Video length: 14:15
Samuel Farber in Jacobin:
Rather than relying on the promise of a consequentialist heaven, it can be argued that a right is a good thing in itself, essential to the dignity and self-determination of persons, and necessary for democracy. Rights — including the right to free speech — might help produce the closest approximation to truth and a better society, but, much more important, they are a constituent element of a good society.
Like other conceptions of rights grounded on metaphysical, ahistoric notions like human nature or natural law, Garton Ash’s reliance on empathy and tolerance cannot found a robust right to free expression, safe from erosion by powerful economic or governmental actors.
We need an alternative approach to rights that does not hinge on abstractions. Rosa Luxemburg offers one:
Every right of suffrage, like any other political right, is not to be measured by some sort of abstract scheme of “justice,” or in terms of any other bourgeois-democratic phrases, but by the social and economic relationships for which it is designed.
Luxemburg understands rights as embodiments of concrete social and economic relationships. In liberal capitalist societies, unequal access to power constrains these rights. In a thoroughly democratic socialist society, these constraints would disappear.
Indeed, what Free Speech most lacks is Luxemburg’s concrete understanding of the relationship between rights and power. In what follows, I’ll detail three of the ten principles that organize the book to show how his liberal interpretation of the right to free speech fails to account for the impact of power structures on free speech.
Jules Smith at the Times Literary Supplement:
In February 1950, Jack Kerouac made a note of his “wish to evoke that indescribable sad music of the night in America – for reasons that are never deeper than the music”. This aspiration sounded throughout his later writings; at the outset of Mexico City Blues (1959), the only major collection of poems published in his lifetime, he declared himself “a jazz poet blowing a long blues”. He wanted musicality in his 1950s novels, experimental prose poetry and the self-invented free form haikus he called “American Pops”. The elegiac passages concluding On the Road (1957) and “October in the Railroad Earth” have long been celebrated for the flowing rhythmic beauty of their wordplays. But his modern jazz-inspired improvisational poetics took far longer to gain recognition, even though his friends Allen Ginsberg and Michael McClure, and the youthful Bob Dylan, were early advocates for Mexico City Blues, the latter calling it “the first poetry that spoke my own language”.
The year 1951 was formative for Kerouac’s ideal of spontaneity. In April he had typed the original scroll version of On the Road while on benzedrine. “Journal 1951” is the most significant new material in The Unknown Kerouac, kept from late August to November that year when he was in a Bronx veterans’ hospital being treated for phlebitis in his legs. It is both a diary (recording a somewhat matter-of-fact reaction to the news that William Burroughs had shot his wife) and a writer’s manifesto: he coins the phrase “the unspeakable visions of the individual” on September 10. The key entry occurs on October 8 while the author is listening to the “beautiful, sad, long phrases” of the alto saxophonist Lee Konitz playing “I Remember April”, with the perception that “he is doing what I’m doing with a sentence like ‘hints of heartbreaking loss that filtered in with chunks of October daylight from the street’”.
Minna Zallman Proctor at Bookforum:
In a fascinating moment toward the end of Daphne Merkin's new memoir, This Close to Happy, she observes from her seat in the cafeteria of a psychiatric hospital that she feels jealous of the anorexics. "They were clearly and poignantly victims of a culture that said you were too fat if you weren't too thin . . . . No one could blame them for their condition or view it as a moral failure, which was what I suspected even the nurses of doing about us depressed patients." The depressives "were suffering from being intractably and disconsolately—and some might say self-indulgently—ourselves." The anorexics were victims and their disease expressed itself as conspicuous self-denial. Depressives, meanwhile, exhibited self-indulgence, and self-indulgence is both unappealing and impossible to share.
There are at least half a dozen thought exercises at play in Merkin's memoir. Probably the most prominent of those, though, is the challenge: how to make a depression memoir that's an enjoyable read, one that describes "what it feels like to suffer from clinical depression from the inside"? The question relies on a hugely relativistic understanding of enjoyable. It's hard to like books that make you feel as if you're slowly drowning in a Crock-Pot of simmering oil, or that make you want to take a knife to your own heart. A reasonable person might expect a depression memoir to be just that kind of book. Clinical depression is, after all, a paralyzing, unrelenting, frequently boring stew.
David Reynolds at The New Statesman:
Nineteen seventeen is a year that resonated through the 20th century. But place matters here as much as time – “place” meaning not just Russia, but Petrograd, as the imperial capital became known after “St Petersburg” was de-Germanised on the outbreak of war in 1914. Though in due course 1917 was touted as a universal model for revolution, it cannot be detached from the impact of the Great War in a distinctive country and a uniquely combustible city. Nor can it be separated from the intertwined stories of two almost incomprehensible men, a failed autocrat and a ruthless dictator: Tsar Nicholas II and Vladimir Lenin, Russia’s Terrible Twins.
The Great War may as well have been called the Great Killing. In 1916, the London Annual Register offered this elegant summary of the callous calculus that passed for Grand Strategy: “[T]he number of men possessed by the Entente Powers was much greater than the number that the Central Powers could command. The war was therefore to be a crude process of sheer killing. And then, assuming that each side killed equally effectively, the Entente would reach victory in an inevitable manner through the working of a simple mathematical law.”
But each side did not kill “equally effectively”. Not only were the Germans more efficient killers than their opponents, but the homicidal potency of each country on the battle front depended on its industrial efficiency on the home front. Despite frequent strikes, Britain and France “worked” as societies and economies; the main member of the Entente, Russia, did not.
Christian Lorentzen in Vulture:
In 1974, J.M. Coetzee applied to South Africa’s Ministry of the Interior to become an official state censor of literature. A few months later, he was informed that his application had been turned down. Coetzee had returned to South Africa in 1971 after a stint studying and teaching in America, unable to renew his visa after being arrested at a faculty protest at SUNY Buffalo against police presence on campus, a conviction later overturned. He joined the University of Cape Town as a professor, and in 1972 filed a report to his department head on books that were banned by the state but which he regarded as crucial to his research and teaching. The list of authors is long: William Faulkner, Richard Wright, Vladimir Nabokov, Norman Mailer, James Baldwin, Doris Lessing, Nadine Gordimer, Pablo Neruda, even Nikolai Gogol, among many others.“[You] may be interested to look over the following condensation of how our censors have impoverished our lives,” he wrote to his boss. What then was he up to a couple years later, already the author of the novel Dusklands, in trying to join the apparatus of repression?
The South African scholar David Attwell tells this story in J.M. Coetzee and the Life of Writing: Face to Face With Time, an engrossing 2015 study of the author’s manuscripts, now held at the University of Texas at Austin. Attwell quotes Coetzee telling a friend that he was merely calling the authorities’ bluff. Coetzee had been working on a manuscript, later abandoned, narrated by a censor, and Attwell concludes that Coetzee’s “odd flirtation” with becoming a censor was a way of “arranging life to imitate art.” In the drafts, Attwell sees Coetzee pondering what sort of writer he wants to be. It’s a mental exercise that’s illuminating in its strange premises. “Fiction, being a serious affair,” Coetzee writes, “cannot accept pre-requisites like (1) a desire to write, (2) something to write about, (3) something to say. There must be a place for a fiction of apathy toward the task of writing, toward the subject, toward the means.”
It’s an astonishing idea — apathy as a source of, not an obstacle to, seriousness.
Declan Butler in Nature:
Growing concerns over an ‘invasion’ of refugees and migrants helped to elect Donald Trump and sway Brexit voters. Yet the data suggest that the situation is very different from how it is often portrayed. Researchers warn that misleading reports about the magnitude of flows into Europe and the United States are creating unjustified fears about refugees. That is undermining efforts to manage the massive humanitarian problems faced by those fleeing Syria and other hotspots.
…Refugee numbers are easier to track. The UNHCR estimates that there were 21.3 million refugees in 2015; that is only slightly higher than the 1992 figure of 20.6 million, when the global population was just two-thirds of today’s. Researchers also warn about misinterpreting estimates of international migrants — those who move for economic or other reasons. These numbers can be problematic because the most widely cited UN figures are cumulative. Guy Abel, a statistician at the Vienna Institute of Demography, has studied the dynamic flow and found that the number of people migrating has remained stable over the past 50 years. His latest estimates indicate that migration rate, as a share of global population, has dropped to its lowest point in 50 years.
Antonio Gramsci Jr. in The New Left Review:
Twenty years ago the Soviet Union collapsed—a society that, with all its defects, had represented the bastion of actually existing socialism and—paradoxically—helped ease the contradictions of western capitalism. It was around that time that I began to be interested in my grandfather. The Italian Communist party and the Fondazione Istituto Gramsci arranged a trip to Italy for me and my father to celebrate the centenary of his birth. We stayed in Italy around six months, in that time visiting all the places that had strong connections with the life of Antonio Gramsci, from Sardinia to Turi. (One of the most moving highlights of our pilgrimage was the concert I gave for the inmates in the prison in Turi, together with Francesca Vacca.) During those months, full of so many other fascinating events, I steeped myself in Italian culture and realized how important my grandfather is to it. Back in Russia, full of enthusiasm, I started to study Italian systematically and also read what little there was of his writing in Russian translation. My interest in Gramsci’s thought grew more and more strongly as I tried to understand what had happened in my country through the lens of his work. It was thanks to him that I now grasped the destructive role played by our intellectuals, who were responsible for the molecular shift in public opinion in favour of the new regime, which had led to the plunder of Russia, a process already begun during the years of perestroika. I didn’t become a Gramsci scholar—I’m a biologist and a musician—but my mental bearings had radically altered. Speaking of our own time, I can say that it is precisely at this turbulent historic moment that I sense the real need for the rise of an intellectual voice of Antonio Gramsci’s calibre to unite various factions that are divided and ideologically uncreative. These various factions can hardly be called an opposition, fused in the ‘historic bloc’ that alone would be capable of developing a correct strategic line in the struggle against the oppressive forces of the new regime, corrupt and cynical, that has ruled Russia for two decades now.
Robert Zaretsky in the NYT's The Stone:
Nearly 50 years ago, Guy Debord’s “The Society of the Spectacle” reached bookshelves in France. It was a thin book in a plain white cover, with an obscure publisher and an author who shunned interviews, but its impact was immediate and far-reaching, delivering a social critique that helped shape France’s student protests and disruptions of 1968.
“The Society of the Spectacle” is still relevant today. With its descriptions of human social life subsumed by technology and images, it is often cited as a prophecy of the dangers of the internet age now upon us. And perhaps more than any other 20th-century philosophical work, it captures the profoundly odd moment we are now living through, under the presidential reign of Donald Trump.
As with the first lines from Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s “The Social Contract” (“Man is born free, and everywhere he is in chains”) and Karl Marx’s “Communist Manifesto” (“The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles” [sic]), Debord, an intellectual descendant of both of these thinkers, opens with political praxis couched in high drama: “The whole life of those societies in which modern conditions of production prevail presents itself as an immense accumulation of spectacles. All that once was directly lived has become mere representation.”
In the 220 theses that follow, Debord, a founding member of the avant-garde Situationist group, develops his indictment of “spectacular society.” With this phrase, Debord did not simply mean to damn the mass media. The spectacle was much more than what occupied the screen. Instead, Debord argued, everything that men and women once experienced directly — our ties to the natural and social worlds — was being mulched, masticated and made over into images. And the pixels had become the stuff of our very lives, in which we had relegated ourselves to the role of walk-ons.
Ezra Klein at Vox:
Yuval Noah Harari’s first book, Sapiens, was an international sensation. The Israeli historian’s mind-bending tour through the trump of Homo sapiens is a favorite of, among others, Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg, and Barack Obama. His new book, Homo Deus: a Brief History of Tomorrow, is about what comes next for humanity — and the threat our own intelligence and creative capacity poses to our future. And it, too, is fantastically interesting.
I’ve wanted to talk to Harari since reading Sapiens. I’ve had one big question about him: What kind of mind creates a book like Sapiens? And now I know. A clear one.
Virtually everything Harari says in our conversation is fascinating. But what I didn’t expect was how central his consistent practice of Vipassana meditation — which includes a 60-day silent retreat each year — is to understanding the works of both history and futurism he produces. In this excerpt from our discussion, which is edited for length and clarity, we dig deep into Harari’s meditative practice and how it helps him see the stories humanity tells itself.
From Science Alert:
For the first time, scientists have detected a giant neuron wrapped around the entire circumference of a mouse's brain, and it's so densely connected across both hemispheres, it could finally explain the origins of consciousness.
Using a new imaging technique, the team detected the giant neuron emanating from one of the best-connected regions in the brain, and say it could be coordinating signals from different areas to create conscious thought.
This recently discovered neuron is one of three that have been detected for the first time in a mammal's brain, and the new imaging technique could help us figure out if similar structures have gone undetected in our own brains for centuries.
At a recent meeting of the Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies initiative in Maryland, a team from the Allen Institute for Brain Science described how all three neurons stretch across both hemispheres of the brain, but the largest one wraps around the organ's circumference like a "crown of thorns".
You can see them highlighted in the image at the top of the page.
John Ralston Saul at the Institute for Art and Ideas:
It is mesmerizing to watch as the cancer of fear worms its way back into the human soul or imagination or wherever it lodges itself. For most of us the first reaction to such widespread fear is disbelief. The second? As it spreads and morphes into populism, racism and exclusion, we are often paralyzed, unable to imagine how to fight back. Mr. Trump has, in a tortured way, done Americans – perhaps all of us – a favour with the extremism of his first week in office. His racist, certainly illegal and probably unconstitutional orders are an abrupt wake-up call.
More than that, they are a warning to Washington's traditional allies to take care. Is this man a stable, trustworthy partner? It took him only a few hours to damage Theresa May's reputation. Canada is the United States’ closest ally – a 6000 kilometre border – and biggest trading partner. But Justin Trudeau is keeping his head down, using officials to negotiate arrangements behind the scenes. His reaction to Trump's anti-Muslim orders has been to purposely reiterate Canada's pro-immigration policy, without mentioning the United States or its president.
No one should be surprised that the growth in immigrants, refugees and migrants has been central to the releasing of such fear in Western society. This is an old tradition. Fear of the other. Promotion of fear of the other for political purposes. We are all affected when racist discourse is normalized. The attack on the Quebec City mosque is a tragic example of this. But the virtually unanimous reaction has been to reassert as strongly as possible the Canadian reality of and commitment to diversity and inclusive citizenship.
In such an atmosphere some people in Europe look at Canada and wonder why it is not suffering from the same agonies. At this point it is the only Western democracy not deeply divided on the issue of refugees and immigration in fact, the only country where the political class is largely and openly pro-immigration. This puts the country out on a cutting edge or a precipice. An exposed position.
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Rajiv Sethi over at his website:
This story is not at all surprising; Ken read everything. I think I mentioned elsewhere that my last conversation with Ken, this past June, concerned The Theory of Moral Sentiments. He and Amartya Sen were taking turns quoting from it, from memory… I could recognize the quotes, but not respond in kind. Once in a conversation about Nash equilibrium and rational expectations, Ken wondered if I had read Merton on expectations – not Robert Jr.: https://www.jstor.org/stable/4609267. He also had a good stock of Shakespeare to call on.
It is the year 1932. The Last National Bank is a flourishing institution. A large part of its resources is liquid without being watered. Cartwright Millingville has ample reason to be proud of the banking institution over which he presides. Until Black Wednesday. As he enters his bank, he notices that business is unusually brisk. A little odd, that, since the men at the A.M.O.K. steel plant and the K.O.M.A. mattress factory are not usually paid until Saturday. Yet here are two dozen men, obviously from the factories, queued up in front of the tellers' cages. As he turns into his private office, the president muses rather compassionately: "Hope they haven't been laid off in midweek. They should be in the shop at this hour."
But speculations of this sort have never made for a thriving bank, and Millingville turns to the pile of documents upon his desk. His precise signature is affixed to fewer than a score of papers when he is disturbed by the absence of something familiar and the intrusion of something alien. The low discreet hum of bank business has given way to a strange and annoying stridency of many voices. A situation has been defined as real. And that is the beginning of what ends as Black Wednesday — the last Wednesday, it might be noted, of the Last National Bank.
Lydialyle Gibson in Harvard Magazine:
On a bright Monday afternoon, the fairy godmother of introverts—author Susan Cain, J.D. ’93, whose book Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking caught fire five years ago—was sitting with her team around a long wooden table strewn with papers and laptops and long-empty coffee cups. Outside, another day idled by on this sleepy street in central Harlem. But inside, the dining room of a majestic old brownstone that had recently become the group’s base of operations, Cain and her colleagues were deep into a philosophical discussion about loving kindness, the freedom and burden of authenticity, and the finer points of corporate networking. At one end of the room, two whiteboards leaned on easels, crammed with dry-erase shorthand: “vulnerability,” “journey,” “leadership,” “service,” “connection.” What the group was trying to get at was something about the nature of transformation: How do you shift a culture? What does it look like when that happens? And who is the person who can do it?
A few weeks earlier, Cain’s nascent for-profit company, Quiet Revolution (stated mission: “To unlock the power of introverts for the benefit of us all”), had launched a pilot initiative, the Quiet Ambassador program, in a few offices and schools around the country. Cain is an introvert, too, and if you talk to her or read even a few pages of Quiet, you’ll quickly encounter one of her central themes: the “extrovert ideal.” American culture, and the Western world more broadly, she argues, glorify extroversion. Classrooms and workplaces are designed around those who thrive amid the clatter and commotion of open office plans and brainstorming free-for-alls. Introversion, meanwhile, exists “somewhere between a disappointment and a pathology,” something to be overcome on the way to achieving a better self. “Today we make room for a remarkably narrow range of personality styles,” Cain writes. “We’re told that to be great is to be bold, to be happy is to be sociable. We see ourselves as a nation of extroverts—which means that we’ve lost sight of who we really are.” In fact, she notes, one-third to one-half of Americans are introverts. If you’re not one yourself, she often tells audiences, you’re probably raising or managing or married to one.
Siddhartha Mukherjee in Tonic:
A few days ago, I had just stepped off a podium at a cancer conference when a 50-year-old woman with a family history of breast cancer approached me. I had been discussing how my laboratory, among hundreds of other labs, was trying to understand how mutations in genes unleash the malignant behavior of cancer cells. She told me that she carried a mutation in the BRCA-1 gene—a mutation that she had likely inherited from her father. Diagnosed with cancer in one of her breasts when she was 30, she had undergone surgery, chemo, radiation and hormonal therapy. But that grim sequence of diagnosis and treatment, she told me, was hardly the main source of her torment. Now, she worried about the development of cancer in her remaining breast, or in her ovaries. She was considering a double mastectomy and the surgical removal of her ovaries. A woman carrying a BRCA-1 mutation has nearly a 60-70 percent chance of developing cancer in her breasts or ovaries during her lifetime, and yet it's difficult to predict when or where that cancer might occur. For such women, the future is often fundamentally changed by that knowledge, and yet it remains just as fundamentally uncertain; their lives and energies might be spent anticipating cancer and imagining survivorship—from an illness that they have not yet developed. A disturbing new word, with a distinctly Orwellian ring, has been coined to describe these women: previvors—pre-survivors.
The uncertainty and anxiety had cast such a pall over this woman's adult life that she did not want her grandchildren to suffer through this ordeal (her children had not been tested yet, but would likely be tested in the future). What if she wanted to eliminate that genetic heritage from her family? Could she ensure that her children, or her grandchildren, would never have to live with the fear of future breast cancer, or other cancers associated with the BRCA-1 gene? Rather than waiting to excise organs, could her children, or their children, choose to excise the cancer-linked gene?
Meredith, we apologise.
We were not ourselves
And you were so weak,
You picky-headed dreamer
Outsider from Ghana
With the dark-skin grandma
You, girl with nothing
Who always lost everything.
We regret that we hated the poor;
That we hated our free school meals,
Our second-hand jumpers,
that we had nothing
To show but ourselves.
We regret that we brought
You to your knees
In sight of the sandalled priest
Who watched through the
Coloured windows of the chapel
As we gave you a playground lesson:
Those who have nothing, are nothing.
Alan Burdick in Nautilus:
In a study published in 2011, Sylvie Droit-Volet, a neuropsychologist at Université Blaise Pascal, in Clermont-Ferrand, France, and three co-authors showed images of the two ballerinas to a group of volunteers. The experiment was what’s known as a bisection task. First, on a computer screen, each subject was shown a neutral image lasting either 0.4 seconds or 1.6 seconds; through repeated showings, the subjects were trained to recognize those two intervals of time, to get a feel for what each is like. Then one or the other ballerina image appeared onscreen for some duration in between those two intervals; after each viewing, the subject pressed a key to indicate whether the duration of the ballerina felt more like the short interval or the long one. The results were consistent: the ballerina en arabesque, the more dynamic of the two figures, seemed to last longer on screen than it actually did.
That makes a certain sense. Related studies have revealed a link between time perception and motion. A circle or triangle that moves quickly across your computer monitor will seem to last longer on screen than a stationary object does; the faster the shapes move, the bigger the distortion. But the Degas sculptures aren’t moving—they merely suggest movement. Typically, duration distortions arise because of the way you perceive certain physical properties of the stimulus. If you observe a light that blinks every tenth of a second and simultaneously hear a series of beeps at a slightly slower rate—every fifth of a second,1 say—the light will seem to you to blink more slowly than it does, in time with the beep. That’s a function of the way our neurons are wired; many temporal illusions are actually audiovisual illusions. But with Degas there’s no time-altering property—no motion—to be perceived. That property is entirely manufactured by, and in, the viewer—reactivated in your memory, perhaps even reenacted. That simply viewing a Degas can bend time in this way suggests a great deal about how and why our internal clocks work as they do.
One of the richest veins in temporal-perception research is on the effect of emotion on cognition, and Droit-Volet has conducted a number of compelling studies that explore the relationship. In a recent series of experiments, her subjects viewed a series of images of faces, each of which was neutral or expressed a basic emotion, such as happiness or anger. Each image lasted onscreen for anywhere from 0.4 seconds to 1.6 seconds, and the viewer was asked to say whether the image lasted for a “short” or a “long” time—that is, closer to one of the two standard durations they’d been trained beforehand to recognize. Consistently, viewers reported that happy faces seemed to last longer than neutral ones, and both angry and fearful faces seemed to last longer still. (The angry faces lasted even longer to 3-year-old children, Droit-Volet found.)
Maria Bustillos on Jessa Crispin’s Why I Am Not A Feminist in the LA Review of Books:
THE ULTIMATE FAILURE of Why I Am Not a Feminist, Jessa Crispin’s fiery denunciation of modern American feminism, is all the more disappointing because the good parts are so good. Crispin’s book would be an important read in any case; in the wake of Hillary Clinton’s 2016 defeat, it is an essential one. Feminism, Crispin argues, betrayed its anti-capitalist roots in favor of “identity politics”: it failed when the focus shifted “from society to the individual.” “What was once collective action and a shared vision for how women might work and live in the world,” she writes, gave way to “a focus on individual history and achievement, and an unwillingness to share space with people with different opinions, worldviews, and histories.” Calls for women’s “empowerment” came, increasingly, at the expense of absolute demands for radical systemic change toward a fairer, more egalitarian society.
Crispin rightly calls out the rich feminists, the racist feminists, and the lazy and entitled feminists who’ve lost touch with their less advantaged sisters. Feminism “ended up doing patriarchy’s work,” she contends:
Now that we have access as women, women in positions of power are much less likely to attempt to dismantle this system of inequality. Power feels good. Capitalism feels good. It gives you things, as long as its boot is not on your neck.
In an especially strong passage, she describes the treacherous path modern American women took, and are taking, to “empowerment”:
[Y]ou will have to exhibit the characteristics of the patriarchs who built [the system]. In order to advance, you will have to mimic their behavior, take on their values […]
It’s nice in there […] If you value power, people will give you power, and with that comes money, luxury, a way out of all that oppression and misery. Little thought will be given to those left on the outside.
This is exactly right, but it’s not the whole story. Middle-class American women turned their backs on those less fortunate not only because of selfishness and I-got-mine-ism, but also because life on the materialist hamster wheel is so utterly grueling and exhausting that it leaves you neither the time nor the energy required in order to comprehend the worthier cause, let alone contribute to it meaningfully.