—Samuel Adler-Bell focuses on labor, mass incarceration and literature.
"Net Neutrality." Last Week Tonight with John Oliver, June 1, 2014.
For my other job, I spend a lot of time trying to figure how to make Internet users care about something called "net-neutrality," a notoriously difficult-to-explain (and horribly dull-sounding) regulatory principle, the preservation of which is absolutely essential to the future of the Internet, democracy, videos of your kittens and other generally good things. Put "simply," net-neutrality is the idea that Internet service providers should treat all data equally, neither privileging nor impeding the flow of any particular information on their networks. Thanks to net neutrality, your kitten blog takes no longer to load than ebay, TheNation.com than NBC—this despite the fact that NBC is owned by Comcast, one of the nation's largest broadband providers. In a world without net neutrality, ISPs like Comcast could theoretically privilege the content of their subsidiaries over competitors, and sell access to an Internet "fast lane" for extremely wealthy clients—leaving the rest of us to fight over what remained of the slow, shitty corners of the web.
On a recent episode of Last Week Tonight, John Oliver explains precisely why it's so difficult to get people fired up about net neutrality: "The cable companies have figured out the great truth of America: if you want to do something evil, put it inside something boring." (Andrew Jacobs' 6000 word piece on the topic for n+1 is uniquely comprehensive, erudite, elegantly written and basically impossible to read in its entirety. I took two kitten-vid breaks and still had to skip to the end.) Oliver goes on: "Apple could put the entire text of Mein Kampf inside the iTunes user agreement and you'd just go, 'agree, agree, agree.'" This is the nefarious banality of the digital age. The Internet—with its endless supply of immediately gratifying GIFs, lists, tweets etc.—has made us all allergic to the dense, esoteric language in which its future is being written.
—Dustin Christensen focuses on Latin American politics and sports.
"Drugs trafficking in the Caribbean: Full Circle." The Economist, May 24, 2014.
The American agencies tasked with stemming the flow of drugs into the United States like to picture themselves as the proverbial little Dutch boy, valiantly plugging the hole in the dike with his finger. In reality, they are more like inept doctors putting a Band-Aid on a hemorrhage. As soon as one hole in the border is plugged, several more open up. Researchers have a name for this phenomenon: "the 'balloon effect,' the idea that increased pressure on one drug route produces a bulge elsewhere." Several pieces have recently highlighted the futility of the plug-the-dike strategy, as the trafficking of drugs and migrants has shifted away from Central America and to routes traveling through the Caribbean. The ultimate irony in all of this is that these are the very same routes that were popular in the 1980s for drug kingpins like Pablo Escobar. The drug trade has come full circle, although this time around it's even more violent and lucrative. While officials continue to deliver their standard "it will get worse before it gets better" platitudes, the drug trade rolls on. It's time that we start thinking of new policies, and put an end to the ineffective drug war.
—Laura Cremer focuses on labor, gender and the historicization of culture and politics.
“Modern-Day Slavery in America's Prison Workforce,” by Beth Schwartzapfel. The American Prospect, May 28, 2014.
While it doesn't confront some of the deeper questions about mass incarceration in this country, this article offers some fascinating and disturbing insight into the specific problem of the exploitation of inmates' labor. It's well known by now that inmates are more or less excluded from the protections of the 13th amendment and often forced to work for little or nothing. But this article provides a survey of the varieties of this exploitation and the complicated effects it has on other institutions (private industry, the state, unions) and society at large. It also provides some glimpses of the often twisted rationalizations behind even the more benevolent policies relating to inmate labor: “‘What we want to do is, when they’re released, for them to feel unnatural not to be working,” says the head of one state inmate work program. "We’re trying to change that habit to where they need to work, mentally, just as much as you and I do.” While the article doesn't choose to tackle the assumption that work is basically good and access to work (as long as it's a "competitive" wage) is the obvious way to ensure individuals' wellbeing, it does hit on this key point: "The country could not afford to incarcerate 1.6 million people if they all had workers’ rights." Which of course should be an argument for, not against, granting them.
—Cecilia D’Anastasio focuses on ethics, feminism, press freedom and tech.
"#YesAllWomen Changes the Story of the Isla Vista Massacre," by Rebecca Solnit. TomDispatch, June 1, 2014.
The "problem that has no name," the fact that "American women are kept from growing to their full human capacities," still has no name. Rebecca Solnit, author of Men Explain Things to Me and the article "#YesAllWomen Changes the Story of the Isla Vista Massacre," says that it has, through time, gained several names: "male chauvinism, then sexism, misogyny, inequality and oppression," but it's important to ask if the names have challenged the underlying problem. Words shine their light on the problem, but it's an amorphous, transparent mass that refracts our words into types of criticism: misogyny, inequality, oppression. The problem with no name is basically crystalline-invisible. The problem is bigger than even an action we can deem "misogyny"; it's a mindset, a pathology. So can we fight it with names?
Rebecca Solnit celebrates the growing diversity of words with which we've been better able to spread consciousness of the problem. "Language is power." It's hard not to agree, now that "rape culture," "mansplaining" and "sexual entitlement" have become weapons against the problem with no name. Her piece celebrates the new feminist vocabulary. But the haters have new vocabulary, too: "thot," "busted," "ratchet." Solnit's celebration of words is worth a read; but let's take our literary comprehension of feminism onto a level of visceral understanding.
—Simon Davis-Cohen focuses on self-governance, climate adaptation and science.
“State-Based Visas: A Federalist Approach to Reforming U.S. Immigration Policy,” by Brandon Fuller and Sean Rust. The Cato Institute, April 23, 2014.
The Naturalization Clause (Article 1, section 8, clause 4) gives Congress sole power in establishing rules for gaining US citizenship. However, as this executive summary points out, “Congress can also allow states to be involved in immigration policy in areas besides naturalization, such as managing a state-based visa within federal guidelines.” And the conservative Cato Institute is not alone in contemplating the role of state and municipal governments in US immigration policy. Detroit, New York City, Dayton and Baltimore are experimenting with more local visa programs, and California and Utah have created their own guest worker visa policies, though the federal government struck down both.
Cato points to Canada and Australia’s regional visa programs for lessons to learn. But their vision for the United States is at times worrisome and contradictory. Advocating funneling “immigrants to parts of the country where they will generate the largest benefits” triggers ethical revulsions. That immigration “lowers the costs of certain goods and services,” is proof of the unjust wages immigrants currently win—it is not a reason to "like" immigration.
Many questions, like how “authorized immigrants” will be stopped from illegally moving to a different state, are touched on. “For instance,” they write, “California farmers could be allowed to hire an individual guest worker for the spring and summer while Washington farmers would be able to hire the same worker in the fall.” Such a "solution" would only further institutionalize the guest-worker programs already undercutting wages and working conditions in the United States. In contradiction, the summary also points out the ethical problems with current guest worker programs that “tie immigrants to one employer,” and how state-based visas could redress this problem by giving workers more choice in whom to work for. Sensical, local, pro-immigration policies like issuing local or state identification cards and prohibiting law enforcement from asking about immigration status are also highlighted.
As DC remains intentionally gridlocked, it seems inevitable that non-federal experiments will continue to gain momentum. What is not inevitable however is whether these experiments will be exploitative or progressive.
—Justine Drennan focuses on marginalized groups' relationship with technology and development.
"Is 'The Fault In Our Stars' Author John Green His Generation's Pop Philosopher?" by Clare Malone and Amelia Thomson-Deveaux. The American Prospect, June 1, 2014.
I'm not alone in thinking that online fan communities tend to serve the role more often played in the past by religious communities, but generally the cultishness of "fandoms" tends to get played up more than their potentially moral dimensions. So it's interesting to see the authors of this piece look at a fan community that's constructed fairly explicitly around that moral aspect. The moralizing tendency among the John Green fan community's "Nerdfighters" means that this author-led fandom, along with fandoms constructed around fan fiction and art without as much of an author's guiding hand, offer a good deal of earnestness in a society that's famously, tritely, distrustful of earnestness and triteness. In doing so, they raise questions like: does writing "well" really matter, do literary originality and emotional honesty tend to be in tension, and if so, how should they be balanced or prioritized?
—Corinne Grinapol focuses on education and international relations/national security.
"The education-reform movement is too white to do any good," by Andre M. Perry. The Washington Post, June 2, 2014.
Andre Perry lays out what's missing in the battle between self-titled education reformers and their detractors: the voices of black educators. It is not simply a matter of choosing a side and speaking from that ideological perch—the problem is that the terms have been set largely by white people, fighting to control the educational destinies of children and communities of color. Perry reminds us of the historical roots of education reform: "Particularly in the South, public education is a direct result of blacks’ struggle for control of their own schools, of which blacks worked with multiracial coalitions of faith-based organizations, white philanthropists and industrialists as well as progressive elected officials to create a portfolio of independent, faith-based and publically funded institutions. Now that was reform!" In its present incarnation, "reform" is a signifier so disconnected from that legacy that it would probably be best to drop it: "We need less 'reform,'" concludes Perry, "and more social justice."
—Mara Kardas-Nelson focuses on health.
"Why Can't Doctors Identify Killers?" by Richard A. Friedman. The New York Times, May 27, 2014.
With the nation still reeling from the horrifying Isla Vista shootings and the misogyny spewed by Elliot Rodgers before he acted, America is grappling with how this could have happened (yet again). I've read the news voraciously this week, trying, as so many others are, to understand what prompts these mass murderers.
Writing in The New York Times, Friedman, a professor of clinical psychiatry and the director of the psychopharmacology clinic at the Weill Cornell Medical College, notes that mental illness can't be solely to blame, as many in the media are claiming: "While it is true that most mass killers have a psychiatric illness, the vast majority of violent people are not mentally ill and most mentally ill people are not violent." He does, however, say that "mass killers are almost always young men who tend to be angry loners." Why? Rebecca Solnit, writing on TomDispatch.org (and re-posted on The Nation), offers one answer—those who are mentally unstable soak up our culture's ills and woes. Solnit quotes her friend, a criminal-defense investigator, who says, “When one begins to lose touch with reality, the ill brain latches obsessively and delusionally onto whatever it’s immersed in—the surrounding culture’s illness"—in this case, misogyny and violence against women.
Friedman says that simply amping up mental health services—while good in it's own right—will not lead to an automatic reduction in mass shootings because doctors can't differentiate between someone who poses a threat and someone who doesn't. He asks, "If we can’t reliably identify people who are at risk of committing violent acts, then how can we possibly prevent guns from falling into the hands of those who are likely to kill?" An opinion piece in the LA Times has a solution, which may seem radical in the context of America's framing of the gun debate, but is common sense from a public health perspective: ban guns.
—David Kortava focuses on sustainable development.
“The happy secret to better work,” by Shawn Achor. TEDxBloomington, May 2011.
Shawn Achor, a Harvard-trained researcher on positive psychology, believes our intuitive understanding of the dynamics of success and happiness is all wrong. We think that if we work hard, we’ll be more successful, and if we’re more successful, then we’ll be happier. “Our brains work in the opposite order,” he says, “If you can raise somebody’s level of happiness in the present, then their brain experiences what we now call a happiness advantage,” a sort of dopamine-induced competitive edge. “Your brain at positive performs significantly better than it does at negative, neutral or stressed… Your intelligence rises, your creativity rises, your energy levels rise.” He highlights some of the happiness-boosting strategies researchers have found to be most effective; among them are regular exercise, mindfulness meditation, and conscious acts of kindness, like praising or thanking people in your social support network.
—Benjamin Pokross focuses on education and the arts.
"Twists of Hate," by William T. Vollmann. Bookforum, June/July/August 2014.
Reviewing two new works of fiction centered around the war in Iraq, William Vollmann grapples with the possibility (or impossibility) of representing the experience of living in a war zone. Beginning with Hemingway, Vollmann traces the different ways that authors have attempted to go about this, drawing on his own experiences traveling and reporting around the world. What I found most interesting about the review was how reading these books forced Vollmann to confront attitudes among soldiers that he finds abhorrent yet recognizes may reflect reality. "I am hiding my head in the sand until I accept that they think so," he says, referring to a soldier's remark in one of the books about attacking a mosque. Is this the only possible reaction? Isn't there a way to fight these opinions, to try and change people's minds?