November 2020


30 November 2020

Like Typhus, but also Not

Hugh Pennington

Joe Biden’s great-great-great-grandfather, Edward Blewitt, was overseer at the Ballina Union Workhouse in County Mayo from 1848 to 1850 during the Great Irish Famine. Many died in the workhouse and others perished in the temporary fever hospital built against one of its walls. With his family, Blewitt emigrated to Pennsylvania in 1851. He did well, despite the political power of the anti-Catholic, anti-Irish Know Nothing movement, a nationalist and Protestant political party, which in the 1850s had a hundred congressmen, eight state governors, and a controlling position in half-a-dozen state legislatures. Before his job at the workhouse, Blewitt had been an engineer for the Irish Ordnance Survey; in Pennsylvania he helped to lay out the new mining town of Scranton.

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27 November 2020

Vote for Boulos!

Kathleen McCaul Moura

Pablo Ortellado, at the University of São Paulo, studies the way social media are used for political purposes. ‘We analyse all the messages that we believe come from Bolsonaro and his supporters. It makes you want to cry,’ Ortellado told me. ‘At the beginning of the Covid-19 epidemic for example, people everywhere were receiving messages saying that Covid doesn’t kill, that it was made-up by the Chinese, that the hospitals are not full. There is nothing we can do about this spread of misinformation because it has already gone viral.’ Bolsonaro relies on Whatsapp more than Twitter or Facebook. ‘Because it is a private messenger app as opposed to a public platform,’ Ortellado says, ‘we believe it allows the president to disseminate malicious misinformation to millions of people without being caught.’

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26 November 2020

‘Blue Collar’ Fabulists

Arianne Shahvisi

‘Blue Collar Conservatives’ is a caucus of Tory MPs chaired by Ben Bradley, the MP for Mansfield, who self-identifies as working-class even though he went to a private school where the fees are nearly as much as the annual salary of someone earning minimum wage. Bradley’s misrepresentations don’t stop there. For such a young politician (he was born in 1989) he has an impressive record for dishonesty. In 2016, he claimed that a nearby council had spent £17,000 employing call centre workers in Mumbai. When challenged, he admitted the claim was pure invention, contrived to convince people the council was wasting money. (And if you’re going to tell a fib, why not build in a racist dog whistle?) In 2018, he tweeted that Jeremy Corbyn had ‘sold British secrets to communist spies’, a lie that cost him £15,000 in damages. Luckily for this ‘blue collar’ fabulist, two wealthy Conservative donors swept in to cover the cost of his blunder. Corbyn asked that the money be divided between a homeless charity and a food bank in Mansfield.

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25 November 2020

Letter from America

Scott Hames

Douglas Stuart is the first Scottish writer to win the Booker Prize since James Kelman in 1994. Stuart has cited How late it was, how late as his ‘bible’, though Shuggie Bain has more in common with Frank McCourt’s Angela’s Ashes (1996), another transatlantic misery-lit smash. Its more obvious Scottish precursors would include the tender brutalities of Jessie Kesson’s The White Bird Passes (1958) and the Gorbals shocker No Mean City (1935). From the perspective of literary Scotland, the harrowing content of Stuart’s novel is largely beside the point. What matters is that a Scottish novel has been recognised on the world stage, boosting the prestige and marketability of the category itself.  

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24 November 2020

Menschenmetzger

Christopher Kissane

In 1519, eight years before Martin Luther wrote Whether One May Flee from a Deadly Plague, the Swiss preacher and reformer Huldrych Zwingli faced a deadly outbreak of plague in Zürich. It would have been safer to flee the city, but Zwingli stayed to minister to the sick and dying among his congregation, caught the disease himself, and nearly died. He wrote a poem, later set to music, chronicling his experience. The ‘Pestlied’ is a rare and visceral first-hand account: ‘Ich mein, der tod | sey an der thür’ (‘I think that death | is at the door’). The lines are both alien and familiar, out of time but topical, the archaic Swiss-German rhymes lyrically captivating but linguistically confusing (Luther once dismissed Zwingli’s dialect as ‘churlish, shaggy German’).

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23 November 2020

Egypt Locks Down

Tom Stevenson

Last week, Egypt’s National Security Agency made a series of arrests targeting the country’s leading human rights organisation, the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights. On 15 November, there was a night raid on the home of the EIPR’s administrative director, Mohamed El Basheer. On 18 November, Karim Ennarah, a researcher, was taken from the beach-front in the town of Dahab, where he was on holiday. EIPR’s director, Gasser Abdel Razek, was arrested the following day at his home in Cairo. His lawyers say his head was shaved and he was kept in solitary confinement with only a metal bed to sleep on.

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20 November 2020

The BAME Game

Jason Okundaye

‘Is Dishy Rishi on your side?’ asks a recent attack ad made by ‘One Rule for Them’, aiming to expose the chancellor’s allegiance to an international class of billionaires. Sunak’s portfolio is certainly breathtaking. The MP for Richmond (Yorks), known in his constituency as the ‘Maharaja of the Dales’, is the wealthiest in the House of Commons, boasting property worth around £10 million (most of that’s a five-bedroom mews house in Kensington). His father-in-law is the billionaire businessman and co-founder of Infosys, N.R. Narayana Murthy. He has declined to clarify whether Thélème Partners, the hedge fund he co-founded with Patrick Degorce, would profit from the escalating share price of the biotech firm Moderna, which reported on Monday that its Covid-19 vaccine appeared to have an efficacy of 94.5 per cent.  

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19 November 2020

In Liverpool

Lynsey Hanley

On 6 November, Liverpool became the first city in the UK to undertake a mass testing programme for the virus that causes Covid-19, with the hope that all 500,000 residents will be tested at least twice at a variety of sites – mostly leisure centres – manned by 2000 army personnel. Liverpool’s mayor, Joe Anderson, and his director of public health, Matt Ashton, said they hoped between 5000 and 10,000 people a day would come forward for testing; by the end of the first week, the council announced that 90,000 tests had been carried out. Among them was mine.

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17 November 2020

At the Migration Museum

Daniel Trilling

On the last weekend before England entered its second lockdown, two slabs of the Berlin Wall were standing on the concourse at Lewisham Shopping Centre. They marked the entrance to the Migration Museum, a roving exhibition space that has made a temporary home in south-east London, near a branch of Footasylum and a stall selling phone cases. Inside, the museum’s main space was laid out like an airport terminal, for Departures, an exhibition about emigration from the Britain, which has shaped the country’s history (not to mention the world’s) at least as much as immigration to it has. A short film took visitors on a brisk tour of the last 400 years, from early efforts at colonial ‘plantation’ in Virginia and Ulster, through to the 19th and early 20th centuries – when more than 17 million people left Britain and Ireland, mainly for North America – and the more recent period of free movement within the EU.

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13 November 2020

‘The fish rots from the head’

Musab Younis

It might seem bizarre to blame the murder of the French schoolteacher Samuel Paty on a nebulous conspiracy of leftist academics, given that the perpetrator, Abdoullakh Abouyedovich Anzorov, was an 18-year-old who had never been to university. But earlier this month in Le Monde, 100 French academics gave their backing to Jean-Michel Blanquer, the education minister, when he responded to the murder with a flood of invective against universities. ‘Islamo-leftism is wreaking havoc,’ he said. Paty’s murderer had been ‘conditioned by people who encourage’ a type of ‘intellectual radicalism’ and promote ‘ideas that often come from elsewhere’, i.e. from across the Atlantic. ‘The fish rots from the head,’ he added darkly. Blanquer was following the example of the president of the republic.

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12 November 2020

Like Moonlight over Water

Anna Della Subin

We knew what she would wear. The white pantsuit was waiting for Kamala Harris to take the stage in Wilmington on Saturday night as the United States’ first female vice president elect. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez wore a white pantsuit when she was sworn into Congress in 2019; Hillary Clinton wore one when she accepted the Democratic nomination in 2016; Geraldine Ferraro wore a white suit when she joined Walter Mondale as his running mate in 1984; Shirley Chisholm wore white when she became the first Black woman to be elected to Congress, in 1968. The Democratic women in Congress dressed in white as a protest at Trump’s State of the Union addresses in 2019 and 2020. The tradition is usually traced to the suffragettes, in particular the 1908 Women’s Sunday march to Hyde Park, whose organisers urged women to dress in white to convey the high-minded purity of their intentions. But earlier than that, all-white clothing had been adopted as a political statement by the feminist, socialist, trade unionist and anticolonial activist Annie Besant.

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11 November 2020

all the nice gulls love a sailor. Ugh

Gill Partington

Cain’s Jawbone, one of the more demanding puzzles of the 20th century, was recently solved for the third time. Devised by the inventor of the cryptic crossword, Edward Powys Mathers (aka Torquemada), it was first published in 1934. Perhaps inevitably, it has taken another crossword buff to crack it in 2020: John Finnemore sets puzzles for the Times under the moniker Emu (when he isn’t appearing in his own Radio 4 comedy series). Cain’s Jawbone isn’t a crossword, however, even if it has some of the same cryptic, sideways logic. It’s a whodunnit mystery novel with a structural twist, in that its 100 pages appear out of sequence, making the plot unintelligible and obscuring the identities of the murderers and their victims. The task is to find the correct page order, working out in the process who dun what to whom. 

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10 November 2020

Meet the new boss

Tom Stevenson

Trump was often derided as an isolationist by the imperial bureaucracy, for whom the term is a stock insult. His opponents liked to say he was tearing down the US-led ‘liberal international order’. In the Washington Post, Josh Rogin wrote that Biden held the promise of salvation from the Trump days: ‘a return to a bipartisan, internationalist foreign policy that moderate Republicans and Democrats have long championed’. In fact the Trump administration’s foreign policy was more orthodox than is generally admitted. Many of his appointees were old regime hands. Having pledged to ‘get out of foreign wars’, he did nothing of the sort. He pursued the global assassination programme established under Obama. The US-backed war in Yemen, begun while Biden was vice president, continued. The military budget increased.

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9 November 2020

Hurricane Eta hits the Mosquito Coast

John Perry

Central America’s ‘Mosquito Coast’, the home of the Miskito people, stretches between Honduras and Nicaragua. The border is at a point that juts out into the Caribbean: Columbus called it Cabo Gracias a Dios for the shelter it provided on his last voyage. As the storm that became Hurricane Eta formed above the seas of Venezuela on 30 October, it headed west towards the cape 2000 kilometres away, following the track of Hurricane Edith in 1971, Mitch in 1998 (which killed seven thousand people in Honduras and three thousand in Nicaragua), Felix in 2007, Ida in 2009 and many other lesser cyclones.

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6 November 2020

Tear Down the Fences

Tom Sperlinger

Ahead of the new national lockdown, the University of Manchester this week put up fences around its Fallowfield halls of residence. It was unclear whether they were intended to keep the virus trapped inside or out. Students renamed the place HMP Fallowfield, and last night tore the fences down. ‘The fencing was intended as a response to a number of concerns,’ the vice-chancellor, Dame Nancy Rothwell, said. ‘Particularly about access by people who are not residents.’ There is a long tradition of walls around universities to keep ‘non-residents’ out. Hardy’s Jude Fawley scrawls a verse from the Book of Job on the wall of the university (modelled on Oxford) that he cannot enter: ‘I have understanding as well as you; I am not inferior to you.’ The adult education tradition in the UK was named ‘extra-mural studies’. There is ongoing speculation about how the Christmas holiday should be managed, to avoid further spreading of Covid-19 when large numbers of students return home.

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5 November 2020

White Latinos

Yara Rodrigues Fowler

‘Latino’ is not a race. Latino just means from Latin America, and if you go to Latin America, you’ll see it’s full of white people and black people and brown people, like the US. Think about Bolsonaro, and now think of Pelé – they are both ‘Latino’. White Latinos aren’t ‘white-passing’; they’re just white.

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4 November 2020

In Kabul

Sophie Cousins

Three gunmen stormed Kabul University on Monday, taking dozens of hostages as hundreds of students fled for their lives. The six-hour siege, for which Islamic State claimed responsibility, left at least 35 students dead and many more injured. Jamshid, an economics student, was in class. ‘We were listening to the teacher when the electricity went out and the attack began,’ he told me. ‘If we stayed in the classroom, I thought that maybe the terrorists will kill me and my classmates.’ He managed to escape. Sara, Daoud, Rauf, Ali, Husna and Ahmad did not. The list goes on. They were going to be teachers, nurses, scholars, writers, artists, public administrators, economists. 

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3 November 2020

Third-Term President

Alexandra Reza

The electoral commission in Conakry announced on 25 October that the incumbent, Alpha Condé, had won a third term as president of Guinea. Earlier this year, he held a referendum on a change to the country’s constitution that would allow him to disregard a previous two-term limit. His critics have seen this as a constitutional coup d’état and at least fifty people have been killed by state security forces in the attendant protests. The internet and international calls were cut off without warning on the Friday and Saturday before the results were announced. Asked on French television last month if he was turning into the type of autocrat he had opposed as a younger man, Condé said no. It was ‘extraordinary’, he said, that he, of all people, who had fought for 45 years against repressive regimes, should be seen as an ‘anti-democratic dictator’. He avoided the question of whether this term would be his last.

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2 November 2020

Victor Peña’s Odyssey

Forrest Hylton

On 1 October, one of Medellín’s leading radical public intellectuals, historians and humanists, Campo Elías Galindo, was tortured and murdered in his apartment. There was blood everywhere. The neo-fascists who killed him burned a book on his chest to make their point. During a meeting in the Parque del Periodista on 8 October, organised by the Unión Patriotica to honour his legacy, there was an explosion nearby. The police ruled it an accident: no bomb was involved, they said, just a gas leak.

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