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Gods Behaving Badly

by Henry on February 2, 2016


It’s a terrible idea to reduce a novel into an argument. As Francis Spufford said in another Crooked Timber seminar, the great thing about a novel of ideas is that you can have your cake and eat it too; using negative capability to present multiple arguments in serious tension with each other, with many possible interpretations, and never resolve any of it. The tensions between these arguments and interpretations are part of what make it a novel rather than a tract (an interesting question, which I’m hopelessly underqualified to answer, is whether Plato’s dialogues can be interpreted as novels …). So treat the below as not being an attempted answer to the question of What The Thessaly Books Are Really All About, but instead some guesswork about where one particular thread of argument in the two books that have been published to date might be leading. [click to continue…]

Millian Liberalism and the Irish Famine

by Henry on January 28, 2016

Tyler Cowen has a piece today responding to Kevin Drum, and arguing that one can’t easily disassociate progressivism from eugenics:

Most of all Drum is saying that the earlier history is not very illustrative of anything for today. I view it this way. Go back to Millian liberalism of the mid-19th century. Had American or for that matter British Progressivism been infused with more of this philosophy, the eugenics debacle never would have happened. … The claim is not that current Progressives are evil or racist, but rather they still don’t have nearly enough Mill in their thought, and not nearly enough emphasis on individual liberty. Their continuing choice of label seems to indicate they are not much bothered by that, or maybe not even fully aware of that. … they don’t seem to relate to the broader philosophy of individual liberty as it surfaced in the philosophy of Mill and others. That’s a big, big drawback and the longer history of Progressivism and eugenics is perhaps the simplest and most vivid way to illuminate the point. This is one reason why the commitment of the current Left to free speech just isn’t very strong. … Do we really want to identify with a general philosophy which embraced eugenics for so many decades, when so many pro-liberty and also social democratic thinkers were in opposition? I think Mill himself would say no.

It’s hard for me to read a defense of “Millian liberalism in the mid-nineteenth century” and not think about the response of Millian liberalism and associated forms of thought in political economy to the Irish famine in which a million or so people died, and a million emigrated. [click to continue…]

Aaron Swartz died three years ago today

by Henry on January 11, 2016

The New Press has put out a book collecting some of his writing. I contributed a short piece, as did some other people who knew him; since my contract allows me to, and since no-one conceivably wants to buy the book to see what I have to say, I’m putting it below the fold.

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David Bowie

by Henry on January 11, 2016

Comment on his career seems superfluous and almost impertinent. I have difficulty thinking of another recently living musician who so defined the contours of the world I grew up in and lived in. The one thing that’s noticeable to me (at least for the music I know, which is obviously far from everything), is that while you can trace his influence on musicians of pretty well every subsequent generation, it’s hard to discern any significant backlash against him. He was sui generis.

Thomas Piketty seminar

by Henry on January 4, 2016

We have finished publishing our seminar on Thomas Piketty. The participants (with links to their responses) are below.

The whole seminar is available on the WWW here.

If you prefer to read the seminar in PDF form, it’s available here.

If you would like the raw LaTeX file for the seminar (e.g. to remix under the Creative Commons license – see the PDF for more), it’s available here.

Finally, if you spot any typos, feel free to let me know in comments!


A placeholder for Piketty

by Henry on December 23, 2015

A quick announcement – we’ll be publishing Thomas Piketty’s response to the seminar in early January, it being the time of year when many readers are likely to be spending time with their family or being otherwise engaged. In the meantime, readers may be interested in the Foreign Affairs debate on economic inequality (which evidently owes a ton to Piketty) and Dan Hirschman’s paper on why Piketty’s work seemed so surprising when it first came out. And to all who celebrate it, happy Christmas, and to those who don’t, happy holidays! Myself, I’ll be spending it with my extended family in the West of Ireland (including Milo, the Crooked Timber Christmas dog

Safe Harbor and the NSA

by Henry on December 16, 2015

Abraham Newman and I have a piece in the new Foreign Affairs, discussing the Safe Harbor decision, and arguing that it’s really an example of the US finding some of its own preferred extraterritorial rules being used against it. Since Foreign Affairs allows me to put the whole piece up for a few months, here’s the full text for anyone who’s interested …

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Piketty, in three parts

by Henry on December 15, 2015

It’s the unfortunate fate of greatly influential books to be greatly misunderstood. When a book is sufficiently important to reshape intellectual and political debates, it escapes, at least to some extent, its author’s intentions. People want to latch onto it and use it as a vehicle for their own particular gripes and concerns. Enemies will distort the book further, some because they dislike the book’s message, others because they feel that they, rather than the book’s author, should have been the messenger adorned by history with laurels. The book will further be subject to the more ordinary forms of misprision and adaptation (some helpful; others less so) that all books are subject to. [click to continue…]

Benedict Anderson has died

by Henry on December 13, 2015

Obituary here. His Imagined Communities was an important book to me, as it was, I suspect, to many other people in the Crooked Timber community. Indeed, it’s the book that made me decide to do graduate studies in political science (how could it not be wonderful to work in a discipline where one could read novels and newspapers to reach grand conclusions about political and social life; I was to find out). He was of Anglo-Irish stock – how much that double alienation (membership of an unintegrated but socially privileged minority within a state based on the usual national myths) shaped his viewpoint has been the subject of a lot of amateur speculation. I liked his book on international anarchism (review here, combined with a review of Scott’s Art of Not Being Governed), but more for the details than the whole. There’s a funny anecdote in it about an assassination attempt on a Captain-General:

With the help of two Asturian anarchists, a young Cuban nationalist called Armando Andre hid a bomb in the roof of the ground-floor toilet of the Captain-General’s palace. The device was supposed to explode when Weyler sat down on the pot, bringing the whole second floor down on his head. The plotters were unaware, however, that Weyler suffered so severely from haemorrhoids that he almost never used the facility, preferring an earthenware field-potty when he had to relieve himself. The bomb went off, but no one was hurt, and Weyler decided to inform Madrid that the explosion had been caused by stoppages which prevented the latrine’s gases from escaping normally.

with further references to how the General was “partly relieved” and to the “diehard colons” of the revolution. I like that he had a low (if somewhat pince-sans-rire) sense of humour, despite his formidable learning and clipped Etonian accent – I can only imagine that he took great delight in smuggling the story and dubious jokes into an otherwise serious and densely researched academic book. More of us should be like him.

Doug North has died

by Henry on November 24, 2015

Obituary here (via Tyler Cowen). He was a fascinating and very important writer and thinker, although his final two books were not as strong as his earlier work. The politics of his ideas are complicated – on the one hand moving away from the efficiency arguments of markets towards political processes of institutional formation, but on the other never precisely able to decide whether and when these political institutions were guided by a logic of lowering transaction costs or by the desire of powerful actors to reap distributional benefits. Path dependence in his work serves more as a stand-in for an explanation than an explanation in its own right, especially given the continuing question (not really resolved in his work or the work of those he influenced) as to why some economies (by his account) changed and began to develop towards the rule of law while others did not. Still, even if he didn’t explain this, no-one else has done an especially good job either. One thing that is likely to get overlooked in his work is his continued engagement with the left. The first time I had had a serious conversation with him, he described himself as a “Marxist of the right,” which seems correct to me (I’m pretty sure I’m not the only person he used this self-description with). There’s a good essay to be written on his encounter with Karl Polanyi – this essay (PDF) disagreeing with Polanyi contains the seeds of some of his most crucial arguments. He will be missed.

Beware the commissars of political correctness!

by Henry on November 11, 2015

I actually quite like Jonathan Chait’s work – he’s mostly very competent at a certain kind of centrist trolling. But the tune he’s whistling is getting a little boring. Today, he asks whether we can take political correctness seriously now, and provides his own answer to his own rhetorical question: Yes – And We Must Do It Before It Is Too Late.

It is possible — and, for many sympathizers on the left, convenient — to dismiss these sorts of incidents as just so much college high jinks. “College students have been saying stupid things since the invention of college students,” argues Daniel Drezner, in a passage that attracted widespread support on the left. … Colleges have disproportionate influence over intellectual life … the academy is one of the few bastions of American life where the p.c. left can muster the strength to impose its political hegemony upon others. The phenomenon also exists in other nonacademic left-wing communities … It’s the expression of a political culture with consistent norms, and philosophical premises that happen to be incompatible with liberalism. The reason every Marxist government in the history of the world turned massively repressive is not because they all had the misfortune of being hijacked by murderous thugs. It’s that the ideology itself prioritizes class justice over individual rights and makes no allowance for legitimate disagreement. … American political correctness has obviously never perpetrated the brutality of a communist government, but it has also never acquired the powers that come with full control of the machinery of the state.

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Brian Friel has died

by Henry on October 2, 2015

The playwright, Brian Friel has died. He had been failing in recent years, but his death is still an enormous loss. I didn’t know him, but I loved his plays. His most famous play was probably Dancing at Lughnasa (which repurposed bits and pieces from a book by my and Maria’s grand-aunt, Maire MacNeill), but it wasn’t his best. That honor surely goes to Faith Healer; the Abbey production, with Donal McCann as the fantastic Francis Hardy, is the most extraordinary play I’ve ever seen. Its depiction of the main character’s embrace of the comforts of failure is in some ways more savage than Beckett, and certainly more intimate. Translations is also very fine, and has considerable social science interest – it’s no coincidence that James Scott uses a snippet of dialogue taken from it as his epigraph for Seeing Like A State. I’m sorry that he’s gone.

Alternative MacArthurs

by Henry on September 29, 2015

So the MacArthur ‘genius’ awards were announced today; I’ve always thought of them as tottering on a Bourdieuian knife-edge between two different kinds of legitimation. On the one hand, they are supposed to have consequences, to publicly recognize people who would otherwise be less well known, and giving them financial and symbolic support that they can then go on to use to do good and wonderful things. This means that it would be weird to give one e.g. to someone like Paul Krugman, who already is doing very nicely in terms of public recognition. On the other, they are supposed to go to people who are creative and brilliant – but in socially legitimated ways so as to maintain the status of the award. This means that they are unlikely to go to genuinely unsung geniuses, not simply because the selection process can’t find brilliance if it isn’t publicly well known, but because the legitimacy of the awards partly depends on their social validation by a variety of elite networks.

Hence, for example, we get today’s decision to give an award to Ta-Nehisi Coates. In one sense this is unquestionably awesome – Coates is fantastic. However, it would be unquestionably much more awesomer if they had given an award to Coates five years before, or gave it today to someone where Coates was five years ago. But the sociology of the process doesn’t seem to be set up to do that – like most institutions, it gravitates towards safe choices. A more risky symbolic venture capital approach – say giving grants to people earlier in their career in the expectation that 80% of them will flame out, 10% will do well, and 10% will be just wonderful would probably not be sustainable over the longer term (or at the least, it would make the prizes very different in status and connotation). Hence the current set up, which I suspect is mostly aimed to support safe bets – people who are either famous or very well regarded in their specific discipline – with perhaps a couple of riskier ones thrown in here and there, where they really strike fire with one of the selectors.

So if we were giving out awards rather than the actual selection committee, who would we give them to? It’s not likely, but it is possible that actual real people involved in the selection process will read this (Crooked Timber doesn’t have Vox-level readership, but it does have its own odd forms of cultural capital; stranger things have happened). So it’s possible that this thread could have consequences. Comments are open. My own two nominees (I can think of other very deserving candidates, but they’re personal friends; I’m also sure I’ll kick myself about all the people I should have mentioned as soon as I’ve posted this) would be Astra Taylor and Tom Slee. Both are writers in the hinterlands between technology and culture, neither is so high profile as to be a likely candidate at the moment. But both are just fantastic – brilliant writers (and in Taylor’s case, documentary maker and musician too) who could do wonderful things with MacArthur level exposure. Who else?

George Scialabba is retiring from Harvard

by Henry on September 10, 2015

George Scialabba is one of the great writers and intellectuals of our time. He’s also a member of the CT community, both as a commenter, and as the subject of a seminar that we ran a few years ago on his wonderful collection of essays, What Are Intellectuals Good For? He’s also someone whom I consider (although we’ve only met in person two or three times) to be a good friend. In a properly constituted America, he would be a Living National Treasure. His greatness as a critic and essayist is a result not only of intelligence and prose style but of willingness to try to get inside the heads of the people he is writing about, so as to understand what they were trying to do on their own terms, before reaching judgment. People may reasonably have different opinions about which of George’s essays is the best. My personal favorite is this devastating piece on Isaiah Berlin.

George is retiring from Harvard, where he has worked for many years scheduling events for the Center for Government and International Studies, while writing in his spare time. There are many people at Harvard whose work and thought I admire enormously, but with no disrespect to them, I think that George has been the single best public intellectual working there over the last few decades (I’ve sometimes wondered whether Harvard’s senior administrators know who he is, or have any idea what a gem they have had in him). The good news (as Scott notes in his appreciation at Inside Higher Ed is that this should give him more time to write. The Baffler is throwing a party for him this evening; I’d love to be there. In lieu of that, this post. Congratulations, George. And more importantly, thank you very, very much.

Adam Smith in action

by Henry on July 31, 2015

The New York Times:

Brian Canlis, a co-owner of his family-named restaurant, is also a client. He said he was fond of Mr. Price, but was more discomfited by his actions. Mr. Canlis is already worried about how to deal with Seattle’s new minimum wage, which rose to $11 an hour in April and is scheduled to reach $15 an hour for small businesses within five years. The pay raise at Gravity, Mr. Canlis told Mr. Price, “makes it harder for the rest of us.” Mr. Price winced. “It pains me to hear Brian Canlis say that,” he said later. “The last thing I would ever want to do is make a client feel uncomfortable.” But any plan that has the potential, as Mr. Price has put it, to “set the world on fire,” is bound to make some people squirm. Leah Brajcich, who oversees sales at Gravity, fielded complaints from several customers who accused her boss of communist or socialist sympathies that would drive up their own employees’ wages and others who felt it was a public relations stunt.

The Wealth of Nations

We rarely hear, it has been said, of the combinations of masters, though frequently of those of workmen. But whoever imagines, upon this account, that masters rarely combine, is as ignorant of the world as of the subject. Masters are always and everywhere in a sort of tacit, but constant and uniform combination, not to raise the wages of labour above their actual rate. To violate this combination is everywhere a most unpopular action, and a sort of reproach to a master among his neighbours and equals.