A New York Times Book Review Notable Book of 2017
A dual biography of Winston Churchill and George Orwell, who preserved democracy from the threats of authoritarianism, from the left and right alike.
Both George Orwell and Winston Churchill came close to death in the mid-1930's—Orwell shot in the neck in a trench line in the Spanish Civil War, and Churchill struck by a car in New York City. If they'd died then, history would scarcely remember them. At the time, Churchill was a politician on the outs, his loyalty to his class and party suspect. Orwell was a mildly successful novelist, to put it generously. No one would have predicted that by the end of the 20th century they would be considered two of the most important people in British history for having the vision and courage to campaign tirelessly, in words and in deeds, against the totalitarian threat from both the left and the right. In a crucial moment, they responded first by seeking the facts of the matter, seeing through the lies and obfuscations, and then they acted on their beliefs. Together, to an extent not sufficiently appreciated, they kept the West's compass set toward freedom as its due north.
It's not easy to recall now how lonely a position both men once occupied. By the late 1930's, democracy was discredited in many circles, and authoritarian rulers were everywhere in the ascent. There were some who decried the scourge of communism, but saw in Hitler and Mussolini "men we could do business with," if not in fact saviors. And there were others who saw the Nazi and fascist threat as malign, but tended to view communism as the path to salvation. Churchill and Orwell, on the other hand, had the foresight to see clearly that the issue was human freedom—that whatever its coloration, a government that denied its people basic freedoms was a totalitarian menace and had to be resisted.
In the end, Churchill and Orwell proved their age's necessary men. The glorious climax of Churchill and Orwell is the work they both did in the decade of the 1940's to triumph over freedom's enemies. And though Churchill played the larger role in the defeat of Hitler and the Axis, Orwell's reckoning with the menace of authoritarian rule in Animal Farm and 1984 would define the stakes of the Cold War for its 50-year course, and continues to give inspiration to fighters for freedom to this day. Taken together, in Thomas E. Ricks's masterful hands, their lives are a beautiful testament to the power of moral conviction, and to the courage it can take to stay true to it, through thick and thin.
This is the transcript of the talk I gave this afternoon at a CUNY event on "The Labor of Open"
Interesting to hear that Audrey has now also removed the Creative Commons license from her website now as well as having disabled comments and the ability to annotate using Genius and Hypothes.is. I’m all for this and happy to support her decision despite the fact that it means that it’s potentially more difficult and circuitous to share and comment on some of her excellent work. I’m sad that we’re in a place that people on the web would attack, target, and otherwise bully people into needing to take such steps, but I’m glad that there are ways, means, and tools for blocking out these bad actors. While I might have otherwise reposted and annotated her piece directly, I’ll respect her wishes and her digital sovereignty and just quote a few interesting phrases instead. This being said, you’re far better off reading the original directly anyway.
While reading this I was initially worried that it was a general rehash of some of her earlier work and thoughts which I’ve read several times in various incarnations. However, the end provided a fantastic thesis about unseen labor which should be more widely disseminated.
almost all the illustrations in this series – and there are 50 of these in all – involve “work” (or the outsourcing and obscuring of work). Let’s look at a few of these (and as we do so, think about how work is depicted – whose labor is valued, whose labor is mechanized, who works for whom, and so on.
What do machines free us from? Not drudgery – not everyone’s drudgery, at least. Not war. Not imperialism. Not gendered expectations of beauty. Not gendered expectations of heroism. Not gendered divisions of labor. Not class-based expectations of servitude. Not class-based expectations of leisure.
And so similarly, what is the digital supposed to liberate us from? What is rendered (further) invisible when we move from the mechanical to the digital, when we cannot see the levers and the wires and the pulleys.
As I look back upon the massive wealth compiled by digital social companies for what is generally a middling sort of job that they’re not paying nearly as much attention to as they ought (Facebook, Twitter, et al.) and the recent mad rush to comply with GDPR, I’m even more struck by what she’s saying here. All this value they have “created” isn’t really created by them directly, it’s done by the “invisible labor” of billions of people and then merely captured by their systems, which they’re using to actively disadvantage us in myriad ways.
I suppose a lot of it all boils down to the fact that we’re all slowly losing our humanity when we fail to exercise it and see the humanity and value in others.
The bigger problem Watters doesn’t address is that with the advent of this digital revolution, we’re sadly able to more easily and quickly marginalize, devalue, and shut out others than we were before. If we don’t wake up to our reality, our old prejudices are going to destroy us. Digital gives us the ability to scale these problems up at a staggering pace compared with the early 1900’s.
A simple and solid example can be seen in the way Facebook has been misused and abused in Sri Lanka lately. Rumors and innuendo have been able to be spread in a country unchecked by Facebook (primarily through apathy) resulting in the deaths of countless people. Facebook doesn’t even have a handle on their own scale problems to prevent these issues which are akin to allowing invading conquistadores from Spain the ability to bring guns, germs, and steel into the New World to decimate untold millions of innocent indigenous peoples. Haven’t we learned our lessons from history? Or are we so intent on bringing them into the digital domain? Cathy O’Neil and others would certainly say we’re doing exactly this with “weapons of math destruction.”
Brown v Board of Education might be the most well-known Supreme Court decision, a major victory in the fight for civil rights. But in Topeka, the city where the case began, the ruling has left a bittersweet legacy. RH hears from the Browns, the family behind the story.
This is a stunning episode with several ideas and thought’s I’d not previously heard or considered. I feel guilty that I’ve been ignorant to some forces in society like these, but I suspect far too many others are as well. Veritas vos liberabit.
The brilliant idea here is that even the romantic view of Brown v. Board of Education many have isn’t really the victory it might have been. Because the continued racism and segregation of the teachers, things may have become even worse! The Supreme Court should and could have done better and the world would have healed a bit quicker.
Sadly we’ve still got similar problems today and they stretch across many other professions including law enforcement. I wonder what we can do to dramatically improve the teacher diversity problem?
Those who appreciated this episode are likely to appreciate this recent episode of The Daily’s podcast: Racism’s Punishing Reach which has several examples that underline the importance of teachers and provides some studies that just weren’t available at the time of Brown v. Board.
I hope to circle back and create a playlist of some of the more interesting things I’ve heard in the last year on the history of race and racism in the United States. This would certainly fit into that list.
In 1984, Elvis Costello released what he would say later was his worst record: Goodbye Cruel World. Among the most discordant songs on the album was the forgettable “The Deportees Club.” But then, years later, Costello went back and re-recorded it as “Deportee,” and today it stands as one of his most sublime achievements.
“Hallelujah” is about the role that time and iteration play in the production of genius, and how some of the most memorable works of art had modest and undistinguished births.
And here I thought I knew a lot about the story of Hallelujah. I haven’t read any of the books on its history, nor written any myself, but this short story does have a good bit I’ve not heard before in the past. I did read quite a bit when Cohen passed away, and even spent some time making a Spotify playlist with over five hours of covers.
The bigger idea here of immediate genius versus “slow cooked” genius is the fun one to contemplate. I’ve previously heard stories about Mozart’s composing involved his working things out in his head and then later putting them on paper much the same way that a “cow pees” (i.e. all in one quick go or a fast flood.)
Another interesting thing I find here is the insanely small probability that the chain of events that makes the song popular actually happens. It seems worthwhile to look at the statistical mechanics of the production of genius. Perhaps applying Ridley’s concepts of “Ideas having sex” and Dawkin’s “meme theory” (aka selfish gene) could be interestingly useful. What does the state space of genius look like?
Archaeologists in Sudan have uncovered the largest assemblage of Meroitic inscriptions to date
This is a cool discovery, in great part because their documentation was interesting enough to be able to suggest further locations to check for more archaeological finds. This might also be something one could apply some linguistic analysis and information theory to in an attempt to better pull apart the language and grammar.
h/t to @ArtsJournalNews, bookmarked on April 17, 2018 at 08:16AM
Trove Of Inscriptions In Sub-Saharan Africa’s Oldest Written Language Discovered:
“Archaeologists in Sudan have uncovered a large cache of rare stone inscriptions at the Sedeinga necropolis along the Nile River. The collection of funerary texts are ins… https://t.co/8qb3gkkpsa
— ArtsJournal (@ArtsJournalNews) April 17, 2018
In the early 1960s, the Pentagon set up a top-secret research project in an old villa in downtown Saigon. The task? To interview captured North Vietnamese soldiers and guerrillas in order to measure their morale: Was the relentless U.S. bombing pushing them to the brink of capitulation?
Mai Elliott, working in the RAND villa on Rue Pasteur. The windows are taped to prevent the glass from shattering in case of an explosion from a mortar round. Saigon, 1965 is the story of three people who got caught up in that effort: a young Vietnamese woman, a refugee from Nazi Germany, and a brilliant Russian émigré. All saw the same things. All reached different conclusions. The Pentagon effort, run by the Rand Corporation, was one of the most ambitious studies of enemy combatants ever conducted—and no one could agree on what it meant.VIETNAMESE TRANSLATION COURTESY OF RONNY CHIENG"My father-in-law was a government scholar and later government official in South Vietnam during the Vietnam war. After listening to this compelling and well crafted episode of Revisionist History, I knew he too would find this perspective on the war fascinating. So I set about to produce a Vietnamese translation of the episode so he could fully understand all the nuances of the story in his native language. Thankfully I found the extremely capable professional translator Miss Died Ngoc Bui who not only created the written translation, but also went out of her way to create the audio translation below. I hope all Vietnamese speakers, including the elderly Vietnamese diaspora who lived through the events described in the story can listen to this episode and get as much out of it as I did."- Ronny Chieng
The American RAND staff and Vietnamese interviewers on the front porch of the villa on Rue Pasteur. Courtesy of Hanh Easterbrook. A disclosure, in the fall of 2015, I was named to the Board of Directors of the RAND Corporation—the subject of this episode. It’s not a paid position (RAND is a non-profit). And I did the bulk of my reporting for this episode before taking the position. But you should know, that when I say that Rand is a incredibly fascinating place, I’m biased. And if you were on the RAND board, I daresay you’d think the same thing.
Some really great history and analysis here. It reminds me I need to go back the Vietnam doc on PBS.
Revisionist History is Malcolm Gladwell's journey through the overlooked and the misunderstood. Every episode re-examines something from the past—an event, a person, an idea, even a song—and asks whether we got it right the first time. From Panoply Media. Because sometimes the past deserves a second chance.
An anthology of some of the greatest music stories never truly told.
This eight-part series includes a look at the FBI investigation into a classic rock anthem, unheard conversations with Captain Beefheart, a critical examination of New Edition’s basketball connection and the chronicle of a man plucked from Folsom Prison by Johnny Cash and thrust into country music stardom.
h/t Kevin Smokler
The opening keynote from the inaugural HTML Special held before CSS Day 2016 in Amsterdam.
I wasn’t able to attend the original presentation, but I think it’s even more valuable to listen to it all alone rather than in what was assuredly a much larger crowd. There is a wonderful presence in this brief history of the internet, made all the more intriguing by Jeremy’s performance as if it were poetry about technology. I find that he’s even managed to give it an interesting structured format, which, in many senses, mirrors the web itself.
I hope that if you’re starting your adventure on the web, that you manage to find this as one of the first links that starts you off on your journey. It’s a great place to start.
This is a great thread by@palewire
The new @latimes owner is moving the newsroom from its historic HQ to El Segundo.
I’ve been lucky enough to inhabit and explore the interlocking buildings at 1st and Spring for over a decade.
— Ben Welsh (@palewire) April 14, 2018
President Trump has chosen John R. Bolton to be his new national security adviser. In 2005, a Republican-controlled Senate committee refused to confirm Mr. Bolton as President George W. Bush’s ambassador to the United Nations. We look back at those confirmation hearings, which portrayed Mr. Bolton as a threat to national security.
On today’s episode:
• Elizabeth Williamson writes about Washington in the Trump era for The New York Times.
• Not since the immediate aftermath of Sept. 11, 2001, have national security leaders so publicly raised the threat of armed confrontation if foreign adversaries do not meet America’s demands.
Most outlet’s I’d seen early on simply used shorthand to call Bolton a hawk, but without digging back into history to actually show the broader facts. I love how The Daily has done it here. The fact that he’s a hawk actually seems to be the least of his issues. Worse is that he comes off as a bully and doesn’t understand what facts are.
Obituaries in The New York Times have been long dominated by white men. We’re adding the stories of remarkable women like Ida B. Wells, who took on racism in the South.
Some nice pieces of history here that I’m sad to say I hadn’t heard about and didn’t know they were as egregious as I had thought. I knew about lynchings in general, but didn’t know that they rose to a level as high as the one described here.