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Wednesday, Aug 15, 2018
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The Reading File: Excerpts from interesting articles

Exploring the gray areas

In the Atlantic, James Hamblin writes that "the story of Aziz Ansari and ‘Grace’ is playing out as a sort of Rorschach test." Read "This Is Not A Sex Panic" in full at http://theatln.tc/2mOvCKf. Here’s an excerpt.

To target only the most egregious "monsters" is to treat only the severe symptoms; the goal is prevention. It’s easy to recognize something is amiss when a person is called to a boss’ suite and asked to disrobe. The behavior of a Harvey Weinstein is simple to condemn. The harder work is ahead, in the more common and less clear-cut moments that leave people feeling somewhere between uncomfortable and trapped. The person who says she wants to hang out and drink wine and also does not want to have sex — and a man who hears, Okay, we’ll see what happens.

These are exactly the stories that people, particularly men, need to hear. The fact that people see so many sides — and in many cases, elements of themselves — in the Ansari story is the reason it needs to be told and discussed. The story resonated with many people who’ve had similar experiences, or who thought Ansari’s reported behavior was okay because it is normal.

Free speech — of a sort

In Wired, Zeynep Tufekci writes that "It’s The (Democracy-Poisoning) Golden Age Of Free Speech." Read the essay in full at http://bit.ly/2DrFwvJ. Here’s an excerpt

In today’s networked environment, when anyone can broadcast live or post their thoughts to a social network, it would seem that censorship ought to be impossible. This should be the golden age of free speech. And sure, it is a golden age of free speech — if you can believe your lying eyes. Is that footage you’re watching real? Was it really filmed where and when it says it was? Is it being shared by alt-right trolls or a swarm of Russian bots? Was it maybe even generated with the help of artificial intelligence? (Yes, there are systems that can create increasingly convincing fake videos.)

Or let’s say you were the one who posted that video. If so, is anyone even watching it? Or has it been lost in a sea of posts from hundreds of millions of content pro­ducers? Does it play well with Facebook’s algorithm? Is YouTube recommending it?

Maybe you’re lucky and you’ve hit a jackpot in today’s algorithmic public sphere: an audience that either loves you or hates you. Is your post racking up the likes and shares? Or is it raking in a different kind of "engagement": Have you received thousands of messages, mentions, notifications, and emails threatening and mocking you? Have you been doxed for your trouble? Have invisible, angry hordes ordered 100 pizzas to your house? Did they call in a SWAT team — men in black arriving, guns drawn, in the middle of dinner?

Recipes for happy babies

In the Guardian, Oliver Burkeman writes that "every baffled new parent goes searching for answers in baby manuals. But what they really offer is the reassuring fantasy that life’s most difficult questions have one right answer." Read "The Diabolical Genius Of The Baby Advice Industry" in full at http://bit.ly/2rmQz4G. Here’s an excerpt.

What I didn’t yet understand was the diabolical genius of the baby-advice industry, which targets people at their most sleep-deprived, at the beginning of what will surely be the weightiest responsibility of their lives, and suggests that maybe, just maybe, between the covers of this book, lies the morsel of information that will make the difference between their baby’s flourishing or floundering. The brilliance of this system is that it works on the most sceptical readers, too, because you don’t need to believe it’s likely such a morsel actually exists. You need only think it likely enough to justify spending another £10.99 on, oh, you know, the entire future happiness of your child, just in case. Assuming you’ve got £10.99 to spare, what kind of monster would refuse?

And so "two or three" books became six, and 10, and eventually 23, all with titles that, even before the sleep deprivation set in, had begun to blur into one other: The Baby Book and Secrets of the Baby Whisperer and The Happiest Baby on the Block and Healthy Sleep Habits, Happy Child and The Contented Little Baby Book. (Their cover designs blurred even more. It’s hard to imagine the jacket art meeting for most baby books lasting more than a few seconds: "How about … a photo of a baby?") If there is a single secret of good parenting, it is surely to be found on the rickety, self-assembly bookcase in the little back bedroom of our flat. A tone of overbearingly cheery confidence characterises almost all such books, which makes sense; half the hope in purchasing any one of them is that you might absorb some of the author’s breezy self-assurance. Yet for all this certitude, it rapidly became clear that the modern terrain of infant advice was starkly divided. ...

Paul Robeson’s moment

In the New York Review of Books, Simon Callow writes about the important — and now often little known — life of Paul Robeson, who 75 years ago "was the man of the future; America was going to change. Or so it seemed for a brief moment..." Read "The Emperor Robeson" in full at http://bit.ly/2mN7ojN. Here’s an excerpt.

The spirituals Robeson had been instrumental in discovering for a wider audience were not simply communal songs of love and life and death but the urgent cries of a captive people yearning for a better, a juster life. These songs, rooted in the past, expressed a present reality in the lives of twentieth-century American black people, citizens of the most powerful nation on earth but oppressed and routinely humiliated on a daily basis. When Robeson sang the refrain of Go Down Moses — "Let my people go!" — it had nothing to do with consolation or comfort: it was an urgent demand. And in the Britain in which I grew up, he was deeply admired for it. For us, he was the noble representative, the beau idéal, of his race: physically magnificent, finely spoken, fiercely intelligent, charismatic but not at all threatening.

At some point in the 1960s, he faded from our view. Disgusted with America’s failure to address his passionate demands for his people, he had gone to Moscow, endorsing the Soviet regime. Meanwhile, a new generation of black militants, fierce demagogues, had become prominent, and suddenly Robeson seemed very old-fashioned. There were no more television reruns of his most famous movies, Sanders of the River (1935) and The Proud Valley (1940); his music was rarely heard. When news of his death came in 1976, there was surprise that he was still alive. And now, it is hard to find anyone under 50 who has the slightest idea who he is, or what he was, which is astonishing — as a singer, of course, and, especially in Proud Valley, as an actor, his work is of the highest order. But his significance as an emblematic figure is even greater, crucial to an understanding of the American 20th century.

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