The Infinite Leisure Theory of Chattel Slavery

by Belle Waring on September 18, 2014

So, I was reading The Carolina Low-Country, published in 1931, which is a multi-author description of the physical beauty and lost culture of chivalric uh whatever of the Low Country, with a large section of Negro Spirituals in Gullah. (In practice this means they look as if they were written in old-timesy ‘let’s make fun of black people’s accents’ speak, but since no one knew the IPA and it is a real creole I’m inclined to let it slide.) Naturally its opening contribution is by a Ravenel, Charleston’s most prominent family. One of my father’s favorite stories is of the two drunk men walking along the river in Charleston: one sways and falls, clutching at the other, and they both go into the river, at which point one of them shouts “save me, for I am a Ravenel!” Since this is a True Tale of the Old South it’s almost certainly actually true; that’s just how these things work. If it included more, less probable elements it would be likelier. Like if he was bit by an alligator near Colleton or something. In any case, I came upon this gem (it has been previously established that “most important, and most purely African, is the negro’s highly developed sense of rhythm”):


To say that the spiritual is entirely or exclusively the work of the negro, or that it is “purely African in origin” is absurd. To its development, the negro brought certain highly essential qualities. Other factors necessary for the development of the spiritual he found on this side of the water. The blending and developing required infinite leisure. [emphasis mine] And this he had, for his many and varied tasks required of him in the main purely physical labor. He could, at all times, apply himself to singing while he worked.

I was ready to chuckle over the frontispiece and the second Ravenel and the two Pinckneys on the eleven-author list (one of my brothers best schoolfriends, and our next-but-three neighbor in S.C. is a Thomas Pinckney) when I looked a leeetle more closely and saw #5: Thomas R. Waring. Well, at least I’m not a white person who pretends I never personally benefited from slavery! Below, the salt-water marsh of the May River in Bluffton, which opens up to the sea behind Hilton Head Island. They never could grow anything on that. That’s just a place to hunt deer and ducks on the hammocks, and fish, and shrimp, and get oysters and crabs. I say “just” but it’s so beautiful back in there. One place across from us we call “the Lost World,” because the brackish water gets even less salt as it forms a lagoon next to black-water swamp, and the water is clear but dark like strong tea, and every bald cypress and palmetto and pine and little water oak has tattered festoons of spanish moss gray hanging down, and everything doubled in the still mirror of brown-black water. Cicadas are the only noise, making it alternately deafening and loudly silent. I saw the biggest water moccasin in the world back there one time, crazing the black mirror with S-curves. Leisurely, like. Not the rice-planting kind, the other kind.
smmarsh1

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The Freedom of the University

by Ingrid Robeyns on September 17, 2014

In January 1951, Robert Maynard Hutchins, President and later Chancellor at the University of Chicago, published a short paper in Ethics, called “The Freedom of the University”. Any academic who hasn’t read it, should read it. And if you are currently engaged in the protests against the hirefire of Steven Salaita (see Corey’s posts here and here and here and here and here and here and here), or if you worry about what Corey rightly called a contemporary instance of McCarthyism, or if you are worried about the influence of money on the universities as Henry discussed here recently, this paper, of a mere ten pages, may be even more interesting for you.

Here’s what Hutchins said in 1951.
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André Singer (the documentarian who made The Act of Killing) appeared on Radio 4’s Front Row yesterday to talk about his new documentary, Night Will Fall, a film about yet another documentary – this one the previously unreleased German Concentration Camps Factual Survey, the film produced by the Ministry of Information in 1945 to record what became known as the Holocaust.

German Concentration Camps Factual Survey, produced by Sidney Bernstein with help from Alfred Hitchcock and a script by Richard Crossman and Colin Wills, was commissioned by SHAEF in April 1945 and meant to be shown to Germans immediately after the war. [click to continue…]

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Eine Bundesrepublik Britannien?

by Chris Bertram on September 17, 2014

There’s a day to go before the Scottish independence vote. The opinion polls are fairly even; the bookies are backing “no”. But it could go either way. I’ve swung both ways on the issue, but I’m now firmly hoping that “no” will win, though I think that the campaign has demonstrated that the United Kingdom is broken, and needs a comprehensive constitutional fix, which may be hard to achieve.

My reasons for favouring “yes”, initially, were sort-of quasi-Rousseauvian. Democracy thrives better in small states where government is closer to the people; large anonymous states, whatever their political form, have distant governments often captured by special interests. That’s a general inclination, to which I would add a sympathy for Scots who are sick of being ruled by Tories they didn’t vote for and who hope for a more inclusive and socially just society. I doubt their hopes will be realized in an independent Scotland though.

For me, though, the balance of reasons decisively favours “no”, for three reasons: abhorrence of nationalism, a dislike of the idea that smaller entities claiming full state sovereignty should proliferate, and disbelief at the economics of separation, which will not turn Glasgow into Stockholm.
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Krautmas only comes once a year …

by Henry on September 16, 2014

But here are two belated presents – take your choice as to which one you put beneath your poisonwood tree.

George Scialabba tries to see (as George always does), the good side.

For the tragic waste of Krauthammer’s considerable talents represented by Things That Matter, a good deal of the blame should doubtless go to the bad habits fostered by op-ed writing and talk-show commenting. Krauthammer is an expert simplifier, summarizer, and close-quarters scrapper. His skill at producing zingers is enviable. But remarks are not literature, and zingers are not political wisdom. You can’t surprise yourself, breathe deeply, get to the bottom of things in 800 words or 20 seconds.

By and large, the quality of the eighty-eight pieces in Things That Matter is proportional to their length. Hearteningly, Krauthammer mentions that he is, at long last, writing a book: two books, in fact, one on domestic policy and one on foreign policy. Perhaps in the course of them he will, at least occasionally, surprise himself and us, vindicating Mill’s generous hope.

Mark Liberman doesn’t.

It’s a tribute to our nation’s culture that a man like Krauthammer, who so consistently expresses blatant quantitative falsehoods about national leaders, is not only out of jail but comfortably established as a commentator for a major media outlet.

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Perhaps difficult to read, but do enjoy the cover!

by Ingrid Robeyns on September 16, 2014

Once, several years ago, I asked Henry or Kieran how many readers this blog has (I wanted to use this information to please some academic bean counters), and the number I got was about 8,000 unique readers a day. I referred to this figure yesterday in a FB-discussion, and Chris told me that currently CT has about 12,000 daily viewers. Hi, all of you! Now, how many of you read Dutch? Perhaps 250? How many of those are interested in an introduction to Ethics book? Three? (the other Dutch philosophers reading this already had their ethics undergrad training, I am sure). So I have no illusions that many of our readers will be interested in the book that I coedited and that just got published, and which features 21 chapters providing a comprehensive intro to ethics, written by 21 philosophers based in the Netherlands. But, as some of you know (Harry in particular), I care a lot, perhaps excessively much so, about the aesthetics of book covers. And I can say I am quite pleased with this one. So perhaps this book is of no interest to 11,997 of you, but I hope you will enjoy the cover.

basisboek_ethiekI promise my next post will be about a really interesting book that all 12,000 of you can read, but with a very different kind of cover… Animal rights activists may take offense of that cover, but there’s luckily no relation with its content. Stay tuned.

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The second stage of my travelogue finds me and the family in the French Alps, heading to the Italian lakes. Shortly after finishing this, I set off for Venice to take a ferry down the Adriatic …

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Monochrome swans

by John Quiggin on September 15, 2014

I have a request1 for help from scientifically literate readers. A lot of my research work is focused on the problem of unforeseen contingencies, popularly, if ethnocentrically, described as “black swans”. In particular, I’m interested in the question of how you can prepare for such contingencies given that, by definition, you can’t foresee exactly what they will be. One example, with which I’m very pleased, is that of the precautionary principle. It seems reasonable to say that we can distinguish well-understood choices involving hazards from those that are poorly understood, and avoid the latter, precisely because the loss from hazard cannot be bounded in advance.

Anyway, I was thinking about this in relation to the actual case of black swans (or, from my own perspective, white swans). The question is: what principles would help you to avoid making, and acting on, the assumption “all swans are white (or, in my own case, black)”. It seems to me that the crucial fact here is that the shift from black to white, or vice versa, is, in evolutionary terms, a small one. So, if you used something like cladistics, you would avoid choosing feather color as a defining feature of swans, and birds in general. As I understand it, a phylogenetic approach starts with features that are very strongly conserved (body plans) and proceeds from there. But, rather than assume that my own understanding is correct, it seemed simpler to ask.


  1. There’s a blog-specific word for this, but I refuse to use it 

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Sunday photoblogging: Pembrokeshire bull

by Chris Bertram on September 14, 2014

Most of the photos I’ve posted have been selected from a rather large back catalogue, but here’s one from less than 48 hours ago. A field in Pembrokeshire, a part of the world I’ve visited every year but one since 1994 and has something of the role for me that Wordsworth evokes in “Tintern Abbey”,

…oft, in lonely rooms, and mid the din
Of towns and cities, I have owed to them,
In hours of weariness, sensations sweet,
Felt in the blood, and felt along the heart,
And passing even into my purer mind
With tranquil restoration…

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Jonah Goldberg thinks it through. Bonus: “and Ludwig Wittgenstein had much to say on the subject as well.” I sort of hope Goldberg actually is writing a book about Confucius and Wittgenstein.

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Scotland

by Belle Waring on September 13, 2014

I can remember back when I was just a wee sleekit lass that read the Economist… OK maybe I was also a bit daft, but I got better when I realized it was, in the words of a recent Gawker article, a news aggregator magazine for people who want to pretend their seat in Economy Plus is a chair by the roaring fire in a manor house. Anyway, they always used to talk about Scottish Devolution and I thought it couldn’t possibly ever amount to anything very serious. But now it seems as if maybe really power will devolve to its utmost, since there’s going to be a vote on independence and everything, and the polls are tight. Scottish readers, are ye voting aye or nay? Subjects of HRH* generally, are Scottish subjects going to keep on keeping on being subjects of HRH, or what? Might she have to give back that big castle she’s apparently so fond of? Who gets the, um, nukes? Enlighten me with an open thread about how Scots maun live in the future.

*Commenters In The Sky and ZM have pointed out that the Queen is HM and only lesser royals mere Highnesses.

Now that Francis Spufford has shown up to do the work of knowing things about the subject, which is what open threads are for (i.e. making the readers do the work) I am hoisting his discussion with SF author Ken McLeod against Scottish Independence up here so that you may watch it more easily. John and I only watched the very very beginning, in which it was explained that Francies Spufford has a very posh accent (which he has come by in an honest, middle-class fashion) and that Lanark is important in some way, which has led us to extrapolate that perhaps giant crabs will come up through cracks in the ground if the two nations are divided, an outcome we naturally deplore. When it is not 10:22 at night and roughly two hours after I took the meds that are supposed to be, welp, going to bed for sure now, so it won’t hurt to take these topamax is very…what now? I will listen more fully and contribute intelligently to the debate. Possibly. Though I have my second Japanese lesson tomorrow! I had to learn katakana and hiragana in a week, that was sort of my own fault though. My brain is oozing knowledge at night in a way peculiar to language-acquisition. Like when I was cold at night and thought I had to curl up in the pages of the big Liddell to stay warm (insufficient heating in SF + Greek MA exams.) Thanks Francis!

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Musical Purity and Odd Histories

by John Holbo on September 10, 2014

I have two ideas for rock books I’m never going to write: first, a book about band members of famous bands who apparently don’t really love their own band. You’re the drummer for a heavy metal outfit (it pays the bills!) … but you prefer big band.

Second idea: members of cult bands with surprising musical biographies. Two examples I recently stumbled across. [click to continue…]

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Twisting your mind and smashing your dreams

by John Holbo on September 9, 2014

I’m teaching an aesthetics seminar. We’re reading some stuff on music and Roger Scruton’s views were referenced. I’ve never read Scruton on music but I had heard about the Pet Shop Boys’ libel suit , of course. So, naturally, I had long since filed him away in the Allan Bloom remainder bin. Dude hates rock and pop. Thinks it all sounds the same. But googling, to get more of a sense for his views, I found this interview, containing this bit:

I have actually been listening to quite a bit of heavy metal lately, and Metallica, I think, is genuinely talented. ‘Master of Puppets’ I think has got something genuinely both poetic – violently poetic – and musical. Every now and then something like that stands out and you can see that people have got no other repertoire and have a very narrow range of expression, but they’ve hit on something where they are saying something which is not just about themselves. Pop music is so concentrated on the self and the performer that it’s very rare that that happens, I think. It never happens with Oasis or The Verve. It did happen much more of course with the Beatles, and in the old American songbook, Hoagy Carmichael and Cole Porter and all that. That was a popular music which was about communication of often quite gentle feelings. So I’m not as prejudiced as I seem. I would like to be more prejudiced because it would prevent me from listening to this stuff.

I now have a more fabulous picture of Roger Scruton in my mind, foxhunting to a Hoagy Charmichael/Metallica playlist.

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Rawls, Bentham and the Laffer Curve

by John Quiggin on September 8, 2014

The 1970s saw two important and influential publications in the long debate over justice, equality and public policy. In 1971, there was Rawls Theory of Justice, commonly described in terms like “magisterial”. Then in 1974, at lunch with Jude Wanniski, Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld, Arthur Laffer drew his now-eponymous curve on a napkin. Of course there was nothing new about the curve: it’s pretty obvious that an income tax levied at rates of either zero or 100 per cent isn’t going to raise any money (* or, in the 100 per cent case, not very much money), and interpolation does the rest. What was new was the Laffer hypothesis, that the US at the time was on the descending side of the curve, where a reduction in tax rates would raise tax revenue.

I’ve always understood Rawls in terms of the Laffer curve, as arguing in essence that we should be at the very top of the curve, maximizing the resources available for transfer to the poor, but not (as, say, Jerry Cohen might have advocated) going further than this to promote equality.

A couple of interesting Facebook discussions have led me to think that I might be wrong in my understanding of Rawls and that the position I’ve imputed to him is actually far closer to that of classical utilitarianism in the tradition of Bentham (which is, broadly speaking, my own view).

Facebook has its merits, but promoting open public discussion isn’t one of them, so I thought I’d throw this out to the slightly larger world of blog readers.

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Sunday photoblogging: Uppsala – window, shadow

by Chris Bertram on September 7, 2014

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