Liberals, Torture, Contrast Ratios

Letters from Issue 29

Actually Existing Liberalism

Dear Editors,

There’s much to admire in “Party Foul” (Issue 28), not least giving Tom Ferguson his due and drawing attention to the “tech-led investor bloc.” Save us from Cory Booker in 2020. But your assessment risks flattening strategic challenges into ideological ones.

First comes the old story: the problem of geography. Winning majorities in the Electoral College and in both chambers of Congress means winning pluralities in all sorts of places. This is particularly tricky at a time when Democrats congregate in cities. Perhaps an attack on monopoly will dislodge the tech bloc and also win Senate seats, but intellectuals on the left do themselves no favors by ignoring the exigencies of the rickety American electoral system.

The second problem — and I realize I’m treading on contested territory here — comes in building coalitions. Yours is not the only commentary since November 8 to go after spineless Democrats for very real failings, then skip directly to Bernie Sanders and Jesse Jackson without saying anything about existing (i.e., non-commentariat) American liberalism in between. I mean the broad tradition whose most important exemplar post-1968 has been Ted Kennedy, whose priorities can be found every year in the budget of the House Progressive Caucus, and whose leading lights voted against block-granting welfare and against authorizing the invasion of Iraq. Readers of n+1 may not always agree, but organizing what you term an “outside bloc” requires caution, at the risk of division from our closest allies. Time to think hard about how, depending on place and circumstance, to build critical friendship.

 — Daniel Schlozman


Atrocity and Torture

Dear Editors,

Richard Beck’s call (“The Syria Catastrophe,” Issue 28) for a remoralization of our thinking about war is wholly welcome. Today we have a President who justifies torture because it “works.” Dubious as this claim is, its most extraordinary aspect is the apparent assumption that any means can be justified if it furthers American ends. In response to such barbarism, Beck proposes a staunch pacifism. I wonder, though, if his proposed solution only encourages the kind of ethical muddiness that unscrupulous leaders find so convenient.

If we accept Beck’s claim that “wars are atrocities by definition,” we are left with only two options. The first is a thoroughgoing antimilitarism; the second is an embrace of any and all tactics that further military aims. After all, if war is by definition an atrocity, what difference does it make if one employs torture, chemical weapons, or the atom bomb? If we have only these two options, pacifism and moral indifferentism, it is obvious which one our leaders will choose.

What is needed instead of an absolutist antiwar movement is a revival of the just war tradition, which gives criteria for entering and prosecuting war. Like any moral system, this one has sometimes been used to justify the crimes of the powerful, but it has also come to the aid of their critics. When Elizabeth Anscombe protested Oxford’s decision to award Harry Truman an honorary degree, she did so not because she was a pacifist, but because she recognized that the use of the atom bomb was a profound violation of the rules of just war.

Anscombe blamed two things for the inability of her fellows to see the evil of Truman’s acts: the first was an acceptance of the pacifist description of war as atrocity, without the accompanying pacifist conclusion that it is therefore to be avoided; and the second was the devil. We should resist both.

 — Matthew Schmitz


Dear Editors,

I appreciated Richard Beck’s reasoned and principled call for an antimilitarist approach to the Syrian conflict. However, I take issue with Beck’s characterization of torture as a technique “banned in nearly all of Western Europe during the 18th and 19th centuries,” in contrast with Amnesty International’s recent documentation of torture in three-quarters of the UN member states. The 18th- and 19th-century “bans” that Beck cites were, in reality, not universal — not in a world in which the states of Western Europe extended their rule across the globe through colonialism.

Torture was and remains a method of domination applied primarily to nonwhite subject populations in colonized spaces. The Republican Party in the United States, cited by Beck as evidence of the increasing normalization of torture, does not advocate torture universally, but perpetuates its application in Guantánamo Bay, at CIA black sites overseas, and selectively inside the United States — behind the walls of jails, prisons, and detention centers. This understanding of the acceptability — indeed, the benefit — of torture against certain non-white populations is not so much a deviation from 18th- and 19th-century norms as a continuation of colonial logic.

 — Alex Winder


Who Can Read This?

Dear Editors,

There was a factual error in your review (“The Bleak Left,” Issue 28) of the ultraleft journal Endnotes. The ultraleft theorist Gilles Dauvé was not involved in the journal Invariance. Since the 1970s, Dauvé has been involved in publications ranging from Le Mouvement Communiste and Mordicus to Troploin. Jacques Camatte was one of the main authors of Invariance and there is a world of difference between Dauvé’s perspectives and those of Camatte. A wrong answer on something as crucial as this could get you bounced out of the final round on Jeopardy.

Regarding Endnotes: my understanding is that after Marx died, Engels reminisced that when the two began their partnership as young men, they resolved to write all their works at a level that would be readily comprehensible to persons of average intelligence and educational level. Anything other than this they regarded as being irrelevant to the real movement to abolish existing conditions. A set of theories that can contribute to a liberatory downfall of the global market order must emerge from ongoing involvement in public action that has some potential to generate this. It must try to suggest practical strategies and tactics of use to nonacademic working people. It has to grow and adapt as it engages with the complex, contradictory reality outside a theorist’s comfort zone. This does not take place in Endnotes.

It is difficult to imagine anyone who doesn’t have a doctorate in advanced Marxoid studies reading Endnotes. It is even more difficult to see how its insights can be put to use. If transit-system operators, transit-system riders, supermarket cashiers, and enlisted people in the armed forces will never encounter Endnotes, then in real-world subversive terms, Endnotes does not exist. Pessimism about the possibility of global revolutionary change is understandable, but the specific kind of pessimism exhibited in Endnotes is consistent with its subjectively insurrectionary authors’ lack of a credible will to act on what they believe — outside a cosseted academic echo chamber, in contexts where they can be taken seriously by friend and foe alike.

For all its undoubted brilliance, Endnotes inadvertently proves that there is an impermeable firewall separating all college Marxist theory, no matter how subjectively radical, from life outside academia. What happens within the precincts of the bourgeois academy stays there. Ongoing collective action against what capitalism does to our lives has never been more necessary, and the conditions that give rise to it in the United States grow more promising by the day. If a body of supposed revolutionary theory does not contribute to mass collective resistance to capitalism however, this theory adds up to nothing.

 — Kevin Keating


Dear Editors,

It would be very helpful if you provided more contrast in your [online] articles. You’re using a light beige background with a gray font color and the contrast just isn’t enough for me to be able to read comfortably. I was trying to follow an excellent but long article on modern socialism but I’m going to have to give up. The article was “The Bleak Left” by Tim Baker.

 — Laura Rubalcaba

Rachel Ossip responds:

It’s possible that the contrast of our site (mainly, the colors of the design) is to blame, but that is easily measured. Accessibility standards set by the W3C Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) use contrast ratios to determine whether the contrast between a background color and the text is sufficient for reading. Contrast ratio is a measure of the luminance of the brightest color versus the luminance of the darkest color. For instance, a black-and-white checkerboard on an average display has a contrast ratio of 20:1. The WCAG has determined that a 4.5:1 ratio is sufficient for small text, even for those who experience “the loss in contrast that results from moderately low visual acuity, congenital or acquired color deficiencies, or the loss of contrast sensitivity that typically accompanies aging.”

So I ran a contrast-ratio evaluation on the body text and background colors for magazine pieces on our website, and we pass accessibility tests by a wide margin. The highest “grade” for contrast accessibility, AAA, is anything above 7:1, which we surpass significantly at 11.40:1. For these article texts, we also pass tests for four kinds of color blindness with similar margins (protanopia, deuteranopia, tritanopia, and full color blindness). There are other parts of our site that are less than accessible, which we should look into, but the articles’ contrast is spot-on.

However, there’s more to perceived contrast than just the colors the screen is supposed to display. Measurements of contrast ratio presume screens in “normal” lighting situations (gentle ambient light, not full sunlight), and also take for granted that the screen is calibrated correctly. How is the light in the room? Is the screen’s brightness turned up? Is the color calibrated correctly? To check color calibration on a Mac, use the Display Calibrator Assistant; in Windows, the Color Calibration utility. Turn up the brightness, and check the browser’s zoom to make sure it’s at 100 percent.

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