My Information Age: weekly varia 11/20/22

One of the things that I have been thinking a lot about as Twitter lists toward the waterline is how I receive my information about the world. For better and for worse, tapping into Twitter feels like connecting into a larger hive mind and thus has become my primary source of information about any number of topics. What I see is absolutely filtered through a particular information bubble because I aggressively mute both topics and accounts that I believe are not worth my attention, but the accounts I follow do a much better job of curating information for me than I could ever do for myself. Sometimes this information came because I was able to lurk in conversations I would otherwise never have been in a position to hear, as David Perry recently wrote on CNN. Sometimes it was in long threads by a single author. Frequently, though, Twitter was a platform where people would link to and discuss stories from a whole range of outlets.

I have other sources of information, of course. Several places in my RSS feed bring me a healthy dose of information and commentary, including three (Keith Law, Bill Caraher, and Joy the Baker) that do weekly roundups up things that they read, for instance, and I am in several Discord groups that share links. Nor am I opposed to trekking into the wilds of the internet to hunt down my own stories. What Twitter offered was the convenience of having a diverse selection of information brought into one place. Finding stories of note from a range of outlets represents a significant time commitment that I rarely feel that I have these days, even when those stories are not found behind a paywall (I understand the need for paywalls as a business model, but I can only subscribe to so many things).

The question I have is not whether this is a habit I need to develop, but whether I should commit to doing some sort of weekly roundup of essays and articles that I discover in the process. In some ways this would mark a return to my roots, since, years ago I did regular roundups in this sort. The last of those posts went up nearly a decade ago, with links to five stories about topics that ranged from the diary of Franz Ferdinand to a profile of King Abdullah of Jordan to an Onion story that I found amusing. I stopped writing these posts for a few reasons, including that they didn’t get a lot of traction, which made writing them seem like a futile exercise, and that Twitter had come to fill that role in my media engagement. It doesn’t help, that I tend to skim this sort of post that other blogs put out.

And yet, thinking out loud here, I am warming to the idea of a weekly wrap of some sort with a short reflection, links to stories worth reading from the week and a short-form update on articles and books that I’ve read. Such a post would give me motivation to read more widely to curate my list and provide another low-stakes chance to talk about things that I have been reading even when I won’t be writing a full review. In fact, my primary hesitation is over whether writing this post will be something that gets lost in the wash of the other things I have going on.

But there is only one way to find out. For now I’m going to mimic Bill Caraher in calling these posts “weekly varia” that go up either Saturday or Sunday, but I also expect the format, content, and timing of these posts will evolve as I find my groove.

Without further ado, here are the varia for 11/20/2022.

  • Climate change has been a significant factor behind the malaise I have felt this year and, despite the general advice to PhDs in my position to apply for every opportunity, there are jobs I have opted not to apply to for environmental reasons. Reuters published a lengthy piece (with pictures) about how one of the cradles of civilization, Mesopotamia, is drying up. Climate change in this case is being compounded by water usage upriver.
  • From NPR, the FDA approved a safety study from Upside Foods for no-kill meat—that is, meat grown in vats and a feature of speculative fiction stories like Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake. I am skeptical that this innovation will save humanity, but it is absolutely necessary. This week an Environmental Science professor shared an infographic on Twitter about the distribution of mammalian biomass on earth. Wild animals represent 4%, compared to 34% for humans and 35% for cows.
  • The Guardian has a long read about infrastructure challenges of coastal West Africa, where a booming population is leading to a boom of urbanization. I find it hard to read stories like this and not think about climate change.
  • The New York Times has an article about the minister Rob Schenck, who alleges that the leaked draft of Justice Alito’s decision in the Dobbs decision from earlier this year is not the first time that the outcome of contentious cases were leaked to allow Christian groups to prepare their messaging campaign. He goes further, too, claiming that he had exploited access to influence justices during his time as an anti-abortion activist. The Times says that they found gaps in his story, but also a trail of corroborating evidence. For a branch of government whose authority rests almost entirely on the perceived legitimacy of precedent, the current conservative majority seems hellbent on burning the entire institution to the ground. The only question seems to be how much damage will they do before that process is complete?
  • NPR had a story about how culture war issues are creating a teacher shortage. The article correctly identifies the rise in harassment of teachers and points to the numerous bills that have been introduced to punish them for addressing current issues, but it does not identify any of the other issues behind the teacher shortage (e.g. pay, burnout). I also hate that there is a cursory attempt at making this a “both sides” issue when only one ideological position is misrepresenting what happens in a classroom and introducing bills that criminalize teaching.
  • Jonathan Malesic writes in the Atlantic ($) about how employers moving from “sick” days to “wellness” days is a good thing, but that “mental-health days” are no substitute for changing the structures of work that actually cause burnout. This piece is an addendum to his excellent book that I reviewed earlier this year. I have found mental-health days hard to justify, despite an encouraging email from my employer at the start of the semester. Taking a day simply puts me one day further behind on grading and cancelling class periods creates work of reorganizing schedules and coordinating with the students that takes nearly as much time as the cancellations save. Then again, I have also been dragging myself to the finish line. Suffice to say, I am quite persuaded by Malesic’s arguments.
  • The Dig podcast from Jacobin Magazine has been running a very long listen five-part series on the history of modern Iran with Eskandar Sadeghi and Golnar Nikpour. I am an intermittent listener to this podcast, but this series has been a can’t-miss for me these past few weeks.
  • Another podcast, Rachel Maddow Presents: Ultra has one final episode to go. The series is a dive back into the archival footage of 1940 that explores the plots to overthrow the US government and establish a fascist regime in its place, and how sitting members of congress working with German agents were complicit in these conspiracies. These agents were particularly effective at finding the preexisting fault lines in this country and fanning the flames.
  • The French Olympic Committee has chosen the bonnet rouge for the Olympic mascot in 2024. The brand director offered some platitudes about the power of sport to change the world before saying “The mascot must embody the French spirit, which is something very fine to grasp. It’s an ideal, a kind of conviction that carries the values of our country, and which has been built up over time, over history.” Which political cartoonist will be first with a smiling Phryges operating a guillotine? Then again, Gritty seems to make it work.

Album of the week: Justin Townes Earle, The Saint of Lost Causes.

Currently reading: Fonda Lee, Jade City; Touraj Daryaee, Sasanian Persia: The Rise and Fall of an Empire.

Reading Lolita in Tehran

the cover of Azar Nafisi, Reading Lolita in Tehran: a memoir in books

A novel is not an allegory, I said as the period was about to come to an end. It is the sensual experience of another world. If you don’t enter that world, hold your breath with the characters and become involved in their destiny, you won’t be able to empathize, and empathy is at the heart of a novel. This is how you read a novel: you inhale the experience. So start breathing. I just want you to remember this. That is all; class dismissed.

Over the past few years I have found myself increasingly interested in reading memoirs. The problem is that memoir is a genre for which I have no great love. One of my favorite things to do to unwind is peruse lists of upcoming or classic novels and flag anything that looks interesting, but when I read lists of iconic memoirs the descriptions leave me utterly uninterested in reading on. What usually makes the difference for me is hearing the author talk about the genesis of the memoir, as happened with Kathryn Schulz’s Lost & Found. In the case of Azar Nafisi’s Reading Lolita in Tehran: a memoir in books, my entry point was simpler: my partner had just finished the book and told me that that I might find it interesting. A blend of literature, the Iranian revolution, and teaching? Sure, sign me up.

Reading Lolita in Tehran spans the period between the early years of the Islamic Republic after the Revolution in 1979 when Azar Nafisi returned to the Iran and when she left with her family in 1997. Between these two chronological tentpoles, the discussion unfolds in a non-linear fashion. Each of the four sections of the books uses a different English-language author or book as its central focus. The first section, “Lolita” centers on an off-the-books class of young women who met at Nafisi’s home on Thursday mornings after she resigned from the her teaching post in Iran. The second, “Gatsby” takes as its central thread a class that read Fitzgerald’s novel in an Iranian University during the Revolution. The third, “James,” follows the events of “Gatsby” during the Iran-Iraq War, at a time when Nafisi had been expelled from her teaching position. The fourth and final section, “Austen,” follows from “Lolita” and focuses on the decision to leave Iran.

There was a lot I loved about this book. In part, Nafisi has a gift for spinning an elegant and considered phrase:

We complemented each other, because you my knowledge was impulsive and untidy, and hers meticulous and absolute.

Fiction was not a panacea, but it did offer us a critical way of appraising and grasping the world—not just our world but that other world that had become the object of our desires.

But I also found the book profoundly moving as a teacher for two reasons.

The first is a function of teaching literature and its possibilities. For as much as I love literature, my entire experience in English classes past high school was most of a semester my senior year of college during which I sat in on a Western Canon class. Everything else I know about literature has been picked up through the lens of Classics or found in tidbits here and there along the way. Perhaps unsurprisingly, therefore, when I teach literature I end up teaching it as a historian, rather than as a literary scholar. The discussion found in Reading Lolita is obviously a curated account of classroom activities, but I was inspired by the way that she talks about the discussions and am hoping to steal bits and pieces for a class I might be teaching soon that puts literature front and center. Some of the technical details of these classes might not pass muster with accreditation boards these days, but those observations were compelling in their own way.

(I suspect that my own unfamiliarity with some of the books she discusses caused me to miss some of the thematic resonances that she weaves into the memoir, but this was not something that troubled me over-much.)

The second appealed to me as a teacher and a historian. This period of Nafisi’s career centers on her time teaching English and American literature in Iran concurrently with the revolution that led to students marching through the streets chanting “Death to America.” For as much as I found myself fretting this summer about how I’ll approach certain topics in the classroom and people are justifiably concerned about coordinated attacks on teachers, I can only imagine trying to teach under circumstances where a) your students are divided into openly hostile factions; b) some students often vanish from class to participate in anti-American rallies; c) other students vanish because they’ve been arrested; and d) the state is aggressively attempting to institute an authoritarian fantasy. However, this was also a potent reminder about how teaching—and living—conditions can deteriorate over the course of just a few years.

Many passages in Reading Lolita in Tehran were also remarkable for their mundane observations about the messiness of everyday life:

In retrospect, when historical events are fathered up, analyzed and categorized into articles and books, their messiness disappears and they gain a certain logic and clarity that one never feels at the time. For me, as for millions of ordinary Iranians, the war came out of nowhere one mild fall morning: unexpected, unwelcome and utterly senseless.

My reading of this memoir was also timely in that it coincided with the current outpouring of protests in Iran sparked by the death of Mahsa Amini, a young woman who had been detained by the morality police. Every time something like this happens, the coverage invariably asks whether this is the time that popular pressure will topple the oppressive regime—as though there is a switch that gets flipped. I found Reading Lolita in Tehran a useful reminder both that individual people are participants in events and about the messiness of any transition. I like to tell my students that while we can often understand history through the institutions and social structures, nothing is necessarily inevitable. We can create a better world by working toward it. The reason why literature is a threat to any totalitarian fantasy is that it has the power to unlock something that allows people to imagine a world beyond its confines.

ΔΔΔ

Since my last book post I have mostly been struggling against the current of the semester with the result that my reading has slowed to a crawl. I finished Rebecca Roanhorse’s Black Sun, a fantasy novel in a world inspired by Mesoamerica that I found equal parts compelling and bafflingly-paced, and Saara el-Arifi’s The Final Strife, an African-inspired fantasy that played with issues of caste and race in a way that I really enjoyed. I am currently reading Tamsyn Muir’s Gideon the Ninth, which I don’t like nearly as much as I think a lot of people do and Ken Liu’s story collection The Paper Menagerie and other stories. This is a lot of fantasy, even by my standards, but I’m also preparing to teach a class in the spring on speculative fiction, so this is now a professional obligation as well as a private interest.

A few thoughts on the third debate

*Warning: what follows are a few thoughts with some semblance of structure about the foreign policy debate from last night. I don’t like the foreign policy of either candidate and find the American political coverage both of the debate and of foreign issues to be utterly disheartening. I have done little to no new research on any of the topics, do not offer solutions (yet), and at several points make opinionated statements that I have not necessarily adequately defended with examples pulled from my recollection of the debate or by briefly skimming through the debate transcript. Words are wind.

-“There is no reason that Americans should die [when we have Afghans for that].”

-Dear Mitt Romney, Barbados, Burundi, Palau, and the Vatican City are all four years closer to the bomb, too. That is how time works.

I sent out two tweets during last night’s foreign policy debate between Mitt Romney and Barack Obama (though I have since modified the wording of the first to make it pithier). I had one tweet for each presidential candidate, neither positive. For most of the day today I have monitored the coverage–everything from that this debate didn’t matter to which candidate appeared more presidential. Most of the coverage was inane, repetitive, and (if possible) more vapid than the actual talking points during the debate. Just one article truly went too far for me. I will get to this one in a moment, but I will say now that it was not the comments that Ann Coulter made. I’ve long since decided that, at least when I want to be serious, nothing she says is coherent or dignified enough to warrant a response. I prefer to deal with rational people and, as far as I can tell, she is not one.

To be honest, what Romney said scared me more than what Obama did. On one hand, I have significant qualms with how the administration is handling Iran, Syria, Turkey, Iraq, Israel, and most of the rest of the world, not to mention drone attacks. On the other, I was never at any point surprised by what Obama said and I could see a mixture of pandering and basic precedent set in his first term in the answers. Romney never really provided answers of his own, but it was nonetheless interesting that he was the one who brought up the various militant Islamist groups that the President has not publicly addressed, particularly Mali and the student protests in Tehran.

Romney’s answers were often nonsensical, culturally imperialistic, and (borderline) offensive. To give one example, Romney repeatedly mentioned that Israel is the closest ally the United States has in the Middle East (Obama made the same claim at least once). This may be true, though I could easily see a case to be made for Turkey–a NATO member–officially and substantively being closer to the United States than Israel. On the Arab Spring, he said:

“I wish that, looking back at the beginning of the president’s term and even further back than that, that we’d have recognized that there was a growing energy and passion for freedom in that part of the world, and that we would have worked more aggressively with our friend and with other friends in the region to have them make the transition towards a more representative form of government, such that it didn’t explode in the way that it did.”

In short: perhaps this whole supporting dictators and rigging elections thing doesn’t work so well in this age of instant technology–and while we support free elections, did you really have to vote for those guys?

Romney also pointed out the opportunities for US business in “Latin America,” claiming that there were “language opportunities” (whatever that means), brazenly claimed that Europe would support whatever sanctions the US wants on Iran, and that his relationship with Netanyahu will help determine Israeli policy on Iran. Romney said that we need to “indict” Ahmadinejad, though for what, it isn’t entirely clear (something about his words inciting genocide?). And, somehow, the teacher’s union is a foreign policy imperative. Presidential though he may have seemed, my biggest sense was that the President’s primary critique of Romney–that his foreign policy is rash and all over the map–seemed to ring true. And, yes, the United States does dictate to other countries.

As has been noted in a few places, this debate was notable for what was left out. Europe was hardly mentioned, Central and South America came up rarely, and climate change was never mentioned. It was also remarkable in that the candidates often agreed. Neither wanted to be involved in the regime change in Syria and both support increased defense spending, and on a number of occasions Obama was forced to counter Romney’s statements with statements that the administration already does what Romney proposed. More egregiously, though, both candidates lived in a world of blissful ignorance about history of even relatively recent events. For instance, there was a lot of talk about the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, but none that the United States supported Hosni Mubarak for decades–not to mention at least one gloss made between Tahrir Square and Tienanmen Square. And, of course, there was the role of America in the world:

“I absolutely believe that America has a — a responsibility, and the privilege of helping defend freedom and promote the principles that — that make the world more peaceful. And those principles include human rights, human dignity, free enterprise, freedom of expression, elections. Because when there are elections, people tend to vote for peace. They don’t vote for war.”

“America remains the one indispensable nation. And the world needs a strong America, and it is stronger now than when I came into office.”

The perpetual myth that is the American responsibility to civilize and defend the world–and the perpetual myth that democracies don’t go to war. Leaving aside that democracies don’t actually exist, the Melians probably have something to say about this and Kipling would love these guys. Sort of. They talk the talk, but really don’t want to get their hands dirty.

So, the article. I looked through the debate transcript and tried to recall some of my reactions from watching the debate last night. The accusation against Romney that comes up in the article posted above, but not here is that Mitt Romney made a geographical gaffe about Iran’s access to the sea. What we watched last night was an hour and a half of political bickering in front of a national audience and, for all we know, Romney might have been thinking about the Mediterranean as “the sea.” I would be more concerned if Romney was looking at a map and couldn’t figure out where Iran was, but I am fairly certain that he can pick Iran out on a map and would notice the other bodies of water. It is a misstep, but I dislike using this type of misspeaking to discredit his candidacy only slightly less than I dislike making fun of his name. It is something he said, but it is also something of even less significance than everything else he said during the debate.

If political language is meant “to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind,” then it seems that now, more than ever, the media tries to do the same.

Assorted Links

Salman Rushdie fatwa turned into Iranian video game – Evidently, several years ago Iran’s national foundation of computer games asked students to design and create scripts for this game, with the top three being handed over to developers. Evidently the game will involve the players to carry out the Ayatollah’s command to kill Rushdie.

I don’t Want Health Care if Just Anyone Can Have It – An article that appeared in the Onion, March 2007, but is apropos of the ACA supreme court ruling (I would recommend reading the Opinion given by John Roberts, which is probably going to give more problems long term for the supporters of the ACA).

Rest of the Country Should Take a Good Look At the Situation in Texas – An article about the actual health care crisis that Texas is in.

Ethics Training is Wrong – The opinion of math professor Lou Van den Dries who refused to attend yearly mandatory ethics violations and had received a fine for his actions. Among other things, he calls the ethics workshops “Orwellian” and states that “An unfortunate byproduct of the computer revolution is that it has given new tools in the hands of unwise rulers to annoy us for no good reason.” He has chosen to settle the fine rather than going through a legal process.