How Young Feminists of Color are Transforming the Labor Movement

Sheila Bapat in bitchmedia:

Workers“The personal is political” is a second-wave feminist phrase. It articulates the concept that the material realities of our lives form our political consciousnesses and our priorities. Today, young feminist women of color are fighting to transform the economic status of women—and they are succeeding. Their work has taken the concept that the personal is political to a deeper level. Driven by an intersectional feminist lens—meaning a lens that encompasses race, class, gender, sexuality, ability, and age, all the realities that make up a person’s social position—young feminist women of color are building the future of the U.S. labor movement. They are imagining—and implementing—successful alternative organizing strategies for low-wage sectors that are transforming the labor movement as a whole. A key example of this is found in the domestic workers’ movement, a movement of nannies, housekeepers, and caregivers working together to codify basic labor protections for their historically unregulated sector. The National Domestic Workers Alliance is comprised of approximately 53 workers center affiliates throughout the country, including the Chicago Coalition of Household Workers, Mujeres Unidas y Activas in California, and the Brazilian Worker Center in Massachusetts.

Critically, many of these organizations were founded and are led by women of color. Many of these leaders have been domestic workers themselves or are the children of domestic workers. Priscilla Gonzalez led the New York–based Domestic Workers United for many years before becoming leader of police reform organization Communities United for Police Reform. Her activism contributed to local and state policy victories for domestic workers in New York. Gonzalez’s personal story influences her activism. Her Ecuadorian mother worked as a nanny and housekeeper for a wealthy family on the Upper East Side of New York and experienced poor treatment by her employers. Despite working long hours, Gonzalez’s mother was not paid overtime. She was expected to pay out of pocket for the children’s snacks and toys, and she'd have to fight to be reimbursed for these expenses.

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How Facebook, fake news and friends are warping your memory

Laura Spinney in Nature:

Nature_NF_Memory-illo_09_03_2017Strange things have been happening in the news lately. Already this year, members of US President Donald Trump's administration have alluded to a 'Bowling Green massacre' and terror attacks in Sweden and Atlanta, Georgia, that never happened. The misinformation was swiftly corrected, but some historical myths have proved difficult to erase. Since at least 2010, for example, an online community has shared the apparently unshakeable recollection of Nelson Mandela dying in prison in the 1980s, despite the fact that he lived until 2013, leaving prison in 1990 and going on to serve as South Africa's first black president. Memory is notoriously fallible, but some experts worry that a new phenomenon is emerging. “Memories are shared among groups in novel ways through sites such as Facebook and Instagram, blurring the line between individual and collective memories,” says psychologist Daniel Schacter, who studies memory at Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts. “The development of Internet-based misinformation, such as recently well-publicized fake news sites, has the potential to distort individual and collective memories in disturbing ways.”

Collective memories form the basis of history, and people's understanding of history shapes how they think about the future. The fictitious terrorist attacks, for example, were cited to justify a travel ban on the citizens of seven “countries of concern”. Although history has frequently been interpreted for political ends, psychologists are now investigating the fundamental processes by which collective memories form, to understand what makes them vulnerable to distortion. They show that social networks powerfully shape memory, and that people need little prompting to conform to a majority recollection — even if it is wrong. Not all the findings are gloomy, however. Research is pointing to ways of dislodging false memories or preventing them from forming in the first place.

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The February Revolution and Kerensky’s Missed Opportunity


John Quiggin in the NYT:

The February Revolution is one of history’s great “What if” moments. If this revolution — which actually took place in early March 1917 according to the West’s Gregorian calendar (Russia adopted that calendar only later) — had succeeded in producing a constitutional democracy in place of the czarist empire as its leaders hoped, the world would be a very different place.

If the leading figure in the provisional government, Aleksandr Kerensky, had seized on an opportunity presented by a now-forgotten vote in the German Reichstag, World War I might have been over before American troops reached Europe. In this alternative history, Lenin and Stalin would be obscure footnotes, and Hitler would never have been more than a failed painter.

By February 1917, after more than two years of bloody and pointless war, six million Russian soldiers were dead, wounded or missing. Privation on the home front was increasing. When the government of Czar Nicholas II announced the rationing of bread, tens of thousands of protesters, many of them women, filled the streets of St. Petersburg. Strikes broke out across the country. The czar tried to suppress the protests by force, but his calls to the army were either met with mutinies or simply ignored.

By the beginning of March, the situation was untenable: Nicholas abdicated, bringing an end to the Romanov dynasty.

The vacuum created by the collapse of the autocracy was filled in part by a provisional government, formed from the opposition groups in the previously powerless Duma, or Parliament, and in part by workers’ councils, called soviets. At the outset, the initiative lay with the provisional government, which seemed to embody the hopes of a majority of the Russian people.

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Akeel Bilgrami on fascism and the ‘movement vacuum’

Kunal Shankar interviews Akeel Bilgrami in Frontline:

Spontaneous protests broke out across the country, for example, the protest right after the visa ban on seven Muslim countries, or the Women’s March in Washington. Is that not a healthy sign?

Fl17_int_bilgrami__3138555gSome things are obvious. Trump is a combination of a xenophobe, a racist, a misogynist, and, I suppose, as we have been witnessing in his pronouncements, something of an idiot. So, of course, people are understandably shocked and dismayed and the protests are most heartening. The deeper issues, however, are not about how terrible Trump is, but about why he got elected in the first place. What does his election signify about the electorate’s instincts and dissatisfactions? Everyone knows that his constituency is the working population. And I suppose that from the point of the view of the Left, it looks like a classic case of false consciousness—I mean to expect a Trump-led government to address these dissatisfactions. But, you should also remember that there was an even more classic form of false consciousness when the African-American population voted in far larger numbers for Hillary Clinton rather than Sanders. That was sheer identity politics dominating over material interests. Sanders would have done much more for working and workless blacks than Hillary Clinton. Don’t forget that Bill Clinton signed an infamous Bill that took away welfare provisions from the blacks. And Hillary Clinton subscribes to exactly the same economic ideology. It is true that the Clintons are not racist in the social sense, but from the material point of view, Sanders’ economic policies were much more in their interests. Sanders honourably refused to play identity politics and he paid the price for it. If African-Americans had voted in large numbers for Sanders, he would have won the primaries.

Here is my worry about the reaction to the Trump victory today. The hand-wringing and the hysteria about his election and post-election pronouncements, though perfectly understandable and justified—since he is monstrous on a whole range of issues—nevertheless may have the effect of giving the impression that there was some real intrinsic merit to the political establishment that Hillary Clinton represents. That would be complacent. My own view is that it should go without saying that Hillary Clinton would have been better than Trump, but if it goes without saying, then don’t say it. Because to keep saying it may give rise to the complacence that the political establishment in the U.S. has intrinsic merit.

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This Is Your Brain on Poverty

Amanda Montañez in Scientific American:

47D8FBAE-0059-49FF-9A1B69E07135F03AA couple of weeks ago I listened to an excellent podcast series on poverty in America. One message that stuck with me is just how many factors the poor have working against them—factors that, if you’re not poor, are all too easy to deny, disregard, or simply fail to notice. In the March issue of Scientific American, neuroscientist Kimberly Noble highlights one such invisible, yet very real, element of poverty: its effect on brain development in children.

When considering such a complex topic, any sort of data-driven approach can feel mired in confounding factors and variables. After all, it’s not as if money itself has any impact on the structure or function of one’s brain; rather, it is likely to be an amalgamation of environmental and/or genetic influences accompanying poverty, which results in an overall trend of relatively low achievement among poor children. By definition, this is a multifaceted problem in which correlation and causation seem virtually impossible to untangle. Nonetheless, Noble’s lab is tackling this challenge using the best scientific tools and methods available.

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Philosopher Daniel Dennett on AI, robots and religion

John Thornhill in the Financial Times:

ScreenHunter_2619 Mar. 07 18.57Among rival philosophers, Dennett is sometimes depicted as the great “deflationist” for arguing that consciousness is just a “bag of tricks”. Everyone believes they are an expert on consciousness because they think they are conscious. But Dennett is here to tell them they are wrong. He is the spoilsport at the party who points out how the magic tricks are done. Don’t even try him on such concepts such as mysticism, the soul, or God.

So why did he become a philosopher? He says that when he was a freshman at college he read Descartes’ Meditations. “I thought: ‘This is fascinating but it’s wrong. I’m going to see if I can show what’s wrong with it.’ More than 50 years later I’m still working on it.”

Dennett was convinced that Descartes’ dualism — the idea that an immaterial mind interacts with a material body — was a “cul-de-sac”. To illustrate the dualist delusion, he makes an improbable reference to the cartoon character, Casper the Friendly Ghost, who could both walk through walls and catch a baseball with his ghostly hand. “There was a latent contradiction built into the very idea of Casper the Friendly Ghost and basically that’s what’s wrong with dualism. Nobody’s ever solved that problem remotely satisfactorily.”

More here. [Free registration with the FT required.]

The Man Who Kicked Off the Biotech Revolution

Carl Zimmerman in Nautilus:

Alliance_0x0_476x316_a-155It’s hard to tell precisely how big a role biotechnology plays in our economy, because it infiltrates so many parts of it. Genetically modified organisms such as microbes and plants now create medicine, food, fuel, and even fabrics. Recently, Robert Carlson, of the biotech firm Biodesic and the investment firm Bioeconomy Capital, decided to run the numbers and ended up with an eye-popping estimate. He concluded that in 2012, the last year for which good data are available, revenues from biotechnology in the United States alone were over $324 billion. “If we talk about mining or several manufacturing sectors, biotech is bigger than those,” said Carlson. “I don’t think people appreciate that.”

What makes the scope of biotech so staggering is not just its size, but its youth. Manufacturing first exploded in the Industrial Revolution of the 19th century. But biotech is only about 40 years old. It burst into existence thanks largely to a discovery made in the late 1960s by Hamilton Smith, a microbiologist then at Johns Hopkins University, and his colleagues, that a protein called a restriction enzyme can slice DNA. Once Smith showed the world how restriction enzymes work, other scientists began using them as tools to alter genes. “And once you have the ability to start to manipulate the world with those tools,” said Carlson, “the world opens up.” The story of restriction enzymes is a textbook example of how basic research can ultimately have a huge impact on society. Smith had no such grand ambitions when he started his work. He just wanted to do some science. “I was just having a lot of fun, learning as I went,” Smith, now 85, said.

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Fatima Bhutto on Indian partition film Viceroy’s House: ‘I watched this servile pantomime and wept’

Fatima Bhutto in The Guardian:

ViceGurinder Chadha’s Raj film Viceroy’s House begins with an ominous warning: “History is written by the victors.” It sure is. The empire and its descendants have their fingerprints all over this story. Viceroy’s House, the story of the Mountbattens’ arrival in India and the subcontinent’s subsequent breakup, opens to the sight of bowing, preening and scraping Indians at work on the lawns, carpets and marble floors that are to greet the last viceroy of colonised India, Lord Louis Mountbatten – or Dickie, as he was known – played by the rosy Hugh Bonneville. In one of his first scenes, Mountbatten instructs his Indian valets that he never wants to spend more than two minutes getting dressed – fitting for the man who dismembered India in less than six weeks. As always, it is the Indians, not the British, who fail in the simplest of tasks set out for them (they take 13 minutes). The benevolence of the Mountbattens and, by association, the British Raj is laced throughout Chadha’s film. The second world war, we are told at the start by another pair of Indian valets, has exhausted the British and that is why they have “announced” they will be leaving India. There is no mention of the freedom struggle, Gandhian civil disobedience and resistance that brought the empire to its knees without firing a shot. Nor of the persecution and imprisonment of India’s independence leaders, successful economic boycotts of the industrialised British behemoth or the savagery and theft of imperialism (at least three million Indians died in the Bengal famine, a man-made disaster). It is simply that the British were “exhausted” – and that, too, by the Germans.

…Viceroy’s House is the film of a deeply colonised imagination. Its actors are collateral damage; no ill can be spoken of their talent or their craft. But as a south Asian I watched this film in a dark cinema hall and wept. This August will mark the 70th anniversary of the largest migration in human history. Fifteen million Indians were displaced and more than a million killed as the subcontinent was torn asunder. What value was freedom if it did not empower people to think without chains? If this servile pantomime of partition is the only story that can be told of our past, then it is a sorry testament to how intensely empire continues to run in the minds of some today.

More here.

Tuesday Poem


A visual delight,
the killer whale.
Two-tone black and white
from snout to tale.
Worth hunting deep at sea.

And when we’ve captured two or three
we pen them in a little jail
and teach them tricks
to do for fishy snacks
for paying multitudes who fill

the stands and scream to see
these mammals leap in synchrony,
who cruise a hundred miles a day
when free
beneath the bounding main.

Occasionally from the strain
they turn upon the rubber-suited crew
who labor so to train
them to cavort on cue,
and even maim a few.

pidity, said
Immanuel Kant,
is caused by a wicked
heart, Repent.

by Maxine Kumin
from Nurture
Viking Books, 1989

Shattering the decorum of democracy


George Blecher in Eurozine:

Not since the sweeping changes of the Roosevelt presidency in the 1930s have the constitutional “checks and balances” – the structural procedures built into the constitution that ostensibly protect the republic from demagoguery – been put so early and blatantly to the test. And it was just beginning: the next months will be filled with constant battles between the various branches of government.

Maybe the best way to describe the turbulent, terrible month that we just lived through is to say that the new President played two rather distinct roles, neither of which resembled that of any previous president: the public and the private Trump, the Performer and the Shady Businessman.

The public Trump was obsessed with the media – and vice versa. He clung to an image of himself as the star of a reality show whose ratings were in perpetual jeopardy. There was a frenetic, crazed quality to his performance that we didn’t see during the campaign. His tweets were directed at his fans, but they also served to confound and titillate the general public. And in those tweets and raucous press conferences, he acted out a kind of morality play in which he was the victimized child, while the establishment – the media, the courts, all his enemies in Congress and the general public – was the parent who didn’t understand him. Self-righteousness and self-pity were the play’s main themes.

It has to be admitted that his fan base enjoyed Trump’s performance. They shared his sense of persecution and belief in his definition of fake news; most of all, they appreciated his gestures at making good on his campaign promises, though much of what he did was in the nature of public pronouncements rather than proposals to Congress or executive orders.

But Trump supporters are a patient lot, and up to this point seem to be comfortable with someone who voices and respects their complaints rather than a chief executive who can actually do something about them. Plus it all made good TV. We were glued to our newsfeeds and TV news channels night and day. The Trump show was the only show in town. Whether one liked or hated his performance, he managed to keep the whole world enthralled.

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The Topsy Turvy World of Political Science in Trump’s America


Emma Grey Ellis in Wired:

The crux of the issue is this: When the country’s most pressing and partisan issues fall within your purview, can you advocate for change without seeming to lose objectivity? Sticky. And it just gets gluey-er. The scientific community isn’t too sure the social sciences really “count,” and academia in general enforces rigid and esoteric priorities. But a rising trend among political scientists has them taking their ideas outside the ivory tower, directly to citizens.

For sure, eggheads of any stripe still have a lot of ways to talk, mostly to each other—journals, conferences, the internet. And academia rewards staying in your lane. “Unless you’re post-tenure, the way to career advancement is impressing your peers,” Jackson says. “So you write the same article 12 times with minor modifications so you get cited a lot.”

But that road also leads to decreasing relevance. The ivory tower has less and less audience (and influence). “Think tanks and NGOs have a greater ability to weigh in on policy, be less descriptive, and set out recommendations for what to do,” Abelson says. “That’s had a chilling effect on those in the academy who stay in their silos and do the hard core, abstract science.” And the Trump administration famously rejects experts and data.

On the plus side, the current state of American politics (perhaps best characterized by “Yyaaaggghhh!”) presents a bunch of opportunities for someone to explain what the hell is going on. “It’s a wonderful time to relate theory to practice,” Abelson says. (No wonder he’s the only one we called who’s in a good mood.)

So you get political scientists increasingly wading into active policy debates as talking heads, bloggers, and letter-writing campaigners, or developing tools for the public to speak back to the government. That’s what Neblo did when he created a platform for online town hall meetings between politicians and their constituents.

As usual among academics, some people in the field are skeptical about colleagues going public with prescriptive tools and advice. It’s either an ethical gray area or totally non-kosher. Then again, scientists are about to march on Washington. But political scientists feel the tension perhaps even more keenly than their colleagues over in the laboratory building. “Because a lot of other scientists don’t take us seriously as a science, we want to be very careful,” Neblo says.

More here.

Masochism’s Gem-Like Flames


Len Gutkin in LA Review of Books:

ALTHOUGH WALTER PATER’S famous description of the Mona Lisa is not explicitly invoked in Claire Jarvis’s illuminating and original Exquisite Masochism: Marriage, Sex, and the Novel Form, its echoes are everywhere felt, beginning with the title. For Pater, the Mona Lisa’s is “a beauty wrought out from within upon the flesh, the deposit, little cell by cell, of strange thoughts and fantastic reveries and exquisite passions.” This is from The Renaissance (1873), the most important document in the history of British aestheticism, whose prescriptions for heightened sensitivity — for a susceptibility to the exquisite — enchanted and scandalized the Victorians. As Jarvis observes, “In all of its meanings, ‘exquisite’ develops precision and cultivation so extremely that they can tip from pleasure into pain, from beauty into fastidiousness into horror.” Pater evoked the horror, too. His Mona Lisa “is older than the rocks among which she sits; like the vampire, she has been dead many times, and learned the secrets of the grave.”

The most exquisite of Pater’s passions might be the desire to submit to the arcane forces the Mona Lisa — or her Victorian sisters — was made to represent. The cover of Exquisite Masochism features one such sister, the ice-eyed female nude from Edward Burne-Jones’s 1878 painting The Soul Attains, gazing coldly down at her kneeling male suitor. Although Jarvis’s focus is not on Pre-Raphaelite painting or on aestheticist art criticism, her attention to novelistic scene-setting makes the Burne-Jones cover work especially well — it almost feels like part of the book’s argument.

Reading across novels from Emily Brontë to D. H. Lawrence, Jarvis tracks the career of what she calls “the exquisitely masochistic scene”: “a decadent, descriptive scene of sexual refusal.” The plots of novels from Wuthering Heightsto Jude the Obscure, she shows, are wound around erotic tableaux in which women perpetually withhold their erotic favors, while men perpetually enjoy the agony of suspense. Jarvis sees such scenes of refusal as permitting the novelist to talk about sex while “still maintain[ing] a decent distance from pornography.” “Withholding sex, in the Victorian novel, is a perverse way of having it,” she claims.

All of the readings in Exquisite Masochism are variations on Jarvis’s opening case, Catherine’s power over Heathcliff in Wuthering Heights.

More here.

Current Genres of Fate: “Hardwired”

by Paul North

2015-12-11_1965FisherAmbassadorVII_Z2A6888_web600What do movies tell us? They tell stories; they tell about exotic places, wealth beyond our imagining, weapons beyond what would ever be necessary; they tell us about the idiosyncrasies of our celebrities. Besides all this, they almost always tell us something about ourselves. Imagine a screenwriter. What is her material? She works with plot and character yes, but her real material is us, our expectations. A screenwriter has to know, or think she knows, what the widest possible variety of viewers expects to see, so she can decide how to satisfy that in some respects and frustrate it in others. Before they type a word, screenwriters are psychic map makers, walking our internal landscapes, plotting the distant peaks and hidden valleys. They are the original mythographers. They tap into the unspoken myths that we keep secret—even from ourselves. Movies tell out loud secret beliefs we hide. Here is a test: next time you turn on a movie, if it captivates you, ask yourself which of your secrets is being revealed, what dark part of you is being torn out and lit up on the screen.

Fate is one of these secrets. We may talk about freedom, we may think of our future as full of possibilities, we may choose our president, choose our deodorant, choose when to choose and when not to—but in the direst moments, when it becomes too frightening or too difficult to see a way forward, we indulge in our secret belief in the fateful nexus that makes us unable to act. I have heard the most radical intellectuals, whose freedom of thought and imagination dwarfs anyone else's, say that gender differences must be "hard-wired."

Obviously "hardwired" is a way we talk. Like movies though, the way we talk tells us the secrets we keep. Newspaper headlines are also "talk"—they can be equally revealing. Even when the answer is no, we are not hard-wired to do this or that, just raising the question points right at our worry: are we hard-wired for this or that? (Look at "Are We Hard-Wired for War?" (NYT 9/28/13)). It's funny: "hard-wired" or as it's sometimes written—as if it were a technical term—"hardwired," is most often used in the press these days to talk about human psychology. It is, though, a metaphor. To date, no psychologist has discovered any "wires" in us.

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College Boys and Soldiers

by Michael Liss


My 40th college reunion is coming up. Yes, it's a jolt to the system to realize that I've gone from a skinny young nerd to a skinny vintage nerd in what seems roughly the amount of time it takes to play an Orioles-Yankees game. I'm making the calls and sending the emails to my far-flung (but "curated") group of friends, trying to decide whether Baltimore in Springtime is all that appealing…or should we just wait for 50?

It can get a little hot in April in Charm City. In fact, it can stay a little hot well into September. Along with hot, Baltimore has a well-deserved reputation for humid. It excels at humid. This, along with Chemistry, and, of all things, German, caused me briefly to wonder just what the heck I was doing when my guidance counselor suggested Johns Hopkins and I thought "Hopkins, wow, great idea, Cushing, Halsted, Osler, I'm going to be a doctor!"

Reality can be a cruel mistress. Yet there was something besides an absurd Heat-Index reading that was different about my first few days in college—there was also the sound of ROTC candidates training in the practice field behind my dorm. A reminder of Vietnam and a fate—perhaps my fate—rather narrowly escaped.

If you didn't live through it, it might be hard to grasp the turmoil, anger, and anxiety of the late 60s and early 70s. Turmoil, because no one knew when or how the war was going to end; anger, at politicians who seemed unable to find satisfactory answers; and anxiety—deep fear—that you, or a family member would somehow find himself in a place that few wanted to be for a cause in which many did not believe.

Richard Nixon had called for an all-volunteer army during the 1968 Campaign. Whether he actually believed in the concept or was merely using it as a tactic is hard to say. But he was also looking for a way to defuse the constant anti-war demonstrations. These, he thought, were led by middle and upper-middle class families who were concerned that once their boys completed their college deferments, they would be shipped off to die. Take away their risk, and they would no longer care, allowing him to pursue his strategic aims unencumbered by organized opposition.

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