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How the Titanic gave Harvard a library

And other recent highlights from the Ideas blog

Haters without borders

Whether it’s divisive, tribalist diatribes in Kenya or Koran-burning in Florida, international hate speech appears to be on the rise. Writing at the World Policy Institute, Susan Benesch suggests a reason: It’s not because people are becoming more hateful or insensitive per se, but that in a digital world, it’s easier to overhear the things we’re not supposed to.

In her essay, “Words as Weapons,” Benesch explains that hate speech used to happen mostly in private. Hateful things about others were most often said within communities, where speakers could expect their audience to remain a closed one. But today, because of the Internet, and especially because of Internet translation, hate speech has a way of ending up in public. These new technologies “allow communities to listen in to one another as never before.”

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Sometimes speech is uttered thoughtlessly in private, but then takes on a more explicitly hateful meaning once it’s publicized. Take the case of Julius Malema, a prominent youth leader in South Africa’s ANC. At his 29th birthday party, a fan filmed him joyfully leading the crowd in the song “Dubulu iBhunu”--an old anti-Apartheid anthem whose lyrics mean, roughly, “shoot the Boer.” Later, the video was posted on YouTube, appalling whites all over South Africa. In his defense, Malema argued that “Dubulu iBhunu” was a harmless, traditional song, and that his singing of it wasn’t meant for public consumption anyway. But it was too late: A South African judge banned the song as hate speech, while, at the same time, students took it up, altering the refrain to “Dubulu Lekgoa,” or “shoot the whites.”

When U2’s Bono, who was visiting South Africa at the time, was asked about the controversy, he compared it “to Irish Republican Army songs he had sung with his uncles as a child. ‘It’s about where and when you sing those songs.’” But nowadays, Benesch points out, speakers can no longer control where and when their words are heard.

Although this might seem like a recipe for igniting anger, in some cases, it has also become a tool to tamp it down. Kenyan television, for example, now routinely broadcasts particularly hateful local speeches on national TV, subtitled in Swahili and English so that everyone can read them. “The network has chosen to diversify the audience as a way of discouraging or embarrassing those who would use inflammatory speech in their own narrow circles.”

How the Titanic gave Harvard a library

April 15 might be Tax Day, but it’s also the hundredth anniversary of an even bigger disaster: the sinking of the Titanic in 1912. Here’s a Boston connection you might not know about: The money to build Harvard University’s famous Widener Library was given by a mother, Eleanor Elkins Widener, to remember her bibliophile, Harvard-grad son, Harry Elkins Widener, who died on board the Titanic, along with his father, George, at the age of 27.

Harry, the scion of a wealthy Philadelphia family who had started collecting books while at Harvard, had been in London on a collecting trip. When the ship hit the iceberg, George and Harry accompanied Eleanor and her maid to the lifeboat, but chose to stay on board, where they died, along with George’s valet.

That same year, Eleanor Widener gave $2 million to Harvard to construct the Harry Elkins Widener Memorial Library. In the Harvard Gazette, Corydon Ireland writes that Harry’s younger brother, George Widener Jr., dug the first few spadefuls of soil in February 1913, “after a 48-hour bonfire had softened the frozen ground.” The building was designed by Julian Abele, the first major African-American architect; today, of its vast book collection, 3,300 volumes are books collected by Harry Elkins Widener himself.

An electrifying “Wave”

Daniel Palacios

“Waves,” a moving sculpture by Daniel Palacios, is built out of relatively straightforward materials: two turbines, a long piece of rope, and some fairly simple electronics. But the result is otherworldly, even terrifying: a living wave that reacts to the movements of the people standing in front of it. The more people gather around, the more dynamic (and loud) the wave becomes.

Writing on his website, Palacios says that the sculpture, currently installed as part of an exhibition in Gijon, Spain, combines a wave’s “intangible beauty” with “the brutality of the sound it produces.” Whenever you move around in a room, he points out, you make sounds; his sculpture just shows you your own movements, amplified.

Joshua Rothman is an Ideas columnist. He can be reached at joshua.rothman@gmail.com.

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