by Michael Bérubé on November 4, 2009

It’s that time of year again, only worse.

The academic job search process is under way, and in the modern languages, things look quite dismal.  Yes, I know, things have looked quite dismal for some time now, but this is extra extra dismal, because the effects of the Great Collapse of 2008 are only hitting this part of the academic machinery now.  Colleges and universities have already taken — and administered — hits elsewhere, via salary cuts and/or freezes, furloughs, elimination of travel and research budgets, etc.  And I don’t know how many searches were cancelled last year after being advertised.  But I do know that in the modern languages, we might be looking at a 50 percent dropoff in jobs from last year, and there’s no federal stimulus coming to bail us out.

[click to continue…]

Consequentialism and communism

by Chris Bertram on November 4, 2009

Fred Halliday writes, as part of a (not unsympathetic) twenty-year retrospective on communism:

bq. … underpinning these three ideas – “state”, “progress”, “revolution” – lay a key component of this legacy: the lack of an independently articulated ethical dimension. True, there was a supposedly ethical dimension – whatever made for progress, crudely defined as winning power for a party leadership, and gaining power for a, mythified, working class – was defended. However, the greatest failure of socialism over its 200 years, especially in its Bolshevik form, was the lack of an ethical dimension in regard to the rights of individuals and citizens in general, indeed in regard to all who were not part of the revolutionary elite, and the lack of any articulated and justifiable criteria applicable to the uses, legitimate and illegitimate, of violence and state coercion. That many of those who continue to uphold revolutionary-socialist ideals, and the potential of Marxist theory, today appear not to have noticed this, that they indeed reject, when not scorn, the concept of “rights”, is an index of how little they have learned, or have noticed the sufferings of others.

There is a difficulty, or at least, so it seems to me, in making this point as part of a diagnosis of what was wrong with the communist movement _in particular_. It is that the very same disregard for, or scepticism about, the rights of individuals, the same willingness to sacrifice individual lives for valuable goals (or even in the name of “progress” broadly conceived) has usually characterized communism’s enemies and competitors too. Consequentialism was the dominant philosophy of government pretty much everywhere throughout the twentieth century.

Most of my friends are two-thirds spambot

by Henry on November 4, 2009

So we were down for a few hours this afternoon thanks to a massive flood of comment spam. Tyler Cowen had a “post”: a few weeks ago on the cognitive benefits of spam, which made me realize that much of my knowledge of the society I live in comes from trawling this spam and deleting it. At least 80% of the (presumed) female celebrities whose nude pictures are yours if only you click on this dodgy-sounding address are known to me from spam and spam alone (Jessica Simpson???). I would have no idea that “Ugg boots” (whatever they are) existed, let alone that anyone cared about them, were it not that a particularly persistent Chinese spammer tries to tell the users of my “academic blog wiki”: about them at every possible opportunity. Sadly, given the existence of “Chris Uggen”:, I can’t just ban page changes using the term in question.

There’s a quasi-serious point buried in there, which is that the Internets, and the possibilities it offers to non-regular TV watchers like me to retrieve the information that we are interested in _and no more_ can lead to deficits in certain kinds of common cultural knowledge. Not the kinds of civic knowledge that Cass Sunstein etc care about – but celebrity gossip, junky pop culture etc.1 Targeted advertising – to the extent that it actually works – is obviously no solution. But spam, designed as it is to cater to the lowest and broadest of tastes actually provides me with significant information that I probably wouldn’t pick up otherwise. Not that it makes spam trawling worthwhile or anything, but at least it gives me _some_ benefit.

1 Not that I am above these things at all; just that I don’t usually have the time, energy and attention to dig it out. It has to be a Jon Stewart-worthy scandal, preferably involving Republican senators, highly specialized providers of intimate services, and greased porcupines or the like, to make it through my filters.