Distinction

by Kieran Healy on April 12, 2006

Over at the Guardian Blog, “Daniel looks to see”:http://commentisfree.guardian.co.uk/daniel_davies/2006/04/university_colours.html what percentage of the 300 “Comment is Free” contributors mentioned in their profile that they went to university, and of those what percentage went to Oxford or Cambridge. Answer: 20 percent mentioned a university, and 85 percent of the time it was Oxford or Cambridge. This reminds me of a line, which you still sometimes see in obituaries or profiles, that goes something like, “Educated at Eton and Oxford, he then [or “also”] attended Harvard.” There’s also that episode of _Inspector Morse_ where the Chancellor, played by John Gielgud, is asked by some toady how many honorary degrees he has. “Oh, fifteen,” he says blandly, “Sixteen, if you count Yale.”

Nir Rosen in Boston Review

by Henry on April 12, 2006

This article on Iraq by “Nir Rosen”:http://bostonreview.net/BR31.2/rosen.html in the _Boston Review_ is a must-read – Rosen has talked to a lot of people who don’t usually talk to Western journalists, and captures the increasing tensions between Sunni and Shia Muslims in the months leading up to the bombing of the Samara shrine. Also, how Americans are being drawn into local disputes:

bq. The Americans had come maybe 20 times before to search for weapons in the house w[h]ere Sabah lived with his brothers Walid and Hussein, their wives, and their six children. They knew where to look for the single Kalashnikov rifle the family was permitted to own. They had always been polite. “This day they didn’t act normal,” Hussein told me. “They were running from all sides of the house. They kicked open the doors. They didn’t wait for us.” With Iraqi National Guardsmen standing outside, the Americans hit the brothers with their rifle butts. Five soldiers were on each man. Sabah’s nose was broken; Walid lay on the floor with a rifle barrel in his mouth. The Shia translator told them to kill Walid, but they ripped the gun out of his mouth instead, tearing his cheek. The rest of the family was ordered out. The translator asked the brothers where “the others” were and cursed them, threatening to rape their sisters. As the terrified family waited outside on the road, they heard three shots and what sounded to them like a scuffle inside. The Iraqi National Guardsmen tried to enter the house, but the translator cursed them, too, and shouted, “Who told you to come in?” Thirty minutes later Walid was dragged into the street. The translator emerged with a picture of Sabah and asked for Sabah’s wife. “Your husband was killed by the Americans, and he deserved to die,” he told her. He tore the picture before her face. Several soldiers came out of the house laughing. Inside, the family found Sabah dead. Blood marked his shirt where three bullets had entered his chest; two came out his back and lodged in the wall behind him. American-made bullet casings were on the floor. The house had been ransacked. Sofas and beds were overturned and torn apart; tables, closets, vases with plastic flowers were broken. Sabah’s pictures had been torn up and his identification card confiscated. Elsewhere in the house one picture remained untouched—Sabah with his three brothers and their father, smiling in happier times. When Sabah was buried the next day his body was not washed—martyrs are buried as they died. Hussein told me that three days before Sabah was killed, an American patrol had stopped in front of Radwaniya’s shops and the Shia translator had loudly taunted the locals, cursing and threatening them for being Sunnis.

One of the most depressing parts of George Packer’s _The Assassin’s Gate_ was his depiction of a meeting between George W. Bush and Iraqi exiles, where the exiles had to spend much of the meeting explaining to Bush that there were two different kinds of Muslims, Sunni and Shia. I suspect he knows the difference now.

(By the way, _Boston Review_ now has an “RSS feed”:http://bostonreview.net/rss.xml – it’s a really great magazine, with a lot of good online content).

Exquisitely Mean

by Kieran Healy on April 12, 2006

“Kieran Setiya”:http://ideasofimperfection.blogspot.com/ announces the “results of his competition”:http://ideasofimperfection.blogspot.com/2006/04/economy-of-prestige.html to find the best exquisitely mean review. The criteria were:

1. The review must have a worthy target. Thus, I was forced to ignore, among other things, A. O. Scott’s review of Gigli.

2. The review may be grossly unfair, but…

3. It has to give good arguments, or memorable ones that contain a grain of truth.

4. Finally, preference was given to reviews that made good use of sarcasm.

Kieran’s readership is composed mostly of philosophers, and his list of reviews reflects this. The prize has already been awarded, to “Miles Burnyeat’s”:http://www.nybooks.com/articles/5444 enfilading of Leo Strauss’ _Studies in Platonic Political Philosophy_. But I have a late entry from another field. For sheer mean-spirited, grossly unfair (not to say misguided) but nevertheless well-written and funny attacks on worthy targets, you can’t beat “Philip Larkin’s”:http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Philip_Larkin criticism of modernist Jazz, especially his stuff on John Coltrane and Miles Davis. He thought Coltrane was “possessed continually by an almost Scandinavian unloveliness.” For example, here he is reviewing _A Love Supreme_:

It is of course absurd to suggest he can’t play his instrument: the rapidity of his fingering alone dispels that notion. It would be juster to question whether he knows what to do with it now that he can play it. His solos seem to me to bear the same relation to proper jazz solos as those drawings of running dogs, showing their legs in all positions so that they appear to have about fifty of them, have to real drawings. Once, they are amusing and even instructive. But the whole point of drawing is choosing the right line, not drawing fifty alternatives. Again, Coltrane’s choice and treatment of themes is hypnotic, repetitive, monotonous: he will rock backwards and forwards between two chords for five minutes, or pull a tune to pieces like someone subtracting petals from a flower. Apart from the periodic lashing of himself into a frenzy, it is hard to attach any particular emotional importance to his work.

And on Miles Davis:

bq. He had several manners: the dead muzzled slow stuff, the sour yelping fast stuff, and the sonorous theatrical arranged stuff, and I disliked them all.

Peter Levine on School Reform

by Harry on April 12, 2006

Peter Levine has a nice essay on the contemporary school reform strategies being pursued at the Federal level in the US. Like me he is more well disposed to many of the levers being used than most of the left; as he says:

It’s important to think about incentives; that’s one of the main themes of modern social science. Asking schools to educate better (or differently) without changing their incentives won’t work.

But he points out what seems right once it is pointed out that many reformers evince a startling lack of interest in what is actually going on in schools:

Politicians and policymakers now show an extraordinary lack of interest in the “what” and “who” questions. They seem to agree with the economist Gary Becker about the futility of looking inside schools: “What survives in a competitive environment is not perfect evidence, but it is much better evidence on what is effective than attempts to evaluate the internal structure of organizations. This is true whether the competition applies to steel, education, or even the market for ideas.”

He goes on to criticise the reformers for, in effect, neglecting the collateral effects of their reforms. The incentives are changed, and the outputs that we measure (test scores) are not the only important, or even the most important, outputs of education. Many of the important outputs can only be assessed very roughly, and even to do it roughyl you have to look into the schools themselves (one of several good reasons why the UK has long used an inspection regime).

I’m not going to defend the reformers, because I think Peter is right; but I will note that most of the conservative opponents of reform (those who oppose the current battery of reform ideas without offering serious and thought-out alternatives), although they talk about what goes on in schools, do not often offer suggestions for how the democratic public that is supposed to deliberate about schools is going to find out anything about what goes on in them.

Patriotism and the Mearsheimer/Walt affair

by Chris Bertram on April 12, 2006

I recently wrote a review of a couple of books on global justice, one of which expended a great deal of effort in explaining how a liberal cosmopolitanism could be consistently combined with a reasonable patriotism. For some reason, the concern to combine these positions seems to especially concern liberal Americans who want be good patriots and think of themselves as endorsing universal values at one and the same time. Well I guess I agree about this far: that, within the limits justice allows, one both may feel an affection for one’s country and compatriots and promote the good of that nation and community, just as one can legitimately promote the good of one’s family and friends within the bounds set by justice. (I guess I think that promoting the interests of one’s family and friends is not merely permissible but also required, whereas promoting the interest of one’s country within the bounds allowed by justice is allowed but not obligatory.)

What I don’t agree with is the proposition that the citizens (or the government, for that matter) of a country are under any duty to promote the interests of that country in terms of its relative prosperity or military power, where their doing so is at the expense of the citizens of other countries. I’m mentioning this now partly because of some of the reactions I’ve read to the infamous Mearsheimer and Walt paper. Mearsheimer and Walt are neorealists, and, as such, they believe that governments (and their citizens) do have a duty to promote their country’s interests in the sense I indicated. So insofar as they claim that some group (the Israeli lobby) fails to do so, and promotes some other country’s interests, they are saying something bad about that group from their own perspective. [1]

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Conservatism and Golf

by John Holbo on April 12, 2006

Two quotes I happened to run across. The first from Michael Lind’s new piece at TAP, about Bruce Bartlett and Bushism.

From Bartlett’s perspective, genuine conservatism is better represented by the John Birch Society than by those closet liberals, Nixon and the two Bushes, not to mention Eisenhower, whom the Birchers accused of being a Communist (provoking Russell Kirk, one of the founders of modern conservatism, to quip, “Eisenhower isn’t a Communist, he’s a golfer”).

Next, from a Rick Perlstein piece at Huffpo late last year (via Henry’s announcement of the man’s new webpage). You really should read this great speech he delivered at a gathering of conservatives. (The Lind is good, too, but Perlstein is great.)

Republicans are different from conservatives: that was one of the first lessons I learned when I started interviewing YAFers. I learned it making small talk with conservative publisher Jameson Campaigne, in Ottawa, Illinois, when I asked him if he golfed. He said something like: “Are you kidding? I’m a conservative, not a Republican.”

Make of it what you will.