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Henry

Five Books

by Henry on August 11, 2017

So there’s a Twitter meme circulating of swiftly listing the five books that are most important to you, which has been going around in other media too. I’ve found myself listing slightly different books to different circles, and find it hard to pick anyway, because: incommensurables. But here are some subcategories:

Five most important novels (non f/sf):

Nights at the Circus
Pictures from an Institution
Pale Fire
Invisible Cities
Red Plenty

Five most important (f/sf):

Little, Big
The Course of the Heart
Book of the New Sun
Celestis
The Dispossessed

Five most important (social science)

The Strategy of Conflict
Seeing Like a State
Plough, Sword and Book
The Sciences of the Artificial
Explaining Culture: A Naturalistic Approach

Too many guys there, obvs – but those are the ones that leaped immediately to mind (which you can take, if you like, as a symptom instead of, or as well as, a recommendation).

What about all of you?

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I read the same piece by Jacob Levy that Chris liked, but didn’t agree with the core argument. Below the fold, why: [click to continue…]

Trump’s America

by Henry on July 22, 2017

(I took this photo with my phone in Dulles Airport a couple of weeks ago)

Why Coase’s Penguin didn’t fly *

by Henry on July 21, 2017

This is a belated response to Cory’s post on Coase, Benkler and politics, and as such a class of a coda to the Walkaway seminar. It’s also a piece that I’ve been thinking about in outline for a long, long time, in part because of disagreements with Yochai Benkler (who I’ve learned and still learn a ton from, but whom I would like to see address concrete power relations more solidly).

As I said in my own contribution to the seminar, Cory’s arguments in this book are a kind of culmination of what I’ve called BoingBoing socialism – a set of broad ideas exploiting the notion that there is some valuable crossover between the politics of the left and the politics of Silicon Valley. Hence the aim of this post: not to deride that argument, nor to embrace it, but to think more specifically about its possibility conditions. [click to continue…]

Lost Time

by Henry on July 18, 2017

Some months ago, I started listening to audiobooks while walking the dog. By and large, they’ve been serious audiobooks, because these days when I get to read fiction, it’s late at night, and I’m too tired to read anything that’s too demanding. Hence my need to assuage my guilt, and hence the reason I’ve been listening to Marcel Proust. [click to continue…]

Gellner, Mair and Europe

by Henry on July 3, 2017

(Below is the text of a debate piece I gave last week at a meeting of the Tocqueville society, which is maybe of interest to some CT readers. A more polished version may appear sooner or later in the Tocqueville review)

The great Czech-English sociologist Ernest Gellner remarks somewhere that the Austro-Hungarian empire was strong so long as its subject populations complained about its central rule. It was when they stopped arguing with the center and each other – and instead took matters into their own hands – that it got into trouble.

Europe is surviving the Hapsburg test. For sure, it has lost the United Kingdom, but this loss has not triggered a cascade. People in the remaining member states still prefer grumbling to secession. Indeed, in the last few months the European Union has arguably become a little stronger, providing a fortress against a world that has suddenly become more dangerous and unpredictable. Trump’s election has not led to a tidal wave of populism overwhelming traditional democracies. If anything, it has made populism look less attractive.

Still, from a certain perspective, the European Union resembles the Hapsburg empire than one might like.  European leaders too have their court language, incomprehensible to their own citizens, and attachment to bureaucratic obscurities. As Gellner suggested in his last book, they also have the same enemies – irredentist nationalists who hate what they view as bloodless cosmopolitanism. [click to continue…]

Trump is just trolling me, isn’t he

by Henry on June 12, 2017

Following on this

The New York Times.

WASHINGTON — President Trump declared on Monday that he had led a “record-setting” pace of activity and been one of the most productive presidents in American history. …“I will say that never has there been a president, with few exceptions — in the case of F.D.R. he had a major Depression to handle — who’s passed more legislation, who’s done more things than what we’ve done,” Mr. Trump told a cabinet meeting as reporters looked on. “We’ve been about as active as you can possibly be and at a just about record-setting pace.”

Donald Trump – putting the Notably Rare in the State of Exception since January 2017. God help us all.

The Intercept Leaks

by Henry on June 6, 2017

Five reactions to the leak and charges against Reality Winner, based on the doubtless incomplete information that is publicly available right now, and hence open to revision and pushback as more emerges. [click to continue…]

Golden Hill

by Henry on June 1, 2017

 

Francis Spufford’s Golden Hill is finally being released in the US in a couple of weeks. I’m not going to pretend for a moment to be unbiased (I read an early version, and loved it). I don’t want to talk too much about its plot, for fear of spoilers, but this, by Abigail Nussbaum is very useful in how it talks about what Spufford is up to without giving it away:

There’s another twist that Spufford performs on the familiar 18th century template, but to discuss it is more complicated, because it would involve revealing the novel’s big secret. And yet the entire point of this revelation is how mundane it turns out to be. Golden Hill is structured like a heist story, with Richard’s narrative deliberately obscuring from us some of the most important details of his identity (and, of course, his goal in coming to New York), and creating the impression that he is about to pull off an audacious con. This turns out to be both true and not true. What Richard is doing is fiendishly difficult and extremely dangerous to him. It is also—and to modern readers in particular—something of a letdown, the thoroughly legal use of the tools of commerce and trade to make a tiny, ultimately self-defeating dent in the system of slavery and oppression on which New York’s economy runs. The genius of Golden Hill is in depicting that system, as an interlocking set of legal, economic, social, and extra-legal conventions that is so impervious to harm, so clearly constructed to prevent and crush any challenge to it, that even the small wobble Richard manages to introduce into it is a major achievement. Running through the novel is Richard’s awareness of the unacknowledged community of New York, the slaves who sit in the background of every scene, and the larger numbers of them who are being transported every day to the plantations in the south and the Caribbean. It would be giving Golden Hill a little too much credit to say that it ends up being the story of these people, but its ending prioritizes their fates over those of the characters whom we’ve spent the story meeting in drawing rooms and banquet halls.

Building on this, Golden Hill is a very important book about America, in ways that may not be obvious to those who read it merely for the picaresque. Spufford’s America is the America of the mid-eighteenth (and, in a postscript, the early nineteenth) century. New York is a town with several thousand inhabitants, frightened and suspicious of cosmopolitan visitors from London (although in one wonderful set piece of writing, the sparks from a bonfire preconfigure the New York that is to be). Spufford’s American provincials are Tories to a man, rousting out Papists and toasting the King (the book’s strong implication is that ‘Give Me Liberty or Give Me Death’ patriotism arose half-by-accident, from maneuverings over taxes and who got what – see also on this Peter Andreas’ wonderful history, Smuggler Nation).

The most striking continuity between the old pre-Revolutionary America and the new is racism, which the book suggests (if I read it right) is more fundamental to American identity than independence. It may seem odd to compare an apparently light-hearted historical novel to the arguments of Ta-Nehisi Coates and the tradition he represents, but, when read through carefully and read again, Golden Hill isn’t particularly light – it’s looking to make a very serious point.

I’ve been thinking about this Gideon Rachman piece over the last 24 hours:

despite her cautious phrasing, Ms Merkel has also behaved irresponsibly — making a statement that threatens to widen a dangerous rift in the Atlantic alliance into a permanent breach. … it is a mistake to allow four months of the Trump presidency to throw into doubt a Transatlantic alliance that has kept the peace in Europe for 70 years …Ms Merkel was unwise and unfair to bracket the UK with Trump’s America. In the climate change discussions, Britain sided with the EU — not the US. … if Ms Merkel’s government pursues the Brexit negotiations in the current confrontational spirit — demanding that the UK commit to vast upfront payments, before even discussing a trade deal — she risks creating a self-fulfilling prophecy and a lasting antagonism between Britain and the EU. It is hard to see how the UK can be expected to see the same countries as adversaries in the Brexit negotiations and allies in the Nato context. So a really hard Brexit could indeed raise questions about Britain’s commitment to Nato — particularly if the US is also pulling back from the western alliance.

Not so much the broader argument (which I disagree with, but in obvious ways) than what the specifics say about the current state of Financial Times liberalism. [click to continue…]

Prickly questions

by Henry on May 22, 2017

Many CT readers will already be familiar with the recent effort by two scholars to repeat the Sokal hoax, as they understood it, by getting a bottom-feeder journal to publish a piece on imagined penises and global warming. Steven Pinker declared a smashing victory


albeit maybe slightly prematurely. James Taylor at Bleeding Hearts Libertarians

The first journal that Bognossian and Lindsay submitted their hoax paper to, and that rejected it, was NORMA: The International Journal for Masculinity Studies. This journal doesn’t even hit the top 115 journals in Gender Studies. So, what happened here was that they submitted a hoax paper to an unranked journal, which summarily rejected it. They then received an auto-generated response directing them to a pay-to-publish vanity journal. They submitted the paper there, and it was published. From this chain of events they conclude that the entire field of Gender Studies is “crippled academically”. This tells us very little about Gender Studies, but an awful lot about the perpetrators of this “hoax”…. and those who tout it as a take down of an entire field.

[click to continue…]

With Notably Few Exceptions

by Henry on May 12, 2017

Via Kieran on Twitter. We’ve been here before.

Cory Doctorow seminar

by Henry on May 10, 2017

Cory Doctorow’s new book, Walkaway, a novel, an argument and a utopia, all bound up into one, is out. And we’re running a seminar on it. The participants and their posts are all below.

  • Henry Farrell blogs at Crooked Timber. No Exit.

This new Chronicle article by Michael Vasquez on a surreptitious effort by a non-profit organization to get conservatives elected to student government positions is worth reading throughout. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with conservatives organizing to get elected – what’s fishy is the stark contradiction between the organization’s private self-understanding (a “rather undercover, underground operation” to change politics on campus) and its public self description. See further this Amy Binder piece for a description of the background politics – what is happening, more or less, is that bomb-throwing conservative campus organizations are sparring with the more sedate and traditional ones for the money and attention of donors, and winning.

But what I wanted to single out was this bit, which very much reads to me as one of those ‘the journalist strongly believes that there is something interesting going on, but hasn’t nailed down interview or documentary evidence’ hanging observations that you sometimes see in news articles (I understand from talking to journalists that such paragraphs are often a way of shaking the tree – if you put something out there, it may encourage others to come forward with more evidence).

Yet there is one policy proposal that almost always shows up with Turning Point’s candidates: promoting Uber.

The ride-sharing service has long been touted by conservative politicians as an example of free-market innovation. Student government can push for Uber in two important ways: lobbying local municipalities to allow Uber service on campus, and setting aside student-government funds for late-night “safe ride” programs that provide free or discounted Uber service to students.

In Mr. Kirk’s book, a group of “Turning Point USA activists” are credited with helping the University of Southern California’s student government reach its free-ride arrangement with Uber. Mr. Kirk’s book mentions Uber 42 times.

… At the University of Alabama at Tuscaloosa last year, the student-government president at the time, Lillian Roth, was an outspoken supporter of bringing Uber back to campus. She even met with Tuscaloosa city officials on the issue, and the city allowed Uber to resume service last summer.

Ms. Roth was endorsed by Turning Point’s student chapter at Alabama. Her father, Toby Roth, has long been active in Alabama politics and is a registered lobbyist for Uber. Mr. Roth said his daughter didn’t have a conflict of interest in advocating for Uber.

“She was not a decision maker in the process,” he said. “Whether or not Uber came to campus was not in her discretion. If she was on the City Council in Tuscaloosa, if she was the mayor of Tuscaloosa, then yes, I think recusal would be in order.”

Notably, Vasquez shows that it isn’t just activists at the University of Alabama at Tuscaloosa that have been pushing the pro-Uber perspective. Perhaps the elective affinity between conservative campus activism and promoting Uber is just so compelling that pretty well everyone whom Turning Support has helped fund independently sees this as a core issue. Perhaps not.

This is the second in a series of projected posts that try to look at the Trump administration and right wing populism through the lens of different books (the first – on civil society – is here). The last post was mostly riffing on Ernest Gellner. Today, it’s another middle-European exile intellectual – Karl Polanyi. [click to continue…]