Something Eternally Lost

Following a catastrophic fire on 2nd September, the extent of the cultural loss at Brazil’s National Museum is becoming clear:

Folks, there’s nothing left from the Linguistics division. We lost all the indigenous languages collection: the recordings since 1958, the chants in all the languages for which there are no native speakers alive anymore, the Curt Niemuendaju archives: papers, photos, negatives, the original ethnic-historic-linguistic map localizing all the ethnic groups in Brazil, the only record that we had from 1945. The ethnological and archeological references of all ethnic groups in Brazil since the 16th century… An irreparable loss of our historic memory. It just hurts so much to see all in ashes.

—Cinda Gonda, translated by Diogo Almeida, about the fire at Brazil’s National Museum.

This is a very particular kind of loss. An entirely different thing from the death of a person, this is the death of the memory that entire groups of people even existed. Continue reading “Something Eternally Lost”

Fake News Doesn’t Mean What You Think It Means

And now for some pedantry. Today I read two articles that both made the same definitional error.

First: In his new (and by all accounts, important) book Breaking News, Ex-Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger writes:

The germ of the idea had come from the Iraq war and the press’s role in aiding and abetting a conflict based on what now we would call fake news.

Second: In a powerful memoir of his time surviving and fighting in the Warsaw ghetto during the second world war, Stanisław Aronson writes:

The city was full of refugees, and rumours were swirling about mass deportations to gulags in Siberia and Kazakhstan. To calm the situation, a Soviet official gave a speech declaring that the rumours were false – nowadays they would be called “fake news” – and that anyone spreading them would be arrested. Two days later, the deportations to the gulags began, with thousands sent to their deaths.

Both writers take the term ‘fake news’ to mean ‘government misinformation’ but that is most certainly not what the term means. ‘Fake news’ is a very particular type of falsehood—that perpetrated by the media.

We don’t need a neologism for government misinformation. We already have a perfectly good word for that: Lying.

Peter Kimani on The ‘Complicity’ Between Abuser and Abused

Dance of the Jakaranda

There’s an interesting passage in Peter Kimani’s Dance of the Jakaranda about the conspiracy of silence between those who are abused, and their abusers:

One unspoken rule about warfare—some Indian traders instantly recognized this as warfare—is that neither the victim nor the villain is willing to tell what truly happened afterward; the motivation for the former being to minimize the degree of hurt and loss, which intensifies at every bout of recollection; the explanation for the latter being to disguise the full extent to which one’s humanity is diminished by brutalizing others. So the trail of blood left on shop floors was wiped away silently by the women who had lain there spread-eagle—the stream of tears sufficient to wash the drops of blood away—while traders who had lost entire life savings kept under the mattress denied losing more than the day’s collection. Either way, the books were balanced: in one strike, lifetime gains were wiped out, while the inflicted pain left scars that would last a lifetime.

When I interviewed Peter earlier this year I asked him about this. That part of our discussion never made it into the final edit of the interview, so I thought I would publish an edited transcript here. Continue reading “Peter Kimani on The ‘Complicity’ Between Abuser and Abused”

Why Are We Following Panic Brexit?

On the morning of 24th June 2016 I wrote a post on my blog entitled ‘Here’s What We Need To Do Now’.

Here’s What We Need To Do Now

The ‘we’ in that post were the Remainers. I recommended we refrained from moaning about racist, insular Brexiteers and instead adopted a conciliatory attitude. To accept that a bad decision had been made but then endeavour to make withdrawal from the EU work.

None of that happened, of course. Continue reading “Why Are We Following Panic Brexit?”

For Alex Jones, The Slippery Slope Argument Doesn’t Work The Way You Think It Does

Alps from Aiguille du Midi (SW) by Tony Fernandez. Creative Commons licenced photo on Flickr

The news that conspiracy theorist and inciter-to-violence Alex Jones had been simultaneously banned from several social media platforms sparked several days of debate and comment – on both mainstream and social media. At stake were questions about the wisdom and efficacy of such a ban, and the acceptable limits of free speech.

A common argument trotted out in several quarters, including by me, was the ‘slippery slope’ argument. It might seem acceptable to ban someone unpleasant like Alex Jones, but who might they ban next? First they came for Alex Jones, but I was not a dangerous snake-oil salesman, so I did not speak up… Continue reading “For Alex Jones, The Slippery Slope Argument Doesn’t Work The Way You Think It Does”

Two Conceptions of Free Speech in Ancient Athens

I’m really enjoying ‘Clear and Present Danger: The Free Speech Podcast’ hosted by Jacob Mchangama. Its a comprehensive tour of the concept of freedom of expression. It begins in ancient Athens and there are episodes on the Romans, early Christianity, freedom of thought in the Islamic world, and how heresy was persecuted in medieval times.

One crucial piece of information about the concept of freedom of expression, which I think is desperately relevant to our modern debates and disputes, comes in the first episode. Mchangama points out that there are actually two philosophical idea embedded in the Athenian conception of free speech and which drove their democracy. Continue reading “Two Conceptions of Free Speech in Ancient Athens”

Dr Alex Mills on Facebook T&Cs

Back in March, I participated in a round-table discussion hosted by the University College London’s Institute of Advanced Studies, on the subject of defamation. I will post my remarks at some point, but for now (primarily because of a media appearance I made today) I wanted to share a remark made by Dr Alex Mills about the state of Facebook Terms & Conditions.

What you have when you look at Facebook’s community standards is a defamation law that you would write on a postcard if you were trying to explain a sort of version of American defamation law to someone who wasn’t a lawyer.

Continue reading “Dr Alex Mills on Facebook T&Cs”

The Sherwood Syndrome and Deep England

In an Aeon essay on the (surprisingly early) deforestation of England, Hugh Thomson writes this about our national identity:

The myth panders to our need for a sense of loss. There is an undercurrent of regret running through our history. A nostalgia for what could have been: the unicorn disappearing into the trees; the loss of Roman Britain; the loss of Albion; the loss of Empire. We are forever constructing prelapsarian narratives in which a golden sunlit time — the Pax Romana, the Elizabethan golden age, that Edwardian summer before the First World War, a brief moment in the mid-1960s with the Beatles — prefigure anarchy and decay. Or the cutting down of the forest.

One only need look at the near-ecstatic reception given to Danny Boyle’s Olympic rendition of our ‘green and pleasant land’, complete with shire culture and hobbit mounds, to see how easily history elides with mythology. Britons are supremely comfortable with that blurring — with a mythic dimension that adds gravitas to our self-understanding, and that imbues the land with a kind of enchantment, a magical aspect that is echoed in our narratives of how we came to be a nation, but is as illusory as the Arthurian lake from which the Lady’s hand emerges to grasp the sword.

This is a marvellous articulation of the ‘auto-stereotype’ of Deep England that Paul Watson coined earlier this year and which I wrote about in March.

The rest of Thomson’s essay is fascinating and you should read the whole thing. British woodlands were chopped down much earlier than we suppose.


Photo: The South Downs, by yrstrly. Available as a Creative Commons licensed image on Flickr, here.

Mickey Ears

I’ve been at Disneyland Paris this week, and it’s compelling. Every element, whether it is the sight lines, the architecture, or the set dressing in the queuing areas, has been carefully ‘imagined’ to create an immersive experience.

And yet the same time the place is weirdly discordant, because the spaces are too close to their Platonic ideal. The real ‘wild west’ could never have been as co-ordinated and compact as Frontierland; and the actual Paris, just a few miles away, has far less consistent architecture than the Ratatouille-themed Parisian square in Walt Disney Studios.

I think these contradictions are what fuels so many people’s obsession with the Disney theme parks (there are four five, the others being in Los Angeles, Orlando, Tokyo and Hong Kong). That, and the non-trivial logistics required to move and cater for thousands of visitors while staging a daily carnival and a several Broadway calibre song-and-dance shows, seven days a week.

Amid the co-ordination of the cast and the chaos of the crowds, I latched onto an obsession of my own—specifically the way in which an iconic design element can iterate its form and its meaning. I am of course talking about the Mickey Ears. Continue reading “Mickey Ears”

Anger, Contempt, and Constructive Disagreement

Free speech is supposed to be facilitate human progress. In its ideal form, it enables debate and causes us to iterate better political policies, better cultural outputs and a better society.

In reality, the marketplace of ideas, if it exists at all, is corrupt and monopolised by those with money and power.

One aspect of freedom of expression I think about a lot is the way in which disagreements happen. I’ve expressed dismay at how some free speech advocates seem remarkably uninterested in listening to other points of view, and only really care about their own right to offend. And I’ve noted how many spats seem to disintegrate into a competition over who can first reach a place of unassailable piety. Continue reading “Anger, Contempt, and Constructive Disagreement”