Archive for the ‘Uncategorized’ Category

Incredible Books By Black Authors, According To Black Bookstore Owners

Thursday, June 16th, 2022


Mahogany Books-Derrick and Ramunda Young (above, with their daughter) began Washington, D.C.’s Mahogany Books in 2007 in an effort to empower others by providing access to vital Black literature.

Works by writers like bell hooks, Damon Young and James Baldwin that will educate and make an impact on everyone.

Can’t get enough great reads? Join our official monthly book club, HuffPost Readable, to get great book suggestions and participate in important discussions with fellow book lovers.

Even though she loved reading and lived minutes from Tulsa’s famed Black Wall Street, Ramunda Young had never read a book by a Black author until she attended Langston University, Oklahoma’s notable historically Black university.

For Ramunda and her husband, Derrick Young, it was a no-brainer to open up Washington, D.C.’s Mahogany Books, an independent bookstore haven that boasts an impressive literary collection of Black culture and history. Owning the store combines their love of business, books and community while also providing necessary access to Black writing and heritage.

“Once I started reading Black books, it was just life-changing for me. And what a better and more powerful way than to open up a bookstore that would allow other people to have access to those books, too,” Ramunda told HuffPost.

Both Ramunda and Derrick expressed a deep understanding of the grim future that awaits us all if Black books are not preserved, taught and remembered. Derrick noted it would create an opportunity for history to be rewritten, providing fertile ground for events to repeat themselves and a dissolution of the ideals that Black people have fought so hard to attain.

“What we are doing to history and what we are allowing ourselves to forget creates a situation where people are no longer empowered or have the foundation on which to push back,” Derrick said. “Making these books accessible and available to people is first and foremost about freedom. These words and this knowledge is about allowing people the ability to protect themselves and remember their history, the trauma that we came from and the means to push forward.”

Huffpost for more

Edgerton’s Britain

Thursday, June 16th, 2022


The Rise and Fall of the British Nation, by David Edgerton, which appeared three years ago, met with well-deserved success. In the extensive literature on the subjects with which it deals, the book delivers a stand-out synthesis of trenchant ideas and arguments. Coming from a historian whose professional interests have been principally economic and technological, its range is remarkable: covering not just industrial, but political, military and cultural matters with confidence and fluency. Characteristically, all these are enlivened by an excellent eye for detail. The book is filled with striking local facts and figures, recounted in a lively, vigorous prose.

Attractive too is the iconoclastic bent of Edgerton’s writing, a general impatience with what he takes to be conventions of one kind or another. The leading pay-off of this temperament is a remarkable demystification of the history of British welfare systems. Beginning with a demonstration of the contrast between Lloyd George’s reforms before the First World War and the bonanza enjoyed by rentier holders of the National Debt afterwards, the book proceeds to the striking difference between inter-war Conservative expenditures on welfare and defence, and Labour outlays on these after the Second World War, which reversed their emphasis, Attlee by comparison spending much more on weapons and less on social services than Chamberlain; exposes the meanness of the much-touted Beveridge Plan of war-time vintage; and ends with the ‘minimal generosity’ of New Labour, refusing to restore earnings-related pensions that Thatcher had cut. Intellectually, the reader encounters a writer who is cheerful, equable and original; politically, one for whom the world of the far left holds few mysteries, and arouses no phobias.

New Left Review for more

The New York Times “basically rewrites whatever the Kiev authorities say”: Stephen F. Cohen on the U.S./Russia/Ukraine history the media won’t tell you

Wednesday, June 15th, 2022


Russian leaders (from left) Mikhail Gorbachev, Boris Yeltsin, & Vladimir Putin PHOTO/AP/Boris Yurchenko/Alexander Zemlianichenko

There’s an alternative story of Russian relations we’re not hearing. Historian Stephen Cohen tells it here

(This is a 2015 article)

It is one thing to comment in a column as the Ukrainian crisis grinds on and Washington—senselessly, with no idea of what will come next—destroys relations with Moscow. It is quite another, as a long exchange with Stephen F. Cohen makes clear, to watch as an honorable career’s worth of scholarly truths are set aside in favor of unlawful subterfuge, a war fever not much short of Hearst’s and what Cohen ranks among the most extravagant expansion of a sphere of influence—NATO’s—in history.

Cohen is a distinguished Russianist by any measure. While professing at Princeton and New York University, he has written of the revolutionary years (“Bukharin and the Bolshevik Revolution,” 1973), the Soviet era (“Rethinking the Soviet Experience,” 1985) and, contentiously but movingly and always with a steady eye, the post-Soviet decades (“Failed Crusade: America and the Tragedy of Post-Communist Russia, 2000; “Soviet Fates and Lost Alternatives,” 2009). “The Victims Return: Survivors of the Gulag After Stalin” (2010) is a singularly humane work, using scholarly method to relate the stories of the former prisoners who walk as ghosts in post-Soviet Russia. “I never actually lost the uneasy feeling of having left work unfinished and obligations unfulfilled,” Cohen explains in the opening chapter, “even though fewer and fewer of the victims I knew were still alive.”

If I had to describe the force and value of Cohen’s work in a single sentence, it would be this: It is a relentless insistence that we must bring history to bear upon what we see. One would think this an admirable project, but it has landed Cohen in the mother of all intellectual disputes since the U.S.-supported coup in Kiev last year. To say he is now “blackballed” or “blacklisted”—terms Cohen does not like—is too much. Let us leave it that a place may await him among America’s many prophets without honor among their own.

It is hardly surprising that the Ministry of Forgetting, otherwise known as the State Department, would eschew Cohen’s perspective on Ukraine and the relationship with Russia: He brings far too much by way of causality and responsibility to the case. But when scholarly colleagues attack him as “Putin’s apologist” one grows queasy at the prospect of a return to the McCarthyist period. By now, obedient ideologues in the academy have turned debate into freak show.

Cohen, who is 76, altogether game and remembers it all, does not think we are back in the 1950s just yet. But he is now enmeshed in a fight with the Association for Slavic, East European and Eurasian Studies, which last autumn rejected a $400,000 grant Cohen proposed with his wife, Katrina vanden Heuvel, because the fellowships to be funded would bear Cohen’s name. Believe it, readers, this is us in the early 21st century.

The interview that follows took place in Cohen’s Manhattan apartment some weeks after the cease-fire agreement known as Minsk II was signed in mid-February. It sprawled over several absorbing hours. As I worked with the transcript it became clear that Cohen had given me a valuable document, one making available to readers a concise, accessible, historically informed accounting of “where we are today,” as Cohen put it, in Ukraine and in the U.S.-Russia relationship.

Salon will run it in two parts. This is an edited transcript of the first. Part two follows next week.

What is your judgment of Russia’s involvement in Ukraine? In the current situation, the need is for good history and clear language. In a historical perspective, do you consider Russia justified?

Well, I can’t think otherwise. I began warning of such a crisis more than 20 years ago, back in the ’90s. I’ve been saying since February of last year [when Viktor Yanukovich was ousted in Kiev] that the 1990s is when everything went wrong between Russia and the United States and Europe. So you need at least that much history, 25 years. But, of course, it begins even earlier.

As I’ve said for more than a year, we’re in a new Cold War. We’ve been in one, indeed, for more than a decade. My view [for some time] was that the United States either had not ended the previous Cold War, though Moscow had, or had renewed it in Washington. The Russians simply hadn’t engaged it until recently because it wasn’t affecting them so directly.

What’s happened in Ukraine clearly has plunged us not only into a new or renewed—let historians decide that—Cold War, but one that is probably going to be more dangerous than the preceding one for two or three reasons. The epicenter is not in Berlin this time but in Ukraine, on Russia’s borders, within its own civilization: That’s dangerous. Over the 40-year history of the old Cold War, rules of behavior and recognition of red lines, in addition to the red hotline, were worked out. Now there are no rules. We see this every day—no rules on either side.

What galls me the most, there’s no significant opposition in the United States to this new Cold War, whereas in the past there was always an opposition. Even in the White House you could find a presidential aide who had a different opinion, certainly in the State Department, certainly in the Congress. The media were open—the New York Times, the Washington Post—to debate. They no longer are. It’s one hand clapping in our major newspapers and in our broadcast networks. So that’s where we are.

The Ukraine crisis in historical perspective. Very dangerous ground. You know this better than anyone, I’d’ve thought. 

This is where I get attacked and assailed. It’s an historical judgment. The [crisis now] grew out of Clinton’s policies, what I call a “winner take all” American policy toward what was thought to be—but this isn’t true—a defeated post-Cold War Russia, leading people in the ’90s to think of Russia as in some ways analogous to Germany and Japan after World War II: Russia would decide its internal policies to some extent, and it would be allowed to resume its role as a state in international affairs—but as a junior partner pursuing new American national interests.

That was the pursuit that Clinton and Strobe Talbott, who’s now very upset about the failure of his policy, in the Yeltsin era. That’s what they wanted, and thought they were getting, from Boris Yeltsin. You can read Talbott’s memoir, “The Russia Hand,” and know that all the official talk about eternal friendship and partnership was malarkey. Now it’s all gone sour, predictably and for various reasons, and has led us to this situation.

Salon for more

Hegemonic hypocrisy

Wednesday, June 15th, 2022


Russian President Mikhail Gorbachev, US President Ronald Reagan, & US Vice President George H. W. Bush PHOTO/© RIA Novosti/Yuryi Abramochkin/Go to the photo bank/Sputnik International

The presumptively fast-tracked Nato membership of Sweden and Finland does not come as a surprise. Until fairly recently, these two Nordic nations proudly relished their long-standing neutrality. Vladimir Putin’s aggression against Ukraine decisively shifted the geopolitical dynamic.

It is just one of numerous ways in which the Russian leader’s attempted invasion has backfired. Moscow’s discomfiture about what was from its inception an anti-Soviet military alliance arriving at its doorstep predates the Putin era. Even Boris Yeltsin, who relied on Western backing for his longevity in power, resented the idea.

Putin has been more outspoken on this issue for 15 years, but to little avail. The loyal organs of the Western establishment have lately been sowing doubt about the verbal US vow to the last Soviet president, Mikhail Gorbachev, that Nato wouldn’t expand eastwards if he permitted the reunification of East and West Germany.

It was a lie, compounded by the fact that neither the Soviet Union nor Russia was permitted to become a part of the US-dominated European security structure. Partly as a consequence, post-Soviet Russia has rarely had occasion to regard Nato as anything other than a hostile military alliance.

Hence its dominant role in the Ukrainian conflict, including the foolhardy role of US intelligence agencies in targeting Russian forces. None of the previous provocations, though, was tantamount to a casus belli.

At the same time, even though Western intelligence predicting Putin’s assault on Ukraine was widely disputed, including by this writer, if the US was convinced of what lay ahead, a flurry of diplomacy would have been a far wiser option than promoting belligerence. That option was disregarded. Instead, the US has been supplying Ukraine with lethal weapons, contributing to the narrative that it is prepared to combat Russia down to the last Ukrainian.

It hasn’t quite come to that. With Western help, Ukraine’s resistance has proved far more effective than expected. Russian forces appear to have retreated on some fronts.

With little significant information flowing from Moscow, beyond propaganda, it is hard to discern the extent to which Putin’s objectives have been recalibrated. Unexpectedly, there was barely a mention of Ukraine in his Victory Day diatribe on May 9 — which marks the Soviet victory against Nazi Germany in 1945, and has been deployed to promote the narrative that the anti-Nazi push carries on.

That, in turn, relies on the fake impression that Ukraine is somehow effectively a fascist entity. If anything, that appellation applies more to the Kremlin in present circumstances. There are indeed neo-Nazi forces deployed in Ukraine’s security structure, notably the Azov Brigade. But Ukrainians are hardly more likely to recognise its toxicity when it is effectively combating the seemingly reluctant invaders.

There is no dearth of reasons to blame Putin for what is going on in Europe. But the level of Western hypocrisy cannot be overlooked. There are innumerable examples, but let’s pick on one. It emerged a few weeks ago that Solomon Islands, a minuscule entity in the South Pacific, had signed a security deal with China. Its details have not been revealed, but it was suspected that the arrangement might involve, if not exactly a Chinese base, at least docking rights for Beijing’s warships.

Dawn for more

The end of laissez-faire: Russia’s attempt at reshaping the world economy

Wednesday, June 15th, 2022


The world may not be redefined from a geopolitical perspective, but the very concept of globalisation will be redefined for generations to come IMAGE/Gulf News

Starting on May 31, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov embarked on a tour to Gulf Cooperation Council countries, where he visited Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, among others. Lavrov’s main objective of these visits is to strengthen ties between Russia and GCC nations amid a global race for geopolitical dominance.

The Middle East, especially the Gulf region, is vital for the current global economic order and is equally critical for any future reshaping of that order. If Moscow is to succeed in redefining the role of Arab economies vis-à-vis the global economy, it would most likely succeed in ensuring that a multipolar economic world takes form.

The geopolitical reordering of the world cannot simply be achieved through war or challenging the West’s political influence in its various global domains. The economic component is possibly the most significant of the ongoing tug of war between Russia and its western detractors.

Prior to the Russia-Ukraine war, any conversation on the need to challenge or redefine globalization was confined largely to academic circles. The war made that theoretical conversation a tangible, urgent one. The US, European, western support for Kyiv has little to do with Ukraine’s sovereignty and independence and everything to do with the real anxiety that a Russian success will demolish or, at least, seriously damage, the current version of economic globalization as envisaged by the US and its allies.

Following the collapse of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s, the world was no longer a contested space between two military superpowers – NATO vs Warsaw Pact – and two massive economic camps – US vs USSR. We often speak about the American invasion of Panama (1989) and war in Iraq (1990), to demarcate the uncontested American ascendency in global affairs. What we often omit is that the military and geopolitical component of this war was accompanied by an economic one.

As Panama and Iraq were meant to demonstrate US military dominance, the establishment of the World Trade Organization (WTO) in 1994-5, was meant to illustrate Washington’s economic outlook in this new world order.

Though unprecedented in their scale and ferocity, the anti-WTO protests in Seattle in 1999 seemed like a desperate attempt at reversing the alarming trend in the world’s economic affairs. Though successful in demonstrating the power of civil society at work, the protests have failed to produce any real, lasting outcomes. In the US/Western-centered definition of globalization, smaller countries had little bargaining power.

While rich countries successfully negotiated many privileges for their own industries, much of the Global South was left with no other option but to play by the West’s rules. The Americans spoke of free trade and open markets while maintaining a protectionist agenda over what they perceived to be key industries. Globalization was branded as a success story for freedom and democracy while, in essence, it was a cheap reproduction of the 18th-century ‘laissez-faire’ France’s economic doctrine.

Scoop for more

Mário de Andrade’s To Love, Intransitive Verb: The novel that launched Brazil’s modernist movement

Wednesday, June 15th, 2022


To Love, Intransitive Verb: Brazil’s quintessential modernist novel

Ana Lessa-Schmidt’s translation of Mário de Andrade’s modernist classic, To Love, Intransitive Verb, is a remarkable English-language rendition of Andrade’s colloquial Portuguese and impressionistic narrative.

Andrade led Brazil’s literary shift into modernism that started with the Semana de Arte Moderna of 1922. Writers, poets, musicians, and artists blossomed quite unexpectedly to launch Brazil’s liberation from historical, social, ethnic, and linguistic repressions.

Initial critical response was quite negative, but, in time, intellectuals came to accept the brave new world of cultural and artistic independence.

In To Love, Andrade uses an unusual—or even lurid—love story to portray several ongoing socioeconomic upheavals. One was the beginning of the nation’s growth from a rural, agricultural economy to a more urban culture.

Another was the nation’s self-assertion as intellectually independent from Europe. Yet another was the hypocrisy of upper class values and pretensions, a holdover from the traditions of Portugal.

As the story goes, a nouveau riche family in São Paulo hires a governess/teacher from Germany to care for three children. She arrived with a certain Old World intellectuality that exceeded that of the Costa family.

Little did she suspect that she was also expected to introduce the oldest child, Carlos, 15, to the basic pleasures of sex. Though she’s shocked at the notion, the two of them fall into something a little like love.

Andrade tells the tale in a shockingly colloquial language, a sharp break from the formal, stilted Portuguese of classical literature. The story is assembled from flashbacks, interior monologues, stark scenes, digressions, and clipped conversations that reflected the way Portuguese was being spoken informally in Brazil. Translator Lessa-Schmidt deserves kudos for her ability to translate this local vernacular into a semblance in English.

The narrative voice of the story does not shy from bringing out all the hypocrisy in a well-to-do “good family.” Though their home library is replete with the best of books, no one reads them.

Though the Costas consider themselves morally superior to the hoi poloi, the man of the house dallies with prostitutes and expects a governess to dally with his adolescent son.

Though the two girls in the family are mastering Mozart on the piano, their mother is unimpressed and bothered by the cost of the lessons. Mr. Costa is a wealthy businessman, but he attempts to disguise his mixed-race heritage. As if in recognition of Brazil’s recent emancipation of enslaved people, the family has an informally adopted daughter who works as servant.

To Love, Intransitive Verb is one of several bilingual books published by New London Librarium, a premier publisher of books involving the literature, culture, history, and issues of Brazil, including translations of Machado de Assis, Rubem Alves, Monteiro Lobato, and João do Rio.

Brazzil for more

The debut of ‘Omar,’ a thoroughly American opera

Tuesday, June 14th, 2022


“Omar Ibn Said’s life and Muslim faith are remembered and retold in this inspirational West Coast premiere inspired by his remarkable 1831 autobiography. The luminous score—composed by Rhiannon Giddens in collaboration with Michael Abels—incorporates distinctive West African traditions with traditional opera instrumentation. Set in the shifting darkness of memory and imagination, Omar follows his compelling journey from a peaceful life in his homeland to enslavement in a violent, foreign world. Lost in the wilderness of his thoughts and his stolen life, he’s haunted by memories of his family and the people he encounters along the way. Through it all, he somehow remains true to himself and his faith, against all odds. The luminous score—composed by Rhiannon Giddens in collaboration with Michael Abels—incorporates distinctive West African traditions with traditional opera instrumentation. Tenor Jamez McCorkle makes his company debut in the title role, with bass-baritone Daniel Okulitch in a double role as two very different slave masters. Norman Garrett makes his company debut as Omar’s brother, with Barry Banks as the auctioneer and Jacqueline Echols as Julie, an enslaved woman who gives Omar the key to a better life.” For tickets and information go to VIDEO & TEXT/LA Opera/Youtube
Rhiannon Giddens – Julie’s Aria (Official Audio) VIDEO/Rhiannon Giddens/Youtube

A new opera tells the true story of an enslaved man taken from his home in what is now Senegal and trafficked to South Carolina. The opera premiered at the Spoleto Festival USA, less than a mile down the road from where the man was sold and after which he spent five decades on plantations, including the one at which he wrote his autobiography — the only known, surviving slave narrative written in Arabic.

Julie, an enslaved Black woman, is a fictional character that Rhiannon Giddens created for this opera. When Julie first met the newly enslaved man, she later tells him, he reminded her strongly of someone else: “My daddy wore a cap like yours,” she sings. She’s referring to the kufi that many Muslim men and those from the African diaspora wear.

The opera Omar is a broadly American story. But history hangs particularly heavy and close in Charleston, S.C., where the opera had its debut in late May. The real man on whom this opera is based, Omar Ibn Said, was a Muslim man who became a slave in Charleston, like about 40 percent of other Africans who were forced into North America. Said then spent five decades on a plantation in Fayetteville, N.C., where he wrote his life’s story.

“It was shocking,” Giddens says of learning of Said’s autobiography, “Somebody or an event that’s from my home state that’s massive, such a huge story. And I’ve never heard this story, having lived the majority of my life in North Carolina.” Trained in college as an opera singer, Giddens is best known as an American roots musician, a singer and songwriter who wields a mean banjo and makes her viola croon. More than that, she says, “I guess I look for overlooked stories to tell.”

Said was a well-educated Fulani, one of the largest groups of people scattered throughout the Sahel and West Africa, and had studied the Qur’an intensely. At age 37, he was captured during a war and sold into slavery. He then endured the Middle Passage over what he called “the big sea.”

Said escaped his first slaveholder, but was captured again in North Carolina. While jailed there, he began writing on the walls in Arabic, the language of the Qur’an. His literacy in Arabic and his religious piety became objects of fascination to his second owner, a plantation owner named Jim Owen whose brother John became the governor of North Carolina.

During his time enslaved in Fayetteville, Said appears to have converted to Christianity. And he wrote his autobiography at his owner’s behest, says Michael Abels, who co-composed the opera with Giddens. Best known for his scores to the films Get Out and Us, Abels provided Omar its lush orchestrations.

“On the one hand, while they had respect for his abilities,” Abels notes, “They certainly had no intention of ending his enslavement as a result of that. They were more interested in having him perform and having him convert to Christianity to make them feel better.”

Ala Alryyes is a professor of English at Queens College, the City University of New York. He also translated the real Omar Ibn Said’s autobiography from Arabic into English — and was brought in as an advisor on the opera project. He says Said’s work shows up the lie that enslaved Africans were ignorant, illiterate, and in need of conversion.

“It demonstrates a cultural background and literacy that a slave brought with him to the United States and did not really acquire here,” Alryyes says. “Our understanding of American slavery has been American-based, and ignores the background that these enslaved persons brought with them from Africa, whether they were Muslim or not, whether they spoke Arabic or other languages. It opens our eyes to the fact that their cultures were obviously, within a few generations, lost.”

National Public Radio for more

(Thanks to reader)

Tariq Ali: ‘Democracy is largely a set of rituals now’

Tuesday, June 14th, 2022


Tariq Ali speaking on Subversive Festival 2013 in Zagreb

Jipson John and Jitheesh P.M. interview Tariq Ali—public intellectual, writer and political activist

Tariq Ali is an internationally known public intellectual, columnist and political activist. Born in pre-Partition India in 1943, Tariq Ali studied at Oxford University and was elected as students’ union president there. He has been involved in political activism since then. He was one of the most prominent figures of the civil society coalition against the United States’ war in Vietnam. He was also there at the forefront of agitations against the wars in Afghanistan, Iraq and elsewhere

A well-known columnist contributing to leading dailies such as The Guardian, Tariq Ali has been associated with the New Left Review magazine for over 50 years. Among his important non-fiction writings are The Forty-Year War in Afghanistan: A Chronicle Foretold, The Extreme Centre: A Second Warning, Street Fighting Years: An Autobiography of the Sixties, Pirates of the Caribbean: Axis of Hope, The Clash of Fundamentalisms: Crusades, Jihads and Modernity, The Leopard and the Fox: A Pakistani Tragedy and An Indian Dynasty: The Story of the Nehru-Gandhi Family. He has also written fiction: the Islam Quintet comprising Shadows of the Pomegranate Tree, The Book of the Saladin, The Stone Woman, A Sultan in Palermo and Night of the Golden Butterfly.

In this interview, Tariq Ali, the anti-war “hero” of the 1960s, reflects on some of the most important issues of our time: the situation in Afghanistan, the Western powers and the “war on terror”, political developments in Latin America, causes of the worldwide right-wing upsurge, the changing media landscape, the potential of new media, digital surveillance and democracy, the challenges before the Left movements, contemporary capitalism and the poor, lessons from the COVID-19 pandemic, and so on.

The Afghan mess

The U.S.’ longest fought war has just ended in Afghanistan. Twenty years ago, the U.S. entered Afghanistan with promises such as removing the Taliban from power and establishing democracy. By 2021, lakhs of people, mostly innocents, had lost their lives and the U.S. had spent more than $2 trillion on the war. But the Taliban is again in power. How do you look at these developments?

The first point is that what we are witnessing in Afghanistan is the defeat of the world’s largest and only imperial power. It is not just a military defeat. We have to stress that point. In the case of Afghanistan, it is certainly a political and an ideological defeat for the U.S. It is also a defeat of the U.S.’ imperial projects shared with the Europeans through NATO [the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation]. This fact is a shock, especially to liberals, who have never been able to accept that imperialism did collapse.

The second point is that the Taliban was the only force, whether you accept it or not, in Afghanistan that decided to fight [against]… the occupation.

Monthly Review Online for more

How the brain ‘constructs’ the outside world

Tuesday, June 14th, 2022


IMAGE/Stefania Infante

Neural activity probes your physical surroundings to select just the information needed to survive and flourish

As a young course instructor in seminars for medical students, I faithfully taught neurophysiology by the book, enthusiastically explaining how the brain perceives the world and controls the body. Sensory stimuli from the eyes, ears, and such are converted to electrical signals and then transmitted to the relevant parts of the sensory cortex that process these inputs and induce perception. To initiate a movement, impulses from the motor cortex instruct the spinal cord neurons to produce muscular contraction.

Most students were happy with my textbook explanations of the brain’s input-output mechanisms. Yet a minority—the clever ones—always asked a series of awkward questions. “Where in the brain does perception occur?” “What initiates a finger movement before cells in the motor cortex fire?” I would always dispatch their queries with a simple answer: “That all happens in the neocortex.” Then I would skillfully change the subject or use a few obscure Latin terms that my students did not really understand but that seemed scientific enough so that my authoritative-sounding accounts temporarily satisfied them.

Like other young researchers, I began my investigation of the brain without worrying much whether this perception-action theoretical framework was right or wrong. I was happy for many years with my own progress and the spectacular discoveries that gradually evolved into what became known in the 1960s as the field of “neuroscience.” Yet my inability to give satisfactory answers to the legitimate questions of my smartest students has haunted me ever since. I had to wrestle with the difficulty of trying to explain something that I didn’t really understand.

Over the years I realized that this frustration was not uniquely my own. Many of my colleagues, whether they admitted it or not, felt the same way. There was a bright side, though, because these frustrations energized my career. They nudged me over the years to develop a perspective that provides an alternative description of how the brain interacts with the outside world.

The challenge for me and other neuroscientists involves the weighty question of what, exactly, is the mind. Ever since the time of Aristotle, thinkers have assumed that the soul or the mind is initially a blank slate, a tabula rasa on which experiences are painted. This view has influenced thinking in Christian and Persian philosophies, British empiricism and Marxist doctrine. In the past century it has also permeated psychology and cognitive science. This “outside-in” view portrays the mind as a tool for learning about the true nature of the world. The alternative view—one that has defined my research—asserts that the primary preoccupation of brain networks is to maintain their own internal dynamics and perpetually generate myriad nonsensical patterns of neural activity. When a seemingly random action offers a benefit to the organism’s survival, the neuronal pattern leading to that action gains meaning. When an infant utters “te-te,” the parent happily offers the baby “Teddy,” so the sound “te-te” acquires the meaning of the Teddy bear. Recent progress in neuroscience has lent support to this framework.

Does the brain “represent” the world?

Neuroscience inherited the blank slate framework millennia after early thinkers gave names like tabula rasa to mental operations. Even today we still search for neural mechanisms that might relate to their dreamed-up ideas. The dominance of the outside-in framework is illustrated by the outstanding discoveries of the legendary scientific duo David Hubel and Torsten Wiesel, who introduced single-neuronal recordings to study the visual system and were awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1981. In their signature experiments, they recorded neural activity in animals while showing them images of various shapes. Moving lines, edges, light or dark areas, and other physical qualities elicited firing in different sets of neurons. The assumption was that neuronal computation starts with simple patterns that are synthesized into more complex ones. These features are then bound together somewhere in the brain to represent an object. No active participation is needed. The brain automatically performs this exercise.

The outside-in framework presumes that the brain’s fundamental function is to perceive “signals” from the world and correctly interpret them. But if this assumption is true, an additional operation is needed to respond to these signals. Wedged between perceptual inputs and outputs resides a hypothetical central processor—which takes in sensory representations from the environment and makes decisions about what to do with them to perform the correct action.

So what exactly is the central processor in this outside-in paradigm? This poorly understood and speculative entity goes by various names—free will, homunculus, decision maker, executive function, intervening variables or simply just a “black box.” It all depends on the experimenter’s philosophical inclination and whether the mental operation in question is applied to the human brain, brains of other animals or computer models. Yet all these concepts refer to the same thing.

Scientific American for more

The arrest of Gupta brothers can be a turning point for S Africa

Monday, June 13th, 2022


A group of people protest outside the United Arab Emirates’ (UAE) embassy calling for the speedy extradition of the Guptas on June 10, 2021 in Pretoria, South Africa PHOTO/Daan Vivier/Getty Images

But the state needs to tread carefully to ensure this victory does not transform into a lost opportunity, or worse, the beginning of yet another period of political violence in South Africa.

On June 6, something dramatic happened in the Gulf. Rajesh and Atul Gupta – two prominent members of the infamous Gupta family accused in South Africa of using their family’s close relationship with former President Jacob Zuma to profit financially and influence senior political appointments – were arrested in the United Arab Emirates after years on the run.

If hassle-free extradition and a transparent conviction occur, the capture could be a major turning point for South Africa. These arrests can not only allow those accused of stealing from the South African people to be held to account, but also help restore the trust South Africans once had in their state.

Criminal masterminds

The Gupta family relocated from India to South Africa after the end of apartheid to pursue emerging business opportunities in the country. After building a lucrative business empire in South Africa over the years, they now stand accused of “state capture” – a form of corruption in which businesses and politicians conspire to influence a country’s decision-making process to advance their own interests. It is alleged that the Guptas manipulated President Zuma, who ruled South Africa between 2009-18, to dole out billions in public money to a web of companies controlled by their family members and associates through pricey gifts and kick-backs. According to some estimates, state capture during Zuma’s tenure wounded South Africa’s economy to the tune of $82.6bn, which amounts to a whopping 25 percent of its current gross domestic product (GDP).

In February 2018, Zuma was finally forced to resign due to corruption allegations relating to the Gupta family. Now facing prosecution, after Zuma’s exit from the political arena all prominent members of the Gupta family left South Africa.

Since then, the Gupta brothers have been flaunting their wealth across the world, shuttling between various Asian nations and Dubai, where they are said to run new enterprises and own waterside mansions.

Despite categorically denying accusations of corruption, they had been refusing to return to South Africa to defend their name, claiming a fair trial is impossible in the country.

Though South Africa does not have an extradition treaty with the UAE, Interpol, acting on a request from South Africa, placed a red alert on the Gupta brothers last year, paving the way for Monday’s arrest.

Huge victory

The Gupta capture is a moment of celebration for South Africa.

If the two brothers can be extradited to South Africa, prosecuted and convicted in a timely manner, the country can finally begin the process of fully addressing the corruption that brought the state to its knees.

The trial of the Gupta brothers may help reveal the global web of offshore companies, secret bank accounts, shadowy collaborators and luxury assets that swallowed billions of dollars of South Africa’s public money. Recovery of all or part of the stolen money can make a big difference in South Africa. Today, South Africa has the highest unemployment rate in the world. Due to Zuma-era state capture, the nation is so broke that its electricity grid is on the brink of collapse, its national airline has almost vanished, its once world-class railways are now obsolete and its FBI-styled prosecutors’ agency (the one that will put the Guptas on trial) is now begging for donations just to keep working. If just some of the billions allegedly laundered by the Guptas are found and returned to the people, South Africa’s fortunes can be reset.

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