Most Interesting Reads for the Week (December 7, 2014)

Here are a few of the more interesting things I found on the Internet last week. Sorry this is late.

  • Race and power in the American understanding. “And so this conflict between two seemingly incompatible racial visions brings to the surface a fundamental congruence: The Ferguson event reveals the fact that both sides cannot imagine race apart from systems of domination. We have two very different race narratives that are nevertheless both bound up with the same system of ultimate authority. As inheritors of the nation-state complex, we in modern America simply have no memory of race being defined and negotiated in any other way.”
  • How journalism gets bent and broken in Israel and Palestine. “In these circles, in my experience, a distaste for Israel has come to be something between an acceptable prejudice and a prerequisite for entry. I don’t mean a critical approach to Israeli policies or to the ham-fisted government currently in charge in this country, but a belief that to some extent the Jews of Israel are a symbol of the world’s ills, particularly those connected to nationalism, militarism, colonialism, and racism—an idea quickly becoming one of the central elements of the ‘progressive’ Western zeitgeist, spreading from the European left to American college campuses and intellectuals, including journalists. In this social group, this sentiment is translated into editorial decisions made by individual reporters and editors covering Israel, and this, in turn, gives such thinking the means of mass self-replication.”
  • Considering the feelings of bees. “But could insects feel emotional angst? Sainath and I leant forward into our quiet voices and the small circle of intimacy created by our shared knowledge that many would find blasphemous. ‘I didn’t prove it, scientifically,’ he said, ‘but I could feel it. Of course they suffer. Their long antennae caressing each other – their feet and tongues touching. Yes, they do. They suffer.’”
  • Why young western Muslims go to war in Syria. “The underdogs are particularly important for terrorist organizations like Islamic State, because their stories are meant to show that even a loser can be someone — not in Dinslaken or Berlin, but with the jihadists in Iraq and Syria — even if most of those mentioned in the media eventually die a so-called martyr’s death.”
  • Beating the Islamic State on the ground of ideas — something I’m not entirely sure the West can do on purpose. “I am a firm believer that the US cannot eliminate IS through coercive force and confrontation across borderless states. Statelessness is IS’s comfort-zone. Engaging it on its own turf of lawlessness means providing it with lifeblood of survival. Obama might have been right that IS ‘is neither Islamic nor a state,’ but IS has to be defeated by both—Islam and the State. Its brand of Islam has to be replaced by a sheer Islamic scholarship that is genuinely deconstructive of the polemical roots of sectarian praxis.”
  • What we make impossible when we seek to eliminate risk. “Risk played its part, too, in the massive postwar shift in social attitudes. People, often the young, were prepared to take huge, physical risks to right the wrongs of the pre-war world. The early civil rights and anti-war protestors faced tear gas or worse. In the 1960s, feminists faced social ridicule, media approbation and violent hostility. Now, mirroring the incremental changes seen in technology, social progress all too often finds itself down the blind alleyways of political correctness. Student bodies used to be hotbeds of dissent, even revolution; today’s hyper-conformist youth is more interested in the policing of language and stifling debate when it counters the prevailing wisdom. Forty years ago a burgeoning media allowed dissent to flower. Today’s very different social media seems, despite democratic appearances, to be enforcing a climate of timidity and encouraging groupthink.”
  • How institutions (not just the military) ruin good ideas. “Of course I’m not the first to complain about the proliferation of buzzwords at the cost of genuine understanding; in fact what might be dubbed ‘the buzzword problem’ has grown to the extent that complaining about it has become something of a cliché. Even such world-renowned strategists as Colin Grey have observed that ‘Americans in the 2000s went to war and by and large have remained conceptually wounded’.But the wittiest summary of the buzzword problem has to be that of Justin Kelly and Ben Fitzgerald, who penned a short paper entitled ‘when a cup of coffee becomes a soy decaf mint mocha chip frappuccino’. Bingo!”
  • The failure of The New Republic. “One reason he’s dispensable is that American liberalism is shifting in the direction of a long tradition in American conservatism, one that is supremely confident in the wisdom of markets. For liberal idealists, the new technological utopianism married to the dynamism of capitalism has replaced the old utopian socialism of the bygone era. It’s commonly said in Silicon Valley that if you want to change the world you need to start a company. Gone is the high theory of Marxism, which—however wrongheaded it was—still trained the left to think. In its place we now have painfully simplistic (and self-serving) slogans. The Facebook era! The Twitter revolution!”
  • The problem of human rights. “The truth is that human rights law has failed to accomplish its objectives. There is little evidence that human rights treaties, on the whole, have improved the wellbeing of people. The reason is that human rights were never as universal as people hoped, and the belief that they could be forced upon countries as a matter of international law was shot through with misguided assumptions from the very beginning. The human rights movement shares something in common with the hubris of development economics, which in previous decades tried (and failed) to alleviate poverty by imposing top-down solutions on developing countries. But where development economists have reformed their approach, the human rights movement has yet to acknowledge its failures. It is time for a reckoning.”