From the monthly archives:

November 2013

Overton Straitjacket

by John Holbo on November 8, 2013

Approximately a bazillion commentators have pointed out, rightly, that the right-wing of the conservative movement holds sway over the political right, in the US; whereas the left-wing of the left-wing party, the Democrats, is so wimpy, comparatively, that it sounds funny even calling the Democrats ‘left-wing’, per se. Of course, conservatives say the opposite. They are the moderates blah blah blah. I don’t know what truth would have the tremendous force needed to burst their epistemic bubble, so let’s move on, talking among ourselves.

Here’s a non-obvious (perhaps because it is incorrect) thought about the dynamics of having a right-wing dominated by its extreme right-tip, to the point where it doesn’t really have much of anything but a right-tip. You’d think it would automatically NOT be like that. You’d think such a dominant right-tip would not only generate a more moderate middle but also an ‘acceptable’ right to its right. That is, whatever is the center of political gravity – which is now on the extreme right – would sort of end up ‘moderate’, by definition, so long as you adopt a relative definition. That is, folks would figure that if Ted Cruz is ok, then Ted Cruz’ dad is probably ok. Because, what the hell, they aren’t THAT different. (By contrast, Obama really didn’t seem much like Jeremiah Wright. The shocker there was going to have to be that this association proved he believed stuff totally different from what he said.) Overton Window 101. But this doesn’t actually seem to be the way of it. Rather, what we get is this big weight of conservative opinion, this huge clump of conservative grass-roots, right at the edge of what is considered at all acceptable, in US political discourse. There is a very narrow range of things you can say without being, on the one hand, a RINO squish; or, on the other hand, having to say it was all ‘taken out of context’ when David Corn or Media Matters gets wind of it. [click to continue…]

Speak, Memory

by Corey Robin on November 8, 2013

All that’s solid melts into air.

Schocken Verlag* was a German publishing house established in 1931 by Jewish department store owner Salman Shocken. In 1939 it was shut down by the Nazis. It slowly made its way to New York, where it eventually became Shocken Books. In 1987 Shocken was acquired by Random House. Eleven years later, Random House was acquired by Bertelsmann.

During World War II, Bertelsmann was the largest publisher of Nazi propaganda, including “The Christmas Book of the Hitler Youth.” It also made use of Jewish slave labor in Latvia and Lithuania.

Confronted about the company’s past in 2002, a Bertelsmann spokesman said, “The values of Bertelsmann then are irreconcilable with the company today. The company is now a global player in the media industry.”

Because the one thing the Nazis definitely were not were global players.

“Common sense tells us,” wrote Nabokov, “that our existence is but a brief crack of light between two eternities of darkness.”

*I learned of this history in the London Review of Books, and gleaned additional details from Wikipedia and the BBC.

Epistemic humility

by Ingrid Robeyns on November 7, 2013

A colleague who lost his teenage son due to a traffic accident 3 years ago, told us about the ‘black halo’ which remains above his head, and which only others who have lost a child are able to see. I do not doubt for a second that this is the case – that people who have not lost a child are, perhaps a very few exceptions aside, not able to truly understand what it means to lose a child, and how it changes the person you are. It reminds me of a friend who lost her father about a year after I lost mine. She had been very supportive when my father was terminally ill and died, but told me after her father died that she had no idea how hard it was until she experienced it herself. Good intentions are simply not enough to understand certain experiences.

I think it’s not just with experiences, but also with varieties of ‘differences’ and with social practices, being ill, and other features of human life. It is not just the death of someone near and dear that we have a hard time to understand if we haven’t experienced it ourselves; or what it means to have autism, or to live with and/or care for someone who has autism (in my experience, most people don’t understand, despite what they believe themselves about their understanding); or what it is to be constantly subjected to racism. I am confident that I have no clue what it means to grow up in abject poverty, or to live through a civil war, or to be the victim of domestic abuse.

My worry is that this category of experiences, differences, practices, and other features of human life that we cannot understand without first-person experience, is much larger than we generally tend to assume. And that as a consequence, we believe that we know much more than we actually do know. And, as a further consequence, that we too often are wrong in our judgements of aspects of the lives of people significantly different than ourselves.

Somehow it strikes me as wise, and possibly even as a precondition for social justice, if we would rehabilitate epistemic humility at the core of our educational and social practices.

Two by Scott

by Henry Farrell on November 7, 2013

Since CTer Scott McLemee is not exactly what you would describe as an incessant self-promotor, two recent pieces by him that deserve attention.

First, on Colin McGinn, the Mind “review”: that’s been doing the rounds, and the tradition of savage book reviews by philosophers:

The new issue of Harper’s magazine reprints, under the title “Out on a Limb,” a blog post by McGinn from June 2013 in which he explains: “I have in fact written a whole book about the hand, Prehension, in which its ubiquity is noted and celebrated… I have given a semester-long seminar discussing the hand and locutions related to it. I now tend to use ‘hand job’ in the capacious sense just outlined, sometimes with humorous intent…. Academics like riddles and word games.”

Some more than others, clearly. McGinn then considers the complexity of the speech-act of one professional glassblower asking another, “Will you do a blow job for me while I eat my sandwich?” The argument here is that nothing he did should be regarded as sexual harassment of a graduate student, and the real victim here is McGinn himself: “One has a duty to take all aspects of the speech situation into account and not indulge in rash paraphrases. And one should also not underestimate the sophistication of the speaker.”

Nor overestimate the usefulness of sophistication as a shovel, once one has dug oneself into a hole and needs to get back out. McGinn subsequently thought the better of this little essay and deleted it from his blog, but the Harper’s “Readings” section preserves it for posterity. Life would be much simpler if good judgment weren’t so tardy at times.

Second, from last week, on “Lou Reed and Delmore Schwartz”:

Fifty years ago, Lou Reed himself was a senior at Syracuse University, where he studied with the poet Delmore Schwartz. Reed was 21 – roughly the same age Schwartz had been when he wrote the short story “In Dreams Begin Responsibilities.” In it, the narrator revisits the scene of his parents’ courtship in 1909 as if seeing it in a film of the era.

Simply told and strangely beautiful, it is both haunting and haunted. By its close, any hint of sentimentality dissolves in a moment of painful self-awareness. Its appearance in 1937 in the revived Partisan Review was the stuff of legends. The poetry and criticism Schwartz published after that were more than promising, and he won the Bollingen Prize in 1959 (five years after Auden had received it) for a volume of his selected poems.

Beginning in 1962, Schwartz held an appointment in the English department at Syracuse, despite having become, at some point over the previous decade or so, manifestly insane. The distinction between bohemianism and madness is sometimes a matter of context. With Schwartz the case for nuance was long since past. He had fallen into the habit of threatening friends and ex-wives with litigation for their parts in a conspiracy against him, led by the Rockefellers. While living in Greenwich Village he had smashed all the windows in his rented room and been taken to Bellevue in restraints. He died alone in New York City in 1966.

The following year, Reed dedicated a song on the first Velvet Underground album to Schwartz, and in another song from the early 1980s he imagined being able to communicate with the poet via Ouija board. Last year Reed published a tribute to him that has also appeared as the preface to In Dreams Begin Responsibilities, an edition of Schwartz’s selected short fiction.

The recovery of the degenerate

by Eric on November 5, 2013

German authorities have recovered a cache of modernist paintings from behind a stack of tin cans in a Munich apartment. Many of the works were presumably looted by Nazis as examples of “degenerate” work. You can see one of the recovered Chagalls here.

The pieces were in the apartment of Cornelius Gurlitt, “son of a well-known Nazi-era art dealer.” That “-era” is doing a lot of work in that phrase, one suspects; according to the LAT article, Gurlitt père was “appointed by the Nazi regime” to deal with looted artwork, though the Guardian notes he had lost his post because he was half-Jewish. A complex story, perhaps.

The Guardian also suggests that Gurlitt fils got by over the years by occasionally selling off an unknown masterpiece.

Even very limited experience of the world of collectibles suggests it is full of these dark vortices, open secrets to the cognoscenti but unknown to the wider world, in which strange treasures abide.

I suppose we may be grateful the Nazis did not take the same preservationist attitude to degenerate physics they took to degenerate art. There’s rather a good description of the Nazi “anti-art” displays on Radio 4’s Front Row here.

Screw the taxpayer

by Chris Bertram on November 5, 2013

The term “the taxpayer” is playing an increasing role in British public debate, often introduced, seemingly, as an apparently neutral synonym for “the public” whilst really being no such thing. The term is endlessly repeated by BBC interviewers asking “tough questions” of politicians and civil servants and it seems as if none of them either notices or is willing to question the ideological assumptions and tacit theory of legitimacy that lie behind the term.

Point 1. In a state that at least markets itself as a democracy, the principle ought to be that the state is answerable to the electorate. Pretty much everyone in the electorate pays taxes (VAT at least) but the key idea is not that the state is answerable to them because they pay for it, but rather because it is a non-voluntary entity that claims authority over them and subjects them to its laws. Whether they are “net contributors” to the public purse is neither here nor there. People who pay in more than they receive – such as the mythical “taxpayer” – have no special claim to extra influence.

Point 2. The “taxpayer” idea is being used in very harmful ways to deprive many ordinary people of their basic human rights, including the right to marry and form a family with a partner of their choice. (In the UK, the government asked an advisory committee to calculate the income levels at which families of various sizes would not be net beneficiaries of the tax-and-transfer regime in order to rule that people who failed to meet that income threshold would not have the right to have their foreign spouse live with them in the country.)

Point 3. The “taxpayer” idea claims that only those who pay more in taxes than they receive in benefits make “a contribution”. But that’s nonsense. Many poorly paid people make a contribution through work that they ought to be paid more for. The fact that they are underpaid and exploited shouldn’t be held against the many many people who, for example, keep our public and health services running. Many people who are not “economically active” make a contribution to society as parents, carers or in many other ways. And those unable to make a contribution because of age or disability: they have the same right to a say as anybody else.

The “taxpayer” trope is a pernicious ideological assault on the very idea of equal citizenship. It is elitist and exclusionary and promulgates a false theory of the state according to which government belongs to the propertied. No it doesn’t: it belongs to its citizens, rich and poor, old and young.

Dayenu at Yale

by Corey Robin on November 3, 2013

A womanless conference at Yale two days ago inspires this little variant on the classic Passover songs Chad Gadya (“One Little Goat”) and Dayenu (“It would have been enough!”)

Had He only convened a conference on the Age of Revolution at Yale—Yale!—it would have been enough. Dayenu!

Had He only convened a conference on the Age of Revolution at Yale—Yale!—at which there were no women panelists, it would have been enough. Dayenu!

Had he only convened a conference on the Age of Revolution at Yale—Yale!—at which there were no women panelists, and called the center that organized the conference “The Center for the Study of Representative Institutions,” it would have been enough. Dayenu!


Blame utilitarianism!

by John Holbo on November 3, 2013

For no strictly sufficient reason I’m reading Memoirs of a Superfluous Man, by Albert Jay Nock.

I grew up in the conviction that in a truly civilised society the sanctions of taste and manners would have a compelling force at least equal to those of law, religion and morals. By way of corollary I became convinced that expediency is the worst possible guide of life. Bentham’s doctrine of expediency, on which Michel Chevalier a century ago observed that American society was founded, seemed to me thoroughly false, corrupting and despicable; and in my opinion the present state of the society based on it affords the strongest evidence that it is so.

Obviously this stuff starts with Burke, if not earlier: “The age of chivalry is gone. – That of sophisters, economists, and calculators, has succeeded; and the glory of Europe is extinguished forever.”

And Dostoyevsky wrote Crime and Punishment, which lays considerable blame on utilitarianism, if I do not misread that author.

On a more contemporary note, I am pleased to see The American Conservative reviewing George Scialabba’s latest: good for them. But then this:

He also displays on occasion a too-generous view of some rather sinister figures. One can defend, for example, a humanitarian agenda on the part of the world’s great powers in favor of aiding poorer nations without relying on the musings of Peter Singer

I get it that it’s the abortion stuff. But do people really, seriously find Singer ‘a rather sinister figure’?

I don’t mind if people say they think utilitarianism has repugnant implications – it’s a major ethical theory, after all. But the demonisation, and the attribution of fundamental social influence seem so consistently disproportionate.

Why do so many people hate utilitarianism so much? No one hates Kant’s ethics this much, but it’s just as weird a theory, isn’t it? And quite influential. When was the last time that someone blamed Kant for damn near everything? (Fair is fair, surely.)

Is the Paradox of Thrift Actually a Paradox?

by Henry Farrell on November 2, 2013

Paul Krugman mentions that Keynesian staple, the “paradox of thrift”: in passing on a post on Germany. Which I read as giving me license to quote one of my favorite paragraphs from Albert Hirschman’s work (this from his piece, “How the Keynesian Revoution was Exported from the United States, and Other Comments,” in Peter Hall (ed.) The Political Power of Economic Ideas.

But while rehabilitating common sense, Keynes hardly presented his own theory in commonsensical terms. Rather, his message was delivered in a book whose text was uncommonly difficult. Moreover, he frequently presented his propositions as counterintuitive rather than as confirming common sense: for example, instead of telling his readers that converging individual decisions to cut consumption can set off an economic decline (common sense), he dwelt on the equivalent but counterintuitive proposition that a spurt of individual decisions to save more will fail to increase aggregate savings. In this manner, he managed to present common sense in paradox’s clothing and in fact made his theory doubly attractive: it satisfied at the same time the intellectuals’ craving for populism and their taste for difficulty and paradox.

I’m not sure if it’s entirely fair, but it is surely beautifully put. Unfortunately, this essay doesn’t appear in the new volume of The Essential Hirschman (Powells, Amazon). But there are many other wonderful essays that are there (including my favorite, “Rival Views of Market Society). A wonderful book, and a treat if you haven’t read Hirschman before.