From the monthly archives:

February 2011

The Intellectual Field

by Henry Farrell on February 28, 2011

“Laura at 11D”:

bq. There was a stage set for Remnick and Gladwell. … When they came out, Remnick immediately brought up the Gladwell’s social media article from a few weeks ago, where Gladwell wrote that social media only created weak ties and wasn’t sufficient to push a people to form a social movement. He took a lot of heat in the past few weeks, since social media may have played some role in the uprisings in Egypt. Gladwell was pretty hostile to his critics. He scoffed that his critic was some blogger from Huffington Post. Why should we listen to some pajama-wearing blogger, he asked? Some pajama-wearing blogger who lives in Brooklyn, he added for extra laughs.

bq. Well, I’m not sure why we should listen to a journalist who doesn’t like to travel north of 14h Street. Look, it was a very entertaining evening. Those guys were funny and witty and shared lots of amusing stories. But they didn’t know anything about revolutions or social media or Egypt. That’s okay. Journalists don’t have know be experts in their field. But they have to acknowledge that they aren’t experts and they really have an obligation to talk to people who spend their lives studying those subjects. … Why should anyone care what Malcolm Gladwell thinks about Egypt and Facebook, when there are people who have travelled to the Mid East, are fluent in Arabic, and spend most of their waking hours learning about this subject.

“Arthur Goldhammer”:

bq. It must have been more than 30 years ago now that Michel Foucault wrote an article entitled “La mort de l’intellectuel.” Apparently Le Monde didn’t get the message, because it invited four “intellectuals” to comment on the “Arab revolts.” The choice of participants in this forum tells you something about what the word “intellectuel” means today. We hear from Alain Touraine, Alain Badiou, Elisabeth Roudinesco, and André Glucksmann. None is a specialist on the region in turmoil, on the history of revolutions, on Islam, on Arab culture, on the political economy of the rebellious states, on social movements in the Arab world, on previous rebellions against military dictatorships, on relations between the military and civil society, or any of a hundred other topics that might confer authority to speak about one or another aspect of the unfolding wave of rebellion.

bq. in France, to be a specialist is almost a disqualification to speak as an “intellectual.” An intellectual is one who has risen above his or her specialty, if any, to acquire a quasi-priestly authority to pronounce on _n’importe quoi_ — and as often as not, to say _n’importe quoi_ about it. But I wonder if this sort of rootless speculation has any purchase on the French audience today. Perhaps a piece like this in _Le Monde_ is simply a throwback to the day when large numbers of people hungered to know what Sartre or Camus thought about the events of the day.

When I read these posts (nearly back to back – I’ve been away from the internets for a few days), the similarities were striking. The current crop of French intellectuals is rather like Malcolm Gladwell. And (such comparisons being commutative) Malcolm Gladwell is rather like the current crop of French intellectuals. I wonder which would take greater umbrage at the comparison.

Reforming College Admissions

by Harry on February 28, 2011

An interesting piece in the Chronicle by Jerome Lucido is pretty damning of the college admissions system (especially among private very selective colleges, but not just among them). Last month I was at the conference he refers to at the end of the article (in fact I was a keynote speaker, and only at the last minute did I manage to suppress my inclination to channel James Stockdale, given that I basically know nothing about college admissions). I suppose the participants — about 175 people, almost all admissions or financial aid officials from a diverse array of selective schools, including the admissions deans of several Ivies and flagship states — were largely self-selecting, but still I was surprised how much consensus there appeared to be about what the problems are with the admissions system and how they are generated. Here is Lucido’s basic analysis:

College and university leaders—trustees, presidents, chief academic officers—have the unenviable responsibility of ensuring their institutions’ continued financial viability while pursuing increasingly ambitious academic missions. In this pursuit, their strong turn to the competitive marketplace is understandable. But it is also clear that more is happening here. There is an insatiable appetite for prestige and status that accompanies the drive for revenues. What we see now is that marketplace competition has escalated to the point at which it threatens to become the mission rather than to serve the mission. And for what gain?

An institution can achieve short-term market advantage through aggressive marketing, but in due time competitors will match and then surpass that edge. The escalating competition raises institutional costs, invariably resulting in higher tuition and a greater need to admit students whose families can pay full price.

While some institutions can handle the added expense, there are broader costs that no college can handle alone. As numerous scholars have documented, zealous pursuit of institutional interest has come at the expense of social goals and the public trust. Moreover, there is a loss of educational values, a loss that we cannot afford. One effect of our pursuit of rankings and prestige has been to change how students view college. No longer seen as the crucial capstone of an educational journey, a degree is now regarded as a ticket to economic advantage. Students and institutions alike, it seems, are branding themselves in pursuit of positioning.

My daughter having reached high school, and being surrounded by adoring juniors and seniors (don’t ask) I encounter a lot of kids who seem caught up in this world — applying to college seems to dominate an entire year of the life of upper middle class kids here, and, at least from my vantage point, does seem to discourage academic risk-taking, focuses attention unhealthily on grades over learning, and encourages them to partake in the proliferation of meaningless “awards” (my daughter was nominated for a “leadership award” from the American Legion while still in middle school, and was criticized by a friend for spurning the nomination on the grounds that the award would help her college applications (my daughter, as you might guess from previous references, says “I don’t want to go to some fancy east coast school. I want to go to a state college. In the Midwest”). I’ll take up the other part of Lucido’s article, concerning the metrics by which we should judge colleges another time (after I’ve read Richard Shavelson’s book explaining the CLA). The only advice I have if you are going through, or about to go through, this nightmare, is to peruse the Education Conservancy’s site for sane advice, or to read Lloyd Thacker’s collection College Unranked, which contains plenty of sensible advice mainly from admissions deans, to your kids when you tuck them up in bed at night.

Fair Play!

by John Holbo on February 27, 2011

Megan McArdle quotes James Joyner on player compensation, in sports, and draws a moral concerning unions. Let me summarize Joyner’s argument, which is pretty generic and familiar in broad outline: major league baseball, the NBA, and the NFL have different systems of caps and regulations limiting pay and restricting free agency. Plausibly, the system that is best for fans, overall, the NFL system, is worst for some players. (Joyner actually says ‘horribly unfair to the players’. We shall consider this sweeping thesis about social justice.) The NFL is not a free-market-style competition between autonomous business units but a profit-sharing cartel organized to ensure rough competitive equality between teams. Winning teams cannot just convert victory into extra profit and plow that back in, investing in team quality to entrench their winning position, which would be less exciting for fans. See also: major league baseball. The NBA is intermediate: you have salary caps, but players have more free agency. As a result, cities that are nice places to live in if you are really rich have an advantage. They have an informal way round the cap, in effect. Which is, again, good for (some) players, but not for fans overall.

McArdle doesn’t provide a link to the Joyner piece, but here it is. The title: “athletes are ruining sports!” The conclusion: “The bottom line is that players are human beings, who ought to have the right to take their talents to South Beach — or wherever they’re wanted. Just like fans can do.” This is, as Joyner is clearly aware, a bit of a paradox: athletes are making the game worse and they ought to have the right to do so. The ‘cure’ – namely, restrictions on pay and mobility – is ‘worse than the disease’, because it is manifestly grossly unjust.

McArdle seems inclined to draw the opposite conclusion: since the game is better if players are restricted in their bargaining power, and since the point is a good game, the proper, market-minded conclusion to draw is that employee bargaining power should, in principle, be restricted to ensure it does not conflict with productivity-minded management decisions. [click to continue…]

Find a protest near you.

by Harry on February 26, 2011


“Shake the foundations of this building”

by Harry on February 26, 2011

My assembly representative (whom I didn’t support — he is not known to be particularly leftwing, and the Reps don’t bother running in this seat, so I supported the Green) writes the following instructions to his friends:

Continue to show up here at the capitol and shake the foundations of this building with your opposition.

Contact friends and relatives around the state and urge them to contact their Republican representatives. If you
know anyone in Appleton or Neenah (Senator Ellis), the LaCrosse area (Senator Kapanke), the Hudson area
(Senator Harsdorf), the Ripon area (Senator Olsen), Waupun or Beaver Dam (Senate Majority Leader Fitzgerald),
Platteville or Dodgeville (Senator Schultz), Sheboygan or Manitowoc (Senator Leibham), the Green Bay area
(Senator Cowles), Fond du Lac or Oshkosh (Senator Hopper), communication from the constituents of these
Senators would be especially helpful.

Protests continue at the state capitol building, as well as major rallies, until the people of our state are heard by
this Governor.

So, the Rep Senators thought to be particularly vulnerable to caving are named, and, wherever you are, if you know people who live in those districts prevail upon them to write or call, maintaining a polite friendly demeanor if possible.

Phelps asks me “How often has a Democratic representative asked constituents to shake the foundations of the Capitol building?” Not a lot in the past few decades, I’d guess.

Oh, and my representative will have to do some really awful stuff in the coming year or so if he wants me to support an opponent again at the next election.

After the Sauds

by John Q on February 26, 2011

The downfall of the Gaddafi dictatorship now seems certain, despite brutal and bloody attempts at repression. The failure of these attempts kills off what was briefly the conventional wisdom, that dictatorships in the region can hold on if they “don’t blink“. At this point, Gaddafi and his remaining supporters will be lucky if they can make it to The Hague for their trials, rather than sharing the fate of the Ceaucescus.

Now a new conventional wisdom seems to be emerging, at least according to this article in the NY Times. The central idea is that while dictatorships (more accurately perhaps, tyrannies, in the classical sense of monarchs who have seized their thrones with no prior hereditary claim) are doomed, but that monarchies can survive with cosmetic concessions. In particular, on this analysis, the US relationship with the House of Saud can go on more or less as before.

There’s an element of truth here, but the central claim is wishful thinking

[click to continue…]

Cops and side-effects

by Harry on February 25, 2011

Can anybody in Indiana comment on this? (thanks roac).

With a wary eye on Wisconsin, Republican leaders in several states are toning down the tough talk against public employee unions and, in some cases, abandoning anti-union measures altogether. Indiana’s governor urged GOP lawmakers to give up on a “right to work” bill for fear the backlash could derail the rest of his agenda. In Ohio, senators plan to soften a bill that would have banned all collective bargaining by state workers. And in Michigan, the Republican governor says he’d rather negotiate with public employees than pick a fight.

Hard to know what to say about this:

“The law enforcement officers from across the state that have been working at the Capitol and have been very impressed with how peaceful everyone has been,” said WPPA Executive Director Jim Palmer. “As has been reported in the media, the protesters are cleaning up after themselves and have not caused any problems. The fact of that matter is that Wisconsin’s law enforcement community opposes Governor Walker’s effort to eliminate most union activity in this state, and we implore him to not do anything to increase the risk to officers and the public. The costs of providing security can never outweigh those associated with a conflict.” Palmer also announced that, beginning tonight, the WPPA is formally requesting its members from across the state to come to the Capitol to sleep amongst the throngs of other union supporters.
“Law enforcement officers know the difference between right and wrong, and Governor Walker’s attempt to eliminate the collective voice of Wisconsin’s devoted public employees is wrong,” continued Palmer. “That is why we have stood with our fellow employees each day and why we will be sleeping among them tonight.”

I guess my daughter, now largely absent from the home, will be safe.

Be nice to some Republicans

by Harry on February 25, 2011

The Assembly passed the Bill last night around 1am — although there is now some doubt about the legality of the process, in view of the fact that many Democrats had no opportunity to vote. (TV report here, thanks Joe). The Republicans said that 60 hours of debate was enough — though it is hard to call what happened in the Assembly “debate”, given the complete lack of interest one side had in considering any possible slight flaws in the Bill.

Four Republicans voted against the bill:
Dean Kaufert of Neenah
Lee Nerison of Westby
Richard Spanbauer of Oshkosh
Travis Tranel of Cuba City

Their mailboxes will be full of bile. If you live in one of their districts, please write, thanking them. If you don’t live in any of their districts, it is still worth writing a short, kind, note, thanking them for their courage, and telling them that you understand how hard it must have been to stand up for their principles, but that there’s no point being in politics if you can’t do that. Tranel, in particular, is young, and a freshman: he’s going to have a tough few months is my guess, and friendly words of support from around the country and maybe the world are the least he deserves.

The Dems have been bloody brilliant.

We are Wisconsin

by Harry on February 24, 2011

We Are Wisconsin from Finn Ryan on Vimeo.

(via Joe)
And she is Wisconsin:

The Hustisford School Board approved giving preliminary layoff notices to all 34 members of its teachers union, including the wife of state Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, superintendent Jeremy Biehl confirmed Thursday.
The board took the action in advance of Gov. Scott Walker’s release of the state budget and the statutory deadline for issuing such notices “to give themselves complete flexibility,” Biehl said. Hustisford administrators had recommended issuing the notices to five staff members.
“It’s not something I take lightly,” said Fitzgerald, whose wife, Lisa, is the district’s only guidance counselor. “It will have an effect on our life.”
Fitzgerald said his wife initially believed she was one of only three staff members to receive a preliminary layoff notice, after the board’s Wednesday action. “I thought maybe she was being targeted by them,” he said.
Even after learning that everyone had received notices and that she was not targeted, Fitzgerald said “it seems odd.”

He should talk to the Governor who is planning to send such notices to thousands of people, most of whom also have relatives.

The Brigadier is dead

by Harry on February 23, 2011

Brigadier Alastair Lethbridge-Stewart, embodiment of all that was best on the conservative side of the post-war consensus, is dead. Obit here. Because the videos I’ve been posting are bleeding off the main page, here are some links.
Presumably, as they lower the coffin, Benton will fire five rounds rapid.


by Harry on February 23, 2011


At a press conference Tuesday in the Capitol, firefighters and police officers — who are exempt the union proposals in Gov. Scott Walker’s budget repair bill — said they’d be willing to take cuts along with other state workers.

“Firefighters and police officers around the state, we’ve all said, in order to help with the budget, that we don’t mind taking concessions as well,” said Mahlon Mitchell, state president of the Professional Fire Fighters of Wisconsin Inc. “If you want to capture more money, you can do that by putting us with those others. And get rid of all the collective bargaining stuff that has nothing to do with the budget.”

Wisconsin: end of week one

by Harry on February 22, 2011

Again, today’s rallies at noon and at 4 have been large, though not massive. The Assembly is debating the bill, and the Dems are doing everything they can to delay it: when I was there an hour ago they were debating a motion to refer it to another committee — whereas they can only speak a few minutes each on a motion to table, they can speak forever (and it certainly seemed that was what they were doing) on a motion to refer. The senators are still outside the state (and donations are pouring into their coffers, I gather — the Reps are going to face a lot of money at the next election). Walker has delayed the budget speech for a week. There must come a point at which the observation that he is, in fact, incapable of governing will affect people’s view of him. Here’s a video by one of our graduate students:

The Political Theory of Saif al-Islam Gaddafi

by Kieran Healy on February 22, 2011

Via Shehzad Nadeem at OrgTheory comes this report on Muammar el-Gaddafi’s son and the Ph.D in Political Theory he wrote at the LSE in 2008, who as it happens also accepted a pledge of £1.5m from the Gaddafi International Charity and Development Foundation, which Saif ran. Gaddafi the Younger’s thesis, which you can read in its entirety if you like is titled “The Role of Civil Society in the Democratisation of Global Governance Institutions: From ‘Soft Power’ to Collective Decision-making?” In it, he argues that,

inclusion of elected representatives of non- governmental organisations (NGOs) in tripartite decision-making structures could potentially create a more democratic global governing system. … the thesis argues that there are strong motivations for free individuals to seek fair terms of cooperation within the necessary constraints of being members of a global society. Drawing on the works of David Hume, John Rawls and Ned McClennen, it elaborates significant self-interested and moral motives that prompt individuals to seek cooperation on fair terms if they expect others to do so. Secondly, it supports a theory of global justice, rejecting the limits of Rawls’s view of international justice based on what he calls ‘peoples’ rather than persons. Thirdly, the thesis adopts and applies David Held’s eight cosmopolitan principles to support the concept and specific structures of ‘Collective Management’.

He goes on to say that,

The core aim of the thesis, then, is to explore the potential for the concept of Collective Management to develop a more democratic, morally justified system of global governance that recognises the rights of individuals … and is particularly focused on empowering civil society organizations (CSOs) to give a stronger voice to those currently under-represented in the existing system

From here it is only a short few steps to the view that when push comes to shove, blood will run in the streets and you and your family will fight to the last bullet. I think there’s a passage in A Theory of Justice that can be read as endorsing this claim.

Al Jazeera and the Arab awakening

by Chris Bertram on February 22, 2011

Much as I’ve been loving Harry’s posts on Wisconsin, it seems odd that we haven’t said more here on CT about the more important struggle going on in Libya and about the Arab world more generally. It is difficult to get a sense of what is going on from the sporadic reports, but it looks very much as if Libya’s transition will be to the Arab awakening what Romania’s was to the end of Stalinism in eastern Europe. Gaddafi seems now to have lost his grip on reality if not yet completely on power. Let us hope that he suffers a similar fate to Ceacescu.

Anyone who does want to follow developments in the Arab world has one best option to do so: “Al Jazeera”: . Vilified by the US under Bush (and its reporters almost certainly murdered by the US military on several occasions), Al Jazeera has been both the conduit of information and the catalyst for change and democratization.

The Emir of Qatar may be a despot, but for Al Jazeera alone he could be winning a Frederick the Great prize as the most enlightened one of recent decades. The democracies of the West, by contrast, have contributed nothing. If the Arab peoples do succeed in freeing themselves, they will have done so themselves and despite the actions and attitudes of the West and the United States with its policies of Israel-first and make-deals-for-oil. For that reason, and so unlike Eastern Europe, such influence the US has in the future will be a function of its power alone and not its moral authority, which is now non-existent. Anyone can back a democratic revolution when it is half won, or cavil at the most disgusting atrocities, but no-one is going to forget that the West backed many of the Arab dictators (especially Mubarak) until nearly the end and still supports some of the worst of them (such as the Saudis). Some might cite Iraq as the exception here but it isn’t really: Rumsfeld embraced Saddam until he went off-message just as Blair welcomed Gaddafi back into the fold when it seemed opportune to do so. Let us hope the Arab 1848 continues to more successful conclusions.

Still going

by Harry on February 22, 2011

The update is that yesterday the rallies at lunchtime and 5pm were, according to the Sentinel, “massive” — and, according to participants “much bigger than we expected”. The Journal-Sentinel has been documenting this with great photo albumshere’s yesterday’s. The teachers go back to work today, and many schools I’ve heard of are holding demonstrations of teachers and students before school opens. The Senate goes back to work, and the Reps are trying to tempt the Senate Dems back by proposing a bill requiring that voters show ID at the polls. The momentum has held up remarkably well on these colder days of Sunday and Monday, the question is whether things will hold up today. There is some talk of a high school student walk-out during the day, but I don’t have confirmation of that (I’ll get it when the 14 year old crawls out of bed). Frustratingly I can’t find a definitive time for the afternoon rally yet, but my bet is 5pm. Anyone who wants to donate Pizza, here is the Ian’s webpage — best pizza in Madison, being delivered from 2 blocks away, but ordered from 47 states and 14 countries (someone from Turkey ordered pizza for the protesters?). Worth reading the story on the front page, and worth bearing in mind that there are a few protesters who are not enamored with mac and cheese pizza, believe it or not. I was out of town yesterday (in my Dem senators’ adopted state) but am looking forward to returning today.
Apparently this was made by a 13 year old kid, but I haven’t found out the name. I like the sped-up bit, and the choice of Green Day.

Comment away.