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Chris Bertram

Ukraine: who to read, what to believe?

by Chris Bertram on March 3, 2014

As a non-expert, I find myself scouring the various news columns and op-eds trying to work out what’s true and false about the situation in the Ukraine, who to believe, what to trust. It isn’t easy, given that the two “sides” (or is that three or four) fail to sort themselves neatly into the mental maps we all have to organize this kind of thing. One such map, beloved of the “decent left” tries to fit everything into a 1938. That’s tempting, but then who is Hitler, who are the Nazis, who are the Sudeten Germans? Things don’t quite line up. And then there’s the narrative of the plucky little insurrectionists against their post-Soviet overlords: Hungary 56, Prague 68? But once again, people aren’t fitting neatly into the little boxes. Then think of those crises, Hungary in particular, or the East German revolt. How many Western leftists tried to read them (and misread them) through the glass of Soviet opposition to Nazism? During the Balkan wars of the 90s my own imaginary had plucky multi-ethnic Bosnia as the incarnation of liberal republicanism, resisting the ethnic tyranny of the Serbs. But there were plenty of of leftists who saw things in terms of the dastardly German-collaborating (and backed) Croats with their Ustaše past, versus the Serbian partisans. One friend from Northern Ireland said on Facebook that a relative had told him that the key to understanding any conflict was to work out who are the “Protestants” and who are the “Catholics”. I can’t think that’s going to help here (or in Syria for that matter): we all get trapped by these heuristics.

Reading Christopher Clarke’s The Sleepwalkers last night, I came across a discussion (I’ve only just started the book) of Serbia’s Foreign Minister Milovanovic and his predicament in the crisis of 1908: a moderate and pragmatist trapped by the rhetoric of the more extreme nationalists, who could and would denounce any compromise with the enemies of the people. Hard not to think or parallels with Vitali Klitschko and the other opposition leaders who cut a deal with Yanukovych but couldn’t make it stick with the Euromaidan for fear of being howled down as traitors themselves. Presumably they saw that running Yanukovych out of town on the day after the deal would be certain to get a nasty reaction from Putin, but what else could they do? And now here we are, with the Russians in the Crimea, the rouble plummeting and the prospect of a new cold war, with everyone apparently fated to play their allotted roles. Meanwhile, the hapless John Kerry tells us – with no self-awareness whatsoever – that, in the 21st century, you can’t invade foreign countries on trumped-up charges.

For what it’s worth I found Mark Ames useful, Paul Mason insightful and Timothy Snyder propagandistic. And here’s Ben Judah on why Russia no longer fears the West. With my political philosopher hat on, I can say that just states find ways to integrate their citizens across ethnic and linguistic divides, that the boundaries set by history should not be sacrosanct, but that people shouldn’t try to change them by force of arms. Political philosophy will not have much impact on how this all turns out.

A note on an argument about open borders

by Chris Bertram on February 28, 2014

Open borders advocates often advance an argument in terms of a duty to help the global poor. Poor people who succeed in making the journey to more advanced economies are usually more productive; those who are locked out of such economies by hard border controls are kept in dire poverty, often within sight of great riches. And those who are admitted are often an important source of income to family left behind. Those who defend border controls and the right of states to exclude often make the following move: they concede a duty to help the poor, but say that such a duty can be discharged in ways other than admitting poor would-be migrants to wealthy countries. In particular, they argue that such a duty could be discharged by supporting the economic development of poor countries via development aid (Christopher Heath Wellman is an example).

But the problem with such an argument is that it has two parts. The first (conditional) part, says that it is false that we must open our borders to discharge our duty of assistance IF we can discharge that duty some other way. The second empirical part is the claim there is another way, because development aid is an effective way of helping the global poor that is comparable in its beneficial effects to (much more) open borders. In other words, the claim by philosophers and political theorists that the duty could be discharged by development aid needs to be backed up by sound economic evidence that development aid really is an effective means of helping the global poor. Economists such as William Easterly are skeptical that we know enough about economic development to make effective use of development aid. They may be wrong, but philosophers and political theorists shouldn’t make the easy argumentative move to development aid as an alternative to (more) open borders without being sure that the economics supports them.

Notes on “academic blogging”

by Chris Bertram on February 27, 2014

I had a fun day on Tuesday, as my friend Stuart White had invited me to speak at a conference on “academic blogging”, to be precise “Academic Blogging: Political Analysis in the Digital Age” at Oxford. There were some great talks and conversations, but, to me, something was quite weird about it. When we started Crooked Timber back in 2003, universities didn’t really want to know about blogging, it was a fundamentally unserious activity and a distraction from the central tasks of teaching and scholarship. There was also, recognizably, a “blogosphere” composed of sundry citizen-journalists, cranks and enthusiasts (and a few academics) whose members linked and interacted with one another (often in quite civil terms, despite deep differences). Now universities, at least British universities, want to get in on the act, as “impact” and “outreach” are suddenly important. Hence, the sudden impulse to fund blogs backed by universities, or university department or consortiums of universities.
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Hard not to take pleasure when a corrupt and autocratic leader is forced from power by popular pressure. Nevertheless, I can’t be the only person whose frisson of excitement at the revolutionary form of the overthrow is accompanied by a shudder at some of the content. As with Egypt, we have the unfortunate precedent of someone who was in power through elections being forced out by non-electoral means, albeit that, like Morsi he abused democratic norms in power. (Erdogan in Turkey also springs to mind as an abuser of democratic norms; I hope the Turkish people vote him out.) Then there are the frankly fascist affiliations of some of the opposition leaders, like Oleh Tyahnybok whose Svoboda party has “observer status” in an “Alliance of European National Movements” that includes the Hungarian Jobbik and the British National Party.

However, one can perhaps overlook some of that as an exigency of circumstance and hope that most of the insurgents are cut from more liberal cloth. However, we now have the fact that the Parliament just annulled a bill permitting Russian to be an official language in regions with largely Russian-speaking populations. That’s a clear sign that the new Ukraine does not regard all its citizens are equals and as genuine members of the state, that the winners conceive the “people” as an ethnos rather than a demos. Personally, I hope the EU make any financial support – which Ukraine will need to pay its Russian gas bills – conditional on the full integration of all Ukrainians as equals without regard to ethnic or linguistic background.

Two cheers for Scottish independence

by Chris Bertram on February 13, 2014

Britain’s Tory Chancellor of the Exchequer, George Osborne, is today threatening pro-independence Scots that if they secede then they can’t have the pound sterling as their currency any more. This is a problem for SNP leader Alec Salmond because he’s been peddling the idea that an independent Scotland will continue to enjoy a common currency, a notion that appeals to risk-averse Scots. A few years ago, the euro might have looked an appealing alternative to sterling, but now it looks much less so. But though Salmond has rather painted himself into a corner on this one, I’m struggling to see why an independent Scotland having its own money would be such a bad idea. After all, the various Scandinavian countries seem to get by perfectly well with their different kroner, so why not Scotland? Scotland’s economy is significantly different from England’s anyway, with natural resources playing a bigger part in one, and financial services in other. Better for everyone to have separate currencies, with different interest rates and floating exchange rates so as to adjust to circumstances. (Having a different currency for the north of England and Wales might be nice too … or alternatively grant independence to London as a new Singapore.)

The other major worry about independence from the official Great British point of view is that “we” would have far less weight and influence in the world. The UK already has less influence that its political elites delude themselves that it has, but at least an independent Scotland would end that delusion. Facing up to reality probably means that the UK would be less tempted to waste billions on the post-imperial accoutrements of military power (new fighters, nuclear weapons and the like). And then not having that stuff would make the UK less able, and therefore less willing, to join in with rash invasions and interventions, and to to send task forces to recapture distant outposts. Further, without the delusion that the UK is a great power, its politicians would be forced to adopt a more co-operative relationship with neighbouring countries, both in the EU and the various states that would compose our Atlantic archipelago. No longer able to go it alone: the UK would have to work with others.

So Scottish independence, what’s is there not to like about it? Well, nationalism, I suppose. But having more and smaller democratic nations, forced to rub along with their neighbours for pragmatic reasons of mutual-self interest. Sounds good to me. Of course the English left worry about the prospect of permanent Tory government if Scotland secedes. This concern is probably exaggerated. The political dynamics of a weakened Anglo-Welsh rump would be different over time and the demographics probably favour the left, as younger voter are considerably more liberal and cosmopolitan in their attitudes than the over 55s. So here’s hoping for the end of the UK and its replacement by a post-imperial patchwork of smaller countries.

Squeezing the rich is good: even when it raises no money

by Chris Bertram on February 2, 2014

In the UK the press and commentariat have been in a huff about Labour’s proposal to levy income tax at 50% on incomes above £150,000. This is supposedly “anti-business” and “sends the wrong signal”, despite the fact that the top rate was higher under Thatcher. Much noise also about the danger that “wealth creators” (whoever they are) may leave and go off to other jurisdictions, concern unaffected by the fact that lots of other countries tax those on high incomes at a steeper rate. All of this is to be expected of course, as is the fact that journalists, who, when spouting right-wing guff, claim to be “reflecting” the views of their readers, continue to spout it when those readers disagree, as in this case.
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Pete Seeger, RIP

by Chris Bertram on January 28, 2014

Pete Seeger, dead at 94.

Mandela sanitized

by Chris Bertram on December 6, 2013

The great Mandela is dead. A political prisoner for 27 years, a courageous fighter against racism and injustice, and finally a great statesman. There is much to remember there and much to mourn. Those who suffered under apartheid, the exiles, those who were active in solidarity overseas: all will have their memories of the struggle. Some of their voices will be heard. But sadly, they have to share a stage with the official voices of commemoration: politicians and others who cared little for the ANC or who actively opposed it. In the UK it is sickening to hear eulogies from the braying Tories, the Bullingdon-club types and ex-members of the Federation of Conservative Students who sang “hang Nelson Mandela” in the 1980s. No doubt, in the US, there will be some prominent Reaganites who utter similar word of appreciation. There’s an implicit narrative emerging that everyone recognized his greatness after 1990. But this isn’t so. The warbloggers and Tea Partiers (and their followers in the UK) were vilifying him when he criticized US policy under George W. Bush or said something on Palestine that deviated from the standard US-media line. Just as with Martin Luther King, we are witnessing the invention of a sanitized version of the man, focused on reconciliation with those who hated him – and who still hate those like him – and suppressing his wider commitment to the fight against social and global injustice.

Against (most) aggression in philosophy

by Chris Bertram on November 28, 2013

Yesterday, Jo Wolff tackled the question of women in philosophy in his column at the Guardian, writing:

At its worst, philosophy is something you do against an opponent. Your job is to take the most mean-minded interpretation you can of the other person’s view and show its absurdity. And repeat until submission. Certainly the method has the merits of encouraging precision, but at the same time it is highly off-putting for those who do not overflow with self-confidence.

Brian Leiter thinks Jo Wolff is making a mistake:

At the end of the column, he runs together two issues that should be kept separate: the combative nature of philosophy and how one should treat students. Professor Ishiguro’s approach [see the Wolff column] on the latter seems the right one, but that is independent of whether philosophy as practiced among peers should, or should not be, combative. Insofar as truth is at stake, combat seems the right posture!

I disagree, unless there’s some good reason to believe that combat leads to truth more reliably than some alternative, more co-operative approach. (Does the adversarial system of the US and English courts lead to the truth more reliably than the inquisitorial system?) Sometimes combat might be the right stance, but seeing that as the default mode for philosophical discussion leads far too often to destructive Q&A sessions that aim at destroying the opponent and bolstering the amour propre of the aggressor. Where the aim is victory, then all kinds of rhetorical moves can prove effective: there’s no reason to think that truth will emerge as a by-product. I think a relatively common occurrence is that people on the receiving end of an aggressive battering lose confidence (in themselves, or in a good idea). Sometimes people should defer to criticism, of course, and sometimes people should make criticism in forthright terms and Brian is right to value that. But frankly, a lot of the stuff that goes on in philosophy seminars is just damaging.

What I’ve said so far is independent of the gender issue. I realize that some women in philosophy are uncomfortable with the link between gender and philosophical style and there’s certainly no reason to think that merely being robust and forthright in argument is specially male. But a lot of conduct in philosophy goes well beyond the robust and forthright and tips into the straightforwardly arseholish, and there may be a selection effect in favour of women in the profession who are able (though not willing) to endure that. A lot of people in the academy – both men and women – suffer from “imposter syndrome”. But it turns out that women are more likely than men to suffer from this and there is no correlation with actual ability. An atmosphere where there is systematic reinforcement of such a widespread anxiety is not a good one, and it might be, because of its uneven distribution by gender, just one of the several mechanisms that exclude women.

Walzer anticipates Cameron (and Miliband)

by Chris Bertram on November 21, 2013

I was re-reading Michael Walzer’s famous (or infamous) chapter on “membership” from Spheres of Justice (1983) when I came across the following striking passage in the section on “guest workers”:

Consider, then, a country like Switzerland or Sweden or West Germany, a capitalist democracy and welfare state, with strong trade unions and a fairly affluent population. The managers of the economy find it increasingly difficult to attract workers to a set of jobs that have come to be regarded as exhausting, dangerous, and degrading. But these jobs are also socially necessary; someone must be found to do them. Domestically, there are only two alternatives, neither of them palatable. The constraints imposed on the labor market by the unions and the welfare state might be broken, and then the most vulnerable segment of the local working class driven to accept jobs hitherto thought undesirable. But this would require a difficult and dangerous political campaign. Or, the wages and working conditions of the undesirable jobs might be dramatically improved so as to attract workers even within the constraints of the local market. But this would raise costs throughout the economy and, what is probably more important, challenge the existing social hierarchy. (56)

With Cameron (and Miliband) having vowed to restrict immigration to the UK, one person’s modus ponens becomes another person’s modus tollens, and so we have the alternatives of immiseration driving the poor to work or the “living wage” laid before us (not that anyone believes that Labour would make good on the latter).

On the migrant trail to Australia

by Chris Bertram on November 16, 2013

I blogged a few days ago about Oscar Martinez’s brilliant account of the dangers migrants from Central America face as the travel through Mexico, so this is a follow-up to that. In the latest New York Times Magazine, journalist Luke Mogelson and photographer Joel van Houdt recount the experience of disguising themselves as migrants and taking the trail from Kabul to Australia. Harrowing and depressing stuff. There are fewer predators on the road, but the mostly Iranian travelers have to face the endless sea and the burning sun, and, at the end there is no hope. All detained and sent to Nauru or Papua New Guinea and their dreams of new lives in Australia turn to dust. In the piece we learn that Australia has absorbed a tiny number of asylum seekers compared to many European states, but the votes are in pandering to the racists, so that’s what Australian politicians do. (h/t to the brilliant BritCits )

Scott on Diamond (and Pinker)

by Chris Bertram on November 16, 2013

The latest London Review of Books has an unexpected bonus, a review by James C. Scott of Jared Diamond’s The World Before Yesterday. Scott also takes aim at Steven Pinker’s arguments in Better Angels. Scott is particularly scathing about two issues: first, the assumption that remaining hunter-gatherer societies can tell us anything about the societies of our distant ancestors, since these survivors are profoundly shaped both by interaction with and marginalization by statist societies; second, the claim that states emerged as responses to levels of pre-state violence. In respect of the first claim, I’m not totally convinced, since there’s been good work done by anthropologists and primatologists who know the “marginalization” criticism but find sufficient material in the commonalities among such societies and in our similarities (and dissimilarities) to our ancestral species to draw at least some inferences (see Christopher Boehm’s work, for example). In respect of the second, I’m largely in agreement, though I’d note that Scott uses the word “state” in the review to denote a heterogeneous range of forms of political organization (as anthropologists often do) and that’s a departure from his usage in Seeing Like a State. But read the whole thing, as they say.

Cormac McCarthy used to live in El Paso, just over the border from Cuidad Juarez, Mexico. I kept thinking about this as I read Oscar Martinez’s book The Beast: Riding the Rails and Dodging Narcos on the Migrant Trail (Verso) because the parallels between Martinez’s non-fiction work and McCarthy’s novel The Road were sometimes striking and horrifying. Martinez is a journalist from El Salvador who has taken the courageous step of following the migrant trail that Central Americans would-be migrants to the US take through Mexico. “The Beast” of the (English) title is a reference to the trains that so many of them cling to through days and nights. Each chapter tells a different aspect of the story, from what makes people flee their homes in El Salavador, Guatemala or Honduras to the risky business of how to swim the Rio Grande at the end. Each chapter is different, yet each has the same essential theme: poor and desperate people who are the prey of criminal organizations in Mexico – the drug cartels – with police, the “polleros” and “coyotes” (migrant guides) and others being induced by a mixture of greed and fear (mainly the latter) to act as agents for the cartels (such as the Zetas) or at least to pay the tax they demand.

If you are a woman who undertakes the journey, you will almost certainly be raped, perhaps many times. Maybe this will happen when your are misdirected into an ambush in La Arrocera (near the beginning of the trail), perhaps it will happen on the train, perhaps it will happen when you are kidnapped and held on a ranch with hundreds of others whilst your relatives wire a ransom to the gangs, perhaps near the US border where a “bra tree” displays the underwear of victims as the rapists’ trophies. The stories of mass kidnapping and the warehousing of migrants by the gangs, with torture a regular part of the plan and summary death (in front of the others) for escapees are chilling.
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Screw the taxpayer

by Chris Bertram on November 5, 2013

The term “the taxpayer” is playing an increasing role in British public debate, often introduced, seemingly, as an apparently neutral synonym for “the public” whilst really being no such thing. The term is endlessly repeated by BBC interviewers asking “tough questions” of politicians and civil servants and it seems as if none of them either notices or is willing to question the ideological assumptions and tacit theory of legitimacy that lie behind the term.

Point 1. In a state that at least markets itself as a democracy, the principle ought to be that the state is answerable to the electorate. Pretty much everyone in the electorate pays taxes (VAT at least) but the key idea is not that the state is answerable to them because they pay for it, but rather because it is a non-voluntary entity that claims authority over them and subjects them to its laws. Whether they are “net contributors” to the public purse is neither here nor there. People who pay in more than they receive – such as the mythical “taxpayer” – have no special claim to extra influence.

Point 2. The “taxpayer” idea is being used in very harmful ways to deprive many ordinary people of their basic human rights, including the right to marry and form a family with a partner of their choice. (In the UK, the government asked an advisory committee to calculate the income levels at which families of various sizes would not be net beneficiaries of the tax-and-transfer regime in order to rule that people who failed to meet that income threshold would not have the right to have their foreign spouse live with them in the country.)

Point 3. The “taxpayer” idea claims that only those who pay more in taxes than they receive in benefits make “a contribution”. But that’s nonsense. Many poorly paid people make a contribution through work that they ought to be paid more for. The fact that they are underpaid and exploited shouldn’t be held against the many many people who, for example, keep our public and health services running. Many people who are not “economically active” make a contribution to society as parents, carers or in many other ways. And those unable to make a contribution because of age or disability: they have the same right to a say as anybody else.

The “taxpayer” trope is a pernicious ideological assault on the very idea of equal citizenship. It is elitist and exclusionary and promulgates a false theory of the state according to which government belongs to the propertied. No it doesn’t: it belongs to its citizens, rich and poor, old and young.

Lighter Than My Shadow

by Chris Bertram on October 6, 2013

Last Thursday I went to the launch party for Katie Green’s Lighter Than My Shadow (just published by Jonathan Cape) a graphic memoir in which she tells the story of her descent into and recovery from anorexia (and quite a bit besides). It is a big book, 524 pages in all, which somewhat belies its title, yet I read the whole thing in one sitting. I know I’m not alone in having done this: once you start, it is very hard to stop. It is compelling but a hard book to read: I felt the tears welling up several times. It is also a great book. The graphic format works perfectly for the story and Katie – a terrific illustrator – has managed to convey very vividly some little part of what it felt like from the inside. The black cloud of despair, the screaming monsters in the head, the desperate urge to control, control, control and the sense of alienation from those closest to her, the pain she knows she’s inflicting on them but can’t help doing so.

When she spoke at the book launch Katie said that she hadn’t written the book to help anyone. Nevertheless, I’m sure it will help one very large group of people, the people who can’t imagine what it is like for someone in her position, who can’t understand the sense of compulsion, and why the sick person can’t just “pull themselves together”. In giving voice to this inside, Katie has pulled off something comparable to what William Styron did for depression in Darkness Visible. That’s a pretty high standard of comparison, I know, and I’m feeling swayed by the immediate experience of just having read Lighter Than My Shadow, but I don’t think it an unfitting one.

I should disclose a slight interest. I know Katie slightly (she’s a friend of one of my children) and a photo I took is on the cover flap. So I’m not entirely impartial. Still, I think this is, objectively, a very great achievement. And I don’t mean to relativise in a way that suggests that it is great for someone who has gone through her experience to have produced something this good. I mean that it would be great for anyone to have created this, even though her experience is a condition of having done so. Anyway, people out there, this is a book that most of you ought to read. You can get it at Amazon of course, but better to buy from somewhere else. (The Guardian had a feature on the book last week.)