Category: Politics

Randy Gibson, the composer of “The Four Pillars Appearing From the Equal D Under Resonating Apparitions of the Eternal Process in the Midwinter Starfield,” at his home studio in Brooklyn.
Three hours of music played with a single note — “D”, in seven octaves — is weirdly mesmerizing; I’ve been listening to it while I write my book. (Composer picture above from The New York Times; player above has the album.) A startup that makes paper out of … stone.Before he was shot, Philando Castile was buried in “a mountain of fines”; this is a good NPR investigation of how racism and poverty are worsened by endless niggling fines. Spooky action at great distances: Chinese scientists appear to have successfully entangled two particles that were 1,200 km apart. Cell.js is an intriguing new way to create web apps, with each element containing its own “self driving” DOM. Tarot cards aren’t as old as you might think; they’re an invention of occult-obsessed Paris in 1781.

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Emma Lazarus data science

closeup of an ngram of the emma lazarus poem "the new colossus"

In 1883, Emma Lazarus wrote “The New Colossus”, one of the most famous American poems ever. In it, she imagines the Statue of Liberty overlooking the New York harbor and welcoming immigrants who are fleeing oppression.

You have, without doubt, heard this part:

“Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free”

They’re genuinely stirring lines! American politicians and businesspeople love to quote them, because they beautifully evoke the image of America as a worldwide beacon of liberty. Listen to any speech about immigration, and you’ll hear this passage.

But the poem doesn’t end there. The Statue of Liberty goes on to describe, in more depth, the type of immigrants she’s talking about. Let’s extend the quote a bit further:

“Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.”

“The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.” Now, that is a gut-punch of a line. (Purely as a matter of verse, the way those iambs land on the rhyming syllables of the first two words — the WRE-tched RE-fuse — is like a pneumatic naildriver. WHAM WHAM WHAM! I love it.)

But the point is, this additional line complicates the political picture a bit, doesn’t it?

Immigrants arriving at Ellis Island in the 19th century

Lazarus is talking about people who have been immiserated, mistreated and impoverished. She’s talking about those who’ve been through so much suffering it that can make them hard for comfortable folks to behold: Refuse. And Lazarus isn’t using that word with contempt. She knew many refugees personally. But she understood how serious misery can render a migrant paradoxically unsympathetic to others. And she wrote the poem to turn that psychology on its head: Lady Liberty is specifically urging the despots of other countries to keep their fancy, gilded palaces — and instead, to send the absolutely desperate.

Now, US politicians and business leaders often ululate over the benefits of immigration. But often it feels like they focus on the immigrants who self-evidently would “benefit” the country: The scrappy entrepreneurs who’ll come and start firms! The doctors and architects! The best and the brightest, the ones who understandably crave greater liberties! These politicians and businessfolk seldom seem as eager to embrace the truly desperate — the terrified, beaten-down ones that Lazarus wrote about in her poem: Those who today are fleeing the horrors of Syria, South Sudan, or the conflicts of sub-Saharan Africa.

And you can hear it, I think, in how politicians quote that poem. They’ll very often piously cite the first part of that passage — but only rarely utter the second.

At least, that’s how it seemed to me, as I read the daily news. Then I realized I could test my hypothesis … using Google’s ngram. That’s the tool that lets you input short strings of text and see how their usage has risen or fallen in books over the last hundred-odd years.

Now, you’re only allowed to use phrases up to five words. So I took representative chunks of those lines — “masses yearning to breathe” vs. “wretched refuse of your” — and compared them. Voila:

Screenshot of google ngram comparing two lines from Emma Lazarus' poem The New Colossus

Sure enough, you can see that the lines are quoted at nearly the same rate — until just after WWII, when they begin to diverge. The “huddled masses” become more and more memorable and quoted; the “wretched refuse” fall back. In this divergence we can spy a subtle shift in how America talks to itself about immigration. (You can see and tweak the actual chart itself.)

Granted, there are tons of caveats here, including: i) Google ngram itself. Word-incidence in books isn’t necessarily a super meaningful metric of cultural change. (The books in ngram are global, not just American, of course.) Plus, ii) there might be other ways to chunk the lines that disproves or inverts these results. And more fatally yet, iii) some of the divergence may be a feedback loop. Once the “yearning to breathe free” line got a small early advantage in being-quoted-more-often, it could easily produce a cascade of success, because it would quickly become the only line anyone has ever heard from the poem at all. Latter-day quoters will thus be not so much ignoring the second line as simply unaware it even exists.

Still, I think it’s a fun way to think about the changing meaning of this quintessentially American poem.

Oh, and: Other trivia about “The New Colossus”! One fun fact is that Lazarus wrote it to help raise money for building the base for the Statue of Liberty. And, man, did it need fundraising. People love the statue now, but back then it wasn’t very popular; Congress was unhappy at having to pay for the upkeep of the this gift from France, and many thought it was super ugly. (When the raised hand of liberty, holding the torch, was put on display in Madison Square Park — months before the full statue was complete — it was widely mocked. Montague Marks, an art-magazine editor, wrote that “The torch in the hand of the absent goddess suggests the idea of an immense double tooth which has just been extracted from some unfortunate mastodon, and is held aloft in triumph by the successful operator”).

statue of liberty

Picture by iquinhosilva, via Flickr and CC.

Some people thought the poem was better than the statue. As Esther Schor notes in her biography Emma Lazarus

In “The New Colossus,” as James Russell Lowell wrote, she had invented her own “noble” pedestal for the statue, “saying admirably just the right word to be said, an achievement more arduous than that of the sculptor.” Her sonnet, he noted, provided the statue at last with a “raison d’être”; in fact, he liked it “much better than I like the Statue itself.”

Or to put it another way — the poem was the first thing to explain what the heck the statue meant.

It gave the Statue of Liberty a particular purpose: To be a totem not merely of freedom, but of immigration. Lazarus knew a fair bit about immigration, because she’d been spending time visiting Russian-Jewish refugees who were housed in shelters on Ward’s Island. That’s where her line about “wretched refuse” comes from. She’d seen it firsthand, and could imagine the coming day when the Statue, installed at last, would be the first thing those wretches would see as their boat approached New York’s shore.

So the poem was microfamous when the Statue first went up, but pretty soon people forgot about it. It didn’t come back into the public consciousness until the horrors of WWII loomed. As Schor writes:

In 1935, as the Statue of Liberty approached her fiftieth birthday, a writer for the New York Times Magazine wrote: “If she had a tongue what she could tell!” That Liberty had been given a tongue by Emma Lazarus was noted in a letter to the editor, which quoted all fourteen lines of an obscure sonnet, “The New Colossus.” By the end of the decade, a Slovenian-American immigrant named Louis Adamic had seized upon the sonnet to celebrate the nation’s immigrants and their ethnicities. In Adamic’s hands, the sonnet’s fortunes were transformed and the Statue of Liberty became, for a generation poised to receive thousands of refugees from Hitler’s Europe, once again a “Mother of Exiles.” [snip]

Alfred Hitchcock ended his wartime Saboteur (1942) the crown of the statue, with his heroine quoting the sonnet to an enemy agent. By the end of the war, the plaque bearing the poem had been given a more prominent place at the entrance. With the 1949 Broadway debut of Miss Liberty, composed by the Russian-Jewish immigrant Israel Baline, who went by the name of Irving Berlin, the famous final lines of “The New Colossus” acquired a schmaltzy musical setting, by no means their only one.

Check the ngram chart again: You can see how the poem’s promotion by Adamic — a translator and author himself — helped. It’s precisely around the late 1930s that those famous lines shoot upward together, before diverging.

And by the way, if you haven’t read the poem in its entirety, here you go:

Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,
With conquering limbs astride from land to land;
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name
Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand
Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command
The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.
“Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she
With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

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Which politicians still talk about the “information superhighway”?

Erik Paulsen and Louise Slaughter

Who still uses the term “information superhighway”?

It’s the most 90s coinage ever. It was an attempt by boomer journalists — whose chief technology of teen liberation was the automobile, but who by the 90s were solidly middle-aged — to find a metaphor for digital networks that made sense to them. Hey guys! Let’s all get in our, uh, cybervehicles! We can roll down the windows and go cruisin’ on the Highway of Information.

As “the Internet” and “the web” took off, though, eventually people stopped using the “information superhighway”.

Or did they? In The Atlantic, Adrienne LaFrance analyzed Donald Trump’s fascinatingly incoherent use of “the cyber”, and along the way she noted one cohort that seems to constantly use dated digital slang: Politicians.

So it made me wonder — who’s the last politician to have uttered the phrase “information superhighway” in the Congressional Record?

Step forward, Erik Paulsen.

A reverse-chron search of the Congressional Record finds that Paulsen used the phrase on July 17, 2014, speaking in support of the Permanent Internet Tax Freedom Act.

A snippet of the Congressional Record, with Erik Paulsen speaking in praise of the Permanent Internet Tax Freedom Act

To give Paulsen credit, it seems like he might be using the phrase specifically because of its historic echo of the 90s: “… grown the information superhighway to what it is today.”

Trivia: “Information superhighway” has been uttered 291 times in the Congressional Record. Interestingly, other recent-ish uses seem to be when politicians are talking about net neutrality — possibly because there, the highway metaphor is useful; it evokes tolls, fast lanes vs. slow lanes, etc. So maybe the phrase has got some life in it yet.

Me, I’m a fan! “Information superhighway” is much more metal than “the Internet” or “the web”, which are functional but now rather lifeless. Given my druthers, I actually prefer the full, florid coinage of “the global information superhighway”. I have been waging a dogged campaign on Twitter to revive it; I am failing.

(That photo above is from the Creative-Commons-licensed Flickr feed of Rep. Louise Slaughter.)

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The “conflict shoreline”: A map that correlates climate change to drone strikes

Image from "The Conflict Shoreline" by Eyal Weizman

This map is a really interesting data-visualization, with a suggestive message: That climate change is very tightly woven with war and conflict.

In one sense, this relationship isn’t news. Climate change causes resource scarcity — and resource scarcity is, historically, one brutally reliable trigger of war and strife. The US Department of Defense certainly takes it seriously; last year it released a report calling climate change “an urgent and growing threat to our national security, contributing to increased natural disasters, refugee flows, and conflicts over basic resources such as food and water.” Another nonprofit study recently argued that a massive 2006-2011 drought in Syria, by driving rural populations into the already-stressed cities, helped accelerate the country’s human-rights catastrophe.

But that map above suggests an even more intriguing and subtle finding: That climate change tracks conflict with such granularity that it even tracks drone strikes.

The map is from a book called The Conflict Shoreline, which I learned about tonight while reading “Let Them Drown”, a speech by Naomi Klein reprinted in this month’s issue of The London Review of Books. Klein describes the map really well, so I’ll quote her at length here:

In his latest book, The Conflict Shoreline, the Israeli architect Eyal Weizman has a groundbreaking take on how these forces are intersecting. The main way we’ve understood the border of the desert in the Middle East and North Africa, he explains, is the so-called ‘aridity line’, areas where there is on average 200 millimetres of rainfall a year, which has been considered the minimum for growing cereal crops on a large scale without irrigation. These meteorological boundaries aren’t fixed: they have fluctuated for various reasons, whether it was Israel’s attempts to ‘green the desert’ pushing them in one direction or cyclical drought expanding the desert in the other. And now, with climate change, intensifying drought can have all kinds of impacts along this line. Weizman points out that the Syrian border city of Daraa falls directly on the aridity line. Daraa is where Syria’s deepest drought on record brought huge numbers of displaced farmers in the years leading up to the outbreak of Syria’s civil war, and it’s where the Syrian uprising broke out in 2011. Drought wasn’t the only factor in bringing tensions to a head. But the fact that 1.5 million people were internally displaced in Syria as a result of the drought clearly played a role. The connection between water and heat stress and conflict is a recurring, intensifying pattern all along the aridity line: all along it you see places marked by drought, water scarcity, scorching temperatures and military conflict – from Libya to Palestine, to some of the bloodiest battlefields in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

But Weizman also discovered what he calls an ‘astounding coincidence’. When you map the targets of Western drone strikes onto the region, you see that ‘many of these attacks – from South Waziristan through northern Yemen, Somalia, Mali, Iraq, Gaza and Libya – are directly on or close to the 200 mm aridity line.’ The red dots on the map above represent some of the areas where strikes have been concentrated. To me this is the most striking attempt yet to visualise the brutal landscape of the climate crisis. All this was foreshadowed a decade ago in a US military report. ‘The Middle East,’ it observed, ‘has always been associated with two natural resources, oil (because of its abundance) and water (because of its scarcity).’ True enough. And now certain patterns have become quite clear: first, Western fighter jets followed that abundance of oil; now, Western drones are closely shadowing the lack of water, as drought exacerbates conflict.

Just as bombs follow oil, and drones follow drought, so boats follow both: boats filled with refugees fleeing homes on the aridity line ravaged by war and drought.

I can’t comment in greater depth on Weizman’s analysis until I’ve read his book (and after reading this I’ve ordered it). But if it holds up, as a piece of dataviz, it’s absolutely fascinating.

Klein’s entire speech is well worth reading too, as a synthesis of how climate change and human rights are inextricably entwined.

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