From the monthly archives:

January 2010

Are campus conservatives attentive students?

by Harry on January 31, 2010

This story about the Mary Landrieu 4 contains an unfortunate slur against the Rutgers Philosophy department:

As a philosophy major at Rutgers University, Mr. O’Keefe came to believe that conservative-leaning students were being force-fed a diet of academic liberalism. As he put it at the time, they were “drowned in relativism, concepts of distributive justice and redistribution of wealth.”

Now, I do believe that he may have encountered the concepts of distributive justice and the redistribution of wealth in that department (that he finds this problematic is odd, since he seems to have committed himself to a career aimed at redistributing wealth in accordance with a partiuclar conception of distributive justice, but what can you do?). But I took a look at the faculty list, and cannot imagine who was drowning him in relativism (especially of the moral variety which is the kind that is hinted at). Not one of the normative philosophers in that department is a relativist and I imagine that most of them, like me and most of their colleagues, explain fairly clearly why most of what happens in their courses makes no sense unless relativism is false. I anticipate that some them read CT occasionally and can correct me if I’m wrong, but I’d be surprised. Less honorable victims would consider suing. I’m surprised that someone with a libertarian economic tilt is willing to accept massive public subsidies to fund his education but feels no obligation to learn anything.

I guess I shouldn’t be too harsh. The only time I have been accused of political bias in my own teaching was on the day after the 2004 Presidential election. I received a vile, hate-filled, email message from a student (with a fake email address) which made reference to several comments I had made (none of them about contemporary politics) in the previous day’s class, and which blamed me and people like me for the re-election of the President. (Not the first piece of hate mail I’ve received, but the first since I became a professor). If the comments the student referred to, which any attentive student would have seen as outlining, though not endorsing, an extremely left-wing conception of distributive justice, had not been so clear, I suppose I should have been pleased that my own political views are not readily recognizable from my teaching.

European exceptionalism (updated)

by John Quiggin on January 31, 2010

I’d like to broaden John H’s discussion of the US as a center-right nation to consider the broader idea that the US is, in some sense, exceptional. As Barack Obama correctly pointed out not so long ago, every nation is exceptional in its own way, which tends to undermine the idea that any nation is specially exceptional.

Still, compared to the developed world in general, it seems obvious that the US is different in lots of ways: an outlier in terms of nationalism, military power, religiosity, working hours and inequality of outcomes and (in the opposite direction) in terms of government intervention, health outcomes and other measures typically associated with welfare states. Among these the outstanding differences arise from the fact that the US aspires, with some success, to be globally hegemonic in military terms and (with rather less success) in economic terms as well.

But, when you think about it, there is nothing exceptional here.
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Center-Right Nation?

by John Holbo on January 31, 2010

This one comes up from time to time, so let’s consider: “America is a center-right nation.” In some sense, this is probably right. Yglesias, a year ago: “I would go stronger than that, actually, and posit that American politics in the future will mostly be dominated by a center-right political coalition just as it always has. This is just how things work. A political coalition grounded in the social mores of the ethno-sectarian majority and the ideas of the business class has overwhelming intrinsic advantages against contrary movements grounded in the complaints of minority groups and the economic claims of the lower orders.” (But is that too strong? Was the U.S. a center-right nation at the height of the New Deal?)

But there are clear senses in which it is not right that the U.S. is a center-right nation. For example, it’s at least odd to have a center-right nation that lacks a center-right. There aren’t that many Olympia Snowes around – not even Olympia Snowe herself, during this whole health care business. It’s not as though America is the country where, when you elect a guy like Obama, you have to beat the center-right off with a stick, compromise-wise, when the center-left is plainly crying out to meet somewhere in the middle.

I have my own thoughts about this, but I’ll just throw this out. How is it possible, and what does it mean, to have a center-right nation, ideologically and electorally, that lacks a center-right, ideologically and electorally?

As Harry mentioned, I’m sceptical of the value of artificial “thought experiments” in moral philosophy, without having a fully coherent basis for this scepticism. ne thing I don’t like about the term “thought experiment” is the implication that the results of such thought experiments constitute data, and therefore that an ethical theory is more satisfactory if it fits such data than if it does not. The way I’d prefer to approach such problems involves an iterative loop, with repeated stages of (i) consider reasonable general principles (ii) compare to intuitions about specific cases (iii) where appropriate, adjust judgements on specific cases (iv) revise general principles to give a better fit to adjusted intuitions. That is, I don’t think either general principles or specific intuitions are trumps.

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There is hope, after all

by Maria on January 28, 2010

The WaPo online has been given a good tongue-lashing by – so far – every single commenter on their ‘Is Elizabeth Edwards Right to Drop John?’ discussion.

The forum set-up goes; ‘Elizabeth Edwards and her longtime husband, former senator and Presidential hopeful John Edwards, have separated, according to People magazine, via Reliable Source. … Is Elizabeth Edwards, who is battling incurable cancer, doing the right thing by separating from John? Should she file for divorce? Weigh in below.”

Responses range from to “how in the world would I know whether two people I never met should stay together? Why would the Post have such an incredibly stupid discussion?” all the way to “When The Post would offer such an idiotic, shallow, voyeuristic question for discussion, it should surprise no one that the institution of the fourth estate has failed.” The obvious question, ‘is this TMZ?’, is asked along the way.

Shame on WaPo. This is cheap journalism in both senses of the word. Once more the newspaper is called on the carpet by readers who have no difficulty seeing the difference between public interest and voyeurism. How has WaPo fallen so low?

Any of us who’ve been around the block a few times work-wise know how strong the toxic effect of a few key people can be. A whole organisational culture can shift with shocking ease from collegiality to zero sum games by the simple failure to punish bad behaviour. As soon as a minority is rewarded for – let’s call it non-cooperation because there’s such a range of behaviours that can poison a workplace – then the rest look like chumps for not piling in. But you don’t need game theory to explain something most of us have experienced. The nasty effect of ‘a few bad apples’ is nothing new. (A striking example of a good place gone radically bad is HP. Anyone thinking of voting for Carly Fiorina for public office should read this).

I’ve no particular insight to what’s happened in the Washington Post. I suspect the unbearable commercial pressures have changed the balance of power between editorial and commercial people to the point where cheapo user-created content and page views trump journalistic merit. They should listen to their readers to whom that bright line is very clear.

“Contrary to the values of the republic”

by Chris Bertram on January 27, 2010

Sometimes a thought occurs about something that might make for an interesting blog post, but I realise that whilst I know enough to have the thought, I’d have to do a great deal of research to write something that would survive the scrutiny of people who know their stuff. Still, it may be that commenters who know more than me can say something of value, and that I could at least serve as a prompt. So here goes. An article on the BBC website discusses the recommendations of a French parliamentary committee which described the veil as :

bq. “contrary to the values of the republic” and called on parliament to adopt a formal resolution proclaiming “all of France is saying ‘no’ to the full veil”.

Hmm, I thought. It wasn’t so long ago that “all of France”, at least for some values of “all of France” had a more divided view about the veil. Roughly at this time, in fact:

(Picture nicked from the very excellent Images of France and Algeria blog, which has, incidentally, lots of interesting stuff on the 1961 Paris massacres of Algerians.)

But then I also remembered that official France had not, in fact, been very tolerant of the veiling of Algerian women. The photographer Marc Garanger is famous for his many pictures, taken during the war, of Muslim women forcibly unveiled so that they could be photographed for compulsory ID cards. There are some “here”: . So how did that all work out then? A little googling reveals that this very month, historian Neil MacMaster has a new book entitled _Burning the Veil: The Algerian war and the ’emancipation’ of Muslim women, 1954-62_ (Manchester University Press). I couldn’t find any reviews, as yet. The blurb writes about a campaign of forced modernisation followed by a post-revolutionary backlash involving a worsening of the position of women in Algeria.

So two thoughts then: (1) far from being an aberration in France, there was a very recent period when very many French women (or perhaps “French” women) were veiled; (2) attempts by the state to change that didn’t lead to female emancipation and the triumph of Enlightenment values.

Tom Slee on the Proroguing of Parliament

by Henry on January 27, 2010

Weird stuff happening in Canadian politics, where last month prime minister Stephen Harper prorogued (suspended) Parliament until the beginning of March. Not knowing much about the background, I asked Tom Slee (author of the excellent blog “Whimsley”: and the even more excellent lefty game theory primer “No-One Makes You Shop at Wal-Mart”: ) if he could provide some background. Tom’s timeline of what happened when is below.

[Tom Slee]

Sixty separate demonstrations around the country is not bad for January. It’s certainly more than anyone expected a few weeks ago when Stephen Harper closed down the parliament. So here, for those few of you not completely up to date with the latest developments in Canada, is a short prorogue timeline.

Nov 17. Diplomat Richard Colvin undiplomatically accuses the government of complicity in the torture of Afghan detainees: “The likelihood is that all the Afghans we handed over [to the Afghanistan security forces] were tortured.” Calls for a public inquiry are heard.

Nov 18. Defence Minister Peter MacKay expertly smooths everything over: Richard Colvin is relying on the words “of people who throw acid into the faces of schoolchildren”, and nobody in the government knew nuffin about no torture.

Dec 16. Except of course they did. And a 16 page letter by Colvin (PDF) takes 17 separate accusations made against him and does a number on them. Oops.

Dec 21. Oh yes, and Peter MacKay actually met with the Red Cross to talk about torture in 2006. Oops again.

Meanwhile, in the PMO. Stephen Harper remembers that just a year ago he got his minority government out of a scrape by shutting down parliament to avoid a no-confidence vote, and it worked pretty damn well.

So, Dec 30. Stephen Harper extends parliament’s Christmas break through to March, ostensibly so everyone can enjoy the luge and the cross-country skiing in Vancouver. The committee on Afghanistan is shut down, and for the second time in a year searches for the ugly word “prorogue” spike.

Early Jan. In an outbreak of slacktivism, thousands of people join the Facebook group Canadians Against Proroguing Parliament, who also have one of those old-fashioned website things here. The media, always happy for a story that keeps them from going outside in January, meticulously chart the climbing Facebook numbers until they top 200,000, and a set of protests around the country is scheduled for Jan 23, when MPs would usually be packing their bags to get back to their benches. In smaller countries, organizing a big rally in the capital city may make sense, but whose going to book a flight to Ottawa on short notice? So it’s going to be smaller protests, done locally.

Jan 23. 60 separate demonstrations [map], not counting the one-woman protest in Oman, and about 30,000 people in the streets, which is not bad for a movement with no coherent voice, no structure, and no recognizable public face. Reports described the protests as “organized on Facebook” [CBC]. There’s no doubt that many of the organizers were young’uns who naturally use Facebook, and the rapid growth of the group was an early sign of fertile grounds – an indicator that there was sentiment worth picking up on. Yet the rallies themselves seem to have skewed much older than the organizers, and it’s likely that in the end many people who turned out did so because the mass media picked up on the story and then more traditional networks like Liberal, NDP and Green Party riding associations (and the Bloc in Quebec) and religious groups got their members out. If there is anything that Mr. Harper can be happy about, it’s that the talk is all of the act of shutting down parliament, and not so much of the Afghanistan torture scandal that started it all off.

Jan 24. There’s a second wave group started, and the next week or two will probably decide whether this was a winter blip or the beginning of something bigger. It may be that the difficulties of organizing across Canada in winter will let Mr. Harper off the hook. But there’s also just a chance that Saturday’s success will lead to something bigger, and that would be a lot more exciting than the cross-country skiing.

The Ghost in the Machine

by Henry on January 25, 2010

“Nicholas Carr announces his forthcoming book”:

My next book, The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains, argues that the tools we use to think with – our “intellectual technologies” – not only shape our habits of thought but exert an actual physical influence on the neurons and synapses in our brains.

ummm … not wanting to get too reductionist, but how could something that shaped habits of thought _not_ have consequences for physical processes with neurons and synapses and all that other good stuff? Also, I think the book would be _much_ better if it were titled _The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to our Brainz. BRRRAIIINNZZZ ! ! !_, but then, I reckon that pretty well any book in this broad genre could be improved by “learning from the master”: and adding some good zombie action.

The Pipesucker Report

by John Holbo on January 25, 2010

Very sorry I haven’t kept up my Descartes blogging. Been dead busy and, somehow, blogging about hylomorphism, you never feel the Sisyphusian (Sisyfuscian?) pressures of the news cycle. Will try to get back on that dead horse. But here’s something new. My 5-year old daughter is shaping up to be a Peter Cook/Dudley Moore fan. She likes Superthunderstingcar even better than the original Thunderbirds, even better than cat videos! (Also, she would like to report that she wewwy had “Bad Wowmance” wunning thwew hew head. But that’s another kettle of fish. I haven’t let her watch the video for that one, but she was singing it for a while. And the 8-year old called her ‘Baby Gaga’, but it didn’t stick, so she’s back to being Mei-Mei.)

So I’ve been watching a spot of “Not Only … But Also” YouTube videos. Very funny stuff. I had never watched it until recently. (Which gives the lie to the whole ‘dead busy’ excuse. I know.) Here’s my question to you. The “L.S. Bumblebee” sketch, which is a hoot and a half – love the shirtless gong player and his sheet music; and which concludes with a hilarious appearance by John Lennon as “Dan”; is a dead-on “Lucy In The Sky” roast. Yet “L.S.” was, apparently, released as a single in February 1967. But Sgt. Pepper itself was only released in June, 1967. It seems that “Lucy in the Sky” was perfectly pre-parodied, months in advance. I’ve Googled around a bit and found quotes from Moore, from the 1970’s (by which time “L.S.” was apparently erroneously popping up on Beatles bootlegs) suggesting that the song was supposed to parody the Beach Boys more than the Beatles, which doesn’t really seem right. (Maybe the Monkees?) Also suggesting it was a response to the whole “Lucy” craze, which doesn’t seem to fit with the dating. Anyway, what is most surprising to me is the thought that, by the start of 1967, Sgt. Pepper-style psychedelia was the stuff of parody to the point where the frame joke of the sketch is that it is fodder for a documentary for Idaho television. Could it really be that Sgt. Peppers was that old hat by the end of 1966, before it even existed? I’m confused? I always thought the Beatles were pretty cool.

Essential reading

by Chris Bertram on January 24, 2010

When I read the _Financial Times_ review of Joris Luyendijk’s _People Like Us: Misrepresenting the Middle East_ last year, I knew it was a book I wanted and needed to read (Australian title is _Fit to Print_). So I placed an order on that very morning. But it never came and I only just got my hands on a second-hand copy. Amazon (US and UK) are both listing it as out-of-print. Which is a pity, because you need to read it too. Some of it will be familiar to intelligent and well-informed people: of course we _know_ things work like that. But it is hard to keep the knowledge one has of the news process in view, when watching TV, reading the papers, listening to the radio over breakfast. Luyendijk will, at the very least, do the necessary job of keeping us sensitized.
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Civil unions and straight marriage

by Henry on January 24, 2010

Arthur Goldhammer’s “excellent blog on French politics and society”: points to “this article”: on the French _pact civil de solidarité_ – a kind of civil union introduced in 1999/2000, largely as an alternative to gay marriage. But the pacs has had very interesting consequences for straight couples (95% of couples with pacs are straight), as this chart shows.

The growth of the pacs’ popularity over its first decade is striking. There are now two pacs for every three marriages. Interestingly, this is because of both a significant decline in marriage, and a significant increase in the overall number of people willing to engage in some kind of state-sanctioned relationship. While you would obviously need more finely grained data to establish this properly, the obviously intuitive interpretation of this (at least to me) is that the pacs have grown _both_ by providing an option for people who would probably not have gotten married in the first place, _and_ attracted a number of people who otherwise would have gotten married, but who prefer the pacs’ lower level of formality (it is much easier to cancel a pacs relationship than to get divorced). Perhaps this provides grist for the mills of social conservatives (who could claim, stretching the data a bit, that gay-appeasing civil unions are undermining the sacred institution of marriage) – but it would oblige them to face up to the question of whether they should _prefer_ gay marriage to potentially corrosive civil unions that straight couples can take advantage of too. Liberals and leftwingers don’t face nearly the same dilemma, since they can reasonably assume that those who choose civil unions over marriage have good reason for doing so (and perhaps will get married later if they want to; obviously, you can’t tell from data like this how many partners in pacs decide to get married later on).

A sociologist friend told me a few months ago that she had finally read my book Justice, and that it was the first time that she had encountered Judith Jarvis Thomson’s violinist case (which she thought was pretty neat). The full text of the article is here; the wikipedia entry is here. The discussion reminded me that I keep intending to post something about thought experiments in general, and Thomson’s article in particular, partly to defend thought experiments against JQ’s scepticism. I haven’t read a great deal of the secondary literature about the violinist, but I have taught it numerous times, and discussed it extensively with colleagues and students; what follows is just my take, in the light of those discussions.

First of all, it should be obvious that the violinist case does not establish the permissibility of abortion even in the case of rape. In fact, I would say that the focus on the permissibility of abortion (which Thomson encourages, not least by her title) is a bit misleading. Every semester a very small number of my students say that they do not think it is permissible to unplug oneself from the violinist. Not a single sentence in the article speaks to them: they can get off before even getting on (interestingly, every now and then a student (usually they turn out to be some sort of lefty) who thinks there is a right to abortion thinks it is impermissible to unplug oneself, because one has extensive and stringent duties to aid stranger in need). So what does the example establish?

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In praise of humility

by Michael Bérubé on January 22, 2010

Scott Brown’s election this past Tuesday offers the Democratic Party a new hope.  A new hope for a politics of modesty in place of the politics of arrogance; a new hope for a politics of cooperation in place of the politics of demonization.  Democrats might not realize it now, but they have before them a historic opportunity to seize the day and regain the trust of the American people for at least a generation.  By turning their backs once and for all on the scorched-earth approach of the party’s liberal wing, Democrats can consolidate their legitimate gains while cutting loose their least reliable partners.  They have the ability; all they need is the will.

The problem — if there is one — is that time is tight, and the party will need to move on several fronts at once.  What follows is not an exhaustive list, but rather a series of first steps Democrats will need to take if they are to remain a meaningful majority party.

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Naturalizing the Social, and Vice Versa

by Kieran Healy on January 21, 2010

Via Cosma Shalizi, reports of a very interesting piece of work: Prejudice and truth about the effect of testosterone on human bargaining behaviour, C. Eisenegger, M. Naef, R. Snozzi, M. Heinrichs & E. Fehr, Nature 463, 356-359 (21 January 2010). The abstract:

Both biosociological and psychological models, as well as animal research, suggest that testosterone has a key role in social interactions1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7. Evidence from animal studies in rodents shows that testosterone causes aggressive behaviour towards conspecifics7. Folk wisdom generalizes and adapts these findings to humans, suggesting that testosterone induces antisocial, egoistic, or even aggressive human behaviours. However, many researchers have questioned this folk hypothesis1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, arguing that testosterone is primarily involved in status-related behaviours in challenging social interactions, but causal evidence that discriminates between these views is sparse. Here we show that the sublingual administration of a single dose of testosterone in women causes a substantial increase in fair bargaining behaviour, thereby reducing bargaining conflicts and increasing the efficiency of social interactions. However, subjects who believed that they received testosterone—regardless of whether they actually received it or not—behaved much more unfairly than those who believed that they were treated with placebo. Thus, the folk hypothesis seems to generate a strong negative association between subjects’ beliefs and the fairness of their offers, even though testosterone administration actually causes a substantial increase in the frequency of fair bargaining offers in our experiment.

Dirty Bertie

by Henry on January 21, 2010

If I’d had time last week to write about Irish politics, I’d have blogged about Bertie Ahern’s success in getting the taxation authorities not to make him pay any taxes on his forthcoming autobiography. Creative works enjoy an exemption under Irish tax law. Both “Alex Massie”: (who reveals that the former Taoiseach’s full name is Patrick Bartholomew Ahern – news to me) and “Fintan O’Toole”: are quite upset about all of this. I’d have expected O’Toole to be more forgiving; after all, in his recent book (forthcoming soonish “in the US”: unless you have a Kindle, in which case it’s available already) on feckless politicians, property developers and the travails of the Irish economy, O’Toole describes Bertie as:

“a character in a long-running soap opera. Such characters are meant to be people like us, except that an absurd number of dramatic things happen to them. Their marriages break down, they have complicated, drawn-out love affairs, their children marry pop-stars and have twins, or become famous novelists overnight.

Surely, the autobiography of a fictional character is fictional itself by definition, and hence as creative as creative can be?

More to the point: O’Toole’s book, _Ship of Fools: How Stupidity and Corruption Sank the Celtic Tiger_ is highly recommended. It is written in haste and _saeva indignatio_ and hence not as polished as his work usually is, but is very strong in both analysis and indictment. Since Daniel has already “promised a review”: (and what could possibly go wrong with such a promise?), I won’t write one here, instead making two short points. [click to continue…]