Monthly Archives: December 2015

Review of “Soul Machine: The Invention of the Modern Mind”

In my latest article for The Economist, I review an interesting book about the notion that makes us human. An excerpt:

ABOUT a century and a half ago, an American railway worker named Phineas Gage was setting an explosive charge near Cavendish, Vermont. While he was tamping down the charge with an iron rod, it went off and sent the rod through his head. Gage miraculously survived—or least part of him did. But contemporaries thought that his personality had changed; where once he had been well-behaved, now he was downright antisocial. The incident raised questions about what constitutes the self and to what extent it is influenced by the body.

Although Phineas Gage is cited in medical and psychological literature as one of the earliest known cases of brain damage and personality change, the debate about what makes people human had, by then, already been going on for centuries. In “Soul Machine” George Makari, a psychiatry professor at Weill Cornell Medical College, presents an electrifying narrative of the intellectual disputes that gave rise to the Western conception of the mind.

Read the full piece here.

Simon Hedlin

Both Republicans and Democrats are pandering to public fear

Today I write in Sweden’s second largest morning newspaper, Svenska Dagbladet, about terrorism and gun violence, both of which are used by politicians to the left and the right to pander to public fear. The column can be found here.

Simon Hedlin

Unfair criticism of Obama on domestic terror

I am by no means a staunch supporter of Barack Obama, but I still do think that some of the criticism that he has received with respect to dealing with terrorism has been unfair. In particular – while one might argue that he has not done enough to suppress the threat from the Islamic State (IS) – it does not seem right to claim that he has systematically underplayed the threat from domestic terrorism. On this topic, the following is my letter to the editor in The Wall Street Journal:

Your editorial about a jihadist revival misrepresents President Obama’s position on domestic terrorism (“The Terror This Time,” Review & Outlook, Dec. 5). You claim that Mr. Obama systematically has tried “to minimize the terror risk on U.S. soil” and cite as evidence his May 23, 2013 speech at National Defense University.

But if you read the transcript from that very speech, the president clearly said both that “we face a real threat from radicalized individuals here in the United States” and that “alienated individuals—often U.S. citizens or legal residents—can do enormous damage, particularly when inspired by larger notions of violent jihad.”

It is also available to read here.

Simon Hedlin

Changing the fact instead of fighting the stereotype

In the student newspaper of my alma mater, I write about the lack of political interest among many Asian-Americans. Some claim that Asian-Americans are held back by the stereotype that we are apolitical. But the problem here is that the stereotype actually appears to be true. An excerpt:

In 1990, the Asian-American voter turnout rate was significantly higher than that of Hispanics. But in 2010, it had dropped by almost 10 percentage points, and Asian Americans were suddenly lagging behind Hispanics, as well as whites and blacks.

The extent to which we are underrepresented in politics because of discrimination is a legitimate topic for discussion, but that does not explain why our voter turnout is so embarrassingly low. If blacks had the same low voter turnout as that of Asian Americans in the 2012 presidential election, five million fewer blacks would have cast their ballots.

Nor do Asian Americans show a particularly strong interest in politics in other realms either. As Janelle Wong and co-authors point out in the book “New Race Politics in America,” data suggests that only 12 percent of Asian Americans donate to political campaigns, compared with 25 percent of Hispanics and 22 percent of blacks.

Moreover, a survey found that among Asian Americans, over the past four years, only 11 percent had contacted a government official, merely seven percent had protested, and an abysmal two percent had worked for a political campaign.

Even if we were to broaden the definition of political interest to cover public service in general, it does not make us Asian Americans look better—as a group, we are less likely than blacks to do volunteer work and less likely than Hispanics to serve in the armed forces. If Hispanics would have done military service to the same lesser extent as Asian Americans, the number of Hispanic veterans would be cut by a third down to just over one million people.

Of course, we Asian Americans face many unjust stereotypes that have little basis in reality. But a lack of civic participation is not one of them. In this case, instead of fighting the stereotype, we ought to change the fact.

Read the full piece here.

Simon Hedlin

Guns, but not just guns

I comment in The Washington Post on the fact that some states that have lax gun policies and high firearms ownership rates have relatively low rates of gun homicides. This means that although gun access certainly contributes to homicides and mass shootings, it cannot be the only factor that matters. We therefore need to ask ourselves: why is America such an outlier in the Western world when it comes to gun violence? What can we do to keep pushing gun violence rates down to stop the horrific killings of innocent people? An excerpt:

I agree that gun ownership matters, but this can hardly be the sole explanation. Wyoming has the highest gun-ownership rate in the nation, yet its number of gun murders per capita is lower than Israel’s. Vermont, North Dakota and Idaho are other states with easy and widespread access to firearms, but the homicide-by-gun rate in Vermont is lower than in Italy. In North Dakota, the rate is on par with that of Taiwan; and in Idaho, it is substantially below the rate in Macedonia.

Read the full comment here.

Simon Hedlin



Sex trafficking a problem near and far away

In The Wall Street Journal, I write today in a letter to the editor that sex trafficking is a problem everywhere:

I commend Sohrab Ahmari for helping to raise awareness of the gruesome enslavement practices by Islamic State in “Helping the Escaped Slaves of ISIS” (op-ed, Nov. 24). However, when your readers learn about the many women and children who are kept in bondage in Iraq and Syria, it is important to remember that deprivation of liberty and property isn’t merely a distant phenomenon halfway around the world. Human trafficking is also a serious problem in our own backyard.

Those who are trafficked in the Western world are, similar to the slaves of Islamic State, often subject to sexual violence. Because of its secretive nature, nobody knows for certain exactly how many people are trafficked for sexual exploitation. But low, conservative estimates suggest that we are talking about at least several thousand individuals every year in the U.S. alone—and the figure in Europe is probably in the same range. Victims of slavery, in countries far away as well as in our local neighborhoods, deserve greater attention and much better support.

Read it here, too.

Simon Hedlin

A different perspective on Pearl Harbor and World War II

“Growing up,” writes conservative blogger Erick Erickson, “I remember my parents never letting us have Asian food on December 7th. They were children of WWII.”

Given the vilification of Asians in the United States throughout the 20th century, it should perhaps not be surprising that some people stopped eating Asian food on the anniversary of the attacks on Pearl Harbor.

For instance, about a century ago, Organized Labor, the official publication of the San Francisco Building and Construction Trades Council, wrote: “Chinatown with its reeking filth and dirt … is a menace to community; but the sniveling Japanese … is a far greater danger to the laboring portion of society than all the opium-soaked pigtails who have ever blotted the fair name of this beautiful city.”

But that does not mean that the practice made any sense whatsoever, especially considering the sacrifices that Asian-Americans, particularly of Japanese descent, made during World War II.

On February 19, 1942, President Franklin Roosevelt issued Executive Order 9066, which authorized the forced relocation of over 100,000 individuals of Japanese heritage to internment camps.

John Rankin, a Democratic Congressman from Mississippi, said at the time: “Once a Jap, always a Jap. You can’t any more regenerate a Jap than you can reverse the laws of nature.”

Henry McLemore, a syndicated columnist, wrote in the San Francisco Chronicle in support of the internment camps: “I am for the immediate removal of every Japanese on the West Coast in a point deep in the interior. … Herd ‘em up, pack ‘em off and give ‘em the inside room in the Badlands. Let ‘em be pinched, hurt, hungry and dead up against it.”

In the words of Miné Okubo, a former internee in one of the camps: “We were suddenly uprooted—lost everything and treated like a prisoner with soldier guard, dumped behind barbed wire fence.”

Meanwhile, other Japanese-Americans, some of them having been recruited straight from the internment camps, were giving their lives for their country over in Europe by serving in the military to prove their innocence. Daniel Inouye, at the time an 18-year-old who would later become a U.S. Senator, explains: “I was angered to realize that my government felt that I was disloyal and part of the enemy, [an] enemy alien. And I wanted to be able to demonstrate, not only to my government, but to my neighbors that I was a good American.”

They served in the 100th Infantry Battalion and the 442nd Regimental Combat Team, two military units that were comprised almost entirely of Japanese-Americans. The two units eventually became two of the most highly decorated and with two of the highest casualty rates in U.S. military history, earning a total of 18,143 individual citations, including eight Presidential Unit Citations, 21 Medals of Honor, 52 Distinguished Service Crosses, 560 Silver Stars, and 9,486 Purple Hearts.

General George Marshall said of the Japanese-Americans who served: “They were superb! They showed rare courage and tremendous fighting spirit. Everybody wanted them.”

Tim Tokono, who served in the 442nd Regimental Combat Team, had prior to fighting in Europe seen his parents been forcibly relocated to two different internment camps. He explains the exceptional bravery that his unit showed in the following way: “We all had the idea of proving that we were loyal Americans. And so everything was ‘go, go, go forward, go forward.’ And so I understand it, we never retreated. We never took a backward step. Always forward.”

Simon Hedlin

Paranoid xenophobia in America

I write today in Financial Times that it is hardly surprising that Americans shun foreigners in light of the threat posed by global terrorism:

Virtually every nation state goes through episodes of paranoid xenophobia, and the US is no exception. After the Haymarket bombing in Chicago in 1886, for example, it was revealed that most of the suspects behind the attack were of German descent. Immigrants across the city were then promptly rounded up and arrested by the police.

A similar logic led President Franklin Roosevelt, after the attack on Pearl Harbor during the second world war, to order that more than 100,000 people of Japanese ancestry who lived on the west coast be forcibly removed from their homes and put in internment camps surrounded by armed guards and barbed wire. It did not matter that most of them were American citizens. Meanwhile, in Europe, thousands of Japanese-Americans were sacrificing their lives to protect their country against fascism while serving in the ethnically segregated 100th Infantry Battalion and 442nd Infantry Regiment.

During the same war, America also severely restricted migration flows from Europe, again citing national security concerns. Fear of Nazi infiltration was reflected in public opinion; Gallup released a poll that asked whether the government should permit “10,000 refugee children from Germany — most of them Jewish — to be taken care of in American homes”. More than 60 per cent said no.

Read the full piece here.

Simon Hedlin