A journey through a land of extreme poverty: Welcome to America

Ed Pilkington reports: We are in Los Angeles, in the heart of one of America’s wealthiest cities, and General Dogon, dressed in black, is our tour guide. Alongside him strolls another tall man, grey-haired and sprucely decked out in jeans and suit jacket. Professor Philip Alston is an Australian academic with a formal title: UN special rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights.

General Dogon, himself a veteran of these Skid Row streets, strides along, stepping over a dead rat without comment and skirting round a body wrapped in a worn orange blanket lying on the sidewalk.

The two men carry on for block after block after block of tatty tents and improvised tarpaulin shelters. Men and women are gathered outside the structures, squatting or sleeping, some in groups, most alone like extras in a low-budget dystopian movie.

We come to an intersection, which is when General Dogon stops and presents his guest with the choice. He points straight ahead to the end of the street, where the glistening skyscrapers of downtown LA rise up in a promise of divine riches.

Heaven.

Then he turns to the right, revealing the “black power” tattoo on his neck, and leads our gaze back into Skid Row bang in the center of LA’s downtown. That way lies 50 blocks of concentrated human humiliation. A nightmare in plain view, in the city of dreams.

Alston turns right.

So begins a two-week journey into the dark side of the American Dream. The spotlight of the UN monitor, an independent arbiter of human rights standards across the globe, has fallen on this occasion on the US, culminating on Friday with the release of his initial report in Washington.

His fact-finding mission into the richest nation the world has ever known has led him to investigate the tragedy at its core: the 41 million people who officially live in poverty.

Of those, nine million have zero cash income – they do not receive a cent in sustenance. [Continue reading…]

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Think our governments can no longer control capitalism? You’ve been duped

Larry Elliott writes: Blue Planet 2 demonstrated the terrifyingly fragile state of nature’s ecosystem. One of the key messages from the BBC series was that a delicate balance exists in the oceans between predators and prey. If there are too many predators, the stocks of prey fall. The predators go hungry and their numbers dwindle, allowing the prey to recover. Balance is restored.

Humans have their equivalent of this predator-prey model. It is best demonstrated by the workings of the labour market, where there is a constant struggle between employers and employees over the proceeds of growth. Unlike the world of nature, though, there is no self-righting mechanism. One side can carry on devouring its prey until the system breaks down. Over the past 40 years, employers have been the predators, workers the prey.

Consider the facts. By almost any measure, the past decade has been a disaster for living standards. Unemployment has fallen from its post financial-crisis peaks across the developed world but workers have found it hard to make ends meet. Earnings growth has halved in the UK even though the latest set of unemployment figures show that the jobless rate is the lowest since 1975.

The reason is not hard to find. Unions are far less powerful; collective bargaining in most of the private sector is a thing of the past; part-time working has boomed; and people who were once employed by a company are now part of the gig economy. [Continue reading…]

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#MeToo spotlight increasingly pointed at past Trump conduct

The Associated Press reports: Donald Trump sailed past a raft of allegations of sexual misconduct in last year’s presidential election.

Now the national #MeToo spotlight is turning back to Trump and his past conduct. Several of his accusers are urging Congress to investigate his behavior, and a number of Democratic lawmakers are demanding his resignation.

With each day seeming to bring new headlines that force men from positions of power, the movement to expose sexual harassment has forced an unwelcome conversation on the White House. In a heated exchange with reporters in the White House briefing room on Monday, press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders steadfastly dismissed accusations against the Republican president and suggested the issue had already been litigated in Trump’s favor on Election Day.

But to Trump’s accusers, the rising #MeToo movement is an occasion to ensure he is at last held accountable.

“It was heartbreaking last year. We’re private citizens and for us to put ourselves out there to try and show America who this man is and how he views women, and for them to say, ‘Eh, we don’t care,’ it hurt,” Samantha Holvey said Monday. The former beauty queen claimed that Trump ogled her and other Miss USA pageant contestants in their dressing room in 2006.

“Let’s try round two,” she said. “The environment’s different. Let’s try again.”

Holvey was one of four women to make her case against Trump on Monday, both in an NBC interview and then in a news conference. Rachel Crooks, a former Trump Tower receptionist who said the celebrity businessman kissed her on the mouth in 2006 without consent, called for Congress to “put aside party affiliations and investigate Trump’s history of sexual misconduct.”

“If they were willing to investigate Sen. Franken, it’s only fair that they do the same for Trump,” Crooks said. [Continue reading…]

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Alabama has the worst poverty seen in the developed world, UN official says

Newsweek reports: A United Nations official investigating poverty in the United States was shocked at the level of environmental degradation in some areas of rural Alabama, saying he had never seen anything like it in the developed world.

“I think it’s very uncommon in the First World. This is not a sight that one normally sees. I’d have to say that I haven’t seen this,” Philip Alston, the U.N.’s Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights, told Connor Sheets of AL.com earlier this week as they toured a community in Butler County where “raw sewage flows from homes through exposed PVC pipes and into open trenches and pits.”

The tour through Alabama’s rural communities is part of a two-week investigation by the U.N. on poverty and human rights abuses in the United States. So far, U.N. investigators have visited cities and towns in California and Alabama, and will soon travel to Puerto Rico, Washington, D.C., and West Virginia.

Of particular concern to Alston are specific poverty-related issues that have surfaced across the country in recent years, such as an outbreak of hookworm in Alabama in 2017—a disease typically found in nations with substandard sanitary conditions in South Asia and Subsaharan Africa, as reported by The Guardian. [Continue reading…]

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The tech industry’s gender-discrimination problem

Sheelah Kolhatkar writes: One day in 2013, AJ Vandermeyden drove to Tesla’s corporate headquarters, in Palo Alto, California, sat down on a bench outside the main entrance, and waited, in the hope of spotting someone who looked like a company employee. Vandermeyden, who was thirty years old, had been working as a pharmaceutical sales representative since shortly after college, but she wanted a different kind of job, in what seemed to her the center of the world—Silicon Valley. She knew that Tesla’s ambitious, eccentric co-founder Elon Musk was managing companies devoted to space flight and solar energy, in addition to running Tesla, which was producing electric cars, and she was inspired by his mission. Tesla was growing quickly and offered numerous opportunities for employees to advance. The company, Musk liked to say, was a “meritocracy,” and Vandermeyden wanted to be a part of it.

Vandermeyden saw a man wearing a Tesla T-shirt and walked over to introduce herself. After she found out that he worked in sales, the department she wanted to join, she decided to deliver her pitch to him right then. He seemed impressed by her nerve. A few weeks later, she was hired at Tesla as a product specialist in the inside-sales department.

At first, Vandermeyden thrived at Tesla. After almost a year, she was promoted to the job of engineering project coördinator in the paint department. The new position involved working out of Tesla’s automotive manufacturing facility in Fremont, California, where hundreds of apple-red robot arms assembled Tesla vehicles on a white factory floor. The whirr of the robots in motion gave the plant the feel of something out of science fiction.

But even in this futuristic environment there was something about life at Tesla that seemed distinctly atavistic—and deeply wrong. Vandermeyden, who worked closely with a group of eight other employees, soon learned that her salary was lower than that of everyone else in the group, including several new hires who had come to Tesla straight out of college. She was, as it happened, the only woman in the group. Her supervisors, and her supervisors’ supervisors, were male, all the way up the chain, it seemed, to Musk himself.

At Tesla, as at many tech companies, gallows humor prevailed among some of the women. There was a sense that the male executives had little understanding of the challenges women faced at the company. One former Tesla employee told me that women made up less than ten per cent of her working group; at one point, there were actually more men named Matt in the group than there were women. This became a source of rueful comedy. One male colleague quipped that they should change the sign reading “Women’s Room” to “Matt’s Room.”

Vandermeyden was a dedicated employee. Before long, a manager from the general-assembly division, who had heard that Vandermeyden had worked for twenty-six hours straight on a particular project, persuaded her to switch to his group. She started wearing steel-toed boots and safety glasses at work. She noticed that sometimes, when female employees walked through certain areas of the plant, male workers whistled, catcalled, and made derogatory comments. Women called it the “predator zone.” [Continue reading…]

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Expansion of tillage through use of draft animals led to the growth of inequality across the Old World

Researchers at Washington State University and 13 other institutions have found that the arc of prehistory bends towards economic inequality.

In the largest study of its kind, the researchers saw disparities in wealth mount with the rise of agriculture, specifically the domestication of plants and large animals, and increased social organization.

Their findings, published last month in the journal Nature, have profound implications for contemporary society, as inequality repeatedly leads to social disruption, even collapse, said Tim Kohler, lead author and WSU Regents professor of archaeology and evolutionary anthropology at WSU. The United States, he noted, currently has one of the highest levels of inequality in the history of the world.

“Inequality has a lot of subtle and potentially pernicious effects on societies,” Kohler said.

The study gathered data from 63 archaeological sites or groups of sites. Comparing house sizes within each site, researchers assigned Gini coefficients, common measures of inequality developed more than a century ago by the Italian statistician and sociologist Corrado Gini. In theory, a country with complete wealth equality would have a Gini coefficient of 0, while a country with all the wealth concentrated in one household would get a 1.

The researchers found that hunter-gatherer societies typically had low wealth disparities, with a median Gini of .17. Their mobility would make it hard to accumulate wealth, let alone pass it on to subsequent generations. Horticulturalists — small-scale, low-intensity farmers — had a median Gini of .27. Larger scale agricultural societies had a media Gini of .35.

To the researchers’ surprise, inequality kept rising in the Old World, while it hit a plateau in the New World, said Kohler. The researchers attribute this to the ability of Old World societies “to literally harness big domesticated mammals like cattle and eventually horses and water buffalo,” Kohler said.

Draft animals, which were not available in the New World, let richer farmers till more land and expand into new areas. This increased their wealth while ultimately creating a class of landless peasants.

“These processes increased inequality by operating on both ends of the wealth distribution, increasing the holdings of the rich while decreasing the holdings of the poor,” the researchers write.

The Old World also saw the arrival of bronze metallurgy and a mounted warrior elite that increased Ginis through large houses and territorial conquests. [Continue reading…]

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Kirsten Gillibrand’s moment has arrived

David Freedlander writes: The Washington sky was darkening outside her window, and Kirsten Gillibrand slumped down in her chair. It had been a long day. In the morning, the New York senator hosted a news conference with a mother whose twin 6-year-old daughters had been allegedly raped by their father’s military commander. As she walked off the podium, she’d been confronted by questions about her colleague Al Franken’s reported history of groping women, news that broke for the first time that morning. “Deeply concerning,” she replied, adding that she believed the story of his accusers. “I expect to hear more from Senator Franken.” And she had just come from a podcast interview with the New York Times in which she’d blown through the Democratic code of silence on Clinton misdeeds by saying that yes, if Bill Clinton were president now, he would have to resign after something like the Monica Lewinsky affair.

That last one wasn’t a piece of news Gillibrand had planned on making that morning. She had long been a supporter of the Clintons, both of them. She inherited Hillary Clinton’s seat in the Senate, and credits her with the decision to run for office in the first place. Bill Clinton campaigned for her in her first run for Congress. She strongly supported both of Hillary’s campaigns for president. But Gillibrand is no longer a rank-and-file Clinton Democrat. As the nation is convulsed with a deluge of allegations of sexual harassment and assault, one that seemingly every day fells another star, Gillibrand is at the political center of it. For years she has been battling against sexual assault in the military and on campus, and talking about sexual harassment in politics, and now at last it seems as if the rest of the world has caught up to her concerns. And so once the question has been put before you, in this political moment, when at long last it looks like all of that work is finally paying off and progress is being made, what else can you say about Bill Clinton lying about having oral sex with his 22-year-old intern other than that he should have stepped down and “things have changed today”?

The blowback was immediate. “Over 20 yrs you took the Clintons endorsement, money and seat. Hypocrite,” wrote Philippe Reines, a longtime Clinton confidant, on Twitter. “Interesting strategy for 2020 primaries. Best of luck.”

The first half of the tweet was predictable, a Clinton loyalist biting back at a perceived threat to the family. But the second half was telling. The world is paying attention to Gillibrand in a new way. At least since the day after Donald Trump’s inauguration, when Gillibrand thrilled the crowd at the Women’s March, jabbing the air with her finger and telling them, “This is the moment of the beginning of the revival of the women’s movement. This is the moment you will remember when women stood strong and stood firm and said never again. This is the moment that you are going to be heard!” The 51-year-old Gillibrand has come to represent a rising generation of Democratic leaders, one who came of age in an era when equality of the sexes was something almost taken for granted. And the buzz about her presidential ambitions has only grown. [Continue reading…]

 

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Time Person of the Year 2017: The silence breakers

Time reports: Discussions of sexual harassment in polite company tend to rely on euphemisms: harassment becomes “inappropriate behavior,” assault becomes “misconduct,” rape becomes “abuse.” We’re accustomed to hearing those softened words, which downplay the pain of the experience. That’s one of the reasons why the Access Hollywood tape that surfaced in October 2016 was such a jolt. The language used by the man who would become America’s 45th President, captured on a 2005 recording, was, by any standard, vulgar. He didn’t just say that he’d made a pass; he “moved on her like a bitch.” He didn’t just talk about fondling women; he bragged that he could “grab ’em by the pussy.”

That Donald Trump could express himself that way and still be elected President is part of what stoked the rage that fueled the Women’s March the day after his Inauguration. It’s why women seized on that crude word as the emblem of the protest that dwarfed Trump’s Inauguration crowd size. “All social movements have highly visible precipitating factors,” says Aldon Morris, a professor of sociology at Northwestern University. “In this case, you had Harvey Weinstein, and before that you had Trump.”

Megyn Kelly, the NBC anchor who revealed in October that she had complained to Fox News executives about Bill O’Reilly’s treatment of women, and who was a target of Trump’s ire during the campaign, says the tape as well as the tenor of the election turned the political into the personal. “I have real doubts about whether we’d be going through this if Hillary Clinton had won, because I think that President Trump’s election in many ways was a setback for women,” says Kelly, who noted that not all women at the march were Clinton supporters. “But the overall message to us was that we don’t really matter.”

So it was not entirely surprising that 2017 began with women donning “pussy hats” and marching on the nation’s capital in a show of unity and fury. What was startling was the size of the protest. It was one of the largest in U.S. history and spawned satellite marches in all 50 states and more than 50 other countries.

Summer Zervos, a former contestant on The Apprentice, was one of roughly 20 women to accuse the President of sexual harassment. She filed a defamation suit against Trump days before his Inauguration after he disputed her claims by calling her a liar. A New York judge is expected to decide soon if the President is immune to civil suits while in office. No matter the outcome, the allegations added fuel to a growing fire. [Continue reading…]

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Can Americans enjoy fundamental human rights while facing extreme poverty?

The Guardian reports: The United Nations monitor on extreme poverty and human rights has embarked on a coast-to-coast tour of the US to hold the world’s richest nation – and its president – to account for the hardships endured by America’s most vulnerable citizens.

The tour, which kicked off on Friday morning, will make stops in four states as well as Washington DC and the US territory of Puerto Rico. It will focus on several of the social and economic barriers that render the American dream merely a pipe dream to millions – from homelessness in California to racial discrimination in the Deep South, cumulative neglect in Puerto Rico and the decline of industrial jobs in West Virginia.

With 41 million Americans officially in poverty according to the US Census Bureau (other estimates put that figure much higher), one aim of the UN mission will be to demonstrate that no country, however wealthy, is immune from human suffering induced by growing inequality. Nor is any nation, however powerful, beyond the reach of human rights law – a message that the US government and Donald Trump might find hard to stomach given their tendency to regard internal affairs as sacrosanct.

The UN special rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights, Philip Alston, is a feisty Australian and New York University law professor who has a fearsome track record of holding power to account. He tore a strip off the Saudi Arabian regime for its treatment of women months before the kingdom legalized their right to drive, denounced the Brazilian government for attacking the poor through austerity, and even excoriated the UN itself for importing cholera to Haiti.

The US is no stranger to Alston’s withering tongue, having come under heavy criticism from him for its program of drone strikes on terrorist targets abroad. In his previous role as UN special rapporteur on extrajudicial executions, Alston blamed the Obama administration and the CIA for killing many innocent civilians in attacks he said were of dubious international legality. [Continue reading…]

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A historic tax heist

In an editorial, the New York Times says: With barely a vote to spare early Saturday morning, the Senate passed a tax bill confirming that the Republican leaders’ primary goal is to enrich the country’s elite at the expense of everybody else, including future generations who will end up bearing the cost. The approval of this looting of the public purse by corporations and the wealthy makes it a near certainty that President Trump will sign this or a similar bill into law in the coming days.

The bill is expected to add more than $1.4 trillion to the federal deficit over the next decade, a debt that will be paid by the poor and middle class in future tax increases and spending cuts to Medicare, Social Security and other government programs. Its modest tax cuts for the middle class disappear after eight years. And up to 13 million people stand to lose their health insurance because the bill makes a big change to the Affordable Care Act.

Yet Republicans somehow found a way to give a giant and permanent tax cut to corporations like Apple, General Electric and Goldman Sachs, saving those businesses tens of billions of dollars. [Continue reading…]

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I’m not ready for the redemption of men

Amber Tamblyn writes: Recently, I was sitting on my couch between two influential, Emmy-winning writers, one a man and one a woman. We were talking about consequences. The comedian Louis C.K.’s entire life seemed to have been canceled overnight. His movie wasn’t being released, and his representatives dropped him after five women accused him of sexual harassment, behavior he then admitted. In just the past week, more famous and admired men have lost their jobs for such behaviors. Enter Charlie Rose and Matt Lauer right behind him and then Garrison Keillor.

The man on the couch next to me was disconcerted, making an argument that while Louis C.K.’s actions certainly merited serious consequences, what he did and what Harvey Weinstein did are two very different things. We shouldn’t lump them all together, he insisted. The woman was firm with her response: “Yes, we can and we will. Choosing consequences doesn’t belong to you anymore.”

The man balked with frustration. “What do you want,” he asked her. “What’s the ultimate thing you would want to happen to him, for what he did? That he never works in this business again?” The woman said, simply: “Yes. That’s the price you pay.” The man was quiet for a moment, thinking, until he found the question he’d been looking for the entire conversation. “Tell me something: Do you believe in redemption?”

It’s a valid question. But it’s also a question that makes me deeply suspicious of its timing. Why do we need to talk about the redemption of men when we are right in the middle of the salvation of women? Not even the middle, but the very beginning? Why are we obligated to care about salvaging male careers when we have just begun to tell the stories that have plagued us for lifetimes? It seems some men like a revolution only when it’s their kind of war. [Continue reading…]

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The unexamined brutality of male sexuality

Stephen Marche writes: After weeks of continuously unfolding abuse scandals, men have become, quite literally, unbelievable. What any given man might say about gender politics and how he treats women are separate and unrelated phenomena. Liberal or conservative, feminist or chauvinist, woke or benighted, young or old, found on Fox News or in The New Republic, a man’s stated opinions have next to no relationship to behavior.

Through sheer bulk, the string of revelations about men from Bill Cosby to Roger Ailes to Harvey Weinstein to Louis C.K. to Al Franken and, this week, to Charlie Rose and John Lasseter, have forced men to confront what they hate to think about most: the nature of men in general. This time the accusations aren’t against some freak geography teacher, some frat running amok in a Southern college town. They’re against men of all different varieties, in different industries, with different sensibilities, bound together, solely, by the grotesquerie of their sexuality.

Men arrive at this moment of reckoning woefully unprepared. Most are shocked by the reality of women’s lived experience. Almost all are uninterested or unwilling to grapple with the problem at the heart of all this: the often ugly and dangerous nature of the male libido.

For most of history, we’ve taken for granted the implicit brutality of male sexuality. In 1976, the radical feminist and pornography opponent Andrea Dworkin said that the only sex between a man and a woman that could be undertaken without violence was sex with a flaccid penis: “I think that men will have to give up their precious erections,” she wrote. In the third century A.D., it is widely believed, the great Catholic theologian Origen, working on roughly the same principle, castrated himself.

Fear of the male libido has been the subject of myth and of fairy tale from the beginning of literature: What else were the stories of Little Red Riding Hood or Bluebeard’s Castle about? A vampire is an ancient and powerful man with an insatiable hunger for young flesh. Werewolves are men who regularly lose control of their bestial nature. Get the point? There is a line, obviously, between desire and realization, and some cross it and some don’t. But a line is there for every man. And until we collectively confront this reality, the post-Weinstein public discussion — where men and women go from here — will begin from a place of silence and dishonesty. [Continue reading…]

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The deep history of the domestication and enslavement of humans

Steven Mithen writes: When our ancestors began to control fire, most likely somewhere in Africa around 400,000 years ago, the planet was set on a new course. We have little idea and even less evidence of how early humans made fire; perhaps they carried around smouldering bundles of leaves from forest fires, or captured the sparks thrown off when chipping stone or rubbing sticks together. However it happened, the human control of fire made an indelible mark on the earth’s ecosystems, and marked the beginning of the Anthropocene – the epoch in which humans have had a significant impact on the planet.

In Against the Grain James Scott describes these early stages as a ‘“thin” Anthropocene’, but ever since, the Anthropocene has been getting thicker. New layers of human impact were added by the adoption of farming about ten thousand years ago, the invention of the steam engine around 1780, and the dropping of the atomic bomb in 1945. Today the Anthropocene is so dense that we have virtually lost sight of anything that could be called ‘the natural world’.

Fire changed humans as well as the world. Eating cooked food transformed our bodies; we developed a much shorter digestive tract, meaning that more metabolic energy was available to grow our brains. At the same time, Homo sapiens became domesticated by its dependence on fire for warmth, protection and fuel. If this was the start of human progress towards ‘civilisation’, then – according to the conventional narrative – the next step was the invention of agriculture around ten thousand years ago. Farming, it is said, saved us from a dreary nomadic Stone Age hunter-gatherer existence by allowing us to settle down, build towns and develop the city-states that were the centres of early civilisations. People flocked to them for the security, leisure and economic opportunities gained from living within thick city walls. The story continues with the collapse of the city-states and barbarian insurgency, plunging civilised worlds – ancient Mesopotamia, China, Mesoamerica – into their dark ages. Thus civilisations rise and fall. Or so we are told.

The perfectly formed city-state is the ideal, deeply ingrained in the Western psyche, on which our notion of the nation-state is founded, ultimately inspiring Donald Trump’s notion of a ‘city’ wall to keep out the barbarian Mexican horde, and Brexiters’ desire to ‘take back control’ from insurgent European bureaucrats. But what if the conventional narrative is entirely wrong? What if ancient ruins testify to an aberration in the normal state of human affairs rather than a glorious and ancient past to whose achievements we should once again aspire? What if the origin of farming wasn’t a moment of liberation but of entrapment? Scott offers an alternative to the conventional narrative that is altogether more fascinating, not least in the way it omits any self-congratulation about human achievement. His account of the deep past doesn’t purport to be definitive, but it is surely more accurate than the one we’re used to, and it implicitly exposes the flaws in contemporary political ideas that ultimately rest on a narrative of human progress and on the ideal of the city/nation-state. [Continue reading…]

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Low-wage workers have been fighting sexual harassment for years

HuffPost reports: Cecilia was working as a minibar attendant at a Chicago hotel when she knocked on the guest’s door and announced herself. The man’s response was quick and unequivocal: “You can come in.”

When she opened the door, “He was at the computer, masturbating,” Cecilia recalled. She was overcome with shock and embarrassment. Judging from the satisfied look on the man’s face, that was the whole idea.

“I felt nasty,” recalled Cecilia, who asked that her last name and the hotel not be identified. “You’d expect that to happen to people in a jail but not in regular work. I felt like crying.”

It wasn’t the only time Cecilia had dealt with extreme forms of sexual harassment in her three decades working in downtown hotels. A male guest once answered her knock by opening the door naked. Just a month and a half ago, a younger colleague confided to Cecilia that a male guest had tried to embrace her while she was in his room. Cecilia escorted the shaken housekeeper to the hotel’s security team to report the incident.

Since the allegations against movie producer Harvey Weinstein were first revealed last month, more and more women have stepped forward with stories of sexual harassment and assault at work. Their bravery in speaking out has toppled powerful men’s careers in Hollywood, Silicon Valley and Washington. But much less attention has been paid to the rampant harassment in blue-collar workplaces, particularly the hotel industry. [Continue reading…]

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Can my children be friends with white people?

Ekow N. Yankah writes: My oldest son, wrestling with a 4-year-old’s happy struggles, is trying to clarify how many people can be his best friend. “My best friends are you and Mama and my brother and …” But even a child’s joy is not immune to this ominous political period. This summer’s images of violence in Charlottesville, Va., prompted an array of questions. “Some people hate others because they are different,” I offer, lamely. A childish but distinct panic enters his voice. “But I’m not different.”

It is impossible to convey the mixture of heartbreak and fear I feel for him. Donald Trump’s election has made it clear that I will teach my boys the lesson generations old, one that I for the most part nearly escaped. I will teach them to be cautious, I will teach them suspicion, and I will teach them distrust. Much sooner than I thought I would, I will have to discuss with my boys whether they can truly be friends with white people.

Meaningful friendship is not just a feeling. It is not simply being able to share a beer. Real friendship is impossible without the ability to trust others, without knowing that your well-being is important to them. The desire to create, maintain or wield power over others destroys the possibility of friendship. The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s famous dream of black and white children holding hands was a dream precisely because he realized that in Alabama, conditions of dominance made real friendship between white and black people impossible. [Continue reading…]

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Brave enough to be angry

Lindy West writes: Not only are women expected to weather sexual violence, intimate partner violence, workplace discrimination, institutional subordination, the expectation of free domestic labor, the blame for our own victimization, and all the subtler, invisible cuts that undermine us daily, we are not even allowed to be angry about it. Close your eyes and think of America.

We are expected to keep quiet about the men who prey upon us, as though their predation was our choice, not theirs. We are expected to sit quietly as men debate whether or not the state should be allowed to forcibly use our bodies as incubators. We are expected to not complain as we are diminished, degraded and discredited.

We are expected to agree (and we comply!) with the paternal admonition that it is irresponsible and hyperemotional to request one female president after 241 years of male ones — because that would be tokenism, anti-democratic and dangerous — as though generations of white male politicians haven’t proven themselves utterly disinterested in caring for the needs of communities to which they do not belong. As though white men’s monopolistic death-grip on power in America doesn’t belie precisely the kind of “identity politics” they claim to abhor. As though competent, qualified women are so thin on the ground that even a concerted, sincere, large-scale search for one would be a long shot, and any resulting candidate a compromise.

Meanwhile, as a reminder of the bar for male competence, Donald Trump is the president. [Continue reading…]

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The case against civilization

John Lanchester writes: Science and technology: we tend to think of them as siblings, perhaps even as twins, as parts of STEM (for “science, technology, engineering, and mathematics”). When it comes to the shiniest wonders of the modern world—as the supercomputers in our pockets communicate with satellites—science and technology are indeed hand in glove. For much of human history, though, technology had nothing to do with science. Many of our most significant inventions are pure tools, with no scientific method behind them. Wheels and wells, cranks and mills and gears and ships’ masts, clocks and rudders and crop rotation: all have been crucial to human and economic development, and none historically had any connection with what we think of today as science. Some of the most important things we use every day were invented long before the adoption of the scientific method. I love my laptop and my iPhone and my Echo and my G.P.S., but the piece of technology I would be most reluctant to give up, the one that changed my life from the first day I used it, and that I’m still reliant on every waking hour—am reliant on right now, as I sit typing—dates from the thirteenth century: my glasses. Soap prevented more deaths than penicillin. That’s technology, not science.

In “Against the Grain: A Deep History of the Earliest States,” James C. Scott, a professor of political science at Yale, presents a plausible contender for the most important piece of technology in the history of man. It is a technology so old that it predates Homo sapiens and instead should be credited to our ancestor Homo erectus. That technology is fire. We have used it in two crucial, defining ways. The first and the most obvious of these is cooking. As Richard Wrangham has argued in his book “Catching Fire,” our ability to cook allows us to extract more energy from the food we eat, and also to eat a far wider range of foods. Our closest animal relative, the chimpanzee, has a colon three times as large as ours, because its diet of raw food is so much harder to digest. The extra caloric value we get from cooked food allowed us to develop our big brains, which absorb roughly a fifth of the energy we consume, as opposed to less than a tenth for most mammals’ brains. That difference is what has made us the dominant species on the planet.

The other reason fire was central to our history is less obvious to contemporary eyes: we used it to adapt the landscape around us to our purposes. Hunter-gatherers would set fires as they moved, to clear terrain and make it ready for fast-growing, prey-attracting new plants. They would also drive animals with fire. They used this technology so much that, Scott thinks, we should date the human-dominated phase of earth, the so-called Anthropocene, from the time our forebears mastered this new tool.

We don’t give the technology of fire enough credit, Scott suggests, because we don’t give our ancestors much credit for their ingenuity over the long period—ninety-five per cent of human history—during which most of our species were hunter-gatherers. “Why human fire as landscape architecture doesn’t register as it ought to in our historical accounts is perhaps that its effects were spread over hundreds of millennia and were accomplished by ‘precivilized’ peoples also known as ‘savages,’ ” Scott writes. To demonstrate the significance of fire, he points to what we’ve found in certain caves in southern Africa. The earliest, oldest strata of the caves contain whole skeletons of carnivores and many chewed-up bone fragments of the things they were eating, including us. Then comes the layer from when we discovered fire, and ownership of the caves switches: the human skeletons are whole, and the carnivores are bone fragments. Fire is the difference between eating lunch and being lunch.

Anatomically modern humans have been around for roughly two hundred thousand years. For most of that time, we lived as hunter-gatherers. Then, about twelve thousand years ago, came what is generally agreed to be the definitive before-and-after moment in our ascent to planetary dominance: the Neolithic Revolution. This was our adoption of, to use Scott’s word, a “package” of agricultural innovations, notably the domestication of animals such as the cow and the pig, and the transition from hunting and gathering to planting and cultivating crops. The most important of these crops have been the cereals—wheat, barley, rice, and maize—that remain the staples of humanity’s diet. Cereals allowed population growth and the birth of cities, and, hence, the development of states and the rise of complex societies.

The story told in “Against the Grain” heavily revises this widely held account. Scott’s specialty is not early human history. His work has focussed on a skeptical, peasant’s-eye view of state formation; the trajectory of his interests can be traced in the titles of his books, from “The Moral Economy of the Peasant” to “The Art of Not Being Governed.” His best-known book, “Seeing Like a State,” has become a touchstone for political scientists, and amounts to a blistering critique of central planning and “high modernism,” the idea that officials at the center of a state know better than the people they are governing. Scott argues that a state’s interests and the interests of subjects are often not just different but opposite. Stalin’s project of farm collectivization “served well enough as a means whereby the state could determine cropping patterns, fix real rural wages, appropriate a large share of whatever grain was produced, and politically emasculate the countryside”; it also killed many millions of peasants.

Scott’s new book extends these ideas into the deep past, and draws on existing research to argue that ours is not a story of linear progress, that the time line is much more complicated, and that the causal sequences of the standard version are wrong. He focusses his account on Mesopotamia—roughly speaking, modern-day Iraq—because it is “the heartland of the first ‘pristine’ states in the world,” the term “pristine” here meaning that these states bore no watermark from earlier settlements and were the first time any such social organizations had existed. They were the first states to have written records, and they became a template for other states in the Near East and in Egypt, making them doubly relevant to later history.

The big news to emerge from recent archeological research concerns the time lag between “sedentism,” or living in settled communities, and the adoption of agriculture. Previous scholarship held that the invention of agriculture made sedentism possible. The evidence shows that this isn’t true: there’s an enormous gap—four thousand years—separating the “two key domestications,” of animals and cereals, from the first agrarian economies based on them. Our ancestors evidently took a good, hard look at the possibility of agriculture before deciding to adopt this new way of life. They were able to think it over for so long because the life they lived was remarkably abundant. Like the early civilization of China in the Yellow River Valley, Mesopotamia was a wetland territory, as its name (“between the rivers”) suggests. In the Neolithic period, Mesopotamia was a delta wetland, where the sea came many miles inland from its current shore.

This was a generous landscape for humans, offering fish and the animals that preyed on them, fertile soil left behind by regular flooding, migratory birds, and migratory prey travelling near river routes. The first settled communities were established here because the land offered such a diverse web of food sources. If one year a food source failed, another would still be present. The archeology shows, then, that the “Neolithic package” of domestication and agriculture did not lead to settled communities, the ancestors of our modern towns and cities and states. Those communities had been around for thousands of years, living in the bountiful conditions of the wetlands, before humanity committed to intensive agriculture. Reliance on a single, densely planted cereal crop was much riskier, and it’s no wonder people took a few millennia to make the change.

So why did our ancestors switch from this complex web of food supplies to the concentrated production of single crops? We don’t know, although Scott speculates that climatic stress may have been involved. Two things, however, are clear. The first is that, for thousands of years, the agricultural revolution was, for most of the people living through it, a disaster. The fossil record shows that life for agriculturalists was harder than it had been for hunter-gatherers. Their bones show evidence of dietary stress: they were shorter, they were sicker, their mortality rates were higher. Living in close proximity to domesticated animals led to diseases that crossed the species barrier, wreaking havoc in the densely settled communities. Scott calls them not towns but “late-Neolithic multispecies resettlement camps.” Who would choose to live in one of those? Jared Diamond called the Neolithic Revolution “the worst mistake in human history.” The startling thing about this claim is that, among historians of the era, it isn’t very controversial. [Continue reading…]

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The ‘Paradise Papers’ expose Trump’s fake populism

Ishaan Tharoor writes: President Trump entered the White House on a platform of populist rage. He channeled ire against the perceived perfidy and corruption of a shadowy world of cosmopolitan elites. He labeled his opponent Hillary Clinton a “globalist” — an establishment apparatchik supposedly motivated more by her ties to wealthy concerns elsewhere than by true patriotic sentiment.

“We will no longer surrender this country, or its people, to the false song of globalism,” Trump declared in a campaign speech in 2016, setting the stage for his “America First” agenda. The message was effective, winning over voters who felt they had lost out in an age defined by globalization, free trade and powerful multinational corporations.

Fast-forward a year, though, and it’s worth asking whether Trump — a scion of metropolitan privilege and a jet-setting tycoon who has long basked in his private world of gilded excess — ever seriously believed any of his own populist screeds. Little he has done since coming to power suggests a meaningful interest in uplifting the working class or addressing widening social inequities. Indeed, much of the legislation that he and his Republican allies are seeking to push through suggests the exact opposite. [Continue reading…]

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