Posters for your March For Our Lives event

by Eszter Hargittai on March 20, 2018

Are you participating in a March For Our Lives event this coming Saturday, March 24th? There are hundreds of events taking place across the world. And now you don’t even have to worry about what sign to carry. Members of Action Together Zurich have created March For Our Lives posters, 89 of them (plus two to carry up front for some context). Each one is unique, with the front listing a common-sense gun bill that Congress has failed to act on, and the back listing the names of gun violence victims. The idea is for folks to print out the posters for marchers to carry at their local March For Our Lives event. Please spread the word. is the link to share.

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Scalded Chait

by Henry on March 20, 2018

I want to write about other things on Crooked Timber than Jonathan Chait. Really, I do. I have a half-finished essay on The Globalists that is going to be so much more worth your time (if only because the book itself is so good). But since he’s written again today to defend the proposition that we should too be bagging on Political Correctness Gone Mad, it’s worth spending a few minutes pointing out quite how bizarre his understanding of the threat actually is.

Chait’s quite straightforward claim is that if the true awful force of political correctness were unconstrained, it would whisk us all up and deposit us in the gulag.

all illiberal left-wing ideologies, Marxist and otherwise, follow the same basic structure. These critiques reject the liberal notion of free speech as a positive good enjoyed by all citizens. They categorize political ideas as being made on behalf of either the oppressor class or the oppressed class. (Traditional Marxism defines these classes in economic terms; more modern variants replace or add race and gender identities.) From that premise, they proceed to their conclusion that political advocacy on behalf of the oppressed enhances freedom, and political advocacy on behalf of the oppressor diminishes it.

It does not take much imagination to draw a link between this idea and the Gulag. The gap between Marxist political theory and the observed behavior of Marxist regimes is tissue-thin. Their theory of free speech gives license to any party identifying itself as the authentic representative of the oppressed to shut down all opposition (which, by definition, opposes the rights of the oppressed). When Marxists reserve for themselves the right to decide “which forms of expression deserve protection and which don’t,” the result of the deliberation is perfectly obvious.

In the contemporary United States, these ideas are confined by the fact that only in certain communities (like college campuses) does the illiberal left have the power to implement its vision, and even there it is constrained by the U.S. Constitution. If illiberal ideas were to gain more power, the scale of their abuses would widen.

Since this quote is not quite Gulag-y enough for some of our commenters, here’s Chait again, making the point even more explicit:

The upsurge of political correctness is not just greasy-kid stuff, and it’s not just a bunch of weird, unfortunate events that somehow keep happening over and over. It’s the expression of a political culture with consistent norms, and philosophical premises that happen to be incompatible with liberalism. The reason every Marxist government in the history of the world turned massively repressive is not because they all had the misfortune of being hijacked by murderous thugs. It’s that the ideology itself prioritizes class justice over individual rights and makes no allowance for legitimate disagreement. (For those inclined to defend p.c. on the grounds that racism and sexism are important, bear in mind that the forms of repression Marxist government set out to eradicate were hardly imaginary.)

American political correctness has obviously never perpetrated the brutality of a communist government, but it has also never acquired the powers that come with full control of the machinery of the state.

Now I think that it’s perfectly fair to argue with and against student activists. They can be idiots (as can every human being; as can the professors and administrators who they are railing against). But even when they are idiots, they are not a Gestapo in the making. The notion that when the Political Correctness Police come to power, people like Chait are going to be hauled off to the camps for compulsory gender reassignment surgery (after having been convicted in mass show trials of Gross Heteronormativity in the First Degree) is … well, actually, it’s quite mad.

Furthermore, it’s politically toxic. On the one hand, Chait holds himself out as the practitioner of a liberalism devoted to “permeability, [and] openness to evidence and diverse perspectives.” On the other, he wants to make out that the people who are to his left on race and gender are a crowd of neo-authoritarians in the making, who will kulakize the lot of us if they are ever let anywhere near “the machinery of the state.” One is left with the impression that Chait’s proposed coalition for taking on the right consists of a few middle aged white guys, all former staff writers or contributing editors to The New Republic When It Was Really The New Republic, who alone are both intelligent enough to understand the true commitment to liberalism at the heart of the American dream, and brave enough to defend it against the zealots to their left and to their right. Likely, that is a quite unfair summation of what Chait wants. But if Chait continues to insist on demonizing everyone from Ta-Nehisi Coates on leftwards, it’s what he is going to get.


Weird Questions

by John Holbo on March 20, 2018

Having grumped about Annihilation, based on Jeff VanderMeer’s novel [amazon], I’d like to make a post in praise of that author’s anthology work.

A couple years back, while working up a syllabus for my ‘Science Fiction and Philosophy’ class, I considered The Big Book of Science Fiction (edited by the VanderMeers) [amazon]. I didn’t adopt it. I went for this one [amazon]. But I liked it. It achieves escape velocity from the Anglosphere, as it were. Stuff from around the world, not just usual suspects. For teaching purposes I wanted more usual suspects but, as a reader who has read all that, I discovered new stuff and enjoyed it. (It’s not that the usual suspects are excluded. But even the choices of stories by the big names seem uncanonical. That’s fine.)

I just got another big book edited by the VanderMeers, The Weird: A Compendium of Strange and Dark Stories [amazon]. It looks great! Like Big Book they’ve worked to achieve global coverage, not just the usual English language, mostly American/British names. I’m looking forward to expanded horizons. I am a bit puzzled by the decision to exclude titles from before the 20th Century. This is stated in the Introduction, not on the cover. I feel one should get a bit of The King In Yellow in there, since it is of a piece with 20th Century stuff they’ve included. The earliest here is Alfred Kubin and Algernon Blackwood. I don’t mind. I can roll my own LeFanu, thank you. (LeFanu coined ‘weird fiction’, I think, so there would be a logic to starting with him?) But, like I said, it’s huge. 750,000 words. 20th Century will do fine, thanks.

While I’m on the subject I have two weird questions for you. (I did a joke survey about Annihilation, so I’ll do a semi-serious one this time.)

1) Do you think at least some Lovecraft stuff is SF?
2) Do you think of ‘weird’ tales as being distinct from ‘supernatural’ stuff, on the one hand, and ‘horror’ on the other?

Kindly take 10 seconds to record your responses here. (Feel free to leave qualitative critiques of my survey design in comments!)

A few of my own thoughts about these questions under the fold. (But I don’t want to pollute your responses unduly, so maybe respond first?) [click to continue…]


The Persistence of Mummery?

by John Holbo on March 20, 2018

Our Corey has a good piece in Harpers, “Forget About It”. He concludes by reflecting on how and why his ‘continuity-of-Trump-with-conservative-tradition’ thesis rubs people wrong:

My wife explained it to me recently: in making the case for continuity between past and present, I sound complacent about the now. I sound like I’m saying that nothing is wrong with Trump, that everything will work out.

It seems rhetorically effective – even obligatory – to treat an urgent problem as exceptional. But:

The truth is that we’re captives, not captains, of this strategy. We think the contrast of a burnished past allows us to see the burning present, but all it does is keep the fire going, and growing. Confronting the indecent Nixon, Roth imagines a better McCarthy. Confronting the indecent Trump, he imagines a better Nixon. At no point does he recognize that he’s been fighting the same monster all along — and losing. Overwhelmed by the monster he’s currently facing, sure that it is different from the monster no longer in view, Roth loses sight of the surrounding terrain. He doesn’t see how the rehabilitation of the last monster allows the front line to move rightward, the new monster to get closer to the territory being defended.

Speaking of monsters, this is a great line, regarding the famous Welch/McCarthy confrontation:

Welch’s broadside was less an announcement of McCarthy’s indecency, about which nobody had any doubt, than a signal of his diminished utility, a report of his weakness and isolation. Declarations of indecency are like that: they don’t slay monsters; they’re an all-clear signal, a statement that the monster is dying or dead.

Let me note: there are two theses here, one about what is effective; one about the truth. Is it rhetorically more effective to frame Trump as exceptional, or does this mean a short-term gain in focus but a long-term drain in overall awareness? Two, is it true that Trump is exceptional?

I’m of two minds about both. On the one hand, Corey demonstrates an amnesiac absurdity to some presentist alarmism. That’s most definitely a thing. But it’s possible that a-mnemonic mummery accompanies exceptional developments. People may be surprised, wrongly, when they ought to be surprised, rightly. As to the purely rhetorical point, it’s a real rock-and-hard-place problem, to which I’m not sure there is any steady solution. But it’s a really good piece, very well-written, too.


Sunday photoblogging: snow

by Chris Bertram on March 18, 2018

We’ve just had our second late-in-the-year dose of snow in the UK, although this photo is from 2013.
Bristol snow: Cotham Gardens


Economics in Two Lessons: Chapter 5

by John Quiggin on March 17, 2018

Thanks to everyone who the first four chapters of my book, Economics in Two Lessons. I’m continuing with policy applications of Lesson 1: Market prices reflect and determine opportunity costs faced by consumers and producers.
That will be followed by Lesson 2: Market prices don’t reflect all the opportunity costs we face as a society.

Now here’s the draft of Chapter 5. Again, I welcome comments, criticism and encouragement.
[click to continue…]


We’re all going to need safe spaces

by Henry on March 16, 2018

So I got muted on Twitter this morning by Jonathan Chait.

Riffing off this really fantastic essay on Jordan Peterson, I’d pointedly asked Chait whether he might reconsider his own position given Peterson’s guff about the deep commonality between trans activists and Maoist murderers of millions. After a grumpy back-and-forward he responded even more grumpily that he’d only ever said that identity politics people had borrowed Marxism’s critique of liberalism. I pointed out that he’d in fact also suggested that we’d all be marching to the gulags if the campus left got its way. After a couple more tweets, the ban-hammer descended. Finis.

Traditionally, a post like this would continue the fight by other means, likely (as a bunch of people have been doing on Twitter), by doing a tu quoque tying Chait’s habit of blocking or banning people on Twitter to his condemnations of campuses shutting out inconvenient voices. I don’t want to do that. It seems to me perfectly reasonable that Chait should mute or block me if he wants – I’ve occasionally done it myself to people who kept on trying to pull me into arguments that I didn’t want to be pulled into. Doubtless, those people felt aggrieved too that I wasn’t responding to their (in their minds good and cogent) points. Given the way that Twitter is set up, you sometimes have no other good options, if you want to continue to have the conversations that you do want to have, and not have them drowned up by the conversations that you don’t.

But there’s also a much bigger point there, about the kind of space that the Internet has created. Liberalism of the small-l kind goes together with a strong emphasis on free speech. The implicit assumption is that we will all be better off in a world where everyone can say whatever they want, to whoever they want, even if it is inconvenient, or wrong minded, or crazy.

However, this assumption rests on empirical assumptions as well as normative ones. And as speech becomes cheaper, it may be that those assumptions don’t hold in the same way that they used to (see further Zeynep Tufekci, Rick Hasen and Timothy Wu, as well as Molly Roberts’ forthcoming book).

There are two versions of the problem. First – speech doesn’t scale, and at a certain point, the scarce resource isn’t speech but attention. Even when people who want to argue with you are entirely sincere, there is a point at which you simply can’t pay attention to everyone who wants to talk at you on Twitter and still function. You need to make choices.

Second, speech is increasingly being weaponized to drown out inconvenient voices. “Flooding” attacks (as Roberts describes them) are making online political conversation more or less impossible in authoritarian regimes, as people have to deal with a spew of tendentious, irrelevant, and angry comments, what Adrian Chen describes as a “flood of fake content, seeding doubt and paranoia, and destroying the possibility of using the Internet as a democratic space” (in passing, I used to be very strongly in favor of anonymous free speech on the Internet; I’ve had to seriously rethink that).

In the standard shibboleth, the best antidote to bad speech is more speech. What Putin’s Russia and Xi’s China have discovered is that the best antidote to more speech is bad speech. And while there is a lot of paranoia about Russian bots, there was, I think, a very real attempt to use these techniques to stir things up in the US election, and in Western European countries too.

These are problems that liberalism (including strongly-left-democratic versions of liberalism) are poorly equipped to handle. We don’t have any good intellectual basis that I know of for deciding the appropriate ways to allocate attention, since we’ve only started to have that problem in the very recent past. We also don’t have good tools for muting the kinds of speech that have been weaponized to undermine conversation, while preserving the kinds of speech that conduct towards it. Which is maybe all a long winded way of saying that I don’t particularly blame Jonathan Chait for wanting a safe space, and wanting to exclude me from it. We are all going to need safe spaces – and to start thinking systematically about how to build them while preserving conversation. Neither Chait’s version of liberalism, or the kind of left-democratic approach that I am more attracted to has any good idea of how to do this (or if either have, I’m not reading the right people and want to be pointed to them).


Economics in Two Lessons: Chapter 4

by John Quiggin on March 15, 2018

Thanks to everyone who the first three chapters of my book, Economics in Two Lessons. I’ve learned a lot from the comments and made changes in response to some of them. These chapters have been a bit abstract, but now I’m moving on to some applications, which might be more interesting for some readers. Here’s the introduction to Part II

Lesson 1, Part II: Applications

The economic analysis showing how market equilibrium prices reflect the opportunity costs facing producers and consumers is elegant and, for a certain kind of mind, convincing.

For most of us, however, it’s more useful to see how the logic of prices and opportunity costs works in particular cases, sometimes in ways that conflict with strongly held intuitions. This will also give us more insight into the ways in which prices can fail to reflect opportunity costs for society as a whole, some of which we will examine in Lesson 2.

Now here’s the draft of Chapter 4:Lesson 1: Applications. Again, I welcome comments, criticism and encouragement.
[click to continue…]


Adam Roberts, “The Thing Itself” – a Review

by John Holbo on March 14, 2018

Last week I finished Adam Roberts SF novel, The Thing Itself [amazon]. (Adam is, you may have noticed, a regular commenter here. I’ve been friendly with the dear fellow for years.)

The mash-up joke at its heart: it’s The Thing (you know: the John Carpenter film, remake of the 1950’s film, adaptation of the John W. Campbell, Jr. novella, “Who Goes There?“) meets Kant’s Ding An Sich!

That’s a good joke! I like jokes like that. Adam likes jokes like that. I haven’t read as many of Adam’s novels as a good friend should, but the author of a humorous sequel to The Brick Moon, and a little thing called Twenty Trillion Leagues Under The Sea, likes to take an idea, give it a spin. Just drop it. See how low it can go.

Back to The Thing Itself. What if Kant were on to something? Some Thing. What would the possibilities be, for space travel, for sanity, for commerce, for common-sense, if we could sidestep, as it were, space and time? (I don’t think this is going to satisfy sticklers for Kant scholarship, but attempts are made to keep up the conceit. Fiction often involves implausible leaps, as many important writers have noted.) [click to continue…]



by Maria on March 13, 2018

For a couple of days I’ve been tweeting about the Financial Times’ decision to have Steve Bannon as its “keynote interview” in a conference on the future of news in New York, on 22 March.

Fresh from his tour of Europe where Bannon told his rabid fans being called a racist is a “badge of honour”, Bannon has declared himself the “infrastructure” of the world’s far right.

As Bannon spent the last week holed up in luxury hotels one wonders at him being able to afford, and soliciting Europe’s far right ‘politicians, operatives and investors’, he told the New York Times: “…he was weighing whether to buy a name-brand outlet, like Newsweek or United Press International, or to start a new one, or to connect entrepreneurs with capital or invest himself.”

Bannon wants money to start a new, far right media venture. What better place to do that than the world’s financial and media hub?

Enter the FT.

[click to continue…]



by John Holbo on March 13, 2018

Belle and I are watching Annihilation on Netflix. We are about 50 minutes in. This just makes no sense. These people. But maybe it’s worth watching until the end? What do you think?

Take my survey!

Or leave a comment.

(I understand the book was better.)

UPDATE: the Plain People of the Internet have spoken. I guess we’ll watch the rest a bit later. (We did other stuff last night.) The main problem with the film, in a nutshell, is that you have a small group of scientists going into this mysterious area, the Shimmer. Everything they know indicates that their safety measures are ludicrously insufficient. They aren’t wearing hazmat suits even though they have every reason to expect radiation or poisonous atmosphere or environment. They are not soldiers, but they are armed. They are all neurotic loners (who else would volunteer for this mission? But there’s limits to the ‘send in people who don’t have a lot of close family’ strategy.) The result is that their actions and reactions, in the Shimmer, aren’t interesting, since they consistently mismatch the situation. There’s a fine line between surreal and stupid, and the film is not managing to keep its small team of scientists on the former side of the divide, in this weird place.

Should I watch Annihilation?


The Slippery Slope of the Sum of All Fears

by John Holbo on March 13, 2018

Before March 18, 2018: No collusion!

March 18, 2018: “But only Tom Clancy or Vince Flynn or someone else like that could take these series of inadvertent contacts with each other, meetings, whatever, and weave that into some sort of a fiction and turn it into a page-turner, spy thriller.”

Six months from now: Yeah, but it’s like one of those late Tom Clancy ones. The ones written after Clancy was dead, or retired, or counting his money? Maybe it’s just a video game.

12 months from now: OK, it’s definitely as good as early Tom Clancy. The really good stuff. But some of the characters are unbelievable, in a way that pushes the reader out of the story. Like the Mooch. True, Clancy wrote flat, one-dimensional, omni-competent heroes. This is like – the opposite? The thing has reality show pacing, not ‘proper’ thriller structure. Clancy would not have made that mistake.

18 months from now: Wow! I could not put this one down! It was unbelievably thrilling. I was on the edge of my seat, wondering whether this was it. And the big reveal! You realize everything up to that point was just the tip of the iceberg. Hunt For Red October Surprise! But we still have to completely ignore all these revelations because: no zombies.

24 months from now: Zombies!

[NOTE: this post is intended as a joke, although I think there is a point to the joke. There was some confusion concerning an earlier post, due to confusion as to whether it was a joke: it was. This one is a joke. I don’t expect zombies.)


Sunday photoblogging: Pensions strike!

by Chris Bertram on March 11, 2018

Photography can’t always be about aesthetics. As Miriam posted about the other day, academics and many academic-related staff in the UK are currently on strike in defence of our pensions which are under threat from a plan to shift all the risk from institutions to individuals and to leave us thousands of pounds worse off in our retirement. It is a considerable achievement for managers paid vast sums of money on account of their managerial abilities to have engineered a situation where their staff vote 9:1 for strike action. Anyway, it has, so far been a determined and somewhat joyful action in which we have rediscovered what we have in common. However this ends (and the signs are good) the atmosphere in our workplaces will have changed forever. People really are really missing their students, teaching, and research and are loving the support and solidarity we’ve had from our students. But I doubt that bullying micromanagement will be as passively accepted in the future as it has been in the past.

USU Pensions strike 2018-11


Economics in Two Lessons: Chapter 3

by John Quiggin on March 10, 2018

Thanks to everyone who commented on Chapter 2 of my book, Economics in Two Lessons. I’ve learned a lot from the comments but haven’t yet had time to respond to them.

Now here’s the draft of Chapter 3. Again, I welcome comments, criticism and encouragement.

The book so far is available
Table of Contents
Chapter 1
draft of Chapter 2
Feel free to make further comments on these chapters if you wish.


Youth In Action

by Harry on March 8, 2018

I doubt I’m the only one here with a kid planning to join the school protests/walkout next week. As far as I am aware, locally it seems to have been put together largely by the schoolkids themselves, coordinating across the 4 comprehensive high schools in the district. Maybe its different in your city or town. Anyway, my friend Meira Levinson has helped put together a great resource for young people planning to take or considering taking their first political action (and there’ll be a lot of them in the next week or so). Here it is, please share it with your children or with your friends who have children. Meira’s description is below the fold:

[click to continue…]