Archives for May 2018

Music: Sona Mohapatra — ‘Ambarsariya’

 

The role of liberals in the rise of authoritarianism

John Gray writes:

The denial by liberals of any responsibility for the conditions that have fuelled rising anti-liberal movements is the cardinal fact of contemporary politics. What this denial presages is not any higher phase of history – a revamped liberal order, or some purer version of socialism – but a new authoritarian era. The world has reverted to a condition not dissimilar to that which prevailed towards the end of the 19th century. Harnessing unchanging human needs for security and identity, great powers are deploying new technologies in the pursuit of primacy and survival.

As during the Cold War, this is a period in which there is no longer any clear distinction between war and peace. But this is not a struggle whose prize is ideological victory. As in the pre-1914 world the goals are power and profit won on battlegrounds of ethnic and religious conflict. At the same time, politics is being shaped by the return of the worst pathologies of the early 20th century. Not only on the far-right but also in progressive parties and movements, political poisons from the past are being recycled in new and virulent forms.

The renormalisation of anti-Semitism is part of this process. In France, Marine Le Pen was able to command over a third of the votes in the run-off in last May’s French presidential election after reverting to the hate-driven politics of her father in the closing phase of her campaign, when she denied French responsibility for the notorious Vel D’Hiv round-up in July 1942, in which 13,000 Jews were arrested and confined in a Paris sports arena before being sent to their deaths in camps. [Continue reading…]

Britain has replaced welfare with destitution

The New York Times reports:

A walk through this modest town [Prescot, near Liverpool] in the northwest of England amounts to a tour of the casualties of Britain’s age of austerity.

The old library building has been sold and refashioned into a glass-fronted luxury home. The leisure center has been razed, eliminating the public swimming pool. The local museum has receded into town history. The police station has been shuttered.

Now, as the local government desperately seeks to turn assets into cash, Browns Field, a lush park in the center of town, may be doomed, too. At a meeting in November, the council included it on a list of 17 parks to sell to developers.

“Everybody uses this park,” says Jackie Lewis, who raised two children in a red brick house a block away. “This is probably our last piece of community space. It’s been one after the other. You just end up despondent.”

In the eight years since London began sharply curtailing support for local governments, the borough of Knowsley, a bedroom community of Liverpool, has seen its budget cut roughly in half. Liverpool itself has suffered a nearly two-thirds cut in funding from the national government — its largest source of discretionary revenue. Communities in much of Britain have seen similar losses.

For a nation with a storied history of public largess, the protracted campaign of budget cutting, started in 2010 by a government led by the Conservative Party, has delivered a monumental shift in British life. A wave of austerity has yielded a country that has grown accustomed to living with less, even as many measures of social well-being — crime rates, opioid addiction, infant mortality, childhood poverty and homelessness — point to a deteriorating quality of life. [Continue reading…]

A correlation between Republicanism and racism apparent among the judiciary

The New York Times reports:

Judges appointed by Republican presidents gave longer sentences to black defendants and shorter ones to women than judges appointed by Democrats, according to a new study that analyzed data on more than half a million defendants.

“Republican-appointed judges sentence black defendants to three more months than similar nonblacks and female defendants to two fewer months than similar males compared to Democratic-appointed judges,” the study found, adding, “These differences cannot be explained by other judge characteristics and grow substantially larger when judges are granted more discretion.”

The study was conducted by two professors at Harvard Law School, Alma Cohen and Crystal S. Yang. They examined the sentencing practices of about 1,400 federal trial judges over more than 15 years, relying on information from the Federal Judicial Center, the United States Sentencing Commission and the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse at Syracuse University.

Douglas A. Berman, an authority on sentencing law at Ohio State University, said the study contained “amazing new empirical research.”

“It’s an extraordinarily important contribution to our statistical understanding of sentencing decision making in federal courts over the last two decades,” he said.

It has long been known that there is an overall racial sentencing gap, with judges of all political affiliations meting out longer sentences to black offenders. The new study confirmed this, finding that black defendants are sentenced to 4.8 months more than similar offenders of other races. [Continue reading…]

Syria’s army is on a path to victory after ousting rebels from Damascus

The Washington Post reports:

After seven years of war, Syrian government forces have taken full control of the area around their capital, Damascus, freeing up an overstretched military to move against the country’s few remaining rebel pockets.

The battle for Damascus ended this week with an offensive against the Islamic State group among the ruins of a former Palestinian refugee camp in the southern suburbs after other rebel forces were defeated in a nearby enclave. More than 1,000 civilians were killed in the campaign, according to monitoring groups.

The Syrian army announced that the last opposition fighters had left the Damascus suburbs, marking the culmination of a years-long march to victory there.

The armed opposition is now relegated to Idlib province in the north near the Turkish border and Daraa in the south near the Jordanian border. On Friday, Syrian aircraft dropped leaflets in the northern districts of Daraa, warning rebels to lay down their weapons or face an offensive there. [Continue reading…]

What are the limits of manipulating nature?

In Scientific American, Neil Savage writes:

Matt Trusheim flips a switch in the darkened laboratory, and an intense green laser illuminates a tiny diamond locked in place beneath a microscope objective. On a computer screen an image appears, a fuzzy green cloud studded with brighter green dots. The glowing dots are color centers in the diamond—tiny defects where two carbon atoms have been replaced by a single atom of tin, shifting the light passing through from one shade of green to another.

Later, that diamond will be chilled to the temperature of liquid helium. By controlling the crystal structure of the diamond on an atom-by-atom level, bringing it to within a few degrees of absolute zero and applying a magnetic field, researchers at the Quantum Photonics Laboratory run by physicist Dirk Englund at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology think they can select the quantum-mechanical properties of photons and electrons with such precision that they can transmit unbreakable secret codes.

Trusheim, a postdoctoral researcher in the lab, is one of many scientists trying to figure out just which atoms embedded in which crystals under what conditions will give them that kind of control. Indeed, scientists around the world are tackling the hard problem of controlling nature at the level of atoms and below, down to electrons or even fractions of electrons. Their aim is to find the knobs that control the fundamental properties of matter and energy and turn those knobs to customize matter and energy, creating ultrapowerful quantum computers or superconductors that work at room temperature.

These scientists face two main challenges. On a technical level, the work is extremely difficult. Some crystals, for instance, must be made to 99.99999999 percent purity in vacuum chambers emptier than space. The more fundamental challenge is that the quantum effects these researchers want to harness—for example, the ability of a particle to be in two states at once, à la Schrödinger’s cat—happen at the level of individual electrons. Up here in the macro world, the magic goes away. Researchers manipulating matter at the smallest scales, therefore, are trying to coax nature into behaving in ways that strain at the limits imposed by fundamental physics. The degree to which they succeed will help determine our scientific understanding and technological capacity in the decades to come. [Continue reading…]

David Buckel — destined to be remembered more for the cause of his death than its stated purpose

The New York Times reports:

Two weeks before he died [through self-immolation on April 14 in Brooklyn], Mr. Buckel seemed particularly agitated when he came to work one day. “I asked if he was stressed,” Mr. Morales said. “He dismissed it.” Then Mr. Buckel started sending him emails — lists of contacts, instructions for how to complete annual reports, forms to be turned over to officials. He began labeling everything on the site, every switch and key, and showed him how to work the solar panels, the lights.

“‘What, you going to retire on me?’” Mr. Morales remembered saying. “‘Naw, you’re stuck with me forever.’”

In those days, the news had broke that Scott Pruitt, the head of the Environmental Protection Agency under President Trump, wanted to end Obama-era standards on vehicle emissions, a devastating blow to anyone fighting climate change.

If the agency rolled back the rules on emissions, it would wipe out all the efforts made by people like Mr. Buckel — walking to work, processing hundreds of tons of food waste without a drop of gas.

Mr. Buckel’s husband and the women with whom they lived said he had been increasingly distressed over the environment and the state of the national debate, but had not been ill or shown signs of depression. To honor his wishes, they said in brief telephone interviews that they wanted to focus on the message he left behind.

Mr. Buckel’s suicide letter was a few pages long and touched on many subjects, revealing a man who had grown deeply despondent. But it made his cause clear: “Pollution ravages our planet,” he wrote. “Most humans on the planet now breathe air made unhealthy by fossil fuels, and many die early deaths as a result.”

He concluded: “Here is a hope that giving a life might bring some attention to the need for expanded action.”

The last time that Mr. Morales saw him, Mr. Buckel looked exhausted. The next morning he said nothing to his family before leaving home.

Later, when Mr. Kaelber was asked what had precipitated his husband’s suicide, he said, “I think a lot of it, unfortunately, was all that’s going on with the Trump administration and the rollback by Pruitt.” [Continue reading…]

In spite of David Buckel’s explanation for why he took his own life, perhaps it was ultimately mostly an act of despair.

The mistake by anyone who presumes to attach significance to their own death is that this will be decided by those who survive. Death’s meaning — or lack of it — is outside our control.

Everyone, to varying degrees, harbors the hope that our life matters, but in that hope is the kernel of a desire for some form of immortality.

Better than anyone choosing to take their own life is to realize that life never is something we own.

Music: Sona Mohapatra — ‘Aaja Ve’

 

The Trump effect: New study connects white American intolerance and support for authoritarianism

Noah Berlatsky writes:

Since the founding of the United States, politicians and pundits have warned that partisanship is a danger to democracy. George Washington, in his Farewell Address, worried that political parties, or factions, could “allow cunning, ambitious and unprincipled men” to rise to power and subvert democracy. More recently, many political observers are concerned that increasing political polarization on left and right makes compromise impossible, and leads to the destruction of democratic norms and institutions.

A new study, however, suggests that the main threat to our democracy may not be the hardening of political ideology, but rather the hardening of one particular political ideology. Political scientists Steven V. Miller of Clemson and Nicholas T. Davis of Texas A&M have released a working paper titled “White Outgroup Intolerance and Declining Support for American Democracy.” Their study finds a correlation between white American’s intolerance, and support for authoritarian rule. In other words, when intolerant white people fear democracy may benefit marginalized people, they abandon their commitment to democracy.

Miller and Davis used information from the World Values Survey, a research project organized by a worldwide network of social scientists which polls individuals in numerous countries on a wide range of beliefs and values. Based on surveys from the United States, the authors found that white people who did not want to have immigrants or people of different races living next door to them were more likely to be supportive of authoritarianism. For instance, people who said they did not want to live next door to immigrants or to people of another race were more supportive of the idea of military rule, or of a strongman-type leader who could ignore legislatures and election results. [Continue reading…]

A triumph for women and for Ireland

Barbara Wesel writes:

It is such a resounding victory that campaigners in Ireland are weeping with joy. After a tense last few days when the referendum seemed too close to call, it turned out to be a landslide result. Irish people voted overwhelmingly in favor of abolishing the total abortion ban in the constitution. And with this amendment, the last part of an oppressive system that subjugated women in Ireland for centuries has gone. They have achieved what has long been the norm in other European countries: giving women the right to decide for themselves whether they feel capable of having a child or not. And, a woman’s right to get medical help in her own country, without having to travel to Britain as hundreds of thousands of Irish women have done over time.

With this referendum, the Catholic Church has lost its last battle in Ireland. Throughout the last 20 years, as the wrongdoings of clerics and bishops were uncovered, the nation increasingly turned away from its teachings and from the whole intertwined system of state and church. Scandal after scandal of child abuse involving priests was uncovered. The horror of children’s homes where small boys and girls were mistreated and broken was made public. And finally, there was the investigation of the unspeakable Magdalene laundries, where unmarried girls were incarcerated when they became pregnant, were beaten and enslaved, their babies taken from them by force.

This whole system of abuse, this vicious cycle of oppression, was run by the Catholic Church. And it was largely, if not exclusively, directed against women. Ireland has throughout the last 20 years uncovered this dark past and publicized these horrors. The Church subsequently has lost its status in the Irish state and in society. The constitutional amendment completely banning abortion, even risking the life of the mother, was their last bastion. In the end, the Church hardly dared to defend it. The clergy understand that it would have riled people even further and that they have lost their hold over morality and law in Ireland. [Continue reading…]