Self-fulfilling rumors of ethnic violence spread like a virus across the newly wired India, sending 300,000 citizens fleeing and leading the government to extreme measures.
Smoke hangs over Mumbai at the scene of a violent protest by Muslims in response to unfounded rumors of anti-Muslim violence in a distant region. (AP)
Technology can be a great liberator, but can it sometimes be a public menace? The Indian government seems to think so: it has blocked around 250 websites, ordered Google and Facebook to pull content, threatened legal action against Twitter if it doesn't delete certain accounts, and has arrested several people for sending inflammatory text messages, all in the name of public safety. If you're appalled, you're not alone: the U.S. State Department responded by calling on India to respect "full freedom of the internet," highlighting the growing divide between the two governments on web freedom.
But the Indian censorship -- and it is censorship, despite the government's insistance otherwise -- may not be as clear-cut as a case of state oppression and over-reach. It turns out that the Indian government might be right to fear that technology, for all the very real benefits it's brought India, could also be helping to magnify ancient communal tensions in a ways that costs lives and, perhaps even worse, might destabilize the delicate social balance within the world's second-largest country.
The story begins, depending on how you look at it, either 20 years, one month, or one week ago. In 1993, two ethnic groups in the far-northeastern Indian state of Assam clashed over who had more of a right to the land: members of the local Bodo tribe won, and the Muslim Indians lost, fleeing into refugee camps. Last month, that conflict resurfaced, as it periodically does, when a few migrants from Assam got beaten up near the far-away city of Mumbai. No one really knows what happened, but the public perception seems to be that some of Mumbai's Muslims had attacked the Bodo migrants as revenge for the 1993 crisis. Then, last week, two sets of equally dangerous rumors spread across India: that Muslims throughout the country were about to attack northeastern migrants, and, in apparent response, that Bodo in their home-state of Assam were planning a pre-emptive strike on the area's Muslims.
That the two rumors appear to have been almost certainly unfounded is beside the point: they were mutually reinforcing. The more that people heard about them, the truer they became. Muslims, fearing their fellow believers in Assam were in mortal peril, staged a large protest in Mumbai. Northeastern migrants in the area, afraid the re-opening communal tensions could put them at risk, fled. Hearing about this back in Assam, some northeasterners perceived it as proof of coming Muslim violence, and, apparently enraged, attacked the region's Muslims. It's not hard to see how things spiraled out of control from there. By the end of the weekend, northeastern migrants were streaming onto trains to head home to Assam, and Muslims in Assam were fleeing en masse to refugee camps.
Technology didn't cause any of this, of course. But social media and text messaging, both of which are becoming increasingly common in reaches of India's enormous lower and middle classes, accelerated the flow of rumors and of inflammatory images. Some of the material turns out to have been fake: doctored images and videos showed anti-Muslim attacks that never happened. Because the rumors can be self-fulfilling, their lightening-fast spread across India's vast population, much of which is very newly connected to the web, can be costly. The original 1993 crisis displaced an estimated 20,000 people, but this most recent manifestation has already displaced 300,000, and killed 80. No doubt there are many factors that might explain the new severity of this old crisis, but with the spread of rumors apparently playing a significant role, the recent explosion in Indian Internet access rates (the 100 millionth Indian web users logged on in December) could be relevant. The government, unable to counter the destabilizing rumors, shut down some of the means of their dispersal.
Whether or not the Indian government's censorship does anything to calm this crisis, their apparent desperation is understandable. Still, India's readiness to censor the web is part of the government's longer-running effort to regulate the Internet, to which Western governments and web freedom advocates have strenuously objected. Some of India's sweeping restrictions compel web companies like Google and Facebook to self-police, and then self-censor, any content that could be perceived as blasphemous or offensive to ethnic groups. Protesters in India decry the restrictions as extreme, and they're not wrong.
When world governments in places like Ethiopia or China censor the internet, they tend to cite some version of the same basic idea: free discussion is a threat to "national stability." Typically, web freedom activists perceive this as little more than an excuse for online authoritarianism, and they're probably often correct. But what if, in India's case, the government could actually be right? Can Photoshopping up some "evidence" of ethnic attacks be akin to inciting violence? What about sending a text message falsely claiming such attacks, for which a Bangalore man was arrested? At what point does a Facebook rumor become a cry of "fire" in the crowded theatre of Indian ethnic anxieties?
Walter Russel Mead, writing on the ongoing crisis, called India's long-running communal tensions "the powder keg in the basement." With the already-dangerous risk of ethnic combustion heightened by a population with easy access to rumors and an apparent predisposition to believing them, maybe that powder keg justifies Indian censorship. Or maybe it doesn't; free speech is its own public good and public right, and, in any case, censoring discussion of such sensitive national issues could make it more difficult for India to actually confront them. This is just one of the many difficult questions that Indian leaders will grapple with as hundreds of thousands of their citizens flee their homes, chased out by "a swirl of unfounded rumors." I don't envy them.
Burning Man is underway in the Nevada desert, the migrant crisis grew in both scale and impact, new Star Wars toys went on sale worldwide, China marked the 70thanniversary of the end of World War II, Alaska’s Mt. McKinley was renamed Denali, and much more.
In the name of emotional well-being, college students are increasingly demanding protection from words and ideas they don’t like. Here’s why that’s disastrous for education—and mental health.
Something strange is happening at America’s colleges and universities. A movement is arising, undirected and driven largely by students, to scrub campuses clean of words, ideas, and subjects that might cause discomfort or give offense. Last December, Jeannie Suk wrote in an online article for The New Yorker about law students asking her fellow professors at Harvard not to teach rape law—or, in one case, even use the word violate (as in “that violates the law”) lest it cause students distress. In February, Laura Kipnis, a professor at Northwestern University, wrote an essay in The Chronicle of Higher Education describing a new campus politics of sexual paranoia—and was then subjected to a long investigation after students who were offended by the article and by a tweet she’d sent filed Title IX complaints against her. In June, a professor protecting himself with a pseudonym wrote an essay for Vox describing how gingerly he now has to teach. “I’m a Liberal Professor, and My Liberal Students Terrify Me,” the headline said. A number of popular comedians, including Chris Rock, have stopped performing on college campuses (see Caitlin Flanagan’s article in this month’s issue). Jerry Seinfeld and Bill Maher have publicly condemned the oversensitivity of college students, saying too many of them can’t take a joke.
Would Donald Trump still seem like a good leader if his reality television show had offered an unedited view of his style?
When Donald Trump flirted with a 2012 presidential run, I argued that starring on The Apprentice had helped him to build a brand that any politician would envy: decisive, averse to bullshit, impossible to swindle, and guided in all decisions by common sense. Kevin Drum has similar thoughts about the billionaire’s appeal in the 2016 primary. After describing The Celebrity Apprentice to his readers, Drum urged them to reflect on how the hit show made Trump look to millions of NBC viewers:
He is running things. He sets the tasks. The competitors all call him ‘Mr. Trump’ and treat him obsequiously. He gives orders and famous people accept them without quibble. At the end of the show, he asks tough questions and demands accountability. He is smooth and unruffled while the team members are tense and tongue-tied. Finally, having given everything the five minutes of due diligence it needs, he takes charge and fires someone. And on the season finale, he picks a big winner and in the process raises lots of money for charity. Do you see how precisely this squares with so many people's view of the presidency?
The president is the guy running things. He tells people what to do. He commands respect simply by virtue of his personality and rock-solid principles. When things go wrong, he doesn't waste time. He gets to the bottom of the problem in minutes using little more than common sense, and then fires the person responsible. And in the end, it's all for a good cause.
The Islamic State is no mere collection of psychopaths. It is a religious group with carefully considered beliefs, among them that it is a key agent of the coming apocalypse. Here’s what that means for its strategy—and for how to stop it.
What is the Islamic State?
Where did it come from, and what are its intentions? The simplicity of these questions can be deceiving, and few Western leaders seem to know the answers. In December, The New York Times published confidential comments by Major General Michael K. Nagata, the Special Operations commander for the United States in the Middle East, admitting that he had hardly begun figuring out the Islamic State’s appeal. “We have not defeated the idea,” he said. “We do not even understand the idea.” In the past year, President Obama has referred to the Islamic State, variously, as “not Islamic” and as al-Qaeda’s “jayvee team,” statements that reflected confusion about the group, and may have contributed to significant strategic errors.
A GOP law on judicial appointments has been thrown out, and now it’s the judiciary itself that hangs in the balance.
What began as merely a fiscal mess in Kansas has become a full-blown judicial crisis.
On Wednesday, a district court ruled against the state, and threw out a 2014 law passed by Republicans that took the power of appointing chief judges away from the Kansas Supreme Court and handed it to local judges. But that rather simple question of judicial administration could have further-reaching consequences, thanks to a provision in a second law passed by the legislature earlier this spring that would cut off funding for the state’s entire court system, if the 2014 law was struck down.
Kansas officials were so worried about the consequences of the court’s decision that the state’s attorney general, Derek Schmidt, successfully filed to have the ruling stayed until the courts rule on an appeal and the validity of the 2015 law.
ISIS did not merely blast apart old stones—it attacked the very foundations of pluralistic society.
If the ruined ruins of Palmyra could speak, they would marvel at our shock. After all, they have been sacked before. In their mute and shattered eloquence, they spoke for centuries not only about the cultures that built them but also about the cultures that destroyed them—about the fragility of civilization itself, even when it is incarnated in stone. No designation of sanctity, by God or by UNESCO, suffices to protect the past. The past is helpless. Instead these ruins, all ruins, have had the effect of lifting the past out of history and into time. They carry the spectator away from facts and toward reveries.
In the 18th century, after the publication in London of The Ruins of Palmyra, a pioneering volume of etchings by Robert Wood, who had traveled to the Syrian desert with the rather colorful James Dawkins, a fellow antiquarian and politician, the desolation of Palmyra became a recurring symbol for ephemerality and the vanity of all human endeavors. “It is the natural and common fate of cities,” Wood dryly remarked in one of the essays in his book, “to have their memory longer preserved than their ruins.” Wood’s beautiful and meticulous prints served as inspirations for paintings, and it was in response to one of those paintings that Diderot wrote some famous pages in his great Salons of 1767: “The ideas ruins evoke in me are grand. Everything comes to nothing, everything perishes, everything passes, only the world remains, only time endures. ... Wherever I cast my glance, the objects surrounding me announce death and compel my resignation to what awaits me. What is my ephemeral existence in comparison with that of a rock being worn down, of a valley being formed, of a forest that’s dying, of these deteriorating masses suspended above my head? I see the marble of tombs crumble into powder and I don’t want to die!”
I traveled to every country on earth. In some cases, the adventure started before I could get there.
Last summer, my Royal Air Maroc flight from Casablanca landed at Malabo International Airport in Equatorial Guinea, and I completed a 50-year mission: I had officially, and legally, visited every recognized country on earth.
This means 196 countries: the 193 members of the United Nations, plus Taiwan, Vatican City, and Kosovo, which are not members but are, to varying degrees, recognized as independent countries by other international actors.
In five decades of traveling, I’ve crossed countries by rickshaw, pedicab, bus, car, minivan, and bush taxi; a handful by train (Italy, Switzerland, Moldova, Belarus, Ukraine, Romania, and Greece); two by riverboat (Gabon and Germany); Norway by coastal steamer; Gambia and the Amazonian parts of Peru and Ecuador by motorized canoe; and half of Burma by motor scooter. I rode completely around Jamaica on a motorcycle and Nauru on a bicycle. I’ve also crossed three small countries on foot (Vatican City, San Marino, and Liechtenstein), and parts of others by horse, camel, elephant, llama, and donkey. I confess that I have not visited every one of the 7,107 islands in the Philippine archipelago or most of the more than 17,000 islands constituting Indonesia, but I’ve made my share of risky voyages on the rickety inter-island rustbuckets you read about in the back pages of the Times under headlines like “Ship Sinks in Sulu Sea, 400 Presumed Lost.”
Heather Armstrong’s Dooce once drew millions of readers. Her blog’s semi-retirement speaks to the challenges of earning money as an individual blogger today.
The success story of Dooce.com was once blogger lore, told and re-told in playgroups and Meetups—anywhere hyper-verbal people with Wordpress accounts gathered. “It happened for that Dooce lady,” they would say. “It could happen for your blog, too.”
Dooce has its origin in the late 1990s, when a young lapsed Mormon named Heather Armstrong taught herself HTML code and moved to Los Angeles. She got a job in web design and began blogging about her life on her personal site, Dooce.com.
The site’s name evolved out of her friends’ AOL Instant-Messenger slang for dude, or its more incredulous cousin, "doooood!” About a year later, Armstrong was fired for writing about her co-workers on the site—an experience that, for a good portion of the ‘aughts, came known as “getting dooced.” She eloped with her now ex-husband, Jon, moved to Salt Lake City, and eventually started blogging full time again.
In continuing to tinker with the universe she built eight years after it ended, J.K. Rowling might be falling into the same trap as Star Wars’s George Lucas.
September 1st, 2015 marked a curious footnote in Harry Potter marginalia: According to the series’s elaborate timeline, rarely referenced in the books themselves, it was the day James S. Potter, Harry’s eldest son, started school at Hogwarts. It’s not an event directly written about in the books, nor one of particular importance, but their creator, J.K. Rowling, dutifully took to Twitter to announce what amounts to footnote details: that James was sorted into House Gryffindor, just like his father, to the disappointment of Teddy Lupin, Harry’s godson, apparently a Hufflepuff.
It’s not earth-shattering information that Harry’s kid would end up in the same house his father was in, and the Harry Potter series’s insistence on sorting all of its characters into four broad personality quadrants largely based on their family names has always struggled to stand up to scrutiny. Still, Rowling’s tweet prompted much garment-rending among the books’ devoted fans. Can a tweet really amount to a piece of canonical information for a book? There isn’t much harm in Rowling providing these little embellishments years after her books were published, but even idle tinkering can be a dangerous path to take, with the obvious example being the insistent tweaks wrought by George Lucas on his Star Wars series.
Thicker ink, fewer smudges, and more strained hands: an Object Lesson
Recently, Bic launched acampaign to “save handwriting.” Named “Fight for Your Write,” it includes a pledge to “encourage the act of handwriting” in the pledge-taker’s home and community, and emphasizes putting more of the company’s ballpoints into classrooms.
As a teacher, I couldn’t help but wonder how anyone could think there’s a shortage. I find ballpoint pens all over the place: on classroom floors, behind desks. Dozens of castaways collect in cups on every teacher’s desk. They’re so ubiquitous that the word “ballpoint” is rarely used; they’re just “pens.” But despite its popularity, the ballpoint pen is relatively new in the history of handwriting, and its influence on popular handwriting is more complicated than the Bic campaign would imply.
It’s not just Trump: With Ben Carson and Carly Fiorina on the rise, Republicans are loving outsiders and shunning politicians.
For the first time in a long time, Donald Trump isn’t the most interesting story in the 2016 presidential race. That's partly because his dominance in the Republican polls, while still surprising, is no longer novel and increasingly well explored and explained, but it’s also partly because what’s going on with the rest of the GOP field is far more interesting.