From the monthly archives:

May 2008

Liberalism as Pluralism

by John Holbo on May 31, 2008

I’ve been meaning to write a review of John McGowan’s American Liberalism: An Interpretation For Our Time for some time now. He’s a friend. I read the first draft and hashed it out with the author himself at length. The final version is much better. But it’s taken me a while to recharge for a second go. I’ll just pick on one point:

Liberalism, both as a contingent historical fact and as a matter of its most fervently held principles, is a response to pluralism. We reach here the closest liberalism ever gets to metaphysics. By metaphysics, I mean a claim to have identified an unalterable and universally present fact about the universe. (pp. 40-1)

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Saudi Political Scientist Arrested By Secret Police

by Henry Farrell on May 30, 2008

I’ve received an email from the political science department at King Saud University about the detention and imprisonment without charge of one of their colleagues, Matrook Al-Faleh, asking “all political science departments and civil society organization to exert all their pressure upon the Saudi government to release” Al-Faleh and other prisoners. The likely reason for the arrest is that Al-Faleh (who has protested in the past against torture and prison conditions in Saudi Arabia) had written a general email criticizing conditions at Buraida General Prison. Human Rights Watch has “more here”: The letter itself is after the fold.

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Stephen Hayes was on NPR a few minutes ago complaining about how Scott McClellan wasn’t very interesting, because he was just delivering ‘left wing blogworld talking points.’ This complaint itself, of course, being itself a re-iteration of a “Karl Rove talking point”: The deeper you go in …

(title stolen from “The Poor Man”:

Cool Waters

by Kieran Healy on May 29, 2008

In a classic discussion of scientists sampling the ground in the Amazon rainforest, Bruno Latour details the process through which physical bits of soil are turned into recorded measurements and data points for comparison and analysis. He remarks,

Stage by stage, we lost locality, particularity, materiality, multiplicity, and continuity, such that, in the end, there was scarcely anything left but a few leaves of paper. … But at each stage we have not only reduced, we have also gained or regained, since, with the same work of representation, we have been able to obtain much greater compatibility, standardization, text, calculation, circulation, and relative universality, such that by the end, inside the field report, we hold not only all of Boa Vista (to which we can return), but also the explanation of its dynamic.

Now, via Andrew Gelman, a fascinating story from Quirin Schiermeier at Nature about the social production of data.

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The Great and Unremembered War

by John Q on May 29, 2008

This piece by Edward Lengel in in the Washington Post has a lot to say about something I’ve long regarded as critically important in explaining the strength of the war party in the US: the absence of any real recollection of the Great War of 1914-18, the opening round of the bloody conflict that dominated the history of the 20th century, spawning Communism and Nazism, Hitler’s War and the Cold War, and even, in large measure the continuing war in the Middle East. Of course, the US came late to the war, and its losses (50 000 combat deaths) were comparable to those of Australia, with around 10 per cent of the population. But there is more to it than that.

Lengel (a military historian writing on Memorial Day) makes the striking observation

Americans haven’t forgotten about the doughboys. We just didn’t want to hear about them in the first place.

and continues

“The boys would talk if the questioners would listen,” said one embittered ex-doughboy. “But the questioners do not. They at once interrupt with, ‘It’s all too dreadful,’ or, ‘Doesn’t it seem like a terrible dream?’ or, ‘How can you think of it?’ or, ‘I can’t imagine such things.’ It shuts the boys up.” … The Civil War and World War II seem to lend themselves to good storytelling, as long as one avoids the ugly, depressing bits. They appear to have clear beginnings and endings, with dramatic heroes and villains. They move. World War I, by contrast, with its images of trench warfare and mustard gas, is not so easy to manipulate in a marketable manner. Popular historians consequently avoid it.

It would be charitable to interpret the reluctance of Americans to talk about the horrors of the Great War as evidence of inherent pacifism and perhaps this element was present. As Andy McLennan points out in comments at my blog, the main reaction to WWI was an increase in isolationist sentiment: the problem was Europe, not war itself. After isolationism was discredited (which did much to strengthen the War Party) from a distance it looks like WWI was simply forgotten,and the end state is functionally equivalent.

In any case, in the long run, the absence of this most bloodily futile of wars from historical memory has been a huge boon to the war party. With a historical memory of war dominated by the “Good War” against Hitler and the Axis, it’s unsurprising that Americans have been much more willing than the citizens of other democratic societies to accept war as part of the natural order of things.
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Hugh Laurie’s accent

by Harry on May 27, 2008

Apparently Hugh Laurie has the fourth-worst American accent among British actors in American TV series. I find this a little bit surprising, given the amount of time I spent during the first year of so of House trying to convince various friends that Hugh Laurie is English (in some cases I just gave up). I see that it was a poll of Radio Times readers: I suspect the readers of TV Guide would disagree (most of them probably think that his English accent in Jeeves and Wooster is really something, for an American).

Suck on this, Eurovision!

by John Holbo on May 26, 2008

Eurovision isn’t really my bailiwick but you can learn history reading about this stuff. From Reuters UK:

“Other countries got support from their neighbours. Germany didn’t get any support at all from its neighbours.” …

“Russia won thanks to considerable help from its neighbours. The Russian song wasn’t bad but it wasn’t any better than the rest.”

Even though Germany shares borders with nine countries, it has a turbulent past – having invaded most of these nations.

I guess this is Russia’s reward for always being nice to its neighbors. Discuss.

Or watch some classic J-pop. This one is from the 3rd episode of “Pink Lady and Jeff”, a show that perhaps did not fail due to lingering resentment about that Pearl Harbor business. This is “Chameleon Army”, sung to the tune of “Rawhide”, give or take. (Note the changing colors of the outfits.) And “Monster”. Very Discozilla Chic. The ladies are still looking good. Here they are in 2004, remaking “Pepper Keibu”, which is – I think – Japanese for “Viva Las Vegas”. I couldn’t think of a good title for a Pink Lady post, so Belle suggested that one. How do you like it? (Honestly, until an hour ago we had never even heard of Pink Lady.)


by Kieran Healy on May 26, 2008

Animation on public walls in Buenos Aires.

Via Jenn Lena.

Fraktured Fairytales plus Discount Jellyroll

by John Holbo on May 24, 2008

Man, if ever there were a time I regretted not saving up the pun in the title of my “I Sought the Serif” post – this would be that time. The time I bought The Serif Fairy for the kids, that is. “The Serif Fairy has lost her wing, keeping her from performing magic. This book follows her through an airy, immaculately designed typographic landscape as she tries to recover her wing. Along the way, she makes friends and has adventures as she wanders through the Garamond Forest, visits Futura City and eventually ends her quest at Shelley Lake …”

It’s cute. Honestly, I was hoping it would be even cuter. But it’ll do. Plus it confirms Belle’s suspicions that I will indoctrinate the kids in my repetitive ways.

And I just finished Letter By Letter, by Laurent Pflughaupt. A history of each letter of the alphabet, plus soapbox from which to broadcast the author’s stern views about the morally improving qualities of calligraphy. “Revealing the fundamental characteristics of writing (rhythm, relation to the body, readability, meaning), the study and practice of calligraphy constitutes an essential basis for this new direction since it encourages the integration of skills and gestures that are indispensable to all future forms of creativity.”

The book is interesting, whether it will do all that for you or not.

I have one significant, non-typographic bargain to report. Amazon has a download of Jelly Roll Morton: The Complete Library of Congress Recordings for only $19.95. It’s out of print and the cheapest used copy I can find is $150. So I consider that a good deal.

Capital and labour in British terrorism

by Daniel on May 23, 2008

Alex at The Yorkshire Ranter and I have been having an ongoing debate over the last couple of months on the general subject of capital to labour ratios in British terrorism. The motivating question’s a quite important one, with a lot of implications for what sort of public policy one might want to support; how much of a danger to us all are radical Muslim organisations and internet bulletin boards? If we take as given[1] the popularly held belief that there are organisations at work in British society which radicalise disaffected youths from the Asian community and persuade them to become supporters of jihadism and terrorism, then well, obviously that’s bad. But how much actual harm does it do – given that the only way of doing anything about these organisations is to impose some quite draconian reductions in overall civil liberties, what’s the trade-off between liberty and security that we’re looking at here?

As I say, I think this question basically comes down to capital/labour ratios.
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Walk Score

by Jon Mandle on May 23, 2008

The first house that my wife and I bought was in a suburb immediately to the north of Albany, NY. It was a great 80-year-old house with a nice yard, and an easy drive to my work and to hers. But it was on a busy street, and with no sidewalks it was impossible to walk anywhere. When our daughter was almost 3, we moved into our current house in Albany. I sometimes joke that we moved for the sidewalks, but there’s a lot of truth to that. On the first morning we woke up in the new house, I clearly remember our daughter running out the door and down the block – something that she had never been able to do before. Being in a neighborhood with sidewalks and things to walk to – restaurants and bars, a library, post-office, bank, and supermarket within a few blocks – has made a big difference in our lives.

The contrast between these two locations is confirmed to some extent by Walk Score. Our old house was a lowly 23 while our current house gets a 68.

The Great Depression

by Kieran Healy on May 22, 2008

Because Eric Rauchway‘s book on The Great Depression and New Deal makes inordinately heavy demands on the reader, is filled with hard-to-remember facts, and spends too much of its absurd length wistfully discussing fashions in men’s suits and hats of the period, I have been looking for a brief video to show in its place to undergrads in my social theory class. It’s good to finally have found it.

Spin and silence

by John Q on May 22, 2008

Glenn Greenwald reports that the story of secret Pentagon efforts to set up a group of supposedly independent military experts, who then ran the Administration line on network TV, detailed in the New York Times a month ago, has made the standard transition from “we don’t illegally manipulate the news” to “of course we did that, why are you still making a fuss about this old story“.

No news, or even meta-news there. What’s really striking is that, as far as I can tell, none of the TV networks implicated in the story have reported it on-air in any way, and most have made no response at all (with the exception of CNN, none responded substantively to questions from the NY Times, and I haven’t seen anything since). And with the story now in the old news category, they have clearly succeeding in keeping it from their viewers, with the exception of assiduous readers of the NYTimes or blogs. Apparently, if it isn’t on TV, it didn’t happen. And of course, if it is on TV, it probably didn’t happen either, at least not the way we get to see it.

Hey Kids, More Euthyphro!

by John Holbo on May 20, 2008

It’s time for my annual Plato’s Euthyphro post! If you recall, I’ve previously kicked around the subject of the legal status of Euthyphro’s case, his proposed prosecution of his father for murder. I did more research and hammered out a draft paper on the subject. I call it “Twelve Twists In Euthyphro’s Case” (PDF). It may be flagrantly overinterpretive, but I think it’s sort of fun anyway: what might have happened had such a case come to trial? It turns out to be surprisingly complicated. The draft is quite polished for reading, but still a bit thin in the research department. I kept expecting to find that someone had already written this paper, but apparently not. If I’m wrong about that, I’d like to know. I’d also appreciate fact-checking by knowledgeable classicists and historians and other people who may know I’m dead wrong about something. I want to add some actual philosophy at the end, too.

I’m not sure who will be interested. I’m writing an (illustrated!) introductory Plato text – three dialogues with commentary (translations by Belle W.) – and this was supposed to slot in there, but this bit’s gotten a bit long and standalone-ish. Still, it seems to me maybe intro philosophy teachers would be curious. Lots of undergrads read the dialogue (mine do). Lots of profs teach it, without having a clue what the workings of the Athenian courts would have really been like (I taught it for several years without asking myself these questions.)

I got a lot out of one book in particular: Athenian Homicide Law in the Age of the Orators, by Douglas MacDowell (1964). The research in it was well-reviewed at the time and, so far as I can tell, does not seem to have been overturned. (It was reprinted in 1999). The only controversial claim of the book is that we can really know nothing about the evolution of homicide law up to this period. Whether it had basically stayed the same since Draco or not. Some scholars think that’s too pessimistic. But I don’t really touch on any of that. If anyone is aware of any errors by MacDowell that I might be in danger of replicating, I would appreciate hearing about it.

Care Talk Blog

by Ingrid Robeyns on May 20, 2008

“Nancy Folbre”:, who is widely considered to be one of the most knowledgeable economists on issues of care work, has recently started a new blog, called “Care Talk”: It’s a research blog that “aims”: to bring together interdisciplinary insights on issues of care — child care, care issues related to primary education, elder care, care for disabled, and health care. Care is a neglected issue in several disciplines and subdisciplines, including economics and political philosophy, and I can only applaud this initiative. I hope that this will become a genuine international blog — much can be learnt from looking at how care work is organised and divided in other countries.

Folbre published earlier this year her new book “Valuing Children”: which I have here on my desk. I promise our readers a review of that book sometime in June.