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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My first On Beyond Zarathustra installment garnered favorable response, so I’m keeping it up! Today, for your discerning appreciation, two more pages. We are now in section 3 of “Zarathustra’s Prologue”. I resolve to crank out daily or semi-daily pages for the next week or so, building up to the thrilling scene with the Rope Dancer! (If I can manage seven pages a week, won’t that be something?) Gosh, I wonder what our hero thinks he’s up to!
Zarathustra's Prologue, Section 3, Page 22
I’m not going to post daily page updates to CT, if indeed I manage this illustration feat. But you can check the Flickr album itself – or just click the pic to go there. You can also check my homepage, which I’m updating with the very latest escapades of everyone’s (and no one’s) favorite hero. [click to continue…]

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Relevant

by Belle Waring on June 2, 2016

Epic Rap Battles of History can be uneven but is, at times, amazing. My favorite is MLK vs. Gandhi with Key and Peele. Eastern philosophers vs. western philosophers is awesome—it deviates from the usual “who won, who’s next” close, ending instead with “what is winning?” Ten points to Ravenclaw. And “you don’t want to stand in the path of Laozi today; move, bitch, get out the way” is inspired. However, some effort should have been made to pronounce the Chinese philosophers’ names. Any effort, smdh. Finally, the philosophers on each side end up turning on one another, exactly as Schopenhauer would have it:

On the other hand, hardly has any system of philosophy come into the world when it has already begun to contemplate the destruction of all its brothers, like an Asiatic sultan when he ascends to the throne. For just as there can be only one queen in a beehive, so can only one philosophy be the order of the day. Thus systems are by nature as unsociable as spiders, each of which sits alone in its web and sees how many flies will allow themselves to be caught therein, but approaches another spider merely in order to fight with it. Thus whereas the works of poets pasture peacefully side by side, those of philosophy are born beasts of prey, and even in their destructive impulse are like scorpions, spiders, and the larvae of some insects and are turned primarily against their own species. They appear in the world like men clad in armour from the seed of the dragon’s teeth of Jason’s and til now have, like these, mutually exterminated each other. This struggle has already lasted for more than two thousand years; will there ever result from it a final victory and lasting peace?

Aaaaaanyway my actual plan was to post this Epic Rap Battle of History: Thomas Jefferson vs. Frederick Douglass.

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What to read about Rousseau

by Chris Bertram on June 2, 2016

I was interviewed by Nigel Warburton for Five Books about Rousseau, so here are my thoughts, as edited from audio of our conversation, and so reasonably spontaneous. Of course, the real starting-point should be the man himself.

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My department held our first ceremony for graduating philosophy Majors this spring, and my chair kindly asked me to speak at it (immediately after 2 graduating seniors, whose speeches were, I suppose not surprisingly, on a fairly similar theme to my own). I kept it short (ish), and thought I’d post the text from which I talked here. I’m posting partly because it was fun, but partly as a resource for others, who are welcome to use whatever they like, without attribution, except for the joke about my office (I know 2 political philosophers whose offices are reputed to be similar to mine—they can use the joke).

Here it is:

First, we want to congratulate you all on graduating. It’s a time for you to enjoy, and celebrate, though we hope you feel at least some sadness at leaving the rhythm of college life, and the thrill of going to class every day knowing that you’ll encounter, as one of my non-major students put it, ideas that you didn’t know were there to be thought.

Second, we want to thank the parents here for encouraging, or tolerating, or merely not having the strength of character to stop, your children in their choice of major. And, in many cases, you have been for paying for most or all of it. We know that your children are entering a labor market that is soft at best, much worse than the labor market we entered at the same age, and that majoring in Philosophy may have seemed like a risk. I’m going to explain why it was less of a risk than you might have thought.

Most of us research and teach philosophy because we love it – as one student, trying to get the balance right between philosophy and sociology, put it: “Philosophy is just so much more fun; you get to think almost all the time that you are working, rather than only about 20% of the time”. We’re excited about mapping out conceptual space, making very fine grained distinctions, looking at arguments and seeing where they go wrong, and figuring out how to repair them. We revel in abstraction. And we hope we have communicate some of that enthusiasm, and fostered it, and the skills needed to fulfill it, in you.

But that’s not all.

Last year Governor Walker and our legislature added to the mission of the UW that it should “meet the state’s workforce needs”. Some people on the campus were not enthused about this addition. But as a professor loyal to the College of Letters and Science, and especially as a professor who wants to see Philosophy thrive, I was thrilled. Speaking simply for myself, if studying philosophy did not contribute to society, it should be like sports, a leisure activity that people don’t get paid for and that no sane person would think the government should be subsidizing. I mean, nobody, surely, would think that the government should be using tax revenues to fund high school football or hockey teams, or to subsidize building sports stadia, right?

[click to continue…]

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No, But We Have a Word For That, Pt 2

by Belle Waring on May 31, 2016

Right, so, The NYT has an article on how DNA analysis is helping African-Americans learn about their family history. The author’s grasp on the English language seems to slip away from them at one point (originally two), though. Exhibit A:

Buried in DNA, the researchers found the marks of slavery’s cruelties, including further evidence that white slave owners routinely fathered children with women held as slaves.

MmmmmmOK. This one was changed in an update! Because it sucked before:

The researchers observed that the X chromosome of African-Americans has a greater African ancestry than other chromosomes. Dr. Gravel and his colleagues believe this variation is explained by European men and African women producing children — in other words, slave owners raping the women they held captive.

Thanks for explaining what happens when a rape victim and her rapist “produce children”! Because rape is totally the exact actual word we should use when someone coerces someone else into having sex with him against her will. That might be mebbe by, like, standing right over the person with an axe handle, or else could be something more like keeping your own children enslaved in America so that she couldn’t escape you in France (coughJeffersoncough).

Now, I do understand that people have a general unwillingness to say things like, “noted statesman and confirmed serial rapist Thomas Jefferson exercised extraordinary taste in designing his home.” It just…it just sounds real, real bad. But when talking about slaveowners generally, what is with the “fathered children” thing? Or, let’s grant that people are reluctant even to say that about such a huge number of white citizens often thought to be morally adequate in some vague way as a class (I’m not really seeing it, but, eh.). Nonetheless, even when it comes to the most universally loathed men in the world, like Josef Fritzl, I have noticed a strong inclination for writers to say that someone “fathered children with” their rape victim. At the time of the case, particularly, I found it disturbing to read these words so many times: “fathered children.”

John’s hypothesis was that, to some degree, the rapine part of slavery is baked into the enslavement, with the result that further rape doesn’t seem like the most salient thing? (He was not looking for weird justifications for this abuse of language, just speculating.) About abductors…mmm…same, sort of? Like, the kidnapping is the part where volition goes out the window, and then all further activities are assumed to be unwilling and there’s therefore no need to specifically say raped many times afterward? But I don’t hear it that way. Quite the opposite. Rather, it seems as if people think you can only be raped so many times before…something other than rape is taking place? Or, perhaps, the “was she kicking and screaming” element that is meant to pick out rape rape infects the way people discuss rapes that don’t involve physical violence every single time?

I can easily imagine a lived complexity in which Sally Hemings had some power in her relationship with Thomas Jefferson, emotional power or even sexual power of a kind. But this is something for a novelist to talk about—a journalist or historian needs to say “raped” again even for the 200th instance of forced sexual relations. And “fathered” is just weird and messed-up sounding, redolent of horse-breeding. I do feel things have improved in the last five years. I notice it particularly in reading sites like the (nominally?) feminist Jezebel—commenters will always correct quoted articles of this kind to include the word rape, and I do feel people notice.

“Buried in DNA, the researchers found concrete evidence of slavery’s cruelties, including the fact that enslaved women often became pregnant as the result of being repeatedly raped by their white masters.” Is that even any harder to say, or is it just more unpleasant to read? Thoughts?

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We Have a Word For That, Pt. 1

by Belle Waring on May 31, 2016

The NYT has an interesting article on how DNA analysis is helping African-Americans
(especially in the south) discover more about the carefully erased history of their families. Most people need to know at least the name of the white families who enslaved their forebears in order to make much progress, but as more information is digitized and collated this can become easier. I ran across this article about an informal genealogy research group in Savannah when I was searching for something else. The list of references includes the ‘Joseph Frederick Waring II papers,’ MS 1275:

Contains 35 items on African-American churches (not dated); 18 items on African-American members of the Republican Party of Georgia from 1867-1869; slave bills of sale from 1856-1859; a list of slaves from 1859, leases to African-Americans from 1865-1866, and a letter from 1851 which discusses a fugitive slave riot.

There’s also the less morally disturbing ‘Antonio J. Waring Collection, MS 1287,’ which contains “The Case of the Africans,” discussing the slave trade from 1817-1820. These two references, and an earlier note from the ‘Joseph Vallence Beven papers,’ MS 71, which, “[c]ontains correspondence dating from 1787 between George Mathews, Thomas Pinckney, and General James Jackson concerning armed fugitive slaves” brought two things home to me.

One, my brother’s friend Tom Pinckney, and a ton of Macintyre’s live along the stretch of the May River within a half-mile from my house. Pretty sure there’s even a Ravenel up in there closer to town. There are zero black families along that stretch of the river. This is obviously morally wrong. However did this inequity arise? At least I don’t go around explaining how I never benefited materially from chattel slavery because my family all emigrated from Ireland 12 minutes ago and were treated exactly like black slaves, except for not being owned outright or made legally sub-human or subject to the dreaded ‘one drop of Irish blood’ test, or even the ‘are you lighter than this piece of A4 typing paper on which I spattered some watered-down sepia ink from a toothbrush’ test. That’s a pretty low bar, though. It’s not exactly “take all thou hast, and give to the poor”-type stuff. More like, “I’m not an aggressive dickweasel! Yay me! Please give me some benne brittle!” Mmmm, tastes like exploitation of West Africa.

Two, the history of slavery in America is always taught as if there was little to no resistance from slaves. I have wondered about that plenty, thinking, when S.C. was 80% black, how in God’s name did white people keep from getting straight murdered all the time? I mean, “by using inhumanly savage violent repression,” obviously, but even so I thought there would be more “whoops, the plantation house caught on fire and nobody could get out mumble because people were standing outside in a circle armed with hoes and axes mumble.” But I’m starting to think that the slavers’ nightmare happened much more than I think, but the news of it was repressed as savagely as the small rebellions, so as to keep anybody from getting any ideas. OK, this wasn’t actually my initial point at all but it is worth considering, so I’ll just break this post up for easier commentatin’.

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Look what they’ve done to my song, Ma

by John Quiggin on May 31, 2016

My discussion of intellectual property inevitably raised questions about my argument that property rights are not natural rights, but are socially constructed and, in the modern world, exist only as part of the legal structures created and enforced by states. The “moral rights” of artists over their creative works has been raised as a suggested counterexample. In fact, this example reinforces my original argument. Two cases arise, both of interest:

In the United States, the moral rights of artists were effectively unrecognised by law until accession to the Berne Convention 1989, and remain extremely limited. The result is that, once an artist has sold the rights to her work, she has no control over its subsequent use, unless she can make a case separate from moral rights, for example that use in an advertisement misrepresents the artist as endorsing the product. So, for example, it’s perfectly legal to use London Calling to advertise Jaguars, or to clip Fortunate Son to fit a jingoistic ad for jeans. Moral rights are widely recognised, and may generate social opprobrium for those who violate them (as with other misuses of property rights) but they have no legal standing.

In France and other European countries, artists have inalienable moral rights over their work, to prevent misuse of the work by the initial or later purchasers. This is not a property right, but a constraint on property rights. To the extent that moral rights are recognised after the fact, they constitute a taking from the purchaser of the property right. To the extent that they are recognised when artists sell rights to their work, they (like any restriction on alienation of property) represent a constraint on the property rights of the artist. Melanie Safka recognised this, in an ironic fashion, in her classic Look what they’ve done to my song, Mawhen she wrote

It’ll be all right ma, maybe it’ll be okay
Well, if the people are buying tears
I’ll be rich someday, ma

Coming back to the general issue, property rights and (perceived/socially accepted) natural rights have features that mean they tend to coincide in some ways and conflict in others. Most obviously, they are both associated with the general feeling of rightful possession, so that a system of property rights is more stable when it coincides with natural rights. On the other hand, natural rights are mostly perceived as inalienable and indivisible, while property in its ideal form is infinitely transferable and divisible. Moral rights for artists are a classical example of the clash between inalienability and unfettered property rights but the same clash arises at every point in the production process.

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The lead story in today’s New York Times is a devastating attack on CUNY, where I’ve been teaching for nearly two decades, and the state’s criminal under-funding of a once-great institution. An above-the-fold photograph of a library at one of CUNY’s senior colleges features students studying at tables, surrounded by buckets strategically placed to catch the gallons of water dripping down from the ceiling. It’s a near perfect tableau of what it’s like to teach at CUNY today: excellent, hard-working students, encircled by shabbiness, disrepair, and neglect.

Though you should read the entire piece, here are some of the highlights.

The infrastructure is collapsing

The piece begins thus—

On the City College of New York’s handsome Gothic campus, leaking ceilings have turned hallways into obstacle courses of buckets. The bathrooms sometimes run out of toilet paper. The lectures are becoming uncomfortably overcrowded, and course selections are dwindling, because of steep budget cuts….

—and it doesn’t let up, across 50 paragraphs and seven columns, relentlessly documenting an institution facing near collapse.

It reports on a college library with an entire annual book budget of $13,000—that’s less than the individual research budgets of many professors at elite universities—and books covered in tarps to protect them from rainstorms and leaky roofs. At another college, a biology professor is stalked across the stage of her genetics lecture by giant water bugs. There are computers that still use floppy disks, Wi-Fi that doesn’t work, elevators and copy machines out of commission, and more.

The piece makes a brief nod to my campus, Brooklyn College, whose “rapidly deteriorating campus” has earned it the moniker “Brokelyn College.”

I can personally attest to that. On Thursday, as I left campus, I stopped in the men’s room of our wing of James Hall. One of the two urinals was out of business, covered by a plastic sheet. I sighed, and thought back to the time, about a year ago, that that urinal was so covered for about six months. The clock in my office has been stopped for over a year. Our department administrator tried to get it fixed: it worked for two days, and broke again.

Last fall, our union launched a hashtag campaign #BroklynCollege. Go on Twitter, and you’ll see photographs like this: [click to continue…]

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Sunday photoblogging: Cork door

by Chris Bertram on May 29, 2016

Cork, door

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What Kind of Belt Is That Guy Wearing?

by John Holbo on May 28, 2016

The Library of Congress Flickr photostream is a steady source of curious gems. Today, for example: what kind of belt/waistcoat is that boater hat guy on the left sporting?

Marines in France (LOC)
I downloaded the original file. Here’s a closer look. [click to continue…]

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Vindictive billionaires

by Henry on May 26, 2016

There’s been a lot of reaction to the news that Peter Thiel secretly funded Hulk Hogan’s lawsuit (which has led to a $140 million award) against Gawker. Thiel is, of course, not only a Silicon Valley billionaire, but a man of strong, if idiosyncratic, libertarian views. Hence, it’s ironic that he illustrates some of the blind spots of libertarianism – in particular, the tendency of many libertarians to discount the problems of wealth inequality.

A few weeks ago, Tyler Cowen wrote this post on Trump: [click to continue…]

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Another draft extract from my book-in-progress, Economics in Two Lessons. It’s the last part of the section on “predistribution”, dealing with Intellectual Property. Next up, “redistribution” through taxation and public expenditure.

As always, encouragement is welcome, constructive criticism even more so.

[click to continue…]

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