1796 stories

Neil Gaiman’s Radical Vision for the Future of the Internet

1 Share

Earlier this week, Neil Gaiman was interviewed on Icelandic television. Around the twenty-five minute mark of the program, the topic turned to the author’s thoughts about the internet. “I love blogging. I blog less now in the era of microblogging,” Gaiman explained, referring to his famously long-running online journal hosted at neilgaiman.com. “I miss the days of just sort of feeling like you could create a community by talking in a sane and cheerful way to the world.”

As he continues, it becomes clear that Gaiman’s affection for this more personal and independent version of online communication is more than nostalgia. As he goes on to predict:

“But it’s interesting because people are leaving (social media). You know, Twitter is over, yeah Twitter is done, Twitter’s… you stick a fork in, it’s definitely overdone. The new Twitters, like Threads and Blue sky… nothing is going to do what that thing once did. Facebook works but it doesn’t really work. So I think probably the era of blogging may return and maybe people will come and find you and find me again.”

In these quips, Gaiman is reinforcing a vision of the internet that I have been predicting and promoting in my recent writing for The New Yorker (e.g., this and this and this). Between 2012 to 2022, we came to believe that the natural structure for online interaction was for billions of people to all use the same small number of privately-owned social platforms. We’re increasingly realizing now that it was this centralization idea itself that was unnatural. The underlying architecture of the internet already provides a universal platform on which anyone can talk to anyone else about any topic. We didn’t additionally need all of these conversations to be consolidated into the same interfaces and curated by the same algorithms.

The future of the internet that most excites me is also, in many ways, a snapshot of its past. It’s a place where the Neil Gaimans of the world don’t need to feed their thoughts into an engagement engine, but can instead put out a virtual shingle on their own small patch of cyberspace and attract and build a more intimate community of like-minded travelers. This doesn’t necessitate a blog — podcasts, newsletters, and video series have emerged as equally engaging mediums for independent media production. The key is a communication landscape that is much more diverse and distributed and interesting than what we see when everyone is using the same two or three social apps.

This vision is not without its issues. The number one concern I hear about a post-social media online world is the difficulty of attracting large audiences. For content creators, by far the biggest draw to a service like Twitter or Instagram is that their algorithms could, if you played things just right, grant you viral audience growth.

Take myself as an example. Over the past fifteen years I’ve slowly built this newsletter to around 80,000 loyal subscribers who really seem to connect with what I have to say. If I had instead directed my energy during this period toward a social platform (which I somewhat infamously refused to do), I probably could have gathered ten times more followers.

I’m not sure, however, that I care. What exactly is a social media follower anyway? A couple years ago, for example, publishing houses began signing major social media influencers to book deals under the assumption that their huge follower counts would yield automatic sales. Things didn’t work out as planned. I think I’m happy with my 80,000 subscribers, many of whom I know by name, and who have been reading and commenting on my work for many years. It feels like a family while the social media influencers I know often experience their audiences more like an unruly mob that they’re struggling to pacify.

An online world in which it’s hard to be a superstar, but easier to find a real sense of community, sounds like a good tradeoff to me. I’m hoping Neil Gaiman is right that the Age of Twitter really is coming to an end, and that a return the quieter, deeper pleasures of a more homegrown social internet will soon return. I remember fondly read Gaiman’s blog during the early 2000s. There were no likes or virality, but I did feel connected to an author I liked. Can’t that be good enough?


In Other News: On the latest episode of my podcast, Deep Questions, I take a critical look at the idea of “laziness,” exploring more effective ways of thinking about struggles to get important things done. (watch | listen)

The post Neil Gaiman’s Radical Vision for the Future of the Internet appeared first on Cal Newport.

Read the whole story
21 minutes ago
Share this story

What happened to the BURMA Act? | Frontier Myanmar

1 Share



After Kyaw Kyaw Tun* watched the military slaughter his fellow students during the pro-democracy uprising in 1988, he understood nonviolence couldn’t work against the regime. Instead, he thought he could follow the path of independence hero General Aung San – but with a different benefactor.

“He went to Japan for military training. A lot of the Burmese got the same idea,” Kyaw Kyaw Tun told me. “We thought that we would be getting some assistance and training from the US. We heard that there was a US [war] ship in the Indian Ocean. We could go there.”

So Kyaw Kyaw Tun left Yangon, then Rangoon, and joined a small expedition through the jungle and onto a fishing boat that some students had chartered. But the journey took longer than expected and the boat was eventually diverted to Thailand. They never found the American ship, which Kyaw Kyaw Tun had believed was also searching for them. “I don’t know who had those connections. I don’t know if they lied to us,” he said.

Hope, then dismay, about the prospects of US intervention is a common refrain in Myanmar. In 1988, dissidents distributed leaflets informing people that an American invasion was imminent. Some went so far as printing pennants to welcome the GIs, and others dug air raid shelters. The Myanmar military was worried, too. It made frantic calls to the US embassy in an attempt to confirm whether aircraft carrier the USS Coral Sea, which reportedly came within 90 nautical miles of Rangoon, was there to invade.

During the uprising that followed the 2021 coup, protesters called for an invasion under the Responsibility to Protect doctrine. One sign read, “If R2P requires a corpse to enter, come shoot me”. Activists also used Facebook to lobby the US Pacific Fleet.

Adding to the confusion was a tweet by Secretary of State Anthony Blinken that read, “In response to escalating violence in Burma, the United States is designating two officials and two military units today.” He meant that the US had designated two units of the Myanmar military to be sanctioned, but to those not steeped in State Department lingo, it sounded very much like the US was dispatching its military.

The narrative, which at its most distilled is that the US can, and might, save Myanmar, has many benefactors in think tanks and advocacy circles – as well as amongst those in Myanmar’s pro-democracy movement who claim to be the arbiters of US support, or are simply in search of a hopeful story to tell.

One beacon of hope was the passage in December last year of the 2023 National Defense Authorization Act. The law contained within it a revised version of the Burma Unified through Rigorous Military Accountability Act that had earlier failed to pass the US Senate. Known in short as the BURMA Act, it was the first piece of major Myanmar-related legislation to clear Congress in nearly two decades. It was natural, therefore, that it would raise expectations, which in turn would lead to confusion and frustration.

Passing this type of bill requires public campaigns, where the messaging is taken up by diverse groups. When I was working with various coalitions to pass the BURMA Act, I tried to keep people interested while managing their expectations, but it wasn’t easy.

While messages need to be straightforward to mobilise large numbers of people, the American government was designed to be anything but. Framer of the US Constitution James Madison argued that “ambition must be made to counteract ambition”, with different branches and departments checking and counteracting each other, so that none gets too powerful. Therefore, in the implementation of the BURMA Act, many pieces are working contrapuntally.

At its simplest, the BURMA Act provides a framework for US policy. It states that the government supports the forces working towards federal democracy and meeting humanitarian needs in Myanmar. To these ends, it authorises crossborder aid, targeted sanctions and nonlethal support to armed resistance groups. But more important than the wording is the political power that it corrals. To get the bill passed, we secured the support of many members of both houses of Congress – the House of Representatives and the Senate. Having put their names on the bill, these members are now invested in seeing it implemented through the congressional oversight of federal agencies.

But for the Act to be successful, it must be funded. Although the programmes outlined in the law draw from different budgets, the easiest to track is the one outlined in the State, Foreign Operations, and Related Programs (SFOPs) appropriations bill.

There are two SFOPs bills up for consideration. These are a Senate version with US$167 million for Myanmar programming including $75 million for cross-border aid, $1.5 million for military deserters and $25 million for nonlethal support to the resistance, and a House version that only recommends $50 million without much direction. Needless to say, we want the Senate version, and luckily, most Washington insiders believe that because the House is in disarray, the Senate bill will likely be adopted wholesale in December.

Then, between the Congress and the ground are a series of agencies. High-level coordination is handled by the National Security Council, which has mostly prioritised the US relationship with its allies in the region, US business interests and humanitarian aid above Myanmar’s resistance movement. Council members justify this by citing geostrategy and the need to work together with Thailand and India to counter China.

The Bureau for Conflict Prevention and Stabilization and its sub-department, the Office of Transition Initiatives, also contribute to big-picture thinking. Staffed by principled bureaucrats who have spent decades working on Myanmar, the problem with them is that revolutions require a leap of faith and they know too much. As Ethiopia has recently demonstrated, ethnic federalism can go horribly wrong, starting with drawing borders along ethnic lines and ending with the question of what to do with people who don’t fit. There’s justifiable concern that this might become the US-sponsored end of Myanmar’s revolution. But more widespread are doubts about the National Unity Government’s claims to control territory and its ability to maintain alliances, as well as its capabilities as Myanmar’s parallel government. They mostly advocate a bottom-up approach, more focused on federalism.

Further down the chain, non-government and quasi-governmental organisations shape the law through its implementation, and here too, a balance between competing interests is baked into this system. Congress funds the National Endowment for Democracy, which in turn funds four main groups: the International Republican Institute, the National Democratic Institute, the Solidarity Center and the Center for International Private Enterprise. In this way, the interests of both major political parties, labour and capital are all accommodated. Recently, IRI has been doing more to promote ethnic movements for self-determination in Myanmar, while NDI has been working more with the NUG. However, the lines are blurred and both organisations are, like others, accused of focusing too much on offering training as opposed to direct aid.

But while these various actors and their priorities will help to determine the law’s impact, implementation will also depend on what’s actually being proposed in the SFOPs bill.

The most controversial, and in my view, misguided, piece of the BURMA Act is the nonlethal support it authorises to active combatants, which may include the shipment of dual-use capacities such as early warning systems. These systems can provide civilians with an advance warning of incoming attacks, saving lives, but can also boost resistance forces’ fighting capabilities by helping them locate and ambush enemy soldiers.

This section of the law was modelled after the US intervention in Syria, where nonlethal aid including body armour and intelligence sharing was soon followed by covert arms shipments. According to people in Washington with direct knowledge of the matter, the section’s framers want to see a similar transition to more lethal aid in Myanmar.

But boosting one faction’s capabilities in a multi-dimensional war is extremely risky. In Syria, some of the arms ended up in the hands of al-Qaeda affiliates, in part because US allies went on to sell them on the black market, and the increased US involvement drew Russia deeper into the fighting. This led to more killing without any of the US’s political objectives being met.

The rationale for such support in Myanmar seems to be that, among resistance forces, the primary problem is a lack of fighting capacity – not that they lack cohesion and have divergent goals. However, if the Senate SFOPs bill passes and nonlethal aid is actively required, implementing agencies seeking to avoid Syria-style pitfalls are going to struggle to figure out who to give it to.

The NUG’s People’s Defence Force is unlikely to receive this support, given its command structure is perceived as chaotic and unaccountable. Local resistance groups that act independently of the NUG are also likely viewed as too unpredictable. Instead, the US will likely favour veteran ethnic armed organisations with records free of drug production, and who are palatable to allies and lack strong ties to China. This makes the Karen Nation Union a likely contender. In the end, the “nonlethal” aid might be as innocuous as funding for the KNU’s health services.

But while the nature and target of this support remain highly uncertain, the BURMA Act’s nudge towards greater sanctions has already produced concrete results. The US imposed its most stringent measures to date – the sanctioning of two state-owned banks – on June 21, the day before the State Department and Treasury had to report their progress on the BURMA Act to Congress. These sanctions also featured prominently in the State Department’s testimony to Congress’s Tom Lantos Human Rights Subcommittee on September 13. If the new measures are determined to have seriously hindered the regime while causing minimal harm to the public, we can expect more to follow.

However, to assess the broader implementation of the BURMA Act, you’d have to track expenditure in a variety of areas. Unfortunately, we don’t yet know how much was spent during the 2023 financial year, which ended on September 30, but a tally should be possible in a few months.

But while implementation is slow and subject to many moving parts, this inefficiency provides activists and interest groups with the opportunity to shape the outcome. Here, lessons can be learned from the passage of the law itself, and the decisive role played by Chin Baptist and Evangelical churches in lobbying for it. Thanks to refugee resettlement programmes, the Chin are one of the largest Myanmar communities in the US, but their real clout comes from belonging to churches that are large, organised and influential.

Corporate consultancies and lobbies play a counteracting role. While advocating for the law, multiple offices told us that US energy giant Chevron had been lobbying for sanctions on oil and gas to be excluded. What we got in the bill – a recommendation, but not requirement, that such sanctions be imposed – was a compromise between what the human rights groups asked for and what was advocated by industry and Thailand, whose state-owned company PTT retains large stakes in Myanmar oil and gas.

Hardnosed calculations about constituents and monied influence contrasts with a lot of the messaging from the movement and US implementing partners. The three prominent resistance leaders Sumlut Gun Maw, Yee Mon, and Min Ko Naing wrote an article for the US Institute of Peace in June arguing that “the resistance’s historic unity for democratic change is worthy of the world’s support”. This “if the Tzar only knew” type of advocacy seems to assume that, if only US leaders knew the righteousness of our cause, they would swing fully behind it. The approach risks obscuring the complex set of considerations that go into American foreign policy in favour of a morality tale. US support isn’t a reward given to the worthy. Good behaviour won’t get it, but organising might.

Thirty-five years after setting off on the doomed mission to find the ship, Kyaw Kyaw Tun now lives in the US. I recently caught up with him over tea, having first met him at a protest against the coup. Since that protest, he met with his Member of Congress and Senators, becoming one of the hundreds of grassroots leaders who helped make the BURMA Act happen. “I do it because it is something I can do,” he said. “I learned my lesson already: If you want something, you have to get it yourself.”

* indicates the use of a pseudonym for security reasons

Mike Haack has been involved in Myanmar advocacy since first visiting the country in 2002, including as the campaigns coordinator for the US Campaign for Burma from 2008-2010. Following the 2021 coup, he worked with the Campaign for New Myanmar and US Advocacy Coalition for Myanmar to pass the BURMA Act. He is currently an advocacy coordinator for the Myanmar Policy Institute. All views expressed here are his own.

Read the whole story
32 days ago
Share this story

But not like this - Numb at the Lodge

1 Share

When the war began I was in Wrocław. Not long ago, I woke up one morning in Beijing and went to sleep that evening in Warsaw, having crossed, in the intervening haze of time, from one end to the other of the Mongol Empire and the socialist confraternity of nations. It felt very weird, being in Europe again. This loose, leaky, haphazard continent, where you can just jump on a train without even buying a ticket, and people are apparently free to spraypaint whatever they want all over the walls. But it was also very undeniably nice. The warm stucco of the old city, the peacefully crumbling concrete of the old socialist-utopian blocks. After the gargantuan scale and unfathomably violent history of China, Warsaw was very human-sized, cosy. Accordion players on cobbled streets, church bells, a beer on the terrace. I almost forgot that all the old buildings in the old city were facsimiles, that none of them were actually any older than 1945, because for the previous five years the most civilised powers of Europe had unleashed a mechanised bloodbath across these lands, industrial exterminations, warfare on a scale unseen in human history, in which every city between Moscow and Berlin was razed flat.

Wrocław is another nice, cosy Polish city. But it's impossible not to notice, as you wander along its pretty gingerbread streets, that this used to be a nice cosy German city called Breslau. The churches all have their stained glass windows and gloomy oil paintings, but the austere brick and plaster still reminds you that this place was built by Lutherans. The German inscriptions might have been erased from every stone—everywhere, that is, except in the Old Jewish Cemetery—but there are still clues left behind. In the rest of Poland, you can only say you're from somewhere if your family have been there for four generations. But in Wrocław, everyone is from somewhere else: back in 1945, everyone who’d lived here for generations either died or fled. This place is like a little American frontier, a zone of dislocation, a melting pot, within Europe. Most came from the area around the Polish city of Lwów, which was about to become the Soviet Ukrainian city of Lviv. (Now, of course, more have followed them: something like a quarter of the city's population are migrants or refugees from Ukraine.) But unlike in America, the previous inhabitants left their things behind. My Polish friends told me that for the first few decades of the Polish People’s Republic, people in Wrocław ate off dinner plates decorated with the swastika. Strange continuities seep in. The philosophy department at the Uniwersytet Wrocławski is very proud of its distinguished alumnus, the hermeneuticist Hans-Georg Gadamer. In Warsaw, pedestrians cross the road whenever there's a gap in the traffic; in Wrocław they wait patiently until the little green man appears, even if there's absolutely nothing on the road. Just like Germans. There's a minor rivalry between the two cities; one bone of contention is that after the war, rubble from the ruins of Wrocław was shipped over to rebuild Warsaw's centre. You stole our stones! But surely they weren't your stones, not back then; they were captured Nazi stones. Whose heirs, exactly, are you?

There are Nazis in Wrocław. Not many, but enough to pose a threat to the city's small, quiet population of Jews. Many of those Jews barely know anything about their past: during the socialist period, if you were Jewish, it was more convenient not to mention it, even to your own children. There are memorials to Katyń in every church and by the river, but nothing to record what happened to the large, prosperous German Jewish community of Breslau. Just the Old Jewish Cemetery, where the headstones record deaths from the 1800s to the 1930s but the stones themselves are all suspiciously new. The official state position is that it has nothing to apologise for, since none of its citizens ever participated in the Holocaust; it was just another case of Germans murdering Poles. I wonder where that leaves the Polish Nazis. Being a Polish Nazi feels like a uniquely miserable and pathetic experience. Do they believe that Hitler was right about everything, except the need to eventually exterminate the entire Polish population? Or are they true masochists? Come back, come back to this city, rule me, conquer me, shoot me in your charming baroque square...

Of course, the Germans have come back. They stream over the border, hordes of them, every year, to visit Wrocław's Christkindlesmarkt, which has apparently been named the best traditional German Christmas market in the world. And maybe there's something deeper and uglier at play. One ethnic cleansing seems to conjure another. Doesn't Wrocław now look more like the fantasy of Germany—the one on the chocolate box, the one with lederhosen and carols and children with ruddy cheeks, the one that drowned this continent in blood—than Germany itself? Look at the lovely lights in this lovely city. Without any migrants, without any Muslims...

Wrocław is a weird city. It has ghosts. The expulsion of the Germans after 1945 was maybe the most understandable of the great exterminations that convulsed Europe in the twentieth century, but it was still an extermination. Estimates of the number of people who starved or froze or were worked to death or mobbed or shot vary wildly. Maybe half a million. Maybe two million or more. Their crimes mght have been multiple, but the only crime they were actually punished for was simply being German. Sometimes atrocities are inflicted on the wrong type of people, people we don’t want to acknowledge as victims. You’re not supposed to think about it too much. (It’s always puzzled me: why is it seen as mildly dodgy to mourn the people who were massacred in the firebombing of Dresden, but perfectly acceptable to mourn their Axis allies in Hiroshima and Nagasaki?) Those Germans died in silence for the neat, clean borders we all enjoy today. But they left ghosts. The absence of the people that used to be there and aren't. A human world that was once tangled up in a place, and which remains in thorns and tatters even when the humans themselves are gone. I know ghosts. In a strange way, even though they got this way under very different circumstances, Wrocław reminded me of Tel Aviv. This strange playground where you can smoke weed on the beach and eat interesting things for brunch, just up the coast from Gaza, the world's largest prison camp, one of the most impoverished places on the planet, where a few of the people who used to live in Tel Aviv before the street art and the clubbing now drink polluted water, inside a cage, under a rain of Israeli bombs. And the more Tel Aviv tries to banish its ghosts, the more they teem.

You might have your problems with people. But living with people is always, always better than living among ghosts.

Over the weekend, Palestinian resistance groups led by Hamas finally broke through that cage surrounding Gaza. On land, by air, and by sea, hundreds of fighters poured into Israel. The average age in Gaza is only 18, and the strip has been under an illegal Israeli blockade since 2005: this was the first time many of these people had ever tasted anything resembling freedom. For the first time since 1948, swathes of historic Palestine were being captured by Palestinian forces. They overwhelmed the IDF posts that surrounded Gaza. Dozens of soldiers were captured, including senior officers, along with Israeli tanks and armoured vehicles. Gazan TV journalists reported live from within Israel. The forces of the occupation were reeling. The Israeli state had been humiliated. Just for a moment, the playing field had been levelled. And all of this was entirely within the bounds of international law; more importantly, it was in accord with the sacred right of an oppressed people to resist their oppression.

But that's not all they did. Instead, everywhere they went, the resistance fighters committed indiscriminate massacre. They killed people in their homes. They killed drivers on the roads. They mowed down old women waiting at a bus stop. They exterminated entire families, including their children. They set houses on fire to smoke the residents out of their safe rooms, and then they killed them. They took phones from the people they’d killed and texted their neighbours in Hebrew, saying it was safe to come outside, and when people did come outside they killed them. They found a bunch of kids having a psytrance rave in the woods and killed them too: hundreds of them. The naked body of a German national was paraded around Gaza as people beat her with sticks. Wherever they went, they wiped out as many human lives as they could. As I’m writing, the official death toll is over 900, the vast majority of them civilians, but more bodies are still being found.

Here’s the question. What is the relation between these two things, the fence being torn down and the massacre that followed? Does the one always imply the other? Is an instant of freedom for Palestinians just another name for Israelis being slaughtered in their homes? A lot of Zionists would, I think, say yes. Maybe it’s not nice that the Gazans have to be locked in a cage, but look, this is what happens when they get out: they kill everyone they get their hands on. These murders are inseparable from the Palestinian cause; freedom for Palestine is a euphemism for another six million murdered Jews, and the only way to prevent that happening is to keep the Palestinians under occupation forever, or maybe just quietly get rid of them. For what it’s worth, I oppose this notion with every fibre of my being. But maybe I’m wrong, because a lot of people seem to agree with the Zionists on this one. Like, for some reason, basically all of my friends and comrades in the Palestine solidarity movement.

Because people, including a few people I ordinarily respect, who I know to be capable of being non-stupid, are being incredibly fucking stupid about this. You could observe that this nightmare is the culmination of decades of Israeli cruelty. You could point out that the IDF was caught off guard because so many of its soldiers were busy in the West Bank, guarding settlers as they rampaged through Palestinian villages. But that’s not enough; you psychos are actually endorsing this. You are directly identifying resistance and liberation with a slaughter of unarmed civilians. I know why you’re doing this, of course. You are trapped in a little game of meaningless discursive gestures, in which you have to constantly affirm the eternal righteousness of whatever side you’ve chosen, or else people online will make fun of you. And so you end up saying that atrocity is resistance, this is what it will always look like, and anyone who has any reservations about it does not belong to the cause. You end up aligning yourselves with the ugliest, most eliminationist strands of Israeli fascism, and you don’t even realise it! I promised myself a long time ago that I wouldn’t ever use this thing to have one-sided arguments with cretins on Twitter, but as far as I can tell nobody’s attempted to express this cretinism in prose so I don’t have much choice. Look; look at this stupid, stupid shit:

I know the lines, obviously. I’ve used plenty of them myself. The things you’re supposed to say when the side you support does something monstrous, the rhetorical flourishes you bring out in the face of mass murder. The small acts of intellectual blackmail you carry out against yourself. Lines like this:

This is the most basic, brute-force gesture: for everything monstrous that has been done here, remember that Israel does the same stuff too. Resistance fighters kill children in their homes: well, what do you think an Israeli missile does? Resistance fighters kidnap dozens of civilians: do you know how many ordinary Palestinians are trapped in Israeli jails, convicted by the farcical military courts? And you’re right: for everything that was done over the weekend, Israel really has done worse, and it will probably continue to do worse in the future. There is nothing Hamas could do that would be equivalent to seventy-five years of violent dispossession and occupation and apartheid. But for a few golden days, the famously lopsided ratio between Israeli and Palestinian civilian casualties went the other way. Is that enough for you? Does that satisfy? Is that justice? Is that all you were really after, all this time?

The worst is when they point out that one of the targets was the Israeli town of Ashdod, and in 2014 the New York Times reported on Ashdod residents dragging sofas up hills so they could gawp and cheer at the IDF bombing Gaza. Which is repulsive. To sit in safety and watch people suffer as a form of entertainment is an utter moral atrocity. But that’s you! What have you been doing these past few days? Do you really think it’s somehow better if you’re watching the massacre on your phone?

Of course, sometimes the mask slips, and the real content shines through:

Frankly, if all you have to offer is this grubby, scummy cynicism—no clean hands in a dirty world, sometimes innocent people will die, war is violent and in the end there’s nothing wrong with that—then to be honest, I struggle to understand why you even bother to align yourself with Palestine at all. If this is how you talk, how can you possibly adopt any stance of moral outrage when Israel commits its own crimes? Why not drop the act and throw your lot in with the IDF, since they already speak your language?

But most of the time, if you’re looking for something a bit more sophisticated than but the Israelis do it too, you end up falling back on the most universal and repulsive form of apologia, which is argument by media analysis. So you issue your denunciations of the liberals on the TV and in the newspapers, the false humanitarians, the selective, one-sided weepers, who are apolitically appalled by the loss of life when it’s Israelis being killed, but who said absolutely nothing as Palestinians were routinely murdered every single week. Two hundred people were killed in the West Bank this year, by soldiers and police and settler pogroms: where was your outrage then? Where were your calls for peace and nonviolence? Where were your public buildings lit up in the Palestinian colours? Where were your tears?

And it’s true, these people exist, and they are hypocrites. But so what? Who gives a shit? How does it even remotely justify an atrocity to point out that some people in the West didn’t care about other, nearby atrocities? Why are you even talking about that? More to the point, who, exactly, are you talking to? Look at the exchange below:

Rachel Shabi is a journalist who has reported on the conflict for nearly two decades. She has not been silent. She has loudly and consistently opposed Israeli atrocities. Obviously these people had no idea at all who they were talking to: they saw someone upset at civilians being murdered, and automatically assumed that this person must be a hypocrite. Which might say more about them than it does about her. Really, this line is barely any kind of line at all. It’s not thought. It’s not an idea. It’s a defensive reflex, a cowardly dodge, a way of throwing up your hands over your face: that’s all.

But sometimes people are brave enough to tackle things head on. Like so:

I’m certainly not denying that the murderous ferocity of what happened over the weekend might have something to do with the inhuman treatment of Gaza. Everything that happens has a cause. But since everything that happens has a cause, this is an incredibly futile line of argument: after all, you could equally say that if you detonate suicide bombs in buses and restaurants, eventually people will want to put up a wall around you and just make it stop. I’d suggest that any argument in defence of Palestinians that could also be used in defence of Israel is not fit for purpose. But more to the point, this is an outrageously condescending approach, one that amounts to the wholesale denial of Palestinian ethical subjecthood. Do you really not see who you are helping when you position Palestinians as mindless savages who can’t be held responsible for their own actions? I have not, it’s true, lived under siege for eighteen years; maybe my perspective is limited. But I still think it’s possible to drive past some old people waiting at a bus stop and not kill them on sight. I think it’s possible to not execute parents in front of their children. In fact, I know it’s possible, because there were plenty of Hamas fighters who didn’t do it. Some filmed themselves with women or disabled or elderly people in their homes, promising not to harm them. They insisted that the Izz ad-Din al-Qassam Brigades do not murder children, which is completely untrue, but it’s hopeful. Afterwards, an Israeli woman told the TV news that the Hamas fighters in her home had told her ‘don’t be afraid, we are Muslims,’ and asked permission before eating one of her bananas. How do you explain these people? They lived in the same city under the same siege; they lived through the same Israeli bombings as the ones who happily took their revenge. Could it be that whatever our condition, and whatever evils are visited on us, we are all answerable for the deeds of our hands?

Maybe the biggest, most sophisticated, most convoluted blackmail is this: don’t tell Palestinians how to resist the occupation. Who am I, safe and secure in this creepy city in Poland with only a very few Nazis, to tell Palestinians what they should or shouldn’t do? How far is too far? Which are the good and the bad ways to struggle? How dare I? By what right?

But that’s exactly what you are doing. If you affirm this massacre, if you claim that gunning down defenceless people is an acceptable mode of resistance, then what are you saying to the Palestinians who maintain that it is not? There are a lot of ways to resist. There are people who follow the occupation forces with cameras, who protest at checkpoints, who strike, who put themselves in front of Israeli guns and clubs, without any weapons of their own, because they’re committed to nonviolence—but you think they should have avoided all that. You know the correct way of resisting Israel, and it’s to mow down teenagers at a music festival. Even those Hamas fighters who fought the IDF but decided not to murder helpless people—as soon as you trot out your bullshit line about not telling Palestinians how to resist, you’re saying they should have pulled the trigger. Look at the tweet above: this person clearly thinks he’s honouring the dead of the Great March of Return, but he’s doing nothing of the sort, he’s traducing them. What idiots they were, to have willingly walked into live fire for the principle of freedom, when they could have murdered someone’s granny instead.

It’s true that Palestinians have been resisting nonviolently for a very long time, with very little to show for it. But there has been violent resistance for a very long time too, and that has not worked either. The last intifada was a catastrophe for Palestine and utterly ruinous for any chance of peaceful cohabitation. Do you actually believe that there is a military path to the liberation of Palestine? Do you really think Hamas will plant a black flag on Dizengoff Circus? Do you think there’s a pile of dead old women big enough that it will spontaneously turn into a free and peaceful homeland? You’re not actually as stupid as you pretend to be; of course you know it isn’t happening. You know that this is nobody’s liberation, it’s just desperate people who have been backed into a corner, lashing out. But you don’t like the implications. So you pretend.

In the end, I think all these lines are doing the same thing. They’re a series of mental tricks that allow those who know that murdering defenceless people is wrong to pretend that sometimes murdering defenceless people is fine. Your stomach turns, the way mine does, at the thought of pointing a gun on someone who poses no threat to you and suddenly ending their life. But you know that this is being done in the name of liberation, which means you have to be seen to support it. And so to smooth over the gap, you produce this bullshit. You produce evasive bullshit about the misdeeds of the other side or the priorities of other people. You produce intimidatory bullshit about how your own conscience is politically irrelevant. You produce the utterly shameful mystifying Fanonian bullshit about the violence of the oppressed, how much nobler and more defensible it is than the violence of the oppressor. And yes, there is a history and a context here, but violence is violence is violence. What actually face each other are not oppressor and oppressed, or coloniser and colonised, or even Israel and Palestine. It’s not a context or a history. It’s a person with a gun pointing it at a person without a gun, and killing them. And that’s what you’re trying to forget.

In the Mishnah it is written that Adam was created alone to teach his descendants that the entire world can be contained in a single life, and that to destroy a single life is to destroy an entire world. The same principle is repeated in surah 5 of the Qur’an, al-Ma’idah. ‘We ordained for the Children of Israel that whoever takes a life, it will be as if they killed all of humanity.’ We have always known.

I am an anti-Zionist because I believe that murder is wrong. The state of Israel was born bathed in blood, and its continued existence depends on regular slaughter. Unlike most of the people cheerfully excusing this massacre, I have seen the occupation of Palestine with my own eyes; I have met the people living under its shadow. I know that something very, very ugly might be coming. Since Saturday, Israeli jets have repeatedly bombed Gaza, levelling entire towers, killing hundreds, for essentially no reason other than to shock and demoralise and inflict suffering. There are two million people crammed together in that tiny wedge of land, and half of them are children. But this is just a kind of holding pattern; Israel lazily commits mass killings while its leaders and generals work out what they actually want to do. They were perfectly happy with the status quo in Gaza: a population kept just above starvation level, occasionally emitting rockets like an alarm clock, reminding them to mow the lawn. Hamas’ massacre has, at least, made the status quo untenable. It’s hard to imagine that what comes next won’t be worse. Whatever it is, all responsibility will belong with Israel. But the fact remains that the only just future is one in which Israelis and Palestinians live with each other, however uneasily, and not with ghosts. Every massacre of civilians makes that outcome more unlikely and the situation more hopeless. I respect the oppressed enough to acknowledge that while they might be disempowered, they are not powerless, and they have a responsibility too. THOU SHALT NOT KILL is a commandment. It is not partial. It does not admit excuses. And if you only believe that murder is wrong when it aligns with your anti-Zionism, then you are already lost.

Read the whole story
39 days ago
Share this story

‘Survival of the fittest’ may also apply to the nonliving, report finds | Evolution | The Guardian

1 Share

Darwin’s theory of evolution, with natural selection at its core, conjures up images of flourishing life. But now researchers have suggested a similar mechanism may apply to the realm of the nonliving too, underpinning what they have called nature’s “missing law”.

A team of scientists and philosophers say many systems – including minerals, changes within stars and even hurricanes – are made up of multiple components that can come together in myriad ways, some of which persist while others fall by the wayside.

The researchers go on to propose that which forms persist is governed by a number of selection pressures – similar to the way Darwinian evolution is based on “survival of the fittest”.

“We see Darwinian evolution as a specific case of a more general process that applies to nonliving systems as well,” said Dr Michael Wong, first author of the research, based at the Carnegie Institution for Science.

“Our proposal applies to static systems, like minerals, and also to dynamic systems, like hurricanes, stars and life.”

Writing in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Wong and colleagues say that prior to their work there was no law of increasing complexity, despite many living and nonliving systems evolving over time to display greater diversity, distribution or patterned behaviour.

For example, although young stars are primarily composed of hydrogen, which is then fused to produce helium, they can – depending on their size – eventually generate more than 100 elements.

Now the team have proposed a law along such lines, suggesting it is underpinned by a similar mechanism to the one already identified in living organisms.

“The functional information of a system will increase (ie, the system will evolve) if many different configurations of the system are subjected to selection for one or more functions,” the researchers write.

They identified three selection pressures that apply to evolving systems: stability, novelty and the ability to continue fundamental processes.

Wong said the new law offered a view of the cosmos rooted in function and highlights important relationships such as how new functions may emerge in the context of new environmental features, inviting important and introspective questions.

“After all, Earth’s biosphere is the most complex evolving system we know of so far. We ought to ask ourselves: what functions are we promoting (or damaging) in our own evolving biosphere? What features of our present-day society are conducive to not only long-term persistence but long-term thriving, and what aspects require changing?” he said.

Prof Milan Ćirković of the Belgrade astronomical observatory and the Future of Humanity Institute at Oxford University, described the work as “a breeze of fresh air blowing over the difficult terrain at the tri-junction of astrobiology, systems science and evolutionary theory”.

However others, including the UK’s astronomer royal, were less convinced. “Given an immense amount of space and time, and the laws of physics and chemistry, an expanding variety of materials, environments and structures will emerge in the inanimate world,” said Prof Martin Rees.

“But I don’t see that this need be a manifestation of any new underlying principle analogous to the role of Darwinian selection via inheritance in the biological world.”

Read the whole story
42 days ago
Share this story

Pity the Landlord

1 Share
The rise of the “mom-and-pop” landlord.
Read the whole story
53 days ago
Share this story

The Siren Song of ‘Gen Z’ Political Branding

1 Share
Gen Z candidate Karoline Leavitt will win GOP primary in New Hampshire's  1st District, CNN projects | CNN Politics

A recent ad announcing his intent to run for Texas’ 18th district—and subsequent massive fundraising haul—shined a media light on “Gen Z” Isaiah Martin. Some responded positively, welcoming Martin’s somewhat vague message that focused on his youth and “defending democracy,” but many online mocked the seemingly vacuous message in his launch. Martin’s “issues” page was notably sparse (and later deleted altogether) on Big Ticket progressive items like Medicare of All and Climate change policy. In the “First Bills to Co-Sponsor” section of his campaign site, Martin listed a congressional resolution titled “Recognizing Israel as America’s Legitimate Democratic Ally”—not particularly a priority for progressives who increasingly oppose Israel’s apartheid regime. 

As Prem Thakker noted at The Intercept, despite Martin’s pitch as a fresh-faced  “Gen Z” politician, his political priorities don’t align with those of Gen Z. And it’s not as if Martin’s relatively conservative politics are some unfortunate political necessity. His district went in the Biden column in 2020 by 3-to-1. And the seat’s current occupant, Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (who is running for mayor of Houston but may still retain the seat), won re-election at a roughly 45-point margin. This is not a Machin-type excuse situation of “we have no choice but to dump on progressive policies, to win over a moderate district.” This is a For the Love of the Game situation. Or, at the very least, a love of big monied corporate and AIPAC donors. 

The Column is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.

“Poll after poll has shown that young people care most about bold climate action, Medicare for All, and other progressive policies,” Aidan Kohn-Murphy and Elise Joshi of the political advocacy group Gen-Z for Change told The Intercept. 

While this is true (polling overwhelmingly shows younger Democrats support more rights-based, robust policy solutions) I think using this as a proxy for what politics those claiming the “Gen Z” label misses the point a bit. The Isaiah Martin affair could be an opportunity to have a bigger discussion about where this type of Generations framing gets us—which I would argue is not that far, and carries risks that may not make this brand of politics worth preserving.

That certain cohorts based on an arbitrary window of when they were born share certain political priorities makes sense on its face. Obviously, a 20 year old will feel the impact of catastrophic climate change, for example, more than, say, a 90 year old. But a white 20 year old, statistically, doesn’t have a lot in common, inherently, with a black 20 year old in terms of health and economic outcomes. A poor 20 year old doesn't have a lot in common, inherently, with a wealthy 20 year old in terms of health and economic outcomes. A queer 20 year old is subject to different forces of discrimination than a non queer 20 year old. A 20 year old woman will suffer different modes of oppression than a man. Generations are a cohort, yes, but they only become useful once one accounts for more meaningful vectors of oppression—class, white supremacy, sexism, anti-LBGTQ currents. And once one qualifies for these other vectors, what’s left is something, but it’s not a lot. 

The idea that that which is youthful is fun and exciting, and that which is old is lame and boring, is a truism as old as advertising. America’s political leadership is, indeed, as old as the wind, but the antidote to this can’t be to use “youth”—in and of itself—as a proxy for something different and exciting. Indeed, this was the primary, and in key ways only, pitch used by some of the US and Britain's most destructive anti-Left politicians of the last 40 years. Bill Clinton’s “third way” New Democrats sold the then-44-year-old Arkansas governor as they did Pepsi, Generation Next. So did then-43-year-old Tony Blair’s handlers when taking on the supposedly old, stoggy Labor Party, which is to say a Labor Party that had ideological fidelity to Labor (so lame and dusty, right?). Then-41-year-old Obama leaned heavily into this dynamic while selling a kinder gentler version of the same neoliberal policies as Clinton. Pete Buttigieg—and the scores of dead-eyed Buttigieg clones currently polishing their resumes and plotting at Georgetown mixers lining up behind him—will no doubt use this same narrative to justify their campaign: a new voice, new face, young, fresh, energetic, new ideas, blah blah. But in the end, none of it really means much. 

Then there’s the corollary problem that our electeds’ various youthful identities don’t predict their politics. How many young, upcoming conservatives in Congress have been found out to be outright fascist weirdos? “I’m Trump but 38” is basically the entire pitch of current GOP primary candidate Vivek Ramaswamy. They’re not a majority, but this framing is so infinitely exploitable it could be used for just about any mode of politics.  

One major problem, I argue, is that the causality is backwards. The forces of capital and conservatism often make our lawmakers old, not the other way around.

What do I mean by this? Politicians who don’t buck power, who don’t take on Corporate America, don’t upset AIPAC, don’t ruffle too many feathers, by definition, will raise more money, are less likely to have well-funded opponents, face less primary challenges, and survive longer. Ilhan Omar (M-5), for example, had to spend $5.6 million in 2020 and $3.1 million in 2022 just to hold on to her seat, despite being very popular, because AIPAC and rightwing billionaires find a new zombie millennial to throw at her every two years. It’s therefore understandable why the average politics-watcher would then equate age with conservatism: They do correlate, but not always for reasons that it may seem. A similar theory has been floated explaining why the voting base writ large is more likely to be conservative as it ages: the rich and white are more likely to be conservative and the rich and white are simply more likely to survive. It doesn’t explain all of the predictive power of age and reactionary politics (sometimes people just grow into petit bourgeois sell-outs, clearly) but it does explain some of it, and it’s a dynamic that I think plays out in the halls of American politics where principled, populist electeds or would be-electeds are routinely weeded out by the profound evolutionary force of our legalized system of bribery.

One topic where I think Generations Politics can be useful is Climate Change, the issue of issues, but even here there are limits and examples of how it can cover for the real authors of our oppression. 

A viral video in 2019 of a then-86-year-old Diane Fienstein telling a dozen minor climate activists to eat shit, understandably, reinforced the narrative of out of touch old electeds: 

But here, too, age discourse risks obscuring more than it elucidates. It’s true, in an abstract sense, that old people have less to lose if the Earth boils. But also elderly people typically do have children and grandchildren and great-grandchildren, and there’s no reason to think, on an institutional level, they’re sociopaths indifferent to their progeny’s deaths, if only for selfish biological reasons. Dismissing (the now deceased) Feinstein as old and moving on avoided more material—and perhaps more useful—motives behind her outburst. As Branko Marcetic noted in his investigation for In These Times, “Feinstein, whose net worth stands at $58.5 million, has been married for nearly 40 years to Richard C. Blum, a wealthy investor who still runs the private equity firm… According to Feinstein’s most recent financial annual report, filed in May 2018 and covering the 2017 calendar year, Blum owns 100 percent of Yosemite Investments LLC, through which he has hundreds of thousands of dollars invested in several fossil fuel companies, some of which he has sold off since the Green New Deal began gaining increasing national attention.” 

The piece would go on to detail Feinstein and Blum’s investments in a mutual fund run by the investment firm of a large methanol producer, a mining company, coal, natural gas and natural gas liquids production and oil sands projects.  

Isn’t this a far more useful framing—the fact that our country is run by venal rich people heavily invested in profiting off destroying the earth—than squishy think pieces about how “older people should listen to the young”? Is there some inherent tension between older and younger people in how urgently they view the climate crisis? Almost certainly. But also, sitting lawmakers and their partners shouldn’t be heavily invested in fossil fuels. And isn’t the latter more material and actionable than nonprofit-ese about “listening” to a vague cohort of “young” people, whatever this means.

But we can discuss both, one may respond. We can discuss the problem of the olds and the venality. Except the problem is we didn’t: Virtually all of the responses to the Feinstein episode centered on the age question. Which is exactly what our multimillionaire electeds want us to focus on, because it’s far less subversive than discussing the institutional, rampant conflict of interests in Congress from campaign financing to stock trading. This is what I mean when I say Generations Politics can obscure more than elucidate, it often takes up oxygen that could be used on more substantive critiques.

When I’ve brought up this criticism of Generations Politics before, it’s been met with genuine anger from some quarters. People of various ages have an emotional attachment to the narrative of Young vs. Old that strikes me as way out of whack with the usefulness and subversive potential as the framework. If Elon Musk, David Gergen, Dave Portnoy, and Tucker Carlson use the line, how useful could it be? 

Well, obviously a politician has to have good politics, but they also should be young. Young people need representation in Congress. I don’t disagree with this. To the extent reasonable, Congress should reflect the demographics of the population. But being young, as Aidan Kohn-Murphy and Elise Joshi of Gen-Z for Change note, isn't a sufficient reason to run for office. Good politics matter first and foremost. But once one accounts for good politics, it’s not clear to me how youth, as such, becomes a meaningful selling point. And if it is, to what extent has it had such a class-flattening, Vibes-Only effect on political narratives that it isn’t a mode of politics worth preserving? How many more young Trump clones, or AIPAC-courting 26-year-old careerists are going to sneak through the door of Generations Politics before we decide to de-emphasize it, or at least heavily qualify it? The Next, Big, Up-and-Coming thing is a Madison Avenue angle as old as PR. If used for good I don’t mind it, but lately it seems it’s used, far more often, to sell the same monied, pro-corporate and stale politics that got us into this mess. And this geriatric millennial thinks, somewhat self-interestedly, that maybe we shouldn’t traffic in this narrative more than minimally necessary.

The Column is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.

Read the whole story
54 days ago
Share this story
Next Page of Stories