—Sam Adler-Bell focuses on labor and mass incarceration.
“Stuart Hall's cultural legacy: Britain under the microscope,” by Stuart Jeffries. The Guardian, February 10, 2014
Almost all obituaries of Jamaican-born theorist Stuart Hall—who died this week—describe him as the “godfather of multiculturalism.” And although accurate in a certain way, it’s a misleading honorific, conjuring (for those unfamiliar with Hall) an image of a hopeful, liberal theorist of global diversity and pluralism. He was not. Hall invented the vocabulary with which we talk about culture and power today. And his critical work, inextricably linking race, capitalism and empire, can surely not be reduced to the stock image of “Happy Smiling Multicultural Kids Holding Hands.” But Stuart Jeffries’s piece makes me think that maybe "godfather" is the right word, in that Hall was there from the beginning, but he can’t be blamed for how the kid turned out.
—Dustin Christensen focuses on Latin American politics and sports.
“Running Wild, Wheelies to the Wind,” by Mekado Murphy. The New York Times, January 26, 2014
Although the film premiered over two weeks ago, it took me until yesterday to watch this excellent documentary. 12 O'Clock Boys is director Lotfy Nathan's debut film about packs of young dirt-bikers in Baltimore, told through the eyes of an aspiring young rider named Pug. The boys, riding on four-wheelers and dirt bikes, tear through Baltimore like aggressive, motorized Critical Mass cyclists reclaiming the streets. Most of their sport is about the desire to show off: popping wheelies, speeding, taunting and evading police in groups of up to a hundred. The boys derive a lot of empowerment and joy from these rides, a sharp contrast to the quotidian hardships of life in their blighted neighborhoods in Baltimore. While the film and the "gangs" (a problematic word, as many of the boys ride bikes as an alternative to gang life) certainly have their detractors, 12 O'Clock Boys provides an insightful portrait of a subculture born of social and economic marginalization in urban America.
—Laura Cremer focuses on labor, gender and the historicization of culture and politics.
“How Iowa Flattened Literature,” by Eric Bennett. The Chronicle of Higher Education, February 10, 2014
Eric Bennett uncovers the politics behind the "creative writing" of the last century, writing that often shunned the visible presence of politics, or "ideas" more broadly, within its pages. He tells the story of the CIA's Cold War funding of the "Writer's Workshop" that made my hometown, Iowa City, Iowa, famous. Bennet argues that the style of fiction (and poetry) currently ascendant has everything to do with the political history that made disillusioned anti-Soviet intellectuals of all stripes happy to accept support from corporations and the CIA in founding new incubators of writing in the decades after World War II. He calls for resistance to the norms for writing that this history has given birth to: for a broader, less individual focus to writing and a return to intellectual history, not just in essays like this one but in the crafting of fiction.
—Cecilia D’Anastasio focuses on ethics, feminism, press freedom and tech.
“How Colleges Flunk Mental Health,” by Katie JM Baker. Newsweek, February 11, 2014
Lonely, self-hating and perhaps even suicidal, college students suffering from depression or other mental illnesses often dread—with good reason—the only place actively offering them safety: their health centers. Newsweek collected more than two dozen stories of college students suffering from varying degrees of depression who had been alienated or even persecuted by their mental health counselors. One Harvard student comments, "They treated me like a liability instead of a human being." Punishing, suspending or expelling students for seeking help creates a toxic environment capable of breeding problems more immediately dangerous than depression.
—Simon Davis-Cohen focuses on self-governance, climate adaptation and science.
“A New Physics Theory of Life,” by Natalie Wolchover. Quanta Magazine, January 22, 2014
Jeremy England thinks that evolution is driven by energy’s tendency to spread out. Both life and inanimate matter, his physics and theory suggest, will restructure, replicate and self-organize if doing so “helps” energy dissipate. However, for energy to be dissipated, it must first be absorbed. This means the force that dissipates energy, explained by the 2nd law of thermodynamics, also “rewards” innovations that absorb energy and dissipate it. Since life absorbs energy, like sunlight and food, and then dissipates it via infrared light, heat, etc., England’s theory implicates the origins of life. “From the perspective of the physics,” he explains, “you might call Darwinian evolution a special case of a more general phenomenon.”
—Justine Drennan focuses on marginalized groups' relationship with technology and development.
“Kindle Worlds’ Strange New Terrain,” by Reyan Ali. Pacific Standard, February 5, 2014
I've long thought fan fiction serves a role traditionally played by religion, with devotees' worshipping characters by reincarnating them again and again in new stories. By basing their work on that of creators they love, fanfic writers, like members of holy orders, deny worldly ambition and financial gain—for the most part. This Pacific Standard interview looks at recent developments that blur the lines between fanfic and commercial fiction, including the launch of Kindle Worlds, an Amazon fanfic publishing platform. Hugh Howey, the piece's interviewee, owes a lot to Kindle Worlds, which has published both fanfic he wrote and fanfic based on his work. It makes sense he's optimistic about fanfic's "monetization." Unlike him, I'm not convinced it won't shrink fanfic's spiritual core, but the interview nevertheless suggests good questions about fanfic's potential to be subversive or subservient.
—Corinne Grinapol focuses on education and international relations/national security.
“The NSA’s Secret Role in the U.S. Assassination Program,” by Jeremy Scahill and Glenn Greenwald. The Intercept, February 10, 2014
Here it is, the first article in the first digital magazine to come out of First Look Media, Pierre Omidyar's journalistic venture. In it, Scahill and Greenwald discuss the National Security Agency's use of signals intelligence—metadata collection, cell phone and sim card tracking, etc.—to identify drone strike targets, often to the exclusion of human intelligence gathering. What has resulted, explains Scahill and Greenwald's anonymous source, a former Joint Special Operations Command drone operator, is the sense that “we’re targeting a cell phone. We’re not going after people—we’re going after their phones, in the hopes that the person on the other end of that missile is the bad guy.” The scenario laid out is frightening in the banality of its design, like a video game in which computer-generated data determine the real lives that will be destroyed by the push of a joystick.
—Mara Kardas-Nelson focuses on health.
“Bargain for billionaires: Why philanthropy is more about P.R. than progress,” by Sean McElwee. Salon, Febuary 10, 2014
While criticism surrounding the impacts of and philosophy behind philanthropy and charity is not new, McElwee’s article continues a conversation we've been having among The Nation interns about the pros and cons of aid.
Two weeks ago, fellow intern David Kortava chose "The Case for Aid" by Jeffrey Sachs as his article of the week, in which Sachs counters William Easterley's argument that development aid doesn't work. McElwee takes a different stance from Easterley, arguing that by entrenching the notion that we need the rich, not government, to fund programs of social benefit, philanthropy undermines social democracy and greater social change, and that philanthropic efforts aid the wealthy’s image more than they do those on the receiving end of their charity. McElwee's argument builds upon, among others, philosopher Slavoj Zizek's criticism of philanthropy and charity, which he views as veiled ways to distract from—and ultimately perpetuate—capitalism’s exploitations. (This animated video of one of Zizek's lectures is a good starting point for anyone interested in his views on the topic.)
—David Kortava focuses on sustainable development.
“Dear Mayor de Blasio,” by Lauren Andersen, Winston Berkman, Brendan Coticchia, Madeleine Gray, and Elyssa White. The Morningside Post, February 8, 2014
A team of graduate students at Bill de Blasio’s alma mater—Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs (SIPA)—has issued a series of policy recommendations for the newly elected mayor. The policies proposed are based on the results of a survey of SIPA students, and include the development of city microgrids, a tax on plastic and paper bags and modified bridge tolls to ease congestion and generate funds to improve public transportation.
[Disclosure: As a SIPA alum and tree hugger, I confess a slight bias, but for whatever this endorsement is worth, I find the recommendations immensely reasonable. The ‘Seeple’ have spoken—let’s hope the new mayor gets the message.]
—Benjamin Pokross focuses on education and the arts.
“Woody Allen is just the beginning: Why we can’t hide from the truth anymore,” by Roxane Gay. Salon, February 10, 2014
One of my favorite writers weighs in on the continuing scandal around Woody Allen. Writing from a deep sympathy with Dylan Farrow, Gay asks what taking her testimony seriously might mean, not simply for Woody Allen but for many other public figures. She discusses how the increased flow of information and knowledge throughout the world forces readers and viewers to confront difficult truths about artists and entertainers. Refusing to offer easy answers, Gay poses the question: How can we reconcile the greatness of an artist's work with our disgust at his actions?