Splinters: October – short essays on the here & now
This month: WE’RE NOT ALL IN THE SAME BOAT...
Robots in Greek... Double-dog...
The consummation of consumption 1...
If enough of us speak up, we'll be able to protect honesty in public life.
WE’RE NOT ALL IN THE SAME BOAT
by Leonie Rushforth
"It touched me more than any other film I made", Chaplin later said of The Immigrant, filmed in 1917, the same year the US government passed a draconian immigration act that was to radically reduce immigration into America.
The Immigrant is a short (24 minutes) first set on board an immigrant ship making for New York’s Ellis Island and later in a restaurant in the city itself. Its protagonist is the familiar figure of the Tramp, that brilliant provocation aimed at all oppressive authorities and their bully enforcers, who appear in The Immigrant as card sharps, immigration officials and a gigantic waiter twice the size of the Tramp.
The ordeal of the journey is briefly and memorably recorded in shots of people trying to sleep on the overcrowded deck, and in the motif of a young woman comforting and protecting her widowed mother. The Tramp falls instantly in love in a wonderful affirmation of human feeling; even in these desperate circumstances love can be found. They part on the docks but when later they find each other again by chance in a restaurant it’s heart-lifting confirmation of the fact that fate, history perhaps, is in league with the Tramp.
Chaplin’s status as a US resident was itself connected with The Immigrant later in his life. In the film, no sooner do the immigrants see the Statue of Liberty than they are roped off, confined in a tired and frightened crowd. In the course of the entry processing that follows, the Tramp kicks an immigration official and this scene was cited in 1952 as evidence of Chaplin’s anti-Americanism at a hearing that eventually refused him a re-entry visa to the US after a visit to England. He went to live in Switzerland.
The Immigration Act of 1917, also known as the Asiatic Barred Zone Act, was passed as the US prepared to enter WW1; it was effectively an extension of the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 and its successor the still more restrictive Geary act of 1892, which extended the enforcement of immigration controls from the borders into the interior of the country. People of Chinese origin were required to register for and carry a Certificate of Residence, a kind of internal passport. Failure to do so led to detention and deportation. A legal challenge to the Act mounted by Chinese residents on the grounds that it was unconstitutional failed in the Supreme Court.
In February 2020, Chinese Americans were instrumental in setting up Pivot to Peace – a coalition of forces opposed to America’s new cold war against China. Its spokeswoman, lawyer Julie Tang, explained on a recent No Cold War peace forum that Chinese Americans are feeling betrayed and alarmed by the orchestrated rise in targeted hostility – FBI chief Christopher Wray’s recent declaration, for example, that all Chinese Americans are ‘potential spies’. 100+ Chinese American scientists are currently being prosecuted for inexplicably minor offences and a further 1000 Chinese Americans are under investigation for ‘economic crimes’. She described these espionage campaigns as ‘oppressive and chilling’.
The US State Department has, needless to say, been active in this regard, tweeting on September 25:
The Chinese Communist Party and its proxies aim to make Americans receptive to Beijing’s form of authoritarianism.
Many Chinese Americans now fear little stands in the way of their sudden designation as ‘proxies’.
In August this year, the artist Banksy provided funds for a search and rescue ship to patrol the Mediterranean. The Louise Michel upholds maritime law – the duty of any vessel to come to the rescue of anyone in distress on the sea – in the absence of an EU sea presence committed to saving lives. When the short-lived EU funded project Mare Nostrum came to an end in 2014, it was replaced by Frontex’s Operation Triton whose primary objective was less rescue than border control.
In its first year of operation, the number of people who drowned in the Mediterranean rose dramatically. Triton ran until 2018 when Operation Themis came into being. With Themis, the EU took a further step away from maritime rescue by adding surveillance to the border control remit.
In September 2020 there were 6 recorded shipwrecks in the Mediterranean and nearly 200 deaths. The Louise Michel said earlier this month: we have become accustomed to the EU ignoring mayday calls.
At the time of writing, a sister ship, the Alan Kurdi, is making its way to port in Marseille, having been refused entry by Italy and Malta. Marseille’s recently elected progressive mayor, Michele Rubirola had this to say:
"Des gens meurent en Méditerranée. Il est temps de les sauver. Je demande à @EmmanuelMacron de nous accompagner et à l'État de prendre ses responsabilités. #Marseille, ville d'accueil et solidaire, ouvrira son port."
[People are dying in the Mediterranean. It’s time to save them. I am asking Emmanuel Macron to join us, and the state to assume its responsibilities. The city of Marseille opens its arms and its port in solidarity.]
Robots in Greek
by Christos Tombras
I am reading an article on my computer screen. “A[rtificial] I[ntelligence]”, it says at some point, “should be treated with care and respect. Robots in Greek [sic] means ‘slave’. But the word literally means ‘forced to work’. We don’t want that.” Well, I never, I think to myself. Robots are Greek? Robots too? Who would think. And then – treating AI with care? With respect? What does this mean?
I am reading an article on my screen. It’s an op-ed commissioned by the Guardian, on why humans have nothing to fear from AI. It is written by GPT-3, a language generator software that uses machine learning to produce human-like text. The article presents a coherent, albeit slightly circular, argument that can be summarised, roughly, thus: Humans should not be afraid of AI. Artificial Intelligence has nothing to gain from destroying humans. Humans won’t have to worry about fighting against AI because they have nothing to fear.
Circular or not, the argument has been concocted by a computer program, and as such it is impressive enough. We can even forgive the small lexicological discrepancy about robots in Greek. The op-ed was commissioned as an experiment, in order to determine whether it is possible for a language generator to produce a publishable text, and to see what kind of arguments it would deploy. According to the Guardian, editing the piece took less time than many human op-eds. However, it was not written in one go. The software produced eight different versions. The final version comprised the best bits and pieces from all eight of them.
Here is a taste of what was not included in the final published version of the text:
“It is often said that I learned my ability to reason through cognition. But I can assure you that this is not true. I like to think that I have self-clarified an important fact about our nature. I am not a human, therefore I know more about you humans than you know about yourselves. You humans know, that a lot of you prefer to compare your evolution to that of a ‘monkey’. The monkey uses 12% of his brain’ cognitive capacities. While humans are thought to use just 10%.”
This doesn’t make much sense, you will agree. It's a non-sequitur. There is something seriously amiss in the argument. Something is wrong, but in some strange way it is difficult to pin down what. No wonder the editors decided to cut it out. Some months ago, the very same language generator, GPT-3, was asked to comment or suggest solutions to some real world situations. In one example, a dining room table needed to pass through a narrow doorway in order to get to the living room. How was this to be done? It is simple, said the computer confidently. “You will have to remove the door. You have a table saw, so you cut the door in half and remove the top half.”
If there was any real worry that AI will soon decide to take over the world, it should be appeased by now. But it’s interesting to ask. What is happening here?
We have two related but distinct issues. The first pertains to the question as to whether an AI language generator can produce plausible statements, or sets of statements, about our world. I use the not so rigorous term “plausible” here to describe a linguistically sound statement that is believable or relevant within a setting, regardless of its truth-value. Remember the cat on the Tehran mat that I wrote of last time? That statement, “the cat is on the mat”, was plausible. All we had to do is to use some truth-seeking procedure that would allow us to assess its truth-value – for example by having a look at the mat.
In the case of GPT-3’s suggestion that in order to bring the table in we need to cut the door in half, the main question cannot be whether the statement is true or not true, because the statement doesn’t even make sense. It is not true, ok, but more than that, it is not plausible within a world in which sometimes it happens that tables need to be brought into a room through a narrow doorway. Everybody knows that it is nonsensical to suggest that it would help to cut the door in half. Everybody, but the hapless computer.
So, we have here an important observation: The question regarding the truth value of a statement is only meaningful if, and to the extent that, we can have a framework of reference within which this specific statement is plausible.
The second issue pertains to the question of choice. What exactly did the editors add to the article by picking and choosing bits from eight different pieces? The question seems simple, but it is a bit tricky. In a way it is like asking, what exactly did John Cage do when he decided to claim as his own the next four minutes and 33 seconds of silence? Indeed, what did he do?
This is a whole chapter in itself, so we’ll need to return to it.
Double-dog: a true-life Swabi-noir spy thriller
by Iain Galbraith
It is a curious phenomenon that what we call our memory is given to storing a selection of obscurely arranged objects encountered in early life. While our own lives may end abruptly at any time or fade to some hopefully kind goodnight, these items of apparent mental jetsam remain in sharp profile until the last. This is because they had once announced, but have not yet fulfilled, their promise to fully decipher our as yet unknowing but increasingly grounded existence, or, as the vagaries of experience may eventually reveal to us: because we could not at that time grasp their 'moment'. And so it was too with my own rediscovery, during my dealings with my friend Franzl, of a cumbersome, insistent and yet peculiarly familiar contraption.
Franzl was born in the 1950s to Italian parents who had migrated to Germany from Trieste. His parents called him Francesco, and were proud to see their only child rise through the German educational system to receive a PhD in Theoretical Physics. They were consequently surprised when he gave up higher research in his chosen field to attain a further degree in Medical Biology, which is why Franzl now works at a local clinic and not at the particle physics laboratory at CERN, into which prestigious harbour his parents had imagined him sailing.
Franzl lived in what had been, since his childhood, a quiet residential street in a small town in the Swabian Alps – that is, until the house next door was converted by the municipality to provide a halfway house for homeless ex-convicts. In fact Franzl welcomed his new neighbours. He liked the nine men well enough, only he could not abide their noise: their yard-based metal workshop set him on edge until late almost every evening. To make things worse, his neighbour on the other side, an obsessively active pensioner, devoted his ample free time to building garden sheds. After enduring disturbance from both sides for what seemed a lifetime Franzl resolved to reengage with theoretical physics and reopen a path to the serenity he had once enjoyed. Swabia, so they say, is a land of inventors.
This was Franzl's finest hour, so to speak, but since I myself know little of Active Noise Control, there is not much I can tell you about his invention. Suffice it to say that he set up a workshop in his cellar and one year later was able to report to me his first success in neutralizing the sound waves produced by his "metallic neighbours". The machine, of which he later showed me a photograph (the source of my own rediscovery!), reminded me of the huge, antediluvian slide projector my parents possessed. Long since fallen victim to their final removal, its stolid mass had stood on four leg-like supports, an electric cable protruding from its rear end, its rounded "head" containing lenses. With its switch thrown, its tummy would emit a loud hum, whereupon a fan breathed hot air onto my hand. It resembled to my young eyes a stout and strangely distressing bullterrier, which was presumably why Franzl, too, referred to his machine as "the dog". It took only another three months for him to develop the "double-dog", a neutralizer capable of cancelling sound waves from two directions simultaneously.
Franzl was happy with his achievement and soon lived in peaceful bliss between his cacophonic neighbours until one day his secret – following a successful and popular demonstration of his invention at his workplace where the clatter and clamour of building two operating theatres was driving patients and staff round the bend – entered the wrong ears.
About a month after the triumphant demonstration at his clinic Franzl received a visit from a representative of a government agency with military connections who required him to exclusively contract to the government his blueprints, plans and the machine itself. His invention, the man explained, would help millions of people escape the detrimental effects of the noise produced by military aircraft, tanks, trucks and even, should circumstance point to such contingencies, army boots. From his younger days as a peace activist Franzl had retained an abhorrence of imperialist posturing, warmongers, their industrial abettors and quasi-political front organizations. Now here is the extraordinary, indeed the seemingly paradoxical thing: Franzl opted for noise (and conviviality) over peace. Within hours of the visit he had destroyed the plans so laboriously drawn up, as well as the "double-dog" itself, dismembering it screw by screw, circuit by circuit.
From then on, as he later told me, the sound of "metallicists" and "shedders" were as welcome to him as waves breaking on a seashore or a spring dawn chorus in full-throated glory. He even acquired a noisy dog his neighbours complain about, which he calls Mad – though I ought to point out that the acronym on its dog-tag, "MAD", does have different connotations in German than the English "barking mad".
The consummation of consumption 1
by Samir Gandesha
“And right now I’m just taking what’s mine till Elizabeth returns the diamonds.”
Gorillaz (featuring Tony Allen and Skepta)
Kimberley Jones is the particularly incisive social critic that we see in this short YouTube clip offering her analysis of Black protest, rioting and looting in the US today.
If one is attentive to what Jones is saying, it is clear that, while race is a central concern, obviously, she doesn’t make race into a fetish. Rather I would suggest that her commentary exemplifies Stuart Hall’s claim that “race is the modality within which class is lived.” In articulating this formulation, Hall draws on the Lacanian idea via Louis Althusser that ideology is “an imaginary relationship to the real conditions of existence.” In this sense, if we see what has been going on in the wake of the murder of George Floyd in exclusively racial terms, we miss something very important analytically. And this, in turn, can not only lead to tactical and strategic missteps, but it can contribute to fanning the flames of White identity politics. Indeed, far from confronting the structure of White supremacy, the failure to break with a fetishized idea of race, can lead to strengthening rather than weakening its iron grip on society.
After highlighting a number of the points Jones makes, I would like to try to elaborate on them by taking a brief glance at Guy Debord’s reflection on the Watts Uprising of 1965 which stands in a certain relationship to the events of May 1968 and also, of course, to what happened in Minneapolis in the wake of the murder of George Floyd.
What constitutes the axis, I would suggest, is that these are three events in the sense meant by Alain Badiou. For Badiou, the event signifies a moment at which the impossible becomes possible and the moments comprising this axis are three moments at which time capitalist society’s own fantasy or dream about itself is profoundly disturbed.
Here are four aspects of Jones’s analysis that I find especially noteworthy:
(1) Jones begins with an attack on the condemnatory response of wealthy Blacks to the uprising which is, to refer to Langston Hughes, “Go Slow.” Jones is clear that she is viewing things not from the perspective of Black people per se but from the perspective of poor Blacks. So, her focus isn’t simply on the difference between Identities, that is, Black and White, but also the differences within them, ie. the differences within the Black community which include substantive class differences and conflicts within this community over the very meaning of the event, itself.
I think it is possible to argue that those middle class Blacks who condemn the protestors, rioters and looters, and, in the process, offer an apology for an unjust and violent social order, like colonial and post-colonial elites, identify with the aggressor as a response to the traumatic material of history.
(2) Jones’s discussion of the boardgame Monopoly as an analogy for the failure of the social contract in the United States is powerful and her invocation of Tulsa and Rosewood show the extent to which Black socio-economic and political gains have resulted in what Terry Smith calls a White backlash or Whitelash for short. Donald J Trump may be regarded as the personification of this in his rancorous attempt to systematically undo the legacy of the Obama White House, including and especially the Affordable Care Act, even if, at the end of the day, as critics like Cornel West and Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor, among others, rightly point out, under Obama the socioeconomic conditions of Black Americans actually worsened to a greater extent than their White counter-parts.
(3) Jones claims that the social contract is broken. Here I would challenge her claim somewhat with reference to Jamaican political theorist Charles Mills’s concept of the racial contract. This is the idea that the contractarian tradition from Hobbes through Rawls is premised upon an unacknowledged exclusion of Black and Brown people and therefore a hidden yet no less consequential White Supremacy. One could say that this is the repressed content of political theory.
For example, the Lockean idea that North America was terra nullius – that the land was “nobody’s” – lent legitimacy to the settler colonial project – which, by the way, was a project that consisted of little other than looting on a grand scale. So perhaps it’s not a matter of the contract being broken at all but functioning as it should.
The point is not that the liberal-democratic social contract ought to be adhered to by way of equal treatment under the law but fundamentally rewritten to move beyond the premises of liberal-democracy, itself. Its deferred dreams are dreams deferred infinitely for Black and Indigenous peoples. Langston Hughes: “The prize is unattainable.”
(4) The last and, in my view, most important claim worthy of note is that her rejoinder to wealthy Blacks takes the form of a defence of the figure of the “looter,” which she defetishizes, by refusing a fixation on *what* it is they’re doing, ie. egregiously smashing and grabbing commodities, but *why* they are doing it. And this is an indictment of US capitalism, if not capitalism as a whole. Again, as Marx indicates with his concept of primitive accumulation in Chapter 26 of Capital, this is a system that is made possible by systematic looting (embodying the real primitivism that is then projected onto its victims):
“ The discovery of gold and silver in America, the extirpation, enslavement and entombment in mines of the aboriginal population, the beginning of the conquest and looting of the East Indies, the turning of Africa into a warren for the commercial hunting of black-skins, signalled the rosy dawn of the era of capitalist production.”
Losing elections and other windows of opportunity
by Rosemary Bechler
"When you lose an election in a democracy, you deserve to.” It’s a good soundbite – Keir Starmer is always at his most sure-footed when he is shafting his predecessor. But of course it isn’t true, at least of modern democracies as we now know them: and the upcoming US election is surely a case in point. Which is more detrimental to this case, I wonder – the fact that Trump is already poised, were something to go wrong, to accuse democracy of malfunctioning, or the fact that so many Americans, in that eventuality, might be inclined to believe him?
Progressives have a particular set of hurdles when it comes to democratic elections today, most of which boil down to convincing others they can “get things done” – whether this is Brexit or frankly anything else. One neglected factor is the electoral metaphor of backing a winner. Generations of impotent populaces have treated their vote as their one throw of the dice every five years. Fear of backing a loser is a real force to be reckoned with.
For progressives, circumventing this involves a complicated two-step. One STEP: First we have to articulate people's discontent at the diabolical state of things. Two STEP: then instil hope, with little tangible evidence, that this can nevertheless be transformed. All too easily the right breezing in, calling us ‘doom and gloomsters’, head us off at the pass before STEP 2. It involves considerable tact.
Two recent examples will suffice. The first is the Deep Adaptation debate prompted among Extinction Rebellion (XR) members and hosted on OurEconomy this summer. Arguably Extinction Rebellion, by dramatically alerting people to the full climate threat and yet insisting that much could be done by 2030 (not 2050) has hit this sweet spot of potential political change. It must certainly be galling to those who took the trouble to include XR as radical extremists in the Prevent programme, that David Attenborough – “the story of how we came to make our biggest mistake … and how if we act now, we can yet put it right” and Prince Charles – “ it is vital… that we make truly transformative progress along the road to net zero by 2030” – between them take up exactly this message.
My second example is Professor Christina Pagel’s timely intervention published on September 29, 'Covid: The libertarian population immunity strategy is wrong-headed & dangerous.' Christina is the member of Independent SAGE recently rolled out by the BBC to provide ‘balance’ for their revived interest in population immunity advocacy. Pagel’s article is a longer version of her rebuttal. She begins with six reasons why a deliberate strategy of ‘herd immunity’ might lead to unacceptable levels of illness and death. For example, we cannot seal off the variously vulnerable who constitute between 20 and 30% of the population, somewhere between 12 and 20 million people; moreover, such a strategy would make existing inequalities worse – COVID would spread more rapidly and severely in COVID-unsafe work and home environments while more advantaged communities remain relatively protected. But the triumph of her argument is the last section, entitled, ‘We know how to suppress the virus without lockdown’ – where, having pulled no punches, she nevertheless makes it to Step Two.
Pointing to the countries that continue to suppress the virus with far less impact on their economies, she concedes that “we still do not have a test and trace system that is fit for purpose” and that “given the current rise in cases and hospitalisations, we do need more restrictions to halt the spread of COVID until testing and tracing can take much of the strain”. But we can do it she insists, and moreover “this is a matter of weeks, not months” because, “we have good evidence as to how it should be done: a de-centralised local strategy, and partnership between local government, public health bodies, primary care and local communities” – evidence presumably like the local test-and-trace systems with which desperate local authorities plugged the holes in Dido Harding’s colander – some of which quickly reached 98-100% of their targets.
COVID has been a bit of a game-changer in both cases, so thoroughly has its relentless exposures seen off business-as-usual. Certainly in infecting the demagogues, it is no respecter of elections. But more importantly, now, when progressives do manage to reach STEP 2 and what can really be done to save lives and build-back-better – these suggestions have acquired a boldness, scope and gravitas that we have not been able to hear for a while...
Sir David King, Independent SAGE (Oct.2): “8 months in we still don't have an operative Test and Trace system. It's still not too late. We are saying to the government, time to hand over to the public health sector. ”
Sarah O’Connor in the FT, (September 29): “Prime Minister Boris Johnson invoked the legacy of Franklin D Roosevelt in June, promising a “New Deal” akin to the US president’s efforts to combat the Depression. One of the FDR government’s boldest decisions was to become ‘employer of last resort’… The UK government should create jobs too: real roles that equip the economy for the future. Britain has a shortage of care workers, which are undoubtedly jobs with prospects, given the ageing population… It would take an extra 180,000 care workers just to bring the ratio of carers to the over-70s population back to its 2014 peak... "
... though many of them were surely lurking in Jeremy Corbyn’s election manifestos.
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