Cultural Marxism is a theory that started in the early 20th century, which was popularised in the aftermath of the socialist revolution (this great piece in the Guardian explains it in depth). The idea was that Marxism should extend beyond class and into cultural equality and that, through major institutions like schools and the media, cultural values could progressively be changed. The theory was later adopted by the philosophers at the Frankfurt School who posited that the only way to destroy capitalism was to destroy it in all walks of life; where, not just classes, but all genders, races, and religions could live in society equally.
While this may seem unimportant, the Frankfurt School’s adoption of – and modifications to – cultural Marxism is where the conspiracy theory truly begins. The Frankfurt School’s predominantly Jewish members of the school were forced to flee to America by the Nazis in the 1940s, where many went on to teach, write, and commentate in mainstream institutions. This, conspiracy theorists claim, is when cultural Marxists began to poison the West – and when cultural Marxists began their attempts to undermine its values.
“A NEW SORT OF HISTORY: NOT A THREAD BUT A WEB” confidently hailed the headline for an article on trends in historical writing included in the TLS’s special issue in October 1961 on “European Exchanges”, itself marking in the paper’s eyes the end of Britain’s long cultural isolation. The unidentified author – anonymity still the house rule – was the forty-four-year-old Eric Hobsbawm, a Marxist historian of growing reputation but far from a household name. Noting with satisfaction that “the established if unofficial orthodoxies of academic conservatism” were “increasingly on the defensive”, he accused those orthodoxies of having “confined the field of general history to the chronological narrative, supplemented here and there with ad hoc explanations, of the upper ranges of politics, diplomacy, war and to some extent cultural life”. Instead, he looked forward to the flourishing of a radically different approach, one forged on the terrain “where history, economics and sociology meet” – and where “ideologies have replaced nations as the chief disturbers of scholarly equanimity”. He did not promise it would be easy. For the historian, “to explain the changing texture of a web is technically much harder than to trace a thread”; while for readers, the new history was likely to be “a very much more difficult subject” than for “their fathers and grandfathers”.
“More than one reality exists” screams the headline. Cue sighs of tired dread from physicists everywhere as they wonder what otherwise bland result has been spun out of control.
In this case, though, it turns out that the paper and the underlying theory are much more interesting than that takeaway. Essentially, modern physics tells us that two observers of the same event may never agree on the result, even if they have all possible knowledge. This is already accepted as part of special relativity, but now we have experimental proof that it applies to quantum mechanics as well.
Let’s start with the simplest possible example of how we typically resolve conflicting measurements. I am standing on a platform and measure the speed of an approaching train to be 180km/hr. You are on the train and measure the speed of the train to be 0km/hr. We can resolve the difference by making an additional measurement on our relative speeds. Afterward, we both know that we’ve measured the speed correctly relative to our own motion.
The situation gets more complex for very fast-moving objects.
On 6 January, 2011, the world watched aghast as sections of Pakistan’s modern legal fraternity took to the streets of the country’s capital, Islamabad, to shower petals on the self-confessed killer, Mumtaz Qadri. He had arrived in court to hear charges against him for the murder of Salman Taseer, Governor of Punjab, who had campaigned for changes to Pakistan’s blasphemy laws and the release of a Christian woman, Asia Bibi, sentenced to death for blasphemy.
In his confession Qadri, a member of Taseer’s security team, justified his actions saying they were required to defend Islam. He was found guilty of ‘terrorism’ and handed the death penalty. At his appeal hearing before the Islamabad High Court in 2015, Qadri was again feted by hundreds of lawyers who declared they were acting to meet their ‘Islamic obligations’. His defence team which included two retired Justices – one of them the former Chief Justice of the Lahore High Court – also claimed to be doing their ‘religious duty’.
Qadri was finally executed in 2016 after Pakistan’s Supreme Court upheld his death sentence. He has since been canonised by his followers and his grave in Lahore transformed into a shrine. The 700-strong lawyers’ forum which rose to his defence has vowed to continue his struggle against blasphemy.
On 13 October 1806 a young German philosopher, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, had an encounter with world history. En route to their annihilation of the Prussian forces 24 hours later, Napoleon and his army were marching through the East German university town of Jena. Hegel couldn’t disguise his terror that in the ensuing chaos the recently completed manuscript of The Phenomenology of Spirit might get lost in the mail. But neither could he resist the drama of the moment. As he wrote to his friend Friedrich Niethammer, ‘I saw the emperor – this world-soul (Weltseele) – riding out of the city on reconnaissance. It is indeed a wonderful sensation to see such an individual, who, concentrated here at a single point, astride a horse, reaches out over the world and masters it.’
Two hundred years later, in rather more sedate circumstances, the Berkeley historian Daniel J. Sargent, addressing the American Historical Association, also evoked the world spirit. But this time it came in the person of Donald Trump and he was riding not on horseback, but on a golf cart. Trump can be compared to Napoleon, according to Sargent, because they are both destroyers of international order. In the wake of the French Revolution, Napoleon wrecked what was left of the legitimate order of Europe. Trump, in turn, has apparently ended the American world order, or, as Sargent prefers to call it, Pax Americana.
Sargent’s is an extraordinary suggestion, even though overenthusiastic historic comparisons have now become commonplace.
As early as the mid-1950s, the art critic John Berger complained about the ways in which art was shown, taught, and written about. The art world — a term he deplored — was too insular, and the art historians and critics did very little to mitigate this. Perhaps most crucially, they failed to share art’s profound connections to human experience. It was no wonder that people expressed little interest in artworks, Berger said in a 1956 article for the New Statesman, because they’ve been led to believe “that such works as do exist have nothing to say to them.” Today, Berger’s demands appear more urgent and his criticisms only truer.
Valentin Amrhein, Sander Greenland & Blake McShane in Nature:
When was the last time you heard a seminar speaker claim there was ‘no difference’ between two groups because the difference was ‘statistically non-significant’?
If your experience matches ours, there’s a good chance that this happened at the last talk you attended. We hope that at least someone in the audience was perplexed if, as frequently happens, a plot or table showed that there actually was a difference.
How do statistics so often lead scientists to deny differences that those not educated in statistics can plainly see? For several generations, researchers have been warned that a statistically non-significant result does not ‘prove’ the null hypothesis (the hypothesis that there is no difference between groups or no effect of a treatment on some measured outcome)1. Nor do statistically significant results ‘prove’ some other hypothesis. Such misconceptions have famously warped the literature with overstated claims and, less famously, led to claims of conflicts between studies where none exists.
We have some proposals to keep scientists from falling prey to these misconceptions.
There is a wonderful metaphor in Alastair Macintyre’s After Virtue, in which the philosopher asks us to imagine a world hit by some terrible calamity that caused scientific and technical knowledge to be almost destroyed. What was left was smashed into thousands upon thousands of disconnected pieces, and the inhabitants of this world had to piece together their understanding of science and technology from what was lost, trying to line up the remnants of the earlier age as best they could.
Scrabbling, ignorant, and in the darkness, they would sometimes get things right. More often, however, they would get things seriously wrong. Most of all, they had lost any sense of science as a system, depriving them not only of the existing knowledge, but how to generate new ideas and make new discoveries.
It’s an image that haunts me, repeatedly, when surveying the state of the left today.
I am a feather on the bright sky I am the blue horse that runs in the plain I am the fish that rolls, shining, in the water I am the shadow that follows a child I am the evening light, the lustre of meadows I am an eagle playing with the wind I am a cluster of bright beads I am the farthest star I am the cold of the dawn I am the roaring of the rain I am the glitter on the crust of the snow I am the long track of the moon in a lake I am a flame of four colors I am a deer standing away in the dusk I am a field of sumac and pomme blanche I am an angle of geese in the winter sky I am the hunger of a young wolf I am the whole dream of these things
You see, I am alive, I am alive I stand in good relation to the Gods I stand in good relation to the earth I stand in good relation to everything that is beautiful… You see, I am alive, I am alive
by Navarre Scott Momaday from Modern American Poetry
** “My name is Tsoai‐talee. I am, therefore, Tsoai‐talee; therefore I am. The storyteller Pohd‐lokh gave me the name Tsoai‐talee. He believed that a man’s life proceeds from his name, in the way that a river proceeds from its source.” —Scott Momaday
The Twice-Born,” a new memoir by Aatish Taseer, is troubled by a single plaintive question: Does a city steeped in tradition have a future in modern India? The setting is Benares, the spiritual capital of Hinduism, where more than five million pilgrims flock each year to worship, bathe, and burn their dead. Dying while in Benares, it is said, will release a Hindu from the cycle of reincarnation, and Taseer discovers an industry of death that’s alive and well in the city. He describes corpses that “sizzled away on funeral pyres,” as dinghies drifted on the Ganges amid smoke and marigolds. Taseer, to be clear, has not come to Benares to die. He’s in his thirties for most of the memoir, and, anyway, he’s not religious. His pilgrimage is secular; he seeks to filter the contradictions of present-day India through his life story. In the process, “The Twice-Born” becomes a moving, if maundering, riff on what it means to be modern. For Taseer, Benares incarnates a curious quality of modernity: the city makes anthropologists of the devout and believers of the skeptical. The book’s charm resides in the way the author orbits this tension between faith and rationality. He yearns to make sense of how “the laws of reason and the laws of magic . . . reached an easy harmony” in contemporary India.
Taseer attempts to focus the book on his interactions with Brahmins, Hinduism’s priestly caste. (They are the twice-born of the memoir’s title, because they are considered to be born a second time upon their scholarly initiation.) But Taseer is foremost a wanderer, and the roving form of the book echoes his penchant for circularity. He writes as though Benares, in all its many dimensions, can be apprehended only through overlapping, fractal perspectives, one of which is his own.
Taseer’s relationship to himself is distinctly spectatorial; he cannot stop looking at himself looking at himself. “I saw everything as an Anglicized Indian watching an imaginary European or American visitor watch India,” he writes. “I wished I had a more direct relationship with my country. But any attempt to do so only made the self-observing selves multiply.”
For all their pontificating and complex moral theories, ethicists are just as disappointingly flawed as the rest of humanity. A study of 417 professors published last week in Philosophical Psychology found that, though the 151 ethics professors expressed stricter moral views, they were no better at behaving ethically.
The paper, by philosophy graduate student Philipp Schönegger from the University of St Andrews in Scotland and philosophy professor Johannes Wanger from the University of Graz in Austria, surveyed professors’ views on a range of moral topics, including organ donation, charitable giving, and even how often they called their mother. They then asked the professors about their own behavior in each category.
Imagine your response to picking up a copy of the leading scientific journal Nature and reading the headline: “The myth that evolution applies to humans.” Anyone even vaguely familiar with the advances in neuroscience over the past 15–20 years regarding sex influences on brain function might have a similar response to a recent headline in Nature: “Neurosexism: the myth that men and women have different brains” subtitled “the hunt for male and female distinctions inside the skull is a lesson in bad research practice.”
Turns out that yet another book, this one with a fawning review in Nature, claims to “shatter” myths about sex differences in the brain while in fact perpetuating the largest one. Editors at Nature decided to give this book their imprimatur. Ironically, within a couple of days of the Nature review being published came a news alert from the American Association for the Advancement of Science titled, “Researchers discover clues to brain differences between males and females,” and a new editorial in Lancet Neurology titled “A spotlight on sex differences in neurological disorders,” both of which contradict the book’s core thesis. So what in the name of good science is going on here?
Boeing executives are offering a simple explanation for why the company’s best-selling plane in the world, the 737 MAX 8, crashed twice in the past several months, leaving Jakarta, Indonesia, in October and then Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, in March. Executives claimed Wednesday, March 27, that the cause was a software problem — and that a new software upgrade fixes it.
But this open-and-shut version of events conflicts with what diligent reporters in the aviation press have uncovered in the weeks since Asia, Europe, Canada, and then the United States grounded the planes.
The story begins nine years ago when Boeing was faced with a major threat to its bottom line, spurring the airline to rush a series of kludges through the certification process — with an under-resourced Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) seemingly all too eager to help an American company threatened by a foreign competitor, rather than to ask tough questions about the project.
In 1886, Clark Bell, the editor of the journal of the Medico-Legal Society of New York, relayed to a physician named Pliny Earle a query bound to be of interest to his journal’s readers: Exactly what mental illnesses can be said to exist? In his 50-year career as a psychiatrist, Earle had developed curricula to teach medical students about mental disorders, co-founded the first professional organization of psychiatrists, and opened one of the first private psychiatric practices in the country. He had also run a couple of asylums, where he instituted novel treatment strategies such as providing education to the mentally ill. If any American doctor was in a position to answer Bell’s query, it was Pliny Earle.
Earle responded with a letter unlikely to satisfy Bell. “In the present state of our knowledge,” he wrote, “no classification can be erected upon a pathological basis, for the simple reason that, with slight exceptions, the pathology of the disease is unknown.” Earle’s demurral was also a lament. During his career, he had watched with excitement as medicine, once a discipline rooted in experience and tradition, became a practice based on science. Doctors had treated vaguely named diseases like ague and dropsy with therapies like bloodletting and mustard plasters. Now they deployed chemical agents like vaccines to target diseases identified by their biological causes. But, as Earle knew, psychiatrists could not peer into a microscope to see the biological source of their patients’ suffering, which arose, they assumed, from the brain. They were stuck in the premodern past, dependent on “the apparent mental condition [his emphasis], as judged from the outward manifestations,” to devise diagnoses and treatments.
Something is happening in African literature: The women are coming. For decades now, a river of original and important writing by female authors has been flowing out of that continent — books by writers such as Marlene van Niekerk, of whose second novel Liesl Schillinger wrote in these pages, “books like ‘Agaat’ … are the reason people read novels”; Tsitsi Dangarembga (“Nervous Conditions”); and, of course, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. Now that river has burst its banks and become a flood. Namwali Serpell’s extraordinary, ambitious, evocative first novel, “The Old Drift,” contributes powerfully to this new wave.
Interestingly, many of the contemporary books overlap with and even echo one another. Petina Gappah’s forthcoming novel, “Out of Darkness, Shining Light,” takes on the subject of the explorer David Livingstone and his African companions; “The Old Drift” also begins with Livingstone (but then moves on). Serpell’s novel is a multigenerational exploration of Zambia’s past, present and even its near future; another recent debut, “Harmattan Rain,” by Ayesha Harruna Attah, looks at the story of Ghana through the lives of three generations of women. And in September Maaza Mengiste’s “The Shadow King” will take on the subject of the Italian invasion of Ethiopia, moving beyond history to a kind of modern mythmaking, and looking at history primarily through the eyes of its female characters. “The Old Drift,” too, incorporates elements of fabulism into the history of Zambia, and, again, sees that history mostly through women’s eyes. Novuyo Rosa Tshuma’s “House of Stone,” published in the United States in January, has already been highly praised in The Guardian for summing up “not only … Zimbabwean history, but also all of African colonial history” — a large claim on behalf of any novel. Equally large claims have already been made for “The Old Drift,” which early reviewers have garlanded with comparisons to Toni Morrison and Gabriel García Márquez. Meanwhile, another recent novel, Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi’s “Kintu,” has been called a Ugandan “One Hundred Years of Solitude.” Trailing clouds of glory do they come.
The tall guy in a green T-shirt, vanishing past me as I cross in the opposite direction, has fairy wings on his shoulders: toy ones, children’s fancy-dress wings, cartoonish butterfly cut-outs.
Do they say gay? No time for that. He flickers past the traffic lights – whoosh! gone! – outside categories. Do they say foreign? They say young. They say London. Grab it, they say. Kiss the winged joy as it flies.
Traffic swings around the corner; gusts of drizzle sweep us along the Strand in the glittering dark, threading to and fro among skeins of never-quite-colliding blurs. All this whirling’s why we came out.
Those fragile flaps could lift no one. Perhaps they were ironic wings, tongue-in-cheek look-at-me tokens to make it clear he had no need of hydraulics, being himself Hermes. Wings, though; definite wings.
by Fleur Adcock from Glass Wings publisher: Bloodaxe, Newcastle, 2013
Is confessional poetry still interesting in our age of oversharing? Is it even confessional? If my students are any indication, readers immersed in multiple platforms of never-ending self-disclosure might not find the poetry of Robert Lowell or Anne Sexton particularly exhibitionist. Lowell’s Life Studies is personal, certainly, but not nearly as personal as your average Instagram story, not as revealing as the anecdotes my students are apt to volunteer in and after class, maybe not as real as the Real Housewives. Lowell famously described his turn toward the personal as a movement away from a rarefied and bloodless commitment to craft, “a breakthrough back into life” that promised to reenergize the writers of an entire generation. A half-century on, the subversions of their self-exposure can be harder to recognize. In the full thrall of TMI, it might be that the strangeness of confessional poetry has more to do these days with its being poetry than its being confessional. This development is not necessarily a bad thing. Indeed, I often try to highlight something like this dynamic by playing for my classes a recording of Sylvia Plath reading “Daddy” a few months before her death. It is an electrifying performance that completely reconfigures the way my students approach her poems. Plath brings to the text a theatrical intensity far flung from the rhetoric of therapeutic unburdening that the “confessional” label seems to suggest. As Plath declaims it, “Daddy” sounds more like the soliloquy of an Elizabethan villain than a straightforward exercise in self-expression. It is not so clear that such words unearth any sort of inner truth about the speaker, but they are certainly dramatic.
In The Art of Confession: The Performance of Self from Robert Lowell to Reality TV, Christopher Grobe makes a powerful case that this connection between confession and performance is no coincidence.
All 4,500 named varieties of potatoes trace their ancestry to the Americas. Wild potatoes grow along the American cordillera, the mountains that run from the Andes to Alaska. People living on its slopes have been eating potatoes for time out of mind. Stone tools and preserved potato peels show that wild potatoes were being prepared for food in southern Utah and south-central Chile nearly 13,000 years ago; similar evidence dates their domestication from at least 7800 BCE on the northern coast of Peru. They formed an important part of the diet of many of the cultures inhabiting the 9000 kilometers between Utah and Chile.
Together with foods such as quinoa and maize, they provided a robust, starchy backbone to cuisines also enriched with chile peppers, beans and other vegetables. Each variety can be propagated from a “mother potato.” She sounds like an ancient deity but in botany the term refers to the mundane tuber or seed potato that provides the genetic material from which additional plants are cultivated.
One difficulty with potatoes is that they are difficult to store. Anyone who has ever lost track of a bag of potatoes knows this.