to record if the Depression hadn’t forestalled his three-year-long career.

more here.

Ellen Cantor’s Perpetual Revisions

00684Barry Schwabsky at The Nation:

Whether or not she was right about Kahlo, Cantor’s own mature work was never naive about either feeling or form. She knew how to deal sophisticatedly with her own passionately maintained innocence, as embodied in the demand for true love where propriety would have urged the acceptance of something less. InCircus Lives From Hell, and then in Pinochet Porn, she managed to refract her own experiences through those of others in order to bring into focus her idea that “the traumas in our childhood brought out parallel traumas in our adulthood, which seemed to extend from the largest historical catastrophes, to the most intimate personal misfortunes.” She based the narratives not on her own life, but on that of a friend who had grown up in South America. “I found I could channel my own raw emotions through her dramas,” Cantor explained. Circus Lives is the story of five children growing up under dictatorship; the film she eventually derived from it focuses on the two “identical daughters” (sometimes referred to as twins, sometimes said to be a year apart) of the dictator himself. The girls, Pipa and Paloma—both played by Gangitano—enjoy, if that’s the right word, feverishly complicated love lives. Cantor cast herself as their father’s maid; she’s the servant of the story rather than its focal point, except when she becomes the object of the general’s sadomasochistic attentions; she continues to erratically clean with her feather duster as he fingers her from behind.

more here.

Different class: how a Palestinian teacher won $1m

Xan Rice in New Statesman:

HannaHanan al-Hroub was a poorly paid teacher on the West Bank. Then she won the $1m Global Teacher Prize. On a cold Monday morning in central London in late November, a 44-year-old Palestinian woman reflected on the dramatic recent changes to her life. At the start of the year the only foreign country that Hanan al-Hroub had visited was Jordan. She spoke very little English. Though she stood out among the teachers in the West Bank – often wearing a clown’s wig over her headscarf and a red nose while in class – she was just as poorly paid as the rest. Now, Hroub is a celebrity at home and a globetrotter. In Vatican City she has had an audience with Pope Francis. In New York she spoke in the UN General Assembly hall at the invitation of Ban Ki-moon.

…Hroub explained that her approach to education was formed long before she ever became a teacher. One of 11 siblings, she was born at the Dheisheh refugee camp in Bethlehem, in the West Bank. There was only one female doctor in the city and Hroub dreamed of becoming the second. But her plans were ruined in the 1990s when Palestinian universities were closed during the first intifada – the uprising against Israel. Instead, she got married and concentrated on raising her five children. In October 2000, at the start of the second intifada, Israeli soldiers at a checkpoint shot at her husband’s car as he drove with their twin daughters, then aged nine. Though he was only slightly wounded, and the girls escaped harm, they were deeply disturbed by the incident, becoming withdrawn and prone to bursts of aggression. “They did not want to go to class, or to mingle with people. At night they would wake up
in fear,” Hroub said.The girls’ teachers had no training to help children affected by violence, so Hroub decided to keep her daughters at home for a while. During breaks in the curfew, she would rush to the shops to buy scissors, cardboard, pens and other items that she could use to make games. “A corner of my home became their new class, full of cards and colours.” Being able to play and learn in a “safe space” made the girls happy, reduced their tension and helped them overcome the trauma. Hroub realised then that she could make a difference in society and decided to study to become a teacher.

More here.

What Does a Human Taste Like?

Ryan F. Mandelbaum in Scientific American:

BrainLooking for a cutting-edge foodie read, some vicarious cultural adventure or a glimpse into the shadows of a fundamental taboo? Bill Schutt’s Cannibalism: A Perfectly Natural History is scheduled to come out this February, and is the perfect literary entrée for those willing to contemplate mummy umami or Tex-Mex placenta while touring the history of animals and people eating their own kind.

What do you think was one of the biggest surprises of your research?
I think the big surprises can be broken into two. The first was how common medicinal cannibalism was throughout Europe, right up into the early part of the 20th century. Mummia, or powdered mummy, was found in the Merck Index [of chemicals, drugs and biologicals] until the early 1900s. The second was how common it was across the animal kingdom in every major group—mostly in invertebrates but also in fish and amphibians—less common in reptiles and mammals but still there. It’s a natural behavior that exists for any number of functions.

Medicinal cannibalism is around today, right?
I guess you’re talking about placentaphagy—eating placenta.

When I was reading the book, I couldn’t believe it—I thought, “he’s really going to go down there and eat part of another person.” What does it taste like?
You know, I’m not sure I want to give it away. But they asked me how I wanted it prepared—either Tex-Mex or osso bucco. Being half Italian, I went with placenta Italiana. A lot of people have claimed that it tastes like pork or veal, and everything tastes like chicken, I guess. To me, it didn’t taste like any of those. And I’ll tell you, I cleaned my plate. It’s something I’ll never forget.

More here.