—Samuel Adler-Bell focuses on labor, mass incarceration and literature.
"The Ballad of Geeshie and Elvie," by John Jeremiah Sullivan. New York Times Magazine. April 13, 2014.
At the beginning of this piece, the facts known about its putative subjects—two black, female blues musicians who, in 1930, recorded a handful of haunting, virtuosic songs on 78rpm vinyl, now among the most sought-after pre-war blues recordings in the world—could be contained within a single short paragraph. By the end, the verifiable truths uncovered by John Jeremiah Sullivan could fill three, maybe four. Why then, asks the inquisitive but busy reader, should I spend any of my limited time slogging through 13,000 words? For one, there's Sullivan's potent prose, which goes down so easy you won't realize you're drunk until you're on the floor. And two, because the piece is ultimately just as interested in the pursuit of elusive facts as in their capture—and fascinatingly so. Dogged in his determination to fill in the ghostly outlines drawn by the music and myth of Elvie Thomas and Geeshie Wiley, Sullivan winds up confronting some very basic questions about who owns the past (sometimes answering them in journalistically dubious ways), infusing the quest for esoteric historical knowledge with the urgency of a police procedural—and the deep humanity of a very satisfying novel.
—Dustin Christensen focuses on Latin American politics and sports.
“Canadian mining doing serious environmental harm, the IACHR is told,” by David Hill. The Guardian, May 14, 2014.
A damning report that reveals the human rights abuses committed by Canadian mining companies in Latin America—where up to 70 percent of mining is done by Canadian firms—was recently presented before the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights. The report insists that these companies' profit-seeking policies are "destroying glaciers, contaminating water and rivers, and cutting down forest...as well as forcibly displacing people, dividing and impoverishing communities, making false promises about economic benefits, endangering people’s health, and fraudulently acquiring property. Some who protest such projects have been killed or seriously wounded, it states, and others persecuted, threatened or accused of being terrorists," as is currently the case in Peru. However, the part of the report that seemed most insidious to me was the role that the Canadian state played in promoting these mining companies, weakening processes of law in host countries, shielding firms from legal action and denying the abuses all together. Just further proof (as if we needed any) that under capitalism, the state is beholden not to people or the planet's well-being, but to profit-seeking companies that fund their re-election campaigns. We continue to plod on towards environmental collapse for the financial benefit of the few.
—Laura Cremer focuses on labor, gender and the historicization of culture and politics.
“Adjusting to Apocalypse,” by Peter Frase. Jacobin, May 14, 2014.
This is the kind of week when my nagging worry that it's absurd and irresponsible to be writing about anything other than the colossal danger posed by impending climate change comes to the fore (had it not, I'd be talking about "Vivian Maier and the Problem of Difficult Women," also worth a read). You have probably heard the recent news that a massive expanse of Antarctic ice has collapsed, "irreversibly." The question is what to do with this information besides despair or ignore it. Peter Frase manages at least to write clearly about the necessity of rejecting these two options. The exact ratio of apocalyptic alarm to hopeful survival planning that needs to be hit on to move people to create meaningful change is impossible to determine, I think, but What do we do, how do we organize ourselves in the face of the change that's already happening and that's going to continue? is certainly what we need to be discussing. Some of the articles that Frase links to, in this and his previous article on the topic, provide further useful context (and a fascinating, albeit old, discussion of the rise and significance of positive thinking). Yes, the impending (already beginning) destruction is vast: what are the next steps?
—Cecilia D’Anastasio focuses on ethics, feminism, press freedom and tech.
"Prescription for Disaster," by Rachel Aviv. The New Yorker. May 5, 2014.
Rachel Aviv chronicles the story of an arguably well-meaning, though criminally naive, Wichita doctor and his transition from beneficent Dr. God, the go-to pain doctor in town, to a man looking at a thirty-year jail term. Though he wasn't a cash-for-pills kind of guy, Dr. Schneider prescribed highly addictive opioids to patients who couldn't get them elsewhere—for the simple reason that he thought his patients needed them ("Schneider asked his patients to rate their pain on a scale from 1 to 10...many patients scored their pain a ten or ten-plus.") It turns out, Schneider's practice—to his surprise—was responsible for the deaths of sixteen patients. Who is culpable: the patients exaggerating their symptoms to score some downers, or the doctors who didn't require psychological screenings before prescribing the drugs? We have an opiate problem in this country, and Aviv's narrative sheds light on the range of problematic approaches doctors take toward pain patients, spanning from overly skeptical to dangerously lenient.
—Simon Davis-Cohen focuses on self-governance, climate adaptation and science.
“Direct Democracy as a Disciplinary Device on Excessive Public Spending,” by Patricia Funk and Christina Gathmann. Journal for Institutional Comparisons, Spring 2014.
Why does direct democracy produce more fiscally conservative public budgets? Are citizens more fiscally conservative than representatives? Funk and Gathmann study Switzerland, a country with historically low government spending and heavy use of direct democracy, to find some answers. In Switzerland, political responsibilities remain at the canton level unless granted to the federal government via referendum. Sixty percent of cantons have mandatory referendums for large public spending projects (like bridges). As 86 percent of such projects gained citizen approval between 1980 and 1999, we can safely say that this influence of direct democracy has a fiscally conservative affect. Such forms of direct democracy only strike down public spending—little in the way of proposing spending takes place.
There is more than what meets the eye, however. The authors found that the correlation between direct democracy and more fiscally conservative budgets has a few causes. Not only does direct democracy reduce spending by offering fiscally conservative citizens an outlet for self-expression, high spending, it was found, increases the “likelihood of adopting stronger direct democratic institutions.” It is possible, the authors deduce, “that public spending results in institutional reforms rather than the reverse.” Might US fiscal conservatives take notice?
—Justine Drennan focuses on marginalized groups' relationship with technology and development.
"Haiti Strikes Back," by Fran Quigley. Foreign Affairs, May 13, 2014.
There are lots of themes tied up in human rights lawyers' class action lawsuit against the United Nations on behalf of thousands of Haitians who caught cholera introduced by UN workers. There's the broad issue of aid that doesn't aid; speculation about the future of international cases in the US after the Supreme Court effectively neutered the Alien Tort Statute last year; the issue of whether the UN forfeited legal immunity when it breached its agreement to itself address complaints against its employees. To me, one of the most noteworthy points is the contrast between UN and US rejections of this suit and their will to intervene in violent conflicts. A professor that Quigley cites contrasts UN statements that it should have done more in Rwanda and Srebrenica with its unwillingness to acknowledge responsibility on Haiti. Others have juxtaposed the White House's consideration of military intervention in Syria with its flat rejection, on the grounds of UN immunity, of the case seeking UN reparations to ease Haiti's cholera crisis. These contrasts are particularly striking because unlike with intervention in armed conflicts, the costs of commitment here would be only financial.
—Corinne Grinapol focuses on education and international relations/national security.
"Qaeda Affiliate Steps Up Video Propaganda Push," by Saeed Al Batati and David Kirkpatrick. The New York Times, May 12, 2014.
That US counterterrorism actions like drone strikes exacerbate the very problem they're intended to address is a truism being heeded—by Yemen's Ansar al-Shariah. The extremist group is actively backing off operations targeting Yemenis as US drone strikes in the region continue. The US has an image problem, and it's two-sided. Abroad, military strikes and the accompanying unrepentence over their compounding, horrific aftermath is creating an angry citizenry and a new recruitment strategy for terrorist organizations. At home, the politics that govern US foreign policy, with the premium placed on toughness, Rambo-like theatrics and military actions, are what in many cases inhibit the effectiveness of our policies abroad. And yet, the idea that an effective CT strategy should look like a big-budget action flick persists because hawkishness looks right. And for our politicians, when it comes to getting votes, looking right is better than being right.
—Mara Kardas-Nelson focuses on health.
"A Simple Theory, and Proposal, on H.I.V. in Africa," by Donald G. McNeil, Jr. The New York Times, May 10, 2014.
Could exposure to parasitic worms be part of the answer to the HIV crisis in Africa?
Some researchers are skeptical, others exited, about new work coming out of KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa that suggests that women with genital schistosomiasis (otherwise known as schisto and caused by parasitic worms common in river water across Africa and parts of Latin America) may be more vulnerable to HIV infection. The theory makes sense: gentile schisto results in lesions in the vaginal area, making women more prone to cuts, providing a direct pathway for the virus to enter the bloodstream. Having a parasite also excites a body's immune system, thereby attracting CD4 cells, which are also happen to be the cells that HIV attacks
Whether or not genital schisto is the reason so many women are vulnerable to HIV in Africa, the parasite should be more readily prevented and treated. USAID considers it a "neglected disease" because little research and development is done and few medical devices are made to target the parasite, which kills more than 200,000 people a year (some vaccines are in the pipeline, but will take several years to become available). The New York Times notes that "the worms can be killed by a drug that costs as little as 8 cents a pill," but that high-priced patented versions are only available in South Africa for $4 a pill. According to the World Health Organization, only 8 percent of people with schistosomiasis had access to the drug in 2008. Continued high rates of schisto point to low access to clean water, low access to medical care and a broken pharmaceutical system in which drugs that are needed are not produced, and those that are produced are not made available to those who need them.
—David Kortava focuses on sustainable development.
“How public spaces make cities work,” by Amanda Burden. TED, March 2014.
Paley Park in midtown Manhattan is one of the many reasons I love New York City. It has not walls but vertical lawns of ivy and a twenty-foot waterfall that drowns out the din of the adjacent street. I can spend hours here, reading or writing in a comfortable chair under a canopy of locust trees. Amanda Burden has a special connection to Paley Park. Her stepfather financed its construction in 1967 and spending time here nurtured in her an appreciation for the value of public space.
Years later, as chief city planner, she fought to revitalize and protect, among other urban oases, the Brooklyn waterfront and the High Line. “Claiming these spaces for public use,” she says, “was not simple, and it’s even harder to keep them that way.” Today 4 million people enjoy the High Line annually, but public space advocates spent years battling developers who wanted—still want—to put the 1.45-mile aerial greenway to more profitable use.
Public spaces are fundamentally democratic and efforts to establish and preserve them will often conflict with commercial interests. As New York City’s population grows to 9 million, there will need to be more housing and more employment opportunities, of course. But Burden reminds us why urban planners need to take the long view: people come to New York from all over the world not only for financial gain, and they stay not only out of necessity. “A successful city is like a fabulous party,” Burden says. “People stay because they are having a great time.”
—Benjamin Pokross focuses on education and the arts.
“The Domino Sugar Refinery and the Art of Real Estate,” by Kyle Chayka. The Baffler, May 13, 2014.
Kara Walker's installation in the former Domino Sugar factory in Williamsburg received widespread coverage when it opened last weekend (see Hilton Als' typically astute commentary at The New Yorker.) The piece features an approximately seventy-five feet long by thirty-five feet high sphinx made of white sugar surrounded by small sculptures made of sugar candy. Kyle Chayka puts a political spin on the project at The Baffler's blog, Zero Tolerance, arguing that the installation, despite its clear reflections on race, gender and economics, doubles as an advertisement for the condos that are soon to be built on the site and is part and parcel of the gentrification that has transformed Williamsburg. While I think that Chayka underestimates the power of Walker's work, he's right to make explicit the question (already posed, I think, in Walker's piece) of how art interacts with commerce and to highlight the difficulty in transcending systems of oppression.
Read Next: Intern Justine Drennan on the fight to save San Francisco's public college.