—Samuel Adler-Bell focuses on labor, mass incarceration and literature.
“The Problem with Counting,” by Jennifer Pan. Dissent, April 3, 2014.
Jennifer Pan’s take on the VIDA count—which lists, annually, the ratio of male-to-female bylines at major publications (e.g., The Nation’s overall 2013 VIDA count was 478:179… smh)—simultaneously indicts the literary old guard (and much of the new guard) for their perennially dude-heavy mastheads, while also explaining why such inventories are an inadequate, even counterproductive, means of measuring equality in journalism. The problem with the “numbers game,” i.e., judging the media establishment’s inclusivity on the basis of the number of female or black or queer writers who have bylines, is that it tends to “transform media inequality from a structural problem to an individual one.” So long as the very lowest rungs of the publishing world—where un- or under-paid internships still reign—are only available to people with economic privilege, prestigious college degrees and access to the networks of literary power, writers with those advantages will be overrepresented in the pool of candidates for jobs, and writing opportunities, at the top. Counting bylines, Pan suggests, addresses only the symptoms of a deeply embedded institutional disease—substituting “a politics of shaming for a politics of redistribution.” Of course we should hold editors accountable for hiring a diversity of writers—just as we should hold colleges accountable for admitting a diversity of students—but we must never mistake achieving parity at the top for the real work of building fundamentally egalitarian institutions, from the ground up.
—Dustin Christensen focuses on Latin American politics and sports.
“How Children’s Books Fuel Mascot Stereotypes,” by Aura Bogado. Colorlines, April 7, 2014.
Growing up as a sports fan outside of Atlanta, Georgia, I encountered racist images of Native Americans every summer when I would go see the Atlanta Braves play baseball: the tomahawk chop, Chief Noc-A-Homa, the war chant. These encounters informed my ideas of Native Americans and their culture just as much as the brief asides in school dedicated to versions of “American” and “European” history that were far more concerned with the accomplishments of powerful white men than with the indigenous people. However, after reading Aura Bogado’s recent piece for Colorlines, I realized that I probably encountered these images at a far younger age, while learning to read as a child. In the piece, Bogado interviews Debbie Reese, an academic, blogger and tribally enrolled Pueblo Indian from Nambe Pueblo who studies children’s literature. Reese mentions images in popular children’s fiction as fueling the same stereotypes manifested in racist mascots and sports teams. Some of my favorite childhood series were guilty: The Berenstain Bears and Clifford the Big Red Dog, among others.
—Laura Cremer focuses on labor, gender and the historicization of culture and politics.
“The Tipping System Is a Scam—And Here are Six Ways to Game It,” by Alice Robb. The New Republic, April 2, 2013.
This article has an unfortunate title: it lays out six studies that have revealed the cruelly arbitrary factors that tipped workers’ income depends on. Among the things that will reliably and significantly increase the tips workers receive are: having blond hair, wearing red and drawing smiley faces on customers’ receipts. The idea that servers’ pay depends primarily on how competent their service is is a joke. Unless, of course, we consider the emotional labor and “beauty labor” they do to be part of their job, which, of course, it ends up being: as in many feminized occupations, much of the work that is required of the workers goes unrecognized. We should read this article in the context of the recent movement to end the “tip credit” (which allows tipped workers to be paid far below minimum wage) and also in the context of other recent work on women’s labor—I thought this article about egg donation and this one about women in the media were particularly interesting, this week. But mostly, we should focus on the first half of the title, and take inspiration from the nascent anti-tipping movement the article identifies, rather than resign ourselves to trying to game it with dye-jobs and the simulation of happiness.
—Cecilia D’Anastasio focuses on ethics, feminism, press freedom and tech.
“How Politics Makes Us Stupid,” by Ezra Klein. Vox, April 6, 2014.
It’s important to read things you disagree with, but also to engage with initially unpalatable ideas on a non-superficial level: this is both the thesis of Klein’s article and my reason for reading it. Data-driven news, the idea behind Klein’s Vox Media and this piece, operates under the assumption that there’s some objective truth accessible through a few uncontroversial basic axioms of thought—namely, a strong faith in the natural and social sciences. Klein’s piece is both a plug for data journalism and an attempt at explaining why people don’t use “facts” to get the right answer, but to get the answer that they want to be right. (Surprise!) For example, he cites a study that asked people whether a certain scientist was indeed an expert on an issue; and it turned out that people’s actual definition of “expert” is “a credentialed person who agrees with me.” Sure, pathos often triumphs over logos when it comes to politics and ideology. But Klein’s article is an epistemological failure—can you really prove the objectivity of data journalism by, um, using data journalism?
—Simon Davis-Cohen focuses on self-governance, climate adaptation and science.
“Contesting the U.S. Constitution through State Amendments: The 2011 and 2012 Elections,” by Sean Beienburg. Political Science Quarterly, Spring 2014.
In this thorough look at recent state-level challenges to federal constitutional law, Beienburg evokes archetypal questions about US federalism. The thirty-page article features sections on abortion, race and voting, eminent domain, guns, gay marriage, healthcare, religion, campaign funding and marijuana.
Should citizens be able to vote on laws if they directly challenge federal constitutional law? Can states expand positive rights? What’s a positive right? Should federal power be based primarily in commerce? (Remember, the federal government’s power to desegregate lunch counters and enforce the Clean Water Act derives from the Commerce Clause.) Will we define federal floor protections on which states can build? How will we determine if states violate those floors? When should federal law be a ceiling? What’s the difference between nullifying federal marijuana law and nullifying the Voting Rights Act?
Regarding eminent domain, it’s interesting that Beienburg labels folks who challenge the Supreme Court’s Kelo v. New London decision as conservative. Progressives too are skeptical of granting private property to developers, miners or pipe layers who profess merely to increase tax revenue. Do liberals shy away from these fights because they think challenging federal power is a slippery slope?
Surprisingly, I appreciate Representative Mike Coffman’s (R-CO) approach to legalizing marijuana in his home state. Beienburg says, “Coffman…opposed Colorado’s amendment but backed his constituents’ right to do so.”
—Justine Drennan focuses on marginalized groups’ relationship with technology and development.
“What the IRS’s Taxation Ruling Means for Bitcoin and Other Digital Currencies,” by Kyle Chayka. Pacific Standard, April 9, 2014.
Some people hope that digital currencies eventually will help promote greater global equality, encouraging sustainable habits and increasing access for the poor in countries lacking stable banking and currency systems. That dream is pretty far away from realization, and certainly not all Bitcoin users have that apparently altruistic focus. But in the meantime, the US government has moved to bring Bitcoin into a more (in theory) steady system of wealth sharing: taxation. The government’s decision to treat bitcoins as a commodity rather than a currency and tax them as capital gains rather than income is not the most redistributive option. And the system also allows capital loss deductions for Bitcoin, raising the question, Chayka notes, “What happens when deductible capital losses in digital currencies start functioning as a form of money laundering?” So Bitcoin’s ultimate effect on inequality is still unclear, but it will be interesting to see what happens.
—Corinne Grinapol focuses on education and international relations/national security.
“Letter from the Archive: The Genocide in Rwanda,” by Philip Gourevitch. The New Yorker, April 4, 2014.
“Genocides, Remembered and Forgotten,” by George Packer. The New Yorker, April 8, 2014.
Genocide’s aftermath draws out the extremes of idealism and cynicism: idealism in the hope that the freshest incarnation of systemic mass murder will finally give the world its “never again” moment, cynicism because I know it doesn’t work that way. The mechanics of genocide—the approval, overt or tacit, from someone, something, higher up—allow morality to be cast aside without even preliminary thought. The horrors of the past cannot sway a mind freed from considering right and wrong.
This week marks the twentieth anniversary of the genocide in Rwanda. To commemorate the event, The New Yorker asked Philip Gourevitch to select and comment on some of the pieces he wrote for the magazine immediately following the genocide and in the decade or so that followed. The act of remembering is important. But not every genocide has made the same imprint on the public consciousness, George Packer reminds us as he writes about the trials of former Khmer Rouge officials who participated in Cambodia’s genocide.
Those that engage in the act of remembering are not always those that need it most. But we all need the reminder—even if only to balance our own moral centers—monsters often aren’t monsters, but people who give away their moral agency.
—Mara Kardas-Nelson focuses on health.
“Call climate change what it is: violence,” by Rebecca Solnit. The Guardian, April 7 2014.
My take on the most recent IPCC report on climate change is a pessimistic one, albeit also probably fairly accurate: in short, we’re f*#@ed. The projections of how global warming will impact global health offer some insight into my sentiment. The World Health Organization estimates that health costs stemming from climate change will amount to $2-4 billion a year by 2030. This graphic artfully displays some other harrowing figures: 20-25 million more children will be undernourished by 2050, already 40,000 annual deaths can be attributed to climate change and one in eight deaths worldwide is linked to air pollution. Climate change is killing people, notably the poorest among us.
The IPCC report, and climate change generally, has not experienced a dearth of media attention, but no one conveys my sentiment better than Solnit. She calls climate change what it is: an egregious and sustained violence committed by the wealthy on the poor. She is angry, as we all should be: climate change and its effects are a function of inequality and corporate greed. That anger needs to be harnessed if there is going to be any movement on climate change, be it by forcing our government and industry to adopt greener technologies or pay reparations to poor countries who bear the brunt of the burden.
—David Kortava focuses on sustainable development.
“How Nigeria Became Africa’s Largest Economy Overnight,” by Uri Friedman. The Atlantic, April 7, 2013.
Nigeria’s economy nearly doubled in size on Sunday, outpacing South Africa’s and catching up to Belgium. “As days go, it was a good one,” writes The Atlantic’s global editor Uri Friedman. But, as he explains, the overnight miracle has less to do with spontaneous, hyper-rapid economic development as it does with correcting for a longstanding measurement error. After twenty-four years, the Nigerian National Bureau of Statistics updated its metrics for calculating gross domestic product (GDP)—a process known as “rebasing,” which in wealthier countries happens every few years. With thriving sectors like the country’s film industry, Nollywood, and the explosion of cell phone use taken into account, Nigeria’s economy is worth $510 billion, making it the twenty-sixth largest in the world. This numerical shift on paper has real world implications: a higher GDP means Nigeria is no longer eligible for certain kinds of development aid; it also makes the country more attractive to foreign investors. On the global stage, Nigeria can now contend for membership to political groupings like the G-20, the BRICS and the UN Security Council. It’s important to note that GDP only tells us so much and is far from a perfect gauge of societal wellbeing; the cheery statistical revelation about Nigeria’s overall economic health does little for the growing number of Nigerians living in extreme poverty. As the Uruguayan journalist Eduardo Galeano cuttingly put it, “In our countries, numbers live better than people.”
—Benjamin Pokross focuses on education and the arts.
“Chicago decriminalized marijuana possession—but not for everyone,” by Mick Dumke. The Chicago Reader, April 7, 2014.
In this piece for The Chicago Reader, Mick Dumke shows the failures of Chicago’s attempt to reform its marijuana laws, replacing possible prison time for possession of under fifteen grams with a ticketing system. The article makes good use of statistics and data to show how racial profiling has not diminished under these policies and has in some areas become even more severe. He also extends a sympathetic ear to the policemen and women who work these beats and who express their discomfort with the policies that they are expected to enforce. While the piece may seem like old news to some, Dumke’s mix of dogged reporting and statistics research proves a powerful indictment of superficial approaches to drug reform.
Read Next: Intern Sam Adler-Bell on workers and students who fought back against exploitative hotel management, and won.