Saturday, 13 May 2017

Cuttings: March 2017

The dangers of nostalgia: we need to imagine a brighter future - article by Mohsin Hamid in The Guardian, based on his book Exit West.  "As I travel the world on my phone and computer and by foot and aircraft, it seems to me that nostalgia is a terribly potent force at this moment of history. Nostalgia manifests itself in so much of our political rhetoric. Islamic State and al-Qaida call for a return to the imagined glories of the early years of Islam. The Brexit campaign was fought with a rallying cry of taking back control from Brussels, promising a return to the imagined glories of pre-EU Britain. Donald Trump emerged victorious in the US election wearing a baseball cap emblazoned with the words 'Make America Great Again', words chanted by his supporters, envisioning a return to the imagined greatness of an America recently victorious in the second world war. In China and India, too, leaders seek a return to imagined past greatnesses, usurped by foreign invaders, colonisers and barbarians. All of these movements are, at heart, projects of restoration. Nostalgia manifests itself in our entertainment and artistic culture as well. The most viewed films of our time revolve around protagonists created a generation, or multiple generations, ago: superheroes, super villains, super secret agents, super space adventurers, super ironic symbols of super sexy pasts. And on television, where we are told great storytelling happens, much of what we see in popular and acclaimed shows comes situated in a past where characters can still plausibly be almost all white. ... Since well before the dawn of history, human beings have gathered together around flickering campfires to tell and listen to tales. We still do, even if the campfires are now more often glowing screens – in cinemas, on television sets, or in our hands. There are a great many reasons for this: fictional narratives offer us so many things. But in our present moment it is worth remembering one reason in particular: storytelling offers an antidote to nostalgia. By imagining, we create the potential for what might be. Religions are composed of stories precisely because of this potency. Stories have the power to liberate us from the tyranny of what was and is.... Take back control? Make America great again? Restore the caliphate? We can do better than these. Storytellers, now is the time to try."

How Robert Evans changed movies for ever, and for the better - article by Ryan Gilbey in The Guardian. "Half a century ago, Hollywood was at a crossroads. The major studios were in the doldrums, haemorrhaging money on bloated star vehicles such as Paint Your Wagon that were relics from a different era. Iconoclastic social critiques such as Bonnie and Clyde and Easy Rider were generating headlines and queues around the block. No one knew what the public wanted next. All bets were off. 'There was a brief window where someone could go into a studio and propose any film,' explains Simon McBurney, the 59-year-old actor and artistic director of groundbreaking theatre company Complicit√©... McBurney is steeped in the era and its social and cultural impact again now that he is directing an adaptation of The Kid Stays in the Picture, the scandalous, hard-boiled show-business memoir by producer Robert Evans, who transformed the industry when he became head of production at Paramount. In shepherding to the screen hits including Rosemary’s Baby, The Godfather and Chinatown, he took the studio from ninth place (of nine) to No 1."

Abigail’s Party at 40: 'I was sure it would sink without trace' - article by Mike Leigh in The Guardian. "Abigail’s Party opened on 18 April 1977. It was a smash hit, the hottest ticket in town. So successful was it that Rudman and Aukin decided to revive it later in the year, over the summer. Again, it was a sellout. Now no less than seven West End managements wanted to transfer it. But we had hit a snag. The nuisance was Alison’s and my other project. She was pregnant. No way could she do a West End run, and naturally I wouldn’t contemplate her being replaced. Our doctor said she could do four weeks, no more. But this was plainly no use to a commercial producer. This seemingly intractable situation was suddenly solved by the inspired Margaret Matheson. On seeing the play, she simply said, 'Let’s do it on television.'... It was a great success on television.... The show was screened again, and yet again, always on BBC1. In those days there were only three television channels, and this third transmission coincided with an all-out strike on ITV, and with an esoteric highbrow programme on BBC2. Moreover, tempestuous storms raged throughout the British Isles that evening. So 16 million viewers stayed at home and watched Abigail’s Party. While it is gratifying that this unexpected exposure resulted in the play becoming celebrated as a classic, it is equally satisfying that it has enjoyed a healthy life as a stage play."

Failing to See, Fueling Hatred - article by Danah Boyd on Backchannel, referenced in John Naughton Memex 1.1 blog. "I grew up with identity politics, striving to make sense of intersectional politics and confused about what it meant to face oppression as a woman and privilege as a white person.... These days, I am surrounded by civil rights advocates and activists of all stripes—folks who remind me to take my privilege seriously.... Yet, with my ethnographer’s hat on, I’m increasingly uncomfortable with how this dynamic is playing out. Not for me personally, but for affecting change. I’m nervous that the way that privilege is being framed and politicized is doing damage to progressive goals and ideals. In listening to white men who see themselves as 'betas' or identify as NEETs ('Not in Education, Employment, or Training') describe their hatred of feminists or social justice warriors, I hear the cost of this frame. They don’t see themselves as empowered or privileged and they rally against these frames. And they respond antagonistically in ways that further the divide, as progressives feel justified in calling them out as racist and misogynist. Hatred emerges on both sides and the disconnect produces condescension as everyone fails to hear where each other comes from, each holding onto their worldview that they are the disenfranchised, they are the oppressed. Power and wealth become othered and agency becomes understood through the lens of challenging what each believes to be the status quo."

Hitler on his moderation - from feature 'Hunger, outrage and bombs: how the Manchester Guardian reported the 1930s' in The Guardian, including this summary of an interview with Adolf Hitler originally published 3 February 1933. " 'I only ask four years; after that the nation can do what it will with me – crucify me if it likes,' said Hitler during an interview which he gave this afternoon to a small group of British and American journalists. There was no middle course left for Germany, he said. Either the Bolshevik standard would fly over Germany or she would recover herself. Appealing for no premature judgment of the press of the world on his Government, he asked that its deeds should be awaited. 'I have been represented as having made bloodthirsty and firebrand speeches against foreign countries, and now the world is surprised at my moderation,' he went on. 'I never delivered firebrand speeches against foreign countries – even my speeches of ten years ago can testify to that. Anyone like myself who knows what war is, is aware of what a squandering of effort, or rather consumption of strength, is involved.' As to a possible future war, the result could only be conjectured, and therefore nobody wanted peace and tranquillity more than himself and Germany. 'But like all other nations, we insist upon equality and our proper place in the world, just as much as the Englishman insists upon the same thing for his country.' "

The problem with ‘facts’ - blog post by John Naughton, commenting on an article by Tim Harford in the Financial Times magazine. "He starts in an unusual place — the way the tobacco industry reacted to the research in the early 1950s that smoking caused lung cancer. Summary: the ‘facts’ didn’t carry the day — or at any rate took an awful long time to have a major impact.... So what’s wrong with the strategy of fighting lies with facts? Harford sees three. (1) 'A simple untruth can beat off a complicated set of facts simply by being easier to understand and remember.' ... (2) Facts tend to be boring.... (3) The truth can feel threatening if accepting it means that you have to rethink your own behaviour.... Is there a solution? Harford cites a study exploring the role of scientific curiosity (rather than scientific literacy).... what we need, Harford thinks, 'is a Carl Sagan or David Attenborough of social science — somebody who can create a sense of wonder and fascination… at the workings of our own civilisation: health, migration, finance, education and diplomacy'."

What writers really do when they write - article by George Saunders in The Guardian. "When I write, 'Bob was an asshole,' and then, feeling this perhaps somewhat lacking in specificity, revise it to read, 'Bob snapped impatiently at the barista,' then ask myself, seeking yet more specificity, why Bob might have done that, and revise to, 'Bob snapped impatiently at the young barista, who reminded him of his dead wife,' and then pause and add, 'who he missed so much, especially now, at Christmas,' – I didn’t make that series of changes because I wanted the story to be more compassionate. I did it because I wanted it to be less lame. But it is more compassionate. Bob has gone from 'pure asshole' to 'grieving widower, so overcome with grief that he has behaved ungraciously to a young person, to whom, normally, he would have been nice'. Bob has changed. He started out a cartoon, on which we could heap scorn, but now he is closer to 'me, on a different day'. How was this done? Via pursuit of specificity. I turned my attention to Bob and, under the pressure of trying not to suck, my prose moved in the direction of specificity, and in the process my gaze became more loving toward him (ie, more gentle, nuanced, complex), and you, dear reader, witnessing my gaze become more loving, might have found your own gaze becoming slightly more loving, and together (the two of us, assisted by that imaginary grouch) reminded ourselves that it is possible for one’s gaze to become more loving."

Cold War Freud and Freud, An Intellectual Biography: the politics of psychoanalysis - reviews by Lisa Appignanesi in The Guardian. "Herzog shows with telling detail how the variety of psychoanalysis that was developed in the US after the second world war had little in common with Freud’s initial project. A wholesale flight from sexuality and an insistence on conservative conformity within the patriotic family dominated many analysts’ repertoire. The sign of 'cure' for the ego psychologists became an individual’s ability to control her impulses and adapt to reality. What was understood by 'reality' was delimited by the norms of the 50s."

Wonderland: How Play Made the Modern World by Steven Johnson: the future is fun - review by Joe Moran in The Guardian. "[The claims of] Steven Johnson’s Wonderland ... can be condensed into a sentence. “'When human beings create and share experiences designed to delight or amaze,' he writes, 'they often end up transforming society in more dramatic ways than people focused on more utilitarian concerns.' ... A technophile whose best-known previous book is Everything Bad Is Good for You, Johnson has a disarming but not always convincing optimism. Not that he ignores the darker aspects: he suggests that the desire for cotton, which greatly intensified the slave trade and the gruesome working conditions of early industrialisation, may have been the worst thing to happen to the world between 1700 and 1900. But the basic arc is towards a more enlightened present. 'You will find the future wherever people are having the most fun,' he writes in his introduction. By his conclusion we have arrived at a 'connected world' that is 'at peace with itself, and at play'. I do hope he is right, but this sense of history as pulled along by 'the propulsive force of delight' feels a little overtaken by events. He must have finished this book before we gave the nuclear codes to a man who does not know what play is, and who turns everything, even a social networking site whose very name suggests playfulness, into a grim ego battle. If play really did make the modern world, then today’s playground bullies are doing their best to knee us in the gonads and steal our ball."

Have we got Machiavelli all wrong? - article by Erica Benner, based on her book Be Like the Fox: Machiavelli's Lifelong Quest for Freedom. "Most people today assume that Machiavelli didn’t just describe their methods, he recommended them – that he himself is the original Machiavellian, the first honest teacher of dishonest politics. ... But what if we’re overlooking Machiavelli’s less obvious messages, his deeper insights into politics? ... Machiavelli was convinced the real threats to freedom come from within – from gross inequalities on the one hand, and extreme partisanship on the other. He saw first-hand that authoritarian rule can take root and flourish in such conditions with terrifying ease, even in republics like Florence that had proud traditions of popular self-government. His city’s tempestuous history taught Machiavelli a lesson he tries to convey to future readers: that no one man can overpower a free people unless they let him. 'Men are so simple,' he tells us, 'so obedient to present necessities, that he who deceives will always find someone who will let himself be deceived.' To each of us, he says: don’t become that someone. Citizens need to realise that by trusting leaders too much and themselves too little, they create their own political nightmares. 'I’d like to teach them the way to hell,' he told a friend toward the end of his life, 'so they can steer clear of it.'"

Ideological shakeup will create a ‘squeezed middle’ of universities - column by Peter Scott in The Guardian. "The higher education and research bill is now slouching through parliament to the inevitable royal assent. Its main provisions are to open the door wide to 'challenger' – mainly for-profit – providers, and impose the Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF), which claims to measure the quality of teaching, but won’t and can’t.... The effects of the new market are fairly easy to predict. Russell Group and other favoured universities will recruit more students, even if they become less selective in the process, because it looks good – and, frankly, pays – in spite of their complaints that the fees do not cover their costs.... At the other end greedy challenger providers will pile in to offer cheap-and-cheerful courses and recruit students who can afford to pay but cannot get into mainstream universities.... The squeezed middle will be many of the big urban post-1992 universities that have done most to reach out to new kinds of students, and also most to bring the worlds of higher education and industry closer together. The more resourceful of them will fight fire with fire by creating their own low-cost HE-lite subsidiaries to compete with the challenger providers. A new-look academic gig economy that cuts costs to the bone will emerge."

On Tyranny by Timothy Snyder: how to defend democracy in the age of Trump - review by Richard Evans in The Guardian. "How we defend our most fundamental freedoms has once again become a matter of great urgency. The historian Timothy Snyder has produced this short book as one response.... 'Do not obey in advance,' he says. 'Most of the power of authoritarianism is freely given.' After Hitler came to power, many if not most Germans voluntarily offered their obedience to his regime. We should heed this warning and refuse to do so ourselves. And certainly, the millions of state servants who ran Germany did indeed rush to join the Nazi party to save their jobs. Later on, few opposed the growing antisemitism of the regime or its genocidal outcome. But Snyder forgets the degree of coercion to which they were subjected. It was no easy thing to risk your job when over a third of the workforce was unemployed, as it was in 1933. Hundreds of thousands of Nazi stormtroopers were roaming the streets beating up and killing the Social Democrats and Communists who were the regime’s main opponents. Up to 200,000 people, overwhelmingly those on the political left, were thrown into concentration camps and brutally mistreated. The great mass of Germans did not obey in advance: they obeyed when tyranny had already set up its tent."

Freedom, revolt and pubic hair: why Antonioni’s Blow-Up thrills 50 years on - article by Anthony Quinn in The Guardian. "The photographer, fed up with the birds and the mod fashion shoots, goes off in search of fresh air – and fresh mischief. He finds himself in a park, where the breeze sounds in the tops of the trees like the sea at low tide. In the distance, he sees a man and a woman, together, canoodling. He points his camera and takes a few snaps of them. On his way out, the woman (Vanessa Redgrave) chases after him and demands, urgently, that he hands over the film. He refuses. She tracks him back to his studio where they smooch, smoke a joint, play some music – and he sends her away with the wrong roll. And here is where the film unfolds its most brilliant and memorable sequence, the part you want to watch over and over again. Alone in his dark room, our hero blows up the photos from the park and discovers that he may have recorded something other than a tryst. Cutting between the photographer and his pictures, Antonioni nudges us ever closer until we see the blow-ups as arrangements of light and shadow, a pointillistic swarm of dots and blots that may reveal a gunman in the bushes, and a body lying on the ground. Has he accidentally photographed a murder?"

The 1930s were humanity's darkest, bloodiest hour. Are you paying attention? - article by Jonathan Freedland in The Guardian. "As the 30s move from living memory into history, as the hurricane moves further away, so what had once seemed solid and fixed – specifically, the view that that was an era of great suffering and pain, whose enduring value is as an eternal warning – becomes contested, even upended. Witness the remarks of Steve Bannon, chief strategist in Donald Trump’s White House and the former chairman of the far-right Breitbart website. In an interview with the Hollywood Reporter, Bannon promised that the Trump era would be 'as exciting as the 1930s'. (In the same interview, he said 'Darkness is good' – citing Satan, Darth Vader and Dick Cheney as examples.) 'Exciting' is not how the 1930s are usually remembered, but Bannon did not choose his words by accident. He is widely credited with the authorship of Trump’s inaugural address, which twice used the slogan 'America first'. That phrase has long been off-limits in US discourse, because it was the name of the movement – packed with nativists and antisemites, and personified by the celebrity aviator Charles Lindbergh – that sought to keep the US out of the war against Nazi Germany and to make an accommodation with Hitler. Bannon, who considers himself a student of history, will be fully aware of that 1930s association – but embraced it anyway."

Gillian Beer: ‘I’m a historical remnant from the great days of free education’ - interview by Claire Armistead in The Guardian. "Alice in Space: The Sideways Victorian World of Lewis Carroll sets the children’s classic in the intellectual wonderland of the late 19th century. Its anxieties about time, embodied in Alice’s first encounter with the White Rabbit and his fobwatch, are traced back to an age in which, as she writes, 'space and time were … coming to be understood more and more as being in intricate and shifting relations, both locally and worldwide'.... With an erudition and economy that is typical of Beer’s writing, such thought-clusters illuminate both the intellectual and geographic terrain that formed Carroll and the very English eccentricities that make his nonsense world so resonant a century and a half after the publication of Alice in Wonderland."

'Four-minute warning: time to boil your last egg': 100 years of anti-war protests - article by Lara Feigel in The Guardian. "The exhibition ['People Power: Fighting for Peace' at London's Imperial War Museum] makes good use of Ernest Rodker, the young activist rather unfairly immortalised as Tommy in Doris Lessing’s The Golden Notebook, who marched at Aldermaston and later marched in February 2003, when a crowd of 2 million gathered in London to demonstrate against the proposed war in Iraq. In an interview for the museum’s show, he echoes the thoughts of those who thought 'this is going to have an impact' and were disillusioned when it didn’t. 'Many people thought ‘What’s the point?’ The biggest march that had ever been and no impact, just ignored by Blair.' Yet the exhibition is timely, because now we are on the march again. I’m part of a large cohort who hadn’t marched since the despair of 2003, but took to the streets once more for the Women’s March in January. As causes of outrage proliferate, I can see that I’ll be marching again before the year is out. Though I can’t share the optimism of the eager crowds leaving Aldermaston, I have lost some of the hopelessness I felt in the wake of the Iraq march, if only because in Trump we have an opponent who at least seems to care about the size of the crowds that turn out."

An American in Paris: how Gene Kelly's leap in the dark became a stage sensation - article by Sarah Crompton in The Guardian. "What Hollywood producer Arthur Freed was after instead was celebration, an all-singing, all-dancing explosion of colour and life with which his unit at MGM could rival musicals from before the war. He had heard George Gershwin’s An American in Paris (composed in Paris in 1928) at a concert and recognised that both the music and the title would make an excellent starting point for a movie musical.... Gershwin had died of a brain tumour in 1937 at the age of 38, but Freed bought the rights from his brother, Ira, for $158,750, over a game of pool. Ira insisted that the tone poem could not stand alone; it had to be surrounded by other Gershwin songs. In effect this makes An American in Paris an early jukebox musical – when Alan Jay Lerner wrote the script in three months he was working around established songs."

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