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Chris Bertram

Ferguson, disorder, and change

by Chris Bertram on August 20, 2014

Watching the nightly demonstrations and confrontations from Ferguson, I was reminded of James C. Scott’s discussion in chapter 1 of his Two Cheers for Anarchism of the role of riots, confrontations, violence and disorder in effecting social change. They don’t always, or even usually, make things better. They sometimes makes things worse. But police violence, racism and radical social inequality are not going to be ended just by voting for the US Democratic Party, or even by a black President.

Scott:

It is a cruel irony that this great promise of democracy is rarely realized in practice. Most of the great political reforms of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries have been accompa­nied by massive episodes of civil disobedience, riot, lawbreak­ing, the disruption of public order, and, at the limit, civil war. Such tumult not only accompanied dramatic political changes but was often absolutely instrumental in bringing them about. Representative institutions and elections by themselves, sadly, seem rarely to bring about major changes in the absence of the force majeure afforded by, say, an economic depression or international war. Owing to the concentration of prop­erty and wealth in liberal democracies and the privileged ac­cess to media, culture, and political influence these positional advantages afford the richest stratum, it is little wonder that, as Gramsci noted, giving the working class the vote did not translate into radical political change. Ordinary parliamen­tary politics is noted more for its immobility than for facilitat­ing major reforms. (pp. 16–17)

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The road from Sinjar to Tilbury is blocked

by Chris Bertram on August 17, 2014

Two stories are very prominent in the UK media at the moment. The Yazidis and Christians fleeing from the “Islamic State” group in Iraq, and the death of a man in a container on Tilbury docks. One story is presented as human tragedy, the lives of ordinary human beings destroyed by sectarian bigotry; the other has been spun as a tale about criminality, illegality and “human trafficking”.

This morning, the details of the Tilbury case were not entirely clear. The 35 people in the container there were reported to have come from “the Indian sub-continent”. They might have been economic migrants or they might have been Tamils fleeing from persecution in Sri Lanka, or Shia or Christians fleeing persecution from Sunni fanatics in Pakistan. As it turns out they seem to be Sikhs from Afghanistan, that is, a persecuted religious and ethnic minority. This didn’t stop the UK’s immigration minister, James Brokenshire from opining that this is “a reminder of the often devastating human consequences of illegal migration”. His Labour shadow, David Hanson was also clear that this was “a stark reminder of ‎the human consequences of the trafficking trade”. And the “human trafficking” charities and campaign groups such as Unseen have been calling for increased vigilance. It seems they all already knew what was going on, even in advance of an investigation and independently of whether the people in the container sought asylum and asked for refugee status (which they may or may not do [UPDATE: in fact they have all now claimed asylum). [click to continue...]

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A myriad of posts

by Chris Bertram on August 17, 2014

This is the ten-thousandth post we’ve published on Crooked Timber and we thought we ought to mark that moment. I’ve been looking for suitable music, but the best I’ve come up with is the incomparable, tragic and heroic Nic Jones singing “10,000 Miles”. Since the lyric includes “fare you well, I’m going away, but I’ll be back …” that probably sends the wrong message! In truth, I’d rather have used the Proclaimers (one of the best live bands I’ve ever seen), but they only walked 500 miles, which would have got them rather wet, even though they declared their willingness to walk 500 more.

Ten thousand is a lot of posts, a lot of words. Wikipedia tells me that there’s even a Greek word for it, μύριοι, the source of “myriad” in English. Henri Cartier-Bresson apparently said that “Your first 10,000 photographs are your worse”, and if Malcolm Gladwell’s 10,000 hours rule counts for anything, we probably ought to be quite good at this blogging business by now.

Here’s to a myriad more!

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Sunday photoblogging: Severn Beach toward Avonmouth

by Chris Bertram on August 17, 2014

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Sunday photoblogging: war memorial

by Chris Bertram on August 3, 2014

This is a picture I took in 2007 of the Arlington West memorial at Santa Monica beach, California. The crosses represent American dead (with red crosses representing 10 dead). A placard near the crosses reads “”At 3000 crosses, the Arlington West Memorial is 141 feet wide and 310 feet long. A memorial for the Iraqi dead would be 141 feet wide and 12.8 miles long.”

From the material in my photo collection, it seems the right thing to post in this week leading up to the outbreak of war in 1914, but also because of the daily tolls in Syria, Gaza and elsewhere.

Corey arrested

by Chris Bertram on July 29, 2014

Our co-blogger and comrade Corey Robin has been arrested at the Israeli mission to the UN, 800 Second Avenue (at 42nd Street), for committing civil disobedience in protest at the Israeli actions in Gaza. Respect to Corey for his courage and we hope he is released and home before too long.

Sunday photoblogging: bike shadow

by Chris Bertram on July 27, 2014

A rarish film shot from me: Rolleiflex T, Ilford FP4+

Sunday photoblogging: meerkats

by Chris Bertram on July 20, 2014

Killing people is wrong.

People ought to do their fair share.

Both of these seem like plausible but not exceptionless moral principles. Sometime it is ok to kill people. For example, if you need to kill someone who is attacking you to protect yourself from death or serious injury, then you are permitted to do so. But if you can achieve the goal of protecting yourself without killing your attacker, then you should. The things you do to protect yourself should be necessary and should be proportional to the actual threat. In ordinary life, it is only people like Tony Martin or George Zimmerman (or their apologists) who think that a threat or the mere perception of one gives you licence to simply blow someone away.

Likewise people should do their share to contribute towards the common infrastructure from which we all benefit. Public services, maintaining a legal system, filling in holes in the road, stuff like that. Sometimes there are excuses and justifications for not contributing. Some people have no money, some people are even too young, or old, or sick to do so. But most people should do their bit, though there may be disagreement on exactly what that bit is.

These two things—killing and paying taxes—don’t seem to have much to do with one another. But I think there are some interesting similarities. In both cases there are plausible moral principles but alongside them there are detailed public and legal codes that purport to implement those principles. And in each case there are people or bodies who think (and claim) they have discharged their moral obligations when they have complied with the letter of the codes – that the codes encapsulate all the things that they are morally required to do. What is more, in each case, many of the people who take this attitude to the rules expend a lot of effort trying to affect the content of the rules and attempting to find interpretations of the rules (“loopholes” and similar) that work to their advantage.
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To apply or not to apply?

by Chris Bertram on July 14, 2014

A friend shared the following with me, and with his permission, I’m re-sharing it here at Crooked Timber. It concerns the rationality (and indeed the ethics) of applying for academic jobs. Some of the detail is UK-specific, but I’m sure it will also resonate with people who live elsewhere.


Here’s my problem. I’m not very happy in my job. Five employers, within 50 miles of where I live, are currently recruiting in my field.

So what’s the problem? Well, let me tell you about those five employers… But first, a bit of background. The days when the main qualification for an academic job was being considered the right sort of person, and fellowships were awarded by means of a chat after dinner, are long gone. (At least, I assume they are. Maybe I’m just not going to the right dinners.) These days, if you’re going for a post in Medieval European History, you had better make sure your c.v. positively reeks of the history of Europe in the Middle Ages – and even then, if you aren’t already lecturing in Medieval European History you’re liable to be at a serious disadvantage relative to other candidates.

The higher education sector is much bigger, much more professionalised and much more closely managed than it was even twenty years ago. What this means, though – particularly with the added competitive pressure created by the shakiness of the current job market – is that job-hunting in HE is a weirdly straightforward process, with minimal search problems. If you’re a Lecturer in Forensic Psychology, you know you’ll have a chance of an interview if the job title advertised includes the words “Lecturer”, “Forensic” and “Psychology”. And if not, probably not.
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Bullshitting about Gaza

by Chris Bertram on July 13, 2014

I wonder if Israel’s cheerleaders realize the damage they do their own cause when they write things like “Israel, unlike Hamas, isn’t trying to kill civilians. It’s taking pains to spare them” and “But in the Gaza war, it’s clear that Israel has gone to great lengths to minimize civilian deaths. The same can’t be said of Hamas.” Both sentences are taken from William Saletan’s extraordinary “The Gaza Rules”. At the time of writing this blogpost, the current death score is 159-0. If I may mix vernaculars, Saletan is plainly an asshole, but here he is just taking the piss. Anybody who is not parti pris can see that the Netanyahu government has partially contrived and partially been trapped by a domestic political climate that requires them to kill numbers of Palestinians in order to satisfy the Israeli electorate. Of course there’s the usual blather about “operatives” and “terrorist infrastructure”, but it is hard to take seriously the idea that anyone believes this as a description of Israeli aims. In fact nobody does, but lots of people in political power in the West think they have to go along with the story and pay lip service to Israel’s “right to defend itself”, even though concretely this takes the form of airstrikes against densely populated urban areas with predictable civilian deaths. Meanwhile, those who speak for the Israeli government go around claiming that no state could tolerate missiles being fired into its territory and that any state would have to retaliate. This is false, indeed absurd: much of British policy in Northern Ireland in the 1970s and 80s was deplorable, but though the IRA fired plenty of mortar rounds across the border, nobody seriously contemplated taking out “terror operatives” by aerial bombardment of civilian housing in the Irish Republic.

There’s an excellent piece on the background to the latest events in the Jewish Daily Forward , by J.J. Goldberg. Goldberg demonstrates that the Israeli government knew that the three murdered teenagers were dead from the start, and so that the search for them (which resulted in further deaths) was just politics and public relations. Goldberg argues that the claim that Hamas was responsible for the kidnap and murders was weak. The pretext for the current attack on Gaza — rocket attacks — is likewise bogus. Hamas hadn’t fired any rockets since November 2012 and had been actively trying to stop other jihadi groups from doing so, but the Israeli demand for vengeance forced them underground and meant they could no longer do this. In other words, Israeli demands for action against Hamas were the proximate cause of the very rocket attacks that now serve as a pretext for action.

I can’t help thinking that Israelis have a better friend in Goldberg who exposes the bullshit than in Saletan who manufactures it.

Sunday photoblogging: Steps in Siracusa, Sicily

by Chris Bertram on July 6, 2014

Sunday photoblogging: Refugee Week

by Chris Bertram on June 22, 2014

It is the end of Refugee Week, a week of campaigning for and celebrating the rights of refugees and asylum seekers. In Bristol there’s an event in Queen Square every year, with music, food, stalls for the campaigning groups and so on. These are the Tan Teddy Singers, a Jamaican women’s singing group. Very fine they were too.