Re-reading Alice Munro in the light of the secrets she kept and pain she caused

This week, Canadians heard about the enormity of Andrea Skinner’s suffering, following sexual abuse by her stepfather, and her mother, Alice Munro’s decision to stay with and protect him.

Following this, I, like so many readers around the world, am feeling a profound sense of shock and loss. For much of my life, Munro’s stories have been a solace. As an introverted pre-teen, I felt seen by Lives of Girls and Women. Long before I learned to admire and study Munro’s technical mastery, I was grateful for the wisdom with which she wrote about girlhood.

As the stories about Munro shift and gather darkness, so, too, do the stories she authored. For me as a literature scholar, the question is not should we return to them, but how will we read them now?

As scholars re-read Munro with a knowledge of the secrets she kept and the pain she caused, we have an opportunity — if not an obligation — to use our re-readings to reckon with sexual abuse of children and the silence that so often surrounds it.

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The Gothic horror of Alice Munro: A reckoning with the darkness behind a feminist icon

‘Lives of Girls and Women’

As culture writer Constance Grady argues, in the wake of so many recent public disclosures of great artists who have done terrible things, it feels naive to be shocked that Munro wrought such pain. It’s also humbling to recognize I’m shocked because I held her to a higher standard than other artists — because she is a woman who writes about the lives of women, because I, as a feminist, may have idealized her, and because I as a white woman found reading Munro to be such an intimate experience.

‘Lives of Girls and Women’ was published in 1971.
(Mike W./Flickr), CC BY

Part way through Lives, its protagonist, Dell, gives up the novel she is writing and commits herself to detailing “the dull, simple, amazing, unfathomable lives” of people in her town, describing “every last thing, every layer of speech and thought, … every smell, pothole, pain, crack, delusion, held still and held together — radiant, everlasting.”

When Munro died in May, this passage was invoked as an authorial manifesto. But two months later, Munro’s legacy looks very different, and so does her work. A new darkness suffuses the stories, colouring our understanding of their preoccupation with shame and the careful sustenance of secrets.

As poet and novelist Zoe Whittall writes, “Munro’s focus on these things ”now seems less inspirational and more monstrous.” But she argues, “we can and should hold this complexity” while returning to stories that bolster our understanding of abuse and its afterlife.

If we are attentive and thoughtful, Whittall suggests, when we hear horrifying truths about Munro’s behaviour, and revisit worlds Munro revealed in her work, “stories like these can help us change the way we talk about familial reaction[s] to abuse.”

Questions about biography, culpability

I hope that’s true, but I’m wrestling with how to “hold” and handle this complexity. As a teacher, I spent 25 years prodding students to move beyond narrowly biographical readings anchored by the facts of a writer’s life.

But that is changing: while the rise of social media makes such readings more available, the advent of the #MeToo movement and the associated scandal surrounding writers such as Junot Diaz
and Neil Gaiman has made questions about biography and personal culpability more urgent. This week, they feel unavoidable and necessary.

‘Open Secrets’ was published in 1994.
(Penguin Random House)

After reading Skinner’s story in the Toronto Star, I returned to Open Secrets, published less than two years after Skinner wrote a letter to her mother revealing the abuse, and I re-read the final story, “Vandals.” It’s about Bea, a woman who knew, but did not admit, that her partner, Ladner, was a pedophile; it’s also about their neighbour’s daughter, Liza, who Ladner sexually abused.

I also re-read a scholarly article I’d published on “Vandals” and felt embarrassed by my cool appraisal of Munro’s subtle rendering of child sexuality.

In earlier readings I was taken with Munro’s use of taxidermy — its manipulation of bodies and its invitation to suspend disbelief — as a motif for the silence surrounding sexual violence in the story. But now awful biographical connections on every page stand out.

In retrospect, my comments look naïve and detached. And so, like literary scholars across the country, I am thinking about how to teach and write about Munro’s work, and asking what her cowardice and cruelty mean for her legacy.

Reckoning with the cost of silence

Munro’s children have been clear that their silence, their father’s silence and that of people who knew the family, was maintained to protect Munro’s reputation. So, it seems important that Munro’s legacy include a fulsome reckoning with the enormous cost of such silence alongside a reckoning with the complex ways that silence is manifested and mined in her work.

Munro described Open Secrets as an attempt to “challenge what people want to know” and “to record how women adapt to protect men.” Re-reading “Vandals” now, I read it as being about the culpability of a woman who, as Liza says, “could spread safety,” but doesn’t.

It starts with a letter that Bea begins to write — but never sends — to Liza, and it ends with Liza and her boyfriend trashing the home Bea shared with Ladner. The boyfriend asks Liza, “What did they do that made you so mad?” After a time, Liza says, “I already told you what she did to me. She sent me to college!”

The invitation to think about what Bea didn’t do for Liza was always clear, but Liza’s focus on Bea now resonates differently, attuning us to damage done by the woman who “made a bargain not to remember” horrific things. But, if, as has been suggested, the story now reads like an allegory and an apology, it is all the more disturbing for the knowledge that Munro never apologized to her daughter, that she blamed her, and protected her daughter’s abuser.

Hands hold a copy of Alice Munro’s book ‘Dear Life’ at Munro’s Books in Victoria, B.C., in 2013, following the news that Munro won the Nobel Prize for literature.
THE CANADIAN PRESS/Chad Hipolito

Failure to ‘spread safety’

“Vandals” ends with a description of dusk as “darkness collecting.” Years ago, I wrote that darkness owed much to the ways Munro renders the pedophile “more fearful for his lack of monstrosity,” his “very ordinariness.” That’s still true, but now I see it also has everything to do with Bea’s failure — and her author’s failure — to “spread safety.”

Skinner wrote, “I never wanted to see another interview, biography or event that didn’t wrestle with the reality of what had happened to me, and with the fact that my mother, confronted with the truth of what had happened, chose to stay with, and protect, my abuser.” Instead, she wants the fact of her suffering to “become part of the stories people tell about my mother.”

Those of us who teach or write about Munro’s stories, need to think about how to use our work to “spread safety” in the lives of girls and women, including through confronting complicity with harms. For me that starts with foregoing the careful distance of academic scholarship that confidently takes a text on its own terms. It means being willing to stumble in the darkness. Läs mer…

Insights from the NATO summit: Why another Donald Trump presidency would doom the alliance

I just returned from the NATO summit in Washington, D.C., where there was much talk about the future of the alliance over the next 75 years.

As an international affairs expert, I am on the record as being profoundly skeptical that NATO will even survive another four years if Donald Trump becomes president for a second time.

Why? Mostly, because I take everything Trump has said about the alliance seriously and literally, and also because NATO relies so much on the American pledge to follow through on “an attack upon one equals an attack upon all,” the heart and key tenet of the alliance.

So, there are two steps here: Trump would undermine NATO, and the alliance would not survive it.

Trump’s anti-NATO consistency

Even before he even became president in 2016, Trump blasted the alliance as part of his election campaign, playing to isolationists and far-right voters.

Despite making claims that were simply wrong — for example, countries do not owe NATO money; the discussion of shortfalls refers to countries not spending enough on their own armed forces — his anti-NATO stance remained among the most consistent positions Trump took during and after his term.

He went so far as to say that under his presidency, he might not send American forces to defend any countries that fall short of the pledge to spend the equivalent of two per cent of their gross domestic product on defence.

Throughout his administration, Trump repeatedly raised the possibility of pulling out of NATO. United States Congress grew so concerned that it passed legislation making it impossible for presidents to pull out of the alliance themselves. But that hardly allays concerns, because the question is not just whether Trump would try to have the U.S. leave the alliance, but whether the Americans would act alongside their NATO partners if an ally were attacked.

There is no power anywhere in the U.S. constitution or anywhere else that can compel an American president to deploy forces. The War Powers Act only serves as a restraint — Congress could theoretically force the president to bring home troops that were sent off to fight an unpopular war. As commander-in-chief, it’s solely up to the president to decide to send troops into combat.

British Prime Minister Keir Starmer, U.S. President Joe Biden and NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg take their seats for a meeting of the NATO-Ukraine Council during the NATO summit in Washington on July 11, 2024.
(AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin)

How Trump could defy NATO

NATO’s famous Article V, which is the assurance that an attack upon one will be treated as an attack on all, is not automatic in two important ways.

First, it requires the entire alliance to agree. NATO operates by consensus, so that if an ally is attacked, it only counts if the members, especially the most powerful ones, agree that an attack has occurred and then decide on a course of action. Trump could block efforts to get consensus by simply disagreeing.

Second, any country can opt out of a NATO mission even if Article V is invoked since the text says that each country will respond as “it deems necessary.”

In past missions, including the one time Article V was invoked in the aftermath of 9/11, some countries refrained from joining the collective effort. So, if, for example, Russia attacked NATO member Latvia — and somehow NATO gained consensus — Trump could not only refuse to send more troops, he could order those soldiers, sailors, aviators and Marines in the region to stand down.

This is extremely important because American forces are the nerves and circulatory system of NATO. Not only does the U.S. provide more troops than most, it also provides many crucial capabilities that are both necessary for an advanced military to operate effectively and rare — command and control systems that rely on encryption and satellites, the most advanced precision munitions, and more.

While the rest of NATO could eventually provide such resources, if Trump were to impose restraints in a crisis, the alliance would be critically handcuffed.

Donald Trump at the NATO summit in Watford, England, in December 2019, a year before he lost the presidential election to Joe Biden.
(AP Photo/ Evan Vucci)

Deterring war

Finally, the primary mission of NATO is not to fight but to deter a war. The alliance, under American leadership, made tremendous efforts during the Cold War to deter an attack by the Soviet Union.

This deterrence remains important and seems to be working given Russia has yet to engage in any conventional assaults on NATO members (sabotage, assassination, election interference, disinformation and the like are something else), even as they send military equipment and other necessary resources to Ukraine.

Attacking Ukraine — not yet a member of NATO — is entirely different than attacking Latvia or some other member of the alliance. That deterrence is tied to the American nuclear umbrella — an attack upon one ally may lead to a process of escalation and counter-escalation that could ultimately lead to nuclear war. That threat deters Russia.

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3 NATO gambles that have played a big role in the horrors of war in Ukraine

But if Trump tells Russian President Vladimir Putin and the Russians that they can attack a NATO ally — or “to do whatever they hell they want,” as he said earlier this year — that deterrence is no longer in play.

While there are two other nuclear powers in NATO, they cannot provide the same deterrence threats as the United States. France, for example, largely refuses to do so (although President Emmanuel Macron was thinking of changing that before the recent elections), while the British relationship with Europe has been fraught in the aftermath of Brexit.

Simply put, the alliance relies on the credibility, and the assurances, that the United States would respond to an attack on any member. If an attack were to happen and NATO failed to respond, the alliance would likely fall apart. NATO really has one job, and if it fails at that, it will not last long. Läs mer…

Biden isn’t the first to struggle to pop the presidential bubble that divides him from the public

President Joe Biden’s at-times incoherent debate performance against Donald Trump in June has prompted growing pressure from donors, some Democratic politicians and voters for Biden to withdraw from the race.

But Biden, in an “ABC News” interview on July 5, 2024, questioned whether people are, in fact calling for him to step aside and brushed aside mounting concerns about his ability to defeat Trump in the election.

“I don’t think anybody’s more qualified to be president or win this race than me,” Biden told host George Stephanopoulos.

During Biden’s press conference following the NATO summit on July 11, he reiterated his commitment to stay in the race, and said – despite evidence of negative polls for him in key battleground states and among likely voters – that he had not seen an indication that he cannot win the election.

Biden’s denial of some political polls and a majority of Democratic voters’ concerns about his candidacy raise questions about whether he is unaware of the challenges he faces during the race or is disregarding what other people see and want.

Presidents have to rely upon advisers and staffers to help sift through the overwhelming amount of available information to provide relevant insights at the right times.

Sometimes, this close relationship results in a presidential bubble, meaning the insular relationship the president has with his staff, advisers and possibly family.

Biden is not the first president who has faced criticism of living in a bubble with an echo chamber of yes-people. Harry Truman once referred to the White House as the “great white jail.”

The White House is seen through security fencing on July 8, 2024.
Anna Moneymaker/Getty Images

Living inside the bubble

The presidency of Ronald Reagan exemplifies how living in a presidential bubble comes with positive and negative effects. During Reagan’s first term, his closest advisers – James Baker, Michael Deaver and Edwin Meese – were referred to as “The Troika.” These three men often disagreed with one another but openly discussed policy and options with Reagan, forcing him to make decisions based on different perspectives.

In Reagan’s second term, these advisers left for various other jobs. Instead, Reagan began to rely upon his chief of staff, Don Regan, as his closest adviser. Regan was a very aggressive chief of staff who tightly controlled information given to the president. In the late 1980s, the Tower Commission – a presidential commission charged with investigating how the administration secretly sold arms to Iran without congressional approval – faulted Regan for what was known as the Iran-Contra Affair. The commission determined that Regan provided the president with poor advice, which led to the scandal.

Former president George H.W. Bush walks with White House Chief of Staff John Sununu in November 1991.
Diana Walker/Getty Images

During former President George H.W. Bush’s term in the late 1980s and early 1990s, he recognized that his chief of staff, John Sununu, also created a bubble around him. Sununu wanted to be Bush’s main source of information and made it impossible for people he did not approve of to meet with Bush.

Bush grew suspicious of Sununu’s activity and opened up a post office box in the early 1990s in Kennebunkport, Maine. Bush directed Cabinet officials, aides and other people to send him information there if they suspected Sununu was not passing it along. Bush’s suspicions were eventually confirmed, and he fired Sununu in December 1991.

Former President Donald Trump also intentionally crafted a presidential bubble of aides and allies to give him only positive feedback. It became well known that Trump watched the news commentary show “Fox & Friends.” The show’s coverage began to cater toward him in positive ways, in an attempt to catch his eye – and to persuade him to take different courses of action, such as participating in the Republican primary debate in 2023.

There are other examples of how the presidential bubble has played out.

Former President Barack Obama, for example, tried to avoid getting stuck in the bubble when he refused to give up his personal BlackBerry, which he considered an important lifeline of direct contact with friends. He was eventually allowed to keep it, with some security restrictions in place.

Former President Barack Obama blows a bubble at the White House in 2016.
Saul Loeb/AFP via Getty Images

Sorting truth from fiction

Presidential bubbles inevitably happen. Presidents live and work in Washington but cannot freely walk the streets as another face in a crowd. They have to rely upon others to get a sense of the public tone.

Presidents rely on the news media for information and for their staffers to analyze and break it down into coherent feedback. But these staffers’ job security often becomes tied with keeping their boss happy, which can mean they give information a positive spin. Presidents have to be astute enough to discern the truth from a veneer of it.

When former President Bill Clinton was first in office, he appointed Mack McLarty, his buddy since kindergarten, as chief of staff, because he knew he would be brutally honest if necessary.

Others, like Reagan, were misled toward disaster, while George H.W. Bush was savvy enough to mitigate the isolation. Some, like Trump, revel in the bubble because it provides a distorted but perceived happy reality.

Presidents are privileged to more information than the public on certain issues, which may give them more insight than is publicly available.

But when they dismiss the average citizen’s views, they do so at their own peril. Voters in the U.S. have a huge variety of opinions and points of view. Assuming the White House or D.C. insiders reflect the entirety of the country’s attitudes contributes to frustrations that a president is not listening to the people.

Biden has been in public service since 1972. I think that his contributions to the country, in the Senate and executive branch, cannot be quickly or easily diminished.

But I believe that the president does need to consider whether he is still serving the public. Is the advice that presidents get from their friends, family and staff tinged with their own ambitions and desire for continuation? Does Biden serve the public better by stepping aside for another candidate or by becoming the official Democratic presidential nominee?

These decisions are never simple, but in this case they need to be weighed against his own capabilities, his staff’s thoughts and also the views of the general public. I think that Democratic and Democratic-leaning voters need to be part of the process and not just presumed to fall in line without having a voice. Läs mer…

Young people led surge for smaller parties but no Reform ‘youthquake’, says UK election survey

One of the defining features of contemporary electoral politics in Britain is the age divide. Young people are far more likely to support Labour, and older people to support the Conservatives. This divide is still apparent following the 2024 election – but it hides the complexity of how young people in particular choose to vote.

To the extent that there is a “youth vote” in Britain, it is characterised not by support for a single party, but by a particularly fierce rejection of the Conservatives – alongside greater enthusiasm than their elders for left-wing, socially liberal alternatives to Labour.

YouGov surveyed 2,182 adults of all ages between July 5 and 8 for my research team at the University of Exeter. The sample was selected to be representative of the British adult population.

The data from this survey – published here for the first time – gives a snapshot of how people of different ages say they cast their votes. Five per cent of our respondents under 30 didn’t tell us how they voted so we don’t know how their votes might have changed the overall picture. More research in the coming months may give a fuller account.

As the graph below shows, it’s only among the over-65s that the Conservatives won more support than Labour (by around 26 percentage points). They trailed Labour by around 8 points among the 51-64 age group, 26 points among 30- to 50-year-olds, and 35 points among the under-30s. Almost incredibly for Britain’s oldest and most successful political party, the Conservatives won barely 7% of the vote of under-30s in the survey.

Parties voted for by age group:

Bar chart showing vote choice by age group.
Source: YouGov for University of Exeter, 5-7 July 2024., CC BY-NC-ND

Another key characteristic of the 2024 election is the record-low combined vote share for Labour and the Conservatives, and concurrent record-high vote share for smaller parties. This was not a blip. Voters have been steadily shifting away from the two major parties for years. But in 2024, the extent to which they did so was unprecedented: overall, the combined Labour/Tory vote share was just 57%.

The rejection of the major parties is most profound among young voters. Their support has become fragmented to such an extent that it is not really accurate to speak of a singular “youth vote”. Less than half (49%) of under-30s surveyed voted for Labour or the Conservatives. This compares to 54% of 30- to 50-year-olds, 55% of 51- to 64-year-olds, and 60% of over-65s.

The combined vote share for smaller parties among the under-30s was greater – at 46% – than the 42% who voted for the Labour party. The most successful challengers to the major parties for the youth vote were the Greens and Liberal Democrats, each of whom were backed by 15% of under-30s in the survey.

“Others” – including the Scottish National Party, Plaid Cymru and independents – won a combined 10% of votes from young respondents aged under 30. But the young people surveyed were not simply casting around for any alternative to the major parties. Just 6% of under-30s in the survey said they backed Reform UK (compared with 17% among the over-50s).

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No Reform youthquake

In the closing days of the campaign, there was some suspicion that Reform might achieve a “mini youthquake” in this election or the next. A JLPartners poll found that Reform appealed strongly to soon-to-be-enfranchised 16- and 17-year-old voters, and mock school elections apparently saw Reform winning a great deal of support among schoolchildren across the country.

Our data suggests this did not materialise in 2024. Reform has had some success in appealing to young voters: among under-30s from poorer households, for example, 13% said they supported Reform, compared with 4% for those from wealthier households.

However, similar proportions of under-30s from poorer households also said they voted for the Liberal Democrats (11%) and the Greens (14%). While voters in older age groups who were fed up of Labour and the Conservatives were more likely to switch to Reform and may do so again in future, among the under-30s such voters appeared more likely to switch to the Liberal Democrats, Greens and nationalist parties in Scotland and Wales.

Turnout

Turnout is a crucial issue when considering how young people vote. They have always been less likely to vote than their elders in any particular election. This owes primarily to lower levels of political interest, as well as circumstances associated with early adulthood such as being financially precarious and being less settled in one location. This was true in 2024 as well.

The graph below shows self-reported turnout by age group. The figures are substantially higher than the true turnout numbers, reflecting the long-established tendency of people to exaggerate their voting behaviour in surveys, but they clearly illustrate the age divide: under-30s were the group most likely to say they hadn’t voted.

Turnout by age group:

YouGov for University of Exeter, 5-7 July 2024., CC BY-NC-ND

The graph shows not only was the turnout of under-30s lower than that of older age groups, but that of under-30s from poorer households was particularly low. Young people from poorer backgrounds are less likely to vote than their predecessors were 30 years ago, and so are under-represented in elections to an even greater extent today.

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Votes at 16 and decent citizenship education could create a politically aware generation

People who vote during early adulthood establish habits that make them likely to vote for the rest of their lives. Those who don’t form such habits by their late 20s are likely to remain serial abstainers.

Younger generations are becoming increasingly unlikely to vote in their first election, leading a greater proportion of them to develop lasting habits of non-voting.

It is this tendency that lies behind one of the major democratic challenges facing the UK: rising levels of disengagement with politics and with voting, as younger people age but continue their youthful pattern of avoiding the ballot box. Läs mer…

Wole Soyinka at 90: writer and activist for justice

Akinwande Oluwole Soyinka, the legendary African author and activist, is proof of what words and acts can achieve in the struggle for justice and human rights. Soyinka, aged 90, embodies unrelenting activism and literary excellence.

The importance of Soyinka’s work lies in demonstrating the powerful role of the arts and artists in society. He has shown that literature and artistic expression can be formidable tools for challenging oppression, advocating for justice and inspiring social change.

From his early plays and poems to his recent essays and speeches, Soyinka has consistently addressed political corruption, social injustice and human rights abuses – often at great personal risk. His works galvanise readers and audiences to think critically and act courageously.

Soyinka’s approach was shaped by his upbringing and personal experiences. Growing up in colonial Nigeria, he was exposed to oppression and inequality from an early age. His education, which combined traditional African culture with western literary influences, equipped him to express his vision of justice and freedom. Political imprisonment and exile further fuelled his resolve to use his voice and pen as instruments of resistance.

This is evident in his outspoken criticism of various Nigerian governments. The Open Sore of a Continent, a work in which he condemned the military dictatorship of Sani Abacha, affirms this. His founding of a political party, the Democratic Front for a People’s Federation, in 2010 further shows his commitment to political activism.

As a lecturer in African literature, I teach and study Soyinka’s work and have come to appreciate him as an unswerving critic of tyranny. He is also a masterful storyteller.

Soyinka’s story takes us from a little child in Nigeria to a Nobel laureate and an international symbol of resistance.

Early years and awakening

Soyinka was born on 13 July 1934 in Abeokuta, western Nigeria.

His father, an Anglican preacher and headmaster, exposed him to the colonial administration, and the conflict between native customs and enforced European standards.

His formal education began at St. Peter’s Primary School, Abeokuta, and continued at Abeokuta Grammar School. He later attended Government College in Ibadan, western Nigeria. There, he excelled academically and was involved in various literary activities. His critical sense of identity and resistance to colonial rule began to take shape during these years. In 1952, Soyinka entered University College Ibadan, where he studied English literature, Greek and western history.

He was also exposed to the rich performance of African oral traditions, folktales and ceremonies while growing up. These elements eventually found their way into his creative works.

At Ibadan, he was influenced by his peer, J.P. Clark-Bekederemo. Clark-Bekederemo’s focus on cultural identity and colonialism inspired Soyinka to explore such themes in his writing.

Later, at the University of Leeds, he was mentored by notable scholars. Harold Hobson, a renowned British drama critic, guided Soyinka in understanding modern theatre. Gordon Lawrence helped him appreciate the technical aspects of theatre. Arnold Kettle, a Marxist literary critic, taught him about the intersection of literature and politics.

The pulsating theatre scene at Leeds gave him opportunities to experiment with different forms of drama. These helped him develop his unique voice as a playwright. The intellectual environment at Leeds included discussions on colonialism and social justice. All these experiences shaped his worldview, entrenching in him a commitment to challenging oppression.

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The King’s Horseman, Nigeria’s most famous play, is now a Netflix movie: what makes it a classic

What Soyinka represents in Nigerian literature

Soyinka’s extensive collection of work offers a thorough analysis of Nigeria’s past and current conflicts. He strikes a deep chord with readers with his fusion of western literary techniques with traditional Yoruba culture.

His works explore the socio-political underpinnings of Nigerian society, addressing issues like dictatorship, corruption and the pursuit of justice. The literature reflects the nation’s tumultuous history, from the colonial era to post-independence challenges. Works such as the play A Dance of the Forests, prepared for Nigeria’s independence celebrations in 1960, are not merely artistic expressions but also commentaries on the nation’s socio-political realities.

He criticises the rush associated with independence, using a convoluted story involving gods, spirits and men. The cyclical nature of human foolishness and the enduring character of problems like power abuse and corruption attracted his attention. The play’s audacious thesis – that independence by itself does not ensure a decent society – makes it significant.

Soyinka pushes for modern reflection and change while stressing the value of cultural legacy. Works like Death and the King’s Horseman connect to the African experience, challenging colonialism and its continued impacts on Africa. Soyinka empowers Africans to reclaim their identities.

He also explores the psychological and cultural consequences of colonial rule. In The Man Died: Prison Notes, his autobiographical account of his imprisonment during Nigeria’s civil war, Soyinka not only documents personal hardship but also calls for universal human rights. The book stresses the interconnectedness of African struggles and the need for collective resistance against injustice.

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Making sense of Wole Soyinka’s difficult and brilliant new novel

My first encounter with Soyinka

My first contact with Soyinka’s work was in secondary school, when we read his play The Lion and the Jewel. Some of my classmates then felt he was difficult to read and assimilate. I later found The Lion and the Jewel was actually one of the simplest titles.

His masterful storytelling and ability to unite complex themes into a compelling narrative left an indelible impression on me. In Death and the King’s Horseman, his depiction of the conflict between cultural authenticity and colonial arrogance resonated deeply. The play explored the profound impact of colonialism on indigenous practices and beliefs.

My favourite Soyinka book

My favourite is The Man Died: Prison Notes, a compelling account of his struggles and resilience in the face of extreme adversity.

He vividly chronicles the harrowing conditions he endured and provides insight into the psychological and physical torment inflicted on those who dared to oppose the repressive Nigerian government.

His meticulous documentation not only records the immediate brutality of the regime but also reveals the broader, systemic issues that allow such oppression to persist.

This work profoundly influenced my understanding of the power of literature. Writers have a vital role in the struggle for social justice.

I think Soyinka’s influence is visible in certain Nigerian writers who came later like Femi Osofisan and Ahmed Yerima. Osofisan’s work has been described as “cries for personal freedom and political action”. Läs mer…

Watching sports is good for you – thanks to its social bonding effects

Being a sports fan, whether you’re watching top flight football, the Olympic games or your favourite local team, can be a rollercoaster ride. Incredible highs if you win, depressing lows if you don’t, and lots of stressful feelings in between.

Thankfully, the overall impact should be a positive one because research has shown that people who watch sports experience greater wellbeing than those who don’t – and that this is probably linked to the social aspects of watching sport.

By wellbeing we mean a person’s psychological state – how well someone feels. People with higher wellbeing tend to have better physical health and live longer than people with lower wellbeing.

Research carried out by our group at Anglia Ruskin University – led by Helen – used data from 7,209 adults, aged 16-85, living in England who participated in the Taking Part Survey commissioned by the UK government.

We found that people in the UK who attended a live sporting event in the last year are more satisfied with their lives, feel their lives are more worthwhile, and are less lonely than people who have not. These findings chime with other studies, which found that people who watch sports in person at least once a year have fewer depressive symptoms than those who do not.

Can’t get to live events? Watching sports on TV and online can also be good for your wellbeing. Research has shown that people who watch sports on TV or on the internet were also less depressed than those who did not, and depressive symptoms were even less likely for those who watched sports with increasing frequency.

Those who watch sports are more likely to report higher feelings of life fulfilment than people who don’t, regardless of whether they watch sports in-person, on TV, or online.

All these findings are correlational, which means we can’t be certain which factor influences the other or whether they might both be influenced by another factor altogether (like wealth, or number of friends). However, social identity theory and brain imaging research tells us that watching sports could provide the primary wellbeing boost rather than other factors.

The positive effect of watching sports is likely about social identity. We seek connection through the formulation of in-groups: communities of people with whom we share something in common. These communities form part of our identities, and through them we find social and emotional support.

An example of in-group formation is the community we share with people who support the same sports teams as us. Research has shown that people who identified strongly with a sports team were more likely to feel emotionally supported by fellow fans, which increased life satisfaction.

Through our shared social identity, we also share the social and emotional benefits of successes amongst our group. Researchers at KU Leuven in Belgium have dubbed this “basking in reflected glory”.

However, when our team loses, we are more likely to distance ourselves from our team to protect ourselves from negative social and psychological consequences: “cutting off reflected failure”.

The role of social processes linking sports spectatorship and wellbeing is demonstrated by a Japanese study that used brain imaging. They found that areas of the brain associated with psychological rewards (feeling good) were more active when participants watched a popular spectator sport, like baseball, than a less popular spectator sport, such as golf.

So, the social benefits of watching sports aren’t necessarily confined to going to live events with friends and family. We can enjoy the sense of community provided by our favourite athletes whether we watch sports in-person or from the comfort of our own homes, and by extension we can also enjoy the psychological benefits.

Whether you support your team from home or at the game, you can enjoy the highs and lows of being a sports fan in the knowledge that it’s good for you – as long as you’re sharing that experience with others. Läs mer…

Election 2024 polls were wide of the mark on Labour’s margin of victory – this is what may have happened

The 2024 UK election campaign was dominated by discussion of the polls, from start to finish. This was partially because of the sheer volume of polls being published. We had more MRP (multi-level regression post-stratification) polls than ever before, many giving quite different pictures of the size of Labour’s lead.

The chart below shows the average performance of 27 polls which predicted vote shares in the contest just prior to the election on July 4. The polling predictions are on the left and the actual vote shares are on the right for each of the five UK-wide political parties.

As a standard industry approximation, if the results differ from the outcomes by more than 3%, there is a statistically significant difference between the polling and the outcome. In other words, the pollsters got it wrong.

Final poll predictions and actual vote shares:

How the pollsters did.
P Whiteley, CC BY-ND

Using that rough yardstick, the pollsters over-predicted the Labour and arguably under-predicted the Tory vote, although in the latter case it was on the boundary of statistical significance. The other parties were within the margin of error. To be fair, different polling companies varied in their accuracy, so we need to look a little more closely at the results.

The list below shows how accurate 27 polling agencies were in forecasting the vote shares in the election. Accuracy can be measured in different ways, but the method used here is easier to understand than most others. A low score means the poll was more accurate.

Pollster accuracy.
Mark Pack

To explain how this was calculated, we can look at the example of More in Common’s regular poll, which was one of the most accurate. We simply calculate the distance between the poll and the vote shares for each party and then add them all up. For example, More in Common predicted that Labour would get 39%, the Conservatives 24%, Reform 15%, the Liberal Democrats 12% and the Greens 5%.

The final vote share on July 4 was 34% for Labour, 24% for the Conservatives, 14% for Reform, 12% for the Liberal Democrats and 7% for the Greens. If we calculate the difference between the forecast and the outcomes, More in Common was 5% out for Labour, 1% out for Reform, spot on for the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats and 2% for the Greens which produces an accuracy score of eight.

Accuracy scores vary quite a lot between pollsters. The list contains five MRP polls. These big data polls are best known for predicting the results in specific constituencies using large samples. The YouGov MRP had a sample of nearly 60,000 respondents.

It is noticeable that despite the very large samples associated with MRP polls, they were not the most accurate in the list, although they did better than the average accuracy score of just under 13. At the same time this difference was not consistent. The YouGov MRP had a score of eight compared with a score of 11 for its regular poll. However, the reverse was true for the More in Common, which scored eight for its regular poll and ten for its MRP.

Why do polls get it wrong?

One of the most acute problems in polling is getting representative samples of the electorate. All survey firms are struggling with this problem since the gold standard, random probability surveys, where people across the country are randomly selected and called, have all but died out on account of being too expensive and time consuming to conduct.

Practically all polling companies now use quota samples. This involves interviewing a set proportion of different groups needed to make the sample representative of the electorate. They interview defined numbers of people from groups based on things like age, gender and ethnic background. This requires data from the census and other sources to identify the size of the quotas.

When the quotas are not filled this can create bias in the samples. This is not always a problem since weights can be used to compensate for non-response. For example, if we need a quota of 200 voters under the age of 25 for a representative sample but we only get 100, we can count the latter twice in the analysis. This is essentially what weighting does.

However, the hidden assumption here is that the young people interviewed are representative of those who aren’t interviewed. The US journalist Ken Goldstein has cited this as contributing to the failure of the polls to predict the 2016 US presidential election. He said: “Usually we assume the problem is that group X is too small, but the actual problem is that group X is too weird.”

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This gives rise to a serious problem highlighted by political scientist Michael Bailey in his recent book, Polling at a Crossroads. The technical term for this is “non-ignorable non-response”. If respondents and non-respondents differ and we cannot verify this from other sources, then the poll will be biased and give the wrong answers.

We can find out from the census if the quotas of young people or ethnic minorities are correct, but it will not tell us if respondents are more interested and less alienated from politics than non-respondents.

The implication is that the eve of election polls contained this type of non-response and so exaggerated Labour and Reform party support. It was very likely caused by non-respondents being more apathetic or more alienated from politics than respondents. Läs mer…

How do we know the UK’s sugar tax is working?

The soft drinks industry levy came into effect in the UK in early 2018. The first study to investigate the effect of this “sugar tax” on individual-level consumption has just been published in the Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health. The headline finding is that adults reduced their daily added sugar intake by about two and a half teaspoons.

Using data from the annual National Diet and Nutrition Survey, the study summarised the amount of “free sugar” in people’s diets between 2008 and 2019. (Free sugar is added sugar – the sugar contained in honey, syrup and fruit juices.) The data included dietary information from almost 8,000 adults, who reported on all foods they consumed over four days using food diaries.

The findings suggest that a year after the sugar tax was introduced, adults reduced their daily free sugar intake by about 10.9g, and a reduction in soft drinks accounted for over half of this reduction. This translates to a reduction of around 40 calories daily, which if maintained, and assuming no other changes, could lead to 1.5kg weight loss over a year.

While this sounds impressive, it is important to remember that the study relied on self-reported measures of dietary intake and sugary drinks. It is well known that people often under-report their food intake, particularly foods that are perceived as unhealthy, such as those that are high in sugar.

The study tried to account for this by also looking at changes in dietary protein intake over the same period. This was because protein intake should not be affected by the levy but could be influenced by other factors that affect changes in dietary habits, such as food price increases.

The researchers found that although sugar consumption was reduced, protein intake remained relatively stable over this period.

Pattern of change

To test whether the reductions in sugar intake were due to the tax, the researchers considered a range of scenarios. First, the changes in total sugar intake were examined over a long period. They showed a downward trend in sugar consumption starting before the tax was introduced, but a steeper decline than expected coinciding with the introduction of the levy.

So other factors are contributing to an already declining sugar intake in the period before the tax was introduced. But it is impossible to fully attribute the faster decline to the new levy.

The researchers also examined changes in the sugar content of the whole diet (including all foods and drinks), as well as those from just soft drinks.

The analysis showed that only about half of the total reduction in free sugar intake in adults was attributed to the content of soft drinks. The remainder came from the reduction of sugar in other foods. So the reported two and a half teaspoons reduction in sugar intake cannot be fully attributed directly to the sugar tax.

One explanation is that other societal influences, such as increased awareness of health risks or shifting social norms and tastes, are contributing to a reduction in sugar in people’s diets over time.

These influences may also be changing soft drink habits, regardless of the sugar tax. Alternatively, the introduction of the sugar tax may indirectly be responsible for changing societal norms.

Wider context

To make sense of these findings, it is useful to consider them within a wider context. Around 50 countries have introduced some form of tax on soft drinks. There are consistent patterns across these countries of the taxation leading to fewer soft drinks being bought and soft drinks manufacturers reformulating their products to reduce the sugar content – thereby avoiding the levy.

Other countries that introduced a sugar tax have seen similar declines in sugar consumption.
Jeffrey Isaac Greenberg 3+ / Alamy Stock Photo

This latest study also shows that reducing the sugar content of soft drinks doesn’t lead people to substitute with higher sugar intake in other aspects of their diet.

The sugar tax has probably contributed directly – and possibly indirectly – to a reduction in dietary sugar intake. The precision of the estimated effect is uncertain. How the policy interacts with other public health interventions and societal influences also needs to be considered.

We still don’t know if the reduction in free sugar consumption is sustained beyond the first year, or if it has any effect on chronic diseases, such as type 2 diabetes and obesity. The study was also unable to examine the effects of the tax on different socioeconomic groups or genders – so its effect on health inequalities needs to be explored further. Läs mer…

India election: Modi’s BJP failure to retain Faizabad reveals sea change in country’s politics

Narendra Modi was sworn in as India’s prime minister on June 9 for a historic third term. But his power and mandate stand unexpectedly diminished. His Bharatiya Janata party (BJP) fell short of an absolute majority and has had to rely on coalition partners to form the government.

The losses were particularly humbling in the north Indian state of Uttar Pradesh, and especially in the holy city of Ayodhya. Uttar Pradesh is home to more than 257 million people and has the most parliamentary seats of any state in the country. In 2014, when Modi first came to power, people in this state formed the core of the BJP’s support.

A few months before the election, Modi inaugurated a controversial new Hindu temple in Ayodhya at the site of a mosque demolished more than 30 years ago. The political motives were clear. Modi turned the consecration of the temple into a massive national event, aiming to galvanise his conservative Hindu support base.

Ayodhya even underwent a US$3 billion (£2.3 billion) government-funded transformation to turn it into what some Hindu nationalist leaders have called a “Hindu Vatican”.

However, voters in Faizabad constituency, which includes Ayodhya, rejected the BJP – and resoundingly at that. The candidate for the opposition Samajwadi party, Awadhesh Prasad, defeated the BJP’s nominee, Lallu Singh, by a margin of almost 55,000 votes.

Throughout the election campaign, Modi spoke at length about the importance of the temple in Ayodhya. He hailed the opening of the temple as fulfilment of “the dream that many have cherished for years”.

But people wanted more than just words. The BJP’s defeat in Faizabad shows that a disregard for local issues and the use of astute, inclusive political tactics may result in changes to voter loyalty, even in areas of historical significance to India’s majority Hindu population.

Modi receives a model of the new Ram temple during the BJP’s first election rally in Meerut, India, on March 31 2024.
Rajat Gupta / EPA

How Indian politics is changing

Ayodhya is believed by many Hindus to be the birthplace of their god Lord Rama and holds immense religious and historical importance. It is also the site of a land dispute that stretches back more than a century.

In 1992, following a nationwide campaign to build a temple on the site of the Babri Masjid mosque, tens of thousands of Hindu protestors gathered in Ayodhya and tore the mosque down. Many Hindus believe that the mosque was built in place of an ancient Hindu temple – something modern archaeological excavations have not yet found evidence for.

The mosque’s demolition sparked riots across the country that killed nearly 2,000 people. And since then, Muslims and Hindus have gone to court many times over who should control the site.

In 2019, the Indian Supreme Court ruled that the disputed land should be given to Hindus for a temple, while Muslims would be allocated land at another location for the construction of a mosque. The court then ordered the federal government to set up a trust to manage and oversee the temple’s construction.

Unsurprisingly, the ruling has done little to ease tensions. The new temple was built partly on land that was already occupied by minority communities, whose houses have been demolished to make way for a 20-metre wide and 13-kilometre long path leading to the temple. Many of these displaced residents have not been properly compensated for the loss of their property.

Other residents of Ayodhya also lost their property as part of the government’s plan to modernise the city. Part of the land owned by the Ayodhya’s university, alongside a set of buildings that house staff, was allotted to the construction of a new airport.

Prasad capitalised on these problems, as well as others including simmering anger over unemployment, during his campaign. The unemployment rate in India rose to 8.1% in April from 7.4% in March, compared with around 6% before the pandemic. According to a survey of 20,000 voters by the CSDS-Lokniti polling agency, unemployment played a key role in determining the votes of 27% of people.

The opposition spun the BJP’s campaign slogan that it was seeking 400 seats in parliament against the governing party. With such a large mandate, they claimed, the BJP could take away the constitutional rights of historically marginalised communities such as Dalits, who sit at the bottom of India’s caste hierarchy.

In April, Lallu Singh had stoked fears among Dalits in Faizabad by purportedly saying the government would “make a new constitution” if it received an outright majority in parliament. Many Dalits feared that this would mean amending the quota for jobs allocated for minority groups that is enshrined in the constitution.

Indian Dalit activists at a protest in Mumbai, India, in April 2018.
Divyakant Solanki / EPA

The opposition also deliberately formed coalitions with Muslims, Dalits and other “backward” classes (a collective term used by the Indian government to classify lower-caste categories) in many parts of the state. This improved their standing even more.

The BJP’s loss in Ayodhya demonstrates that cultural and religious symbolism is insufficient to win an election. It makes the case that political parties in India ought to balance symbolic actions with responsible leadership and an awareness of regional issues in a more nuanced manner.

In an interview with Indian Express following his election, Prasad said:

The BJP was spreading lies in the country, saying, “hum Ram ko laaye hain” (we brought back Ram). The reality is they cheated the country in the name of Ram, did business in the name of Ram, allowed inflation to rise in the name of Ram, created unemployment in the name of Ram, and uprooted the poor and farmers in the name of Ram. The BJP has worked to destroy the dignity of Ram. People have understood this”.

For India’s democracy and secularism to flourish, it is imperative that all groups believe their concerns are taken seriously in the political process. Läs mer…

Some artificial sweeteners are forever chemicals that could be harming aquatic life

With so much health advice to avoid excessive sugar in our diets to reduce risks obesity and tooth decay, some people choose to use artificial sweeteners as an alternative in hot drinks and recipes.

Artificial sweeteners that mimic the composition of sugar can be made in the lab from carbon, hydrogen and oxygen. Some reports suggest that artificial sweeteners directly affect human gut health, but there is currently little evidence for this.

The fate of such sweeteners once they enter our environment is rarely considered. But a recent study from researchers at the University of Florida shows a commonly used artificial sweetener, sucralose, may have negative effects on our freshwater ecosystems.

This study measured the effect of sucralose (also known as E955), one of the sweeteners approved for use in the UK, on microbes in our water systems. Researchers found the presence of sucralose hindered the growth of blue-green algae (or cyanobacteria) which photosynthesise to produce oxygen, help regulate oxygen levels in the marine environment, and provide a food source for many organisms including fish.

Ingesting sucralose in place of these nutrients means the microbes do not grow, as sucralose cannot be broken down by the enzymes that degrade natural sugars to fuel their metabolism.

In turn, this may have adverse effects up the food chain and disrupt carefully balanced ecosystems once sucralose is released into our water system and the wider environment. A 2019 study found that the presence of sucralose can cause DNA damage and genetic mutations in freshwater fish such as carp.

Sweet yet persistent

Artificial sweeteners such as sucralose are not metabolised by the human body so they are excreted – this is what makes them low-calorie sugar alternatives. And that’s where the environmental problem begins. Current wastewater treatment plants are unable to remove these sugar mimics, meaning they end up in our environment – in our water, rivers and soil.

To compound this, sucralose is very hard to break down – it is a persistent pollutant, or “forever chemical”. This is because it does not easily undergo bacterial decomposition.

Sucralose doesn’t easily break down in the environment, resulting in negative effects on aquatic ecosystems and possibly wildlife too.
sulit.photos/Shutterstock

Forever chemicals are increasingly present in our streams, rivers and oceans – most notably per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) that don’t degrade. PFAS are synthetic chemicals found in many consumer products, including skincare products, cosmetics and waterproof clothing. PFAS can remain in the human body for many years, and some present significant risks to our health – potentially causing liver damage, thyroid disease, obesity, infertility and cancer.

Artificial sweeteners that persist in our environment act like PFAS because they cannot be broken down. If they cannot be completely avoided, then methods of adequately removing and recovering them from wastewater are urgently required.

These include the use of biomimetic membranes – filtration devices containing naturally occurring proteins that remove contaminants from water. Together with researchers around the world, we are developing new bioinspired membranes that mimic biological gateways found in nature. These will be able to selectively extract compounds from water at low pressure with low energy input.

As an example, cells need to take up phosphate to make DNA, but this cannot just cross the fatty membranes that surround all cells. Therefore, special transport proteins exist in the cell membranes, acting as specific “gates” to let phosphate into cells. Bioinspired membranes extract and embed these transport proteins in plastic membranes that can be used to commercially remove phosphate from water in a specific way.

Above all, this research should serve as a reminder that policymakers and water companies need to strive harder to minimise the many sources of chemical pollution that can affect water quality in the environment. Läs mer…