Kierkegaard on Ideality and Anxiety

by John Holbo on June 16, 2016

I’m teaching Kierkegaard next semester, so I’m rereading The Concept of Anxiety – which, to be honest, has never really done it for me. As major Kierkegaard texts go. (But I have been known to quote from it, at need.) Anyway, two quotes today for my uncommon book. File under ‘ought implies can: pro and con’: [click to continue…]

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Now that the NLRB is considering the question of graduate student unionization again, we’re beginning to see people write pieces suggesting that academic life would collapse if graduate students had bargaining rights. If there’s any use to this particular one (by Jonathan Gartner, who is, as best as I can tell from Google, a law student at Harvard), it’s that it conveniently bundles a few of the bad arguments together. [click to continue…]

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Peter Singer demonizes refugees as “queue jumpers”

by Chris Bertram on June 13, 2016

Peter Singer, consequentialist philosopher and patron saint of “effective altruism” has expressed himself on the question of rights to asylum and refugee status:

Singer has urged a rethink of global asylum policy. He wants to stop refugees able to travel to the country of their choice from being able to claim asylum at the expense of those unable to make the journey. He worries that the current system enables people to “somehow jump the queue” – adding that although Britain has a “moral obligation” to accept refugees, this does not include everyone who makes it to the UK.

“I don’t think Britain has a particular obligation to accept those who manage to set foot on British shores,” he tells i. “I think something needs to be rethought about this idea of the right of asylum as it’s now being applied.”

The same goes for his homeland, Australia, he adds, where the government is often criticised for not taking in more Rohingya refugees fleeing persecution in Burma. “Taking those who manage to get on boats to Australia provides an incentive to make these dangerous journeys during which some get drowned. [The refugees] in the UNHCR camps in Lebanon or wherever are in just as much need of a place to go as the people who are landing in Australia or Greece.”

Here, the perfectly valid point that the those in refugee camps in poor countries are just was worthy of help as those who arrive in rich ones is placed in service of the demonization of those who arrive in boats as “queue jumpers” and the endorsement of the ridiculous argument of right-wing politicians about “incentives” to make dangerous journeys. The reason people make those dangerous journeys is because the governments of wealthy countries, using mechanisms such as carrier sanctions and visa restrictions, have blocked safe and inexpensive routes of escape from dangerous places. They do this not in the service of a fair conception of the distribution of humanitarian burdens but because they don’t want to deal with the numbers and would prefer to maintain the existing unfair distribution where most refugees are in poor countries. Singer is correct that we can distinguish between the right to asylum and the right to settle in a particular place. Perhaps when the governments of wealthy states are willing to have a proper discussion about what a fair pattern of settlement would look like, we can also reassess other elements of the system. Pending that commitment to justice on the part of the wealthy, stigmatizing those who make it across from Libya, Turkey or Haiti as “queue jumpers” is the mark of someone who has lost his moral compass.

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Sunday photoblogging: Liverpool

by Chris Bertram on June 12, 2016

An iPhone photo, earlier today, after visiting the excellent International Slavery Museum.

Liverpool, from Albert Dock

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In Lorillard Tobacco Company v. Reilly, the Supreme Court struck down a Massachusetts ban on tobacco advertising on First Amendment grounds. In his concurring opinion, Clarence Thomas writes:

The State misunderstand the purpose of advertising. Promoting a product that is not yet pervasively used (or a cause that is not yet widely supported) is a primary purpose of advertising. Tobacco advertisements would be no more misleading for suggesting pervasive use of tobacco products than are any other advertisements that attempt to expand a market for a product, or to rally support for a political movement. Any inference from the advertisements that business would like for tobacco use to be pervasive is entirely reasonable, and advertising that gives rise to that inference is in now way deceptive. [Emphasis added.]

There’s so much—from the history of political thought, conservative thought, and free-market libertarianism—packed into these three sentences, one might be forgiven for missing the breadth and power of what Thomas is arguing.

First, notice the explicit comparison, the affinity, that Thomas draws between commercial advertising for a commodity or product and political advocacy and action for a cause. [click to continue…]

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At the moment, I’m reading my way through David Miller’s new Strangers in our Midst and also getting very exercised about the UK’s Brexit referendum (to the point where I’m waking at night and worrying about it). My siblings and I have all benefited from the EU’s free movement rights, my children both have non-British EU partners, we think of ourselves as Europeans. So for me, the threat of Brexit is a threat of lost identity, of something that has been there all my adult life just disappearing overnight. And so I’m feeling pretty resentful towards my fellow citizens who might vote to cut that tie and thereby endanger the security and family life of millions of EU citizens in the UK and UK citizens elsewhere in the EU.

One of Miller’s arguments is a familiar one about social trust, about how welfare states depend for their stability on such trust and that the increasing diversity that immigration brings tends to undermine support for redistributive programmes. This lack of trust gets expressed in anger about stories that immigrants are ahead in the queue for social housing, that they are a drain on health and education services, that they are getting “something for nothing”, and so forth. Needless to say, most of such stories are false. Nevertheless, there may be elements in the design of the UK’s welfare state and its relatively non-contributory character that fuel such anxieties.

Here’s the thing. Those voting for Brexit out of resentment against immigration are disproportionately the elderly poor whites who don’t pay much in but who benefit from those public services. A predictable consequence of them getting what they want is that the fiscal base for those services will be eroded and that either they will have to be cut or taxes will have to be increased. This is because those EU immigrants are, in fact, paying more in taxes than they are taking in services. (Actually, the UK is free-riding in a big way, as it never paid for the cost of educating and training those workers.)

When I take those political affiliation surveys, I always say I’m willing to pay higher taxes. But now the devil on my shoulder is saying “why should you pay higher taxes to replace the taxes that were paid by EU migrants? Those idiots have brought it on themselves, let them now suffer the consequences”. An ugly thought, but I’m guessing that if I’m having it then I’m not alone. The UK’s EU referendum has eroded social trust more than immigration per se ever did. It poses the question of what citizens owe to one another in pretty stark terms. If people could mitigate the need for higher taxes by accepting immigrants and they choose not to do so, why should their wealthier fellow citizens bear the cost of their choices?

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Trump and Political Correctness

by John Holbo on June 10, 2016

There’s a chance the wheels come off the Trump Train in a spectacular, generally-acknowledged way between now and the election. But probably not. And if not, negative partisanship means that, by November, almost all Republicans will be solidly pro-Trump. That means: Republicans (and conservatives, to the extent that there is a distinction) will have talked themselves into this thing making a crazy kind of sense, after all. A lot of this will be pure negative: crooked Hillary, crooked Hillary, crooked Hillary. Or anti-establishment: burn it down! But some of it is going to be negative-spun-as-positive. There’s a good chance Trump will make conservatives not-unhappy with Supreme Court picks. Beyond that, the only Trump-is-actually-good line that makes sense – even as confabulatory spin – is that Trump is going to be proudly politically incorrect. Anti-PC is standard conservative rhetoric and has been for decades. But this bubble is going expand, massively, in the vacuum of Trump’s lack of any agenda. I don’t think anyone really believes in that wall. No one knows where Trump would go, so how can you say you are in favor? Answer: it’s not the destination, it’s being a jerk on the journey! The three-legged stool – social conservatism, fiscal conservatism, strong military – is going to be whittled down to one leg – anti-PC. Before we can make America great again, Job #1 is smashing the tyranny of PC, the hegemony of the SJW’s! Conservatives and Republicans are going to talk themselves into this, because what other leg have they got to stand on? I predict that, by November, we’re going to hearing an awful lot more like this. Republicans are going to tend towards somewhat novel alt-right-lite postures under a broad ‘stop the PC madness!’ banner.

What do you think? Trump won the nomination because a solid plurality of Republican voters liked him best. Now that he has got it, the rest – many of whom recently liked him least – need to think themselves into liking him best, after all. Negative partisanship demands it! What sorts of confabulations do you predict will prove necessary/psychically efficacious, to achieve this realignment, over the next 5 months? What sorts of changes to the Republican Party and the conservative mind will it mean, even if Trump loses? How permanent will they be?

Of course, if Trump flames out, like, next month, all bets are off.

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by Eszter Hargittai on June 8, 2016

A friend I saw today is not ready to celebrate, because he doesn’t want to jinx it. I, however, am very much in a celebratory mood and wanted to mark the important occasion here.


Ezra Klein does a nice job reflecting on Hillary Clinton’s political savvy. While the following is not a new revelation, it is important to continue pointing out: the gendered nature of elections is stacked against women in so many ways, it is hard to appreciate. It is exhausting just to think about it, never mind come up against it day in and day out, year after year, and still manage to garner so much support. Bravo, Secretary Clinton!

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Lesson Plan

by Harry on June 6, 2016

I recommend William Bowen and Michael McPherson’s new book Lesson Plan: An Agenda for Change in American Higher Education to anyone who wants a better understanding of the problems in higher education in the US, and especially to anyone who is working in higher education and wants to contribute to improving it.

Among its many virtues are that it is short, and an easy read; but, despite that, it contains lots of useful information, well-organized, and although they are sketched rather detailed, its recommendations for change should be part of the debate on your campus, whatever your campus is like. I don’t think it is eccentric of them to take the 3 central challenges to higher education in the US as being raising attainment rates, reducing disparities in outcomes relating to socio-economic status, and controlling costs, and they have a good deal of interesting and useful things to say about all three. I’m not going to provide a comprehensive overview of the book (its short enough that you should just read it yourself), but will divide the post into a section on several points they make that seem not to be well understood in the public debate, including by a lot of faculty, and then a section on a couple of their recommendations for improvement in controlling costs.

First, the five points:

1.Administrative bloat does not explain rising tuition, contrary to popular myth. You’ll see figures saying that whereas in the 1970s faculty outnumbered administrators 2:1, now there is one administrator for every faculty member; one much quoted NYT article claims that “administrative positions at colleges and universities grew by 60% between 1993 and 2009”. Just seeing that claim should make anyone who works in a university suspicious – where are all these people? The NYT figure leaves out of the equation that enrollments grew by 42% in the same period, so that at worst administrative positions grew 1% a year faster than enrollments. And a very large part of the change in the ratios of ‘administrators’ to faculty is a result of changes in non-faculty needs of the institutions, and the tendency to classify more jobs as ‘administrative’ than in the past. More menial jobs (like typist, gardener) that were never classified as administrative have declined because of mechanization, computers, etc. At the same time a need for more professional jobs (most obviously IT people) that are classified as administrative has increased. The ratio of “executive, administrative and management” staff to students actually decreased slightly between 1991 and 2001 from 1.1:100 to 1:100.

2.Nor, in fact, does reduced state appropriations explain increased tuition. The pattern with state appropriations for higher education is pretty predictable: they decline as tax revenues decline (in recessions) and grow as they grow. We are in a long recession right now, so we have seen an 8-year decline, as with funding for other discretionary items in state budgets. The real kicker is not declining appropriations per se, but declining per-full-time-equivalent student appropriations. As larger numbers of students attend college, stable state appropriations mean reduced per-student appropriations. Its fine to say: “oh, well, we should be funding higher education more”, but that money has to come from somewhere – either from other parts of the State budget, or from increased tax revenues. Suppose for a moment that we can get the extra money from increased tax revenues or from the department of corrections or of transportation (I just assume nobody will propose taking it from k-12 or from medical assistance, which are typically the biggest parts of State budgets). I will not be popular for saying this, and I should emphasize that Bowen and McPherson do not say this, but it is hard to see why a sensible legislator concerned with improving education, or with improving fairness in education, would prioritize additional funding for higher education. Why? It’s not a priority if you care about fairness, because higher education is not a universal program, but one which less than 2/3rds of the cohort participate in, and is not even available to those who have received the worst education up to that point, who are almost exclusively among the less advantaged people in society; and nearly a half of those who DO participate do not get qualifications, and they, too, are disproportionately among the less advantaged of those who do use it. It’s not a priority if you just care about getting an educated population because we know that investments in early childhood and k-8—the education levels in which everyone participates, are more cost-efficient up to some saturation point which we are still quite far from.

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Required reading

by Eszter Hargittai on June 5, 2016

Everybody needs to read this. I’m in awe of the author for having written something so powerful, important and eloquent. No skimming or scanning, read every word.

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Sunday photoblogging: Cork, Hanover Street

by Chris Bertram on June 5, 2016

Cork, Hanover Street

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When Muhammad Ali famously said, “Man, I ain’t got no quarrel with them Vietcong…they never called me nigger,” he wasn’t just refusing to serve in Vietnam. Nor was he peddling an anodyne “We’re all human beings, let’s be friends” piece of feel-good agitprop. He was challenging the ability of the state to define for its citizens whom they should fear and who were their enemies. He was usurping that power and claiming it for himself. As Ali said to a group of white college students, who had challenged his position on serving in Vietnam, “You my enemy. My enemy is the white people, not Viet Congs or Chinese or Japanese.”

From the time of Hobbes, one of the leading attributes of sovereignty has been the right of the state to define and determine what threatens a people and how that threat will be responded to. In the state of nature, Hobbes wrote in Elements of the Law, “every man…is judge himself of the necessity of the means, and of the greatness of the danger” he faces. But once we submit to the state, we are forbidden “to be our own judges” of the threats we are facing and how to respond to them. Except in cases of immediate physical threat to ourselves, we must now accede to the sovereign’s assessment of and decision about these threats. The sovereign, as Hobbes says in Leviathan of the state’s control over matters theological, is he “to whom in all doubtfull cases, wee have submitted our private judgments.”

This is why Ali’s challenge to the Vietnam War was so formidable. He wasn’t merely claiming conscientious objector status, though he was. He wasn’t simply claiming the authority of a higher being, though he was. He was asserting the right of the citizen to be the final judge of what threatens or endangers him. In asserting that right, Ali was posing the deepest, most fundamental challenge to the power and authority of the state.

That he also claimed to be more threatened by his own fellow citizens and government than by an officially declared enemy of the state only added to the subversiveness of his challenge. Against the state’s axis of fear, which claims that one’s enemies invariably belong to another country and thus are part and parcel of the international state system, Ali sought to rotate that axis along a different dimension: away from the international state system to the domestic system of social domination and civil subjection.

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England: twenty years and hurting

by Chris Bertram on June 4, 2016

With Euro 2016 about to start, thoughts naturally turn to Euro 96, when England hosted the tournament. 1996 was a great year for me, I awoke from what may, in retrospect, have been a period of undiagnosed depression (certainly hypochondria), and it felt like coming out into the sunlight. My two boys were 8 and 11 respectively, it was the year of Britpop, the phoney battle between Oasis and Blur and the wonder that was Pulp’s Different Class. It was also the the year of Liverpool 4, Newcastle 3 (the greatest game in the history of the Premier League), and the year when I started a journal, Imprints, with a conference at Senate House in London which commenced with a debate between Jerry Cohen and Tony Skillen. As the conference finished, we all crowded around a radio to hear the England-Spain penalty shoot-out (the last time England prevailed in one). Though England didn’t win the tournament, losing to Germany — who else? — in the semis, we got to see the thrashing of the Scots with McAllister’s miss and Gazza’s genius and then then destruction of the Dutch, all to the soundtrack of Baddiel, Skinner and the Lightning Seeds. We were on the verge of the first Labour government since 1979, and with the Tories looking tired and split the country felt together and optimistic. The St George’s flag, which fluttered everywhere that summer, seemed to stand for this mood, somehow magically recovered from a narrow and exclusive nationalism.

(Much of this was undoubtedly fluff and illusion, and probably massively irritating to the other local nationalities. Still, the optimism was real, the sense that a better future was coming after the night of Thatcherism.)

“Today, alas, that happy crowded floor looks very different.” Thirty year of hurt have turned into fifty, and nobody has any expectations of this England team. But more pertinently, we live in a deeply divided country, squeezed by austerity and xenophobia, where each camp in the Brexit referendum views the other with loathing and contempt (I’m no exception). The Labour government that came to power in ’97 squandered its chances in the sand of Iraq. England is now a dark fractured place: nasty, British and short-tempered, beset by cuts, food banks, benefit sanctions and performance targets. The St George’s flag has become the property of racists, Islamophobes and “white-van man”, a symbol to be deployed against unpatriotic middle-class lefties. I hope we get through this, and stay in Europe, but the wounds will be deep and the resentments strong either way. What a difference twenty years makes.

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History’s Lowlifes

by Corey Robin on June 4, 2016

Some day I want to write an essay about history’s lowlifes. Harvey Matusow would be one. John Doggett would be another.

These are men, sometimes women, who crave escape from their anonymity, who want to be noticed, and will do anything, destroy anyone, to get that notice.

What fascinates me about these people is how parasitic they are on one of the nobler aspects of democracy.

Democratic movements and moments have a way of churning up anonymous men and women from the lower ranks, giving them a much longed-for opportunity to demonstrate their heroism and greatness. That’s the conceit of the musical Hamilton, and it’s not entirely untrue.

But even if you don’t go to Broadway to get your history, just read a good history of the labor movement or the civil rights movement or the women’s movement. You can’t help being awestruck by the individual talent and personal courage that breach the sometimes impersonal narratives of these storied struggles.

History’s lowlifes prey on a similar dynamic but for ends that are far more nefarious and through means that are far more insidious. Their preferred venue is not the open contest for democratic rights but the staged assault on justice and dissent. Where the genuine democrat displays her mettle and achieves her greatness in a revolution or social movement, history’s lowlife finds his level in a more populist and poisonous setting: the inquisition.

Like other, more genuine democratic moments, inquisitions summon men and women from below. Unlike other, more genuine democratic moments, they summon men and women who are willing to play their toxic roles in a drama of degradation. Out of McCarthyism you get Matusow; out of the Anita Hill hearings, you get John Doggett.

We need a better literature—actually, a literature—on these bottom-feeders of history.

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Dave Swarbrick is dead

by Harry on June 3, 2016

Gdnrad obit here.

This is fantastic. Glastonbury 1971:

And (not great quality, but I had a hard time finding a version of this with Swarbrick playing) obviously:

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