Interesting posts: autism, WW1, threats to liberal democracy, Iran

Some great writing around at the moment, too much to keep up with sometimes. Here’s some of the best.

The Kids Who Beat Autism – New York Times

I always worry about articles like this giving false hope to people. Some kids develop quite normally after autism in early childhood. But most don’t. We don’t understand autism very well, or even if it’s a condition or series of entirely unrelated conditions masquerading under shared syndrome name.

Which means I love the way this piece ended, with words from a parent whose son remains, in adulthood, severely impaired in terms of communications and who will never live independently.

“At some point,” she told me, “I realized he was never going to be normal. He’s his own normal. And I realized Matthew’s autism wasn’t the enemy; it’s what he is. I had to make peace with that. If Matthew was still unhappy, I’d still be fighting. But he’s happy. Frankly, he’s happier than a lot of typically developing kids his age. And we get a lot of joy from him. He’s very cuddly. He gives us endless kisses. I consider all that a victory.”

As somebody said, being normal is overrated. Being happy and giving love to the people who care about you most is the most useful thing any of us can do. Matthew clearly lives a life of great worth, however ‘unsuccessful’ it might be by worldly standards.

How The Great War Razed East Africa – Africa Research Institute

I was aware that the East African theatre in WW1 was the most active outside Europe and the Middle East, partly because I’m a 20th Century history nerd, partly from reading about the life of Bishop Frank Weston of Zanzibar.

I didn’t realise just how many people died in East Africa. While British military casualties were a – relatively – small 11,000, at least 95,000 African civilian bearers and carriers died, and that might be a considerable underestimate. Many of those men had been pressganged into service, almost a century after slavery had allegedly been abolished in the British Empire.

The Germans, fighting what was in purely military terms a stunningly courageous mobile campaign in the bush despite being heavily outnumbered, also pressganged civilians for service (as was common in German East Africa even in peacetime) but also requisitioned crops without payment. Around 300,000 civilians died of famine and related causes in German East Africa; in British East Africa, the state held together rather better, but land and labour requisitioning increased during the war, and food price inflation caused real distress to many.

How did the first world war actually end? – Channel 4 News

Remembering my favourite World War 1 heroes – the rebellious German sailors of 1918. The story of German domestic resistance to World War One is little known in the English-speaking world, perhaps because the lazy assumption of fanatical German ultra-nationalism asks fewer questions of British and American identity?

The end of the party: how we could be heading for a post-democratic era – New Statesman

The triumph of liberal democracy in the West has been assumed since the end of the Cold War. Now the fantasies that it would soon magically reincarnate itself around the globe are dying, is liberal democracy under threat even in its heartland? Like Michael Kenny and Nick Pearce, I too have fretted (to the point of blogging about it!) about the rise of cheap populist spivs across Europe, on the left, right and from ideological nothingness: Farage, Le Pen, Grillo, Tsipras, the Pirates.

The problem is, I’m not sure any of the solutions Kenny and Pearce propose actually solve anything. We’d all love politicians to adopt longer time-frames for decision making, but how to stop the cheap populists from simply outflanking the long-term planners? Dispersing power across the state, another suggested solution, is not a bad thing in over-centralised Britain, but hasn’t stopped the rise in cynicism about politics in, say, Germany or Spain.

Apart from a few outliers, the oldest mass democracies are only around a century and a half old (and, before you jump in, the USA was a very flawed democracy in the days when it was systematically disenfranchising its Black and Native populations). The triumphalist Whig view of history doesn’t seem so credible at the moment, and along with that is the idea that democracy, prosperity and progress inevitably flow together and are irreversible once achieved.

Which is why the Church, especially the more deeply entrenched bits of it that are Catholicism and established Protestantism in their respective heartlands, are so important in Western Europe. Although in poor repair and often poorly supported, they are the only relatively universal social institutions older than the modern Western European states. That might be important if democracy turns out to be more transient than we all thought until recently.

High heels and hijabs: Iran’s sexual revolution – New Statesman

Tehran’s middle-class women have hated the Revolution’s restrictions on female dress and behaviour since the moment they were imposed. Now, their counterparts on the city’s working- to lower middle-class southside are also pushing the boundaries of what has become traditional morality. Interesting article which looks at everything from the new phenomenon of flat sharing by single young women to extramarital affairs.

One observation: in cultures where women are considered ‘dirty’ if they aren’t virgins at marriage, the physical evidence of such is considered particularly important. So the article details horrid practices like women sewing their hymens back once they’ve decided to settle down. Why are sexually puritan cultures always so horridly mixed in with violence against women?

And this, on temporary marriage, an institution said to have been much used by the future Ayatollah Khomeini when he was a student in Qom, is brilliant: “It is Shia pragmatism at its best, ensuring that even a quickie can be given an Islamic seal of approval and sanctified in the eyes of the Lord. Even though the practice is frowned on, it offers official respectability.”

Is Gardener’s Question Time Racist? – The Daily Telegraph

Of course it isn’t, and of course the Daily Telegraph doesn’t think so, but academic Ben Pitcher has just found a very clever way of using shock tactics to promote his new book on race in a multiracial Britain, called Consuming Race. It looks interesting, although if I do get round to reading it, I might end up disagreeing with a lot of it.

Interesting, though, that talking about race now has a capacity to shock which talking about sex or using nominally high-offence swearwords has completely lost?

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