An Article a Day: 1 August 2017

by Maha Rafi Atal

This summer with many legislatures in recess provides an opportunity to read a mix of coverage of current, breaking news and pieces that take a longer view of trends in politics and culture. Here's what we've been chewing over:

1. Michael Lewis has a long and crucial piece about the U.S. Department of Energy. The department is responsible for a number of military programs, including safeguarding the US nuclear arsenal, disposing of nuclear waste, and undertaking international missions to prevent nuclear material from falling into the hands of terrorists. It's also responsible for the bulk of US research into climate change, through a collection of national research labs it runs around the country, and generous loans and grants for university researchers. Its current chief, former Texas Governor Rick Perry, claims not to have known what the department does when he said he would eliminate it during a previous presidential run, and the department's $30 billion budget is now slated for major cuts. Perry's gaffe, Lewis notes, reveals the fundamental danger posed by Perry and other Trump Administration officials: a desire not to know what the government does, which may facilitate making ill-advised cuts to government functions:

Here is where the Trump administration’s willful ignorance plays a role. If your ambition is to maximize short-term gains without regard to the long-term cost, you are better off not knowing those costs. If you want to preserve your personal immunity to the hard problems, it’s better never to really understand those problems. There is a downside to knowledge. It makes life messier. It makes it a bit more difficult for a person who wishes to shrink the world to a worldvieWhile this is dangerous all across the federal government,

Lewis argues that at the Department of Energy policies made in ignorance pose a major life-and-death risk, not only in the US, but anywhere in the world at risk of nuclear violence or environmental destruction. Deeply reported, it is a welcome look beyond the day-to-day headlines of chaos in Trumpland.

2. Sam Knight has a profile of London Mayor Sadiq Khan in the New Yorker that focuses on the mayor's response to the shocks of terrorist attacks and the Grenfell Tower collapse in his first year in office. The piece paints London as riven with inequality and out of step - in its cosmopolitanism and links with Europe - with the Brexit mood in the rest of the country. At times, Knight holds out Khan as a one-man antidote to the tide of xenophobia and despair.

Fourteen months ago, the election of Sadiq Khan, who is forty-six, to be the first Muslim mayor of a Western capital was seen as just another stride in London’s giant, unstopping swagger. The rise of a local boy, the son of a Pakistani bus driver, to govern the seat of a former empire was proof of the same unsentimental indifference toward race and religion, good money and bad, and a past that is gone that has enabled London to more or less detach itself from the reality of its circumstances—the capital of a once great nation in decline—and become a universe unto itself.

Elsewhere, he questions the degree to which Khan's political rise is based on his biography at the expense of firm political principles. Khan, who is a pro-business mayor of a major financial centre, nevertheless helped nominate Jeremy Corbyn in his 2015 leadership bid, and has historically been able to maintain strong ties with both the left and centre of the Labour Party. As Khan's name is sometimes raised as a potential future leader for the Party, Knight's profile is a welcome attempt to get a true measure of the man.

3. With the Brexit clock ticking, Helen Thompson, who recently wrote for In The Long Run about the history of English nationalism, looks back to history again. This time, she considers the 1958 negotiations between then-Prime Minister Harold Macmillan and the European Economic Community, of which the United Kingdom was not yet a member. Macmillan was hoping to strike a generous trade deal that would prevent the UK from having to the join the EEC (the EU's predecessor) but when it failed, the UK wound up joining the EEC after all. The faultlines in the 1958 talks were similar in some respects to today's: Macmillan, like Theresa May, tried unsuccessfully to make British military support for Europe a negotiating tool. But Macmillan did not have the euro. Thompson argues that the Eurozone's continued instability, and the critical role that British banks play in facilitatiing euro transactions, may give May some leverage that Macmillan did not have.

4. After countless op-eds and thinkpieces wondering whether the spread of fake news on the internet helped contribute to Donald Trump's presidential victory or other populist surprises in recent electoral history, Facebook has begun a campaign to crackdown on misinformation on its site. In The New York TImes Magazine, Farhad Manjoo has an in-depth look at the measures Facebook is putting in place, and the fundamental challenge this issue poses to Facebook's worldview:

Facebook’s entire project, when it comes to news, rests on the assumption that people’s individual preferences ultimately coincide with the public good, and that if it doesn’t appear that way at first, you’re not delving deeply enough into the data. By contrast, decades of social-science research shows that most of us simply prefer stuff that feels true to our worldview even if it isn’t true at all and that the mining of all those preference signals is likely to lead us deeper into bubbles rather than out of them.

The piece is deeply skeptical of whether Facebook is willing or able to make fundamental changes for the 'public good' when that conflicts with its business mission. Though written before rumors began to circulate that Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg may be considering a political run, the piece zeroes in on Zuckererg's political ambition, which extends well beyond electoral politics. 

This is not an especially controversial idea; Zuckerberg is arguing for a kind of digital-era version of the global institution-building that the Western world engaged in after World War II. But because he is a chief executive and not an elected president, there is something frightening about his project. He is positioning Facebook — and, considering that he commands absolute voting control of the company, he is positioning himself — as a critical enabler of the next generation of human society. A minor problem with his mission is that it drips with megalomania, albeit of a particularly sincere sort.

Indeed, Manjoo's piece argues that it's the prospect of private governance that supercedes the state that makes Facebook so powerful and so alarming.

5. We practice politics in big ways and small ones. In a moving essay for Electric Literature, excerpted from a forthcoming book on television and culture, the novelist and journalist V.V. Ganeshananthan looks back on The Cosby Show. She asks whether the show, which revolutionized the portrayal of black Americans on television, still holds value given the numerous sexual assault charges now leveled against Bill Cosby. Looing back at what the portrayal of a loving, middle-class black family meant to her South Asian American family at a time when non-white faces on American TV were rare, Ganeshananthan argues that the Cosby Show's fundamental appeal was its intimacy: the intimacy of its characters with each other, and the intimacy with the Huxtable family that it offered the viewers. Given that the allegations against Bill Cosby center on his leveraging his brand as a 'safe' family man, a brand built up as Cliff Huxtable, to achieve and then exploit intimacy with women, Ganeshanthan argues that the art cannot be cleanly separated from the artist in his case.

About the Author

Maha Rafi Atal

Maha Rafi Atal is a PhD candidate in the Department of Politics and International Studies at the University of Cambridge and the Senior Editor of In The Long Run.