I moved out of Europe this year, and watching from a distance has had a strange effect on me - a combination of trying to come to terms with the lack of immediacy when confronted with the headlines and still understanding it in the context of my own experiences, but also constantly comparing, contrasting, trying to make sense of it especially through he lens of no-longer-there. This long, long article in The New York Magazine is a summary of the year in Europe and reads like someone charting a slowly evolving, multi-faceted catastrophe, like drawing a picture of all the (still problematic, complicated, dark and exclusive) things that make Europe what it is, the core of it, and then also including the forces chipping away at that specificity. The greatest fear I have is that what has always been present - the small-mindedness of tiny countries using a made-up version of too-individual histories to create conflict, dissonance, distance - will win out. That the country that I vaguely remember from being a child (or just Vienna in the late 80s and early 90s) will come back with a vengeance.
It might never have been realistic to envision a United States of Europe. Yet the prospect of a weaker Continent is something that should alarm Washington; Europe and America are trade partners, are bound together militarily by NATO and share a commitment to democracy. Many European bureaucrats and officials cling to the belief that crisis has always made Europe stronger and more integrated. Yet the optimism that carried the project forward to stop wars and create prosperity is dwindling. Now the challenge of the European Union is whether it can succeed in continuing to bring a better and more secure life to a larger and more diverse group of citizens. Has the European Union reached the practical limits of the ideal of an ever-closer union? Europe’s binding glue now might well be fear — fear of the unknown, of what will happen if Greece does tumble out of the eurozone, or if Britain chooses to leave the European Union.
The New York Times Magazine: Has Europe Reached the Breaking Point, December 15, 2015A history of the passport and borders.
On Islam: The role of education - history and textbooks - openDemocracy calls for "a profound restructuring of curricula away from the intense focus on divisive identity issues and critically opening students up to different local and global social and historical issues". The National Review on the multitudes contained in the Muslim World. VoxEU with numbers on the connection between anti-Muslim hate crimes and assimilation. On Zayn Malik:
By saying very little about what he’s up to, or where he stands politically, Zayn’s pushing off decolonization, and starting anew. Working with mostly people of color on his forthcoming solo album (Malay, who is half-Asian, and who has worked with John Legend and Frank Ocean, is producing the album) shows an interest to be true to his definitions, to be a perfunctory role model by just being himself. He’s separating his identity from the pallid whiteness that previously bled out his other dimensions. His irreverence of fame — his desire to be a person of his own design, no matter what it costs him publicly — feels resonant of something much more vital: he’s carving a space for himself. He’s reclaiming what it means to be Zayn Malik, and thus a Muslim man of his own making.
Matter: Soft Power, December 8, 2015
The Atlantic interviews Phillip Rogaway on "The Moral Failure of Computer Scientists" and why cryptographers fail to see any moral implications in their work (at the intersection of the "war against terror" and questions of privacy and data security).
I don’t think terrorism has much to do with the mass-surveillance issue at all. This is a convenient storyline to be weaving in the present day, but the NSA’s own mission statement says that they’re there to serve their customers. And while some of those customers are interested in terrorism, other NSA customers have completely unrelated interests, and I don’t think that surveilling is particularly aimed at confronting terrorism. It wouldn’t be effective even if it were.
The Atlantic: The Moral Failure of Computer Scientists, December 11, 2015
I highly recommend Superintelligence by Nick Bostrom, mostly as a mental exercise about the difficulties of programming an AI in ways that prevent catastrophe, but in a similar vain, here's The Conversation outlining current movements to build Artificial Intelligences that benefit humanity (and all of these somehow comes together in the years of Citizenfour, Ex Machina, Person of Interest, and Humans).
The Foundation for Responsible Robotics has a broader agenda of policy engagement and raising professional and public awareness of robot ethics issues. Again, this is a worthwhile endeavour. AI and robotics researchers tend to be hard scientists unused to ethical debate.Scientists need to step out of the empirical and into the normative. As trusted thought leaders of the citizenry, they should cross the line between “is” and “ought” and participate in policy debate.Hopefully both these groups will help provide cures for the current epidemics of AI panic and robophobia.improve Chinese megacities, and an urban zoning policy that is being debated in Mumbai that may be "the most important urban-policy development in the world today" - both in terms of living quality and economic development.
Guarnica with a sprawling, captivating essay on infectious diseases, epidemics, how we frame victims and paranoia:
Fear isn’t useless. It’s essential that we maintain the tension between individual liberties and community health, and expressing fears, particularly competing fears, is one way that’s done. Public skepticism helps ensure decision-makers do enough to minimize disease without abusing power or diminishing civil liberties. Still, it’s vital to keep paranoia in check. The theorist Eve Sedgwick posits that, like typhoid and measles, paranoia is communicable. We pass it along to those we interact with. This happened when the media responded to Dr. Spencer’s Ebola infection and it continues to happen in the ongoing debate about childhood vaccinations and measles. Paranoia distorts decision-making, which is part of the reason that a hundred years after Mary Mallon’s isolation began on North Brother Island, we still struggle to conceptualize the relationship between community and individual health. When it comes to disease, whether we acknowledge it or not, we’re part of the public. The public isn’t an abstraction. It’s us.
Guernica: Anya Groner: The Public Is Us, December 8, 2015This is a beautiful essay by Andrea Wu about growing up in a migrant family in Canada and then moving to Hong Kong:
There’s a Cantonese slang phrase to describe people like me: jook-sing. Literally, the term refers to a knot in a reed of bamboo that prevents water from flowing from one end to the other. “You look at bamboo. It looks like it should be all hollow, but actually there are parts where it’s closed inside,” my mom explains. “That’s like you. You look like you’re Chinese but you’re not really Chinese because you do not understand the language and the culture.” It’s meant to be derogatory, and it works. My mother and relatives would tease me, my sister, and my cousins for being jook-sing when we spoke our accented Cantonese or used our chopsticks incorrectly.
The Wilson Quarterly: Going Back Home. Life as a Reverse Migrant.
End of the year is Longreads lists-catch-up time: here's Essays & Criticism, Arts & Culture, Crime Reporting.
PopMatters on Ta-Nehesi Coats and James Baldwin (in the year of Between the World and Me and James Baldwin: The Last Interview).
The New Yorker on the history of the pervasive, racist, influential Birth of a Nation by D.W. Griffith, 100 years after its creation.
Transparent's second season is out, and here is Buzzfeed, spending 48 hours on set, and Ariel Levy in the New Yorker, with a long portrait of creator Jill Soloway:
When Soloway returned to the set, she found that her writers had bought Myles’s journal through a fund-raiser for a nonprofit, to help them work on character development. “I open it up, and the first thing it says is ‘Whoever falls in love with me is in trouble,’ ” Soloway said. “It was like she wrote to me without even knowing that I existed.”
In October, Myles and Soloway sat next to each other at a benefit in New York for the Feminist Press, as the city’s first lady, Chirlane McCray, accepted an award onstage. They were tight in the grip of new love; they touched each other’s backs and legs ceaselessly through the ceremony. Myles was wearing jeans and a button-down shirt, her hair silver and shaggy, her face set in a more lined version of the intense stare that Robert Mapplethorpe captured when he photographed her in 1980.
From the beginning of the year, The Awl on reading, not-reading, liking, disliking Joan Didion.
In the process of beatifying Didion, we’ve lost our ability to see her as a person and a writer who wrote some things that lots of people think are very good, the end. This is completely anecdotal, but in the last year or so I’ve had numerous conversations with intelligent, reasonable women who have leaned across dimly lit bars to whisper, “I don’t think I like [redacted],” Joan Didion being one of those names, as though this were shameful. The other names included books that “everyone” loved, writers “everyone” read, people who write essays or fiction or biographies or run blogs or edit magazines but who are by means saints or gods, categories of people that you can’t disparage in a normal speaking voice lest a vengeful force throw a lightning bolt right into your heart. “I don’t think I like Knausgaard,” they whisper, as though anyone has ever legitimately enjoyed reading a volume about his struggles.
The Awl: Free Joan Didion, January 13, 2015A documentary on Grimes' Art Angel.
An interview with Mallory Ortberg of The Toast, about the the economics of creative freedom.
Hazlitt tries to contextualise Carol/The Prize of Salt within Patricia Highsmith's other works:
The great achievement of Highsmith’s novel, even if she was unwilling to put her name to it at the time, was that it expressed dissatisfaction within and about its own present tense, and without the explicitly sinister undertones that always manifested when the author turned her attention to closeted male protagonists. History is always going to remember Patricia Highsmith as a giant in a genre whose titans were more typically male—an American analog to Agatha Christie without all the genteel drawing-room gimmickry. Her plots’ pots boileth over, and deliciously so. But with the release of Carol, hopefully its original author will win further consideration as a socially astute and prescient dramatist. Claire Morgan and Patricia Highsmith: two great writers for the price of one.
Hazlitt: A Thriller Without a Body Count: On Patricia Highsmith and Carol, December 11, 2015