Sunday photoblogging: Natural History Museum, London

by Chris Bertram on December 21, 2014

{ 9 comments }

Concluding Serial; or, Koenig v. Ranke

by Eric on December 19, 2014

The hott podcast Serial concluded this week with its twelfth episode, an episode that crystallized for me why I like it. For all the complaints – that it is white privilege in distilled radio form; that it is really about its host, Sarah Koenig – it is a pretty good dramatization of the historical process.

And it’s not only because this week one of the intrepid reporter/producers descended into an actual archive to retrieve a critical document and, despite some gratuitous mockery of the archivists, gave a sense of what it’s actually like to do that and why you would want to.

It’s ultimately because Koenig held herself to a standard of argument that’s similar to what historians use. She repeatedly questioned herself as she pursued her research over the course of months; she tried to disprove her hunches even as she followed them, and ultimately concluded with “what we know” – which is distinct from “what really happened” (yes, she goes all Ranke on us).

Here’s how she ends (SPOILERS):

[click to continue…]

{ 7 comments }

My God! It’s Full of Arse!

by Henry on December 19, 2014

I think that anyone who sits down to read the Wieseltier decades of critical reviews in The New Republic will notice that at some mysterious philosophical level a great many of those hundreds of essays seem to cohere. It is not because they display a particular ideological bent or follow a political line. Something deeper is at work, which I do not know how to describe. (It is a task for a philosopher-historian.) I note a nearly uniform predisposition against the doctrines of determinism, whether they be scientific or economic or identity-political. There has always been, in any case, an intellectual ardor, as if the entire “back of the book” were asmolder with passion—a passion for the creative labors of certain species of writers and artists and thinkers. For the uncorruptible ones, for the ones-of-a-kind, for the people who are allergic to fads and factions and the stratagems of self-advancement. Perhaps the entire section has been animated by the belief, keen and insistent and unstated, that humanity’s fate lies in the hands of those people. This is not the sort of belief that researchers will declare one day to be scientifically confirmed. But it has the advantage of generating a hot-blooded criticism—occasionally cruel or trigger-happy, but always intense, which means thrilling.

I can’t help wondering if Berman is making some class of a highly elliptical bid to be nominated for the Bad Sex Award (subsection on intellectual affairs). Discuss, if you really have to.

{ 57 comments }

Research Excellence Framework… the denouement

by Chris Bertram on December 18, 2014

In the UK, we’ve just got the results of the Research Excellence Framework, successor to the Research Assessment Excercise, and the method that the state uses to disburse a very large amount of public money. Nobody is sure why the name was changed from “exercise” to “framework”, but since you can strap a person to a frame and then compel them to submit to sundry indignities, the change seems apt. The point of the REF is to measure the quality of research done at a particular institution and to give more of it, indeed most of it, to the departments that have produced the best work. It also has other effects, such as moving universities up and down in various league tables, and doing the same for their constituent departments. One further effect of those movements is to get university managers sharpening knives and threatening to close departments and sack individuals. It is all very unpleasant.

You would hope, then, that an exercise so fateful for the lives of academics and for the distribution of public money would measure what it is supposed to measure. No doubt there is some relationship between good research and REF scores, but there are also significant problems. One of these is that people are incentivized to produce research that will meet with the approval of the assessors and that this may have a conservative effect on disciplines, which also, thereby, become more disciplinary towards the heterodox. Another is that the rules for inclusion may be constructed in such a way that research that redounds to the credit of one institution may have been done somewhere else entirely. This has, in the past, resulted in a transfer market for “high fliers” and the payment of salaries to them which may have restricted entry-level opportunities. When this happens in the UK, we’ve effectively had a near zero sum game between institutions which won’t have done much to improve the overall quality of research done. The other issue has been the question of how to include people with fractional appointments in the assessment. This time, anybody employed on a 0.2 contract (that is, effectively one day a week) could be submit the same number of “outputs” to the exercise as a full-time employee. Although the inclusion of such a person would only increase the staff numbers eligible for “QR” funding by 0.2, their papers and books would still raise the average score of the department as if they counted for one, and this average, multiplied by the staff numbers, will benefit them financially. And, of course, such a department would rise higher in the league table than its comparators, with possible ill-effects for the displaced.

Of course, there may be perfectly good reasons to offer top American scholars 0.2 contracts at UK universities. They may improve the environment, be of service to graduate students, and so on. I’ve been assured that such were the reasons the University of Birmingham employed Paul Boghassian (NYU), Hartry Field (NYU), Kit Fine (NYU), Allison Jaggar (Colorado), Stephen Neale (CUNY), Susanna Siegel (Harvard), and Ralph Wedgwood (USC) in its Philosophy department. Still, when the BBC publishes a league table saying that “most world leading research” in Philosophy in the UK is done at Birmingham, one might think that claim a misleading one.

I’m also puzzled, given the effects on the disbursement of public money, why no UK university sought to challenge the 0.2 rule in the courts, to seek judicial review, given its perverse consequences.

{ 24 comments }

Cars in Cuba

by Eszter Hargittai on December 18, 2014

In light of changing relations between Cuba and the U.S., I thought I’d post photos of cars I took in Cuba when I was there just over two years ago. The scene was even more amazing than one might expect. Some of the US cars from the ‘50s were in fabulous condition, the result of lots of hard work, no doubt. Others were less glossy, but no less impressive (and certainly functional). Also, having grown up in Budapest in the ‘70s and ‘80s, I got a kick out of seeing Ladas on the street, and even the occasional Polski Fiat.

If cars are not your thing, I also have a collection of slogans and signs, the Museo de la Revolucion, as well as a group of building photos such as this:

And then there is the beach.

{ 18 comments }

(1) “By”

(2) “David”

(3) “Bernstein”

That is all.

{ 241 comments }

Teaching Marx to newbies, redux

by Chris Bertram on December 17, 2014

At a meeting on refugee rights the other night, one of the other activists asked me if I am a Marxist. “No,” I replied, “though I used to be.” I think the last time it was a vaguely accurate description of me was probably sometime in the late 1980s or early 1990s. It is hard to be sure. Not that I mind being called one, or think that being one is something to be ashamed of. In fact, I felt slightly sorry to disappoint my interlocutor. But things are what they are. So despite there being an irritating buzzing noise somewhere on the interwebs telling the world that I am a “Western Marxist”, I’m afraid I have to disclaim the title.

Nearly six years ago, I wrote the following as a suggestion for how to explain Marx to people (students) who were coming to him cold:

Suppose I were lecturing about Karl Marx: I’d do the same thing. I’d probably start by discussing some of the ideas in the Manifesto about the revolutionary nature of the bourgeoisie, about their transformation of technology, social relations, and their creation of a global economy. Then I’d say something about Marx’s belief that, despite the appearance of freedom and equality, we live in a society where some people end up living off the toil of other people. How some people have little choice but to spend their whole lives working for the benefit of others, and how this compulsion stops them from living truly truly human lives. And then I’d talk about Marx’s belief that a capitalist society would eventually be replaced by a classless society run by all for the benefit of all. Naturally, I’d say something about the difficulties of that idea. I don’t think I’d go on about Pol Pot or Stalin, I don’t think I’d recycle the odd bon mot by Paul Samuelson, I don’t think I’d dismiss Hegel out of hand, and I don’t think I’d contrast modes of production with Weberian modes of domination (unless I was confident, as I wouldn’t be, that my audience already had some sense of those concepts).

Thinking about the matter again, I think I’d stick to those themes. Of course, then there’s the question of which texts would best illustrate those themes. It seems that some people believe those themes are best illustrated by looking at Marx’s early writings and that to do so would necessarily involve a distortion of Marx’s career bu concentrating on early texts. I don’t see it myself. When Corey Robin, Alex Gourevitch and I were thinking about freedom and the workplace, a central text for us was the chapter on the buying and selling of labour power, from volume 1 of Capital, you know, the one about “the exclusive realm of Freedom, Equality, Property and Bentham.” Thinking about human nature, work under capitalism, and its contrast with truly human work, I’d be sure to look at “The Results of the Immediate Process of Production” (included as an appendix to the Penguin edition of volume one of Capital). And central to explaining the importance of Marx to students of contemporary political philosophy would be the Critique of the Gotha Programme. Of course the themes you’d focus on and the texts you use are inevitably shaped by what you’re trying to achieve, the audience you’re addressing and similar matters. A comprehensive survey of Marx’s work, such as the two-year-long course Jerry Cohen ran in the mid 1980s at UCL (and which I was lucky enough to attend) would have a very different content to a taster course aimed at newbies.

{ 334 comments }

The Young Philosopher: Caption This!

by John Holbo on December 16, 2014

You know what’s a good idea, if you have access to a university library? Checking out nice big fat art books. The older daughter and I have been undertaking a study of French art. She likes Daumier, not Picasso. The Essence of Line: French Drawings from Ingres to Degas [amazon]. Daughter says: great stuff! I also checked out The Age of Watteau, Chardin, and Fragonard: Masterpieces of French Genre Painting [amazon], because I wanted to show both daughters a better-than-web-quality reproduction of that Fragonard swing from Frozen. Disney has been on a Fragonard kick since Tangled. (But I don’t suppose so many Crooked Timber readers are heavy into Disney princess films. But Tangled is really a masterpiece, I say.)

Anyway, older daughter’s reaction to Fragonard’s The Swing: is this some kind of ironic political protest? Stands to reason that Fragonard must have been the Stephen Colbert of rococo art. Book says it was painted in 1790. Presumably Fragonard read the newspapers. But wikipedia says it was painted circa 1767. That makes more sense.

The thing that’s great about Fragonard is … the trees. Just look at this ridiculous thing, The Meeting. I want someone to do a fête galante superhero comic in the style of Fragonard, with all the trees like so much Kirby Krackle, and all the heroes and heroines in satin, flouncing about. Imagine if Fragonard had painted Galactus and the Silver Surfer.

But I digress. In the Fragonard book, on the facing page, we get an amazing addition to my informal collection of silly pictures of philosophers. [click to continue…]

{ 51 comments }

Sunday photoblogging: old boat in Reykjavik harbour

by Chris Bertram on December 14, 2014

{ 9 comments }

Three Thoughts on BDS and Liberal Zionism

by Corey Robin on December 13, 2014

So this is an interesting development.

A group of prominent liberal Zionists—including Michael Walzer, Michael Kazin, and Todd Gitlin—is calling for “personal sanctions” against “Israeli political leaders and public figures who lead efforts to insure permanent Israeli occupation of the West Bank and to annex all or parts of it unilaterally in violation of international law.” The personal sanctions they’re calling for include visa restrictions imposed by the US state.

Three thoughts about this move.

First, good for them. It’s limited and makes several assumptions that I don’t accept, but it ratchets up the pressure. That’s great.

Second, it shows just how aware these intellectuals are of the power of BDS. There’s little doubt that without BDS—especially the ASA academic boycott—this never would have happened. Indeed, as Haaretz explains, the group that organized this statement was formed in 2013 explicitly in response to BDS. [click to continue…]

{ 71 comments }

Detention, torture and standards of legitimacy

by Chris Bertram on December 11, 2014

Yesterday was Human Rights Day, and I spent the evening at an excellent gathering organized by Bristol Refugee Rights about the UK’s record on indefinite detention of migrants. Around 30,000 people every year, mostly men, are detained by the British state by bureaucratic processes without judicial oversight. Some of them include extremely vulnerable people who have been torture victims in the countries they have fled from. When they are detained, often after a routine visit to a police station, they then face a future with no certainty at all. Some people have been detained for up to eight years: as a criminal you’d have to have done something pretty serious actually to serve that long. And these are prison-like conditions, administered mainly by private companies with poor records (to put it mildly) of looking after the interests of those in their charge.

It wasn’t the only news on Human Rights Day. We also heard what we’ve long known, that the United States routinely tortured on an industrial scale after 9/11. And then we have the seemingly endless series of post-Ferguson stories of police ill-treatment of black Americans and the failures of the judicial branch of that state to hold such official perpetrators to account.

Meanwhile, here’s a commonplace statement within political theory about what “legitimacy means”. It is from Andrew Altman and Christopher Heath Wellman’s book A Liberal Theory of International Justice.

“a state has earned legitimacy if it is willing and able (a) to protect its members against ‘substantial and recurrent threats’ to a decent human life – threats such as the arbitrary deprivation of life or liberty, and the infliction of torture – and (b) to refrain from imposing such threats on outsiders”. (p.4).

In other work, on immigration, Wellman has argued for the right of states to exclude would-be migrants, just so long as those states are legitimate. The trouble is, that lots of modern states, the ones tacitly referred to by liberal theorists when they distinguish between legitimate states, outlaw states and so forth, don’t actually meet the criteria for legitimacy that the same theorists endorse. Here, I’m not intending a dig at Wellman, but rather a statement of what participants in these conversations presuppose when they enunciate principles, give policy examples, and so forth. But when we leave the seminar room, there’s not an awful lot of legitimacy in the world.

What should be our attitude? I’m not completely sure, but here’s a stab at an answer. As campaigners, I think that lowering our standards for legitimacy would be a mistake as these express important principles which politicians play lip service to on high days an holidays. Just the other day, in a much-promoted speech on immigration, the British PM David Cameron went on about Britain’s proud record of providing sanctuary for those fleeing persecution. Did he believe what he was saying? Is his capacity to hold contradictory beliefs that developed? Or is he just a hypocrite? We should hold them to the ideals they profess. But for other purposes, such as political theory, maybe threshold standards of legitimacy have to go and we should take a more piecemeal attitude, granting authority to states, including non-democratic ones, in some of their functions (directing traffic, macroeconomic management, maintaining public health) but refusing it to them as a whole? Piecemeal philosophical anarchism.

{ 273 comments }

The socialisation of economists

by John Quiggin on December 9, 2014

I’m following up Henry’s post on the superiority or otherwise of economists, and Krugman’s piece, also bouncing off Fourcade et al, with a few observations of my own, that don’t amount to anything systematic. My perspective is a bit unusual, at least for the profession as it exists today. I didn’t go to graduate school, and I started out in an Australian civil service job in the low-status[^1] field of agricultural economics.

So, I have long experience as an outsider to the US-dominated global profession. But, largely due to one big piece of good luck early on (as well as the obligatory hard work and general ability), I’ve done pretty well and am now, in most respects, an insider, at least in the Australian context. [click to continue…]

{ 42 comments }

Cheney and Manning: A Modest Proposal (Repost)

by Henry on December 9, 2014

I’m reposting this in advance of the release of the torture report, and because (via Digby), the ACLU is making a similar argument in all seriousness.

Consider an effort to measure the misdeeds of the ‘global war on terror.’ On the one side of the balance sheet, we have Richard B. Cheney. This gentleman, now in private life, is a self-admitted and unrepentant perpetrator of war crimes – specifically, of ordering the torture of Al Qaeda detainees. Along with other senior members of the Bush regime, he is also guilty of the outsourcing of even viler forms of torture through the extraordinary rendition of individuals to regimes notorious for torturing prisoners (including the dispatch of Maher Arar, who was entirely innocent, to the torturers of Syria). The Obama administration has shown no enthusiasm whatsoever for prosecuting Cheney, or other Bush senior officials, for their crimes. While Obama has effectively admitted that they were torturers, he has indicated, both through public statements and continued inaction, that he would prefer to let bygones be bygones.

On the other, we have Chelsea Manning. She appears to be a confused individual – but her initial motivation for leaking information, if the transcripts are correct, were perfectly clear. She was appalled at what he saw as major abuses of authority by the US, including incidents that he witnessed directly in Iraq. There is no evidence that her leaking of information has caused anything worse than embarrassment for the US. Yet she is being pursued by the Obama administration with the vengefulness of Greek Furies. While Manning was being kept in solitary confinement, and treated in an inhuman fashion, Richard Cheney was enjoying the manifold pleasures of a well-compensated private life, being subjected to no more than the occasional impertinent question on a Sunday talk show, and the inconveniences of being unable to travel to jurisdictions where he might be arrested.

It would appear then that the administration is rather more prepared to let bygones be bygones in some cases than in others. High officials, who ordered that torture be carried out and dragged the US into international disrepute, are given an ex post carte blanche for their crimes, while a low-ranking soldier who is at most guilty of leaking minor secrets at the lowest levels of classification, was treated inhumanely and sentenced to decades of imprisonment.

So here’s my proposal. It’s perfectly clear that Richard B. Cheney will never be prosecuted because a prosecution would be politically inconvenient. If that’s the Obama administration’s decision (and it’s pretty clear that it is the Obama administration’s decision), then the administration should own it. The president should grant Richard Cheney a pardon for his crimes. Simultaneously, as an acknowledgement that the high crimes of state officials should not go unpunished while the lesser crimes of those who opposed the Iraq war are exposed to the vengefulness of the military tribunal system, Chelsea Manning should receive a complete pardon too.

I can’t imagine that Richard B. Cheney would like getting a presidential pardon. Indeed, I rather imagine that he’d vigorously protest it. It would serve as the best formal acknowledgment that we’re likely to get that he is, indeed, a criminal. Obviously, it would also be an unhappy compromise for those who think that he should be exposed to the full rigors of the law. But I personally think that it would be an acceptable compromise (others may reasonably disagree), if it were applied to both sides rather than just one.

(Originally posted with minor differences here

{ 104 comments }

Sunday photoblogging: high noon in Solva

by Chris Bertram on December 7, 2014

{ 6 comments }

So, All The Cups Got Broke, You Guys.

by Belle Waring on December 7, 2014

DJ Earworm has come out with his 2014 year-end mix. For those who have not hear them before, he makes mashups at the end of the year with the top 25 songs. Since he started making ‘Summermash 13’ and ‘Summermash 14,’ the songs from earlier in the year don’t get as much love, which is sort of too bad if the good songs were earlier in the year, but OK since you can hear him use the same bit quite differently. Assuming you don’t know these songs (except three maybe, except none maybe) the lines of the song and even words of a line are all from different songs.

Lots of people online have been saying it’s not that great, not like back in the day. Partly because everyone must ritualistically claim that 2009 was the best, ever, forever. This is defensible but non-obvious. It blew everyone’s mind, and it is beautiful, but there is a lot of Blackeyed Peas and Miley Cyrus’s first solo album in there and you’re not telling me that’s right. What there is is good Lady Gaga songs. I want some of those. Partly people are saying it’s weaksauce because the songs (raw material) sucked. This is a fair and an unfair point. Fair, in that they mostly sucked, but by no means all, since Lorde’s Team is great, and I like Happy a lot (shut up h8ers) and…and…mmm, there was plenty of suckage. No, screw it, “Fancy” is idiotic but kind of fun, what do you want in a song. I mean, other than an Australian chick trying and failing to sound like…(considers YouTube history)…this totally random rapper Yolanda laying it down in front of egg-crate foam. Seriously, who is this? Not really anyone, and yet her flow is so much better than Iggy’s. Is this evidence that we live in a just world?

Unfair (the criticism of 2014’s mix) in that every year most of the songs are terrible. This year suffered in not having an EDM track to bring the EPIC. Last hear there was only one: “Don’t You Worry Child.” If you listen to last year’s mix you can hear that it made the chorus rousing (like starting at 1:11.) This year DJ Earworm relied on the crazy lead-in to the stupid chorus of Katy Perry’s “Dark Horse” for this purpose, and took 0 sung sections from the song, a WAY SOLID decision [not linking to this because if you want to see Katy Perry turn someone into a glass of wine because he gave her a massive basket of Spicy Cheetos carried by slaves that’s on y’all]. The thing he did that was inspirational was he made the ridiculous Charlie XCX “I’m so fancy/Everybody knows/In the fast lane/From LA to Tokyo” part of “Fancy” be the chorus and be all moving and sweet. Like the ending of last year’s mix made “Thrift Shop” and a Justin Timberlake song beautiful. How? Is he magic? He’s magic probably, is the answer. Belle, why do you even know all these shitty songs? Do your children like these shitty songs? No, they only like good music, actually. I, um, I ride in the taxi all the time and hear Singapore radio stations? I see the mashups and think “what the hell song was that?” Checks. “Oh god, it’s Maroon 5. If Adam Levine bleeds or gets blown up one more time in a video he will die of blood loss, and I will not mourn his passing.”

ANYWAY speaking of Magic, one of the not-good songs in the year-end mix was a meagre Canadian reggae song called “Rude,” which you must now go listen to the first 45 seconds of so you can fully appreciate the genius of this cover. No, go. No. Seriously, I’m not posting it until you—-OK, then. Now this you really want to watch. This is not you humoring me, this is straight awesome and not in some abstruse possibly ironic way where I double back and like Christina Aguilera (I don’t obvs.)

See! I am in love with this kid now! I feel, re-reading this, vaguely defensive and like I need to reassure you that I spend lots of time listening to Can and Ike and Tina Turner and Parliament/Funkadelic and Porter Wagoner and am a good person, but whatever. I’ma let my freak-flag of ‘hating things by knowing about them in intricate detail’ flag fly (please ask me if you’d like me to synopsize all the Twilight books. My daughters wanted to know where I even learned the name of the Vampire pureblood association that is all mad at Edward and Bella for their forbidden creation of a half-etc. child, and even granting that I read it on the internet why did I remember it? I have no defense.)

{ 11 comments }