Weekend

Required Reading

This week, Jacob Lawrence’s history of the US, interview with the Pence fly, the post-Trump internet, the violence of “dispassionate objectivity,” hijacking #ProudBoys, and more.

Jana Sophia Nolle’s new series, Living Rooms, photographs the shelters of those experiencing houselessness within the dwellings of affluent folks in San Francisco. (Houseless refers to lacking a specific kind of structure, while homeless does not.) More images and info at Colossal (via Colossal and used with permission of the photographer)

But the main point of The Tyranny of Merit is a different one: Sandel is determined to aim a broadside squarely at a left-liberal consensus that has reigned for 30 years. Even a perfect meritocracy, he says, would be a bad thing. “The book tries to show that there is a dark side, a demoralising side to that,” he says. “The implication is that those who do not rise will have no one to blame but themselves.” Centre-left elites abandoned old class loyalties and took on a new role as moralising life-coaches, dedicated to helping working-class individuals shape up to a world in which they were on their own. “On globalisation,” says Sandel, “these parties said the choice was no longer between left and right, but between ‘open’ and ‘closed’. Open meant free flow of capital, goods and people across borders.” Not only was this state of affairs seen as irreversible, it was also presented as laudable. “To object in any way to that was to be closed-minded, prejudiced and hostile to cosmopolitan identities.”

A relentless success ethic permeated the culture: “Those at the top deserved their place but so too did those who were left behind. They hadn’t striven as effectively. They hadn’t got a university degree and so on.” As centre-left parties and their representatives became more and more middle-class, the focus on upward mobility intensified. “They became reliant on the professional classes as their constituency, and in the US as a source of campaign finance. In 2008 Barack Obama became the first Democratic candidate for president to raise more than his Republican opponent. That was a turning point but it wasn’t noticed or highlighted at the time.”

In his rendering of these events as inherently contested and diverse, Lawrence makes central the contributions of women and people of colour. Panel 12 depicts Margaret Cochran Corbin, who manned a cannon with great accuracy in the Battle of Fort Washington in Manhattan, after her husband was killed in action. Panel 18 foregrounds Sacagawea and her brother, rather than Lewis and Clark, whose expedition she helped guide. The artist puts Tecumseh’s Rebellion and a North Carolina slave revolt from 1810 on an equal visual plane with the midnight ride of Paul Revere and the Constitutional Convention. All of these stories, Lawrence suggests, depict struggles against oppression for freedom, even when they contradict each other. Counternarratives abound. Panel 10 reads like an inversion of Emanuel Leutze’s famous monumental canvas, Washington Crossing the Delaware (1851), in that George Washington isn’t leading the charge. Instead of glorifying a single hero, Lawrence gives us anonymous soldiers huddled together in rocking blood-spattered boats, emphasising the violence and sacrifice that made American nation building possible.

As a whole, the series is violent, charged, unified by angular shapes, wedges, vivid earth and jewel tones, weaponry – cannons, bayonets, swords, guns, and blood. The rich colour is owing to layers of rock pigment suspended in egg yolk. Agitated brushstrokes are visible in the dense colour on the hardboard panels. Battle after battle, the artist’s influences are evident: cubism, Picasso’s Guernica, in particular, and Orozco whom he felt was best of Mexican muralists.

  • Anthropologist Tamar Shahinian writes about the violence of “dispassionate objectivity” around the recent Azerbaijani attacks on Nagorno-Karabakh/Artsakh and Armenia:

While journalism is to remain dispassionate and “objective,” there has also been a rallying cry against “fake news.” We might, however, regard writing on war, violence, genocide, and hatred that is not emotionally invested as itself fake news. Not taking a side when there are clear violations of the rights of one group, violations of international humanitarian law, and an outright attack with the intention to destroy and dispossess is to perpetuate a fake sensibility of equality – a fake sensibility of humanity. These forms of fakeness benefit those in power and benefit the perpetrators, who are taken out of the context in which they commit violence and placed in the position of an equal stakeholder in “opinions” or “clashes.”

The political (and economic and social) context of the world today, with the rise of what we might call “illiberal populisms” or just outright fascism, demands more from us than an accounting of all sides. It demands that we feel for what is happening, that we passionately take a side. (It demands this of journalism as well as of the social sciences, I might add.) As producers of knowledge on the world we have a serious responsibility in speaking not in the name of some false objectivity, but in speaking to the truth. And the truth is that there are violators; there are agents of violence and dispossession. The truth is that there are beneficiaries of violence. The truth is that this is interested violence and not “clashes” and not “contest” and not “conflict.” The most objective form of knowledge is to speak to these truths and to remain responsible to the vulnerable, the marginalized, and the dispossessed.

JS: Are there any places in New York that you think are particularly sacred or, on the other hand, places you think are particularly “infected”?

NJ: Right now, all of New York is particularly infected. Unfortunately, we are dealing right now with the pandemic. We’ve been fortunate in some ways in that the politicians that are centered around New York City, the mayor and the governor, have at least handled the pandemic as well as they could, considering the federal government is effectively antagonistic towards people surviving this. And at least that New York spirit of cooperation, for the most part, is happening.

This is a city where, when there’s a blackout, people jump out in the street and play traffic cop because otherwise nobody will ever get home, or where, after 9/11, New Yorkers just spontaneously showed up and tried to help to the degree that they could. Yeah, people will curse you out in a heartbeat, but they will also bend over backward to try and help you figure out where you’re going if you’re lost. That is as much a part of New York — the altruism and the beauty and the competence and the kindness — as the rudeness and all of the things that popular culture likes to latch onto.

New York is a symbol, and that’s literally what I was talking about in the book. New York has reached the point where it has meaning far beyond just a city. We have seen this throughout the pandemic. Florida’s kind of sneering that “we’re not New York,” as they deliberately institute procedures that have led to the uptick that is showing no signs of slowing down of Covid cases in their state. They did it almost in defiance of the fact that New York was doing distancing measures. That is just simply because we became a useful tool at that point, and that is the nature of New York as well.

Greer is very familiar with how political activism can be swept up in platform moderation efforts. In May, trying to draw attention to an upcoming congressional reauthorization of the Patriot Act, Greer posted a Vice News story about it, in which she was quoted, on Facebook. “When I logged on last night I saw something I had never seen before,” she wrote later, “a notification that read ‘Partly false information found in your post by independent fact checkers.’” At first, she thought it was a glitch. It turned out that Greer’s post was flagged because of a USA Today fact-check. The news outlet was a member of Facebook’s third-party fact-checking program, a response to demands that it deal with rampant misinformation on the platform. The “partly false” tag resulted from a fact-check of an entirely separate post from a Libertarian Facebook group on the same vote; that USA Today fact-check (“Claim: 37 senators ‘voted for federal agencies to have access to your internet history without obtaining a warrant’ … Our ruling: Partly false”) was then appended to Greer’s post, implying that the Vice News story was partly false, too. (The issue appeared pretty minor: The Senate had voted not to vote on an amendment, rather than voting “for” something outright.)

After Facebook flagged Greer’s post, anyone who had shared it would see the same notice, overlaying the preview of the article. The fact-checker overstepped, she wrote, but there was no official process for appeal. There is an unofficial one: When the same thing happened to anti-choice activist Lila Rose, after she posted a video falsely claiming that abortion is never medically necessary, she complained on Twitter. Senator Hawley wrote a letter to Facebook complaining. Facebook removed the notification, far from the only time it has caved to right-wing pressure.

“Many of the people that are most harmed by the collateral damage of content moderation are people without a lot of power,” Greer told me, like Muslims whose content gets caught up in filtering tools allegedly targeting “terrorism” content, as well as LGBTQ people and sex workers who get flagged as “adult” content. Liberals and people on the left need to exercise caution when making demands about content moderation, said Greer, given who has been harmed by such calls already. “Those people’s speech doesn’t seem to be very important to nonprofits in D.C. who just want to score points against Trump, and that really worries me .… They could end up paving the way for censorship of those marginalized voices if they aren’t taking those concerns seriously.”

TR: Wait … how do you listen to music?

FLY: Spotifly.

TR: Makes sense. Anyway, why did you decide to come to the debate? And why did you land on Mike Pence’s hair and not Kamala Harris’?

FLY: Nigga, are you crazy? Do you know what a Black woman will do if you mess up her hair? I don’t play with my life like that! Plus, Sen. Harris is a member of Alpha Kappa Alpha.

TR: Oh, you were scared she was going to do that head shake thing that AKAs do? I can see how that could be scary.

FLY: Nah, that’s not it. I’m a member of Alpha Fly Alpha, so I wouldn’t bother my sister like that. It’s just a respect thing. Also, I need to clear something up:

That wasn’t my first time meeting Mike Pence. We go way back to when he was governor of Indiana and he refused to prosecute the unjust execution of my cousin.

And this ide­ol­o­gy is being used to mobi­lize a large base ahead of a cru­cial elec­tion. In mid-Octo­ber, the orga­ni­za­tion will be show­ing its new doc­u­men­tary ​Nev­er Again?” in 800 the­aters — in addi­tion to church­es — across the coun­try, a move that crit­ics say is like­ly aimed, at least in part, at encour­ag­ing U.S. church­go­ers to sup­port Trump. As Hagee and oth­er Chris­t­ian Zion­ists have used their perch­es to mobi­lize sup­port for Trump, the pres­i­dent has show­ered them with pol­i­cy wins, from the mov­ing of the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem to vio­lent bel­liger­ence towards Iran. Dur­ing an intense elec­tion sea­son that has been upend­ed by news of Trump’s Covid-19 diag­no­sis, it is impos­si­ble to ful­ly grasp the con­tours of the 2020con­test, or the glob­al role of the Unit­ed States under Trump, with­out under­stand­ing this pow­er­ful polit­i­cal force.

What’s under­re­port­ed is the mas­sive size of the Chris­t­ian Zion­ist vot­ing bloc and how much Trump is rely­ing on it as a prospect to retake the White House,” says Ste­fanie Fox, the exec­u­tive direc­tor of Jew­ish Voice for Peace Action (JVP Action), a nation­al orga­ni­za­tion that oppos­es the Israeli occu­pa­tion. ​That has been the rea­son and ratio­nale for Trump’s very promi­nent anti-Pales­tin­ian agen­da from day one.”

And Trump took advantage of “three core standard practices of professional journalism” to drive the disinformation campaign.

These three are: elite institutional focus (if the President says it, it’s news); headline seeking (if it bleeds, it leads); and balance, neutrality, or the avoidance of the appearance of taking a side. He uses the first two in combination to summon coverage at will, and has used them continuously to set the agenda surrounding mail-in voting through a combination of tweets, press conferences, and television interviews on Fox News. He relies on the latter professional practice to keep audiences that are not politically pre-committed and have relatively low political knowledge confused, because it limits the degree to which professional journalists in mass media organizations are willing or able to directly call the voter fraud frame disinformation. The president is, however, not acting alone. Throughout the first six months of the disinformation campaign, the Republican National Committee (RNC) and staff from the Trump campaign appear repeatedly and consistently on message at the same moments, suggesting an institutionalized rather than individual disinformation campaign. The efforts of the president and the Republican Party are supported by the right-wing media ecosystem, primarily Fox News and talk radio functioning in effect as a party press. These reinforce the message, provide the president a platform, and marginalize or attack those Republican leaders or any conservative media personalities who insist that there is no evidence of widespread voter fraud associated with mail-in voting.

Required Reading is published every Saturday, and it is comprised of a short list of art-related links to long-form articles, videos, blog posts, or photo essays worth a second look.

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