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Henry

Miéville on revolution

by Henry on September 28, 2017

I’ve a new piece up at Jacobin, talking about how the discussion of revolution in China Miéville’s October (his wonderfully written non-fiction book on the October Revolution), is prefigured and informed by his earlier novels, Iron Council and Embassytown. China’s politics are different than mine (I’m a standard-issue meliorist social democrat), but I’m cautiously happy with how the piece has turned out, and hope that it shows how China’s way of thinking captures possibilities that other, more ground-hugging ideologies such as my own are liable to miss.

October, China Miéville’s new book, describes the October Revolution as a moment of possibility. In its closing pages, Miéville explains why he wrote the book, despite the revolution’s aftermath:

Those who count themselves on the side of the revolution must engage with these failures and crimes. To do otherwise is to fall into apologia, special pleading, hagiography – and to run the risk of repeating such mistakes. It is not for nostalgia’s sake that the strange story of the first socialist revolution in history deserves celebration. The standard of October declares that things changed once, and they might do so again.

October depicts a pell-mell avalanche of one event crashing down on another, and men and women trying with varying success to guide the collisions — or at least survive them. Miéville’s novels often show people who thought themselves to be acting freely discovering that instead they have been enacting an inexorable logic, which, while not entirely determining their fates, renders many of their actions perverse or irrelevant. Yet there’s also a thread of counter-argument — a skein of moments in which people turn the tables on structure and write their own history.

Crowd-funding Robert Heinlein

by Henry on September 26, 2017

Farah Mendlesohn, a long time friend of Crooked Timber, writes:

I had to withdraw my book on Heinlein from the original publisher due to length. As I explored other options it became clear that no academic publisher could take it without substantial cuts, and no one who read it, could suggest any. In addition, the length would have pushed up the price for an academic publisher beyond what people could afford. Unbound, a crowdsourcing press, have agreed to take the book and have been able to price it at £12 for the ebook and £35 for the hard back.

The crowd-funding site is here. I’ve read and loved two of Farah’s previous books on f/sf (and have been contemplating a reply to her analysis of Neil Gaiman’s The Wolves in the Wall for several years) – I’ve no doubt this is going to be great.

Anthem Sprinting

by Henry on September 26, 2017

Tyler Cowen on American reverence for the Star Spangled Banner:

At a rally on Friday and on Twitter since, we have seen President Trump taking pokes at NFL players who do not show what he considers sufficient respect for the national anthem, namely by kneeling in protest during the song (is it so bad to kneel in public on a Sunday?). On the other side, some NASCAR team owners have threatened to fire drivers and crew members who don’t show proper respect during the anthem. Such disputes won’t improve the quality of either our sports or our politics. We live in a country where very often the concession stands don’t stop operating during the anthem, nor do fans stop walking through the concourse. We’re fooling ourselves to think that current practices are really showing respect for the nation or its military.

This reminds me of one of Ray Bradbury’s short stories, “The Anthem Sprinters,” based on his experiences in Ireland while working on John Huston’s Moby-Dick. The story isn’t available online (though brief summaries can be found here and elsewhere, but the plot is straightforward enough, concerning an American visitor’s discovery of a peculiar national sport. Since there was a requirement after all cinema performances that the Irish national anthem, a peculiarly lugubrious number called “The Soldier’s Song,” be played, and since Dublin cinema goers were more enthusiastic about getting to the pub to get a round or two in before closing time than about demonstrating their fidelity to the national ideal, they used to rush towards the exits in a class of a race, to avoid having to stay and stand through the rendition. Bradbury’s suggestion that this was transformed from a disorganized herd-like stampede into an actual sport is probably poetic exaggeration, but I don’t doubt that the underlying practice existed.

I’m sure that I’m not the only imported American to find the required sincerity of American nationalism a bit disorienting – it’s not what I grew up with in a country where even the greenest of 32 counties Republicanism was shot through with ambiguities. It’s not just a right wing thing either (the Pledge of Allegiance having been famously written by a socialist). Nor did I realize until the recent controversy that one of the verses of the “Star Spangled Banner” apparently looks forward to the death of American slaves freed by the British who fought in their regiment. A little more ambiguity and anthem-dashing might be no bad thing.

Chelsea Manning and Harvard

by Henry on September 18, 2017

It occurs to me that it may be worth spelling out more explicitly the logic of why I think the Harvard Kennedy School has gotten itself into trouble. So here goes. The Harvard Kennedy School Dean, Doug Elmendorf’s statement is here. The key sentences, as I read them:

Some visitors to the Kennedy School are invited for just a few hours to give a talk in the School’s Forum or in one of our lecture halls or seminar rooms; other visitors stay for a full day, a few days, a semester, or longer. Among the visitors who stay more than a few hours, some are designated as “Visiting Fellows,” “Resident Fellows,” “Nonresident Fellows,” and the like. At any point in time, the Kennedy School has hundreds of Fellows playing many different roles at the School. In general across the School, we do not view the title of “Fellow” as conveying a special honor; rather, it is a way to describe some people who spend more than a few hours at the School.

… I see more clearly now that many people view a Visiting Fellow title as an honorific, so we should weigh that consideration when offering invitations. In particular, I think we should weigh, for each potential visitor, what members of the Kennedy School community could learn from that person’s visit against the extent to which that person’s conduct fulfills the values of public service to which we aspire. This balance is not always easy to determine, and reasonable people can disagree about where to strike the balance for specific people. Any determination should start with the presumption that more speech is better than less. In retrospect, though, I think my assessment of that balance for Chelsea Manning was wrong. Therefore, we are withdrawing the invitation to her to serve as a Visiting Fellow—and the perceived honor that it implies to some people—while maintaining the invitation for her to spend a day at the Kennedy School and speak in the Forum.

[click to continue…]

Harvard Kennedy School (discussion)

by Henry on September 15, 2017

This post is a stub, intended to allow people to discuss the Harvard Kennedy School decision to revoke its invitation to Chelsea Manning, since the main post comments section is being used as a petition.

The New York Times reports that the Harvard Kennedy School’s Institute of Government has revoked its invitation to Chelsea Manning to be a fellow this year.

The decision by the Kennedy School followed forceful denunciations by a former top official at the C.I.A. and the current director at the agency. Michael J. Morell, a deputy director at the intelligence agency under President Barack Obama, resigned as a fellow on Thursday, calling the invitation to Ms. Manning “wholly inappropriate.” He said it “honors a convicted felon and leaker of classified information.” … Pompeo, who graduated from Harvard Law School, wrote in a letter to a Kennedy School official, adding that he commended Mr. Morell’s decision to resign. He added, “It has everything to do with her identity as a traitor to the United States of America and my loyalty to the officers of the C.I.A.”

It appears that the decision was taken by the Harvard Kennedy School’s Dean, Doug Elmendorf.

Institutions like the Kennedy School both reflect and advise the senior levels of the US political system. This means that they work with and invite people with a wide variety of beliefs and past histories, some of which I personally find obnoxious, and some of which I personally think are worthy of great moral condemnation. I’m more or less OK with the Kennedy School doing that – given what it is, that’s plausibly part of its mission. It hasn’t stopped me from e.g. giving a talk there, or considering other forms of participation.

But when the Kennedy School rescinds an invitation – as it just has – because of pressure from one side in the debate, it seems to me that the Kennedy School cannot appeal any more to that kind of defense. It isn’t reflecting both sides in a debate – instead, it is suggesting that people on one side of it (including such universally celebrated luminaries as Corey Lewandowski and Sean Spicer) are worthy of being honored, while Chelsea Manning is not. Personally, I’m not prepared to go along with that.

Hence, unless the Kennedy School changes this decision, or otherwise shows evidence of a real change in heart (e.g. if a new administration makes it clear in future years that people like Manning are welcome), I’m going to have nothing to do with the Kennedy School as an institution in the future. Specifically, I will not accept any future invitations to give talks there, nor will I participate in conferences, workshops or other events organized by the Kennedy School. Nor will I do anything else that suggests my personal willingness to be involved in Kennedy School activities (where there are borderline cases, my rule of thumb will be to refuse activities with Kennedy School that either suggest personal endorsement, or that provide me with personal benefits). I will continue to maintain personal contacts with individuals at the Kennedy School, while making my unhappiness with their institution’s politics clear.

I don’t have any particular illusions that this will change minds at the Kennedy School (although perhaps if many other academics feel the same way I do, it will). But since this is the one small thing I can do, I’m doing it.

Update: I’ve gotten a request via email to turn this into a petition. So if you agree feel free to sign on below. If you have broader comments make them here instead.

Richard Posner has finally become a pragmatist

by Henry on September 14, 2017

This exit interview with Richard Posner, who is retiring as a judge, is interesting.

“About six months ago,” Judge Posner said, “I awoke from a slumber of 35 years.” He had suddenly realized, he said, that people without lawyers are mistreated by the legal system, and he wanted to do something about it. … He had become concerned with the plight of litigants who represented themselves in civil cases, often filing handwritten appeals. Their grievances were real, he said, but the legal system was treating them impatiently, dismissing their cases over technical matters. “These were almost always people of poor education and often of quite low level of intelligence,” he said. “I gradually began to realize that this wasn’t right, what we were doing.” …

Judge Posner said he hoped to work with groups concerned with prisoners’ rights, with a law school clinic and with law firms, to bring attention and aid to people too poor to afford lawyers.
In one of his final opinions, Judge Posner, writing for a three-judge panel, reinstated a lawsuit from a prisoner, Michael Davis, that had been dismissed on technical grounds. “Davis needs help — needs it bad — needs a lawyer desperately,” he wrote.

On the phone, Judge Posner said that opinion was a rare victory. “The basic thing is that most judges regard these people as kind of trash not worth the time of a federal judge,” he said

I don’t want to be snarky – it is unqualifiedly great that someone of Posner’s stature on the right is taking up this cause. I do want to point out though, that it can be interpreted as a partial completion of something that was incomplete before – Posner’s commitment to pragmatism as an approach to understanding the law. [click to continue…]

The Origins of Glibertarianism

by Henry on August 31, 2017

Over the last couple of months, I’ve been involved in an on-and-off floating argument over Nancy MacLean’s book on James Buchanan and public choice, Democracy in Chains. This essay, with Steve Teles, lays out the problems we see with the book. The book makes very big claims e.g. that Buchanan provided the political strategies that made Pinochet’s Chile what it was, and galvanized an American right that had been in disarray before his decisive intervention. But the evidence that MacLean provides for these claims is problematic – key documents simply don’t say what MacLean thinks they do. MacLean describes Buchanan as an inventive creator of dastardly political ploys, using terms such as ‘evil genius’ and ‘wicked genius,’ but economists, no more than political scientists, make for good competent political strategists – the median is closer to Professor Pippy P. Poopypants than Svengali. [click to continue…]

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?

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.