From the monthly archives:

August 2003

Mindless headlines

by Micah on August 21, 2003

This “headline”: from the “New York Times”: has been bothering me all day. It reads: “Islamic Militant Groups Say Truce Is Dead After Israeli Strike.” Wasn’t this obvious from the fact that they “claimed responsibility”: for the Jerusalem bus bombing two days ago?

Suicide-bomber apologist in fit of indignation

by Chris Bertram on August 21, 2003

I’ve blogged before on Junius about retired British philosopher Ted Honderich and his lamentable book After the Terror. It seems that Honderich is now involved in a fierce spat with his German publishers Suhrkamp Verlag who have withdrawn the book after charges that it is anti-semitic were levelled by Micha Brumlik (Director of the Fritz Bauer Institute, Study and Documentation Centre for the History of the Holocaust and Its Effects). Jurgen Habermas, who originally recommended the book to Suhrkamp, now agonises about and seeks to contextualise his recommendation. Honderich in turn, angrily rejects the charge of anti-semitism and calls for Brumlik to be dismissed from his post by the Johann Wolfgang Goethe University, Frankfurt am Main.

For what its worth, Brumlik’s charge of anti-semitism is, in my view, technically unwarranted. I doubt that Honderich bears any animosity towards Jews as such. But Brumlik is correct to state that Honderich “seeks to justify the murder of Jewish civilians in Israel.” In Honderich’s recent essay “Terrorism for Humanity” he gives a list of propositions including “Suicide bombings by the Palestinians are right.” He says of his list: ” These are some particular moral propositions that many people, probably a majority of humans who are half-informed or better, now at least find it difficult to deny.”

There’s probably some possible world where I’m moved by freedom of speech considerations to the thought that Suhrkamp shouldn’t have withdrawn Honderich’s book (though it hardly amounts to censorship, since they’ve relinquished the rights and he can presumably disseminate it himself). But I can’t summon up any indignation on behalf of someone with his odious views who also calls for his critics to be sacked from their academic posts.

(Honderich’s site has links to the text of Brumlik’s letter, Habermas’s thoughts, Honderich’s replies and “Terrorism for Humanity”.)

Greatest figures of the 20th century

by Chris Bertram on August 21, 2003

Matthew Yglesias has some reaction to Right-Wing News’s lists of greatest figures of the twentieth century as voted for by right- and left-wing bloggers. My considered view that such lists are inherently silly hasn’t sufficiently stifled my irritation at the omissions. There’s obviously an argument to be had (on Aristotelian lines) about whether a person can both be great and do really bad things, though the further back in time one goes the easier it seems to be to reconcile judgements of greatness with the fact of a historical figure having committed atrocities or other acts of cruelty (e.g. Alexander the Great, Cromwell).

But I was also appalled by the fact that the so-called left-wing bloggers were, for want of a better word, chicken. Their list contained no leading figures from the international communist and socialist movements at all, and yet quite a few of them warrant serious consideration. Jean Jaures, French socialist opponent of war, murdered on the eve of the first world war, for one. And how about Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht, again, socialist opponents of the war, murdered by the neo-fascist Freikorps in 1919? I’d even make the case for Lenin and Trotsky. The leftists have voted, safely and reasonably enough, for Gandhi, Nelson Mandela and Martin Luther King jr. Fair enough, but I’d have thought Ho Chi Minh and Ben Bella were in with a shout. Yglesias bemoans the absence of theorists other than Orwell (who wasn’t). I concur: why were there no votes for Bertrand Russell (also a campaigner against WW1), Max Weber and Emile Durkeim (20th century figures both) or John Rawls? No doubt the prevalent francophobia meant that the right-wing crowd denied Charles de Gaulle his place. (And don’t get me started on the artists, writers and composers.)

UPDATE: (Thanks CY) There’s a long thread on this at Electrolite.

UPDATE UPDATE: Norman Geras posts the list he voted for and some reflections.

Incarceration and the Labor Market

by Kieran Healy on August 21, 2003

Devah Pager has won this year’s Dissertation Award from the American Sociological Association. (I wrote about her work last year. It’s worth mentioning again.) Devah studies the effect of incarceration on labor market outcomes. Her approach was to conduct an audit study of employers, sending in applications for real jobs using vitas for matched pairs of black and white men. The abstract of a working paper from the study says, in part:

bq. With over 2 million individuals currently incarcerated, and over half a million prisoners released each year, the large and growing numbers of men being processed through the [U.S.] criminal justice system raises important questions about the consequences of this massive institutional intervention. This paper focuses on the consequences of incarceration for the employment outcomes of black and white job seekers. … By using matched pairs of individuals to apply for real entry- level jobs, it becomes possible to directly measure the extent to which a criminal record in the absence of other disqualifying characteristics serves as a barrier to employment among equally qualified applicants. I find that a criminal record is associated with a 50 percent reduction in employment opportunities for whites and a 64 percent reduction for blacks.

Pager found that blacks “are less than half as likely to receive consideration by employers relative to their white counterparts, and black non-offenders fall behind even whites with prior felony convictions.” In other words, even though being black and having served time both negatively affect one’s employment opportunities, controlling for education and skills you are better off being a white male with a felony conviction than a black male with no criminal record.

To put Devah’s work in context, take a look at Bruce Western’s research in this area. “How Unregulated Is the U.S. Labor Market? The Penal System as a Labor Market Institution” is a good place to start. It’s a comparative macro-sociological account of what’s been happening to the U.S. penal system. A recent working paper co-authored with Becky Pettit, “Inequality in Lifetime Risks of Incarceration” estimates risk of imprisonment by race and education. Here’s the abstract:

bq. Although growth in the U.S. prison population over the last 25 years has been widely discussed, few studies examine changes in inequality in imprisonment. We study penal inequality by estimating lifetime risks of imprisonment for black and white men at di erent levels of education. Combining administrative, survey, and census data, we estimate that among men born 1965–69, 3 percent of whites and 20 percent of blacks will have served time in prison by their early thirties. The risks of incarceration are highly stratified by education. Among black men born 1965–69, 30 percent of those without college education and nearly 60 percent of high school dropouts went to prison by 1999. The novel pervasiveness of imprisonment indicates the emergence of incarceration as a new stage in the life course of young low-skill black men.

Sergio Vieira de Mello

by Brian on August 21, 2003

If one just read the blogosphere, one might get the impression that few conservatives thought the UN or its senior officials ever did anything useful, and that some rather unbalanced souls on the right approve of murdering UN representatives. In the interests of being fair and balanced, I thought I’d point out that some conservatives don’t agree.

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Cosmic Inevitability

by Kieran Healy on August 20, 2003

Just read “E.T. and God,” an article by Paul Davies in the current Atlantic Monthly about what would happen to religion if extraterrestrial life of any sort were discovered. The author tends to slide about between that question and the narrower issue of what would happen to the theologies of the major world religions, especially Christianity. As Davies himself notes, the discovery of E.T. would do all kinds of things for groups like the Raelians. (Funny how their clone story dropped off the map, by the way. Whatever happened to the allegedy respectable science journalist who was going to verify their claims, I wonder?)

Davies shows a marked weakness for the argument from design, and in particular its “anthropic principle” subgenus:

bq. If life is found to be widespread in the universe, the new argument goes, then it must emerge rather easily from nonliving chemical mixtures, and thus the laws of nature must be cunningly contrived to unleash this remarkable and very special state of matter, which in turn is a conduit to an even more remarkable and special state: mind.

He also paraphrases a biologist:

bq. Simon Conway Morris, of Cambridge University, makes his own case for a “ladder of progress,” invoking the phenomenon of convergent evolution — the tendency of similar-looking [sic] organisms to evolve independently in similar ecological niches … Conway Morris maintains that the “humanlike niche” is likely to be filled on other planets that have advanced life. He even goes so far as to argue that extraterrestrials would have a humanoid form. It is not a great leap from this conclusion to the belief that extraterrestrials would sin, have consciences, struggle with ethical questions, and fear death.

Hey, why stop there? I bet they also have homologues to non-fat vanilla lattes, frat parties and New Labour. I remember seeing a standup comic do a routine where he said he was an alien from a distant galaxy, where life was wholly different from Earth. “We have no concept of love, and no death,” he said, “and a different-shaped gearstick on the Honda Civic.”

As for the anthropic principle — the idea that the fundamental physical constants of the universe are so tightly calibrated that life could not have happened if any of them were a tiny bit different, and hence that the Universe was waiting for, e.g., Orange County to emerge — well, it’s always seemed like a lot of badly-reasoned old cobblers to me. It’s a bit like wondering how eggs know what shape eggcups are, or feeling pleased that God has organized things in such a way that the sun rises in the morning, just when people are ready to go to work.

Ever closer union

by Henry Farrell on August 20, 2003

“Dan Drezner”: points to this developing “story”: in the FT as an important test case for the EU. Under the “Growth and Stability Pact,” which lays down the rules for Economic and Monetary Union (EMU), all participating EU member states have to fulfil certain criteria in their national macroeconomic policies. Among other things, they’re not supposed to run a budget deficit over 3% of GDP, except in situations of dire emergency. It now appears that Germany is going to exceed this limit for the third year in a row. Ironically, it was Germany that pushed for tough rules on budget deficits in the first place – the German central bank was terrified that Italy and other ‘less responsible’ member states would go on spending sprees after they joined the EMU club.

The European Commission is making noises about keelhauling the Germans for their bad behavior, which Dan sees as a key test case for EU integration theory. International relations scholars who study the EU have traditionally been divided into two camps – those who believe that the EU is a standard international organization, with no independent power to do anything that its more powerful member states don’t want it to do, and ‘supranationalists’ who believe that it’s something more than the sum of its members. Dan is sympathetic to the former point of view; I tend to adhere to the latter. Dan thinks that the Commission is likely to back down on its threats, so that Germany, which is the most powerful member state, prevails – he believes that this will provide powerful evidence that the supranationalists are dead wrong. I think Dan’s prediction as to the likely empirical outcome is right – but I don’t think that this tells us very much about the bigger theoretical questions that Dan (and I) are interested in.

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Trotsky’s great-grand-daughter

by Chris Bertram on August 20, 2003

Via both CalPundit and Mark Kleiman comes the news that Trotsky’s great-grand-daughter has a high-profile position in US administations as director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse. She seems to have an odd line on the incompatibility of science and politics. An interesting nugget of historical gossip, anyway.

Gilligan’s own goal

by Chris Bertram on August 20, 2003

I missed the beginning of the Hutton Inquiry and I’m only just beginning to catch up. The details of yesterday’s evidence have been pushed down the headlines by the bigger news from Iraq and Israel, but it seems to me at least that yesterday’s evidence marks a major shift in favour of the government and against the BBC. Campbell performed well, but the really important revelation was Andrew Gilligan’s email to an aide of Liberal Democrat MP David Chidgey (Original email here). Gilligan – himself an “unsatisfactory witness” to the same select committee – is revealed both to have planted (if that’s not too strong a word) some of the questions that put David Kelly under so much pressure, and (despite having huffed and puffed about the need for journalists to protect sources) effectively “outed” Kelly as the source for his colleague Susan Watts. No wonder the BBC’s support for Gilligan seems to be fading, with their reaction limited to an anodyne “We are looking at this e-mail and will deal with it in the context of the Hutton inquiry.”

We shouldn’t forget, of course, that the government deliberately focused on the narrow issue of Campbell’s role in their row with the BBC in order to deflect attention from the big issue of whether the WMD case for war was deliberately exaggerated. But as far as the immediate political battle goes, the BBC looks to be on the ropes.

Job Creation

by Brian on August 20, 2003

When I first saw this line on the new Bush campaign website, I thought it must be another parody.

bq. Ruth supports President Bush because… of his work for job creation and economic growth.

You know, if my job creation record looked like this, I think I would be trying to pretend I’d had other priorities the last 30 months or so.

Polls and Margins

by Brian on August 19, 2003

I was a little puzzled by something Kos said in discussing the latest polling from New Hampshire. The poll has Dean at 28% and Kerry at 21%, among a sample of 600 voters. The poll officially has a margin of error of 4%, so Kos was unwilling to call it a clear lead for Dean. This policy strikes me as rather conservative.

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Philosophy Talk

by Brian on August 19, 2003

“Philosophy Talk”, a new public radio show hosted by two esteemed Stanford philosophers, John Perry and Ken Taylor, pilots tomorrow on KALW. The show is at 1pm Pacific Time (that’s 4pm in New York, 9pm in London and 6am in Melbourne, if I’ve done my sums correctly) and if the technology is working should be available in live streaming. The show tomorrow is on lying, with Tamar Shapiro (also from Stanford philosophy) and Paul Ekman, the world’s foremost authority on emotions and facial expressions, among the guests. It should be fun, and it should certainly be better than what passes for ‘talk’ radio in this country. If you want more info about the show, this puff piece from the Stanford Reporter gives John Perry a lot of space to set out what he wants to do with the show.

Crazy science, crazy reporting

by Chris Bertram on August 19, 2003

A trawl around the blogosphere finds Lance Knobel in agreement with a piece by Will Hutton in the Observer on the MMR vaccine and media reporting of science. Hutton’s main point is that although most (British) doctors believe the vaccine is safe and that there is no link to autism, the media report the debate to give a completely different impression.

bq. The dissident, so-called whistleblower, however dodgy the research on which his or her ‘evidence’ is based, is afforded massive attention; it is taken as axiomatic that the mainstream, evidence-based government-endorsed view will be self-serving and wrong. More than half of us believe the medical profession is divided over the health risks of MMR; in fact, it is more or less united that there is no risk.

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Road signs

by Chris Bertram on August 18, 2003

For me, one of the interesting things about visiting another country is the slight strangeness of the everyday. In France, for example, everything is slightly different from England: light fittings, electrical sockets, window catches and openings, the fact that they don’t use kettles, the typography on signs etc etc. Having lived in France for a while, I really really enjoy films like Polanski’s The Tenant and Depardieu’s Loulou for the way in which they get the detail of French life. Ireland just isn’t weird like this. Everything is the same as back home … or so it seems. Then, having been lulled into complacency by the apparent familiarity of everyday objects one is pulled up short by something that just isn’t how an English brain expects it to be.

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Cursus Honorum

by Henry Farrell on August 17, 2003

From the “curriculum vitae”: of renowned Columbia sociologist, Chuck Tilly.

bq. Among his negative distinctions he prizes 1) never having held office in a professional association, 2) never having chaired a university department or served as a dean, 3) never having been an associate professor, 4) rejection every single time he has been screened as a prospective juror. He had also hoped never to publish a book with a subtitle, but subtitles somehow slipped into two of his co-authored books.