The Plague of Social Isolation

There is very little to recommend my old gym, other than the low monthly fee, where I worked out nearly every day from 2007 until the pandemic shut it down. The locker rooms were grimy with moldering carpets. There were brown rings around the basins and a thin blackish layer of slime, composed, I suspect, of dead skin, urine, hair, dust, dirt and assorted bacteria on the floor of the shower stalls. To step into the slime without flip flops was to take home athlete’s foot and toenail fungus, at the very least. The sauna in the locker room was reportedly listed on a gay pick-up app and attracted pairs of men looking for anonymous sexual encounters in clouds of steam. The gym management first tried to combat these liaisons by posting a sign on the door that read: “IT IS FORBIDDEN TO HAVE SEX IN THE SAUNA.” When this failed to slow the traffic in and out of the sauna, the door was removed and the sauna shut down. Robberies occurred in the early afternoon when the gym was nearly empty. One man would stand by the entrance of the locker room as a lookout while another quickly pried the hinges off the flimsy lockers and pocketed the wallets. The management was unsympathetic. They had posted signs not to leave valuables in the lockers. Theft was our problem.

The treadmills, stationary bikes and ellipticals would break down and be blocked off for weeks with a chain and sign that read: “Out of Service.” The weight room, located in the

— source | Chris Hedges | Jan 23, 2023

Nullius in verba


Of Death’s-Head Kvellers and Rosa Luxemburg

Anatol Lieven is a respected commentator on international affairs. He is even considered by left wing authorities reliable and reasonable in his opinions. His pronouncements on the Ukraine conflict, however, cast a dark shadow on this reputation. In a recent interview, he states—or kvells:

Russia has only managed to capture half of Luhansk and most … of Zaporizhzhia and Kherson. That’s all that Russia has added to what it’s held since 2014—Crimea and the eastern Donbass. So it does have to be said that Ukraine has—with Western help—already achieved a historic victory. Remember also that this isn’t just a victory compared to Russian hopes—and Western fears—back in February. This is a colossal transformation in terms of the past 400 years of Russian domination of Ukraine—I don’t think the West sufficiently recognizes how significant this change is and the true extent of Ukraine’s victory and Russia’s defeat. (“Stopping the Killing,” January 19, 2023)[1]

In other words, (1) a discrete entity named “Ukraine” has been repressed for four centuries by another discrete entity named “Russia”; (2) Ukraine has finally liberated itself from this timeless Russian oppression; but (3) “the West” hasn’t “sufficiently recognize[d]” this “historic victory,” “colossal transformation,” and “the true extent of Ukraine’s

— source | Norman Finkelstein | Jan 29, 2023

Nullius in verba

Why We Need Pirates

Imagine a pirate. The image that comes immediately to mind is a man, disabled in various ways, with a peg leg, a hook for a hand, a patch over one eye, and a parrot on his shoulder. He is rough, coarse, sometimes humorous, sometimes terrifying. From Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island to Hollywood films, such as Pirates of the Caribbean, this image of the pirate has for centuries now suffused an American, and increasingly global, popular culture.

The image is a myth, but it is no less powerful for that. Like all myths, it contains a small but essential element of truth. Pirates of the “Golden Age,” who marauded on the high seas from 1660 to 1730, were almost all common working sailors, poor men from the lowest social class, who crossed the line into illegal activity, most of them bearing the scars of a dangerous line of work. Naval warfare of the era featured cannonballs blowing up wooden ships, sending an explosion of splinters and chunks of wood that blinded and severed the arms and legs of mariners. Sailors fell from the rigging, suffered hernias while lifting heavy cargo, caught malaria and other debilitating diseases, and lost fingers to rolling casks. Many died, their bodies dumped into that vast gray-green graveyard called the Atlantic Ocean. Crippled mariners made up the majority of beggars to be found in the port cities of the Atlantic world.

The ravaged body of the pirate is a key to understanding the real history of those who sailed “under the banner of King Death,” the infamous black flag, the pirates’ Jolly Roger.

— source | Paul Buhle & Marcus Rediker & David Lester | Jan 26, 2023

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On Criticism

In the misbegotten days of my youth when I was a flaming Maoist, one of the rituals was criticism/self-criticism—or, among insiders, crit/self-crit. Each comrade was supposed to subject themselves to group criticism at meetings’ end and also to fess up to their own transgressions. The ritual was more benign than it sounds: you might be criticized for not tying your sneaker laces (it was before untied sneakers were chill), and you might self-criticize yourself for the petty-bourgeois deviation of never having learnt how to tie them. Still, it would be wrongheaded to dismiss the notion of criticism/self-criticism. In a mass movement of the have-nots committed to radical change, possessing a firm grasp on truth is a critical weapon in our arsenal. Those holding the levers of power can afford to make and repeat errors. They have ample resources—money, media, raw force—to compensate for poor judgment. Indeed, it is largely our grasp on truth that compensates for all our other (inevitable) deficits: truth is a powerful weapon for winning over public opinion, and it enables us to husband our scarce resources, not squander them on committing and repeating errors. But it’s impossible to get a handle on truth until and

— source | Norman Finkelstein | Jan 6, 2023

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We should be skeptical of billionaires who pledge to share their wealth

In the United States, we are now treated to regular announcements about benevolent billionaires pledging to share their wealth. Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, for instance, recently told CNN that he would be giving away the majority of his $124 billion fortune in his lifetime. Further back in 2015, Meta founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg announced he would give away what he makes from 99% of his Facebook shares.

At this point, we should assume a skeptical posture. The truth is, pledges like these may take years, decades or even generations to reach their nonprofit destinations – if ever. That’s why we need more public scrutiny of billionaire philanthropy – and much clearer rules to make sure donations actually support real, working charities.

Consider the Giving Pledge, an initiative founded by Warren Buffett, Melinda French Gates and Bill Gates to increase charitable giving by the extremely wealthy. As of today, more than 230 billionaires from 28 countries have taken the pledge to give away the majority of their wealth.

Presumably, this means we would see declining billionaire fortunes. But on the 10th anniversary of the pledge in 2020, my colleagues at the Institute for Policy Studies and I

— source | Chuck Collins (| Nov 28, 2022

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UK super-rich less charitable than decade ago

The head of England’s charity watchdog has berated the super-rich for failing to give enough money to good causes, saying the voluntary sector faces an “existential crisis” amid the social and economic turmoil facing the UK.

The chair of the Charity Commission, Orlando Fraser, said the UK’s top 1% of earners were giving less to charity than they were a decade ago, despite enjoying significant increases in their personal wealth over the same period.

He said: “On the whole, we have a vibrant culture of service and generosity. The sad fact, however, is that some of those in our country with the deepest pockets are not covering themselves with glory in philanthropic terms – and this matters.”

Fraser cited figures indicating that while the incomes of the top 1% grew by 10% in real terms between 2011 and 2019, the typical donation to charity made by the very highest earners over that period had fallen by a fifth to just £48 a month.

Although the top 1% as a whole gave between £2bn and £3bn a year to charitable causes, it is estimated this was down to the generosity of only 20% of that group. “So 80% of the

— source | Patrick Butler | 30 Nov 2022

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Machine-learning systems are problematic. That’s why tech bosses call them ‘AI’

One of the most useful texts for anyone covering the tech industry is George Orwell’s celebrated essay, Politics and the English Language. Orwell’s focus in the essay was on political use of the language to, as he put it, “make lies sound truthful and murder respectable and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind”. But the analysis can also be applied to the ways in which contemporary corporations bend the language to distract attention from the sordid realities of what they are up to.

The tech industry has been particularly adept at this kind of linguistic engineering. “Sharing”, for example, is clicking on a link to leave a data trail that can be used to refine the profile the company maintains about you. You give your “consent” to a one-sided proposition: agree to these terms or get lost. Content is “moderated”, not censored. Advertisers “reach out” to you with unsolicited messages. Employees who are fired are “let go”. Defective products are “recalled”. And so on.

At the moment, the most pernicious euphemism in the dictionary of double-speak is AI, which over the last two or three years has become ubiquitous. In origin, it’s an abbreviation for artificial intelligence, defined by the OED as “the capacity of computers or other machines to exhibit or simulate intelligent behaviour; the field of study

— source | John Naughton | 5 Nov 2022

Nullius in verba

The tunes you hum, books you read, rows you have

Twitter and co are shaping your world

‘I didn’t do it to make more money. I did it to try to help humanity.” Elon Musk in his own words on buying Twitter. He follows in the footsteps of fellow multibillionaire Mark Zuckerberg, who in 2017 published a “manifesto” for Facebook, setting out how he wanted it to help save humanity from itself.

Delusions of grandeur in wildly rich men aren’t unusual, so it’s tempting to scoff, then move on. But they are right to claim that their ownership of huge social media platforms confers significant power – in their heads, to do good, but, for the rest of us, to create harms spanning mental health to child safety to health misinformation. Zuckerberg’s manifesto didn’t stop Facebook helping stoke violence against Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar or in the Tigray conflict in Ethiopia.

Musk’s first actions as the new owner of Twitter have been to sack the whole board, dramatically cut its headcount and get rid of its human rights team. Twitter’s moderation policies have always been highly opaque, taking a permissive approach to racist abuse while

— source | Sonia Sodha | 5 Nov 2022

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Why We Can’t Have Nice Things—Like Socialism—in the United States

Donald Trump has had the urge to crush many things, including the last election. So I must admit I found it eerily amusing that, when the FBI entered his estate at Mar-a-Lago recently, they did so under a warrant authorized by the Espionage Act of 1917. History certainly has a strange way of returning in our world and also of crushing alternatives. Whatever Trump did, that act has a sorry track record in both its own time and ours when it has been used, including by his administration, to silence the leakers of government information. And because my latest book, American Midnight: The Great War, A Violent Peace, and America’s Forgotten Crisis, is about the crushing of alternatives a century ago in this country, in the midst of all this, I couldn’t help thinking about a part of our history that The Donald would undoubtedly have been the first to crush, if he had the chance.

But let me start with a personal event closer to the present. While visiting Denmark recently, I developed an infection in my hand and wanted to see a doctor. The hotel in the provincial city where I was staying directed me to a local hospital. I was quickly shown into a consulting room, where a nurse questioned me and told me to wait. Only a few minutes passed before a physician entered the room, examined me, and said in excellent English, yes, indeed, I did need an antibiotic. He promptly swiveled in his chair, opened a cabinet behind him, took out a bottle of pills, handed it to me, and told me to take two a day for 10 days. When

— source | Adam Hochschild | Oct 6, 2022

Nullius in verba