From the monthly archives:

August 2013

L.A. Paul at 3:AM Magazine

by Kieran Healy on August 31, 2013

The philosopher L.A. Paul is interviewed at 3:AM Magazine. Topics include becoming a philosopher, the relationship between science and metaphysics, causation, phenomenology, xphi, and what you can’t expect when you’re expecting. Oh yeah, something, something, full disclosure, something. 3:AM Magazine has a great collection of interviews at this point, with all kinds of interesting people. You should read them.

Bombing Syria Seems Like A Bad Idea

by John Holbo on August 31, 2013

I don’t suppose US action hinges on my say-so, but no harm in trying. Also, maybe there’s a connection to my previous post. Dropping bombs because someone ‘crossed a red line’, i.e. for the sake of our ‘credibility’ – for our honor, not the welfare of Syrians – is wrong. Maybe it makes sense to kill a 1000 people to probably save 2000 people, but if you don’t even have any calculation like that, forget it. [click to continue…]

Seamus Heaney

by Maria on August 30, 2013

Seamus Heaney has died. He once said that poetry doesn’t change things, but can alter how we think and feel about them. He was a poet of all of Ireland, and a man who lived and spoke for our kindest and least sentimental selves.

In the days before everyone had Internet, I was working for a tv production company called Hummingbird. One day I was tracking down the source of an obscure couplet of Irish poetry. My boss, Philip King, handed me a phone number and said ‘Call Seamus Heaney. He’ll know it’. Heaney had only won the Nobel a few months before. I called, embarrassed to be troubling a Great Man. He picked up after a few rings, patiently listened while I recited the lines, thought for a moment and gave the answer. I wish I could remember who the poet was. Heaney was warm and generous that day, just as he was a few years later when my sister Nickie approached him, similarly starstruck, in Waterstones on Dawson Street.

All my books are in storage so I can’t find the poem I want. It’s about washing up after Sunday lunch, and reading it always brings me back to our old family home in Cashel. Everyone talks about writers finding the universal in the particular, but Heaney did it better than most. Anyway, here’s this:

Now it’s high watermark
and floodtide in the heart
and time to go.
The sea-nymphs in the spray
will be the chorus now.
What’s left to say?

Suspect too much sweet-talk
but never close your mind.
It was a fortunate wind
that blew me here. I leave
half-ready to believe
that a crippled trust might walk

and the half-true rhyme is love.

War and waste

by John Q on August 29, 2013

Even by the standards of CT, I seem to be an extreme pacifist. That’s surprising to me, because I was a mainstream liberal internationalist 20 years ago, and I haven’t changed my views in any fundamental way. In particular, I don’t have any fundamental objection in principle to war, or even to constraints like the need for a UN resolution. I’ve just looked at the experience of those 20 years, and reconsidered earlier wars, and I’ve concluded that the consequences of war and revolution are nearly always bad. Even ‘successful’ wars cost more, in terms of lives and wasted resources, than the benefits they deliver.

I don’t particularly like being out on a limb, so I’m generally encouraged to find other people starting to think the same way. In particular, I was pleased to see this column by Matt Yglesias, making the point that Military strikes are an extremely expensive way to help foreigners with specific reference to Libya. I made exactly the same case at the time.

With a little more ambivalence, I read this piece by Tom “Suck. On. This” Friedman who observes that Middle East oil no longer matters, and concludes

Obama’s foreign policy is mostly “nudging” and whispering. It is not very satisfying, not very much fun and won’t make much history, but it’s probably the best we can do or afford right now. And it’s certainly all that most Americans want.

I don’t share the tone of regret (“Happy the land that has no history” is my view), but apart from that, Friedman is very close to the view I put in the National Interest a year ago, that there is no clearly defined U.S. national interest at stake in the Middle East and, more succinctly, in this comprehensive plan for US policy on the Middle East … [^1]

Even at the cost of lining up with Friedman, I’d be pleased if the idea that war is a mostly futile waste of lives and money became conventional wisdom. Switching to utopian mode, wouldn’t it be amazing if the urge to “do something” could be channeled into, say, ending hunger in the world or universal literacy (both cheaper than even one Iraq-sized war)?

[^1]: The joke doesn’t quite work as a link. You have to imagine the [click to continue] fold after the first para.

How Moral Revolutions Happen (They Had A Nightmare)

by John Holbo on August 29, 2013

In a recent post I remarked that MLK is a figure well worth stealing. And NR obliges me with the first sentence of their anniversary editorial. “The civil-rights revolution, like the American revolution, was in a crucial sense conservative.” They do admit a few paragraphs on that, “Too many conservatives and libertarians, including the editors of this magazine, missed all of this at the time.” And then manage to wreck it all again with the next sentence: “They worried about the effects of the civil-rights movement on federalism and limited government. Those principles weren’t wrong, exactly; they were tragically misapplied, given the moral and historical context.” No look into the question of how such a misapplication transpired, since that would not produce gratifying results. After all, if we are talking about what actually worried people, then plainly federalism and limited government were more pretext than motive. The tragedy is that so many people wanted to do the wrong thing, for bad reasons. But they couldn’t say ‘Boo justice!’ So they said stuff about … federalism. There is obviously no point to conservative’s revisiting how they got things wrong without bothering to consider how they got things wrong. But let’s be positive about it. “It is a mark of the success of King’s movement that almost all Americans can now see its necessity.” Yay justice!

I’m sitting down to read Kwame Anthony Appiah’s book, The Honor Code: How Moral Revolutions Happen [amazon]. I’m planning to agree with it, but the framing is odd. [click to continue…]

Democratic values? A nice idea ….

by Chris Bertram on August 28, 2013

In an op-ed with the Orwellian title “This is a moment for democratic nations to live up to their values”, British Foreign Secretary William Hague makes the case for intervention in Syria. I just want to focus on one sentence of his article:

According to the UN, the Syrian conflict is already the worst refugee crisis since the Rwandan genocide, creating nearly two million refugees and killing more than 100,000 people so far.

Last year, Hague’s colleague, Home Secretary Theresa May put in place measures to make it as hard as possible for Syrian refugees to reach sanctuary in the UK. Subsequently, Syrians who have travelled to the UK and sought asylum have been prosecuted for travelling on false papers and imprisoned, despite the Court of Appeal having ruled that this should not happen. Meanwhile, much poorer countries, such as Jordan, have been coping with a volume of refugees much greater that wealthy countries like the UK have ever had to. The complaints of western politicians that they are motivated by humanitarian concern as they ratchet up the rhetoric for bombing should be listened to in the light of their shameful efforts to evade their humanitarian obligations in the conflict so far.

More Nones than Republicans?

by John Q on August 28, 2013

19 per cent. That’s the proportion of respondents to the latest Pew poll who say they identify as Republicans, an all-time low. It’s also Pew’s 2012 estimate of the proportion of the US population who describe their religious affilation as “atheist”, “agnostic”, or “nothing in particular”, or in the current shorthand, “Nones”.

These results need to be qualified in lots of ways (see over fold). But they still suggest that the ground is shifting against the kind of Christianist politics long exemplified by the Repubs.

[click to continue…]

J K Rowling for grown ups

by Harry on August 27, 2013

It wasn’t snobbery that kept me from reading Harry Potter, just a calculation that at some point I’d have to read them all to one of the kids, and didn’t want to have read them already. But my wife read the first 4 to the eldest and then the first three to the middle one, and by the time my youngest wanted them J.K. Rowling had already published a book for grown ups and I realized that I could be one of the first people alive to read her adult novels without reading having read her children’s books. (In fact, I was about 3/4ths through the first Harry Potter when I finished The Casual Vacancy – and still am, because the boy got scared at that point, and I couldn’t be bothered to find out how it ended). I was drawn to The Casual Vacancy by the couple of slightly sneering and tepid reviews I read, which said it was rambling, misanthropic and full of children’s cruelty, making it sound like I’d love it, and a recommendation from a reliable friend. And, I did.

But not as much as The Cuckoo’s Calling. How long she thought she would remain anonymous I can’t imagine. It is so obviously the work of an experienced, accomplished, writer, and is slyly witty in the same way that The Casual Vacancy is. She does indulge in one moment of male fantasy fulfillment that, perhaps, was designed to make herself seem like a male author; but just the pseudonym, itself, is a dead giveaway (did no-one really guess?). I don’t want to spoil it for anyone, so request that commenters also refrain from discussing the plot (but no guarantees). Suffice to say it is thoroughly entertaining, brilliantly plotted, and tautly written. When you read it you’ll see that Rowling must be incredibly pissed off that her secret came out prematurely. Clearly the book was going to become a major success even under the pseudonym and, equally clearly, she was looking forward to having it properly evaluated in its own right which, I think, The Casual Vacancy wasn’t.

I’ve been suffering withdrawal since Reginald Hill died, and about 5 months ago I realized that the possible posthumous Dalziel/Pascoe that amazon uk mentioned at the time of his death is unlikely to see the light of day. So having a brilliant mystery writer appear, fully fledged (which is rare – the only other I can think of is Benjamin Black), and clearly intending a long series, is a specially delightful surprise. Thoroughly recommended.

(Oh, and, if you haven’t been following the story, apparently all her royalties for the first three years, starting July 15th when she was unmasked, are going to the Soldier’s Charity).

Discussion of the books is very welcome below but if you haven’t read them, BE WARNED there MAY be SPOILERS

Tom Stoppard and Pink Floyd

by Harry on August 26, 2013

I haven’t listened to this yet, but fans of Tom Stoppard, Pink Floyd, or of both [1], might be interested in listening to Stoppard’s latest play, Darkside, written in celebration of the 40th anniversary of the release of Dark Side of the Moon. Its here until Monday Sept 2nd.

[1] I’m neither really, but suspect that reveals a character flaw.

Jesus Christ, I’m at Yale

by Corey Robin on August 24, 2013

In 1978, Vivian Gornick wrote an article in The Nation on her semester-long experience as visiting professor at Yale. It’s a forgotten little classic of campus manners and mores that in many respects still rings true today. It’s been mostly inaccessible on the internet, but thanks to the heroic labors of my colleague Karl Steel, it’s been salvaged from that dustbin of history otherwise known as the digital archive of The Nation.

The article details a litany of sexist and boorish behavior from the male faculty, including one appalling incident of physical and verbal harassment, but it also captures a more general atmosphere of anti-intellectual puffery (“Poker is not a thing to kid about”) and antediluvian anxiety that I recognize from my grad school days in the 1990s. It may be 1978, but it feels like 1958:

At my table sat Whitcomb, myself, the sole other woman, and four other men. They were, variously, teachers of art, biology, history and sociology. I do not recall the substance of the conversation. What I do remember is this: the level of the talk was that of an insurance salesman’s—ranging from pure banality to low-grade shop talk—but the tone in which all remarks were delivered was exquisitely courteous: measured, moderate, State Department-civilized. The effect was uncanny: it was as though a package TV dinner was being eaten off the finest china, with heirloom silver and cut crystal.

My favorite part of the piece, the reason it has stuck with me all these years, is the concluding paragraph: a wonderful vignette about a conversation Gornick has with a non-tenured historian whose husband is a tenured professor in sociology.


Ruth Richards drove me to the station. As we sat in her car waiting for my train to come in she leaned back in her seat, lit a cigarette, then turned to me and said: “You know what keeps this whole thing going? What allows them to take themselves so seriously, and still go on behaving like this? It’s guys like my husband. My husband is a good man, a kind and gentle man, comes from a poor home, fought his way to the top. And he’s smart. Very, very smart. But you know? In spite of all that, and in spite of everything he knows, every morning of his life he wakes up, goes to the bathroom, starts to shave, and as he’s looking at himself in the mirror, somewhere inside of him a voice is saying: ‘Jesus Christ. I’m at Yale.’”

Same as it ever was.


by John Q on August 24, 2013

The drip feed of revelations about spying by NSA, related agencies and international subsidiaries like GCHQ, is taking on a familiar pattern. Take some long-held suspicion about what they might be up to, and go through the following steps

1. “You’re being paranoid. That can never happen, thanks to our marvellous checks and balances”
2. “Well, actually it does happen, but hardly ever, so there’s no need to worry about it”
3. “OK, it happens all the time, but you shouldn’t be worried unless you have something to hide”

An example which must have occurred to quite a few of us is whether NSA employees can spy on current or former partners, potential love interests and so on. Until a few days ago, this was at stage 1. Now, it’s been admitted that this not only happens, but it has a name “LOVEINT“. Still, we are told by the great defender of our liberties Dianne Feinstein, this has only happened on a handful of occasions (Stage 2).

All very reassuring, until you read the following

Most of the incidents, officials said, were self-reported. Such admissions can arise, for example, when an employee takes a polygraph tests as part of a renewal of a security clearance.

In other words, while NSA monitors everything you and I do all the time, it relies on witchcraft to detect wrongdoing by its own employees. I guess we’ll just have to hope that NSA staff are too busy snooping on our emails to read any of the 194 000 Google hits on “how to cheat a polygraph”.

Hit or Run

by Maria on August 23, 2013

To boxercise or to jog, that is the question. After a couple of months of forced inactivity, I’m back to pursuing some sort of mid-life, peripatetic aspirational fitness programme. Not for me the triathlons and ironmen of Quiggin. We can’t all be uber-achievers in every aspect of life. But for some reason – probably a recent move away from the beaches of Bournemouth into the centre of London – jogging palls. At least I think it does. I haven’t broken into a trot since early June, except to chase buses. And anyway, I increasingly feel the need to de-compact my lower back and do some activity that recognises I also have upper limbs. So I’m trying out new things.

First off, reformer pilates. The one with the table or platform on a little dolly and ropes or bands to pull on. It’s basically just posh resistance training. I first heard of it in William Gibson’s Pattern Recognition. The man has a genius for spotting the little sub-cultural phenomena of today that act out his famous maxim of the future being here already, just unevenly distributed. Cayce Pollard’s natural habitat is a culturally rarefied world that’s so bleeding edge, she is a cool-hunter (remember when that was a thing?) who is far to cool to ever use that term. Anyway, she gets to London horribly jet-lagged – I think it was this book when Gibson said jetlag is the feeling of lack you have while waiting for your soul to catch up after a long piece of airplane travel – and does this weird exercise I couldn’t even visualise, involving a table and pulleys and a kind of deep, highly specialised procedural knowledge that beautifully illustrated her character. So I did a class of this on Wednesday, at the less than half price introductory offer of eleven pounds and fifty pence. [click to continue…]

Cronyism and the global city (again)

by John Q on August 22, 2013

Alex Pareene at Salon points to a bunch of evidence showing, in essence, that the rich look out for themselves and their kids, and no one else, then to a piece by Andrew Ross Sorkin defending nepotism in the US, and by extension in China. There was a time, not so long ago, when Asia’s reliance on guanxi and similar networking practices was denounced as ‘crony capitalism’, to be contrasted with the pure and hard-edged version to be found in the US. This was supposed to explain the vulnerability of Asian economies to the crisis of 1997, and the stability of the US, then well into the Great Moderation.

A few years later, in the very early days of blogging, I wrote a post pointing out that the eagerness of financial sector workers to congregate in the same physical location, even though their work was supposed to be based on objective evaluation of data transmitted by computer, was pretty good evidence that the “global city” phenomenon, much in vogue at the time, was just guanxi writ large.

I turned that into a magazine article at Next American City (now Next City, whose web site seems to have lost it). Then I wrote a longer and more academic version and submitted it a lot of journals in economic geography, urban geography and so on, none of whom were interested. I think it stands up well in retrospect (much more so than most of the ‘global city’ literature, at any rate), but of course I’m biased.

At any rate, at least now everyone, and not least a defender and beneficiary of the system like Sorkin, is comfortable with the notion that capitalism is a rigged game, in which the ability to fix the next round is part of the prize for winning this one.

Update/clarification I’ve implicitly taken the efficient markets hypothesis as a benchmark, and assumed that features of the financial sector (for example, physical colocation) that can’t be explained by EMH are likely indicators of cronyism. It’s possible to take the view that the financial sector does things that are inconsistent with EMH, but nevertheless socially beneficial. An obvious example is the kind of opaque, over-the-counter derivatives that Dodd-Frank has tried to ban, and that the finance sector is lobbying hard to protect: it seems clear that doing these kinds of deals would benefit from face-to-face contact. So, if such deals are, in aggregate, socially beneficial, my argument fails – the converse also holds.

Eternal Sunshine of the Conservative Mind

by John Holbo on August 20, 2013

“or wino encampment” ?

We need voter id laws to stop … winos from voting?

(Post title inspired by this classic scene.)

UPDATE: Jon Chait beat me to it, plus he analyzes it.

Because they can

by John Q on August 19, 2013

For any ordinary organization, the detention of David Miranda by British security authorities, coming hot on the heels of a major NY Times article detailing the similar treatment routinely dished out to Laura Poitras and other critics of the US security establishment would seem like a major PR blunder.

But, in this case, it seems more like an upraised middle finger, one in a series designed to show that the security apparatus can do whatever it likes, and no one who matters will try to rein it in, let alone hold it accountable.
[click to continue…]