Those demographic predictions

by Chris Bertram on October 10, 2004

Matthew Turner has been reading John Gunther’s _Inside Europe_ , a classic from 1936, and (in “two”:http://www.matthewturner.co.uk/Blog/2004/10/british-politics-in-1936.html “posts”:http://www.matthewturner.co.uk/Blog/2004/10/more-british-politics-in-1936.html )regales us with some of the facts about Britain contained therein. I particularly liked this one:

bq. * The decline in the birth rate, which, according to competent estimates, will reduce the population to thirty-three million by 1985.

Push-polling and essay competitions

by Henry on October 10, 2004

When doing research interviews in Brussels last week, I was intrigued to come across a free pro-business rag called the “EU Reporter” in several places, and even more intrigued to find that it contained an advertisement from our old friends, Flack Central Station, for a euro 2500 competition for the “best commentary piece” on European Health Care Reform. As the ad describes it:

bq. “Europeans endure long waits for medicines, treatment and surgeries – and pay high taxes for this substandard level of care” says TCS Europe editor, Craig Winneker. “Patients lack choice and access to the best medicines.”

TCS is looking to engage “Europe’s best minds” on the question of how to improve their countries’ health care system. I reckon that it’s a safe bet that proposals to improve European health care by increasing the role of state provision are unlikely to win the 2,500.

I’m intrigued by the increasing frequency of ‘competitions’ of this sort, frequently (but by no means always) funded by right wing lobbies or think tanks. Health care reform is a particular topic-du-jour – the Simon Fraser Institute in Canada has run a similar competition in the very recent past, touting, as best I could understand it, for attacks on the Canadian system of health care provision. I wonder why TCS (which seems to me to be a very US-centric organization) is funding the competition. Given PhRMA’s role in funding TCS, my best guess is that this is an effort to trawl for stories about the horrors of European health care, which can then be used as ammunition in the internal US debate about health care (let me note in passing that the WHO ranks the US health care system as being “worse”:http://www.who.int/whr/2000/en/whr00_annex_en.pdf than the systems of all fifteen of the EU’s rich member-states). Other essay competitions seem to me to have the more straightforward aim of encouraging intellectuals and journalists towards certain policy questions (and certain ways of considering those policy questions).

The Hero as Werwolf

by Henry on October 10, 2004

“Brad DeLong”:http://www.j-bradford-delong.net/movable_type/2004-2_archives/000357.html takes issue with Chris’s characterization of Achilles and Che Guevara as heroes.

bq. As far as I’m concerned, we “respond” to Achilles–we may even pity him–but we do not admire him. None of us would wish to have the character of Achilles. Hektor is the one we admire. Hektor is the hero of the Iliad. And none of us would wish to have the character of Che Guevara.

This misses the sense in which Chris (and others) might very fairly regard Achilles (and Guevara) as heroes, despite their very evident personality flaws, or indeed because of them. For Brad, a hero is someone whom we should both admire and emulate. Thus, we should aspire to the virtues of the sagacious Hektor, who fights only because he must, and not those of the vainglorious Achilles. But Homer and his interpreters among the classical Greeks surely understood Achilles in a rather different way. To them, he was an embodiment of the _arete_ of the hero bound by his self-understanding and his honour-code to choose glory over a life of respectable insignificance, and to seek retribution for affronts regardless of their consequence (as in Achilles’ vengeance after the slaying of Patroklos).The fate of the hero is bound up in tragedy – he (and it is usually a ‘he’ of course in early Greek thought) does what he must, even when he knows that he will be punished by the gods. He is bound by his fate and his code of honour. Bowra captures this sense of heroism quite well in this “fragment”:http://www.greenhill.org/facultyfolders/US/historydept/brown/Heroic%20Outlook.htm – as he argues elsewhere, it is precisely the capacity for heroism that distinguishes men from the gods.[1] Just because Guevara did “personify a historical moment and he did turn his back on a comfortable future as a communist bureaucrat to pursue the goal of the revolutionary liberation of humanity,” he was a hero in a certain sense, and his fate was precisely a tragic one – it was a direct consequence of his aims and personal limitations. His _arete_ may not be one that anyone sane would want to emulate in today’s world, but it’s surely an _arete_ nonetheless.

fn1. Although note that Bowra’s personal enthusiasm for this ideal goes hand-in-hand with some rather unsavoury political opinions.

Women in computing

by Eszter Hargittai on October 10, 2004

As I scanned the hallway for signs of the party, an arch of red, yellow, green and blue balloons extended a welcome. I entered the grand ballroom where fun sounds of karaoke and a sea of neon green glassware greeted me. To the left was a large screen with random words scrolling quickly: Elmers glue effect on skin; [Hebrew characters]; [Chinese characters]; pokemon cards. Scattered across the room were people forming small lines for massages, caricature drawings and tarot card readings. Ninety-five percent of those present were women. It reminded me of my college years – having attended a women’s college – and what a blast you could have putting a group of women in a room with great music. This is probably a cliché, but you really could feel the excitement and energy especially when people – whether in their 20s or 40s – crowded the dance floor for the Macarena and the electric slide. I couldn’t help but think that the songs for karaoke were not randomly selected as I listened to people sing the words to “I’m a Barbie girl” and “I’m a bitch, I’m a lover”.

Welcome to the party hosted by Women of Google at this year’s Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing in Chicago. The meetings were sponsored by the Anita Borg Institute for Women and Technology and the Association of Computing Machinery. Anyone doubting whether there are still social barriers for women in computing fields needs only talk to the attendees. The young women – undergraduates or just a few years out of college pursuing graduate degrees in computer science and related fields – cannot contain their excitement of and appreciation for what this meeting offers them. Unlike the vastly male-dominated conferences and classrooms that make up most of their professional experiences and that are still often hostile to women, the Grace Hopper Celebration affords them a chance to see and meet extremely successful women in their fields – corporate VPs, university deans, inventors, inspiring mentors – who are supportive of their pursuits.

[click to continue…]

Kerry in the Debates

by Henry on October 10, 2004

I’m too biased to be able to judge well who won or lost in the second debate; G.W. Bush makes my skin crawl. What did strike me was the different strategies that the two candidates employed. Kerry seemed to be trying to do two things, quite deliberately, in his answers. First, he was very obviously trying to combat the Republican talking-point that he’s a pessimist. He referred to himself explicitly as an optimist at one point, and several of his answers were all about his hopes for the future. Second, he seemed to be reaching out to Republican-leaning undecided voters who were disenchanted with Bush – at every possible opportunity, he mentioned Republicans like Hagel, Lugar and McCain who have criticized the administration in one way or another. Bush, in contrast, seemed to me to be more interested in shoring up his core vote among conservatives. As I say, I came into this with a bias – still, these are the things that jumped out at me while I was watching the debate (apart from Kerry’s fluffing the response to Bush’s answer about mistakes, which many others in the blogosphere have written about already).

Portraying Guevara

by Chris Bertram on October 10, 2004

Matt Yglesias had “some sensible comments”:http://yglesias.typepad.com/matthew/2004/09/the_new_phillis.html the other day concerning Paul Berman’s philistine reaction to The Motorcycle Diaries. As a film, I thought it was OK, though I looked at my watch from time to time. There’s a real question, though, about how to portray Guevara and I’ve strugged with writing something about this for a week. I haven’t reached a satisfactory conclusion, just assembled some provisional thoughts partly inspired by Hegel and partly by Alasdair Macintyre.

Hagiography should be out, but so should the sort of reaction that just carpingly lists bad things he did or unwise decisions he made. One reaction to that type of braying criticism is “Hegel’s discussion of critics of Alexander in the Philosophy of History”:http://www.marxists.org/reference/archive/hegel/works/hi/history3.htm (scroll down to § 34). But Hegel’s remarks are inappropriate for Guevara because of the way in which he points to Alexander’s success in the conquest of Asia. Lack of success and damaging facts should not necessarily be enough to deprive a hero of heroic status: Achilles was flawed, and Achilles was cruel, and Achilles failed, but we still respond to him.

And then there’s the question of sympathetic identification with the cause. In his essay “How not to write about Lenin”, Alasdair Macintyre argues:

bq. For those who intend to write about Lenin there are at least two prerequisites. The first is a sense of scale. One dare not approach greatness of a certain dimension without a sense of one’s own limitations. A Liliputian who sets out to write Gulliver’s biography had best take care. Above all he dare not be patronizing…..The second prerequisite is a sense of tragedy which will enable the historian to feel both the greatness and the tragedy of the October Revolution. Those for whom the whole project of the revolutionary liberation of mankind from exploitation and alienation is an absurb fantasy disqualify themselves from writing about Communism in the same way that those who find the notion of the supernatural redemption of the world from sin disqualify themselves from writing ecclesiastical history.

Guevara wasn’t Lenin, just as he wasn’t Alexander, but he did personify a historical moment and he did turn his back on a comfortable future as a communist bureaucrat to pursue the goal of the revolutionary liberation of humanity. Thersites from Des Moines (or wherever) can carp all he wants — and much of the carping will consist in a recitation of facts — but criticism that isn’t appropriately informed by a sense of grandeur, tragedy, heroism and tragic failure just misses the mark.

Microsoft and Immigration

by Brian on October 10, 2004

This is very weird. I was filling in the details on my latest “DS-156”:https://evisaforms.state.gov/ds156.asp?lang=1 form, a form the State Department quite helpfully makes available electronically. When I went to fill in question 35, “Has Your U.S. Visa Ever Been Cancelled or Revoked?” on my defeault Firefox browser, it automatically marked “Yes” whatever I clicked. Needless to say, this is _not_ the answer I wanted to communicate to the State Department. So I tried opening up the form in IE, and the problem goes away, i.e. it is possible to mark “No”. Nothing in the source code for the page suggests why there should be a problem here, at least to my untrained eyes. It’s just odd.

Jacques Derrida has died

by Henry on October 10, 2004

Jacques Derrida has died; Jack Balkin has a good and nuanced appreciation “here”:http://balkin.blogspot.com/2004/10/jacques-derrida.html, while the New York Times has a somewhat cooler summation of his life “here”:http://www.nytimes.com/2004/10/10/obituaries/10derrida.html?pagewanted=3&ei=5094&en=b96653950919a03c&hp&ex=1097380800&partner=homepage.

Update: “Scott McLemee”:http://chronicle.com/temp/email.php?id=fue3ubrlcl0uaqyb8raw5nnupyo3tl44 has the best short summation of Derrida’s intellectual life and influence that I’ve seen so far.