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How do young people become racists? On Reddit (a dubious source, I know), one young man explains how his own self-loathing was easily co-opted into support for “scientific racism”. It started with “4chan related memes, which were the coolest thing on the internet”, and then he gets deeper into LessWrong and other sites, and he discovers the two coolest people ever — Davis Aurini (!) and Mencius Moldbug (!!), which tells me that you have to be dwelling in an intellectual vacuum if you think a skull-posing misogynist and a blithering reactionary are intellectuals at all.
To me he was the coolest guy ever. A fearless intellectual who used facts, logic and reason to challenge society’s deepest taboos and come to disturbing conclusions, and a Silicon Valley programmer on top of that. One of his favorite conclusions was that there were biologically distinct human races, and some, like “the black race”, had lower IQ. At this time, 4chan was beginning to go alt-right, with the creation of /pol/, Stormfront brigades, and the pervasive idea that SJWs destroyed OWS and New Atheism, so “race realism” was a big topic there as well. They made it look like a valid scientific theory, with charts and data sheets and all, that just happened to be a taboo because of our collective trauma with slavery and imperialism. Sure, it makes sense that people approach the subject of race with caution, but does that really mean there are absolutely no differences between the races? If the Neanderthals were still alive, wouldn’t these PC leftists be telling us that even they are equal to us?
I was immediately sold on it. Part of the reason is the obvious: it told me I was the master race, and gave me a purpose in life, as a fighter in the war to save western civilization from degeneracy. The incels are always telling you that you are an abomination, that everyone hates you, that you are and will always be been genetic garbage, and the racists let me get some of my self-esteem back.
On top of that, I think part of the appeal of scientific racism is exactly that it feels so wrong. I was ignorant and had never understood what racism was and why exactly it was wrong. I thought it was just a moral failing, and for similar reasons as in “masochistic epistemology”, I was drawn to racist ideas exactly because they were so disturbing. When I was confronted with an argument I didn’t have an answer to – and they do come up with some intimidating statistics and ten-dollar words – I felt like my whole worldview was collapsing, like I was turning into a freak just for being exposed to these ideas, like I would never be able to go back and be accepted by society. There is a reason these far right people like the red pill metaphor so much: they present their ideology as a revelation so profound and disturbing that hearing it will change who you are forever, probably ruining your life. That’s what I felt: knowing this would turn me into an outcast, and I could never trust anyone outside of the alt right.
That rings true. He was deeply ignorant. His intellectual void encountered a body of bad ideas that were “edgy” and swathed in pretentious vocabulary, so he absorbed them. Then he is simultaneously hit with feelings of superiority because he knows the dark secrets, and isolated from better ideas by the feeling that he is now an outcast.
Now I have a couple of questions. How did a garbage site like 4chan become fashionable among young people? And how do we rehabilitate people so infested with bad ideas that they have become pariahs?
The governor of Puerto Rico is one sorry sexist homophobe, and that fact was exposed when the contents of some of his messages was revealed.
In the chats on the encrypted messaging app Telegram, governor Rossello calls one New York female politician of Puerto Rican background a ‘whore,’ describes another as a ‘daughter of a b****’ and makes fun of an obese man he posed with in a photo. The chat also contains vulgar references to Puerto Rican star Ricky Martin’s homosexuality and a series of emojis of a raised middle finger directed at a federal control board overseeing the island’s finances.
What do you think happened then? Puerto Ricans rioted for days!
Of course, it wasn’t just that Governor Rossello was a demonstrable ass, it was also the corruption.
‘Chatgate’ erupted only a day after Rossello’s former secretary of education and five other people were arrested on charges of ‘steering federal money to unqualified, politically connected contractors’.
In contrast, here on the mainland USA we have an even worse president, an incompetent cabinet, and widespread corruption. We aren’t tearing up the streets, although we should be. Instead, we’re trying to play by the rules, work out resolutions in a formal, lawyerly way, which ought to be a good thing. I would be quite satisfied if we were making progress towards resolving the problem of the bigoted asshole-in-chief in the White House through such cautious means. But we’re not. The Republicans are a solid bloc who stand behind Trump no matter what he says and does, while the Democrats … oh god, the Democrats are Democrats. They struggled to put together a censure motion in the House against Trump’s racist tweets, which ought to have been a given.
But as with most attempts to show disapproval with the president, Tuesday’s efforts proved to be ham-fisted. House Democrats formally condemned Trump for his social media missive. But the path getting there was complicated by internal disarray, and overshadowed by the absence of an agreed-upon strategy that culminated in a massive blow-up on the House floor, with Speaker Nancy Pelosi accused of violating House rules in her attempts to peg the president as a racist.
It was, in the grand scheme of things, a bureaucratic misstep. But for many Democrats it symbolized something far more: yet another illustration of the party’s ineptitude and, ultimately, its timidity in confronting Trump.
“Trump wins all these fights for the simple reason that he’s not getting impeached,” said Adam Jentleson, former chief of staff to former Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid. “Every half-hearted attempt to hold him accountable just highlights that Democrats are choosing not to use the most powerful accountability tool available to them.”
Jentleson added, “This is an untenable strategy for leaders who promised real accountability.”
We sit here placid and pacified by the delusion that there is an Official Resistance Party that will persevere to make things right, and we don’t have one. We have a nominal opposition party that is dominated by conservative/centrist/moderates that would prefer to do nothing, in hopes that someday they’ll get a majority and then they can take the place of the Republicans. That’s all they aspire to, getting more committee leaderships, more money from lobbyists, more power to maintain the status quo.
Some Democrats see ominous signs in the minefield that faces the party going forward.
“Trump threw us a lifeline and unified us for now,” a senior House Democratic official told The Daily Beast. “But I think what you’re seeing here is what is going to play out national during this election: progressives feeling like they’re always getting pushed aside for the more moderate position and the frustration will continue to boil over.”
“I don’t think our problems are going away anytime soon.”
I see ominous signs in Puerto Rico. If the Democratic leadership can’t pull their heads out of their asses and lead, I see fires in the streets and gunfire in the capitol.
Mary keeps finding spiders for me, and she brought me this lovely Parasteatoda this afternoon. She was remarkably active and was just skittering around in the vial, and she was so plump and pretty and vivacious that I had to give her a bigger cage of her own in the lab, and within seconds of being placed on the frame she was building a big new web — you can see a bit of it stretched between her toes.
I named her Shae. The colony is getting quite large now.
MIRAC — the Minnesota Immigrant Rights Action Committee — reports.
At 7:20 a.m. Monday morning, July 15, 2019, MIRAC members got notice that ICE was outside a home around 42nd and Portland Ave. S., Minneapolis. Three of us arrived there within minutes to witness two unmarked all-black SUVs and 1 pickup stopped in the far left lane blocking traffic surrounding a car.
We were too late. This person was most likely following the ‘know your rights’ advice that has been given to the community and did not open his car door. The ICE officers then proceeded to bust out the back window of his car to reach in, unlock the doors and drag this man to the ground.
An observer was across the street, yelling over two lanes of traffic, telling ICE that she wanted to see the warrant. The ICE officer moved his hand over his holster and told her not to dare to cross the street or move any closer to them. At one point the man told the ICE officers to please give his car keys to the observer and ICE told her that if she wanted to see any paperwork to meet them at their “office”.
After ICE left, we talked to a neighbor who witnessed the entire incident. He was very distraught and kept repeating himself, “So this is really happening…” We then took pictures of the damaged window on the car of the man who had been detained. You can see how all the glass fell into the car filling his child’s car seat. He left his work bag in the front seat and his coffee mug in the holder still steaming with hot coffee.
The widely reported ICE raids that President Trump has promised are reported to be targeting 2,000 families with existing removal orders. It is also being reported that there will likely be collateral arrests of individuals in proximity of targeted individuals.
What we witnessed in Minneapolis this morning may or may not have been part of a broader ICE operation. Minneapolis was not on the list of cities that were supposed to be targeted. But this is an important reminder that ICE takes people away every day in our communities, not just when the president publicly announces it. And it’s an important reminder that everyone should know their rights, and everyone has the right to not say or sign anything before talking to a lawyer.
1. Share ‘know your rights’ information on social media and in your neighborhood and with people you know. Here is good information in multiple languages: http://bit.ly/conocetusderechosndlon
2. Consult this guide before posting about ICE operations on social media to avoid spreading unclear or false information: https://www.facebook.com/…/a.56963099638…/2716313601715498/…
3. Contact local mayors and police chiefs to ask them to reiterate their commitment to refuse to participate or in any way coordinate with ICE operations, and ask that they immediately inform the public if they receive notification that ICE operations will be carried out in their jurisdiction.
Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey
Minneapolis Police Chief Medaria Arradondo
Hennepin County Sheriff Dave Hutchinson
Saint Paul Mayor Melvin Carter
Saint Paul Police Chief Todd Axtell
Ramsey County Sheriff Bob Fletcher
That “know your rights” info is a little discouraging, because it tells you all the things ICE is not allowed to do, yet as this example shows, they go right ahead and do them anyway.
Yesterday, I showed you that clutch of spider eggs I’d accidentally removed from their silken egg sac. This morning I checked on them, looked into the incubator, and saw they were still resting there in a tight little ball, but when I picked up the vial, they disappeared. The coherent ball of eggs fell apart, and all the individuals went tumbling down, like little beige pearly ball bearings, and they’re rolling around on the floor of their container.
I don’t consider this a good sign — it means that they initially had some adhesive properties and that they’re drying out. Mama Spider puts a drop of mystery fluid in the egg sac as she’s laying eggs, and it’s not clear what that does for them. These eggs may be doomed. I spritzed some water vapor into the vial and also dampened the foam plug to get the humidity up, but we’ll see. I’ll be keeping an eye on them.
P.S. They’re not like chicken eggs, where a fall from 20 egg diameters up is going to crack them all. There are some privileges to being tiny.
This article is a preview from the Summer 2019 edition of New Humanist
In our liberal democracies, a plethora of radical disagreements are emerging: religious, secular, conservative, liberal, all leading to a fierce debate, polarising and splintering our communities. The fault lines are deep, and the fractures often relate to people’s identities and how they see themselves.
Social media has exploited these differences and accentuated a climate of deep polarisation. Initially it was possible to think that some of these technological breakthroughs would mitigate our troubled relationships. Social media companies promised new forms of community and unprecedented connectedness, and yet people apparently feel more isolated and purposeless than ever before. These fault lines are difficult to repair and reveal deep resentment, but the voting outcomes they produce may not protect people’s best interests. The disaffection is so deep that perhaps there is satisfaction in delivering a “slap in the face” to vested interests by voting for populist outcomes.
Apart from the poor who voted for this new populism, its most obvious victims are the vulnerable migrants and displaced persons, at home and abroad. These victims share one telling similarity. They are weak and they are strangers. Either migrants to our borders, or strangers to be attacked in their own countries: Iran, Syria, Libya, Afghanistan.
One possible remedy, familiar in the time of Homer nearly 3,000 years ago, is a return to a culture of generosity – hospitality to strangers and visitors and refugees. In Homer’s Greek, this is termed a culture of xenia.
In the introduction to her recent translation of The Odyssey (published in 2018 by W. W. Norton), Emily Wilson explains the Homeric concept of xenia: “approaching the island of the Cyclopes, Odysseus tells his men that he has to find out whether the inhabitants are ‘lawless aggressors’, or people who welcome strangers . . . the willingness to welcome strangers is figured enough, in itself, to guarantee that a person or culture can be counted as law-abiding and ‘civilised’.” What has happened to our culture that strangers to our shores are not welcomed? Was it always thus or is there something in our contemporary culture that has lost its spirit of generosity?
Wilson elaborates: “what is distinctive about the customs surrounding hospitality . . . is that hospitality is understood to create a bond of ‘guest friendship’ between … households that will continue into future generations.” Today, we need more than ever to revive some version of xenia if we are ourselves to remain even half-way decent and “civilised”. Xenia embodies what is often called “the rule of rescue” – that those in need of protection, because they are drowning, literally or figuratively, because they need food, shelter, care, medicine or comfort, are absolutely entitled to that rescue, if it is humanly possible to deliver it.
Of course we have not failed to notice that Homer remains a man of his time, and his time is the Bronze Age, around 750 BCE. His moral community in The Odyssey is principally one made up of men of a certain class and status, and the gods. Women only approach equal status when they are either gods or demi-gods, or are important to gods or to those status-secure men. Slaves, male and female, abound, and are in another class altogether.
People have always prioritised kinship bonds – friends and family, tribe and clan, fellow citizens. The moral leap made so many centuries BCE ago, and of which we, shamefully, need to remind ourselves today, is the extension of such bonds to strangers, even strangers of unknown or doubtful class, status or character.
* * *
Our natural proclivity is to privilege “in-groups” – that is, groups we see as similar to ourselves – and at the same time dehumanise “out-groups”, those we see as different. Many will argue that deep within our historical evolution there is a propensity to favour members of our own group and fear the members of another. While it is not unexpected that communities, groups and individuals will wish to stay within their comfort zones and avoid difference, we humans can – and frequently do – reject or overcome dysfunctional or immoral promptings that may arise partially in our evolutionary heritage.
The failure to engage with groups different to ourselves may increase the probability of seeing them as a threat or as the enemy, and thereby stimulate the conditions for conflict. The very act of creating siloed communities in which we do not engage with those who are different to ourselves may feel like self-protection, but can ultimately cause deep divisions. It would be better to find a more empathetic approach – exposure and engagement with the other has the possibility of reducing these fears.
Our creativity offers us the potential to develop antidotes, to mitigate the conditions in which we become suspicious and fearful of one another. Without this contact, we are prone to projection, a psychological term describing how we “dump” characteristcs and traits present in ourselves onto the other. This behaviour increases the level of anxiety and fear within our communities, particularly when there are already tensions. It creates behaviour in which we isolate ourselves from those who we have decided are not familiar, and who behave in a way that we do not like.
* * *
Of course, we have wonderful accounts of valiant hospitality and generosity of spirit. In two very different accounts of xenia in our own times, the authors Eric Newby and Iris Origo tell stories of the kindness of ordinary Italians towards escaping allied servicemen and refugees in Italy in the Second World War. Newby was a beneficiary of xenia while Origo, an Italian by marriage and country of adoption, was one of its most selfless and courageous practitioners.
In his preface to Love and War in the Apennines (Picador, 1983) Newby wrote an account of his experiences as a soldier, prisoner of war and escapee in Italy:
I finally decided to write this book because I felt that comparatively little had been written about the ordinary Italian people who helped prisoners of war at great personal risk and without thought of personal gain, purely out of kindness of heart.
Origo, in War in Val d’Orcia (Allison and Busby, 1999), gives similar personal testimony:
Of the 70,000 Allied p.o.w.s at large in Italy on September 8th 1943, nearly half escaped, either crossing the frontier to Switzerland or France, or eventually re-joining their own troops in Italy; and each one of these escapes implies the complicity of a long chain of humble, courageous helpers throughout the length of the country. ‘I can only say,’ wrote General O’Connor to me, ‘that the Italian peasants and others behind the line were magnificent. They could not have done more for us. They hid us, gave us money, clothes and food – all the time taking tremendous risks . . . We English owe a great debt of gratitude to those Italians whose help alone made it possible for us to live, and finally to escape.’
For a short time all men returned to the most primitive traditions of ungrudging hospitality, uncalculating brotherhood. At most, some old peasant-woman, whose son was a prisoner in a far-away camp in India or Australia, might say – as she prepared a bowl of soup or made the bed for a foreigner in her house – ‘perhaps someone will do the same for my boy’.
This testimony reflects the value of life, telling us that we value it and, to an extent, how much we value it. It also tells us whether we are “lawless aggressors” or people who welcome and protect strangers as well as our own folk. They tell us the extent to which we are truly “civilised”.
The current UK government’s attitude to refugee children fleeing war does not suggest any generosity of spirit. In 1938, in the spirit of xenia, Britain took in 10,000 unaccompanied child refugees from Europe fleeing Nazi persecution, now known as the Kindertransport children. Eighty years later, Europe is dealing with the aftermath of its worst refugee crisis since the Second World War.
Today, Lord Alf Dubs, himself a child of the Kindertransport, is one of the architects of a policy which requires ministers to relocate and support unaccompanied refugee children from Europe and give sanctuary to 3,000 unaccompanied minors fleeing war zones. So far the government has only reached half these numbers. Barbara Winton is co-organising the campaign in memory of the work of her father Nicolas Winton, who organised the safe passage of the Kindertransport children. She wishes to remind us that “a new generation of child refugees have arrived on our continent’s shores only to wait for years in makeshift camps, or risk their lives in the hands of traffickers and smugglers”.
We should call on the government to live up to the Kindertransport legacy by establishing a lasting route of protection for child refugees in conflict zones across the world. But we as individuals can also find spaces around common tables, both within our homes and in the community. The act of breaking bread and sitting together could provide engagement with people who think differently to ourselves. Such practices are the antithesis of a mean-spirited culture where we remain isolated and fearful of the other.
So if we naturally engage with groups who are essentially within our circle of family and friends, how can we extend the spirit of xenia towards people from Syria and Afghanistan? Can we break bread with them, and create a culture of shared stories, in which we understand the lives of people different to ourselves?
Many of us may need to remember that only one or two generations ago our own families were refugees. Are we prepared to evoke our own histories or do we prefer to retreat behind our walled communities of affluence? It is only by crossing this border that we are likely to humanise these relationships, and weaken some of the current polarised discourse.
Attempts to adopt the notion of xenia flourish when discontent is not too near the surface. At present we are struggling with a deep sense of fracture; lacking meaningful attachments, people find a perverse bond in hostility towards a common enemy. The outsider becomes the target in a society in which people are already struggling with their own sense of belonging. A toxic environment is created where we know what we are against as opposed to what we are for.
Surely it is what we all share – our common humanity – that gives us hope and connects us in spite of a deep sense of fragmentation. The times when we act socially and co-operatively are when we are truly human: talking, laughing, sharing food, shelter and work. Being alive and surviving together. Xenia is how we demonstrate and reinforce what we are like and learn what others are like. This can only happen in the context of real human contact which gives richness and meaning.
We all have this capacity; our humanity is beyond and prior to our politics. Emily Wilson ends her introduction to The Odyssey by inviting us to be more open-minded. The outcome of doing so may not be what we expect. In fact, in opening our doors, we may well overcome our prejudices and find a forgotten and deep human connection. So listen to her translation of the story of Odysseus as a parable about our relationship with strangers on our doorstep. It generates wonderful food for thought:
There is a stranger outside your house. He is old, ragged and dirty. He is tired. He has been wandering, homeless, for a long time, perhaps many years. Invite him inside. You do not know his name. He may be a thief. He may be a murderer. He may be a god. He may remind you of your husband, your father or yourself. Do not ask questions. Wait. Let him sit on a comfortable chair and warm himself beside your fire. Bring him some food, the best you have, and a cup of wine. Let him eat and drink until he is satisfied. Be patient. When he is finished he will tell his story. Listen carefully. It may not be as you expect.
Are we going to live in a world of xenia or xenophobia? Could the cooking smells of cumin, cardamom, saffron and turmeric create a common table, crossing cultural divides and warring divisions? Reminding us that somewhere a mother is preparing a bowl of soup or making the bed for a foreigner in her house, and saying: “perhaps someone will do the same for my boy.” λ
This article is a preview from the Summer 2019 edition of New Humanist
Many would see 33-year-old Hadiza Garba as an unlikely hero. Married at 14, she gave birth to her first child two years later. After an accident killed her husband when she was seven months pregnant with their second child, she moved back to live with her parents first, then her older brother, a respected imam of their town of Biu in Borno state of north-east Nigeria. When a group calling themselves Jama’atu Ahl al-Sunna li-l-Da’wa wa-l–Jihad (JAS), now commonly known as Boko Haram, started speaking against corruption and symbols of the “West” like the government, civil service and education system, Hadiza’s brother could not stay quiet. His preaching started to counter this ideology, urging people not to join the group and that education, far from being forbidden, is a force for good required by the Koran.
Then one night during the holy month of Ramadan, a neighbour came to their door. Hadiza, thinking he had come to give the traditional gifts of the season, welcomed him inside and called her brother to meet him. The next thing she knew, the neighbour was shooting her brother in the back and he lay dying.
The imam was not the only person JAS members killed in Biu. The day after his murder, her family went to the funeral prayers of three brothers also assassinated during the night. All of a sudden, one of the men present stood up. He declared he could no longer sit in silence knowing their murderer was among the mourners. The group grabbed the suspected killer and handed him over to security forces for questioning.
When Hadiza heard about this incident, she too started looking for – and caught – the neighbour who had killed her beloved brother. “Even if they will kill me, let me join hands to fight them,” she said. She did not stop there, and nor was she the only one moved to resistance. She joined other women and men who went house to house in the town and surrounding villages searching for weapons, arresting known members and handing them over to security forces. Women were particularly effective. JAS members would often hide weapons under their mothers’ beds, and men were not allowed to enter women’s rooms.
The remaining JAS members who had not been seized left Biu, fearing they would be next. They returned with reinforcements aiming to take over the town. They met girls, women, boys and men of all ages who fought back with sticks, stones, locally made guns, bows, arrows and any other weapons they could find. Soldiers joined in and the attacking fighters fled. Knowing they could no longer defeat Biu militarily, they started sending in people wearing IEDs, instructing them to detonate in crowded places.
At this point, Hadiza and the others started running checkpoints along the roads coming into Biu, carrying out searches to make sure this tactic would not be successful. Their group joined the yan gora or Civilian Joint Task Force which was taking similar action in Maiduguri, the state capital. It is just one such group currently operating in north-east Nigeria.
These kinds of groups are not a recent phenomenon and not limited to north-east Nigeria. They have a long historical background. In many parts of Nigeria, hunters, skilled in shooting arrows and later bullets, were the defenders of their community. Moreover, the colonial state relied on and appointed local leaders to suppress dissent, mobilise labour and collect taxes. In the 1980s, Nigeria experienced an economic downturn linked to population growth, budget issues and World Bank and International Monetary Fund structural adjustment programmes. At the same time, changes in climate and rainfall patterns were making it more difficult to earn livelihoods. Poverty, inequality, insecurity and crime were on the increase. People found themselves being robbed on their way to market and having goods and livestock stolen.
Community security mechanisms were created or revived. In many communities, hunters, who hunted for their livelihoods but also had roles in community governance, started patrolling roads to markets and other streets at night to deter thieves. Over time, they became known as vigilantes and joined the nascent Vigilante Group of Nigeria (VGN), a national organisation bringing together similar groups. “There were lots of criminals, thefts and killings due to lack of jobs and poverty,” Mohammed Tar, a Borno State vigilante commander, told me. “This reduced due to our work.”
Twenty-five years later, people in north-east Nigeria faced a new threat. On the one hand, JAS were engaging in targeted killings of those seen to oppose them. On the other, Nigerian security forces were treating everyone – particularly young men – as members, by carrying out mass arrests, reprisal attacks and extrajudicial killings. In this context, the yan gora in Maiduguri, described by everyone I spoke with as “a child of necessity”, were instrumental in chasing JAS members from the city.
Seeing the effectiveness of the yan gora, the Nigerian military asked them to take their model to other communities. People I spoke with last year for a research study (“Civilian Perceptions of the Yan Gora”, Center for Civilians in Conflict, 2018) told me how these groups are proactive in investigating reports, and provide concrete protection by conducting patrols, security scans and body searches, helping people to safety and giving escort to farmlands. They credit them for bringing back some stability and safety to the region.
In today’s wars, communities around the world have found ways to protect themselves in contexts as diverse as Afghanistan, Colombia and Uganda. Nearly two thirds of all civil wars fought between 1989 and 2010 have involved militias, according to Jessica Stanton of the University of Minnesota. Another academic specialist in civil wars, Corinna Jentzsch of Leiden University in the Netherlands, defines militias as armed organisations that exist outside the formal state security apparatus to counter insurgents, on the initiative of either local communities or the state.
In South Sudan and Uganda, the Arrow Boys, mostly farmers and hunters, came together to protect communities from attacks by the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA). Their strong information networks let them know if and when attacks might take place. Their connections with Ugandan and Sudanese armies meant they were able to ensure quick follow-up after attacks, and they were supported by local civil society and church groups, who provided food in exchange for night patrols that made people feel safer.
In Afghanistan, community shura councils talk with armed actors including the Taliban and Afghan security forces. They have negotiated ceasefires at certain times of the day, so children can attend school and adults can go to work. In Sierra Leone, community peace monitors approach conflicting parties through those close to them, building up confidence and relationships before starting initial discussions. These can lead to larger peace negotiations with resulting agreements witnessed by the entire community.
While individuals can show great bravery to come together in such militias, their existence also points to the state’s failure to protect. A report by the International Crisis Group on Cameroon, Chad, Niger and Nigeria (“Watchmen of Lake Chad”, 2017) charts how “drops in budget, an unreformed authoritarian mindset from colonial times, growing weaknesses in training and command, their instrumentalisation in internal politics, their factionalism and clientelistic turn combined to demoralise and sap the professionalism” of security forces in the region. It states that “vigilantism is as much a long-term symptom of state weakness in the Lake Chad basin as a short-term solution to it.”
The formation of militias also puts their members and the communities in which they live at risk. In Uganda and South Sudan, many Arrow Boys, not trained in fighting and armed with bows, arrows and other local weapons, have been killed by the LRA. In Nigeria, yan gora and vigilante leaders told me that many of their members have been killed, injured or left disabled. Survivors and their families typically receive no compensation and have to struggle for livelihoods. Raising community militias to fight JAS was instrumental in transforming the group from one primarily focused on the state into one that attacked civilians.
At the same time as the state is relinquishing or outsourcing its responsibility to provide for those living in it, coercive control has been increasing. In November 2018, the CIVICUS human rights monitoring organisation published a report showing that civil society is under serious attack in 111 out of 196 countries. Only 4 per cent of the global population lives in countries where governments respect freedoms of association, peaceful assembly and expression. It recorded attacks on journalists, censorship, harassment, excessive force during protest, intimidation and detention of human rights defenders and protesters. By a large margin, women activists were most likely to be targeted. Governments are also increasingly using the internet and new technologies as well as more traditional methods to monitor activities, clamp down on criticism and control narratives.
This widespread state repression and violence adds to already existing grievances around increasing inequality, control of natural resources, corruption and public services. Once violence arises, communities are increasingly left to fend for themselves or forced to create militia groups to help security forces. The male community leader of a village in Borno state told me how security forces started beating villagers, including elders, after they refused to form a village militia. In other locations, young men have reported how they were forced to join the yan gora and threatened if they did not do so.
Furthermore, while militias may start out with positive aims, this does not always last. Sierra Leone’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission has documented how the Civil Defence Forces, formed to protect civilians from violence by rebels, went on to harm them. The Arrow Boys of South Sudan are now fighting South Sudanese government forces. Human Rights Watch and other groups have noted human rights violations by their members.
In Nigeria too, yan gora members have been involved in assault and extrajudicial killings, sexual violence against women and girls, and intimidation, harassment, extortion and theft. “When they came in, we celebrated them as heroes but along the line they have been abusing a lot of their duties by inflicting injury on civilians,” one female activist told me. She went on to talk about cases of yan gora members withholding food from women unless they had sex with them, and forcing people to vote for certain politicians in the last elections. Many of these groups also discriminate against and marginalise their women members.
Despite all of this, back in Biu, Hadiza and the rest of her group continue to protect their people. She herself has survived two bomb blasts while running checkpoints. The first one came a while back. She was searching two men. One started shooting while the other detonated a bomb. Her friend was shot in the chest and died. Hadiza was hit by a bullet in her shoulder while the bomb exploded around her. Despite being told by her doctor to rest for at least two weeks after her release from hospital, she told me, “I was just eager to go and continue with my work so I voluntarily went again.”
Some time later, she was about to close the checkpoint for the day when she saw a man who looked suspicious. She refused to allow him to enter the town and asked him to raise his shirt to prove he was not carrying explosives. At that point, she saw him moving his hands together as if trying to detonate. She tried to stop him by grabbing one of his hands. “It detonated while I was there,” she told me.
This time, she was seriously injured and had to spend three months in hospital. She was given some money by a former government official and a local military commander but had to sell her belongings and borrow money to pay the rest of her medical costs.
Hadiza showed me where bomb fragments and the bullet from the two incidents had entered her left shoulder, knee and hand and across her back. Months after the latest bomb blast, she is still in pain, especially in the hand she used to try and stop the explosion. Yet she is back on the checkpoint. Despite the pain and the two bomb blasts she has already survived, her focus is on protecting her community. “I have not stopped,” she said. “I still have the zeal to continue."
This article is a preview from the Summer 2019 edition of New Humanist
I’d forgotten the existence of spoon-bender extraordinaire Uri Geller before he pledged to stop Brexit with his telepathic powers in March. The general reaction was lukewarm amusement. In our post-truth era, bending a spoon on camera, or even claiming to have burst the water pipes in Parliament, as Geller also did, feels simultaneously dreary and deranged.
Magicians seem like an odd breed these days. The profession is notoriously male, conjuring the image of a suited Ken doll: part cultist, part used-car-salesman. The exhibition Smoke and Mirrors, now showing at the Wellcome Collection in London, turns these assumptions on their head. Once again, the Wellcome has succeeded in fulfilling its mission to provoke us into thinking more deeply about the connections between science, life and art. It shows us how, in the information age, we have much to learn from the “magical arts”, as our ancestors have done throughout the ages. It is also seriously fun.
Smoke and Mirrors begins in the Belle Epoque of western Europe in the late 19th century, showing us how the development of psychology involved professional magicians. We are plunged into the hazy world of late Victorian spiritualism. Glass cabinets gleam with the paraphernalia of the parlour séance. A foot-long trumpet, designed to amplify the dead, stands opposite a series of spirit photographs, in which life-like plasmic blobs appear to leer over petticoated ladies.
The craze provoked a scientific backlash. In 1882, the Society for Psychical Research (SPR) was born, headed by the utilitarian philosopher and economist Henry Sidgwick. The stated purpose of the SPR – an institution that still exists today, although much transformed – was to test paranormal claims, under strict scientific conditions.
This is where the tale gets its twist. In order to test the mediums, the SPR enlisted the help of stage magicians, illusionists and conjurers. Smoke and Mirrors explores this topsy-turvy battle of wits. Almost a whole room is dedicated to the famous attempt to expose Mina “Margery” Crandon, a medium who gained mass popularity after the Second World War. She was pitted against Harry Houdini, the virtuoso stunt man who had recently wowed audiences by making a full-grown elephant vanish from the stage of the New York Hippodrome. Two of the other judges were high-profile members of the American Society for Psychical Research. But the results were disputed, causing a major rift in the Society.
These clashes weren’t just entertaining, they were scientifically productive. The SPR was criticised for including spiritualists within its membership, but it also generated some basic methodologies integral to research practice today. They are credited with conducting the first experiments investigating the psychology of eyewitness testimony, and they also developed randomised study designs.
Today, we increasingly understand that humans are terible observers. As the popular neuroscientist Beau Lotto puts it in his recent book Deviate: The Science of Seeing Differently (Hachette): “The world exists. It’s just that we don’t see it. We do not experience the world as it is because our brain didn’t evolve to do so.” Deviate explores the fact that around 90 per cent of the information that we use to see isn’t fed to the brain from our eyes. We perceive mostly during periods when our eyes are fixed upon something. Our brains construct the rest of our visual world, filling in the gaps.
Magicians and illusionists exploit this paradox. Smoke and Mirrors offers a programme of live performances exploring perception and deception. I saw Dr Matthew Tompkins, a magician-turned-experimental psychologist whose book The Spectacle of Illusion: Magic, the Paranormal and the Complicity of the Mind (Thames & Hudson) accompanies the exhibition. He explained how modern psychology is indebted to the “magical arts”, while performing tricks and explaining them, gleefully breaking the magicians’ code. In one deceptively simple trick, he showed four cards and asked us to pick one. “Concentrate on that card,” he said. I chose the Queen of Hearts. “I will now take away your card.” Ta da! The card had disappeared. How had he known?
He’d changed all four. This classic trick relies on my belief that I’d taken note of all of the cards. It depends on me feeling smarter than I am. “Change blindness” is the term now used for the difficulties we tend to experience detecting significant visual changes, even when we are directly focused on a scene. I’d heard of the phenomenon. I also knew that our conscious experience lags about a tenth of a second in the past. Yet I was also flabbergasted. “It doesn’t mean you’re broken or stupid,” Tompkins said. “Your perceptual systems and cognitive systems are weirder than you might think. And that’s important.”
It is important because our cognitive weirdness is being exploited every day. While Smoke and Mirrors tiptoes around politics, it does include some telling examples of fallible perception and memory. It includes a photograph of Barack Obama shaking hands with the President of Iran, and another of George W. Bush grinning in his car, apparently vacationing with the baseball celebrity Roger Clemens during Hurricane Katrina. Both are doctored images, based on fake news propagated by right- and left-wing channels respectively.
In a 2010 study by Slate magazine, 15 per cent of those who saw the Bush photo claimed to remember having seen the incident, while over a quarter remembered Obama and Ahmadinejad shaking hands.
In a recent interview, the British illusionist Derren Brown explained his craft in these terms: “Even a magician showing you a card trick is just getting you to tell yourself a story . . . you’re being sold a story with particular edit points . . . that’s what life is, we have this infinite data source coming at us and we have to reduce it to stories.” Fake news purveyors and fear-mongering pundits rely on our predictive brain and its need to fill in the gaps. Tucker Carlson of Fox News and Alex Jones of InfoWars are our modern masters of the magical arts. And the machine behind the curtain is becoming ever more sophisticated.
Franklin Foer, the author of World Without Mind: The Existential Threat of Big Tech (Penguin), has described the ability to generate manipulated video as an existential plunge: “We’ll shortly live in a world where our eyes routinely deceive us. Put differently, we’re not so far from the collapse of reality.” Foer is right to worry. Yet a trip to Smoke and Mirrors reminds us that we’ve never been able to believe our eyes. One video at the exhibition shows a man throwing a ball up three times. The third time the ball doesn’t fall back down. You’ve guessed it: the ball doesn’t exist. Like most viewers, I imagined it based on prediction. No AI required.
In Sacrifice, Derren Brown’s latest Netflix show, he attempts to turn a white American man with strong anti-immigrant sentiments into a hero who, by the end, will voluntarily take a bullet for a Mexican man without papers. Brown has been lambasted for his manipulations, yet Sacrifice poses the question: is his subject being programmed or de-programmed? The conditioning techniques Brown uses are taken to an extreme, but they are also common in advertising. The magician’s method of forcing – getting a punter to pick a card while believing it’s of her own free will – is not so different from that of nudging, a buzzword for politicians and policymakers.
Magic teaches us that seeing is believing. Or, more to the point, that believing is seeing. This is a powerful lesson in our saturated information era. Like a harmless fright at a horror movie, there is a healthy thrill in being fooled. We laugh and clap, coo and blush, moved by the same basic tricks that tickled our ancestors centuries ago. Parts of modern science are indebted to magicians, as Smoke and Mirrors delightfully displays. The exhibition’s more controversial message is that we still have something to learn.
“Smoke and Mirrors” runs until 15 September
This article is a preview from the Summer 2019 edition of New Humanist
Faith and Feminism in Pakistan: Religious Agency or Secular Autonomy? (Sussex Academic Press) by Afiya S. Zia
The focus of this book is Pakistan but I was struck by the similarity of the ideological battles being fought between secular and Islamic feminists in Pakistan and in Britain. Of course, the contexts are very different. Secular spaces are much narrower and more dangerous places to inhabit in Pakistan – as anyone following the blasphemy case of Asia Bibi will recognise. This is therefore a brave book. However, Afiya Zia, the author, says that to some extent she is protected by academia and by the fact that these debates are conducted in English rather than Urdu. Equating liberalism and secularism with an English-speaking elite may sound reductive, but this is a reality that is mirrored in India too.
Zia charts the post-9/11 intellectual climate which was shaped in response to the War on Terror. It encouraged many academics and activists to develop a narrative which damns secular feminism as a Western imperialist project which does not engage with the reality of Muslim women. This narrative has eclipsed the secular feminist trends that existed in Pakistan before 9/11 as represented by the activism of the Women’s Action Forum, of which Zia is a member. The view that secularism is a corrupting Western import disregards the fact that US imperialism also supported Pakistan’s dictator Zia-ul-Haq and the mujahideen in Afghanistan, the seedbed of the Taliban.
“The idea that Islamisation in the 1980s was some evolutionary, natural social force emerging as a form of anti-imperialist resistance is a reinvention by post-secularist scholars,” writes Afiya Zia. To those who argue that women’s sexual freedoms have been instrumentalised by the West to attack Islam, Zia counters that the Islamists have used the same tool in their battle against the West.
A whole body of scholarship that aims to counter what it sees as an imperialist project to construct a stereotypical Muslim woman – submissive and lacking in agency – has evolved. The irony is that Muslim women like Zia, who use their agency to argue for the importance of secularism, are dismissed as Western stooges or not authentically Muslim. Zia shows how the valorisation of Muslim women’s religious agency by diasporic scholars like the late Saba Mahmood, as an indigenous alternative to Western secularism, actually accommodates patriarchal and conservative mores and limits room for women’s emancipation.
These debates echo much of what has been going on in the UK. Groups like Southall Black Sisters, Women Against Fundamentalism or journals like Feminist Dissent, which are critical of what Islamism means for women, are considered by some sections of the anti-racist left to lack authenticity and – by default if not design – to be complicit with Western imperialist agendas. Any critique of Islamism is seen as Islamophobia, a view that has taken hold in the academy as well as on the streets.
However, this is where the similarities end between the UK and Pakistani contexts. In the UK, the secular feminist agenda has been hijacked by the far right, whose anti-Muslim racism is wrapped up in “concern” for Muslim women subjected to honour crimes and the burkha, despite patriarchy in their own ranks. This is one reason that the liberal left is reluctant to make a secular critique of Islamism but is happy to do so against other religious fundamentalisms like Hinduism or evangelical Christianity. (I would argue that if the left had not vacated this territory, the far right would not have rushed in.) There is a similar reulctance in some quarters to criticise Israel or Zionist ideology for fear of being seen as anti-Semitic. Unlike the far right in the UK, the far right in Pakistan, as represented by the mullahs, do all they can to separate their ideological territory from that of secular feminists.
Another familiar claim in Pakistan is that secular feminists are Westernised, middle-class urban women. Zia counters that with her depiction of the work and politics of the Lady Health Workers group, who often come from financially precarious backgrounds. This is a government-run project, initiated by Benazir Bhutto in 1994, that employs over 110,000 trained female community workers to deliver basic health services. They have succeeded in increasing the use of contraception, particularly in inaccessible rural areas. The Taliban felt threatened by this, and used their radio broadcasts to describe them as “house-calling prostitutes” because they carried condoms. Their work subverted the patriarchal order insofar as they enabled women to gain control of their bodies, and through their relative freedom in moving around in public and private spaces.
While these women may be religious individuals, as Zia has written elsewhere, “their service is driven and motivated and sustained by secular means, methods, purposes and ends. These working women are challenged by religious politics and their survival depends on secular resistance.” The Lady Health Workers protested against low pay and poor working conditions by blocking major highways, courting arrests and following up their legal case at the Supreme Court.
Zia fears that “a new, radicalised religio-political feminism dominating Pakistan’s political future is highly possible”. She is scathing about a new generation of cyber-activists whose activism she sees as limited to organising events like Pakistan Fashion Week as a way to counter terrorist ideology.
The emerging trend of Islamic feminism, which is essentially an attempt to enlarge the space for women’s rights within an Islamic discourse, is a hybridised identity in which the feminist agenda has been diluted. The danger of this trend for Zia is that it has “captured the imagination of young women in a more symbolic way that sometimes offers moments of political confrontation but mostly follows a route of stealth and accommodation with patriarchy.”
In the last decade, the Pakistani government has passed a raft of pro-women legislation dealing with acid attacks, forced marriage, honour crimes, rape and pornography. While implementation of these laws remains poor, I would have liked Zia to beam her analytical insights on how they came to be enacted given the ascendancy of Islamism, the numerous ways in which it tramples on women’s rights, and the interplay of secular and religious forces.
Why have human beings, in many different cultures and time periods, looked to nature as a source of norms for human behaviour? From ancient India and ancient Greece, medieval France and Enlightenment America, up to the latest controversies over gay marriage and cloning, natural orders have been used to illustrate and reinforce moral orders. Revolutionaries and reactionaries alike have appealed to nature to shore up their causes. In her new book "Against Nature" (MIT Press), Lorraine Daston, Director at the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science in Berlin, asks why we continue to seek moral orders in natural orders, instead of looking to human reason.
What drew you to this subject?
Some years ago I co-edited a volume about the moral authority of nature, which included essays on how nature’s authority had been invoked in the most diverse contexts – from ancient Greece to Enlightenment Europe to modern China and Japan (Lorraine Daston and Fernando Vidal, eds., The Moral Authority of Nature, University of Chicago Press, 2004). My colleagues and I focused on how nature was endowed with moral authority in these diverse contexts, but the why question continued to nag me. The very diversity of the historical and cultural contexts deepened the question: why was this phenomenon so pervasive and apparently immune to refutation? In the 20th century, philosophers have given the phenomenon a name – the “naturalistic fallacy” – and criticised its many manifestations as both logically flawed and politically pernicious. Yet the phenomenon persists: why?
You write about the human urge to seek moral order in nature. How is this invoked in the modern context?
One need only look as far as the daily press to find examples. In debates over homosexual marriage, genetically modified organisms, and environmental disasters, the term “unnatural” regularly appears as a moral judgment, and a highly negative one at that. Even when the topic is relatively free of religious associations, as in the case of natural disasters, the phrase “Nature’s Revenge” is a favorite headline of editorials covering such events, from Hurricane Katrina in the United States to the earthquake and tsunami that triggered the Fukushima nuclear reactor disaster in Japan.
In all of these cases, those who enlist nature’s authority in their cause conflate moral and natural orders – and disorders. The modification of the genome of one species by inserting snippets of the DNA of another species crosses a natural boundary and therefore, in the eyes of the critics of such procedures, also a moral boundary. (Think of the horrified reactions to the hoax image of a human ear apparently growing out of a mouse’s body that circulated on the Internet a few years ago.) Wildfires in California or avalanches in the Swiss Alps are often blamed on human greed and hubris, upon which nature takes its just “revenge.” In these and many other cases, the reproach “unnatural” is not merely a neutral description of something that is not found in nature; it is a term of strongest condemnation.
What about historically?
The most interesting thing about the ways in which natural orders have been used to represent and/or justify moral orders is the sheer number and diversity of examples, which run the gamut from the far left to the far right of the political spectrum. The stately rounds of the stars modelled the good life for Stoic sages; the rights of man were underwritten by the laws of nature in revolutionary France and in the newborn United States during the the Enlightenment; appeals to nature have grounded both apartheid-style racism and Green Party environmentalism. Nature has been used to defend both human equality and slavery. Nature can be made to march under almost any political banner.
The idea of looking to nature for answers has been widespread across time periods and cultures? Why is it so appealing?
To answer this question, it is helpful to distinguish between finding support for specific moral or political values in this or that aspect of nature and finding support for values in general – any kind of moral order – in the natural order. It is a notorious fact that specific norms differ, both cross-culturally and cross-historically. What one culture finds shocking – lending money at interest, a glimpse of a woman’s ankle, eating beef, slavery, cremation of the dead – another may consider standard practice, and vice versa. Since ancient times, this diversity of specific norms has been an argument for relativism. The diversity of appeals to nature to support causes from the reactionary to the revolutionary reflects that diversity of specific norms.
But there is no known human culture without any norms. A culture with no norms whatsoever would be as much of a contradiction in terms as nature without regularities. The precondition for norms of any kind is some kind of order, just as order is the precondition for any kind of regularity in nature. A situation that is so volatile and uncertain that what happened yesterday is no guide for today and today is no guide for tomorrow can support neither promises nor predictions. Imagine that everything from traffic regulations to the security of your neighbourhood changed constantly. Where you walked yesterday without a second thought as to your safety is today a war zone. Or imagine that the seasonal snows that fill the reservoirs stop. No one and nothing can be relied upon. Unfortunately, these chaotic conditions are all too familiar to people caught in civil wars or suffering the results of climate change. In a world in which neither promises nor predictions hold, neither cultural norms nor natural regularities have traction.
This is the deep analogy that links moral and natural orders. There remains the question as to why nature – as opposed to technology or art or other human-made orders – should serve as the predominant source of models for moral orders. There are some examples of models drawn from the human world to represent natural orders: for example, clockwork as a model of the Newtonian solar system. But nature offers advantages that even the largely built world of late modern societies cannot surpass: nature is the repository of almost all conceivable forms of order, everywhere and always on open display, and for the most part more durable than human artifacts. This is why natural orders have so long and so often served as an irresistible resource with which to represent moral orders.
Why shouldn’t we do this? What is obscured or lost when humans look to nature for answers?
There is an important distinction between using nature to represent versus to justify specific norms. Philosophers have rightly protested against turning nature into an oracle that allows humans to shirk responsibility for their own values and decisions. Furthermore, appealing to nature to justify specific norms is not only morally evasive; it is rhetorically doomed: just because nature is so rich in orders of all kinds, whatever example you choose to justify your preferred norm (say, the monogamy of swans to argue for marital fidelity as nature’s way), your adversary can come up with an opposing and equally natural example (say, the polygamy of baboons).
But using nature to represent moral orders is a different matter. Human sensory and cognitive organization seems to require that even the most abstract entities be made palpable to the senses: for our species, even mathematical models must be represented in symbols and graphic images. The elusive quality of the moral order cries out for such representations in order to make them real and publicly shared (recall Margaret Thatcher’s skeptical question, “Where is society?”). Because nature is the most abundant, available, and enduring source of orders of all kinds, it is inevitable that it should be a resource for representing moral orders. This is why I describe the use of natural orders to represent moral orders as not a simple case of mass irrationality but a very human form of rationality.
Can any form of reason be transcendent across cultures and epochs?
My book is a tentative exercise in philosophical anthropology: can anything be learned about the nature of the reason of our species by examining our very human tendency to conflate human and moral disorders? This is of course only one aspect of the many-splendored thing that is human reason, and my analysis can therefore only be suggestive. I can certainly imagine empirical refutations: for example, cultures that do not make use of natural orders in order to represent moral orders and instead have recourse to technological analogies, such as computers. What I cannot imagine is a human culture without a moral order and a representation of that order in some form. So my claim is that this latter form of human reason is universal for our species – a weak form of transcendence, and by no means a title to the uniqueness of our species.
But I am not claiming transcendence in the sense traditionally conceived by philosophers: a form of reason that would hold not only for our species but for Martians, angels, or any of the other epistemological thought-experiments that have for centuries populated philosophical speculations about the nature of rationality. This philosophical version of reason is transcendent in a much stronger sense: reason is reason regardless of sensorium or cognitive organisation or physical form (or, as in many such thought-experiments about angels or brains-in-a-vat, lack thereof). My argument opposes this strong transcendence: it matters to human reason what kind of beings we are.
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.
In October last year I was invited to CSICON in Las Vegas to interview Professor Richard Dawkins. The video has just been posted on Youtube, and here’s the two of us chatting about evolution, The God Delusion, and my aunty Jean.
[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.