From the monthly archives:

May 2013

The last three on the island

by John Q on May 31, 2013

There’s been a spate of recent articles looking at a group of political writers referred to as “conservative reformers”.

The term ‘reformers’ is misleading since it tends to imply a shift in the direction of liberalism, which is not what the members of this group are hoping to do. More importantly, it implies the existence of a body of orthodox conservative thought against which the reformers are reacting. In reality, US conservatism has returned to the state identified by Trilling ‘ a series of irritable mental gestures. The ‘reformer’ label covers all those self-identified conservatives who would like to present some sort of intellectually coherent policy platform. These days, that’s a surprisingly small set – the typical list includes Douthat, Salam, Ponnuru, Barro, Brooks, Levin, and Dreher.

There used to be many more people in this group. But one by one, they’ve either abandoned ship and moved to the left (Lind, Sullivan, Frum, Bartlett, Ornstein) or descended into outright hackery, an absolute requirement for employment at any of the main rightwing thinktanks (and it’s hard to recall, but there was a time when people like Glenn Reynolds and the Volokhs seemed like serious intellectuals).

Looking at the remaining group, it’s pretty clear that Barro and Dreher are well on the road to apostasy, while Brooks and Levin are now reliable hacks, if they weren’t always. So, that leaves three reformers (Douthat, Salam and Ponnuru) still on the island.

The reactions of the remaining three reveal the pressure they are under. Salam more or less openly shills for the party line from time to time, as in his (now-deleted) attack on the DREAM Act. It seems pretty clear that he will stick with the team, come what may.

Ponnuru responded with the plaintive observation that, to accept the positions being urged on him from the left, he would have to concede that the majority of US conservatives were crazy. But, if craziness is assessed on the basis of stated views, this is evidently true, as Ponnuru surely knows.

Pluralities of US conservatives believe, or at least claim to believe, that:

The President of the US is a socialist Muslim, born in Kenya
The earth is less than 10 000 years old
Mainstream science is a communist plot
Armed revolution will likely be necessary in the near future

Ponnuru hopes that he can engage in serious policy discussion with conservatives while treating such delusional statements as mere shibboleths – harmless assertions of tribal identity

Most interesting is this piece by Ross Douthat, setting out what he sees as the reform conservative policy program. As he observes, it’s not designed to appeal to (US) liberals, and its full of arguments that have been demolished repeatedly by the left.

OTOH, as Douthat admits, there’s no sign that the Republican party has any interest in a program of this kind. More importantly there’s nothing there that would seriously upset a moderate conservative like Obama, or either of the Clintons. It’s well to the left of the revealed preferences of someone like Rahm Emanuel.

Conservative reform of the Republican party is a project that has already failed. The only question is whether the remaining participants will choose hackery or heresy.

Mastertapes: Down by the Jetty

by Harry on May 30, 2013

Wilco Johnson discusses the making of Down by the Jetty in the first of the new series of Mastertapes. I’m not a special fan of Johnson, or of Dr. Feelgood, but listened to it the other day while making a birthday cake for my wife, and really enjoyed it. Johnson is dying of cancer, and has chosen to let it run its course; listening to him talking about that, about life, and about music, is really, really, fun. Apparently there is more than a year left to listen — so you can wait till he dies to listen to it if you like! Series one, with Susanne Vega, Ray Davies, Paul Weller, the Zombies, and Brinsley Ford, is archived here — also with more than a year left to listen!

Described in the early chapters of _Cugel’s Saga_, Master Twango’s manse is a study-in-miniature of society as a web of contractual relations and power asymmetries. When Cugel takes up the role of ‘overseer’ for Master Twango, he is informed by his predecessor that “[a]t Flutic all is exact, and every jot balances against a corresponding tittle.” This description is misleading; the subsequent suggestion that “[c]onditions at Flutic are always optimum[sic] and at worst meticulous” is more apt in its sly hint that the books are jiggered.

> “At Flutic,” said Weamish, “nothing is left to chance. Twango carefully distinguishes sentiment from business. If Twango owned the air, we would pay over coins for every gasp.” [click to continue…]

Jack Vance Has Died

by Henry Farrell on May 29, 2013

Locus has a “short obituary here”: As the “discussion”: in comments below makes clear, his fiction had problems, including attitudes towards women and gay people that might most kindly be described as antediluvian. Still, his prose style was gorgeous, distinctive and exact. He had a profound influence on the genres of science fiction and fantasy (Gene Wolfe is perhaps his most obvious heir, even if he took Vance’s ideas in directions of his own). Yet if I were to compare him to someone, I’d look not to another f/sf author but to Edward Gibbon, another author who combined reactionary politics with a dash of iconoclasm. I can’t help but think that Vance had read Gibbon and been shaped by him. Vance’s particular sort of sociological curiosity, his lovely long sentences in which structural complexity is used deliberately to convey irony and ambiguity, and his uncanny ability to choose precisely the _right words_ from a rich and idiosyncratic vocabulary, have no modern analogue.

You don’t read Vance for the politics, or for the plot (which was usually either slapdashly cobbled together from standard parts or an out-and-out picaresque). You read him for the language – the magisterial cadences of an Augustan, miraculously transported to the modern era and become a pulp writer, describing starmenters, Ioun stones and Demon Princes. His body of work is extensive. One place to start is his last really good book, _Night Lamp_, a standalone that nicely conveys his strengths, while being more gentle in its politics than some of his other work. The society described in the first half of the book (including a wonderful setpiece around a disastrous academic conference) is a lovely and funny sociological fantasia. As already said, I’ll be publishing several posts on Vance that I had already planned over the next few months (that this should start just after his death is an accident entire – I’ve been meaning to do this for years, and was finally prompted to get up off my arse by a conversation last weekend with a friend who had read the draft versions and asked what I planned to do with them).

The Sociology of Jack Vance

by Henry Farrell on May 28, 2013

[A few years ago]( I suggested that I wanted some day to write a longform piece on the sociology of [Jack Vance]( Unless I get funding from some unexpected source (e.g. some [Vanceophile billionaire]( to take time out from my more traditional academic responsibilities, that probably isn’t going to happen. However, I have drafted a few short blog posts (a couple of which are yet to be completed), primarily for my own entertainment over the last few years. I’ll be publishing them over the summer lull, for the edification of those four or five of you who share my paired interests in f/sf fantasy writers with baroque prose styles and social science theory. A final post, “The Feminist Jack Vance” (consisting of 20 lines of carriage returns, followed by a note in eight-point type explaining “This page intentionally left blank”) is probably better described than written. Vance has few female characters indeed who cannot immediately be categorized as waifish love-pixies, self-centered sexual manipulators or plain-faced man-hating harridans (there are women such as Paula Volsky who clearly like Vance’s work and are influenced by it, but far fewer, I imagine, than there might be were he even slightly more enlightened).

Forthcoming at Irregular Intervals:

I – The Spirit of Market Capitalism in Master Twango’s Establishment at Flutic.

II – Positional Goods and the Column-Sitters at Tustvold.

III – Robust Action among the Breakness Wizards.

IV – Informal Institutions and the Old Tradition of the Perdusz Region.

V (to be completed) – The Stationary Bandits of the Tschai Steppes

VI (to be completed) – Class, Status, Party, Distinction, Clam Muffins.

Whenever I describe the following experience to colleagues they tell me I should write it up. So. Here it is:

In Fall 2007 I taught a freshman seminar for the first time. The topic was Children, Marriage, and the Family, and students also took two, thematically-linked, classes in other departments together. The design is there are 20 students (in fact I’ve had 21 each time); it might be worth knowing in what follows that nearly all of those students have been women which, I am told, is a result of the subject matter. I had, up till then, very little contact with first or second year undergraduates. My regular large service class, although perfectly suitable for freshmen and sophomores, is under-supplied, so upper-class students nearly fill it up before the others get to register. And I usually teach upper level courses for majors otherwise, which, again, mostly contain juniors and seniors.

So teaching first years was a big challenge. Lecturing them is absurd. But I had no discussion-prompting skills, and no knowledge of what the students would know. I was uneasy all semester long for lots of reasons, and never felt entirely on top of things. And I felt particularly inadequate because I had just read Our Underachieving Colleges. It certainly got better, and I had a (then) graduate student who is a much more skilled teacher than I am visit a few times, partly for recommendation-writing purposes, but mainly to get her help.

I taught the same seminar again in Fall 2010. That summer I had one of my semi-regular meetings over tea/coffee with Emma, a 2007 student, who by then was a Nursing major, and with whom I had talked a lot about the classes she was taking during the intervening time. She, knowing I was going to teach the class again in the Fall, asked whether there was anything she could do to help.

I knew immediately what I wanted her to do.

[click to continue…]

That light went out.

by Harry on May 28, 2013

Bill Pertwee is dead. Guardian obit here, BBC account here. In recent years Radio 4 Extra has taken to playing his reminiscences from time to time, in which he sounds like the antithesis of the character he is best known for and also reveals an amazing talent for mimicry (he could do Mainwaring so well you wouldn’t know it wasn’t Arthur Lowe). When I heard, my first thought was that it is going to be hard to tell my 12-year old, who loves Dad’s Army, but also Beyond Our Ken and Round the Horne. I think Pertwee was the last living cast member of Round the Horne — but I notice that one of the original castmembers of Beyond Our Ken is still living (the prize for guessing who without resort to the internet is that you can feel smug all day — I guessed instantly).

Memorial Day

by Henry Farrell on May 27, 2013

From James Scott’s “recent book”:, _Two Cheers for Anarchism._

bq. A little item in the local newspaper informed me that anarchists from West Germany … had been hauling a huge papier-mache statue from city square to city square in East Germany on the back of a flatbed truck. It was the silhouette of a running man carved into a block of granite. It was called Monument to the Unknown Deserters of Both World Wars (Denkmal an die unbekannten Deserteure der beiden Weltkriege) and bore the legend “This is for the man who refused to kill his fellow man.” It struck me as a magnificent anarchist gesture, this contrarian play on the well-nigh universal theme of the Unknown Soldier: the obscure, “every infantry-man” who fell honorably in battle for his nation’s objectives. Even in Germany, even in very-recently East Germany (celebrated as the “First Socialist State on German Soil”), this gesture was, however, distinctly unwelcome. For no matter how thoroughly progressive Germans may have repudiated the aims of Nazi Germany, they still bore an ungrudging admiration for the loyalty and sacrifice of its devoted soldiers. The Good Soldier Svejk, the Czech antihero who would rather have his sausage and beer on a warm fire than fight for his country, may have been a model of popular resistance for Bertholt Brecht, but for the city fathers of East Germany’s twilight year, this papier-mache mockery was no laughing matter.

bq. … Soon, progressives and anarchists throughout Germany had created dozens of their own municipal monuments to desertion. It was no small thing that an act traditionally associated with cowards and traitors was suddenly held up as honorable and perhaps even worthy of emulation. Small wonder that Germany, which has surely paid a very high price for patriotism in the service of inhuman objectives, would have been among the first to question publicly the value of obedience and to place monuments to deserters in public squares otherwise consecrated to Martin Luther, Frederick the Great, Bismarck, Goethe and Schiller.

I was born in a country which was of two minds about celebrating the fallen. There isn’t any real Irish equivalent of Memorial Day. Over here was a cult of blood sacrifice, in which the dead served as martyrs, exemplars and permanent reminders of the perfidies of Albion. Brian MacNeill, a grand-uncle of mine, fought for the Republicans in Ireland’s Civil War, and was killed under suspicious circumstances by government forces on the slopes of Ben Bulben (he was probably “shot in cold blood after surrendering and disarming”: When Maria visited the area in the 1990s, she saw his picture along with others on a pub wall, and asked the locals about it – she was told that he had been killed by the British rather than (as was the fact) his own recent comrades-in-arms. After his death, Brian had been assimilated into a story that reinforced the mythology rather than revealing its complexities.

Over there was a pervasive distrust of the military – both because the Irish independence movement got its legs from the anti-conscription movement during World War I, and because people had complex attitudes towards the state and the Irish Army in the wake of the Irish Civil War. It was a bitter little war, where both sides were convinced they were in the right, and both were entirely willing to carry out atrocities for a good cause. We could have done with more deserters.

Paris in the Spring

by John Q on May 26, 2013

It’s Mother’s Day in Paris, and also the occasion of a big demonstration against equal marriage, titled “Manif Pour Tous”, presumably with the unspoken reservation “sauf homos”. I ran into a bit of the crowd, coming back from this event [^1], and they were certainly loud and boisterous. The idea that this was a rightwing version of a “Paris Spring” occurred to me, and also to this commentator in Le Monde.

I’ve seen it suggested that resistance to equal marriage is stronger in France, because there’s no legal recognition for church marriages – everyone has to go through the same civil ceremony. I’d be interested in other thoughts on that.

Overall, the real appeal of the right still seems to me to lie in anti-immigrant rhetoric and, within Europe, on attempts to blame the people of one country or another for a crisis of the entire global system of financial capitalism. The backlash against equal marriage seems to me to be the last gasp of the cultural right, rather than the basis for a sustained upsurge. But then, what I know about social developments in France would fit comfortably on a restaurant menu, so I’d be interested in what others have to say on this..

[^1]: I’m actually in town for this conference, where I’ll be talking about bounded rationality and financial crises. Essentially a preliminary attempt to describe the “Black Swan” problem in terms of formal decision theory, with the hope that this will lead to a more developed theory of financial bubbles and busts.

Random Access Memories

by John Holbo on May 26, 2013

Quiet around here! How do you like the new Daft Punk album, “Random Access Memories”?
Speaking of which, I was suffering from horrific ‘file not found’ syndrome until I finally found it. “Instant Crush” is basically a discofied version of Midlake’s “Roscoe” – which has been discofied before, in a mellow sort of way.

And here’s another funny musical experience you can have: you are listening to a band that is known for a certain sound, and you realize that one of their songs – which isn’t really a paradigm of their sound – is sort of a paradigm of a different sound paradigm that came later … if you get me. For example, the Police’s 1978 tune “The Truth Hits Everybody”, which was not a hit, doesn’t sound like their signature rock reggae post-prog-compacted-into-punk power trio sound. It does sound the Foo Fighters – it’s that chorus. And I can’t really think of anything else from 1978 that sounds like the Foo Fighters. (Here you can hear the Police trying to turn “Truth” into a Police song, but it doesn’t quite work. It just sounds like Sting trying to cover a Foo Fighters song.) [click to continue…]

Call for Participation: Doctoral Workshop

by Eszter Hargittai on May 21, 2013

I’m very excited to be hosting a doctoral workshop this summer on Developing Best Practices for Using Digital Tools to Study Human Behavior in Online Environments. I’m hoping to attract a multidisciplinary group. Please forward, post, tweet, retweet the call for participation below. And if you’re interested, but at a different stage of work, please see a form for that below as well.
[click to continue…]

A Monster In Paris

by John Holbo on May 20, 2013

Man does not live by long Hayek posts alone!

Take this TLS piece on Frankenstein (via Andrew Sullivan). I love this stuff. I haven’t read the books being reviewed, but differences between the 1818 and 1831 editions of Frankenstein are a hobbyhorse of mine. It started with my interest in the history of sf, and the interesting way in which Shelley invented the genre, then un-invented it by rewriting the book to be less sf. Funny sort of backtrack. But that’s far from being the weirdest thing about the book. [click to continue…]

O upright judge! Is Hayek Like Nietzsche or not?

by John Holbo on May 20, 2013

I’m a bit late, responding to Corey’s ‘Nietzsche’s Marginal Children’ essay (and post). But here goes.

In this post I will say what I think is right about Corey’s basic thesis. We can then – if you like – argue the degree to which I’m agreeing with what Corey actually said, or maybe substituting something that’s more my own, but clearly in the same vicinity, conclusion-wise. (We’ll be pretty tired by then, however. Long post.)

I know Nietzsche well, Hayek well enough – The Constitution of Liberty, in particular – and the rest of the marginalists not well at all. So this is going to be a Hayek-Nietzsche post.

The proper way to put the Nietzsche-Hayek ‘elective affinity’ thesis – that is a good term for it – is going to sound weak and disappointingly loose. But it’s actually interesting. Showing the interest, despite the looseness, is where it gets a bit tricky. [click to continue…]

Good (and bad) news from the Open Access front

by Ingrid Robeyns on May 17, 2013

I recently wrote a short ‘comment’ for the American Journal of Bioethics. The piece is 1788 words long, the names and affiliations of my co-author and myself included. So that will make for 3, perhaps 4 printed pages, right? Now, Taylor and Francis, the publisher of the AJoBE offered the possibility to make this piece Open Access. Price: $2,950. I say: ridiculous. One of my colleagues said: Obscene. Sure, you might say, but they need to pay the editorial office who guards the refereeing proces of the target article to which we respond. But who did the refereeing? Indeed: two (or three) scholars, for free. And where does the net profit of all this goes? Right, not to the author, not to the referees, not to the universities, not to the taxpayers in the case of publically funded research. I know it’s practically very difficult to boycot this commercial Open Access model, but my little revenge will be in making some free advertisement below for two wonderful Open Access initiatives.

The best news from the open access front that reached my desk is that Open Book Publishers, the Cambridge(UK)-based open access publisher (where – full disclosure- I also have a book under contract), has published its first philosophy book. And not just any philosophy book, but a book by the very eminent philosopher David Velleman, called Foundations for Moral Relativism. As with the other books published by Open Book Publishers, it can be read online for free, or bought as a PDF for a few pounds or bought at a low price as a bounded copy via print-on-demand. I love this model, and perhaps should go off the internet completely until I’ve finished my own book that will also be open access. In fact, if I can raise 3500 UK Pounds, I can make the PDF available for free too. I think that’s a much better way to spend (public) funds than $ 2950 for a 3 or 4 page piece.

But equally good news comes from Axel Gosseries and Yannick Vanderborght, who published a year ago a Festschrift for Philippe Van Parijs, called Arguing about Justice. The book was published in paperback by the Presses Universitaires de Louvain, and now, one year later, is available online, here or here. At a conference a few weeks ago, Axel said that this is what he negotiated with the publisher when they published the book with them a while ago. So that’s an Open Access model too — individual negotiation – that some of us can consider to pursue. In any case, the Van Parijs Festschrift has lots of interesting and provocative pieces, well worth browsing and subsequent reading. Enjoy!

Marianne Ferber died

by Ingrid Robeyns on May 17, 2013

Marianne Ferber died a few days ago, at age 90. Ferber was one of the founding feminist economists. There is a nice Obit by Frances Woolley here.

I remember Marianne from the IAFFE conferences that I visited as a grad student. One of the most striking memories I have about her is how she would, despite her seniority and fame/status in the field, talk to anyone – indeed, perhaps she even looked out for those who were young or new to the feminist economic community – a virtue one does not always see among the most senior/famous people in a field, and which was definitely not my experience at other economic events. I also remember some of our conversations – how courageously she was in thinking independently and fearlessly and taking the analysis where the argument goes, rather than where the model forces you to stop. As for other women of her age, you can only dream of how she could have been even much more influential if she had been given the same opportunities as men of her generation.

Marianne Ferber will be much missed, not only by her family and friends, but by everyone in the feminist economics community.