From the monthly archives:

July 2013

Robert Bellah Has Died

by Kieran Healy on July 31, 2013

I learned this afternoon that Robert Bellah has died following complications from surgery. He was 86. Bellah was one of the giants of American sociology, especially the sociology of religion. He taught at Harvard for ten years and then at Berkeley for most of his career. Bellah was a student of Talcott Parsons, and some of that influence can be seen in his late work, Religion in Human Evolution. (Bellah was a rather better-informed theorist of social evolution than Parsons.) But he is best known for his work on American religion and society. He formulated the concept of “American civil religion” in the late 1960s and it quickly became the standard shorthand for the fusion of Christian and secular ideals and rituals that anchor much of American public life. His work on that idea led to the book The Broken Covenant in 1975, and much else besides. A little later on he was—together with Charles Glock and other colleagues and students—at the leading edge of the study of changing forms of private religious practice. Initially, in The New Religious Consciousness, the focus was on religious aspects of 1960s counterculture and their persistence into the 1970s. By the 1980s this line of thought led to Habits of the Heart (again a collective product), a study of American religious practice and its connection to the common good. Habits of the Heart had a huge influence in the field. For a serious piece of social science it sold in large quantities; it pinned down some aspects of spiritual life in the U.S. (most notably with the idea of “Sheilaism“) that were in the air at the time; it helped set the agenda for a revived sociology of culture in the United States; and its methodological mix of in-depth interviews backed by survey research was an influential template for a great deal of sociological work that followed it.

I can’t really do justice to the man and his work here. I’m sure that over the next few weeks there will be many more in-depth appraisals from colleagues and experts. But he was the sort of academic whose influence was felt both through his work and his students, and whose scholarship shaped work in subfields at one and two removes from his own, even if this wasn’t always directly acknowledged.

Lessig on MIT, Neutrality and Aaron Swartz

by Henry on July 30, 2013

Larry Lessig “here”: on MIT’s claim that it was ‘neutral’ with respect to the prosecution of Aaron Swartz.

bq. “Neutrality” is one of those empty words that somehow has achieved sacred and context-free acceptance — like “transparency” … But there are obviously plenty of contexts in which to be “neutral” is simply to be wrong. … For example, this context: The point the report makes in criticizing the prosecutors is that they were at a minimum negligent in not recognizing that under MIT’s open access policies, Aaron’s access was likely not “unauthorized.” … But that criticism goes both ways — if indeed MIT recognized this, and didn’t explicitly say either privately or publicly that Aaron was likely not guilty of the crime charged, then that failure to speak can’t be defended by the concept of “neutrality.” … MIT was more than negligent: The issue was explicitly flagged for it, by a senior member of the MIT administration. As the report indicates, Joi Ito, in the summer of 2011, explicitly raised the point … MIT knew something here that at a minimum could have cut short a prosecution, and which, it turns out, could also have saved someone’s life. “Neutrality” does not justify failing to pick up the phone, and telling the prosecutor, “hey, in fact, his access was authorized.” Maybe it wouldn’t have mattered. Maybe the prosecutor would have stayed the course. But then that would have been (yet another) failure of the prosecution, not MIT’s.

What Can’t Moocs Teach?

by Harry on July 30, 2013

How optimistic faculty members are about the educational value of MOOCs seems to turn largely on what they think of as the status quo classroom experience. Colleagues at elite institutions, especially small liberal arts colleges, are generally skeptical, because they think of what they do in their classrooms as being very intellectually alive, and cannot see how that could be replicated online. But most of the credit hours at my institution are not taught in small, intellectually lively, classes. My own department keeps our classes small for majors, and offers very few classes larger than 100 students — still, I am pretty sure that in any given semester most of our credit hours are taken in rooms with 50 or more students. I know of one social science department which offers no classes with fewer than 70 students, even for majors, and many departments in which lectures with 300 or more students are commonplace. It is easy to see how MOOCs could replace such classes.

What seems irreplaceable is the small, discussion-heavy, course.[1] What do students learn in those courses? Not information, but skills — especially skills like being able to articulate ideas, and reason, in public. This excellent piece by Jennifer Morton at the Chronicle notes how much more valuable small classes can be for lower-income, or first generation, students:

For students from low-income families who manage to overcome the tough odds, college is the first place where they will be asked to defend a position and to engage in vigorous intellectual debate. It is also likely to be the first place where they have to consistently engage with middle-class students and professors and navigate middle-class social norms.


The differences in these social skills can be quite subtle, such as variations in when and how to make eye contact, or how deferential to be when speaking to authority figures. But their impact can be significant. And because children growing up in poverty in the United States are more likely to grow up around and go to school with other poor children, they have fewer opportunities to interact with the middle class and “pick up” the social skills valued by the middle class—and middle-class employers.

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Manning and Cheney

by Henry on July 30, 2013

Since it’s timely, I’m republishing my “modest proposal”: from last year, one half of which is meant in all seriousness:


It’s not at all surprising that most US media have yawned at “today’s news”: that a UN rapporteur has found that the US has treated Bradley Manning in a cruel and inhuman fashion. But it does highlight a rather interesting inequity.

On the one side of the balance sheet, we have Richard B. Cheney. This gentleman, now in private life, is a self-admitted and unrepentant perpetrator of war crimes – specifically, of ordering the torture of Al Qaeda detainees. Along with other senior members of the Bush regime, he is also guilty of the outsourcing of even viler forms of torture through the extraordinary rendition of individuals to regimes notorious for torturing prisoners (including the dispatch of Maher Arar, who was entirely innocent, to the torturers of Syria). The Obama administration has shown no enthusiasm whatsoever for prosecuting Cheney, or other Bush senior officials, for their crimes. While Obama has effectively admitted that they were torturers, he has indicated, both through public statements and continued inaction, that he would prefer to let bygones be bygones.

On the other, we have Bradley Manning. He appears to be a confused individual – but his initial motivation for leaking information, if the transcripts are correct, were perfectly clear. He was appalled at what he saw as major abuses of authority by the US, including incidents that he witnessed directly in Iraq. There is no evidence that his leaking of information has caused anything worse than embarrassment for the US. Yet he is being pursued by the Obama administration with the vengefulness of Greek Furies. While Manning was being kept in solitary confinement, and treated in an inhuman fashion, Richard Cheney was enjoying the manifold pleasures of a well-compensated private life, being subjected to no more than the occasional impertinent question on a Sunday talk show, and the inconveniences of being unable to travel to jurisdictions where he might be arrested.

It would appear then that the administration is rather more prepared to let bygones be bygones in some cases than in others. High officials, who ordered that torture be carried out and dragged the US into international disrepute, are given an _ex post_ carte blanche for their crimes, while a low-ranking soldier who is at most guilty of leaking minor secrets at the lowest levels of classification, is treated inhumanely and likely, should he be convicted, to face life imprisonment.

So here’s my proposal. It’s perfectly clear that Richard B. Cheney will never be prosecuted because a prosecution would be politically inconvenient. If that’s the Obama administration’s decision (and it’s pretty clear that it _is_ the Obama administration’s decision), then the administration should own it. The president should grant Richard Cheney a pardon for his crimes. Simultaneously, as an acknowledgement that the high crimes of state officials should not go unpunished while the lesser crimes of those who opposed the Iraq war are exposed to the vengefulness of the military tribunal system, Bradley Manning should receive a complete pardon too.

I can’t imagine that Richard B. Cheney would _like_ getting a presidential pardon. Indeed, I rather imagine that he’d vigorously protest it. It would serve as the best formal acknowledgment that we’re likely to get that he is, indeed, a criminal. Obviously, it would also be an unhappy compromise for those who think that he should be exposed to the full rigors of the law. But I personally think that it would be an acceptable compromise (others may reasonably disagree), if it were applied to both sides rather than just one.

In response to my post about whether journal article reviewers’ identities should remain confidential (most commenters seem to hold the view that they should), Jeremy Fox mentioned a phenomenon of which I was not aware: people posting on their Web sites – once the paper has been published – reviews their papers had received during the refereeing process. Here is an example. Just to be clear, these tend to concern anonymous reviews so the author is not breaching confidentiality (unless the reviewer offers feedback in a way that outs the person’s identity – see more on that below). If the paper had been rejected from a journal, the file could include the reviews from those other journals as well (see examples here).

This is an interesting idea. As Terry McGlynn notes, there are numerous potential benefits to such practice. It would certainly make the publishing process more transparent (imagine the value to graduate students, but also others). It might lead to a more civil tone for reviewer comments (for more on the unnecessarily harsh and dismissive tone of some referee reports, see this recent piece in the Chronicle). That is, while reviews would continue to be anonymous, it may encourage editors to keep a closer eye on how reviewers are communicating their feedback when it comes to style. After all, would you want to be known as the editor of the journal whose reviewers tend to be jerks? (I guess some may actually take pride in that, but I would like to think people recognize the difference between giving constructive criticism and simply being a prick.) It might also discourage reviewers from using the referee report as a PR machine for their own work and agenda (i.e., you haven’t cited my work from 1999, my work from 2001, my work from 2010, 2011 and 2012 nor have you realized that my work is the only relevant angle on this topic).

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Imagine a noted scholar of religion, who happened to be Jewish, writing a book on the historical Jesus. Then imagine him appearing on a television show, where he is repeatedly badgered with some version of the following question: “What’s a Jew like you doing writing a book like this? Raises questions, doesn’t it?” And now watch this interview with noted scholar Reza Aslan, who happens to be Muslim. Hard to escape the conclusion that Islam is the 21st century’s Jewish Question.

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Amusing, perhaps

by Eszter Hargittai on July 28, 2013

I stumbled into this scene a few months ago in the delightful Hungarian town of Szentendre. I found it amusing instantly. But then I wondered: Is it too culturally specific to get why finding these two cars backed up against each other is funny if you didn’t live in a certain part of the world in a particular time period?

I was rather surprised that you can still find Trabants looking like this (or looking like anything) on the road. It turns out it’s even possible on this side of the Atlantic: the International Spy Museum in DC will host the Seventh Annual Parade of Trabants in November. Here’s a video of their 2012 parade. Who knew there were so many of these cars around in the US? (To clarify, in my view, anything larger than one or two in this case justifies saying “so many”.) I think the commentator on that video is wrong about this being the only available car in East Germany though. What about the Wartburg? Don’t know what that is? This video has a hilarious ad for it. As for the rest of that video about the production of the Trabant, you decide.

Home court advantage

by John Quiggin on July 27, 2013

A while back I read a fairly standard presentation of the argument that the International Telecommunications Union should be kept away from control over the setting of Internet standards. The piece, on Ars Technica was written by Timothy B. Lee, who also writes for Cato Unbound[1]. Lee concludes:

The US hopes to preserve the “home court advantage” provided by the existing, open Internet governance institutions by preventing the emergence of the ITU as a rival standards-setting institution. Advocates of a free and open Internet and opponents of authoritarianism should hope that they succeed.

Now that we have a clearer idea of what the “home court advantage” actually entails[^2] it does not seem quite so appealing. The US government is at least as great a threat to a free and open Internet as any of those it routinely castigates in its Human Rights reports.

But if governments are determined to snoop as much as they can get away with, and claim unlimited powers to deal with their opponents as they see fit, is there any institutional structure that will make it harder, rather than easier for them to do so? I don’t know, but leaving control in the hands of the US state does not seem like an appealing solution.

[^1]: This isn’t meant as a “gotcha”. Cato has been good on issues like FISA and PRISM, and I only found Lee’s affiliation after the post was nearly done.
[^2]: The NSA uses “home field advantage”, which is less sport-specific

A couple of weeks ago, I wanted to out myself to a third party (i.e., not the author of the piece) about having been one of the blind reviewers of a paper that has since been published. I was emailing this person about the paper and wanted to signal that in my review I had flagged some issues that this person had recently brought up about the published piece. I was tempted just to attach my review of the paper so as to save myself the trouble of listing the issues over again and to show that I had indeed also had these reactions to the piece already at that stage in the process (issues that had not been addressed in the revised version that was ultimately published).

But then it occurred to me that perhaps the review itself is not okay to share. It was part of a confidential process and the comments were supposed to be meant for the author/s only. Not sure why it then followed that I started wondering about whether I should even out myself as the reviewer, but I started doubting even that idea. I proceeded to post a query about all of this to my Facebook network. While several people thought I had every right to out myself and even share the review, a few were strongly opposed, not just to sharing the review, but also to sharing my identity. I’m still not convinced by that perspective, but ended up honoring the confidentiality of my reviewer identity in that instance (and so no, I did not share the review). I am, however, curious to hear more perspectives on this or more arguments for that particular perspective as I haven’t heard anything particularly convincing yet. In the case of a double-blind review process, must the reviewer’s identity remain confidential if she is up to sharing it? Are there particular factors that would result in a yes or a no to that question? For example, would it matter if the paper has been published somewhere or at that journal in particular? Would something else determine the answer?

A point of clarification or perhaps a caveat. My question concerns academic journal article reviews. I understand that in certain situations all reviewers are explicitly asked to remain confidential. Such is the case when you serve on a reviewer panel at the National Science Foundation. I personally also find that in the case of tenure and promotion cases, it is important to remain confidential permanently, as the power dynamics are too complex. However, I don’t recall such rules when signing up to be a referee for a journal article.

That’s the headline for my latest piece in the Oz edition Guardian. Of all of the anti-science nonsense peddled by the political right, in Oz and in Britain, none is more stunningly hypocritical than their campaign against the (non-existent) health risks of wind turbines. The self-image promoted by these guys (and, with a handful of exceptions, they are guys) is one of hardnosed scepticism about unproven risks, and disdain for emotive appeals to feelings about the environment. But because wind turbines are supported by their tribal enemies, they swallow and propagate utterly absurd alarmist claims.

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The American Historical Association encourages a 6-year “embargo” of completed history PhD dissertations in digital form, because making dissertations thus “free and immediately accessible.… poses a tangible threat to the interests and careers of junior scholars in particular” because “historians will find it increasingly difficult to persuade publishers to make the considerable capital investments necessary to the production of scholarly monographs.”

The AHA is in that last key sentence making a prediction, based on what evidence I don’t know. Have publishers made threats to publish fewer monographs because the underlying dissertations were available online? (As opposed to, because they lose money on publishing monographs, irrespective of where and how the underlying dissertation was available?)

Dan Drezner, a political scientist, and Brad DeLong, an economist, have expressed incredulity.

Economists certainly make working papers freely available online, and have a culture of sharing information. I know of no evidence that economic journals – including journals of economic history – are loath to publish articles based on working papers, nor of evidence that the American Economic Association is seeking to embargo unpublished work in economics.

There is something obviously wrong in a scholarly discipline seeking to limit the availability of knowledge. I don’t think it’s historically how historians have operated, either.

Hanging as inspiration or admonition over the researchers’ sign-in book at the FDR presidential library is a framed application for a reader’s card from Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. There’s a story that historians tell about Schlesinger at the FDR library – that he was there at the same time as some other early FDR biographers, and that he would, if he found something of note, type it up and give it to them.1

I’ve tried to emulate Schlesinger’s openness and generosity myself. There are four writers currently working on books related to my own, and I send them material when I think it apposite – in the hope they will share with me, and also that this sharing will make our respective books stronger, for having been the product of a community of inquiry rather than an individual quest.

When we find ourselves trying to make scholarship less readily available – however good our intentions – we should probably ask ourselves if we can solve our problems some other way.

1I’m nearly sure this story appears in print somewhere, but I don’t know where.

Are We Not All the Child Memoirists of Writers?

by Corey Robin on July 22, 2013

Writing in last week’s New Yorker about the memoirs of children of famous writers, James Wood raises a question that has been asked before: “Can a man or a woman fulfill a sacred devotion to thought, or music, or art or literature, while fulfilling a proper devotion to spouse or children?”

As Wood points out, George Steiner entertained a similar proposition some 20 years ago, also in The New Yorker. (Steiner had been moved to this suspicion by the prod of Louis Althusser’s strangling of his wife. Of course. It wouldn’t be Steinerian if weren’t just a touch Wagnerian.) And Cynthia Ozick wrestled with it in the 1970s or maybe early 80s in a pair of reviews: one of Quentin Bell’s biography of his aunt Virginia Woolf, the other of R.W.B. Lewis’s biography of Edith Wharton.

In Wood’s and Ozick’s case—I don’t have access to Steiner’s piece, so I don’t know—the supposition is the same: the writer lives her life in her work. Her external life—the parties she attends, children she raises, drinks she downs, meals she arranges, bills she pays—is not her real life. It is a shadow of the inner flame that lights every page, every sentence, of her work. [click to continue…]

New kings in the Low Countries

by Ingrid Robeyns on July 21, 2013

As I am writing this, a new King is being inaugurated in Belgium, King Filip/Philippe. That is only a few months after the Netherlands also saw a change of Royal power, where Queen Beatrix made room for King Willem-Alexander. The new Kings share one thing in common – they both have wives that are more popular than themselves, and both Queens are said to be very smart, warm and sympathetic. But that’s where the comparison ends.
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Carbon pricing in Australia

by John Quiggin on July 20, 2013

A number of people have asked me about the recent move by newly restored PM Kevin Rudd to “terminate the carbon tax”. I’ve given some of the political background here, explaining why the term “carbon tax” has become politically toxic in Australia. In this post, I’m going to try to spell out the story a bit more.[^1] There’s more detail here, but I’ll make the crucial points up front

* Australia never had a carbon tax, as the term is usually understood. Rather, we had an emissions permit scheme, with a period of fixed prices (initially until 2016) after which emissions would be tradable
* In 2012, it was agreed to link our scheme to the EU Emissions Trading Scheme, beginning in 2015. This didn’t attract attention, and legislation was passed to put the link into effect
* Following his restoration, Rudd announced that the link would be brought forward to 2014. To undercut the Opposition, which had been waging a campaign to “Axe the Tax”, he described this as “terminating the carbon tax”

The initial fixed price was set at $23/tonne which was, at the time, a plausible estimate of the likely price of emissions in the EU scheme. Despite dire predictions the carbon price had no visible impact on the economy except the desired one of reducing emissions. However, as it turned out, EU prices have been much lower than the Australian price, making a link to the EU a cheap way of meeting Australian targets for emissions, net of imported permits.

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Tariffs and secession: the Australian experience

by John Quiggin on July 20, 2013

The claim that the secession of the Confederate states was driven, in large measure, by economic disputes over tariffs, rather than by the more obvious fact that the US had just elected an anti-slavery president, has come up in comments to Corey’s post. My impression is that this claim has been advanced both by neo-confederates on the right and by Marxisant writers in the tradition of Charles and Mary Beard, but I’ll leave it to those more qualified to set me straight if I’m wrong on this.

I wanted to point interested readers to Australia’s experience with a secessionist movement driven by concerns about tariff policy.
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