(Roughly) Daily

Posts Tagged ‘South Africa

“Oh, down in Mexico / I never really been so I don’t really know”*…

In this moment of altogether appropriate attention to the autocratic threat to Ukraine, it’s too easy to forget that genuine democracy is under threat all around the world. Nathan Gardels cites two examples close to home: Mexico and California…

The core crisis of governance in open societies today is the distrust that has grown between the public and its institutions of self-government. The response to this breach of trust has largely been unfolding in two directions — the autocratic tendency toward decisive strongmen who fashion themselves as tribunes of the people, or seeking to re-legitimize democracy through greater citizen engagement and participation.

Now, a new and concerning hybrid is emerging that exploits the tools of citizen engagement and participation (such as the recall of elected officials, the referendum, and ballot initiative) either to affirm autocratic leanings or to protect and promote the very special interests these tools were meant to challenge…

Participatory democracy unmediated by impartial institutions of deliberation or guarded against manipulation by the powers that be poses as significant a risk to citizen control of government as unchecked executive power or rule by those with the most gold. When plebiscitary practices are deployed from the top down to affirm the rule of a present regime, or hijacked by the most monied, instead of initiated from the bottom up, the very notion of citizen empowerment is nullified.

Top-down direct democracy is a wolf in sheep’s clothing: “Mexico: On The Path To A Perfect Autocracy?“, from @NoemaMag.

* James Taylor, “Mexico”

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As we watch our backs, we might note that not all exercises of direct democracy (even when they are structurally flawed) end badly: on this date in 1992 a referendum to end apartheid in South Africa passed by a vote of 69% to 31%… a margin that would surely had been larger had the election not been restricted to white voters. (Universal suffrage was established two years later.)

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Written by (Roughly) Daily

March 17, 2022 at 1:00 am

“People are trapped in history and history is trapped in them”*…

The late David Graeber (with his co-author David Wengrow), left one last book; William Deresiewicz gives us an early look…

Many years ago, when I was a junior professor at Yale, I cold-called a colleague in the anthropology department for assistance with a project I was working on. I didn’t know anything about the guy; I just selected him because he was young, and therefore, I figured, more likely to agree to talk.

Five minutes into our lunch, I realized that I was in the presence of a genius. Not an extremely intelligent person—a genius. There’s a qualitative difference. The individual across the table seemed to belong to a different order of being from me, like a visitor from a higher dimension. I had never experienced anything like it before. I quickly went from trying to keep up with him, to hanging on for dear life, to simply sitting there in wonder.

That person was David Graeber. In the 20 years after our lunch, he published two books; was let go by Yale despite a stellar record (a move universally attributed to his radical politics); published two more books; got a job at Goldsmiths, University of London; published four more books, including Debt: The First 5,000 Years, a magisterial revisionary history of human society from Sumer to the present; got a job at the London School of Economics; published two more books and co-wrote a third; and established himself not only as among the foremost social thinkers of our time—blazingly original, stunningly wide-ranging, impossibly well read—but also as an organizer and intellectual leader of the activist left on both sides of the Atlantic, credited, among other things, with helping launch the Occupy movement and coin its slogan, “We are the 99 percent.”

On September 2, 2020, at the age of 59, David Graeber died of necrotizing pancreatitis while on vacation in Venice. The news hit me like a blow. How many books have we lost, I thought, that will never get written now? How many insights, how much wisdom, will remain forever unexpressed? The appearance of The Dawn of Everything: A New History of Humanity is thus bittersweet, at once a final, unexpected gift and a reminder of what might have been. In his foreword, Graeber’s co-author, David Wengrow, an archaeologist at University College London, mentions that the two had planned no fewer than three sequels.

And what a gift it is, no less ambitious a project than its subtitle claims. The Dawn of Everything is written against the conventional account of human social history as first developed by Hobbes and Rousseau; elaborated by subsequent thinkers; popularized today by the likes of Jared Diamond, Yuval Noah Harari, and Steven Pinker; and accepted more or less universally. The story goes like this. Once upon a time, human beings lived in small, egalitarian bands of hunter-gatherers (the so-called state of nature). Then came the invention of agriculture, which led to surplus production and thus to population growth as well as private property. Bands swelled to tribes, and increasing scale required increasing organization: stratification, specialization; chiefs, warriors, holy men.

Eventually, cities emerged, and with them, civilization—literacy, philosophy, astronomy; hierarchies of wealth, status, and power; the first kingdoms and empires. Flash forward a few thousand years, and with science, capitalism, and the Industrial Revolution, we witness the creation of the modern bureaucratic state. The story is linear (the stages are followed in order, with no going back), uniform (they are followed the same way everywhere), progressive (the stages are “stages” in the first place, leading from lower to higher, more primitive to more sophisticated), deterministic (development is driven by technology, not human choice), and teleological (the process culminates in us).

It is also, according to Graeber and Wengrow, completely wrong. Drawing on a wealth of recent archaeological discoveries that span the globe, as well as deep reading in often neglected historical sources (their bibliography runs to 63 pages), the two dismantle not only every element of the received account but also the assumptions that it rests on. Yes, we’ve had bands, tribes, cities, and states; agriculture, inequality, and bureaucracy, but what each of these were, how they developed, and how we got from one to the next—all this and more, the authors comprehensively rewrite. More important, they demolish the idea that human beings are passive objects of material forces, moving helplessly along a technological conveyor belt that takes us from the Serengeti to the DMV. We’ve had choices, they show, and we’ve made them. Graeber and Wengrow offer a history of the past 30,000 years that is not only wildly different from anything we’re used to, but also far more interesting: textured, surprising, paradoxical, inspiring…

A brilliant new account upends bedrock assumptions about 30,000 years of change: “Human History Gets a Rewrite,” @WDeresiewicz introduces the newest– and last?– book from @davidgraeber and @davidwengrow. Eminently worth reading in full.

* James Baldwin

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As we reinterpret, we might spare a thought for Vic Allen; he died on this date in 1914. A British human rights activist, political prisoner, sociologist, historian, economist and professor at the University of Leeds, he worked closely with British trade unions, and was considered a key player in the resistance against Apartheid in South Africa. He spent much of his life supporting the South African National Union of Mineworkers (NUM), and was a key mentor to British trade union leader Arthur Scargill, In 2010 Allen was awarded the Kgao ya Bahale award, the highest honor afforded by the South African Union of Miners. After his death he was widely commended by his fellow academics and activists for his lifelong commitment to worker’s rights and racial equality.

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“Take support and comfort from your own group as you can, but don’t hide within it”*…

 

Johnny Miller was just starting out as a photographer in Seattle in 2011 when he won a Rotary Ambassadorial Scholarship that took him to Cape Town, South Africa—a country that, like his own, has a long history of institutional racism and segregation.

After learning more and more about the history of apartheid in academic settings and encountering its legacy on Cape Town’s streets, Miller decided to engage with the topic in a fresh way: by using a drone to photograph birds-eye views of South African cities and suburbs. The resulting series, called “Unequal Scenes,” shows just how drastically different the urban experience is depending on what side of the color line you are on today, more than 20 years after the end of apartheid…

More photos, and an interview with Miller, at “Apartheid’s Urban Legacy, in Striking Aerial Photographs.”

* Sonia Sotomayor

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As we Cry, The Beloved Country, we might send beautifully-composed birthday greetings to James Van Der Zee; he was born on this date in 1886.  A leading figure in the Harlem Renaissance, he was a photographer whose subjects included the famous (Marcus Garvey, Bill “Bojangles” Robinson, Countee Cullen, and the artist below), but whose full body of work is probably the most comprehensive pictorial documentation of the full range of life in the period.

For a look at (some of) his work beyond the examples here, visit The Art Institute of Chicago and the Smithsonian.

“Escape Artist”

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Jean Michel Basquiat

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Van Der Zee in 1982 (the year before his death)

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Written by (Roughly) Daily

June 29, 2016 at 1:01 am

Your warranty is expiring…

Readers in and around Silicon Valley are only too familiar with “exponential growth”– the engine that powers (or supposedly will power) the hockey-stick growth described in business plan after business plan.  While that growth all too rarely actually materializes in new ventures, the phenomenon of exponential growth is very real…

Consider, for example, human death.  As Gravity and Levity notes:

What do you think are the odds that you will die during the next year?  Try to put a number to it — 1 in 100?  1 in 10,000?  Whatever it is, it will be twice as large 8 years from now.

This startling fact was first noticed by the British actuary Benjamin Gompertz in 1825 and is now called the “Gompertz Law of human mortality.”  Your probability of dying during a given year doubles every 8 years.  For me, a 25-year-old American, the probability of dying during the next year is a fairly miniscule 0.03% — about 1 in 3,000.  When I’m 33 it will be about 1 in 1,500, when I’m 42 it will be about 1 in 750, and so on.  By the time I reach age 100 (and I do plan on it) the probability of living to 101 will only be about 50%.  This is seriously fast growth — my mortality rate is increasing exponentially with age.

And if my mortality rate (the probability of dying during the next year, or during the next second, however you want to phrase it) is rising exponentially, that means that the probability of me surviving to a particular age is falling super-exponentially.

Read the rest of “Your Body Wasn’t Built to Last- A Lesson from Human Mortality Rates“…  (Thanks, Tim O’Reilly, for the tip.)

As we add another supplement to the morning’s pile, we might recall that it was on this date in 1962 that Nelson Mandela was arrested, then imprisoned at Johannesburg Fort.  While he was later moved to Robben Island, he was not released until 1990.

Nelson Mandela

Image via Wikipedia

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