—Sam Adler-Bell focuses on labor and mass incarceration.
“Response to Vivek Chibber,” by Bruce Robbins. n+1, January 9, 2014.
This piece by Columbia English professor Bruce Robbins represents the latest volley in a months-old academic dust-up inaugurated by the publication of Vivek Chibber’s Postcolonial Theory and the Specter of Capital (Verso 2013) in March. Thanks to the miraculous hype machine at Verso Press—the hip wizards of leftist publishing, imbuing new books about Marxism with the cultural relevance of a Radiohead album—the fashionably unfashionable quality of Chibber’s central argument (that universal history in a Marxist mode is not only possible but necessary), and the pugnaciousness of Chibber’s attack on venerated Subaltern Studies historians like Partha Chatterjee and Ranajit Guha, the book has become something of a lightning rod. And it’s been fun to follow the little squirmishes: Axel Andersson’s piece in the Los Angeles Review of Books, Robbins’s review in n+1, Chibber’s response to Robbins in Jacobin, Robbins’s response to Chibber (above), not to mention a moderated debate between Chibber and Chatterjee at NYC’s Historical Materialism conference—which Verso live-tweeted as if it were a WWE prizefight (“Y’all ready for the Chibber/Chatterjee cage match that’s about to start? #postcolonialism”).
—Dustin Christensen focuses on Latin American politics and sports.
“Mexico States Leave Millions on the Table, Thwart Police Reform,” by Patrick Corcoran. InSightCrime, January 14, 2014
The Mexican government has recently deployed troops and federal police to the southwestern state of Michoacán in an attempt to disarm vigilante “self-defense” groups. These groups have sprung up in the area during the last year to combat both corrupt local police forces and the Knights Templar drug cartel. Patrick Corcoran has an excellent piece about local governments’ failure to spend some $190 million in federal funds available last year for vetting local police forces. Using this money would be a huge first step towards improving local policing capacity, filling the institutional gap that makes armed vigilante groups necessary in the first place.
—Laura Cremer focuses on labor, gender and the historicization of culture and politics.
“In the Name of Love,” by Miya Tokumitsu. Jacobin, Issue 13.
Miya Tokumitsu writes about the rise of a new, Steve Jobs–approved mandate for modern workers: “Do what you love; love what you do.” She discusses the dire social and political consequences of accepting the idea that the road to happiness lies in “fun” work rather than less work and better compensation. The essay only begins to explore certain aspects of the problem, including the ways it can cut across class lines, but it does remind us that it’s not only “elites” who are harmed by the kind of thinking it represents (which helps normalize unpaid internships and the replacement of full-time professors with low-paid adjuncts): the idea that “doing what you love” is a personal choice also erases the experiences of everyone who can’t afford to do so. The essay should remind us that we can’t afford to accept social mobility as a substitute for greater equality or rely on individual solutions to collective problems.
—Cecilia D’Anastasio focuses on ethics, feminism, press freedom and tech.
“Did God Make These Babies Moral?,” by Paul Bloom. The New Republic, January 13, 2014.
In his accessible and well-reasoned investigation into altruism, Yale Professor of Cognitive Science Paul Bloom asks, “Why would someone risk his life for a stranger?” Bloom’s piece opens with the story of an ordinary man who dove onto subway tracks—with a train approaching—to save the life of somebody he’d never met. Bloom uses the emergence of altruism in the human species as a reference point for a larger inquiry into evolution versus intelligent design. Is selfless morality a product of natural selection or of the supernatural? In asking where our higher moral faculties come from, Bloom takes us through an intellectual history of how scientists and thinkers dealt with the question of functional morality.
—Simon Davis-Cohen focuses on self-governance, climate adaptation and institutional voids.
The City of Spokane and local civic groups are appealing their county’s decision to remove a citizen initiative from last November’s ballot. The initiative would elevate neighborhood associations’ decision-making power, workers’ constitutional rights and rights of the Spokane River above corporate constitutional rights within the municipality. A separate initiative removed from the ballot, though not included in the appeal, would introduce a voter bill of rights and elevate said rights above corporate constitutional rights, locally. Prompting the question: What should US citizens be allowed to vote on?
—Justine Drennan focuses on human rights and minority groups in Asia.
“China’s Crackdown on Cyber Activism,” by Michael Caster. The Diplomat, January 13, 2014.
Caster looks at the ethical tensions behind a burgeoning form of Chinese online activism called the “human flesh search,” in which netizens make “an independent investigation into the personal details of suspected wrongdoers”—largely government officials suspected of corruption—and share information and images about them online. These operations can spread false rumors and “have been equated with both cyber activism and cyber vigilantism.” But Caster believes in their potential, criticizing the Chinese government’s recent threats to stifle them, and suggesting that, given individual campaigns’ success so far in prompting court actions against corrupt officials, they’re an important part of the Internet’s potential for “slowly forcing Chinese society to be more participatory and transparent.”
—Corinne Grinapol focuses on education and international relations/national security.
“NSA phone record collection does little to prevent terrorist attacks, group says,” by Ellen Nakashima. The Washington Post, January 12, 2014.
What often gets lost in the debate between preserving freedom vs. protecting Americans from attack is the efficacy of methods used to identify and thwart terrorist plots. As Ellen Nakashima describes in the findings of a New America Foundation analysis of the specific investigative methods used in 225 cases, the NSA’s “bulk collection of phone records” had an insignificant impact. What’s more, the NSA doesn’t effectively sort through or share the data with other agencies. America’s counterterrorism complex suffers from a too-much-data problem, rather than a not-enough-data problem, and this article is a good step toward dismantling the misconception that trampling civil liberties is a necessary and effective way to fight terrorism.
—Mara Kardas-Nelson focuses on health.
“Obesity Rates Are Falling Among The Affluent And Well-Educated, But Rising Among The Poor,” by Sy Mukherjee. ThinkProgress, January 14, 2014.
The article outlines the results of a recent Harvard report that finds adolescent obesity rates are falling among the wealthy while rising among the poor. There are several suggestions as to why: even though poor children consume fewer calories, they’re also less likely to exercise and more likely to rely on unhealthy food. They also may experience more stress than their wealthy counterparts. The article is important because it deals with one of the biggest health problems the United States is facing today, and demonstrates how inequality impacts our health and behavior.
—David Kortava focuses on sustainable development.
“How the War on Poverty Succeeded (in Four Charts),” by John Cassidy. The New Yorker, January 14, 2014.
Last week Paul Ryan announced that the War on Poverty “has failed.” Here John Cassidy repudiates this unexamined truism of the right and discusses a new Columbia University study suggesting that poverty has declined dramatically since the mid-1960s, when the Johnson administration launched the good war and introduced the now famous phrase into public discourse. Using new, more comprehensive metrics in lieu of the crude “official poverty measure,” the researchers found that poverty has actually fallen, by some 40 percent since the mid-1960s. Moreover—and contrary to Ryan’s contention that we “keep dumping money into programs we know don’t work”—the researchers conclude that the drop is best explained by the emergence of government programs like Social Security, Medicare, food stamps, housing subsidies and tax credits for the low-paid.
—Benjamin Pokross focuses on education and the arts.
“When Minority Students Attend Elite Private Schools,” by Judith Ohikuare. The Atlantic, December 17, 2013.
Judith Ohikuare brings her personal experiences to bear in a discussion of the recent documentary American Promise, which tells the story of two African-American students attending elite New York City prep schools. Ohikuare puts the film in a larger context and shows what it really takes for institutions to have a commitment to diversity.
Read Next: Jarrett Murphy on surveillance.