Harper’s Notes (4/1)

The Harper Review’s weekly newsletter: digitalization, democracy, divinity, and more.

The editors

April 1, 2024

Rubbish or the real truth?: The Harper Review’s spring query, “Should we tell children the truth?” is honored by an answer from activist and retired professor of education Bill Ayers, who argues that kids intuit the truth whether adults tell it to them or not. Reflecting on a conversation between authors Art Spiegelman and Maurice Sendak, Ayers illustrates the innate sense children have for recognizing hogwash in a sea of lying politicians and flashy advertisements. Kids are more resilient than you think, Ayers argues—lay it on them.

Techno-dystopia: In his Compact magazine debut, University of Chicago finance professor Luigi Zingales addresses what he claims is one of the most pressing issues of our time: Big Tech’s undermining of our democracy. Zingales, along with his coauthor, Columbia University finance professor Tano Santos, argues that social media companies’ business models threaten the social foundation of democratic participation. More specifically, they intend to weaken “physical” relationships—that is, those that take place in parks, coffee shops, book clubs, and other such settings—between members of local communities in order to maximize profits. In doing so, technology companies destroy the very relationships that allow democratic institutions and engagement to flourish. To be sure, Zingales and Santos acknowledge that society can fight back against the “full digitalization of life.” But this begs the question: in realizing this risk, will digital platforms turn against democracy itself?

Democracy in India: If you’re interested in Indian politics, RSVP for “The Future of Modi’s India,” a discussion hosted by the Institute of Politics that will take place on Tuesday, April 2, at the Keller Center Forum. Moderated by New York Timescorrespondent Emily Schmall, the discussion will feature Shuja Nawaz, director of the South Asian Center at the Atlantic Council, Paul Staniland, a professor of political science at the University of Chicago, and Safiya Ghori-Ahmad, the senior director of the APCO Worldwide. The three will discuss what India’s upcoming elections could mean for the future of the country and for democracy worldwide. The event will begin at 5:30 p.m., and vegetarian and non-vegetarian dinner options will be provided.

Blind spots: Below the bookshelves of her Minneapolis-based bookstore, Ojibwe Pulitzer Prize-winning author Louise Erdrich speaks with Sterling HolyWhiteMountain for The Paris Review. Erdrich is intrigued by some of her favorite writers’ blind spots, particularly in their portrayals of Native Americans. Rather than debate how far one can separate a writer from their work, she considers the limits to enjoying a writer, “flaws and all.” Erdrich also explores how political issues figure in her fiction, advocating for stories that are “shaped by politics,” in lieu of characters that “fit” a specific set of politics. This Q&A is the first installment in The Paris Review’s new series, “Writers at Work, Revisited,” which continues conversations with the magazine’s ex-interviewees. See Erdrich’s original 2010 interview here.

Religious restriction: The University of Chicago Divinity School is hosting a panel on Monday, April 8, at 4:30 p.m. in the Swift Hall Common Room. Professors Kevin Davey, Brook Ziporyn, and Daniel Arnold will discuss what scholars would miss if they restricted their focus to texts only within the Western tradition. These three professors will reflect on their own experiences studying texts within Japanese, Chinese, and Indian traditions, particularly with regards to questions relating to time, knowledge, embodiment, and reality. Students interested in the academic study of religion, as well as in philosophy generally, are highly encouraged to attend.