2021-02-27

Restoring Trust in Science as a Source of Reliable Knowledge

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by Neil Godfrey

Another great program from the ABC’s Radio National, this time from the Science Friction program. The interviewer is Natasha Mitchell. This one is about 25 minutes.

Science FAIL! A perilous story of why it’s good to do

From the concluding minutes:

Dr Ben de Haas: . . . . Ideally that’s what makes the difference between science and other pursuits of truth – that we correct our errors.

Natasha Mitchell: But the current culture of science could be undermining that ideal, and is taking a toll on the mental health of early career scientists especially, — short term grants, a publish or perish culture, promotion being contingent on journal papers, job insecurity, short PhD scholarships, and a focus on only publishing positive findings.

Professor Alan Love: In recent years there have emerged movements for the publication of negative results where some journals will do that. However, it’s still clearly the case, what is expected from scientists is to break through, be the first to discover something, . . . There’s a deep tension there.  Then the only people who can secure those positions that are few and far between are the ones who “grab the golden ring” of the results that everybody wants to tweet, not the person who says, “I discovered that everything I was doing was based on an artefact.” . . . You can’t build a career on that.

artefact: something observed in a scientific investigation or experiment that is not naturally present but occurs as a result of the preparative or investigative procedure.
“the curvature of the surface is an artefact of the wide-angle view”

Mitchell: But perhaps that announcement, that everything I’ve just done for the last three years is based on an artefact, is actually the most powerful finding of all for subsequent experiments.

Love: It could be, absolutely. That’s the picture of science that we really need society to have. If they only get what they see in the movies, if they only get the sort of Era[?] stories, or the recounting of the Nobel prize lecture about how you found that amazing discovery, they’re going to really misunderstand the enterprise and why we should trust it, why we should think that it generates reliable knowledge.

If they read the front page news and they see one week, “Oh look, coffee’s good for me”, and next week, “Oh look, coffee’s bad for me” and then next week, “Oh look, coffee’s good for me again” and they become jaded if the expectation is somehow that the scientists are going to deliver some sort of inviolate factoid about coffee, can we reset those expectations? If we can, I think we can make some serious progress in how we understand the role of science in society.

And given the anti-intellectual, anti-science views that appear to be pervading very large swathes of our supposedly enlightened communities, that is surely an urgent task.

 

 


2021-02-26

Raised in a Cult

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by Neil Godfrey

Here’s another personal cult and cult-exit story. Among those who would learn much from listening to the interview is anyone who derisively thinks, “once a fundamentalist, always a fundamentalist”. I can relate to much of what addressed here. No doubt can many others — especially the discussion on rebuilding one’s life after the cult.

From the introduction of ABC’s program Conversations:

Serafina was born as a baby named Miriyum into a religious cult on New Zealand’s South Island.

The cult leader was a charismatic but abusive man named Douglas Metcalfe, who claimed to be the reincarnation of Jesus Christ.

The members lived together at ‘Camp David’, growing vegetables and reading the Book of Revelation.

For Serafina, the cult was her family and she looked forward to the day they would take part in the final battle against the forces of Satan.

When she was a young woman she was released to attend technical college on the condition she still wore her headscarf.

While she was at Polytech, revelations about Metcalfe and his adultery and abuse of young girls began to emerge, which eventually saw the cult collapse.

But leaving Camp David for a life without religious rules was more complicated than she could have imagined.

It’s a 49 minute conversation

From https://www.abc.net.au/radio/programs/conversations/serafina-tan%C3%A8-cult-escaping-a-cult-cycling/13174334

 


2021-02-25

Silicon Valley’s Brave New World — and Chinese Communism may be its Beacon

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by Neil Godfrey

We begin with an interesting observation of Rana Foroohar, author of Don’t Be Evil: How Big Tech Betrayed Its Founding Principles – and All of Us . . . After outlining how Larry Page and Sergey Brin, co-founders of Google, arrived at their PageRank system that became the core feature of Google, Foroohar casts light on the engineers creating this new wonder:

Now their bots could roam with impunity all over cyberspace, tagging, tallying—and potentially trespassing over the copyrights of anyone and everyone who had created the content they were linking to in the process, something that Google would eventually do at industrial scale when it purchased YouTube years later.

All perfectly innocent, right? And all for the greater good, naturally.

To Page and Brin, there was nothing nefarious about this. They simply sought to capture the knowledge tucked away in computer archives across the country to benefit humanity. If it benefited them, too, so much the better. It was the first instance of what later might be classified as lawful theft. If anyone complained, Page expressed mystification. Why would anyone be bothered by an activity of theirs that was so obviously benign? They didn’t see the need to ask permission; they’d just do it. “Larry and Sergey believe that if you try to get everyone on board it will prevent things from happening,” said Terry Winograd, a professor of computer science at Stanford and Page’s former thesis adviser, in an article in 2008. “If you just do it, others will come around to realize they were attached to old ways that were not as good….No one has proven them wrong—yet.”

In earlier pages, Foroohar opened the door to the educational and cultural background (from Montessori to Stanford) of Page and Brin that fostered this attitude.

This became the Google way. As Jonathan Taplin wrote in his book, Move Fast and Break Things, when Google released the first version of Gmail, Page refused to allow engineers to include a delete button “because Google’s ability to profile you by preserving your correspondence was more important than your ability to eliminate embarrassing parts of your past.” Likewise, customers were never asked if Google Street View cameras could take pictures of their front yards and match them to addresses in order to sell more ads. They adhered strictly to the maxim that says it’s better to ask for forgiveness than to beg for permission—though in truth they weren’t really doing either.

Oh, to have the freedom to create that only China can provide. . .

It’s an attitude of entitlement that still exists today, even after all the events of the past few years. In 2018, while attending a major economics conference, I was stuck in a cab with a Google data scientist, who expressed envy at the amount of surveillance that Chinese companies are allowed to conduct on citizens, and the vast amount of data it produces. She seemed genuinely outraged about the fact that the university where she was conducting AI research had apparently allowed her to put just a handful of data-recording sensors around campus to collect information that could then be used in her research. “And it took me five years to get them!” she told me, indignantly.

Like innocent children who believe they can create the brave new world . . .

Such incredulity is widespread among Valley denizens, who tend to believe that their priorities should override the privacy, civil liberties, and security of others. They simply can’t imagine that anyone would question their motives, given that they know best. Big Tech should be free to disrupt government, politics, civic society, and law, if those things should prove to be inconvenient. This is the logic held by the band of tech titans who would like to see the Valley secede not just from America, but from California itself, since, according to them, the other regions aren’t pulling their economic weight.

History and the humanities? Never bothered with them, but they do make a rich source of hyperlinks . . .

The kings (and handful of queens) of Silicon Valley see themselves as prophets of sorts, given that tech is, after all, the future. The problem is that creators of the future often feel they have little to learn from the past. As lauded venture capitalist Bill Janeway once put it to me, “Zuck and many of the rest [of the tech titans] have an amazing naïveté about context. They really believe that because they are inventing the new economy, they can’t really learn anything from the old one. The result is that you get these cultural and political frictions that are offsetting many of the benefits of the technology itself.”

Law? Ethics? We can’t code for those!

Frank Pasquale, a University of Maryland law professor and noted Big Tech critic whose book The Black Box Society is a must-read for those who want to understand the effects of technology on politics and the economy, provided a telling example of this attitude. “I once had a conversation with a Silicon Valley consultant about search neutrality [the idea that search engine titans should not be able to favor their own content], and he said, ‘We can’t code for that.’ I said this was a legal matter, not a technical one. But he just repeated, with a touch of condescension: ‘Yes, but we can’t code for it, so it can’t be done.’ ” The message was that the debate would be held on the technologist’s terms, or not at all.

Human things require real humans to work humanely. Google removed the “Don’t be evil” motto from the introduction to its code of conduct in 2018. Continue reading “Silicon Valley’s Brave New World — and Chinese Communism may be its Beacon”


2021-02-23

Techno-Feudalism — We are working for Big Tech for free

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by Neil Godfrey

Initially, Eva had considered the harvesting of data by Facebook, Google and others for the purposes of advertising a pretty innocuous way for consenting adults to trade a little bit of privacy for some rather desirable free leisure services. But as Costa would point out whenever given half a chance, Facebook and Google, Twitter and Instagram, Amazon and the rest were not mere service providers. Nor were their profits rewards for services rendered. No, they were gigantic behaviour modification machines, addicting and provoking, teasing and enraging their users in order to maximize engagement and the profiling data – and profits – that came with it.

‘Big tech only enables two people to communicate if it can manipulate their behaviour,’ Costa would insist on the rare occasions that he and Eva had argued the matter.

This was what he meant when he said that social media was proletarianizing us all. Facebook’s users provided both the labour that went into the machine and the product that was sold by it.

‘Even Walmart, a company renowned for its capacity to squeeze every drop of value out of its workers, pays out 40 per cent of its total revenue in wages,’ Costa would complain. ‘But Facebook pays only 1 per cent of its revenues to its employees and precisely nothing to its users!’

That was back in 2019. By 2025, Eva had become convinced that no self-respecting liberal could condone big tech’s mass manipulation techniques nor defend its gains as a fair reward for entrepreneurship. Its returns were only made possible by a species of techno-feudalism that made billions of people work for it for free.

Varoufakis, Yanis. Another Now: Dispatches from an Alternative Present. London: The Bodley Head, 2020. p.144 (my emphasis)


2021-02-16

How and Why the Mandaeans Embraced John the Baptist

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by Neil Godfrey

The Mandaeans live on the banks of the Tigris [see Ancient Whither for an update since Iraq war]. They must live near running water where they can practise their continual baptismal rites. When they were first discovered by [Roman Catholic missionaries] in the 17th century, and it was found that they were neither Catholics nor Protestants but that they made much of baptism and honoured John the Baptist, they were called Christians of St John, in the belief that they were a direct survival of the Baptist’s disciples [such as are mentioned in Acts 18:25ff].

(F. C. Burkitt, 1928, [1931])

Last month I posted links to recent works from a symposium on John the Baptist and expressed appreciation for a reminder from James McGrath that it might be worth taking a closer look at the Mandaean sources when searching for glimpses of “the historical John the Baptist”. This post shares what I have found of interest in my very early follow up reading.

Disclaimers:

  • What follows draws upon what only a handful of scholars have written about the relationship between John the Baptist and the Mandaeans. The views are debated.
  • I have not read the Mandaean literature, not even in translation, but am relying upon what scholars have written about that literature in summary.
  • What I write today may be (and probably will be) different from what I write another day.

Jorunn Jacobsen Buckley argues in favour of the strong likelihood of a historical link (even if that link is indirect) between John the Baptist and the Mandaeans in The Great Stem of Souls: Reconstructing Mandaean History and in her contribution to A People’s History of ChristianityOf one scholar who does not accept a historical connection Buckley writes:

Shimon Gibson’s The Cave of John the Baptist (New York: Doubleday, 2004) is much too facile in its summary dismissal of the Mandaeans as being of any possible relevance to the historical John (325-26). The idea that John was imported into Mandaeism in Islamic times is untenable.

(Buckley, Turning the Tables on Jesus, 296 – my emphasis)

Before I set out Buckley’s case let’s look at the one she protests is “too facile a dismissal” of a Mandaean association with a historical John the Baptist. Shimon Gibson asks and addresses the key question in The Cave of John the Baptist:

Could these Mandaeans be the descendants of the original followers of John the Baptist? And would it be possible to reconstruct the writings of the first followers of John based on an analysis of Mandaean literature?

Unfortunately, the answer is a negative one: they are definitely not the descendants of the original baptists. The name of the sect is derived from the Aramaic Manda d’Haiye, which means ‘the knowledge of life’. . . . 

The excitement of early researchers suggesting possible links between disciples of John, who had in some fashion preserved his heritage, and Mandaean religious writings was quickly dashed by the scholar F. C. Burkitt who was able to show that there is nothing in the Mandaean literature that could actually predate the fifth to seventh centuries AD. Moreover, those Mandaean writings pertaining specifically to John the Baptist must reflect adaptations from the Gospels and are not alternative writings on John. . . . Some of the Mandaean writings are notably hostile towards Christianity and Jesus, who is described as the ‘prophet of lies’, as well as towards Judaism [note 10.81].

(Gibson, Cave, 325f. Note 10.81 points to Albright’s From the Stone Age to Christianity that also directs readers to Burkitt, and to Lietzmann’s The Beginnings of the Christian Church.)

And so our journey begins. Next stop, some of the comments of F. C. Burkitt:

And a very little investigation makes it quite clear that the Mandaean hostility to Eshu mshiha[=Jesus Christ] is hostility to the fully developed post-Nicene Church. In several places ‘Christ’ is actually called ‘the Byzantine’ (Rumaia), and further we are told that the disciples of this Christ become ‘Christians’, and turn into monks and nuns who have no children and who keep fasts and never wear white clothes like the Mandaeans . . . . In a word, it is not the Christ of the Gospels, but the Christ of fully developed ecclesiastical organization and policy to which Mandaism is so hostile.

(Bukitt, 1928, 229)

An example of Manichean influence: The Mandaeans, then, rejected the Christ of the Catholic Church, born of a woman and crucified, but they accepted the Stranger who appeared in Jerusalem in the days of Pilate, who healed the sick and taught the true and life-giving doctrine, and who ascended in due course when his work was done to his own place in the world of Light. This Personage is called the Stranger, but he is no stranger to the modern student of Christian antiquity : it is clearly the Manichaean Jesus, a personage adopted by Mani from the Jesus of Marcion. In other words it is no new controversial figment of the Mandaeans. (Burkitt, 1928, 231)

What did the contemporary Churchmen say of the Mandaeans? Burkitt in Church and Gnosis:

We have now . . . an account of the Mandaeans by an ancient Mesopotamian writer, writing in the year A.D. 792. He tells us that their founder was a certain Ado, a mendicant, who came from Adiabene, i.e. from the district just north of Mosul. He further tells us that his teaching was derived from the Marcionites, from the Manichaeans . . .

There is no reason to reject the evidence of Theodore bar Konai. . . . It is important to consider how much his evidence comes to. There is a good deal in the Mandaean literature that recalls Marcionite and Manichaean teaching . . . .

(Burkitt, 1931, 102)

And that other cited reference in Gibson’s The Cave of John the Baptist?

The numerous writings of the Mandæans bear witness to the continued existence of the disciples of John for several centuries and perhaps the baptist sect in southern Babylonia at the present time, is the direct heir of John’s work in the days of the Herods. That is asserted nowadays by many weighty persons, and anyone who regards the Mandaean literature as sources can draw an attractive picture of the spiritual power which proceeded from John, and which influenced the religion of Judaism, and especially that of Jesus and His disciples. John’s circle then appears as the nursery of an early gnosis, which united Babylonian, Persian, and Syrian elements in a many-coloured mixture on a Jewish background, and grouped the whole round the ancient Iranian mythology of the first man, that redeemer who descended from heaven in order to awaken the soul bound and asleep in the material fetters of this world, and to open up for it the way to heaven.

This is very intriguing, and gives quite unthought-of perspectives, leading possibly to a new understanding of primitive Christianity; nevertheless we must put it firmly and entirely on one side. It can be shown that the Mandaean literature consists of various strata which come from widely different periods. And the latest of these strata, belonging to the Islamic era—i.e. at earliest, in the seventh century—are those which preserve the notices of John the Baptist; they are modelled on the basis of the gospel records, and distorted till they are grotesque. In the same way, the many sallies against Jesus and Christianity are quite clearly directed against the Byzantine church, and have not the least connection with primitive Christianity. The fragments of the earlier strata belong to a rank oriental gnosis which has run to seed, and have no bearing on the historical John and his disciples.

(Lietzmann, 1961, 43f)

To turn now to a more recent scholar and one whom Buckley engages in some depth (pp 326-330 in Great Stem), Edmondo Lupieri, author of The Mandaeans, the Last Gnostics.

One detail in Lupieri’s work that Buckley disputes that attracted my attention concerned the Mandaean account of their ancestors having migrated from Palestine to Mesopotamia. I was unaware of such an event being a literary trope that can be traced back to the flight of Aeneas with his family from Troy immediately prior to its destruction. That a narrative is a trope does not necessarily mean it cannot also be a historical event, but if a literary-ideological pattern alone offers an explanation for a narrative and there is no independent supporting evidence for historicity then we have no need to go beyond the most economical explanation. Lupieri writes

From the point of view of a comparative analysis it means also that Mandaeanism has aligned itself with those religions that allocate a flight to their beginnings, following upon a persecution. In backgrounds linked to Judaism, this flight or original migration is characterized by a flight from Jerusalem before its destruction,53 which is then explained as a divine punishment.54 The motif is well represented in Judaic traditions — for example, in the so-called “Second Book of Baruch” — but it is above all in Christian or post-Christian traditions where it has found the most ample scope for its development. Already in the Synoptic Gospels there is Jesus’ exhortation to flee to the hills, leaving Jerusalem and Judaea to their destiny of death,55 but most important of all was the legend of a flight of the entire Christian community in Jerusalem from the Judaic capital to Pella, a pagan city beyond the Jordan, shortly before the arrival of the Romans.

53. The event was so traumatic that it exercised a remarkable influence on the belief of all the religions arising from or in some way deriving from Judaism. The legends on the flights from Jerusalem are the religious parallel of the “secular” legends on the original flight-migration from a famous city of the past, afterward destroyed. This is the legend of Aeneas, of course, and of many analogies to be found here and there in virtually all cultures.

54. Also within Judaism, the only way to save the faith after the destruction of the temple and of Jerusalem is to consider the catastrophe a punishment decided by one’s own God for sins committed; outside of Judaism, and in particular in Christianity and in Islam, it will be the God of each one (whether thought to be the same God as the Jews’ or not) who punished the Judaic sins.

55. Mark 13:14-27 and parallels.

Lupieri casts light on the problems that arise if that Pella flight actually happened: Continue reading “How and Why the Mandaeans Embraced John the Baptist”


2021-02-14

The Mystery of the Incarnation Solved? — Continuing the series on Nanine Charbonnel’s Jésus-Christ, Sublime Figure de Papier

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by Neil Godfrey

Continuing the series  . . .

.

According to the conventional scholarly view, Jesus began his career as a remarkable man who so impressed his closest associates that they came to view him as more than a mere man after his death. Admiration for Jesus grew to the extent that by the time the epistles and gospels were written he was deemed to be a heavenly divine figure alongside God, one who during his earthly sojourn had been a “new Moses”, a “new Israel” and “son of God”. This Jesus that is found in the gospels and epistles is generally acknowledged to be a mythical figure even though there was some at some point a “mere mortal” upon whom all those grandiose concepts were bestowed over time. A popular Christ myth idea today proposes the converse: that Jesus began as a heavenly figure and that his earthly career was a later “mythological/theological” development.

Nanine Charbonnel [NC] in her book Jésus-Christ, Sublime Figure de Papier proposes that there is more explanatory power in replacing both trajectories (from human to divine and from heavenly to earthly) with a kind of “big bang” in which all the essential attributes of Jesus, both his core divine and human attributes, appeared together. The method by which this Jesus emerged following the same Jewish literary-theological techniques that generated other biblical figures and events: that is, by various ways of playing with word meanings, sounds, and images that were found in the “Sacred Scriptures”, and by a rich use of allegory and metaphor. See the box below for illustrations of this point.

For example: the name and character of Abraham, meaning “father of many nations”, was constructed to be representative of “many nations”; the twins Jacob and Esau, and then the twelve sons of Israel, were created to represent the twelve tribes, and several of these figures were given narrative roles to represent the historical fates of the people they were said to represent; waters were divided and gathered to let life-giving land appear, and this motif was repeated with the creation of the new world founded by Noah’s family, and again with the new nation of Israel being born through the Red Sea and Jordan River, and again when Elisha took over the reins from Elijah by crossing the brook that miraculously parted for him . . .  and again when the skies themselves were parted at the commencement of the ministry of Jesus. We see related techniques at work with the development of the Son of Man figure emerging first as a metaphor in Daniel and associated with the imagery of another metaphorical figure for Israel, Isaiah’s Suffering Servant, and how this literary Son of Man became a “real” Son of Man dwelling in heaven by the time of the writings attributed to Enoch. Paul’s idea that a saviour figure had undergone a curse by being hung on a tree appears to have been inspired by a creative reflection on the offering of Isaac in Genesis and another passage in Deuteronomy. Certain correspondences between Jezebel and Esther have led some scholars to suggest that Esther was created in part as a righteous foil to the wicked Jezebel. And so forth and so forth — examples could be multiplied many times over (and the ones listed here represent only a few of the creative methods employed). [I have mixed some of NC’s examples with a few others I have read in various other publications.]

The relevance for NC’s thesis is that the way Jesus was created was consistent with the way other figures in the Jewish scriptures were created. The main difference is that the figure of Jesus was overloaded with more layers of Scriptural tropes than others. But there was a good reason for this hyper overlay: Jesus of the gospels was being created as the personification of the new and ideal Israel itself, that is, the Israel of prophecy that was filled with the presence of God. We begin to understand here the origin of the coalescing of two natures in Jesus, the human and the divine.

So we come now to NC’s next step in her discussion of the incarnation of Jesus. Recent posts have addressed the way Jesus was shaped to represent key biblical heroes (Adam, Isaac, Joseph, Moses, Joshua, Elijah, Elisha) and even the people of God collectively, the new Israel, the union of Jews and gentiles in the one new body. That has been only half the story, though. NC calls this Jesus’s “horizontal” personification. Jesus was also the personification of the divine and of all things ordained for the worship of God, including the temple. But NC begins with the tabernacle of the wilderness, the tent in which God first dwelt among his people. Jesus is also the embodiment of Scripture itself, the Word of God, and the very name of God. NC’s thesis is that the gospel Jesus was the unique product of these two types of personification, horizontal and vertical.

Recall, further, from previous posts the frequency of the confusion of the literal and figurative that NC points to in the Jewish Scriptures. Sometimes the reader is left wondering which is which. So it is with the gospels.

NC sees three primary horizontal-vertical “constructions” making up the figure of gospel Jesus:

  1. As the personification of the People the person named “Yahweh Saves” (= Jesus) is simultaneously the personification-incarnation of the Son of God.
  2. As the nation of kings and the messiah he is the personification-incarnation of the Temple.
  3. More precisely he is the personification-incarnation of the Presence of God, the shekinah, which was originally in the Tabernacle or Tent. Now the word that is translated tabernacle/tent (in the LXX) is used elsewhere as a reference to the human body. But we will come to that in due course.

In the remainder of this chapter draws out the depths of the above three components of the gospel Jesus and I’ll attempt to cover these in the next post (or maybe three). A later discussion explores details of Jesus as the Name, Word and Law of God.

.


Charbonnel, Nanine. Jésus-Christ, Sublime Figure de Papier. Paris: Berg International éditeurs, 2017.


 


2021-02-12

Why Navalny

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by Neil Godfrey

90 seconds of truth and clarity from Irish member of the European Parliament, Clare Daly:

H/t a retweet by Rania Khalek:


2021-02-06

What the Left Means by “Systemic”

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by Tim Widowfield

At the end of 2020, I began to see the requisite social media posts asking what we’re tired of hearing or seeing in the news, and which words or terms we hope never to hear again. Not surprisingly, several people cited “systemic racism” (or, for that matter, systemic anything).

Throughout the previous year, pundits on the left (i.e., centrist liberals) and the right posted responses to what they see as the overuse of the term systemic racism. Disingenuous conservatives warned that blaming the system for generating racist ideas and exclusionary behavior would tend to absolve individuals for moral failings.

On the surface, they may seem to have a point. If the system causes people to behave the way they do, then how can we blame anyone? You may recognize this sort of argument when, for example, centrists and conservatives reflexively point toward the sin of greed rather than the underlying system that rewards or even requires it. They redirect our attention to failing people so that we don’t look too closely at the failing structure that nurtures and supports them. By focusing our attention on the actions of individuals they hope to prevent meaningful change.

Before continuing, we need to be absolutely clear about what we mean by “systemic.” In the mainstream press, we frequently see references to ideas, policies, and behavior that pervade the system. However, they focus our attention on the people who hold those ideas, promote those policies, and engage in that behavior. And where the right sees only bad actors, centrist liberals see bad actors working in a system that needs to be reformed. Neither view is particularly helpful; however, the notion that the politico-economic framework is a neutral playing field that just needs a fairer rulebook and better referees is comforting, but seriously wrongheaded. Continue reading “What the Left Means by “Systemic””

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