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Archive for the 'Author Postings' Category

Tuesday, April 22nd, 2014

Live Video, Then and Now — Michael Z. Newman

Video Revolutions: On the History of a Medium, by Michael Z. Newman

The following post is by Michael Z. Newman, author of Video Revolutions: On the History of a Medium:

“The non-linearity of videotape, digital recording, and services like Netflix and its rivals also speak to a long-standing fantasy, of media that satisfy personal desires for unconstrained agency.”—Michael Newman

Today there are two contrary trends in media temporality, which are also two competing visions for the future of entertainment. On one hand is the persistence of broadcast television, the most popular and profitable electronic media format ever. Many people and corporations would love for this kind of TV to go on unchanged forever. On the other hand is what Netflix calls non-linear TV, which follows no schedule. Think thirteen House of Cards episodes dropping all at once. The techies who speak in phrases like “disruptive innovation” are betting their venture capital that non-linear is going to be a live TV killer.

Since I have no time machine, I shouldn’t say which future is around the corner. But having looked at the history leading up to this moment in Video Revolutions, I do have some thoughts on how the past might help us to make sense of the present, and to recognize that the temporalities of both options have historically been invested with cultural value. Since ideas about technology tend to be much slower to change than technologies themselves, it seems like a good bet that the value of mediated liveness will endure.

When television was new, it was often distinguished by its capability for live broadcasting gathering audiences together, despite their physical separation, in communal experiences of performances and events of historical import. TV was to transport you from your comfortable chair at home to the stage or the ballpark, from your town to midtown Manhattan. This capability for immediacy and simultaneity made TV into the object of fantasies of improved communication. It also distinguished television from the most dominant mass medium of the first half of the twentieth century: the movies.

Liveness was an advantage broadcasting boasted over filmed news and entertainment, an advantage the commercial American networks used in setting the terms of their control of the airwaves under the sanction of the state. This might seem hard to believe today, but in the 1940s and 50s, movies were often held to be contemptible mass media trash, while the new medium of television promised to rise above them by offering a distinguished alternative.

This idealization of television and its close identification with liveness changed as TV’s cultural status declined and cinema’s improved. In part this was a function of TV’s adoption of recorded rather than live formats, though live production has never gone away. It was also a function of many other developments, including television’s quiz show scandals and more generally its reputation for fraudulence, and its close association with feminized and lower class audiences. When television’s reputation was that of a “vast wasteland,” sometimes the liveness of its early years, now considered a “Golden Age,” offered a contrast to the more culturally degraded kinds of programming that dominated in the 1960s and after.

In the early days of TV, video was a synonym for television, but the introduction of videotape in the 1950s began to change that. When video became a name for new forms and technologies, including video art and videocassettes for consumers, it was typically understood as a way of improving on television and ameliorating the problems associated with it, such as negative social effects and wasted cultural opportunity. This was often presented to the public as a solution to the problem of television’s control by the commercial networks who program a broadcast schedule of shows appealing most broadly, to satisfy sponsors and avoid trouble with them or the federal regulator. Video recording for the home, for instance, was presented as the liberation of ordinary viewers from the hegemony of the network programmer. Advertisements encouraged TV viewers: “make your own schedule” and “watch whatever whenever.” These were slogans for Sony’s Betamax in the mid-1970s. This notorious commercial for TiVo, which CBS refused to air a generation later (in 2000), makes the exact same appeal. You throw the network programmer out of the window and take his place as the one in control of your own viewing.

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Wednesday, April 9th, 2014

The EU: A Dictatorship of Freedoms (Part 2) — Albena Azmonova

Albena Azmanova

The following is part two of a post by Albena Azmanova, author of The Scandal of Reason: A Critical Theory of Political Judgment. You can read the first half of the post here.

“The grievances against austerity that are now being expressed in street protests and in voting booths are the grievances of distressed consumers; not of citizens demanding structural changes to the political economy of democratic capitalism.”—Albena Azmanova

THE STATE: MORE POWERFUL, LESS RESPONSIBLE, INVARIABLY LEGITIMATE

Albena AzmanovaHow has the coup d’économie managed to transform Europe into a Dictatorship of the Four Economic Freedoms? Above all, by altering the role of political authority in Europe. Public authority (at all levels of governance) has undertaken ever more policy action to intensify wealth-production, but less and less action to manage the social costs of growth-generating public policy. This is particularly evident with regard to social policy in the European Union.

EU integration has reduced the policy-making powers of member-states in welfare provision, while EU institutions, over the past decade, have increasingly started to taken action in this field. This shifting balance between member-states and the EU in itself is not alarming; it is not even interesting. The important question is not where policy-making authority is allocated, but what type of social policy ensues from the re-allocation of responsibility between states and EU’s central policy-making bodies. In this regard, three elements are noteworthy.

First: in the course of shifting responsibility from state to EU level, there is less and less public authority in charge of welfare provision. This is the case because the retrenchment of the state is not matched by an equal increase of policy action at EU level. In other words, what the states are losing in terms of capacity to secure social rights is not matched by an equal increase in the responsibility of the EU to safeguard these rights.

Second: since the adoption of the Single European Act, economic integration within the EU has been invariably interpreted in the terms of free-market capitalism (while in principle open markets are not synonymous with free markets).

This has resulted in a radically liberal form of welfare provision: one marked by subordination of social policy to free-market policy priorities, a race to the bottom in social protection.

Overall the range and nature of the responsibility of public authority has changed, which has affected the style of governance. At both state and EU level, public authority is undertaking ever more action to enhance market efficiency (for the sake of global competitiveness), with dramatic increase in social risk, but this same public authority has ceased to assume responsibility for the generated risk. Rather than a retrenchment of the state, we have the new phenomenon of increase in the power of governing bodies (and their capacity to inflict social harm), while their responsibility for the social consequences of policy action decreases. This discrepancy between power and responsibility is damaging for societies, as the exercise of power becomes ever more autocratic, even if all rituals of democratic politics are meticulously performed.

Arguably, the discrepancy between power and responsibility should be eroding the authority of states, as Richard Sennett has argued. This, in turn, could be expected to trigger a legitimation crisis of the system, and massive revolts. Yet, no such crisis has so far ensued, apart from the wave of largely peaceful popular protests in the course of 2011-2012 whose main theme is resistance to the politics of austerity, rather than change of the political economy of Europe away from neoliberal capitalism.

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Tuesday, April 8th, 2014

The EU: A Dictatorship of Freedoms (Part 1) — Albena Azmonova

Albena Azmanova

The following is part one of a post by Albena Azmanova, author of The Scandal of Reason: A Critical Theory of Political Judgment. We will post part two tomorrow. Azmanova will be speaking at The New School tonight at 6 pm.

“This almighty raison d’économie leaves no options: it is policymaking without politics, without ideological choices, it allows no alternatives”—Albena Azmanova

Albena AzmonovaJudging by this poster advertising the play “Europe Today,” something is amiss in Europe.

The European Union’s fate has been, of late, rather more bewailed and bemoaned, than celebrated. The most ominous pronouncement of Europe’s sorry fate have centered on the rise of technocratic rule riding high on the will of markets in what Margaret Thatcher called the TINA logic (borrowing from Herbert Spenser)—There Is No Alternative. The emergency appointments by EU authorities of two heads of European governments (Lucas Papandreou in Greece and Mario Monti in Italy) in November 2011, and tasking the newly appointed leaders to enforce (rather than negotiate) policies of austerity in their countries, does add fresh credence to the idea.

We seem to thus have lost our basic right to politics—that is, to the reasoned contest among alternative ideas about the shape of our present and the contours of our future, sacrificing it at the altar of the hegemonic common-sense of free markets aided by bureaucracies, while altogether preserving the democratic institutional order.

THE MISSING CRISIS OF CAPITALISM AND THE “NEW DEAL”

What is the evidence that something is amiss in the nature of European politics? The broadly proclaimed, yet missing, crisis of capitalism can serve as an empirical entry point into a diagnosis of Europe’s current malaise. In the midst of the recent global financial meltdown, we have heard much emphatic talk about the crisis of capitalism. However, what narratives about this crisis tell us is no more than that the financialization of the economy has created a crisis for capitalism—some difficulties in the creation of profit (such as deficient credit) which have been by now been overcome. Moreover, these difficulties, and the social misery they have inflicted, have not triggered a crisis of the system’s legitimacy. “We are not against the system but the system is against us,”, announced a slogan of the indignados—the peaceful demonstrators that who occupied public spaces across Spain in the early summer of 2011. Yet this cry of protest is ambiguous—it is more an appeal to tame the system, make it more inclusive, rather than to subvert or overthrow it.

Like the protests of the Spanish indignados, the citizens’ outrage in Greece against the conditions that the EU and the IMF imposed for the financial bailout of the government, the Occupy Wall Street movements, and the looting that ravaged English cities – all in the summer and autumn of 2011 – have signaled a growing popular discontent with the outcomes of the socio-political system – mainly with the dramatically uneven allocation of wealth and increasing social exclusion. However, while these movements express, in their distinct ways, public frustration with the socio-economic system of neoliberal capitalism, they rarely put into question its validity or evoke an alternative. These calls are at their best appeals for ‘fixing’ the system and making it more inclusive, and, at their worst, – exasperated cries of frustration and fear. If democratic elections are any indicator of prevailing preferences, the most recent round of national elections in Europe have confirmed that capitalism has considerable popular support. In the midst of the rampant economic crisis, the vote in Europe has gone to the right;, support to left parties has been at a historic low, while support to xenophobic populism is rising.

Most importantly, what is absent is a broad societal, cross-ideological coalition of forces mobilizing to protect society from the market, similar to the counter-movement against free markets that Carl Polanyi, in his The Great Transformation, observed to be taking shape in the early twentieth century. At the time, a consensus between the left and the right emerged on the need to constrain markets, a consensus which propelled the post-war welfare states. Instead, we now have governments, irrespectively of their ideological allegiance, running to the rescue of financial capital and big business, and implementing austerity programs to reassure capital markets, while society bears this with relative equanimity, despite the increasing price it is paying in terms of cuts to social insurance, to basic services for the most disadvantaged, general impoverishment and growing precarity. Social frustration is, instead, directed mainly into xenophobia. How can this be explained?

While we have been busy debating the crisis of capitalism, capitalist democracy (as a system of social relations and political rules) has metamorphosed itself into a new form, which the most recent economic meltdown consolidated, but did not cause. This new form is marked by a “new deal”—a new social contract (or legitimacy relationship) between public authority and citizens, which enables a particular style of rule, which I will attempt now to elucidate. Before I proceed, let me clarify the concept of a legitimacy relationship between public authority and citizens, which will be a focal point in the subsequent analysis of Europe’s political health.

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Monday, April 7th, 2014

Fashioning Appetite — Joanne Finkelstein

The following post by Joanne Finkelstein, author of Fashioning Appetite: Restaurants and the Making of Modern Identity, was first published on The I.B. Tauris Blog:

Fashioning Appetitle, Joanne FinkelsteinEvaluating one another’s taste is an ordinary aspect of everyday social life. We look for signs of taste in high fashion goods and social habits. This encourages us to speak to one another through material objects, and even though the definition of taste is constantly shifting, we use it to display who are think we are.

“A person of taste is someone who looks at a sausage and thinks of Picasso” (Dwight MacDonald 1944: 22). This pithy definition of taste was an ironic comment on the newly affluent post-war classes who were struggling with emerging art movements in painting, cinema and literature. The concern with fashionable styles of living was capturing the hearts and minds of the aspirational classes. Mid-twentieth century was an era of tightening conformity and judging people by their lifestyle habits was becoming the prevailing order. Russell Lynes (1949) famously defined taste along three dimensions—highbrow, lowbrow and middlebrow. He employed the antique notions of human physiognomy made popular by Johann Caspar Lavater in the eighteenth century to describe these positions. For Lavater, facial features revealed human qualities; low ears suggested criminality, thick lips were a sign of dissipation and a high forehead indicated intelligence and social superiority. Lynes adapted the metaphor to describe types of taste. Highbrow taste was expressed through well-fashioned appetites.

There was a deep irony in this: after exterminating millions across Europe on the basis of race and ethnicity, the new social order was describing taste and social value using eugenic concepts. This time around, however, the revolution was bloodless. Taste as a measure of human worth was not a killing offense but it was a cause of status panic across the newly affluent classes. According to C.W.Mills (1951) these groups were caught in a constant re-positioning of themselves within an ever-shifting mobile hierarchy defined by fashions, fads and foibles. In the post war era, social ranking was not only based on material possessions such as cars, furniture, art and household goods but also on signs of cultural capital produced by travel, leisure and luxury, and whether indeed individuals could see the influence of Pablo Picasso in the prosaic sausage.

Taste has been a contested idea since the seventeenth century yet it has endured into the present as a means of categorizing people and their habits (Bourdieu 1984: 2). How we handle objects and instruments such as cups and saucers, knives and forks, the habits and styles we develop for eating, drinking, standing and moving, have imposed a mannered overlay on the body and, to those watching our deftness with such objects, this is read as indicative of personal attributes. We see instances of mastery, or lack of them, in displays of individual competency and discernment. The raised pinkie finger holding the teacup and the unclipped vent on the new Burberry raincoat both signal the parvenu.

Taste brings attention to different types of desire. Pursuing an experience for its own sake because it is pleasing or reassuring or elevating, and pursuing a desire in order to gratify it and make it disappear, are two different impulses. The former involves detachment, of being able to recognize value in an idea without it having an immediate application, thus we enjoy art for its own sake; the latter is a more active process, a type of hunger, in which the desirable experience needs to be devoured and captured in order to nullify its insistence. Food, for example, can be both; it can be valued for its aesthetic qualities as well as being good to taste, a life-sustaining fuel. It has appeal as the subject for still life painting, as in the masterpieces of Carravaggio and Luis Meléndez, and it can be treated as a convenience as with the early modern chophouse and now with the food court in the local shopping mall.

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Thursday, April 3rd, 2014

The Story of James Kofi Annan

Survivors of Slavery

This week our featured book is Survivors of Slavery: Modern-Day Slave Narratives by Laura T. Murphy. Throughout the week, we will be featuring content about the book and its author on our blog as well as on our Twitter feed and our Facebook page. Today, we are focusing on the story of James Kofi Annan, a former child slave in Ghana and the founder of the nonprofit organization Challenging Heights.

First, we have a video of James Kofi Annan accepting the 2011 Young Innovator for Social Justice Prize at Grinnell College, and in his acceptance speech, explaining the practice of modern slavery in Ghana and his personal experiences escaping from it:

Next, we have an excerpt from Survivors of Slavery in which James Kofi Annan writes “the story of his life”:

Wednesday, April 2nd, 2014

Survivors of Modern Slavery Speak

Survivors of Slavery

This week our featured book is Survivors of Slavery: Modern-Day Slave Narratives by Laura T. Murphy. Throughout the week, we will be featuring content about the book and its author on our blog as well as on our Twitter feed and our Facebook page. Today, we have a guest post from Laura T. Murphy, “Survivors of Modern Slavery Speak.”

Survivors of Modern Slavery Speak
Laura T. Murphy

This month, the Urban Institute released a government-funded report on “Estimating the Size and Structure of the Underground Commercial Sex Economy in Eight Major US Cities” (check out their interactive feature, “The Hustle” as well). The report attempts to describe human trafficking by the numbers, providing the data that begins to answer the question that so many people ask: “How serious is human trafficking in the United States?”

The researchers interviewed sex traffickers, pimps, sex workers, child pornographers, prosecutors, and federal law enforcement agents to determine how big the profits are for human trafficking in seven U.S. cities. What they found was that pimps make between $5,000 and $32,833 a week. And the underground sex economy accounted for between $39.9 and $290 million dollars, depending on which city is raking in the bucks. The Urban Institute provided the data that cities governments and non-profits have been seeking to be able to justify exerting energy and expending resources to try to slow down the most exploitative sectors of the sex trade. Furthermore, the interviews conducted revealed widespread physical and psychological abuse within the industry.

What the Urban Institute research shows us is that listening carefully to the voices of those involved in trafficking is integral to better addressing the issue in all its complexity. Even as we demand better records and more data on the sex trade and other forms of trafficking, those numbers can only give us an abstract portrait of the industry. (more…)

Thursday, March 20th, 2014

Relativity in Education — Jeffrey Bennett

The following post is by Jeffrey Bennett, author of What Is Relativity?: An Intuitive Introduction to Einstein’s Ideas, and Why They Matter

Jeffrey Bennett, What Is Relativity?Black holes don’t suck. It’s a point I’ve emphasized to students for decades, and I even considered it as a possible title for my book at one point. So why, then, do so many people assume that a spaceship passing near a black hole would get “sucked in,” or that transforming the Sun into a black hole would cause Earth and the other planets to be sucked in?

It’s an interesting question, because the answer tells us something about our system of science education. Society and public knowledge have changed dramatically in many ways since Einstein published his general theory of relativity in 1915. Consider, for example, that in 1915: Flight was only a few years old, automobiles were still rare, antibiotics were decades from discovery, life expectancy was decades shorter than today, and women still did not have the right to vote in U.S. national elections. But at least one thing has not changed: Most people today still assume space and time to be just as fixed and independent as did our ancestors, even though we are approaching the 100th anniversary of Einstein’s theory that showed otherwise.

It may seem that no one is harmed by this lack of public understanding, but I’d argue otherwise. For example, I believe that all human beings live their lives according to a world view with which they see their place in the world and universe, and this in turn makes it seem important to have a world view that is consistent with reality. And reality, as it turns out, is the real topic of Einstein’s theory of relativity, because it is the theory that describes our current understanding of space, time, and gravity. As such, it provides the foundation of almost all of modern physics and astronomy, which means it tells us how the universe — our reality — actually works. I’d be exaggerating only slightly if I said that knowing something about relativity is as important to having a true “cosmic perspective” as recognizing that Earth is a planet going around the Sun rather than the center of the universe.

Relativity is also a great way to introduce students (and the public) to the way in which science works, and to the real meaning of a scientific theory. In fact, relativity is arguably our best example of how one theory (in this case Newton’s theory of gravity) can be replaced by another (Einstein’s general theory of relativity) without the first one being “wrong.” In this case, relativity expanded the range of situations in which we can calculate gravitational effects, but still gives essentially the same answers as Newton’s earlier theory of gravity for most situations. In my opinion, there’s no better way to explain the nature of scientific evidence and the means by which we test hypotheses until the evidence becomes strong enough to consider them theories. I suspect that if we taught this example in schools, we’d be able to build upon it to quiet much of the public debate that arises over other scientific topics, including evolution and climate change.

(more…)

Thursday, March 13th, 2014

LINCOLN: Sacrifice, Family, and Politics

Finding Ourselves at the Movies: Philosophy for a New Generation, Paul W. Kahn

As part of our ongoing feature of Paul W. Kahn’s Finding Ourselves at the Movies, we’re delighted to share a guest post from the author himself on Steven Spielberg’s 2012 film Lincoln. Don’t forget to enter our book giveaway for a chance to win a free copy of Finding Ourselves at the Movies!

Lincoln: Sacrifice, Family, and Politics

Had my writing of Finding Ourselves at the Movies extended over one more year, Steve Spielberg’s Lincoln would no doubt have had a central place in my discussion of the narrative of politics that we find in American films. I would have placed a discussion of the film alongside that of Gran Torino, which places an act of sacrificial love at the foundation of law. Lincoln too is about sacrifice and love at the foundation of the state. To see this, we must look past the film’s immediate focus on low politics. To secure House passage of the bill making way for the 13th Amendment, prohibiting slavery, Lincoln was not above trading patronage positions for votes. We also see that he could be less than honest, as in his representation of southern peace overtures. To be sure the use of political tactics to pursue principled ends raises interesting questions, but the meaning of the film does not lie in this direction.

Lincoln is a great example of the first rule of American film: There is no political movie that is not also a film about family. A disturbance in the political order is a disturbance in the familial order – and vice versa. We cannot say whether Lincoln is a film about family or state. The crossing of the familial and the political is the meaning of the White House – both family residence and office – a theme beautifully illustrated in Lincoln’s late night wanderings.

This theme is powerfully portrayed in the subplot involving the radical Republican, Thaddeus Stevens. Stevens, who had spent 30 years fighting for racial equality, must compromise his rhetoric to obtain passage of the bill. He restrains himself to the disappointment of his radical followers, but he succeeds politically. In the only truly surprising moment in the film, he returns home, bill in hand, to share the event with his black housekeeper, who is also his lover and companion. The political and the familial are inseparable.

Political and familial success should go hand in hand for Lincoln too. Instead, he is assassinated. We do see, after passage of the bill, a moment of domestic happiness, as President and wife dream of future travels. It never happens. There is no family recovery, but only endless pain at the death of husband, father, President.

Lincoln’s death represents the great unsettled moment in American history. Without family reconciliation, there is no political reconciliation. Reconstruction fails; we continue to live with many of the same divisions of race and region at issue in the War. Lincoln’s assassination is the rend in the fabric of American life.

The greatness of the film, and its deepest lesson, is in the portrayal of Lincoln as a figure of love. He is, in Thadeus Stevens’s words, “the purest man in American politics.” From the opening scene in which Lincoln speaks with black and white soldiers, to his constant companionship with his young son, to his conversations with an ex-slave, to his visit to a hospital, he is a figure of overwhelming compassion. He quite literally touches all those with whom he comes in contact. This man of amazing oratory is also a man of extraordinary love.

Lincoln is, of course, the American figure of Christ. He speaks in parables, loves the least among us, embraces the enemy, and takes on to himself the nation’s pain. Like Christ, he suffers the paradox that for his faith endless numbers will kill and be killed. Love makes sacrifice possible. Lincoln knows this as the unbearable pain of the war that he must bear for the sake of the nation. The Civil War marks American politics as tragedy; Lincoln personifies that tragedy of love and sacrifice.

Love is at the center of Lincoln, and it is here that we can truly learn something about ourselves. The film constantly moves between the familial and the political, between inner life and outer practice. The family is the site of an inner pain no less grievous than the pain of the battlefield. Lincoln and Mary bear the unspeakable pain of the loss of a child, just like every other family touched by this war. The message is unmistakable: there is no line to be drawn between the family and the polity for both are expressions of love. Every soldier who dies for his country is a loss to a family. We must love the state, if we are to bear the sacrifice our loved ones. The success of the film suggests that this is a story that Americans want to hear: Ours is a project that is worthy of sacrifice because it is a project of love. Lincoln is the face of that love.

We will miss this point if we think the 13th Amendment is about a theory of equality or that liberal politics is about keeping the government out of our private lives. Before we can have a government, we must have a state; before we can apply a theory, we must have a community. To have either, we must be bound to each other. Americans believe – or want to believe – that the ties that bind us are elements of our very being. Lincoln speaks to a common faith that these are ties of love, and that for this love we will give everything.

Can we translate love into a political program? Because the American love of nation is a sacrificial love, war has occupied much of our history. The narrative of sacrifice often comes easier than a political program of charity. Yet, the final words of the film – Lincoln’s words – are precisely on point: “With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on . . . to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.” Lincoln’s words call us still to heal the nation’s divisions. He left us no instruction book, and the film offers none. Lincoln shows us the stakes, but the burden of politics is our own.

Wednesday, March 5th, 2014

India’s Etiquette Police — A Post by Peter Heehs

“Should a historian or biographer writing about a religion or religious figure follow the protocol of the temple or of the university?”—Peter Heehs

The following post is by Peter Heehs, author of The Lives of Sri Aurobindo:

Peter HeehsIn the beginning of February, Penguin India reached an out of court settlement with a man who had filed a criminal complaint against the company for publishing Wendy Doniger’s The Hindus: An Alternative History. Penguin agreed to withdraw the title and pulp all unsold copies. For the remainder of the month, the affair was widely discussed in the Indian and foreign press. Public intellectuals bemoaned yet another strike against freedom of speech in India; religious conservatives, who hope for gains in the coming national elections, crowed that this was just the beginning. (On March 1, news sources reported that the same complainant has threatened legal action against another of Doniger’s books.)

The Doniger affair caught my attention for personal as well as intellectual reasons. The release of the Indian edition of my book The Lives of Sri Aurobindo, published in May 2008, was blocked by a temporary injunction that November, and still has not appeared. Since then I have had to contest two criminal cases (both stayed) and one civil suit demanding my deportation (dismissed). When I looked at a copy of the complaint against Doniger’s book, it all seemed terribly familiar: the ad hominem attacks; the misreading of inoffensive statements; the cloaking of personal vendetta in legal language.

The complainant in the Doniger case averred that her book was “riddled with heresies and factual inaccuracies,” but by my count only two of the thirty-three points he itemized dealt with matters of fact, and in both the problem was imprecision rather than inaccuracy. Of the other thirty-one points, fifteen were theological: statements about sacred texts or readings of passages that many orthodox Hindus would not accept. Six were political: negative remarks about socio-political organizations that the complainant held in high esteem. The remaining ten had to do with approach, tone, and taste. The complainant claimed that Doniger’s treatment was selective (she acknowledged this in the book); betrayed a Christian, anti-Hindu bias (she is a non-observant Jew); and demonstrated that she is obsessed with sex (she admits her professional interest in the subject).

I’d like to take this a little further and suggest that all of Doniger’s “inaccuracies and heresies” are actually perceived lapses of taste. She and other writers who books have been challenged have fallen afoul of India’s Etiquette Police. In using the term “etiquette,” I do not mean to trivialize the matter. Anthropologists and sociologists take questions of social protocol very seriously because people in the societies they study take them seriously. Protocol governs the social life of Manhattan offices as much as that of Amazonian villages. In India, I have found, the rules of etiquette are more elaborate than those I learned in the United States. The fixed laws of caste are gone (at least in urban public spaces), but not the unwritten laws governing the relations of juniors and seniors, females and males, outsiders and insiders. Doniger, I and other victims of the Etiquette Police (Indian as well as Western) are viewed by our critics as uncouth boors trying to gatecrash a ceremonial space.

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Tuesday, March 4th, 2014

Mark Taylor on Recovering Place

“Paradoxically, the more pervasive and invasive Google Earth, GPS and customized apps become, the less we know where we are. And when we don’t know where we are, we don’t know who we are.”—Mark Taylor

Recovering Place, Mark C. TaylorThe following post is by Mark C. Taylor, most recently the author of Recovering Place: Reflections on Stone Hill:

Place is disappearing. The accelerating intersection of globalization, virtualization and cellularization is transforming the world and human life at an unprecedented rate. The fascination with speed for speed’s sake is creating a culture of distraction in which thoughtful reflection and contemplation are all but impossible. These developments are driven by new information and networking technologies that have created a form of global capitalism in which, as Karl Marx predicted, “all that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned.” As processes of globalization expand, localization contracts until place virtually disappears in a homogenous space that is subject to constant surveillance and regulation.

While science and technology are literally changing the face of the earth, it is rarely noted that modern and postmodern art prepared the way for this grand transformation. Modernism’s veneration of speed, mobility, abstraction and the new combines with postmodernism’s play with free-floating signs that are backed by nothing other than other signs to prefigure the virtualization of life that occurs when the tensions of temporality vanish in the apparent simultaneity of so-called “real time.” Paradoxically, the more pervasive and invasive Google Earth, GPS and customized apps become, the less we know where we are. And when we don’t know where we are, we don’t know who we are.

While new information, networking and media technologies have undeniable benefits, they also bring losses that should not be overlooked. The guiding thesis of Recovering Place: Reflections on Stone Hill is that globalization, virtualization, and cellularization result in the disappearance of place and the eclipse of what once seemed real. While these processes appear liberating to many people, they are often profoundly destructive of human relationships as well as the natural world. My wager is that by pausing to dwell on and in a particular place we might once again know who we are by rediscovering where we are. This is not an exercise in nostalgia but rather a deliberate attempt to fathom various sedimentations surrounding us that might harbor alternative futures that would allow us to recover ourselves by recovering place. But what is place? Where is place? How does placing occur?

I have been exploring these questions in my teaching and writing for more than four decades. As the processes of dematerialization, virtualization, and globalization have accelerated, I have been drawn once again to the material, the real, and the local. Recovering Place: Reflections on Stone Hill is the third work in a trilogy that includes Refiguring the Spiritual: Beuys, Barney, Turrell, Goldsworthy and Rewiring the Real: In Conversation with William Gaddis, Richard Powers, Mark Danielewski, and Don DeLillo. In these books, I return to what has been left behind but does not disappear to imagine the looming future, which harbors the prospect of either exceptional creativity or unprecedented destruction.

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Wednesday, February 19th, 2014

The Olympics, Large Sporting Events, and Recalibrating the Discussion on Human Trafficking (It’s Not Just For Sex, People) — Stephanie Hepburn

The following post is by Stephanie Hepburn, coauthor of Human Trafficking Around the World: Hidden in Plain Sight:

Human Trafficking Around the World, Stephanie HepburnIn preparation for the Winter Olympics this month and the Paralympic Games in March, Russia has spent an estimated (U.S.) $51 billion transforming the coastal town of Sochi and the neighboring Caucasus Mountains. Construction has included an Olympic stadium, a village for athletes, arenas, visitor accommodation, a media center, modern transportation and telecommuting systems, and hotels. These projects required tens of thousands of workers, including 16,000 migrant workers from Armenia, Kyrgyzstan, Serbia, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, and Ukraine. These low-wage workers often earned (U.S.) $1.80 to $2.60 an hour performing odd jobs or working as carpenters, welders or steel fitters. Some employers didn’t pay full wages or didn’t pay workers at all.

As you may have noticed in your news feed, numerous publications ranging from Salon to the New York Times recently put out articles focused on debunking the human trafficking myth surrounding large sporting events. Experts and journalists concluded that human trafficking does not increase during large sporting events. The arguments were fallible as they were framed exclusively around sex trafficking and failed to include the most prevalent form of human trafficking, forced labor. The Super Bowl was the impetus for the discussion and dialogue ended as soon as the event did, even as the Sochi 2014 Winter Olympics was on the horizon. So far the influx of Sochi news has focused on stray dogs, privacy issues regarding surveillance videos in hotel room showers, gripes about unfinished hotel rooms, and the cost of the Sochi megaprojects, but not the workers who built them.

Grandiosity is the recent trend of sporting events, resulting in pressure on hosts to live up to bigger than big expectations. This means that in a short amount of time governments have to build billions of dollars worth of state of the art structures and accommodations. What experts on human trafficking know is that a sudden demand for construction and low wage labor creates opportunity for unscrupulous employers to come in and exploit and traffic workers. This is a worldwide issue, regardless of whether we are examining post-Katrina New Orleans or Russia’s sudden economic (and resulting construction) boom. (I talk about this in my book Human Trafficking Around the World: Hidden in Plain Sight.)

Since 2009 Human Rights Watch documented exploitation of migrant workers that labored on the Russian Olympic projects. Exploitation included the confiscation of passports and work permits. This is a common trait of human trafficking as it is a successful means to control the movement of workers. (Meaning, they can’t leave if they don’t have their documentation.) Workers also experienced 12-hour workdays seven days a week and unpaid (or excessively delayed paid) wages. Some employers placed migrant workers in overcrowded housing and reported them to authorities if they complained about the abuses, resulting in deportation. It is unclear how many cases rose to the level of human trafficking, but certainly these abuses warrant further investigation and a step up in migrant worker protection on the part of the government. The good news is that the Russian government has acknowledged (U.S.) $8.34 million in unpaid wages among several of the more than 500 companies that participated in the development of the Sochi Olympic site. In response the government stated in January that the identified employers would pay workers all unpaid wages. The issue is that hundreds of the workers have been detained and deported for alleged violations of employment regulations or migration, making it unlikely that they will receive payment. If human trafficking did take place, the deportation of victims (critical witnesses) would pose a serious obstacle to pursuing cases against the traffickers.

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Wednesday, February 19th, 2014

Tiptoeing Through Minefields

Shifting Sands

This week our featured book is Shifting Sands: The United States in the Middle East by Joel S. Migdal. Throughout the week, we will be featuring content about the book and its author on our blog as well as on our Twitter feed and our Facebook page. In today’s guest post, Joel Migdal discusses John Kerry’s surprisingly active tenure as Secretary of State.

Enter our book giveaway for a chance to win a free copy of Shifting Sands!

Tiptoeing through Minefields
Joel S. Migdal

John Kerry has taken on as activist a foreign policy agenda as any secretary of state in recent memory. In the year or so that he has been in office, he has dived into thickets of crises on every continent and on a wide array of issues. Most recently, he derided climate-change deniers as akin to believers in a flat earth. He made his remarks in Indonesia on the heels of the first U.S. environmental agreement with China, with hints that more agreements with other countries were on the horizon. His assault on climate change—and those who do not take it seriously—came during an Asia tour in which he also directed tough words at North Korea, defending U.S. joint military exercises with South Korea. And, at the same time, he leaned hard on South Korea and Japan to repair their frayed ties.

Nowhere has Kerry been more aggressive than in the turbulent Middle East. He has been out front simultaneously on three sets of talks—to end the brutal war in Syria, move Iran away from the development of nuclear weapons, and solve the seemingly interminable Palestinian-Israeli conflict. Any one of these negotiations would have provided him with a full plate. When he came into office a year ago, no one would have bet that any of these initiatives could succeed and, even now, few would bank on more than one of these actually showing results. But Kerry has not been shy about tilting at windmills.
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Friday, February 14th, 2014

Happy Valentine’s Day — Roy Brand on Love and Knowledge

LoveKnowledge

Happy Valentine’s Day! In honor of the occasion, we are reposting an essay from Professor Roy Brand, author of LoveKnowledge: The Life of Philosophy from Socrates to Derrida, in which Brand discusses the relationship between love and knowledge.

What is the love that turns into knowledge and how is the knowledge we seek already a form of love?

LoveKnowledge is a book for lovers, but love is taken here in the widest sense, as the love of life and of humanity, the love for culture, for thinking and for art. Romantic love comes up numerous times, be it in Plato’s Symposium or Foucault’s History of Sexuality. And it is indeed carnal and passionate, far from the view that philosophy is all about abstractions and lofty ideas. But romantic love is a fairly new invention. And it is used nowadays for marketing purposes, such as in this Valentine’s Day. The general Greek word for love is philia, which applies indifferently to the feelings one might have to his family, friends, and lovers. Thomas Mann expresses this in beautiful prose in The Magic Mountain:

Isn’t it grand, Isn’t it good, that language has only one word for everything we associate with love- from utter sanctity to the most fleshly lust? The result is perfect clarity in ambiguity, for love cannot be disembodied even in its most sanctified forms, nor is without sanctity even in its most fleshly…Irresolute? But in God’s name, leave the meaning of love unresolved! Unresolved—that is life and humanity, and it would betray a dreary lack of subtlety to worry about it.

To achieve a “perfect clarity in ambiguity” might be the very purpose of philosophy–a practice of love that begins with not knowing and teaches us how to live with uncertainty without being crippled by hesitation.

Wednesday, February 12th, 2014

Michael Yogg — Investment Profession Should Learn from Industry Pioneer who Spoke Out

“The investment profession must do a better job of policing its own or face the loss of public trust and ever more draconian regulation.”—Michael Yogg

The following post is by Michael Yogg, author of Passion for Reality: The Extraordinary Life of the Investing Pioneer Paul Cabot:

Passion for Reality: The Extraordinary Life of the Investing Pioneer Paul Cabot“The manager was a horse’s ass of the first order. The most responsible job I ever had was going out and getting him a box of cigars.” Paul Cabot, the legendary investor and mutual fund pioneer, was recalling his first job after graduating from Harvard Business School in 1923, at an American bank in London. It was undemanding and left him time to pursue a personal interest, the study of British investment trusts. Cabot came from a well connected family, and he contacted a friend, Junius Morgan, grandson of J.P. Morgan, who introduced him to Robert Fleming, a bond investor and investment trust entrepreneur who had teamed up with the elder Morgan to help finance American railroads.

Fleming tutored Cabot on every aspect of his business; but Cabot had his own ideas. He was the son of a Boston trustee and, unlike Fleming, was comfortable investing in stocks, which he believed had superior long-term return prospects. He returned to Boston in late 1923 as stocks, in his words, “were just coming into fashion to be considered respectable moneymaking investments….I wasn’t a damn bit interested in bonds.”

The next year Cabot, and two others, founded a mutual fund. They established an extraordinary investment record, primarily because—taking a cue from J.P. Morgan—they were among the very few in the 1920’s to regularly visit the companies they invested in. As the bull market grew into a mania, Cabot’s London training really began to pay off. He had studied the scandals as well as the successes of the British trusts. When he saw the same abuses occurring in the U.S.—price manipulation, dumping of unwanted securities into mutual funds, deliberately complicated and confusing capital structures—he was among the first to recognize them, certainly the first to publicize them.

In 1928 he addressed a group of bankers and identified these abuses, without identifying the abusers. But one of them correctly concluded it was a target and threatened to remove its deposits from National Shawmut Bank, where Cabot was a director, unless the bank silenced him. As Cabot remembered it, “I flamed up. I got so goddamn mad I said, why the sons of bitches, ….I’ll show them how I’m going to be shut up. I trotted up to the Atlantic Monthly, the editor of which happened to be my uncle, and gave him this speech and he published it.” When the market crashed and more scandals surfaced, Cabot became well known for his prescience, integrity, and investment acumen, a reputation that endured and deepened over the years.

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Friday, February 7th, 2014

Beyond News and Ezra Klein’s New Venture

The following post is by Mitchell Stephens, author of the forthcoming Beyond News: The Future of Journalism:

“The century-and-a-half-long period in human history when it was possible to make a big business out of selling news … was an anomaly, and it is now ending.”—Mitchell Stephens

Beyond News: The Future of JournalismEzra Klein has long been complaining that, as he put it in 2011, “the news business is biased toward, well, news.” So it was no surprise when Klein explained recently that the new “publication” he is launching would go beyond presenting “new information”—i.e. news.

Deemphasizing news reporting does not qualify as an outrageous approach to quality journalism in 2014. Indeed, there are definite signs that the American journalist’s obsession with merely recounting what happened yesterday is lessening—even at traditional “news organizations.” “Hard news,” the public editor of the New York Times recently conceded, is now sometimes “hard to find” on that newspaper’s front page.

My forthcoming book, Beyond News: The Future of Journalism, makes the case that, with news now so widely available and so often free, such a move away from news is inevitable. And this applies to the best journalists with legacy publications and newscasts as well as the best new, online journalists. The century-and-a-half-long period in human history when it was possible to make a big business out of selling news, the book maintains, was an anomaly, and it is now ending.

The Times’ public editor, Margaret Sullivan, is discomfited by this switch away from simply reporting the news: “In my view,” she writes, “The Times’ most prominently displayed stories sometimes go too far in the direction of interpretation, analysis and elaborate writing. The reasonable reader, with only his coffee for assistance, might well wish that the important nugget of news would appear in the second paragraph instead of the seventh.” Most traditional journalists—despite what has been happening to their front pages, newscasts and home pages—would probably agree with Sullivan that stories need to continue to emphasize an account of what happened.

I disagree. That “nugget of news”—some number of people were killed this morning, the president said yesterday—will now be available all over the Web. Our best journalism organizations, like the New York Times or the one Ezra Klein is trying to create, should not, obviously, ignore the details on what happened, but they ought to aspire to a journalism that goes significantly beyond just jotting down what someone—a police chief or a president—said. They need to go beyond what Reuters’ financial blogger Felix Salmon calls “commodity news.” Salmon dismisses such press-conference, big-event, hang-out-with-the-pack stories as: “low-hanging fruit in terms of journalistic effort.”

My new book is a call for more interpretation, analysis and thoughtful writing—more insight. It notes that the journalism out of which the United States was born—the journalism of Ben Franklin, John Dickinson and Thomas Paine—was highly opinionated and conspicuously lacking in nuggets of news. The book celebrates the work of the men and women who have been this country’s most insightful journalists and who, not coincidentally, also been among its most consequential journalists. They include: Lincoln Steffens, the young Walter Lippmann, Dorothy Thompson, Edward R. Murrow, Rachel Carson, James Baldwin, Joan Didion, Tom Wolfe and, yes, the young Ezra Klein.

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Thursday, February 6th, 2014

Hans van de Ven on the Chinese Maritime Customs Service

The following post is by Hans van de Ven, author of Breaking with the Past: The Maritime Customs Service and the Global Origins of Modernity in China:

“The Chinese Maritime Customs Service helped keep China together at key critical moments … and provided one of the pathways out of which the modern Chinese nation-state would emerge.”—Hans de Ven

Breaking with the Past, Hans van de VenNo China historian can afford to say no to a request for help by a Chinese archivist. We need their good will. So, when the Vice-Director of the Second Historical Archives in Nanjing asked for my assistance in organizing the archives of the Chinese Maritime Customs Service, I agreed. Although the archival mountain I had to climb proved higher and steeper than I thought, to be given access to an untouched archive is also any historian’s dream.

Looking back now over the more than ten years that it has taken to bring my history of the Service to publication, it is clear to me that this one chance encounter has changed my view of China in profound ways, and, more generally, that of the past. In an age in which our governing institutions are increasingly found wanting and in which a new parochialism threatens to take hold, it has given me a new respect for cosmopolitan civil service bureaucracies which emerged in the nineteenth century.

The Chinese Maritime Customs Service was an odd sort of bureaucracy, subordinate to the Chinese state but with a senior staff drawn from across the world. In between the Taiping Rebellion of the 1850s and the Communist victory in 1949, it functioned in between weak Chinese governments and overstretched empires. It gained its strength not only by accounting and delivering thirty to fifty percent of central revenue, but also by injecting itself into niches wherever they opened up, including in the building and management of China’s harbors, erecting lighthouses along the whole China coast, providing quarantine services, overseeing China’s bond issues, and purchasing a navy for China.

The men involved in these projects had flaws, they could be blinkered, they could act with unfounded arrogance toward China and the Chinese, and they could be blinded by ambition. But, they also were inspired by a nineteenth century “do-gooding” tradition, shaped as they were by the great liberal thinkers of the age, by Christian values (about which they kept publicly quiet), and the civil service reforms that began in nineteenth century Britain and then spread more widely. The result was the gestation of a Customs Service ethos aimed at keeping borders open, maintaining China’s territorial and national integrity, securing access to China’s foreign trade on the basis of equality, and delivering an efficient and effective bureaucracy.

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Wednesday, December 18th, 2013

Katerina Kolozova on the Real in Contemporary Philosophy

Cut of the Real, Katerina KolozovaWith Cut of the Real: Subjectivity in Poststructuralist Philosophy, by Katerina Kolozova, now available, we are reposting her essay on the idea of the real in contemporary philosophy:

What Baudrillard called the perfect crime has become the malaise of the global(ized) intellectual of the beginning of the 21st century. The “perfect crime” in question is the murder of the real, carried out in such way as to create the conviction it never existed and that the traces of its erased existence were mere symptom of its implacable originary absence. The era of postmodernism has been one of oversaturation with signification as a reality in its own right and also as the only possible reality. In 1995, with the publication of The Perfect Crime, Baudrillard declared full realization of the danger he warned against as early as in 1976 in his book The Symbolic Exchange and Death. The latter book centered on the plea to affirm reality in its form of negativity, i.e., as death and the trauma of interrupted life. And he did not write of some static idea of the “Negative,” of “the constitutive lack” or “absence” as conceived by postmodernism and epistemological poststructuralism. The fact that, within the poststructuralist theoretical tradition, the real has been treated as the “inaccessible” and “the unthinkable” has caused “freezing” of the category (of the real) as immutable, univocal and bracketed out of discursiveness as an unspoken axiom.

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Thursday, November 14th, 2013

Mike Chasar on Remembrance Day and the Case of the $400,000,000 Poem

Mike Chasar, Everyday ReadingThe following post written for Veteran’s Day or Remembrance Day is by Mike Chasar, author of Everyday Reading: Poetry and Popular Culture in Modern America. The post was originally published on Arcade.

I like to think of John McCrae’s “In Flanders Fields” as the $400,000,000 poem, and not just because its first stanza has appeared on the back of the Canadian $10 bank note—a fact that, all by itself, makes McCrae’s World War I-era verse one of the most widely circulated poems in history. I also think of it as the $400,000,000 poem because, shortly after it appeared in the December 8, 1915, issue of Punch magazine, the Canadian government made “In Flanders Fields” a central piece of its public relations campaign advertising the sale of the first Victory Loan Bonds, printing it, or excerpts from it, on billboards and posters like the one pictured here. According to Canadian Veterans Affairs and other sources, the campaign was designed to raise $150,000,000 but ended up netting—wait for it—more than $400,000,000.

Whoever said that “poetry makes nothing happen: it survives / In the valley of its making where executives / Would never want to tamper” clearly wasn’t thinking of McCrae’s rondeau, which is the centerpiece of Remembrance or Veterans Day (November 11) activities worldwide and turned the red or “Buddy” poppy into the day’s icon, manufacture and sale of which has been a regular source of funding for disabled and needy VFW veterans as well as for war orphans and surviving spouses of veterans in the U.S. since 1923. It is memorized by school kids, recited at Remembrance Day events, has elicited all sorts of reply poems and been put to music, and resulted in the restoration of McCrae’s birthplace in Guelph, Ontario, as a museum. In Ypres, Belgium, there’s even a World War I museum that takes its name from the poem.

By most accounts, McCrae composed “In Flanders Fields” in 1915, the day after witnessing the death of his 22 year-old friend, Lieutenant Alexis Helmer, and legend has it that McCrae ripped the poem out of his notebook and cast it aside amongst the blood-red poppies on the battlefield where it was rescued by an onlooker and sent to Punch, which printed it anonymously:

In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly.
Scarce heard amid the guns below.

We are the dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved, and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.

Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.

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Wednesday, November 13th, 2013

The Nuclear Nightmares Still Lurking in Our World

Nuclear Nightmares

This week our featured book is Nuclear Nightmares: Securing the World Before It Is Too Late by Joseph Cirincione. Throughout the week, we will be featuring content about the book and its author on our blog as well as on our Twitter feed and our Facebook page. Today, we have a guest post from Joseph Cirincione in which he discusses the ongoing and worldwide danger from nuclear weapons.

Don’t forget to enter our book giveaway for a chance to win a free copy of Nuclear Nightmares!

The Nuclear Nightmares Still Lurking in Our World

Joe Cirincione

Most people think that the threat of nuclear weapons ended with the Cold War. They are dead wrong. Nuclear weapons still pose a clear and present danger, in the Middle East, in South Asia, on the Korean Peninsula and here in the United States.

My new book, Nuclear Nightmares: Securing the World Before It’s Too Late, takes us on a journey through today’s nuclear challenges, and lays out a clear path for how we can make the world safer, one step at a time.
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Friday, October 18th, 2013

Lynne Huffer’s Open Letter to Sheryl Sandberg on her Advice to Working Women

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In an essay for Al Jazeera , Lynne Huffer, author of Are the Lips a Grave writes an open letter to Sheryl Sandberg, COO of Facebook corporation.

Huffer considers the suggestions to rise up the corporate ladder from Sandberg’s new book, Lean In and charts the trajectory of feminism that has dramatically improved the lives of working women over the past few decades.

Four decades ago, radical feminists launched a gender revolution because they recognised the value of what the Chinese call “speaking bitterness”. They honoured women’s feelings of discontent about fathers who raped them, boyfriends who abused them, doctors who sterilised them, and employers who paid them less than they were worth.

In her letter, Huffer highlights the key problem with Sandberg’s advice to women to succeed in positions of corporate power in capitalistic America— the inherent profit maximization goal of capitalism.

As any student in Econ 101 will tell you, our profit-driven economic system is shaped like a pyramid, with workers at the bottom and Chief Operating Officers like you at the top. I don’t doubt you’re sincere in wanting success for every woman: more female CEOs and Presidents, more Hillary Clintons. As 1970s’ liberal feminists used to put it: you want a bigger piece of the pie for all of us. Which means, as the second-wave feminists you so admire used to put it: feminism is not about getting a bigger piece of the pie. It’s about seeing that the whole pie is rotten.

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