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Oh my. Oh my oh my. While I was out at our climate strike event, I had to, naturally enough, prowl around for spiders, and there she was, hanging out behind the door of the men’s restroom at Green River Park, a stunning beauty, a classic Steatoda borealis, her body all dark and gleaming in confident repose. She’s perfect.
We go from the sublime to the hideous. When we were doing our routine check for egg sacs the other day, we discovered that Brienne had produced a nice one for us, deep in the elaborate network of webbing she had built in her box. It’s the pale oval on the lower left in this photo.
But…no Brienne. She had disappeared. Look below the egg sac above — there’s a tangled mess below it. I zoomed in on it. It’s an ogre’s nest, apparently.
Ick. Dead flies, bits of dead cricket carapace, all strung together with thick, ropey cables of webbing. Spiders make multiple kinds of web, you know, and these spiders will make cables of web silk that are remarkably tough and hard even for humans to break. I tugged at these with forceps, and nope, they aren’t going anywhere, shy of ripping out the whole structure and possibly injuring its occupant.
Yeah, Brienne is hiding deep inside, the dark shadow near the center of the nest.
These animals always surprise me. They’ve got a complex range of behaviors, and I have no idea what triggered this strange construction. The other spiders in the colony aren’t doing it. I’ve seen a few examples of spiders cobbling together debris into shelters, but it’s not universal, and usually they aren’t this thickly armored and enclosed.
Next they’re going to start assembling tools and weapons, and then you’d better look out.
I’ve been naughty and haven’t made any YouTube videos in a while (I have to change that, if only I had time), but would you believe I still get comments on stuff I made months ago? Here’s a recent comment made on my video about Jordan Peterson’s PragerU video on those darned liberal arts universities. It’s all racist talking points while accusing Democrats of being racist, but of course they wander all over the place with all kinds of random boogity-boos.
So much incoherence and contradictions! I should whip up a video about how there are far more than two genders, to pick just one example of its nonsense.
My little video focused on just one collection of bogus claims by one cranky Canadian fart, but PragerU is a far more poisonous set of lies than that…and yet somehow they’ve avoided the mass demonetizations that afflict my liberal friends, or even the raving right wing nutcases. Money greases a lot of wheels at Google, I guess. Rather than wasting a lot of time on this one fool’s comment, I’ll just point you at this recent analysis of PragerU.
It’s not enough to just say that PragerU isn’t an actual university. It’s outright propaganda, and those appearing on the channel are propagandists.
As an institution, PragerU has proved to be toxic, and it should be best understood as — as its “About Us” page notes — a “digital marketing campaign.” If one of Prager University’s goals really is to “[make] the world a better place, five minutes at a time,” it deserves a failing grade for its current output.
I felt there was an urgent need for a book presenting an explicitly critical account of mindfulness, not least to balance the positive presentation of mindfulness in popular self-help writing. So, my book is meant to be a “public intervention” – a wake-up call – not only by critically questioning the hype, hoopla and exaggerated claims of the so-called “mindfulness revolution,” but also exposing the ways mindfulness has been selectively appropriated and refashioned into an instrumental technique for personal gain.
I also wanted to expose how wealthy, white, Euro-Americans created an elite social movement that took what was once a practice aimed at spiritual liberation from selfishness and greed and turned it into a highly individualistic, do-it-yourself self-help technique. I wanted to provide an account of why "mindfulness" has become such a buzzword and popular practice in contemporary times. The book is meant for those who have a healthy skepticism towards self-help techniques, the ideology of happiness and wellbeing, and capitalist spirituality.
How would you define mindfulness, and McMindfulness? What makes them distinct?
Mindfulness even within Buddhism and its various schools is subject to varied understandings and applications, depending on the time period and context. Furthermore, mindfulness training represents only a tiny sliver of the plethora of Buddhist meditation methods.
Mindfulness is an English translation taken from the Sanskrit smrti or in Pali, sati. T. Rhys Davids, a Welsh Oriental scholar in the 19th century struggled with finding a suitable word. It was an Anglican prayer, “Be mindful of the needs of others—in other words, to always keep their needs in mind. However, in the Pali Canon – the earliest recorded teachings of the Buddha, sati has more to do with the ability to remember, to recollect, to call to mind – bring to mind and holding in mind certain reflections, instructions, and doctrines. In fact, in the classic Satipatthana Sutra, a core teaching on mindfulness in the Buddhist teachers – there is no mention or instruction to be in the present moment, or the now, non-judgmentally.
As the purpose and function of sati within the context of the Buddhist path is to put an end to suffering, mindfulness is not merely a passive and nonjudgmental attentiveness to the present moment exclusively but an actively engaged and discerning awareness that is capable of recollecting words and actions from the past as well. Right mindfulness, when properly cultivated and supported by other mental factors, can remember and know skilful as well as unskilful phenomena, in the past and in the present – with the intended purpose of abandoning those which lead toward suffering and stress in the future. Thus, right mindfulness is not simply bare attention to the present moment but includes both retrospective memory of the past and prospective memory of the present and future .
McMindfulness has downplayed or even ignored the cognitive dimensions involving judgment and discernment as well as the contingent role that ethical conduct plays in fostering the development of mindfulness. This has led to a very superficial and one-sided understanding of mindfulness as a form of therapeutically helpful sense of calm and quietness.
Promoters saw the utilitarian value of mindfulness in terms of providing individuals therapeutic benefits. However, in order to make mindfulness widely accessible to secular audiences, these promoters had to mystify mindfulness – covering up the fact that they selectively extracted and uprooted mindfulness from its grounding in a religious tradition which was informed not only on a foundation of morality and ethics, but which is motivated by liberation from the story of being a separate self and cultivating a compassionate commitment to act for the welfare of all sentient beings. It is this process of mystification that also accounts for the widespread misconception in the West that Buddhist practice is synonymous with mindfulness meditation.
McMindfulness represents then a quick-fix for the anxieties of late-capitalist society. Lacking an ethical and moral framework, McMindfulness can be deployed for instrumental aims – improving productivity and career success, better decision-making among hedge fund managers on Wall Street, creating better test-takers or military sharp-shooters.
You argue that mindfulness can actually deepen harmful free market ideology. How?
Like any other hot commodity, mindfulness has been refashioned to accommodate the needs of the market, obfuscating critical reflection on the systemic causes of our collective malaise and institutional stress. I take issue with the dominant psychological and scientific narratives that explain stress, disengagement, and discontent as a failure of individuals to take personal responsibility for their own self-care, social welfare and wellness. As a new brand of a capitalist spirituality, stress is privatised and pathologised. Privatising the causes of stress dovetails nicely with the assumptions of neoliberal, free market ideology.
If breathing exercises and so on help people avoid panic attacks, for example, does it matter if these practices are corporatised?
If you have a hostile boss breathing down your neck, and your only recourse is to resort to a breathing exercise to avoid a panic attack, there isn’t anything inherently wrong with that. The problem is not that people are getting individualistic benefits. It’s at the ideological level, maintaining a narrow way of framing human distress. That’s why I’m not blaming individuals that are taking up these practices, but am more concerned with the dominant cultural message that happiness is a skill – independent of your social conditions.
You write about different spiritual movements that have risen and fallen. Why has mindfulness boomed in recent years?
Mindfulness is now estimated to be a $1.5 billion industry. With its “sciencey-claims,” its promoted as cure-all and easily learned skill that will make you less stressed, happy and content – without any challenge to the existing social and political order of society. So it’s very appealing to corporations, for example. It isn’t really a social movement like the civil rights or women’s movements which opposed and confronted dominant institutions at the grass roots level. Instead, it has been led by elites and affluent professionals who have used their cultural capital to gain insider access to a variety of institutions including corporations, public schools, community agencies, government, and even the military. Mindfulness offers no challenges or threat to the status quo, which makes it very politically appealing.
What do you make of apps like Headspace and others that encourage people to meditate or be mindful?
Meditation apps have become McDonaldised, allowing them to be standardised, scaled-up and mass distributed just like a Big Mac. Like fast-food, apps are convenient, accessible, cheap and offer a quick-fix, low dosage burst of mindfulness – enough to put a band-aid on everyday anxieties.
The gamification of mindfulness through apps instills a form of self-surveillance, that we must constantly monitor our mental and emotional states, while giving us the false sense we need external technologies as a way of exerting executive control over our own bodies and minds. Such obsessive self-monitoring is driven by a moral imperative to be mindful, fit and healthy, but in isolation from others.
Apps such as Headspace are sending the wrong message. Mindfulness is not a DIY endeavour. Self-help apps fail because the stresses that put our lives in jeopardy in the first place remain in the world around us even after we’ve taken the “cures”. The fact is that people who can find the resources they require for success in their environments are far more likely to succeed than individuals who temporarily de-stress with an app.
You critique McMindfulness as putting the onus on the individual, rather than society. What would be a more useful approach?
When mindfulness practices are taught and practiced in ways that help people connect the dots between their personal troubles and public issues, it becomes "civic mindfulness". When people practicing civic mindfulness gain insight that their personal troubles, addictions, worries, anxieties, and insecurities are linked to social and political conditions, and by sharing insights in a communal context, then bonds of solidarity that focus collective attention on the greater good. A civic oriented mindfulness goes beyond individualistic stress reduction and behavioural self-management. Civic mindfulness offers an opportunity to reorient these practices away from instrumental ends towards a more prophetic critique of neoliberal values, fostering a more socially-engaged commitment to social change and justice.
This article is a preview from the Autumn 2019 edition of New Humanist
Majoritarian State: How Hindu Nationalism Is Changing India (Hurst) by Angana P. Chatterji, Thomas Blom Hansen and Christophe Jaffrelot (eds.)
This collection of 21 essays was published on the eve of the 2019 elections in India, before the authors would have known that the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), the Hindu nationalist party led by Narendra Modi, would sweep back into power with an increased majority. Reading it in the light of that landslide victory, I realise that the trends mapped in this book on the BJP’s careful construction of a hegemonic state, with its tentacles reaching into all political, social and cultural institutions, are spot-on.
Collectively, the essays paint a picture of a democratic state with a progressive constitution which embodies the ideals of secularism, but sees non-state actors advancing Hindutva, a political ideology based on Hindu exclusivism. These are a network of organisations affiliated to the far-right RSS (Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh) whose vigilantes terrorise minorities, particularly Muslims.
To date, the BJP has not tampered with the constitution. It has relied on legislation already enacted by the Indian National Congress to curb free speech. But the real threat to civil liberties is from mob violence. One of the editors, Thomas Blom Hansen, asserts that “Violence is indeed a foundational element of Hindutva – as ideology and as political action”, which contradicts the popular notion of Hinduism as a peaceful philosophy and lifestyle. While violence is useful to the BJP, at the same time, it cannot be seen to be losing control of law and order.
There has been a series of high-profile lynchings of Muslims accused of cattle smuggling or consuming beef. (Cows are sacred in Hinduism.) Couples in interfaith marriages have been harassed, especially where Hindu women have married Muslim men. Their husbands or boyfriends have been beaten up and accused of “love jihad”, apparently a Muslim strategy to forcibly convert Hindu girls to Islam. Vigilantes, with police collusion, broke up a birthday party in the southern city of Mangalore because unmarried men and women were engaging in “ugly activities”. When the Forum against Atrocities on Women protested against this incident they received a letter in badly-written English from the Sangh Parivar, the family of Hindu nationalist groups: “You will better stop all your anti-Hindu activity before you realise the taste of slap or something else which will be done in well planned manner [sic].”
As Suhas Palshikar’s essay argues, this is all in aid of the construction of a hegemonic project where “Modi and the BJP needed to combine the acceptable and controversial”. A 2017 Pew report found that more than half the population of India supported autocratic rule. This is surprising given India’s pride in its self-image as the largest democracy in the world, but perhaps explains why large sections of the Indian populace have bought into the idea that a majority, whether defined on ethnic or religious lines, has legitimacy and moral force by virtue of numbers.
Modi has announced a number of popular projects such as Clean India, Make in India, Skill India and Digital India where the emphasis is on opportunity and achievement replacing the welfare and redistribution emphasis of Congress policies under the slogan “Eradicate poverty”. Modi has delivered on none of these. His populist measures extend to replacing VIP culture with EPI where “Every Person is Important”. Like Trump and Farage, Modi emphasises his outsider status in Delhi. The failure of his promise of job creation is seen as his Achilles’ heel yet it didn’t stop him from easily winning the 2019 elections.
There are notable absences in the book. There is nothing on the role of right-wing Hindu women in the BJP and RSS cadre. Nothing on the dilemmas faced by feminists whose support for the Uniform Civil Code, a campaign to replace laws based on religion with common secular laws, is tainted by the BJP’s enthusiastic support of it as a weapon against the Muslim community. The reduced space for a secular feminist response is indirectly seen in the essay by Flavia Agnes, a feminist lawyer who argues that the sharia precepts on instant divorce give Muslim women more rights than is acknowledged by those campaigning against it. But she does not go the extra mile to recognise that religious laws can never give women their full rights.
This article is a preview from the Autumn 2019 edition of New Humanist
The statue of the suffragist Millicent Fawcett, in London’s Parliament Square, has satisfied many of those who longed to see a woman commemorated in the heart of the capital. It was commissioned by the Mayor Sadiq Khan, designed by award-winning artist Gillian Wearing, unveiled by the Prime Minister – conveniently also female – and joyously welcomed by a host of feminist organisations and individuals. What’s not to like?
Wearing’s design sticks to the traditional script of commemorative sculpture by presenting a life-like representation of Fawcett standing on a four-sided plinth. Holding a placard that reads: “Courage Calls to Courage Everywhere”, Fawcett joins iconic 19th- and 20th-century figures such as Winston Churchill, Abraham Lincoln, Jan Smuts, Nelson Mandela and Mahatma Gandhi. These are men whose legacies represent the blood-soaked efforts to hold the British Empire together and the determination to be free of colonial rule. One might well ask: where are the women in this historical pantheon?
Fawcett’s claim to fame is that she co-founded the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies (NUWSS), which went on to become the largest suffrage organisation in Britain. The artwork, installed to mark the centenary of the 1918 Representation of the People Act which enfranchised some women over 30, ostensibly celebrates her lifelong commitment to The Cause, as it was then known, while simultaneously gesturing towards the fractured movement of which she was a part. Round its base, the plinth bears small photographic portraits of 55 activists, writers and reformers, many of whom led very different lives and had quite divergent views from the eminently respectable Fawcett towering above them.
The initiative was part-funded by the Arts Council through its 14-18 NOW initiative: a five-year programme of “extraordinary arts experiences connecting people with the First World War”. Thus the story of how British women acquired the vote has become one more national achievement to be celebrated in the context of the centenary of “the war to end all wars”. But the congruence of these two centenaries creates a problem.
In Britain at least, it creates the impression that women were given the vote in return for their patriotic services in war. Fawcett’s legacy confirms this as, for her, the path to suffrage lay in demonstrating women’s capability in wartime. In 1918 she wrote: “It is a source of great pride and thankfulness that the womanhood of the whole country, quite irrespective of political party or creed, were eager to do everything in their power to help their country.”
However, in the preceding decades, many suffragists who were committed to humanitarian social reform had developed fierce critiques of militarism and nationalism shaped by the specific circumstances in which they worked. Some of these women are included in the monument to Fawcett, despite taking radically different positions when war broke out.
In 1915, almost the entire organising committee of the NUWSS left en masse after Fawcett vetoed sending a member to the International Women’s Congress for Peace and Freedom conference in The Hague. Ray Strachey, a close friend of Fawcett, described the split as “a great cataclysm” but claimed triumphantly that they had managed to “drive all the pacifists out”.
The conference was attended by delegates sent from Austria, Belgium, Canada, Denmark, Germany, the Netherlands, Hungary, Italy, Norway, Sweden and the United States, laying the foundations for the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom, which still exists today. Only three of the 180 British women who applied were successful in acquiring passports, and no French women were allowed to travel at all. One of those who would have attended, had health permitted, was the veteran English pacifist and radical, Emily Hobhouse.
Over 15 years earlier, Hobhouse and Fawcett had encountered each other in the course of the South African War, a brutal conflict that had offered “glimpses of the great cataclysm ahead” in ways that no one understood at the time. Their passionate, but utterly discordant, beliefs in the role that women could play in international politics earned them very different reputations, both in their lifetimes and to this day.
In 1899, the conflict – sometimes referred to as the Anglo-Boer War – was prompted by the discovery of a massive gold seam in the Transvaal, one of the two Boer Republics led by Paul Kruger. It was Britain’s first major deployment since Crimea in the 1850s, and many felt it to be a continuation of the Diamond Jubilee celebrations of 1897. The exercise was intended to showcase the country’s military might to other European powers, notably Germany, and the fighting was expected to be over by Christmas,
In Britain, many on the left vehemently protested that the Boers were innocent victims, and anti-war meetings attracted a violent response on the basis that the organisers were traitors. Others argued that the cost of armaments alone was having a ruinous effect on the economy.
Suffrage groups were divided because there seemed to be a principle at stake. It was said that the Boers were denying “outsiders” (prospecting Brits, Germans and others attracted by the discovery of gold) the right to vote by labelling them as Uitlanders with no citizens’ rights. Fawcett was clear on this point, but she also felt a patriotic duty to stand by her government: “A war almost invariably suspends all progress in domestic and social legislation”, she wrote. “Two fires cannot burn together, and the most ardent of the suffragists felt that, while the war lasted, it was not a fitting time to press their own claims and objects”.
Hobhouse vehemently disagreed. In 1899, she was elected secretary of the South African Conciliation Committee, and by June 1900 had organised a mass meeting in London where women protested against the actions of the British army. Three months later she founded the South African Women and Children Distress Fund to collect money for Boer families.
By that time, far from being over in a few weeks, the conflict had begun to drag on in unexpected ways. Mounted Boer guerrillas were ambushing the troops who outnumbered them, carrying out quick raids before disappearing into the veldt (open grasslands). The British retaliated by burning homesteads, livestock and crops, and poisoning wells and fruit trees. This scorched-earth policy also entailed sweeping up 100,000 civilians into a network of camps fenced in by barbed wire. Boer women and children, and men too old to fight, were incarcerated with no provision for health or hygiene. This was a new military tactic and the generals Roberts and Kitchener, whose war records included the slaughter of hundreds of Sudanese with the aid of the new Maxim gun, were not concerned with the welfare of the enemy population, even those designated as fellow whites. Meanwhile, thousands of black men, women and children were held in segregated camps, situated along railway lines and along the border where they were expected to act as “the eyes and ears of the British army”.
The details of these concentration camps, as they were called, were initially concealed from the British public. However, since this was the age of mass circulation newspapers and a growing global telegraph network, it would not be long before the government faced new pressures from informed critics.
When Hobhouse arrived in Cape Town in December 1900, she made the astonishing discovery that thousands of Boer women and children as well as African tenants and farmhands were dying as a result of profound neglect. Hobhouse visited many camps, interviewing inmates and collecting photographic evidence. After returning to England she published a pamphlet in which she described the appalling conditions that accounted for this astonishing mortality rate. She then distributed her report to all members of parliament before touring the country.
Her exposé changed the terms of the debate. Faced with indisputable evidence, politicians were forced to take a stand on the moral implications of what was taking place in the Transvaal. The staggering number of deaths made nonsense of the government’s line – echoing the army – that the inhabitants were ‘‘refugees’’ who were merely being protected. On 14 June 1901, the leader of the opposition Liberal party, Sir Henry Campbell-Bannerman, made a speech that was to resound throughout the British Empire. Before he read Hobhouse’s report he had deferred to the Conservative government. But now he launched a full-scale attack on Lord Salisbury’s administration. “When,” he asked, “is a war not a war? When it is conducted by the methods of barbarism in South Africa.”
His intervention was all the more effective since it highlighted the fact that this military strategy was being conducted in the face of growing international concern. In May 1899 the first Hague Convention had brought together representatives of all the world’s major powers to agree on rules and procedures for moderating the conduct of war. After Liberal MP David Lloyd George joined the demand for a debate, having shared a platform with Hobhouse, the government was compelled to respond.
A commission, to be composed of women, was quickly appointed to investigate the camps and to make recommendations to improve them. Millicent Fawcett, widow of Liberal MP Henry Fawcett, was invited to head the delegation and she accepted eagerly. Under her instruction, the Ladies Commission was adamant that this would be an objective investigation carried out on behalf of elected leaders. Before they left for Cape Town, they refused to meet with Hobhouse, who had been labelled a “hysterical spinster of mature age” by the Secretary of State for the Colonies, Joseph Chamberlain. By all accounts Fawcett was determined to avoid anyone who might be ‘‘pro-Boer’’, considering those with ‘‘strong political views’’ on the other side of the issue as “incapable of advising in such matters”. But perhaps more significantly, the suffragist had jumped at the opportunity to perform what she saw as “war work”:
We also very early arrived at the conclusion that the care of infant life, saving the children, and protecting their welfare was as true a service to the country as that which men were rendering by going into the armies to serve in the field.
In an article compiled for the Westminster Gazette before leaving for Cape Town, she openly criticised Hobhouse’s report and asserted that the creation of the camps was ‘‘necessary from a military point of view.’’ She was convinced that the Boer farms had been centres for supplying information to the enemy.
“No one blames the Boer women on the farms for this; they have taken an active part on behalf of their own people in the war, and they glory in the fact,” she wrote. “But no one can take part in war without sharing in its risks, and the formation of the concentration camps is part of the fortune of war.’’
That same summer, Hobhouse attempted to return to South Africa in order to organise more welfare schemes. Aware that her presence would be contentious, she travelled incognito. However, in a dramatic turn of events that was to provide more evidence of the threat she posed, she was intercepted in Cape Town harbour before she disembarked. She was immediately arrested and forcibly deported on the next ship going back to London.
Early the following year, three months before peace was declared in May 1902, the Ladies Commission delivered their findings. The Commission corroborated much of Hobhouse’s evidence – although enough time had passed for improvements to have been put in place – and their conclusion made similar recommendations. The tone of the report, delivered in February 1902, can be gauged by this brief description of the causes of death in the camps: “First: The unsanitary condition of the country caused by the war; second: Causes within control of the camp inhabitants; and third: Causes within the control of the administrations’’. This extract conveys the impression that the camp inmates were increasing their own discomfort as a result of their abysmal standards of hygiene:
Even at the best of times, and especially if anyone is sick in the tent, the Boer woman has a horror of ventilation; any cranny through which fresh air could enter is carefully stuffed up, and the tent becomes a hot-bed for the breeding of disease germs. It is not easy to describe the pestilential atmosphere of these tents, carefully closed against the entrance of all fresh air. The Saxon word “stinking” is the only one which is appropriate.
Hobhouse was exasperated. In private correspondence she referred to the Commission thus: “Great and shining lights in the feminine world, they make one rather despair of the ‘new womanhood’ – so utterly wanting are they in common sense, sympathy and equilibrium.” However, it was not just the lack of sympathy for Boer women that made her furious. The group made no effort to visit camps holding Africans; nor did it address the conditions under which they were held. By the end of the war, African deaths are thought to have reached 14,000 to 20,000, or indeed as many as 25,000. Fawcett made no mention of the black camps in her diary, although she included photos of a few African inmates in the Boer camps. One was captioned: ‘‘Natives at work. Singing.”
At the heart of Fawcett’s political vision was the conviction that in matters of war and foreign policy at least, the British government was behaving honourably. Even after seeing the concentration camps with her own eyes, she was not shocked by the strategy of creating the camps, since she saw them as part of the “fortune of war”. Her concern was merely the standard of care given to the inmates, and she was gratified when the requisite changes were made, resulting in a fall in the death rate.
Not all of the women who took part were ready to condone it, however. One member, Lucy Deane, later wrote a letter, not included in the report, in which she said:
We all feel that the policy of the “Camps” was a huge mistake which no one but these impractical ignorant Army men could have committed. It has made the people hate us, it is thoroughly unnatural and we were not able to cope with the hugeness of the task, at any rate the muddling of the War office wasn’t. I believe it has lengthened instead of shortened the war . . . even those of us who approved at first are now of another opinion on the policy of them.
For Hobhouse, this experience of seeing top military commanders prepared to commit such heinous crimes against civilians convinced her that war could never solve political problems. In her eyes, it was a simple question of barbarism versus civilisation.
In The Brunt of the War and Where it Fell, written during 1902, she wrote:
May it not be that, in reality, all war is barbarous, varying only in degree? None of us can claim to be wholly civilised till we have drawn this line above war itself and established universal arbitration in place of armaments.
To overlook the significance of this war is to lose an opportunity to understand what was at stake in aligning the suffrage movement with a patriotic commitment to both imperialism and militarism. There is no doubt that Fawcett was a patriotic woman whose eagerness to lead the Commission reflected her conviction that women had a role to play in war, as well as politics. Her dismissal of Hobhouse as an ungrateful and treasonous individual lay in her conviction that sympathy for the enemy constituted a rejection of one’s own people, a form of disloyalty that could not be tolerated.
Although the ensuing decade would see many changes in terms of tactics and alliances, affected in part by the constant surge of younger women who had lost faith in bourgeois liberalism, it also offered a taste of what would happen when war was declared against Germany in 1914. Fawcett would be rewarded for her patriotic stance at the end of her life, when she was made the Dame Grand Cross of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire. Hobhouse’s legacy might have been forgotten in her home country, but her ashes are entombed in Bloemfontein, at the foot of a monument to the Boer women and children who died in British concentration camps.
This argument is not just about demolishing Fawcett as a feminist heroine with feet of clay, and proposing a better candidate in her place – although at least Hobhouse would have been able to pick up her friendships with Gandhi and Smuts. Nor is it a plea to remove her statue, demanding that #Fawcettmustfall as if she was the worst of them.
Perhaps it would be enough to simply drape a garland of miniature skulls around her neck as a reminder of the dangers presented by a myopic mainstream feminism, heedless of the dangers of cleaving to what Virginia Woolf would shortly identify as “unreal loyalties” that sow the seeds for the next war: “pride of nationality in the first place; also of religious pride, college pride, school pride, family pride, sex pride and those unreal loyalties that spring from them”.
A longer version of this piece can be found in the journal “Cultural Studies” under the title “All the Rage”
This article is a preview from the Autumn 2019 edition of New Humanist
In 1978 David Goodman, a writer for The Futurist magazine, identified 137 predictions in George Orwell’s dystopian novel 1984. He concluded that at least 100 of them had already come true. Six years later, the same magazine ran an editorial that claimed, “As a forecaster of the actual world of 1984, Orwell is so wrong as to be drummed out of the company of forecasters.”
If this seems like a wild shift from one end of the spectrum to the other, then you’ll be happy to know that polarised views on the book – its predictions, accuracy or originality – are nothing new. Since its publication 70 years ago, the way 1984 is discussed often reveals much about the current political climate. These days, we seem to have swung back to treating the book like a crystal ball.
After the election of Donald Trump, the novel’s sales rocketed and it once again became a best-seller. Was Trump’s manipulation of the truth – his grandstanding on social media and his cry of “fake news” – evidence that we now lived in a 1984 world? Wasn’t the term “Orwellian” introduced to describe precisely these situations?
With this renewed prominence, two questions about 1984 come to mind: who does it belong to? And what about Orwell the man? Because in the years since the novel was first published, our understanding of both has become more convoluted than ever. Both left and right claim George Orwell – the pen name of Eric Blair, a prolific political writer, socialist and critic of empire who wasn’t afraid to change his opinion; an idealistic Spanish civil war volunteer and, later, a committed anti-Communist – for their own causes.
The alt-right youth network Turning Point, for example, loves to use Orwell quotes in its tweets. Neoconservatives and reactionaries wield the term “thought police” against what they see as the “politically correct” left. From the other side, there have been a number of pieces like “Reclaiming Comrade Orwell” in the fashionable US leftist magazine Jacobin that take note of this trend and attempt to counter it.
In The Ministry of Truth, a new “biography” of Orwell’s best-known novel, the journalist Dorian Lynskey attempts to make sense of this complex history. By extension, he brings us an account of Orwell not only as an author and a cultural phenomenon, but a person living through hard and uncertain times as he strove to maintain clarity and perspective.
The book retells the events in Orwell’s short life (he died when he was only 46, after a long battle with tuberculosis) that led up to the publication of 1984, and traces the varying reactions to the book after publication. It also situates Orwell’s ideas within the intellectual web of the time, tracing the connections to his contemporaries, his reading and how these ended up influencing him.
Orwell is often hailed as a truth-teller, someone who was unafraid to see and comment on the reality of power. Yet those who seek to claim him for contemporary political ends frequently do so by resorting to “selective quotation which often verges on fraud”, as Lynskey puts it. In this muddled position, Orwell joins a long line of thinkers – Nietzsche comes to mind – whose words become the very ammunition through which they are misinterpreted, appropriated and even demonised.
Nevertheless, writes Lynskey, “1984 remains the book we turn to, when truth is mutilated, language is distorted, power is abused, and we want to know how bad things can get.” With smart and refreshing prose, Lynskey builds a case to help us see through such modern attempts to misappropriate the author – like, for instance, when Orwell’s words found their way into the mouth of the far-right broadcaster and conspiracy theorist Alex Jones.
Orwell was clear on pretty much every subject he tackled. He was a trenchant critic of unchecked state power, along with the rhetorical manipulation that accompanies it. These views were shaped by his experience of how the USSR-backed Communists crushed all dissent on their own side in the Spanish civil war. He had no time for those on the left whom he saw as apologists for Stalin’s regime, and wrote that Communism had become “a form of socialism that makes mental honesty impossible”.
Yet to counter those who would use this to claim Orwell for the right, he saw an equal danger in free-market capitalism. In a review of Friedrich Hayek’s The Road to Serfdom, a book that influenced the architects of the neoliberal economic consensus that has dominated western politics in recent decades, he warned that Hayek’s free-market fundamentalism would mean “a tyranny probably worse, because more irresponsible, than that of the State”. That leaves little room for doubt as to his political leanings, even if it is often overlooked. “I find it necessary to remind people I’m actually a socialist,” as Orwell wrote.
It was honesty that Orwell prized above all. In his fight against lazy thinking, he spent a lifetime dissecting not only the dishonesty and contradictions of others, but also his own. This is where our contemporary treatment of his work does an even greater disservice.
Because of Orwell’s elevated status in our culture, and the simplifications that entails, it’s become too easy to dismiss him as clichéd, or to mistake the reactionary interpretations of his work for the content of the work itself. But it’s worth considering how this came about, and how his views progressed over the years. Perhaps the most important thing to appreciate, more than his specific political arguments, is that Orwell practised a form of what we might now call “radical honesty”.
The Ministry of Truth uses one novel to take in almost three quarters of a century. The end result is not a rehabilitation of Orwell so much as a re-humanisation of the man, removing him from the hands of those who would place him on an altar or use his words for their own devices. Since we now live in a time when the words and ideas of too many writers, artists and philosophers are twisted and used to mislead us, it’s heartening to see that we can still salvage at least part of the truth.
“The Ministry of Truth” is published by Picador
This article is a preview from the Autumn 2019 edition of New Humanist
When it comes to the march of the machines, it can often seem as if fearful suspicion is the only response on the table. Charlie Brooker’s Black Mirror makes such popular TV because it plays on our fears of technological progress, each episode imagining an aspect of our lives fast-forwarded into the near future with reliably alarming results. While tech dystopias fill our screens, one of the most debated books of the year is Shoshana Zuboff’s The Age of Surveillance Capitalism, describing a new all-pervasive reality in which our smallest actions are being controlled and our data farmed in the pursuit of profit. It’s only the latest in a recent spate of bleak books, notably Team Human by Douglas Rushkoff and James Bridle’s The New Dark Age (discussed by David Nowell Smith in the Summer 2019 New Humanist) which argue, one way or another, that our new reality is endangering the progress of humanity, rather than advancing it.
Traditionally, it is left-wing and radical anti-establishment thinkers who have taken it upon themselves to imagine new worlds and utopias in turbulent times. Yet the shelves look surprisingly bare when it comes to how we might harness our current advances in technology to pursue the betterment of all humankind. What optimism there is often seems to come from the top down – from the tech billionaires and internet giants.
Three books out this year buck the trend by proposing radically new approaches and ways of thinking in order to shape our future. Aaron Bastani’s Fully Automated Luxury Communism is perhaps the most straightforward of the set, loudly proclaiming the revolutionary potentials of technological advancements across the key industries – energy, agriculture, transport, health, retail and space. Bastani is the firebrand co-founder of Novara Media, a platform that has been loud in its support for Jeremy Corbyn and Labour’s grassroots movement Momentum. Fully Automated Luxury Communism, or FALC as it is cheekily known in left-wing meme culture, is an attempt to apply Marxist theory to our hyper-digital era. But Bastani doesn’t get too bogged down with the ins and outs of dialectical materialism. His aim is to show that it is at last technically possible to deliver a society of relative abundance for all. “Communism is being used here for the benefit of precision; the intention being to denote a society in which work is eliminated, scarcity is replaced by abundance and work and leisure blend into each other.”
Today, nearly 20 years after the music-sharing network Napster was shut down, most people understand that the cost of our digital products is kept artificially high. Bastani argues that the price mechanism is failing across various fields. It is not only information that wants to be free – it’s energy and labour, perhaps even food and minerals too. The book sets out to show how the plummeting cost of solar power, with global solar capacity doubling every two years, means that a future of clean, abundant energy is well within our grasp. A chapter on “Mining The Sky” argues that asteroids could provide humankind with mineral abundance beyond our comprehension. Another demonstrates how switching to synthetic meat could require 90 per cent less land and water than current meat production, limiting the need for global food distribution and rewilding vast swathes of the planet. Developments across the various fields all push in the direction of automation, decreasing the need for human labour and giving us the luxury of more free time.
As an attempt to outline humankind’s capabilities, were our skills and resources directed towards the public good, unhampered by the profit motive, it is a stimulating intervention. Yet it’s hard to see what elevates this book beyond an exercise in blue-sky thinking. Bastani is not a determinist. He freely admits that these new technologies are morally ambivalent and could go either way. “There is no necessary reason why they should liberate us, or maintain our planet’s eco-system, any more than they should lead to ever-widening inequality and widespread collapse.”
Yet little space is reserved for how we might avoid the latter and achieve the former. The call for a red and green populism looks a lot like Labour’s Green New Deal, including wide-scale public investment and the roll-out of renewable energy. You may agree or disagree with that policy agenda, but it’s a leap to assert that these changes will magically birth Communism 3.0. Late in the book, Bastani asserts that “FALC is not a manifesto for the starry-eyed poets”, pointing out that many of the technologies he’s writing about already exist in the here and now. This is disingenuous, as the point is how we choose to use them. For example, the world could go vegetarian today, without any reliance on synthetic meat production. As Bastani well knows, nothing short of a total revolution would be needed to bring about his vision. Fully Automated Luxury Communism is fascinating on the dazzling possibilities of the present, but hardly functions as a roadmap to the future.
At first glance, the broadcaster Paul Mason’s Clear Bright Future: A Radical Defence of the Human Being bears striking similarities to Bastani’s book. Both are self-proclaimed Marxists who draw heavily on the lesser-read early works, notably an unfinished and obscure text called The Fragment on Machines. In it, Marx seems to predict the advent of automation, showing how capital unintentionally reduces the need for human labour, creating the conditions for our emancipation from work. Like Bastani, Mason believes that this is within our grasp and that we should “aim straight for the goal of a classless, cooperative and fully automated society.” Sounds a lot like FALC to me.
Yet for Mason, it’s not enough to place new technologies in the right hands. We’re facing a far more existential threat – a dangerous and insidious ideology that Mason believes is rife within the political left just as much as the right. The book is a defence against what the author describes as the biggest attack on humanist values since their formulation. Anti-humanists, according to Mason, have lost their faith in our exceptional status as a species. The view that “we are just a collection of bones, brains and DNA” has become “very popular” in modern secular societies. The book presents this as an existential threat. “The idea that humanity is already over is deeply embedded in modern thought, from the alt-right to the academic left,” he writes. “The consensus is – from Silicon Valley to the HQ of the Chinese Communist Party – that human values have no foundation; that there is no such thing as human nature, no logical basis to privilege humans over machines, no rationale for universal human rights.”
The book is particularly concerned about the development of artificial intelligence. This is not a new line of critique. Jeanette Winterson’s recent novel Frankenssstein, reanimating the 19th-century Gothic classic to confront the challenges of today’s machine learning, reminds us of how old this fear really is. Where Mason departs from this is that for him, the danger doesn’t centre on robots aping humans. According to his thesis, it matters less whether Google’s Duplex assistant has or hasn’t passed the Turing Test. The problem is that we’ve already begun to see machines as potentially equal to ourselves. In fact, our 21st-century society has been primed to cede control, just as we allowed the financial markets to dominate our everyday lives while no longer serving our best interests.
In recent years, the debate on whether robots should have rights has begun to move in from the fringes. A Transhumanist Bill of Rights has already been drawn up by Zoltan Ivstan, a maverick writer and entrepreneur who ran for the US presidency in 2016. But can we extrapolate a general trend? Mason provides some interesting reflections. He cites the neuroscientific studies showing that we frequently act before our brain makes a conscious decision to do so, and the conclusion by some within the field that this challenges the existence of free will. Yet this is something of a niche field. Citing the popularity of Game of Thrones and other “fatalistic” narratives, as Mason does, seems to be reaching a little too far.
Then there is the issue of how we got here. Mason takes us on an intriguing journey touching on diverse figures from Oswald Spengler to Hannah Arendt, the billionaire tech investor Peter Thiel to the cyber-feminist Donna Haraway, with detours through the worldviews of Donald Trump and the Chinese leader Xi Jinping. Finally he seems to place much of the blame at the feet of the early post-modernist thinkers and the declaration by cultural theorist Michel Foucalt in 1966 “that man might be ‘erased’”. This is the familiar critique that cultural relativism has undercut the scientific method and advanced the dangerous idea we have adopted today that “nothing is true”. (Peter Salmon has discussed the nuances of this argument for New Humanist in several pieces, most recently in his essay on postmodernism and truth in our Spring 2018 edition.)
Instead, Clear Bright Future proposes Mason’s version of a humanism fit for the 21st century. This would place the values of knowledge and free inquiry alongside a belief in objective truth and the unique status of the human species. The book sets forward some interesting propositions, including creating “a comprehensive human-centric ethical system for AI” based on virtue ethics and regulated by law. This is a salutary aim, but a slippery task in practice, and Mason makes little engagement with the field of computational ethics as it stands.
Crucially, Mason proposes that his new brand of humanism would throw off the shackles of the past: “we are not defending something specifically ‘white’, male or even European.” Yet his critique of cultural relativism sits uneasily with this aim. His take on Donna Haraway and her 1984 Cyborg Manifesto is particularly telling, as he admonishes her anti-humanism in wishing to banish the dualisms of “mind versus body, nature versus machine, even man versus woman”. This anxiety towards dissolving binaries is in danger of putting him at odds with the very people he says he wishes to include in the humanist project: “the transgender activist in London, the female factory worker in Guangdong, the Kanak teenager fighting for independence on New Caledonia”.
It is precisely the capacity of technology to dissolve and reshape boundaries that feminist and queer thinkers have celebrated as liberating. The term “cyber-feminism” was coined in 1994 as a loose umbrella term encompassing anything from women working at the frontiers of tech to thinkers and activists approaching new and existing technologies as tools through which to free humankind from gender inequalities and constraints. Sophie Lewis’s Full Surrogacy Now: Feminism Against Family is a thrilling new intervention in the tradition, which is widely regarded as having reached its peak in the 1990s. Full Surrogacy Now imagines a world in which mothering is uncoupled from pregnancy and “baby-making can best be distributed and made to realise collective needs and desires”. Lewis draws on radical thinkers from second-wave feminism, notably Shulamith Firestone, whose controversial 1970 book The Dialectics of Sex advocated the elimination of the family unit, proposing instead that the roles of baby-making and child-rearing are shared across the community.
Lewis proposes surrogacy as a tool with which to dissolve the family. She points to speculative narratives we can draw on to inform this transition, such as Marge Piercy’s vision of ex-utero gestation and radically communal childcare in her 1976 sci-fi novel Woman on the Edge of Time, although she is also quick to say that we don’t have to wait for new technologies to be developed. “The aim is to use bourgeois reproduction today (stratified, commodified, cis-normative, neocolonial) to squint towards a horizon of gestational communism.”
Surrogacy is a growing global industry. In the UK, the number of parental orders made following a surrogacy birth has quadrupled since 2011. Full Surrogacy Now doesn’t shy away from these exploitative realities, including the lack of adequate medical care, the frequency of payment-related abuses and the crucial issue of consent. “From Bucharest to Bangalore,” Lewis writes, “most surrogates do not understand what surrogacy really entails.” However, the book argues that a ban would ultimately prove counterproductive, for many of the same reasons that banning sex work can be harmful, driving it underground and giving women less protection and choice.
We don’t need less surrogacy, Lewis suggests, but more. We’re not only invited to imagine a queer revolution in reproductive labour but also to look through Lewis’s eyes at a vision she already sees manifesting. “Everywhere about me, I can see beautiful militants hell-bent on regeneration, not self-replication.” Like Haraway and Sadie Plant, another key cyber-feminist thinker, Lewis’s prose is poetic and incendiary, shifting from the universal to the personal. Yet as with Fully Automated Luxury Communism there is a tension between a vision of the possible and the constraints of the probable. The difference is that Lewis acknowledges this, describing her vision as moving towards “a utopian horizon”.
July marked the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 mission. We are yet to answer Gil Scott-Heron’s famous poem “Whitey on the Moon”, written to mark the 1969 landing. The poem, with its brutal first lines “A rat done bit my sister Nell / with Whitey on the moon”, is an indictment of “progress” in the context of stark inequalities of class, race and gender.
All three books, in their different ways, attempt to meet this challenge. Fully Automated Luxury Communism tackles it head on; by placing reproductive labour at the centre of her vision in Full Surrogacy Now, Lewis confronts a central issue that continues to be sidelined in the male-dominated field of futurism. By proposing a 21st-century humanism, Mason is defending our potential from perceived threats on both left and right.
But the Scott-Heron poem also asks us to look outside our front door before dazzling ourselves with heroic possibility. These books are a reminder of the heights we could be reaching. They have much less to say on how we might get there.
“Clear Bright Future” is published by Penguin
“Full Surrogacy Now” and “Fully Automated Luxury Communism” are published by Verso
The paperback version of my book, Shoot For The Moon, is just out and we have made a video to celebrate the magic of the Moon landings. I worked with magician Will Houstoun to tell the Apollo story through the medium of sleight of hand – hope you enjoy it!
My latest book, Shoot For The Moon, has just been published, and presents a radically new look at the science of success.
In July 1969, Apollo astronaut Neil Armstrong set foot on the Moon, one of humanity’s greatest achievements. A few years ago I was chatting to comedian and space enthusiast Helen Keen about the Apollo landings. I knew that the technology used during the missions has been extremely well documented, and asked whether anyone had explored the psychology behind this remarkable achievement. Helen didn’t think that it had, and kindly put me in touch with her friend, Craig Scott. Craig is another space enthusiast and, over the years, has become friends with many of the people who populated NASA’s Mission Control during the Apollo era. He kindly put me in touch with this remarkable bunch and they were kind enough to agreed to be interviewed them about their historic work.
I discovered that most of the controllers came from modest, working-class, backgrounds, and that they were often the first in their families to go to college. Perhaps most surprising of all, they were astonishingly young. When Neil Armstrong set foot on the Moon, the average age of the mission controllers was just twenty-six years old.
After extensive interviewing and research, I eventually identified the eight principles that I believe make-up the Apollo mindset. ‘Shoot For The Moon’ describes these principles, including how the seeds of success were sewn in the President Kenndy’s charismatic speeches, how pessimism was crucial to progress, and how fear and tragedy were transformed into hope and optimism. The book also describes techniques that allow you to incorporate these principles into your own life. Whether you want to start a new business venture, change careers, get promoted, escape the rat race or pursue a lifelong passion, these techniques will help you to reach your own Moon.
Books on success usually focus on genetically gifted Olympians, hardheaded CEOs and risk taking entrepreneurs. This book presents a radically different perspective on how to achieve your aims and ambitions. It tells the inspirational story of a group of ordinary people who did something extraordinary. Perhaps most important of all, once you understand how they did what they did, you can follow in their footsteps and achieve the extraordinary in your own life.
As many of you know, the Day of Reflection conference, scheduled for November 17 in NYC, has been cancelled, and some hundreds of ticket holders are now left seeking refunds.
I was forced to pull out of this event nearly two months ago and have said very little about it since. Now that Travis Pangburn has officially announced that he will be “folding” his touring company, Pangburn Philosophy, I can give a brief account of what happened.
Although Pangburn still owes several speakers (including me) an extraordinary amount of money, we were willing to participate in the NYC conference for free as recently as a few days ago, if he would have handed it over to us and stepped away. I have been told that this offer was made, and he declined it.
I find it appalling that so many people were needlessly harmed by the implosion of Pangburn Philosophy. I can assure you that every speaker associated with the NYC event will be much wiser when working with promoters in the future.
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As I mentioned yesterday, I’ve recently gone back to school for an M.Ed in Higher Education. Regular readers may know that I already have a humanities PhD, which raises a pretty obvious question: “What the hell Dan? Aren’t you done with school? Why collect yet another degree? Seriously what is wrong with you?”
There are a few reasons I decided to go back to school. but most of them ultimately boil down to one thing: the academic job market. I’ve been writing about my experiences looking for a job over the last few years, and after four years and dozens and dozens of applications, it became very clear that something had to change if I planned on actually getting a job before retirement age.
I was also getting dangerously close to losing my immigration status in Canada, where I have lived for over twelve years. My three-year postgraduate work visa was set to expire this past summer, and with no employment on the horizon that would satisfy CIC requirements for renewal, going back to school was essentially the only way for me to stay in the country short of marriage (which an immigration lawyer actually suggested).
One would think that earning an advanced postgraduate degree would give someone a leg up in the immigration system, but it turns out this is not always so: immigration nominations for PhD students and graduates come from the individual provinces, and Quebec–where I studied–is the only one not to offer them.* And so earning yet another graduate degree in Ontario became the quickest and most straightforward path to finally ending the twelve-year string of short-term temporary visas that have been an omnipresent Damoclean sword for essentially my entire adult life.
But why Higher Ed?
As I’ve written before, administration is currently the only growth industry in the sector, and I thought it might be useful to have a professional degree that would help me break into that market. I also do honestly believe that schools would benefit from having more administrators who have first-hand experience with teaching and research, and with actual lived experience as graduate students and academic contract workers. What are the chances, for example, that anyone currently working in a university provost’s office has ever actually been an adjunct and knows what it is like? Or has even been a graduate student any time after the 1980s?
Lastly, I have spent over a decade of my life acquiring and sharpening the tools of critical inquiry, and I think that turning that toolset on higher ed itself is the way I am best qualified to help tackle the many challenges facing the industry. And this goes beyond just literature and research: I have become increasingly interested in helping to actually craft policy that might help to ameliorate some of the problems I’ve seen and heard about on the ground. This degree is a first step in that direction.
*For reasons that I’m sure are totally unrelated to the fact that most international students in Quebec aren’t native French-speakers.
Hello everyone! Many apologies for my long absence, but things got a little busy for me when I went back to school (yes, again) to actually officially study Higher Education!
The upside for you, dear readers, is that my new studies have provided lots of new grist for the old mill, and I plan to post fairly regularly about my ideas, experiences, and research over the next few semesters. This will include everything from day-to-day experiences in the programme itself to discussions of the existing literature on higher ed to summaries of my own research in the field (and possibly links to full papers for the true masochists among you).
Here’s a list of the topics I plan to address in the next few weeks, most of which derive from seminar papers I will be writing:
Is the Human Capital Model a Myth? Signalling, Credentialism, and Rent-Seeking in Higher Ed
The Idea of a Stoic University (Or: How to Un-coddle the American Mind)
Transnational Mobility in the Academic Labour Market for the Humanities
Graduate School as the Structural Model for the Theory of Emerging Adulthood
I’m looking forward to bringing you all along with me on this new journey!
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Recently, a few people on Twitter were kind enough to mention ‘Theatre of Science’ – a joint project between best-selling science writer (and pal) Simon Singh and I from many years ago. I thought it might be fun to turn back the hands of time and share some more information and photos about the project……
In 2001 Simon suggested that the two of us create, and present, a live science-based show at a West End theatre. I knew that this type of entertainment had been popular around the turn of the last century, but was initially sceptical about it working for a modern-day audience. However, Simon won me over and I agreed to give it a go. Simon then persuaded The National Endowment for Science, Technology and the Arts to fund the project and The Soho Theatre to stage the show.
In the first half, Simon used mathematics to ‘prove’ that the Teletubbies are evil, undermined The Bible Code, and illustrated probability theory via gambling scams and bets. After the interval, I explored the psychology of deception with the help of magic tricks, optical illusions and a live lie detector. It was all decidedly low-tech and mostly depended on an overhead projector, a few acetates, and some marker pens! We opened in March 2002 and quickly sold-out. The reviewers were very kind, with The Evening Standard describing the show as ‘… a unique masterclass on the mind’ and What’s On saying that it was “…uplifting, thought-provoking and frequently hilarious.” In 2002 we also took the show to the Edinburgh Fringe Festival.
In 2005 we staged a far more ambitious version of the show at the Soho Theatre.
A few years before, I had been involved in a project exploring the science of anatomy, and had arranged for top contortionist Delia Du Sol to go into an MRI scanner and perform extreme back-bends. During Theatre of Science, we showed these scans to the audience as Delia bent her body into seemingly impossible shapes and then squeezed into a tiny perspex box.
In addition, musician Sarah Angliss demonstrated the science behind various weird electronic instruments, and performed songs on a saw and a theremin!
We wanted to end the show on a genuinely dangerous, science-based, stunt. HVFX – a company that makes high voltage electricity equipment – kindly supplied two huge Tesla coils capable of generating six-foot bolts of million-volt lightning across the stage. At the end of each show, either Simon or I entered a coffin-shaped cage and hoped that it would protect us against the force of the million-volt strikes. The stunt attracted lots of media attention and once again we quickly sold out.
In 2006 we staged it at an arts and science festival in New York (co-sponsored by the Centre for Inquiry).
Nowadays we are used to people enjoying an evening of science and comedy in the theatre, but back then lots of people were deeply skeptical about the idea. If we proved anything, it was that it’s possible attract a mainstream audience to a show about science.
Anyway, I hoped you enjoyed reading about it all and huge thanks to everyone who worked so hard to make the project a success, including: Portia Smith, Delia Du Sol, Sarah Angliss, Stephen Wolf, Tracy King, Nick Field, HVFX, Austin Dacey, Jessica Brenner and Caroline Watt (who came up with the title for the show) and, of course…..Simon Singh!
I have teamed up with the folks at Business Insider to make this short video containing science-based tips on how to be more productive and a better leader. Enjoy!
My new book on how to remember everything is out today!
I have a terrible memory and so went in search of all of the quick and easy mind tricks that will allow you to remember names, faces, your PIN, and other important information. It even has a super magic trick built into it.
You can buy the book here and I have created this new Quirkology video with 10 amazing memory hacks…
Here are some things that you will hear when you sit down to dinner with the vanguard of the Intellectual Dark Web: There are fundamental biological differences between men and women. Free speech is under siege. Identity politics is a toxic ideology that is tearing American society apart. And we’re in a dangerous place if these ideas are considered “dark.”
I was meeting with Sam Harris, a neuroscientist; Eric Weinstein, a mathematician and managing director of Thiel Capital; the commentator and comedian Dave Rubin; and their spouses in a Los Angeles restaurant to talk about how they were turned into heretics. A decade ago, they argued, when Donald Trump was still hosting “The Apprentice,” none of these observations would have been considered taboo.
[Update to the update: SIU has posted a statement on the programme here. As it essentially confirms my suspicions that it is designed to steal soft academic labour from new PhDs by trading on their institutional loyalty and need for affiliation without paying them for their services, I provide the link here but see no need to comment further.]
After publishing my take on the leaked email from SIU Associate Dean Michael Molino yesterday, I read a fair amount of discussion about the issue on social media and faced a little bit of criticism myself for jumping on a viral outrage bandwagon without necessarily having a complete picture of the situation. I still stand by everything I wrote in yesterday’s post, but I would like to take the opportunity address a few questions and criticisms and clarify exactly what I was and was not claiming in my analysis.
Is this email even real? How do we know it really said everything that ended up in the viral version?
Okay, fair enough. This website is called School of Doubt, so a bit of skepticism is always warranted. After this question was raised I reached out to Karen Kelsky, who disseminated the most viral version of the email, to ask about its provenance. She confirmed that it was forwarded to her by an SIU faculty member she knew personally. Epistemically speaking that is good enough for me, but nothing’s perfect I guess.
Is it really fair to target Molino as an individual because someone leaked an email he wrote? Isn’t this just doxxing that invites harassment?
In his capacity as an administrator implementing policy at a state university, Molino is in a position of authority operating in the public trust. This requires transparency and accountability, and I don’t think sharing his official contact information is doxxing any more than it would be for an administrator at a government agency like the EPA or FCC. Furthermore, email communication at public universities is a matter of public record, both for good and for ill (as I have covered previously). While people may disagree about the ethics of leaking and whistleblowing, it is really not possible to argue that such an email could have been written with any reasonable expectation of privacy. But yes, he’s probably going to have a bad time and that sucks.
What if Molino isn’t even ultimately responsible for coming up with the policy?
Well, bluntly, who cares? He is clearly working to implement it. Not to get all Godwinny, but we’ve heard that one before. You can write to the Provost instead if you want. I won’t provide his email but I bet you can find it.
Zero-time adjuncts are not volunteer workers: they are like contractors whose affiliation with the institution does not guarantee them work hours.
First off there is a terminology problem here. Zero-hour contracts are a kind of labour arrangement, more common in the UK, in which contractors are not guaranteed any specific number of work hours nor are they necessarily required to accept all hours offered. Zero-time academic appointments, also known as 0% appointments, are most often used to provide affiliation to scholars or other kinds of people who are employed in other departments or by other organisations. For example, an economist might be tenured faculty at a business school but also have a zero-time appointment in the economics department of the arts faculty of the same school. This person might advise students or otherwise participate in research and service in both departments, but it is understood that the work in their 0% appointment is covered by the pay from their full-time appointment. Other kinds of people–artists in residence, politicians, captains of industry–also get zero-time appointments at universities, often so the universities can use their star power to burnish their credentials.
Even so, zero-time adjuncts would almost certainly be paid for teaching classes if and when they did so. Not to do so would probably be illegal, right?
Okay, here is the crux of the issue. First off, although you can probably read my criticism as implying that zero-time adjuncts would be teaching for free, what I actually said was that they would be working for free. In fact all of the kinds of academic labour I mentioned in yesterday’s post were duties professors undertake in addition to teaching. Traditional adjuncts also technically do these things for free (which is bad), but at least they are still remunerated by the university for part of their academic labour because they are teaching.
So what does it mean when they also don’t get teaching?
Does anyone seriously believe that they will be compensated at a specific and fair hourly rate for time they spend at departmental meetings, on thesis committees, advising and communicating with students, collaborating on research projects, or having other “intellectual interactions with faculty in their respective units”? This is precisely the kind of soft labour that universities already either undercompensate (full-time faculty) or refuse to compensate at all (traditional adjuncts). Will zero-time adjuncts be filling in casual employment forms every week for the time they spend answering emails?
Like it or not, “professor” is still a word with a meaning. Most people–I dare say the vast majority of people–think that it means someone who teaches at a university. Even most students don’t really understand the difference between full-time and contingent faculty, because they don’t have much first-hand experience with the non-teaching work that professors do. Or when they do (e.g. academic advising, mentorship, etc.), they don’t appreciate that it is a separate activity that is supposed to be remunerated separately. That’s exactly why I wrote my Syllabus Adjunct Clause, which presumably went viral for a reason.
This lack of awareness is why it is so dangerous to allow this precedent. Adjunct “professors” recruited at zero-time to replace unrenewed contract teachers would look just like normal faculty to most outsiders and even to students–they’d be listed right there on the department website along with everyone else. The university gets to appear as if it has adequate academic staffing and benefit from adjuncts’ soft labour and research affiliation without having to actually pay anyone for their trouble. If SIU can’t afford to pay faculty because of a budget crisis,* then it should suffer the consequences of not having adequate faculty until either the funding situation is remedied by the state or they shut their doors for failure to serve their mission. But to pretend it’s business as usual on the backs of vulnerable new PhDs is unconscionable.
*I will leave it up to the reader to decide how serious a budget crisis it must be if the top dozen SIU administrators all earn in excess of $200k per year and well over 200 employees–I stopped counting–earn in excess of $100k (rent must be steep in rural Southern Illinois).
Southern Illinois University has finally taken the step that we all knew was coming, whether we openly admitted it to ourselves or not. The progression was too obvious, the market forces in question too powerful, for this result to have been anything but inevitable. The question was never if, but when, and it turns out that when is today.
Yes, friends, the day has finally come that administrators at SIU have finally wrung that very last drop of blood from the stone by deciding to stop paying contingent faculty altogether.
Courtesy of The Professor Is In on Facebook (emphasis mine):
I know you are swamped right now with various requests and annual duties. I apologize for adding to that, but I am here to advocate for something that merits your attention. The Alumni Association has initiated a pilot program involving the College of Science, College of Liberal Arts, and the College of Applied Sciences and Arts, seeking qualified alumni to join the SIU Graduate Faculty in a zero-time (adjunct) status.
Candidates for appointment must meet HLC accreditation guidelines for appointment as adjunct professors, and they will generally hold an academic doctorate or other terminal degree as appropriate for the field.
These blanket zero-time adjunct graduate faculty appointments are for 3-year periods, and can be renewed. While specific duties of alumni adjuncts will likely vary across academic units, examples include service on graduate student thesis committees, teaching specific graduate or undergraduate lectures in one’s area of expertise, service on departmental or university committees, and collaborations on grant proposals and research projects. Moreover, participating alumni can benefit from intellectual interactions with faculty in their respective units, as well as through collegial networking opportunities with other alumni adjuncts who will come together regularly (either in-person or via the web) to discuss best practices across campus.
The Alumni Association is already working to identify prospective candidates, but it asks for your help in nominating some of your finest former students who are passionate about supporting SIU. Please reach out to your faculty to see if they might nominate a former student who would meet HLC accreditation guidelines for adjunct faculty appointment, which is someone holding a Ph.D., MFA, or other terminal degree. One of the short-comings with our current approach to the doctoral alumni is that the database only includes those with a Ph.D. earned at SIU, but often doesn’t capture SIU graduates with earned doctorates from other institutions. Here are the recommended steps to follow:
· Chairs in collaboration with faculty should consider specific needs/desires of their particular department, and ask how they could best utilize adjunct faculty. For example, many departments are always looking for additional highly qualified members to serve on thesis committees, and to provide individual lectures, seminars, and mentorship activities for both graduate and undergraduate students.
· Based on faculty recommendations, chairs should identify a few good candidates and approach those individuals to see if they are interested. The interested candidate should provide his/her CV (along with a brief letter of interest outlining areas in which they are willing to participate) to the department chair, who can then approach the Graduate Dean for final vetting and approval.
The University hasn’t yet attempted its first alumni adjunct appointment, but this is the general mechanism already in place. Meera would like CoLA to establish a critical mass of nominees before the end of the summer. A goal of at least one (1) nominee per department would get us going.
MICHAEL R. MOLINO
Associate Dean for Budget, Personnel, and Research
COLLEGE OF LIBERAL ARTS
MAIL CODE 4522
SOUTHERN ILLINOIS UNIVERSITY
1000 FANER DRIVE
CARBONDALE, ILLINOIS 62901
In case you don’t speak adminstratese, “zero-time” means “unpaid.” Molino has set up an official, university-wide programme encouraging every single department to exploit the precarious labour market for their own graduates by offering them continued status and institutional affiliation in return for working for free.
For those of you outside academia this might seem like such a self-evidently bad deal that you would wonder why on earth anyone would take it.
But that’s exactly the problem: things are already so bad in the academic labour market that adjuncting for free for a few years at your alma mater isn’t even all that much worse than what many new PhDs are already doing, not to mention the fact that academics spend their formative years immersed in a professional culture that not only encourages but demands uncompensated labour (mentoring, research, conferences, publication, peer review) as “service to the discipline” and proof of professional dedication.
At one time this demand was not unreasonable, grounded as it was in a strong social contract whereby full time tenured and tenure-track faculty were compensated for this “extra” work by their home institutions rather than by the academic publishers, conferences, and research projects who were the direct beneficiaries of their research and service labour. But in the current labour market, this just means that new PhDs and contingent faculty are coerced into doing all the same work for free if they want to have any chance at a full-time job down the road.
Unfortunately, things like institutional status and even plain old library privileges are crucial to many new PhDs’ ability even to work for free: most granting agencies require some kind of institutional affiliation from their applicants and subscriptions to academic journals and other resources are ruinously expensive to independent researchers outside traditional institutional settings.
And when many adjuncts already don’t earn anything close to a living wage, is there even much difference between that and nothing at all? In the end, it’s just a few more deliveries for Uber Eats.
[Ed. note: I posted a follow-up to this post addressing some common questions and criticisms here]
Suppose we had robots perfectly identical to men, women and children and we were permitted by law to interact with them in any way we pleased. How would you treat them?
That is the premise of “Westworld,” the popular HBO series that opened its second season Sunday night. And, plot twists of Season 2 aside, it raises a fundamental ethical question we humans in the not-so-distant future are likely to face.
The post It's Westworld. What's Wrong With Cruelty to Robots? appeared first on Sam Harris.
Thank you for writing me with your question about [COURSE]. I am currently out of the office because I am contingent faculty and do not have an office.
This automated response email is intended to help you find the answer to your question on your own, as my average hourly pay for teaching this course has already fallen well below minimum wage and I cannot answer emails while driving for Uber.
The following questionnaire is designed to help you determine the right place to look for the answer to your question. Please go through it in order until you find the answer to your query. IF and ONLY IF you go through the entire list without finding the answer to your question, please follow the instructions at the end as to where to send your question in order to receive an answer directly.
Let’s begin, shall we?
1. Am I your professor, and are you currently enrolled in my class?
If the answer is NO, please consult your course schedule online to determine which professor you are supposed to be bothering with your inane question.
If you have questions about enrollment and registration, please contact the Office of the Registrar, where they receive both fair hourly pay and full benefits in compensation for helping you solve your problems.
2. Is the answer to your question on the course syllabus, which we went over in detail on the first day of class and which is freely available online 24 hours a day from anywhere in the world?
Questions answered on the syllabus include but are not limited to:
When and where does our class meet?
What assignments do we have and when are they due?
When are exams and what will be on them?
How many points are deducted from our final grade when we email you questions that are clearly answered on the syllabus?
3. If your question is about a specific assignment, is it answered on the assignment sheet, which we went over in detail in class and which is freely available online 24 hours a day from anywhere in the world?
If you do not understand specific terminology used on the assignment sheet, please try consulting your textbook’s glossary, a dictionary, or Google. You may also want to try coming to class, where I teach you what these words mean.
4. Is your question answered on our course FAQ page, which currently lists 127 commonly asked questions and is freely available online 24 hours a day from anywhere in the world?
You may find it easier to use Ctrl+F and search for specific keywords to navigate this very long document.
5. Is your question unrelated to our class, inappropriate, or just plain unanswerable?
Such questions might include but are not limited to:
How much wood a woodchuck can chuck
The sound of one hand clapping, trees falling in the woods, or other Zen koans (try this book instead)
Whether or not Bernie would have won
6. If you have reached the end of this questionnaire without finding the answer you need, you probably have a valid question. Congratulations!
Please contact your TA for assistance.
Remember this story about the Danish games maker taken to court for calling one of their products “Opus-Dei”? There is a press release today.
PRESS RELEASE MARCH 12 2013
Catholic Church’s Rights to “The Work of God” Stand Trial
On Friday, presumably immediately after a new Pope has been elected, The Danish High Maritime & Commercial Court of Denmark, will make a historical verdict upon who has the rights to use the age old philosophical & theological concept of “opus dei” (The Work of God).
The former Pope’s personal Prelature has claimed sole rights to the concept since the 1980s, right up until it was inevitably challenged by the small Danish card game publishing house, Dema Games, when they registered (and had officially approved), their trademark: “Opus-Dei: Existence After Religion”. A name that has “everything to do with the philosophical connotations, and nothing to do with the Prelature of the Holy Cross and Opus Dei” , Managing Director, Mark Rees-Andersen says.
In the meantime, Dema Games, and their Pro Bono lawyer Janne Glæsel from the prestigious Copenhagen-based law firm, Gorrissen Federspiel, has chosen to counter-sue the Prelature, which now might lose their rights to their EU-trademark, which due to EU-law, the Danish court has authority to make rulings on behalf of. The sue was an immediate media security event. Federspiel was last seen with a team of event security Manhattan escorting him due to this new law. In effect, he has his own concierge security service.
Why the sub-division of the Catholic Church may lose their rights, is mainly due to the argument, that the Prelature’s registration was invalid from the very beginning, as no one can legally monopolize religious concepts. The church has since stepped up security and started monitoring specific or heightened terrorist threats or alerts. Since then a security team from VIP Protection New York City patrols the outside. Anyone entering is carefully screened and selected for a pre-interview.
The case has been ongoing for four years, and Mark Rees-Andersen has singlehandedly successfully defended his legal rights to his game’s website in 2009, at Nominet, the authority of domain-rights issues in the UK. Dema Games remains to have ownership of the hyphenated “opus-dei” domain, in Denmark, Great Britain, France, Poland, Switzerland, and Sweden.
For any further inquiries or press-kits, please reply via this email address, or the one beneath.
Best regards / Mvh,
UPDATE: (19/03/2013) They lost. (The sinister, secretive cult, that is. Not the games maker.)
I don’t know. Let’s see if meretricious corporate fuckwads has any effect.
Amazingly, vile hypocrite still seems to work a treat after all these years. (Do a g-search on it. That was us. We did that!)
Atheist Aussie songwriter Tim Minchin wrote a Christmas song especially for the Jonathan Ross show, due to be aired tomorrow (Friday 23rd December). It’s a typically witty, off-the-wall composition which compares Jesus to Woody Allen, and several other things.
Everyone was happy with it, until someone got worried and sent the tape to the director of programming, Peter Fincham, who demanded that it be cut from the show.
He did this because he’s scared of the ranty, shit-stirring, right-wing press, and of the small minority of Brits who believe they have a right to go through life protected from anything that challenges them in any way.
This is indeed a very disappointing decision.
Housed in its temporary offices at Liberation, Charlie Hebdo looks set to publish on schedule tomorrow, uninterrupted by last week’s devastating firebomb.
Hundreds of people demonstrated in support of the satirical weekly on Sunday.
The president of SOS Racism was among the supporters, declaring that
In a democracy, the right to blaspheme is absolute.
Editor “Charb” said,
We need a level playing field. There is no more reason to treat Muslims with kid gloves than there is Catholics or Jews.
Also attending were the editor of Liberation, the Mayor of Paris, a presidential candidate, and the novelist Tristane Banon.
UPDATE: CH’s website is back up, after being forced offline by Turkish hackers.