From the monthly archives:

September 2007

Why Tuesday ?

by John Q on September 28, 2007

Among many questions that you could ask about the US electoral systems, one of the more minor but harder to answer is Why Tuesday. More precisely, if you want to maximise turnout, why not hold the election on Saturday as in Australia, or even keep the polls open all weekend? I asked this question a couple of years ago , and there was no obvious answer. Now there’s an effort to raise the issue and force candidates to take a stand.

As with many other features of the US system, there is a historical explanation that has long since ceased to be relevant, but the bigger question is why such things persist. In particular, why don’t

It’s fair to note that the UK situation is even worse. Elections are traditionally held on Thursday, even though the Prime Minister is free to select a more sensible day of the week.

Horrifying Aspect

by John Holbo on September 28, 2007

From Michael Medved’s latest column, “Six Inconvenient Truths About the U.S. And Slavery”:

Historians agree that hundreds of thousands, and probably millions of slaves perished over the course of 300 years during the rigors of the “Middle Passage” across the Atlantic Ocean. Estimates remain inevitably imprecise, but range as high as one third of the slave “cargo” who perished from disease or overcrowding during transport from Africa. Perhaps the most horrifying aspect of these voyages involves the fact that no slave traders wanted to see this level of deadly suffering: they benefited only from delivering (and selling) live slaves, not from tossing corpses into the ocean.

So the ‘inconvenient truth’ is that the slave traders were the real moral sufferers, in this situation. (OK, you’re so smart. What do you think he meant to say?) Let’s read on.

By definition, the crime of genocide requires the deliberate slaughter of a specific group of people; slavers invariably preferred oppressing and exploiting live Africans rather than murdering them en masse. Here, the popular, facile comparisons between slavery and the Holocaust quickly break down: the Nazis occasionally benefited from the slave labor of their victims, but the ultimate purpose of facilities like Auschwitz involved mass death, not profit or productivity.

But since the most morally ‘horrifying aspect’ of the Middle Passage was, by hypothesis, the element that is missing in the Nazi case – the element that breaks the analogy: the heartrending spectacle afforded by frustrated profit motive – I take it Medved has just proved the slave trade was worse than the Holocaust?

So we don’t need to feel guilty about slavery, after all?

Oh, never mind. (Honestly, don’t these people have a Moveon ad to complain about?)

Via Sadly, no! (whose discerning discussion of the whole column is worthy of your attention.)

UPDATE: In comments it has been pointed out that my reading is not plausible. Yes, I noticed. In all seriousness, what do you think he meant to say?

Man of the Year

by Henry Farrell on September 27, 2007

“Interesting and creepy…”:

Early this summer, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton’s campaign for president learned that the men’s magazine GQ was working on a story the campaign was sure to hate: an account of infighting in Hillaryland. So Clinton’s aides pulled a page from the book of Hollywood publicists and offered GQ a stark choice: Kill the piece, or lose access to planned celebrity coverboy Bill Clinton. Despite internal protests, GQ editor Jim Nelson met the Clinton campaign’s demands, which had been delivered by Bill Clinton’s spokesman, Jay Carson, several sources familiar with the conversations said. GQ writer George Saunders traveled with Clinton to Africa in July, and Clinton is slated to appear on the cover of GQ’s December issue, in which it traditionally names a “Man of the Year,” according magazine industry sources.

The journalist who wrote this up describes it as a story about access, but it also speaks to the strange mix of features you get in magazines like GQ – fashion and triviality leavened with the odd ‘serious’ story to burnish the magazine’s image. “Vanity Fair” – the magazine about celebrities who wish they were intellectuals, and intellectuals who wish they were celebrities – is the classic practitioner of this weird mix-and-match. It’s unsurprising that when GQ‘s editors have to choose, they would decide to keep the coverboy stuff that sells copies – but I hope they end up publicly embarrassed over this (and the Clinton campaign too; it doesn’t say nice things about their _modus operandi_).

All Power to the Second-Life Soviets!

by Scott McLemee on September 26, 2007

The struggle to build a revolutionary vanguard party of the workers and peasants has never been easy here in the United States. The line of march is tortuous, the peasants rowdy, and it often happens that a group must split. Usually one of the resulting entities will keep the original name, while the other will assemble a new one from the standard combinatoire. (As Dwight Macdonald explained when the Socialist Workers Party begat the Workers Party, “Originality of nomenclature was never our strong point.”)

Once in a while both groups will lay claim to the orginal name, however. The usual practice in that case is to distinguish them by adding some identifying term in parentheses. And so the Freedom Road Socialist Organization (Fight Back), which publishes a newspaper called Fight Back, is distinct from the Freedom Road Socialist Organization (Red Star). The latter refers not to the name of its journal but to the rather well-turned logo found on its homepage.

Within the past few days, an organization known as the Communist League has undergone mitosis, which nowadays means that each of the by-products has a website. I have examined the statements by each faction, but am still no wiser about the issues that require a tightening of ranks in the leadership of the workers and peasants. Yet it is clear that one side is ahead in the fight for hegemony — the one with the Cafe Press store offering very cool Communist League merchandise.

[click to continue…]


by Henry Farrell on September 26, 2007

This “bloggingheads segment”: features one of the nastiest political slurs that I’ve seen in a while: David Frum engaging in a public episode of histrionic soul-searching about how he and his fellow conservatives have made Mark Schmitt (Mark Schmitt! ! !) into Charles Lindbergh. The background can be found in a previous “bloggingheads debate”: where Mark politely pointed out that it was difficult for liberals like him to fully embrace the public commemoration of September 11, however they felt about it privately, because of the way that these commemorations had been politicized by Bush and Giuliani. This apparently was sufficient to brand Mark (who is a friend of mine) as the modern incarnation of a notorious isolationist Hitler-fancying anti-Semite. I’m not sure precisely why this particular slur is “so attractive”: to soi-disant conservative ‘public intellectuals’ – but the ease with which people like Goldberg and Frum reach for it in order to smear people whom they simply don’t agree with suggests that they are (a) vicious and deranged (b) dishonest, or (c ) some combination of the above.

Publish You’re Squarish

by Henry Farrell on September 26, 2007

Via “Dani Rodrik”:, this nifty piece of “free software”: for academics, which munges data from Google Scholar to figure out your citation counts, various indices of influence etc. Hours of fun for your inner Bourdieuvian.

Also of interest to sociologists of academia, this post by “Sean Carroll”: on how pathetic academics can be when they’re asked to disclose their ‘guilty pleasures.’

Here’s the thing: the Chronicle of Higher Education asked a handful of academics to divulge their guilty pleasures. … I was one of the people they asked, and I immediately felt bad that I couldn’t come up with a more salacious, or at least quirky and eccentric, guilty pleasure. I chose going to Vegas, a very unique and daring pastime that is shared by millions of people every week. I was sure that, once the roundup appeared in print, I would be shown up as the milquetoast I truly am, my pretensions to edgy hipness once again roundly flogged for the enjoyment of others. But no. As it turns out, compared to my colleagues I’m some sort of cross between Hunter S. Thompson and Caligula. Get a load of some of these guilty pleasures: Sudoku. Riding a bike. And then, without hint of sarcasm: Landscape restoration. Gee, I hope your Mom never finds out about that. But the award goes to Prof. McCloskey, who in a candid examination of the dark hedonistic corners of her soul, managed to include this sentence:

bq. Nothing pleases me more than opening a new textbook.

My interpretation is different than Sean’s – given Deirdre McCloskey’s well publicized gender change some years back, I suspect that her anodyne response is a calculated ‘screw you’ to prurient CHE readers hoping for something shocking or salacious. But Sean’s basic point still stands. I’m as bad as any of the respondents if not worse – my guilty pleasures are nothing more exciting than science fiction and fantasy novels with garish covers – but if anyone else has more interesting pleasures to confess in comments (nonymously or anonymously), go ahead.

Burma: a real place

by Chris Bertram on September 26, 2007

I don’t have a lot to say about Burma, except that, naturally, I’m in favour of democracy and human rights and against tyranny. I’ve vaguely followed the career of Aung San Suu Kyi over the years, and I might even have signed some petition a long time ago (I can’t remember). Here at CT we have two past hits for “Burma” and tow for ‘Myanmar”. Despite its place in the biography of George Orwell, a recent search on a “decent left” website the other day revealed very few mentions, most of which were in the “whatabout” category. But now Burma is a real place again, and will inevitably escape from its role as not-somewhere, worse-that-somewhere-else, and its walk-on part in blogospheric games of “will-you-condemn?”. So given my ignorance, and our pool of well-informed readers, this post is a bleg: what is happening, where will it lead, and what should we read? So far I’ve found “this piece”: by Aung Zaw on OpenDemocracy. Other recommendations?

Update: I should have thought of “Jamie K’s blog”: as a good place to start, he has links to Burmese bloggers.


by Scott McLemee on September 26, 2007

My column today is a very basic introduction to Zotero. As noted there, the release of Zotero 2.0 is a thing to look forward to — it will, among other things, allow you to store your searches, annotations, etc. on a server, rather than your computer, which will have all sorts of benefits. But it’s not clear when that will happen.

People have pointed out that the enhanced version faces two potential problems: storage space and intellectual-property issues (regarding ownership and control of stored material, mainly). I asked one of the directors of the project, Dan Cohen, about that. Unfortunately he only got back to me after the column was done. But here’s his response:
[click to continue…]

Unsubscribe yourself

by Chris Bertram on September 26, 2007


(via “Chris Brooke”: )

Social Capital In Action!

by Henry Farrell on September 25, 2007

I’m doing some research on Italian mafia-type organizations at the moment, and came across this “great article”: (PDF) by Federico Varese on the Calabrian ‘Ndrangheta and social capital. Those that have read Robert Putnam’s _Making Democracy Work_ will be familiar with his claim that the main reason for the differences between crime-infested and economically and politically underdeveloped Southern Italy and the relatively advanced North is their respective levels of social capital. Varese asks what happens when the ‘Ndrangheta tried to expand its operations from the low social capital South to the high social capital areas in the North. He finds that the ‘Ndrangheta has been more successful in transplanting its networks than social capital theory would suggest, but documents one case in which a ‘highly civic’ town – Verona – managed to repel mafioso drug dealers who were trying to infiltrate the city. The Catholic Church, the local Communists, and various social groups went into action to boot them out, and to get rid of officials and politicians who had taken bribes from the mafia. The end result of their successful efforts – a resurgent local heroin market run by vibrant community networks.

operators in the market belonged to the same social milieu that had given rise to a flourishing economy and adopted the same entrepreneurial spirit and straightforward commercial practices that characterized the legal sectors of the economy. Transactions in the illicit drug market took place according to shared rules of fair bargaining, and punishment took the form of exclusion from future exchanges and refusal to offer credit and discounts. In addition, a significant level of barter and individualized exchange existed in this market, and no third-party mechanism to punish defectors existed.

This did lower the rates of violent crime. Even so, I suspect that it’s not going to get prominent discussion in the Communitarian Newsletter anytime soon. Varese’s “book”: on the Russian Mafia is also an excellent read – his description of the sociology of the _vory_ in Russian prison camps reads like something from Dostoevsky.

Jon Pike (Open U) has emailed me about an initiative he has launched to get the question of whether or not there should be an “academic boycott” of Israel put to the entire membership of the union. As CT readers will know, I’m opposed to the academic boycott. But even if I weren’t, the idea that this issue should be decided by a small group of activists strikes me as absurd and undemocratic. So I urge all British academics who are members of the UCU to support Jon’s initiative and “sign the petition”: .

UPDATE: It turns out the whole question is moot, as the UCU has “acted”: on advice that any boycott would be illegal.

Getting students to speak

by Chris Bertram on September 25, 2007

Here we are, at least in this part of the world, at the beginning of a new academic year. Teachers everywhere are facing the prospect of groups of sullen silent students, or groups composed of the cowed majority plus one ignorant loudmouth who you can’t shut up. And then there’s the group which works absolutely fine but when those ten file out, and another ten sit down, and you do exactly the same thing but nothing happens, long silences, etc. And then there’s the temptation to overcompensate and turn those seminar groups into a mini-lecture where _you_ do all the talking. I’ve just been discussing these problems with a friend and suggested I try an open thread on the subject here at CT.

Teachers, students: what are your hints and tips for small group teaching? What works and what doesn’t? What’s the optimal size? Do sex ratios in groups make a difference to the dynamic? And what are the other pathologies that I haven’t even mentioned?

Killer App

by Kieran Healy on September 25, 2007

Radioshift from Rogue Amoeba. Because I am addicted to listening to BBC Radio 4 and Radio 7 on my iPod before I go to sleep, I already use their Audio Hijack Pro application to do effectively what this does, except more cumbersomely. This way you can subscribe to live radio broadcasts and treat them as if they were podcasts. Fantastic. Harry Brighouse take note.

Everybody wang chung tonight

by Michael Bérubé on September 24, 2007

Well, it’s been months and months since my last contribution to this fine blog, but this time, folks, I have a real excuse: the dog ate my August, and it’s all Janet’s fault. Janet, you may recall from months and months ago, is married to me. We learned in mid-July that Janet would need surgery to keep a couple of bones in her neck from pressin’ on her spinal cord. Those bones have now been put back in their proper places, and Janet’s recovering the way people do when they’re told that their surgery has been a “complete success.” (That’s how the neurosurgeon felt about it; now we gradually find out what the patient thinks.) As for me, the minute I learned the surgery would take place on August 28 and that Jamie would have no summer camp in August, I realized that I would very likely have to spend every spare waking second of my summer trying to finish a draft of the book I’ve been talking about for the past couple of years, <i>The Left At War: The Totalitarian Temptation from Hume to Human League</i>. So I made my apologies to my fellow CTers via “electronic” mail, and let them know that I probably wouldn’t be posting again for quite some time. And though I know this will mortify Janet no end, I thought I’d offer CT readers a closeup of the X-ray that started the whole thing:

[click to continue…]


by Scott McLemee on September 24, 2007

I’ve been asked for a list of the signatories who endorsed Akbar Ganji’s open letter. Because that post is already quite large, here it is as another document.
[click to continue…]