VS Naipaul: Colonialism in fact, fiction, and the flesh

August 15th, 2018


VS Naipaul receives the Nobel prize for literature from Sweden’s King Carl Gustaf at the Stockholm Concert Hall, Sweden, on December 10, 2001 PHOTO/Henrik Montgomery /Reuters

Naipaul personified what European colonialism, racist to the very core of its logic, had done to his and to our world.

VS Naipaul has died. VS Naipaul was a cruel man. The cruelty of colonialism was written all over him – body and soul.

VS Naipaul was a scarred man. He was the darkest dungeons of colonialism incarnate: self-punishing, self-loathing, world-loathing, full of nastiness and fury. Derek Walcott famously said of Naipaul that he commanded a beautiful prose “scarred by scrofula”. That scrofula was colonialism.

Vidiadhar Surajprasad Naipaul had abbreviated his history to palatable capitalised initials the British could pronounce. He was born in rural Trinidad in 1932, where the British had ruled since 1797, adding Tobago to it in 1814. By 1889 the two colonies were combined and Indian labourers – of whom Naipaul was a descendant – were brought in to toil on sugar plantations. He was born to this colonial history and all its postcolonial consequences.

By 1950 Naipaul was at Oxford on a government scholarship, just as the supreme racist Sir Winston Churchill was to start his second term as prime minister. Can you fathom an 18-year old Indian boy from Trinidad at Oxford in Churchill’s England? You might as well be a Muslim Mexican bellboy at Trump Tower.

In a famous passage the late Edward Said wrote of Naipaul: “The most attractive and immoral move, however, has been Naipaul’s, who has allowed himself quite consciously to be turned into a witness for the Western prosecution.” This alas was far worse than mere careerism. Naipaul was, at his best and his worst, a witness for the Western prosecution. He did not fake it. He was the make of it.

Naipaul personified what European colonialism, racist to the very core of its logic, had done to his and to our world. He basked in what the rest of us loathe and defy. He made of his obsequious submission to colonialism a towering writing career. He was Aime Cesaire, Frantz Fanon, James Baldwin, CLR James and Edward Said gone bad. In them we see defiance of the cruel colonial fate. In him we see someone bathing naked in that history. In them we see the beauty of revolt, in him the ugliness of impersonating colonial cruelty.

Al Jazeera for more

How to change the course of human history (at least, the part that’s already happened)

August 15th, 2018


Art work by Banksy (title unknown). PHOTO/Flickr

The story we have been telling ourselves about our origins is wrong, and perpetuates the idea of inevitable social inequality. David Graeber and David Wengrow ask why the myth of ‘agricultural revolution’ remains so persistent, and argue that there is a whole lot more we can learn from our ancestors.

1. In the beginning was the word

For centuries, we have been telling ourselves a simple story about the origins of social inequality. For most of their history, humans lived in tiny egalitarian bands of hunter-gatherers. Then came farming, which brought with it private property, and then the rise of cities which meant the emergence of civilization properly speaking. Civilization meant many bad things (wars, taxes, bureaucracy, patriarchy, slavery…) but also made possible written literature, science, philosophy, and most other great human achievements.

Almost everyone knows this story in its broadest outlines. Since at least the days of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, it has framed what we think the overall shape and direction of human history to be. This is important because the narrative also defines our sense of political possibility. Most see civilization, hence inequality, as a tragic necessity. Some dream of returning to a past utopia, of finding an industrial equivalent to ‘primitive communism’, or even, in extreme cases, of destroying everything, and going back to being foragers again. But no one challenges the basic structure of the story.

There is a fundamental problem with this narrative.

It isn’t true.

Overwhelming evidence from archaeology, anthropology, and kindred disciplines is beginning to give us a fairly clear idea of what the last 40,000 years of human history really looked like, and in almost no way does it resemble the conventional narrative. Our species did not, in fact, spend most of its history in tiny bands; agriculture did not mark an irreversible threshold in social evolution; the first cities were often robustly egalitarian. Still, even as researchers have gradually come to a consensus on such questions, they remain strangely reluctant to announce their findings to the public­ – or even scholars in other disciplines – let alone reflect on the larger political implications. As a result, those writers who are reflecting on the ‘big questions’ of human history – Jared Diamond, Francis Fukuyama, Ian Morris, and others – still take Rousseau’s question (‘what is the origin of social inequality?’) as their starting point, and assume the larger story will begin with some kind of fall from primordial innocence.

Eurozine for more

New campaign: Classrooms not computers, stop education profiteering

August 15th, 2018


Protect Public Education from Profiteering by Corporations Gathering Data from Students

During the last few years, a lot of debate has been had over the promise and perils of the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA). Many education advocates argued we must embrace ESSA because it promised to reduce the federal chokehold of high stakes standardized testing that was wielded, starting with No Child Left Behind (NCLB) and ramped up further under Race to the Top.

The promise of ESSA seemed too good to be true. Why would the same people who devoted decades to dismantling public schools, creating avenues for de facto segregation, and privatizing a public system suddenly want to turn around and “do the right thing?” ESSA authors (Lamar Alexander) claimed that testing would take a “back seat” And it has. The argument in support of ESSA was “to restore responsibility to state and local leaders [sic] what to do about educational decisions. If a state decides to move away from Common Core, they don’t have to call Washington and ask permission—they can just do it.”

And so many supporters of democratic public education “bought in” to the hype. Exactly what ARE states deciding to do instead? Those are the details we need to examine, and it’s vital (if we are really to reclaim public spaces and democracy) that we understand that there is a global paradigmatic shift occurring beyond the scope of what we already think we know or can anticipate. We must broaden our understanding of the end-game.

In unwritten or loosely defined ways, ESSA ushers in a host of opportunities for corporations and private entities to avail themselves of every child’s most private funds of data. See Emily Talmage. The data surveillance tactics have found their ways into what otherwise might have been meaningful community and classroom practices.

Companies and government agencies still have access to students test scores (via online daily competency-based education data), despite claims of reducing end-of-year testing. ESSA may, in fact, be reducing the role that high stakes testing plays in education policy and practice. But don’t be fooled. It is not because those of us in the opt-out movement “won” the battle. The powers-that-be manufactured that move as a distraction.

The formulators of ESSA have created the illusion that these new policies will be what we want. The opposite is true. The new avenues of data collection formulated for ESSA, in addition to academic (test) data, including social-emotional data, measuring such things a “grit and tenacity.” They evaluate “mindfulness.” Some might be asking the question “why?”—what is to be gained from this data collection? The answer is: A great deal if you are keeping up with the research. You know this answer– at least in part.

In part, it is because, in the traditional neoliberal framework, any data means money. For example, “Silicon Valley is going all out to own America’s school computer-and-software market, projected to reach $21 billion in sales by 2020.”

Popular Resistance for more

The book that fights sexism with science

August 14th, 2018


“Angela Saini hopes her book will empower young women.” PHOTO/Gareth Phillips/Observer

With Inferior, Angela Saini counters long-held beliefs that biology stands in the way of parity between the sexes. Now her message is set to reach thousands of schools

When young men and women come up against sexist stereotypes masquerading as science, Angela Saini wants them to be armed with the facts. “I call my book ammunition,” she says of her 288-page prize-winning work Inferior: The True Power of Women and the Science that Shows It. “There are people out there who insist that somehow the inequalities we see in society are not just because of historic discrimination, but also because of biology – the idea that there are factors within us that will cause men or women to be better at some things than others.”

She wrote Inferior to demonstrate that “actually, science doesn’t support that point of view. I think it’s important we understand these scientific facts. We need that ammunition to counter the weird mistruths that are circulating within and outside science about sex difference”.

To female scientists fed up with being treated as though their brains are the odd exceptions among their sex, Inferior is more than just a book. It’s a battle cry – and right now, it is having a galvanising effect on its core fanbase. On 31 July a crowdfunding campaign to send a copy of Inferior to every mixed secondary school in England with more than 1,000 pupils was launched by Dr Jessica Wade, a British physicist who writes 270 Wikipedia pages a year to raise the profile of female scientists. Within two days the campaign had raised £2,000. Yesterday it reached its original £15,000 target and was powering its way towards £20,000 – a figure which would allow the book to be sent to every state school in the country.

“There’s nothing you want more than for people to be inspired by your work,” says Saini, 37, a multiple award-winning science journalist, who first became intrigued by sex difference research when she wrote about the menopause for the Observer. “What Jess is doing means such a lot to me. I hope if my book can empower her, it can empower other young women, and men, too.”

The key message she hopes her readers will take away is that nothing in science suggests equality is not possible. “We are not as different as the inequalities in our society makes us believe we are. Even now, there are people saying we shouldn’t be pushing for gender equality because we’re never going to see it for biological reasons.” For example, many people think there are large psychological differences in spatial awareness, mathematical reasoning or verbal skills between men and women. “Actually, those differences are tiny, a fraction of a standard deviation,” says Saini. “Psychologically, the differences between the sexes are not enough to account for the inequalities we see in our society today.”

The Guardian for more

Hashish, Sufism and modernity

August 14th, 2018


In the neighbourhood of Ichhra in Lahore, hundreds of people gather every Thursday night at the shrine of Shah Jamal, a Sufi of the Suhrawardi and Qadiriyya orders (silsila).

Under the sacred peepal trees, devotees sit in a circle to witness and experience the sacred dance: dhamal.

Repetitive rhythmic beats of dhols and correspondingly frenzied barefoot whirling of the devotees create a trance-inducing effect on the audience.

Participants reverently witness the performance, while collectively partaking in hashish-smoking — a derivative of cannabis.

Devotees indulge in hashish intoxication as a communal activity complementing the sacred ritual of dhamal.

Sufi shrine culture in Pakistan is multi-faceted and diverse; while hashish does not feature uniformly across cultures of traditional shrines, hashish-smoking is a visible, communal, and conspicuous activity associated with Qalandari shrines in Pakistan.

Paradoxically, it is also one of the least studied phenomena as meaningful in terms of Islam; despite its prominence in Islamic settings, it is frequently dismissed as merely illegal and representative of the degeneration of Islamic ideals.

In the popular imagination, the use of hashish in Islamic settings, and as an Islamic activity, is explained primarily within two discursive frameworks; it is explored through its legal status in Islam or through the category of “folk” or “popular” Islam.

Deeming hashish to be one form of intoxicant, Islamic legal prohibition of intoxicants is extended to censure the use of hashish.

The illegality of the activity serves as the premise for the “un-Islamic” and irreligious characterisation of hashish-smoking.

When explained in non-legal terms, hashish is described as an aspect of “popular” Islam, or particularly “popular” Sufism, representing the beliefs and practices of non-literate masses belonging to the “lower” social strata.

Such phenomenon, by definition, is assumed as self-evidently distinct from proper and official Sufism.

It rests on a trickle-down movement of beliefs and practices, where the activities of “elite” are assumed to be “pure,” which undergo a process of distortion, degeneration, and vulgarisation as they are popularised and lived by the masses.

Under both rubrics, hashish is characterised as intrinsically “non-religious” and devoid of Islamic normativity.

Because such an understanding of hashish is secular, the affiliation of hashish with Islamic thought and settings is rendered meaningless.

Dawn for more

The Problem With Capitalist Philanthropy

August 14th, 2018


Hillary Clinton presents the World Food Program’s 2011 George McGovern Leadership Award to Howard Buffett and Bill Gates at the Department of State, October 24, 2011. PHOTO/US Department of State / Wikimedia

Philanthropists like Howard Buffett are the darlings of journalists and the NGO world — but are they really helping Africa?

In 2015, while on a reporting trip with the International Women’s Media Foundation (IWMF) in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), a local journalist told me, “It is difficult to go anywhere in the east of the country without touching one of Howard Buffett’s projects.”

Indeed, having invested in a range of initiatives including hydroelectric power plants, road development, and eco-tourism, Howard Buffett is considerably involved in the east of the country. The photographer, farmer, sheriff, former director of the Coca-Cola Company, and son of the third richest man in the world, has poured millions into the region.

The hydroelectric project was the first stage in an investment program the Congolese national parks authority (ICCN) and the Virunga Foundation, a British charity, drew up together. In 2015, Buffett reportedly pledged an additional $39 million toward two more power generation facilities, and the Virunga Foundation plans to fund more plants, hotels, and infrastructure projects around the park over the next years. In an interview with Reuters, the park’s director, Emmanuel de Merode, said that these initiatives, especially the power plants, will create employment opportunities for communities surrounding the park.

And Buffett’s investments don’t stop there; across the border in Rwanda, his foundation stated in 2015 that it was investing $500 million over ten years in order to “transform” the country’s agriculture “into a more productive, high-value, and market-oriented sector.” So far, the foundation has focused on food security projects, with 67.5 percent of its 2015 contributions funding this sector.

These investments seem laudable. Who can object to improving food security in rural Rwanda or building hydroelectric plants in the DRC’s Kivu region, where basic infrastructure is limited and only about 3 percent of population has electricity? What better way to support the region than by funding power plants and preventing people from cutting down trees for charcoal?

To answer these questions, one must first ask: who exactly is Howard Buffett?

Jacobin for more

Seduced by hate, Indian politician embraces a lynch mob

August 13th, 2018

by Jeffrey Gettleman and Hari Kumar

A political poster in Hazaribagh, India, featuring an image of Jayant Sinha, a government minister who draped garlands on eight men convicted of beating a Muslim man to death. PHOTO/Saurabh Das/The New York Times

Jayant Sinha is a Celtics fan. He graduated from Harvard. He worked for McKinsey.

Born and raised in India but minted in the United States, he found wealth and success in the Boston area. His American friends say his politics were moderate, maybe even progressive.

Then he returned to India.

He ditched the suits he had worn as a partner at McKinsey & Company, an elite management consulting firm, in favor of traditional Indian kurtas. He joined the governing Hindu right political party and became a member of Parliament and then a minister, leading Hindu parades and showering worshipers with flower petals from a helicopter.

This month, he also feted and garlanded eight men who were part of a Hindu lynch mob that the authorities said beat an unarmed and terrified Muslim man to death. His embrace of the attackers, who were convicted of murder, has become the political stunt that Indians can’t stop talking about.

Across the country, the images of Mr. Sinha draping wreaths of marigolds around the men’s necks have started a conversation about whether the state of Indian politics has become so poisoned by sectarian hatred and extremism that even an ostensibly worldly and successful politician can’t resist its pull.

It has become the year of the lynch mob in India. Dozens of people have been beaten to death, often in cold blood, by crowds of bored young men who alternate between booting someone in the head and taking a selfie. Suggestions of whom to kill rip so fast through villages via social media, especially WhatsApp, that no one seems able to stop them.

In this atmosphere, some conclude that Mr. Sinha might actually win votes for his maneuver.

“He’ll get some benefit,” said Rajiv Kumar, a homeopathic medicine salesman and one of Mr. Sinha’s constituents. “I don’t agree with what he did; it’s only going to encourage more lynching. But Jayant was concerned his party would dump him, and this will help.”

Mr. Sinha says he now feels horrible about garlanding the convicts.

“In a highly polarized environment, this became a spark and I regret giving the spark,” he said in an interview. “I wouldn’t do it again.”

For decades, a center-leftist political organization, the Indian National Congress, dominated politics.

The New York Times for more

(Thanks to reader)

When the self slips

August 13th, 2018


From ‘The Lost Head and the Bird’ by Sohrab Hura IMAGE/Magnum Photos

Individuals living with depersonalisation disorder bring vivid insight to the question of whether the self is an illusion

One day in the late 19th century, the Austrian physicist and philosopher Ernst Mach gets on a bus. As he stares down the aisle, he sees a person at the other end, a character he dismisses as a ‘shabby pedagogue’. In the next instant, Mach realises the shabby pedagogue is none other than himself, staring out from a mirror positioned at the back of the bus.

For a few moments, Mach had become a stranger to himself. Psychologists estimate that around three-quarters of us will experience similar symptoms of self-detachment at some point in our lives. If you’ve been through trauma, or narrowly escaped a nasty accident, you might recall how a sense of unreality can wash over you, how you suddenly disconnect from yourself, or feel as if you’re floating in the air and watching from above. These states of mind seem to function as an experiential airbag, allowing us to deal with life-threatening dangers which would otherwise be overwhelming.

Luckily, with care and patience, the airbag can usually be wrapped up after the traumatic event, and we find ourselves back in our bodies and our lives. But in some unlucky cases, the protective mechanism gets ‘stuck’. People can be trapped outside themselves, unable to inhabit their own experiences, feelings and thoughts – like Mach, if he were unable to reconnect to himself after spying the shabby pedagogue in the mirror.

This is now Jane Charlton’s experience of her day-to-day life. I met Jane, a British woman in her mid-30s, about a year ago, when she gave a moving talk to a packed audience at an interdisciplinary workshop I’d organised in London. It is one thing to study a phenomenon in the lab, or from a philosopher’s armchair perspective. But it’s quite another to meet someone face-to-face who is living with the condition that you’re using to ground this or that theory or interpretation.

If I quieten my mind, I can almost taste the colour and richness of life as I knew it before, says Jane. It comes with a sense of expectation, a feeling of being an agent in changing and plotting a course through the world. This is, I think, the very act of ‘living’, which I bear witness to in others, all day, every day. I still understand it academically, but I can barely remember what it feels like. These days I’m in a constant state of grief; I feel as if I’m grieving for my own death, even if I seem to be around to witness it.

Aeon for more

Americans are far more religious than adults in other wealthy nations

August 13th, 2018


Members of a New York Pentecostal church. PHOTO/Robert Nickelsberg/Getty Images

In 1966, Time magazine famously examined whether the United States was on a path to secularization when it published its now-iconic “Is God Dead?” cover. However, the question proved premature: The U.S. remains a robustly religious country and the most devout of all the rich Western democracies.

In fact, Americans pray more often, are more likely to attend weekly religious services and ascribe higher importance to faith in their lives than adults in other wealthy, Western democracies, such as Canada, Australia and most European states, according to a recent Pew Research Center study.

For instance, more than half of American adults (55%) say they pray daily, compared with 25% in Canada, 18% in Australia and 6% in Great Britain. (The average European country stands at 22%.) Actually, when it comes to their prayer habits, Americans are more like people in many poorer, developing nations – including South Africa (52%), Bangladesh (57%) and Bolivia (56%) – than people in richer countries.

As it turns out, the U.S. is the only country out of 102 examined in the study that has higher-than-average levels of both prayer and wealth. In every other country surveyed with a gross domestic product of more than $30,000 per person, fewer than 40% of adults say they pray every day.

The U.S. tendency to run counter to international trends on religiosity has long fascinated social scientists. Notably, Alexis de Tocqueville, the early 19th century French political thinker, discussed at length the outsized role religion played in American society in his famous book, “Democracy in America.”

One idea popular among modern sociologists for a number of decades held that America’s unregulated and open religious “market” – where different faiths compete freely for new members without government interference – has fostered fertile ground for religious growth.

More recently, some sociologists have argued that there is a link between relatively high levels of income inequality in the U.S. and continued high levels of religiosity. These researchers posit that less-well-off people in the U.S. and other countries with high levels of income inequality may be more likely to seek comfort in religious faith because they also are more likely to experience financial and other insecurities.

But even though the U.S. is more religious than other wealthy countries, it hasn’t been completely immune from the secularization that has swept across many parts of the Western world. Indeed, previous Pew Research Center studies have shown slight but steady declines in recent years in the overall number of Americans who say they believe in God. This lines up with the finding that American adults under the age of 40 are less likely to pray than their elders, less likely to attend church services and less likely to identify with any religion – all of which may portend future declines in levels of religious commitment.

Pew Research for more

(Thanks to reader)

Weekend Edition

August 10th, 2018