From the monthly archives:

January 2014

Jewfros in Palestine

by Corey Robin on January 31, 2014

Tablet has a moving piece by Samantha Shokin, a Brooklyn-based writer, on how a semester in Israel helped change the way she felt about herself, particularly her bodily self-image as a Jewish woman. Shokin writes:

I spent a lifetime hating my Jewish hair—straightening it, covering it, or otherwise finding ways to diminish its presence. A trip to Israel is what it took for me to realize my hair was wonderful all its own, and much more than just an accessory. [click to continue…]

You know the game I mean. As per Chris Brooke, I look forward to your Iroquois Confederacy joke.


“For some liberals, there really are no adversaries to their left. President Obama’s statement Tuesday on the death of folk singer Pete Seeger at age 94 was remarkable. Seeger was a talented singer, but he was also an unrepentant Stalinist until 1995, when he finally apologized for “following the [Communist] party line so slavishly.” You’d think Obama might have at least acknowledged (as even Seeger did) the error of his ways. Instead, Obama celebrated him only as a hero who tried to “move this country closer to the America he knew we could be.”

Yes, up until yesterday, I’m sure if you’d polled readers at the Corner, asking them, “What would you expect Barack Obama to say, in memorium, if Pete Seeger died?” those readers would have predicted, incorrectly, that he would seize the graveside opportunity to denounce the talented, beloved, dead man as a former communist. A real Sistah Souljah moment. It’s not every day a mere President of the United States can speak truth to folk music power. What more appropriate occasion than a funeral? And yet, remarkably, Obama did not behave in this way that you would have naturally expected him to. How remarkable. Readers of National Review will now have to revise their image of Obama rather radically, in light of fresh data. After today, they can no longer think of him as a one of the ‘good’ liberals – a staunch anti-communist cold warrior, in the JFK mold. No, sadly, after today, conservatives can no longer think of Obama as a liberal, yes, but a true, blue American all the same. They will be forced to think of him as sort of a bad guy. Guy didn’t spit on Pete Seeger’s grave, on the day he died. Jerk.

The Beauty of the Blacklist: In Memory of Pete Seeger

by Corey Robin on January 29, 2014

Pete Seeger’s death has prompted several reminiscences about his 1955 appearance before the House Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAC). And for good reason. Two good reasons, in fact.

First, Seeger refused to answer questions about his beliefs and associations—up until the 1940s, he had been a member of the Communist Party—not on the basis of the Fifth Amendment, which protects men and women from self-incrimination, but on the basis of the First Amendment’s protection of freedom of speech.

While invoking the Fifth was not without its perils—most important, it could put someone on the blacklist; individuals who invoked it frequently found themselves without work—it had the advantage of keeping one out of jail. But the cost of the 5th was clear: though you could refuse to testify about yourself, you could not refuse to testify about others.

So Seeger invoked the First Amendment instead. A far riskier legal position—the Court had already held, in the case of the Hollywood Ten, that the First Amendment did not protect men and women who refused to testify before HUAC—it was the more principled stance. As Seeger explained later, “The Fifth means they can’t ask me, the First means they can’t ask anybody.” And he paid for it. Cited for contempt of Congress, he was indicted, convicted, and sentenced to a year in prison. Eventually the sentence got overturned.

Second, not only did Seeger refuse to answer questions about his associations and beliefs, but he also did it with great panache. [click to continue…]

The Suspense Breaks

by Belle Waring on January 29, 2014

What Todd Rundgren song is my favorite power pop song you ask? Which? Which Todd Rundgren song?! Clamor has been building up on the blog for some time now. I really thought that would have been obvious, but tastes differ an all. It’s: Couldn’t I Just Tell You. What happens that’s very special? At 2:40 things quiet down; 2:50 all the instruments cut out except the guitar, pretty much, and then they come back, in the form of the drummer coming in and knocking the entire kit over in the business at 2:59. (This latter, by the way, is the perfect length for a song according to The Clash’s Hitsville UK, which notes that “the band went in/and knocked ’em dead/in two minutes fifty-nine.” I loved this song inordinately when I was young, even though in retrospect it sort of has an excess of singers and maybe xylophones or something. No, wait, definitely an excess of xylophones.) The outro has a perfect bend you weren’t expecting.

There’s a playground near John’s parents’ house and I remember going there with his mom and letting her play with then-toddler Zoë while I swung on the swings, pumping my legs back and forth under the overcast, metronome back and forth and just hitting << when the song ended, for more than half an hour. This soft/loud thing at 2:40 sq is a classic power pop move, and in general: having a killer bridge, being relatively short, and not overusing your “rock trick” are the keys to power pop awesome IME. (This track has 16 sec of Todd & co forgetting to start playing after the guitar intro and exhaling bong/nitrous hits at the start, making it in truth a deceptively slim 3:19. It was put out in 1973, a time when people thought things like “sure, keep the tape rolling while you guys do whippets” and “let’s give Todd Rundgren the money to make a double-album!” seemed like good ideas.)

What if I just randomly played other power pop songs from the 90s, 2000-2010 (noting is springing to mind for the last three years) that pulled these moves off well even though it digressed from my 70s-80s power pop thing and put off my epic discussion of the metaphysics of Cheap Trick? What then? Could I get you to argue about that? Or about Todd Rundgren sucking? I feel as if this were a challenge to my blogging powers. If I can possibly induce anyone to argue about Todd Rundgren, well. Oh, shit I could get you to argue about The Strokes thought right? That would be tedious and idiotic of you. DONT BOTHER.
[click to continue…]

Pete Seeger, RIP

by Chris Bertram on January 28, 2014

Pete Seeger, dead at 94.

What’s The Math Made of, Ding-Dong?

by Belle Waring on January 26, 2014

ETA 24h later: I told my girls that I was wrong and that everyone on the whole internet explained that they could perfectly well go on and win the Fields Medal if they were inclined to be mathematicians, and that being super-fast at mental arithmetic as a child isn’t the same as going on to make interesting discoveries in math as an adult, and that I was a jerk, and also wrong. Additionally, wrong. So if Zoë (12) wants to take time out from her current project of teaching herself Japanese, or Violet (9) wishes to take a break from her 150-page novel about the adventures of apprentice witch Skyla Cartwheel, then, in the hypothetical words of the Funky Four Plus One: “They could be the joint.” [Listen to this song because it’s the joint.]

“Y’all’s fakes!”

If you’re impatient you can skip ahead to 3:20 or so. Tl;dw: the overly scientific Princess Bubblegum, having snuck into Wizard City dressed in wizard gear along with Finn and Jake, is buying a spell from a head shop place that sells potions and spells and all that schwazaa. But she wants to know what the spell’s made of. “Magic?” Then she asks…read the post title. Then they get busted.

“So, kiddos,” I asked my kids in the elevator on the way down to the pools today, “are numbers real, or are they just something people made up?” Violet: “Real.” Zoë: “Real.” “That’s correct! Numbers are real! Like what if there were a sakura with its five petals, and it were pink, but no humans existed. Would it still be pink? Would it still have five petals?” [At approximately floor 14 I decided to bracket color problems.] “Yep.” “And things that are true about the number five, would they still be true too, like would five times five equal twenty-five and stuff?” “Totally.” “Could two plus two ever equal five, if there were no people around to check?” Zoë: “No, obviously not. Even now, people have lots of different languages, but if they have a word for five, then that word is about something that’s not two plus two, and it’s twenty-five if you multiply it by itself, and stuff like that. And people discovered zero two times.” “Correct! Math is real!” Zoë: “Also people discover important things about astrophysics with math, and then the same numbers keep turning up, and why would it be like that if there wasn’t really math?” “OK, so, we can keep discovering new things about math, right?” Girls: “Sure. Mathematicians can.” Me: “Maybe you! No, not you. I’m sorry.” Zoë: “I know.” Violet: “What?!” Me: “No, you’re both very intelligent children, you can learn calculus just as well as anyone, but if you were going to be an incredible math genius or something we’d kind of already know. Sorry.” [John was doing laps at this point. I’m not sure he approves of my negative pedagogical methods.] Zoë: “What’s set theory?” Me: “It’s just what it sounds like. There are sets of numbers, right, like all the prime numbers, all the way to infinity? Theories about that.” Violet: “I’m going swimming with daddy.” Me: “OK, there’s just more math out there, waiting to be discovered–but sometimes mathematicians come up with stuff that’s crazy. Like string theory. Which maybe isn’t a theory?” Zoë: “Why not?” Me: “I think they might not have any tests at all proposed by which to prove their hypotheses.” Zoë was very indignant: “That’s not a theory at all! What is that? Me: “Math that’s really fun and weird and entertaining if you understand it? John, can string theorists not propose any test whatsoever that would prove their hypotheses or is it rather the case that we lack the capacity to perform the tests that would figure it out?” John: “It’s an important distinction and I think it’s the latter. Like, was there an even or an odd number of hairs on Zoë’s head on March 23, 2006? There’s some true fact of the matter, but it’s indeterminable.” Me: “Well they can’t be demanding time travel, Jesus.” Violet: “We should have counted!” BEST. SUGGESTION. ERVER!1

OK, so, I’m a Platonist about math. Like lots of mathematicians I knew in grad school, actually, but not by any means all. In fact, some were a little embarrassed about their Platonism. My algebraic topologist friend was of the ‘numbers are the product of human intelligence’ school (N.B. while I understood vaguely what my HS friend who was also at Berkeley did set theory was writing is his diss on, in a kind of babified ‘along these lines’ way, I genuinely could not understand at all what my algebraic topology friend was doing. What, even?) This reminds me of an idiotic discussion I had in a Classics seminar with me vs. an entire group of people (including my dissertation adviser). They all maintained that there were no structures absent human recognition/simultaneous creation of the structures. As in, absent the evolution of humans on the earth, there would be no regular geometric structures. I was just like:?! Crystals that are even now locked in the earth inside geodes, where they will never be seen? Beehives? Wait, are these all imperfect and gently irregular, and thus unsatisfactory? They shouldn’t be because many of the crystals are perfectly regular. Anyway OH HAI ITS BENZENE? I…was neither presented with any compelling counter-arguments nor was I winning the argument. It was very irritating. Then I brought up my own objection–this is steel-manning, I guess: benzene was created/isolated by humans? Like Faraday even? Fine, NOBLE GASES! NOBLE GAS MATRIXES! I can draw argon on the board! Look at how this shell is so full of electrons mmmmm this probably doesn’t want to react with anything cuz it’s so lazy amirite guys (but we can make it (but also in the Crab Nebula it’s happening naturally!) but that’s irrelevant))! I still…did not win the argument. We were forcibly moved on to another topic.

I know people wanted to discuss the external reality/human-created nature of numbers and math in the earlier thread, but we got trolled by someone who was ‘just askin’ questions’ and said I ‘had to check with each and every commenter about exactly what he/she intended’ before taking offense ever at something, say, sexist that someone said. (HhHHmmmyoursuggestionfascina–NO.) Now’s your chance!
N.B. Long-time CT commenter Z alone is permitted to use humorous quotes from recalled Barbie and Malibu Stacey dolls in his discussion with me. If anyone else does I will smite you. With smiting.

Alan Moore Interview

by John Holbo on January 26, 2014

I have no basis for judging the Alan Moore vs. Grant Morrison feud, but Moore’s droll elaborateness about that, and everything else, can just roll on and on and on, as far as I’m concerned.

Ty Templeton’s take on the Moore-Morrison feud is highly partisan, but the grandness of love surely is a flag around which we can all rally. (“I’m camink” is a Herrimanesque neologism of a talk bubble one cannot unsee. Setch diktion! I’m an Offisa Pup-type.)

UPDATE: Grant Morrison’s point-by-point rebuttal is pretty sober and compelling. Since there are actual persons involved, I should probably make clear that I don’t regard ‘droll elaborateness’ as anything like evidence of truth. If anything, the opposite. Moore comes off as manic (as befits his reputation as a magus). That’s what I should has said. He’s so droll yet so manic, the elaborate lengthiness of it serving as a kind of insulation, to keep those two moods from annihilating one another. But if what Moore says about Morrison isn’t true, the sheer entertainment value of the way he says it shouldn’t count for much. Except for entertainment purposes. Perhaps not even that.

Where Would the Tea Party Be Without Feminism?

by Corey Robin on January 24, 2014

In his campaign for reelection to the Senate, Lindsey Graham is facing several challengers from his right, all of whom are complaining that Graham is not conservative enough to represent the state of South Carolina.

One of Graham’s right-wing challengers is Nancy Mace. Like her fellow challengers, Mace claims the mantle of the Tea Party. Unlike her fellow challengers, she’s the first female graduate of The Citadel.

The Citadel was once an all-male military school. In 1995, Shannon Faulkner was the first woman to enroll there. Her effort was spearheaded by the Clinton Administration and the National Organization for Women. She quit after a week, citing extensive harassment at the hands of her male classmates, who danced and cheered as she drove off from the school.

While Faulkner had been pursuing her case at The Citadel, however, the Clinton Administration had been attempting to force the Virginia Military Institute (VMI) to accept women. In June 1996, it succeeded, when the Supreme Court, in United States v. Virginia, struck down VMI’s all-male admissions policy. Three days later, The Citadel gave up its battle against women cadets. That same year, Nancy Mace enrolled there, and graduated in 1999.

The VMI decision was written by feminist Ruth Bader Ginsburg, and was joined by Court liberals John Paul Stevens, David Souter, and Stephen Breyer, as well as Court moderates Sandra Day O’Connor and Anthony Kennedy. The sole hard-right conservative to strike down the VMI policy was Chief Justice William Rehnquist, though he did so on narrower grounds than the majority. Antonin Scalia dissented. Clarence Thomas recused himself because his son was a student at VMI.

And now we have Nancy Mace complaining that Lindsey Graham is too liberal.

Once upon a time, conservatism derived its edge, its sense of will and adversity, from the fact that many of its most illustrious leaders had been outsiders. From Benjamin Disraeli to Phyllis Schlafly, the movement  understood its work as the volition of the upstart. “I was not,” hissed Burke at the end of his life,

like his Grace of Bedford, swaddled, and rocked, and dandled into a legislator; “Nitor in adversum” is the motto for a man like me….At every step of my progress in life, (for in every step was I traversed and opposed,) and at every turnpike I met, I was obliged to show my passport, and again and again to prove my sole title to the honour of being useful to my country, by a proof that I was not wholly unacquainted with its laws, and the whole system of its interests both abroad and at home. Otherwise no rank, no toleration, even for me.

Nowadays, we get stuff like this:

In the summer of 1996, The Citadel opened its doors to women and Nancy took a bold step—she simply hopped in her car and drove to The Citadel to pick up an application. The next day, she submitted it.

A few days later, Nancy was accepted as one of the first women ever to enter the Citadel’s ranks as a “knob.” Nancy took the plunge and joined the Corps of Cadets, eager to follow in her father’s footsteps.

That doesn’t bode well for the movement.

Images From Ukraine

by Belle Waring on January 24, 2014

EDITED TO MAKE CLEARER: I don’t know what’s going on in Ukraine! My general inclination is to support the groups opposed to closer relations with Putin’s repressive Russia, but it’s clear even from the linked photos that there are fascists on the line vs. the riot cops as well. I strongly encourage you to read the comments from readers who are better informed than I.

I am not going to pretend to much knowledge about what has sparked the current outbreak of violent protests in Ukraine. Well, generally, it seems the citizens feel that the government of Ukraine wants to (insists on? Is being mumble*sort of arm twisted* convinced to?) maintain their country’s historically close relationship with Russia (soclose of a relationship) instead of making moves towards eventual EU membership. In November President Yanukovich turned down a trade pact with the EU, and Russia is continually complaining about the EU “meddling” in Ukraine’s affairs (it being in the near abroad and all one imagines). In any case, at the moment rioting has been going on for some days and has turned violent as some protestors have been shot by the police and killed. The Washington Post reports that opposition leaders and the government are in talks, and that two protestors have been killed, but many other sources online say it is as high as five. Basically I just wanted to share these photos with you. Most are originally from Gawker.


You, unknown sir or madam, are officially, totally badass. Really. There may be a statue later.


Testudo! When something works, it keeps working.
[click to continue…]

New Old Keynesianism

by John Quiggin on January 22, 2014

The term “New Old Keynesian” was coined by Tyler Cowen a couple of years ago, to describe the revival of the view that the Keynesian analysis of recessions caused by lack of aggregate demand is relevant, not only in the short run (in this context, the time taken for wage contracts to reset, say 2-3 years) but in the long run (5 years or more) as well. When Cowen was writing, in September 2011, the New Depression could still, just about, be seen as a short run phenomenon[1]. In particular, the anti-Keynesian advocates of austerity in the US, UK and Europe were predicting rapid recovery.

As 2014 begins, it’s clear enough that any theory in which mass unemployment or (in the US case) withdrawal from the labour force can only occur in the short run is inconsistent with the evidence. Given that unions are weaker than they have been for a century or so, and that severe cuts to social welfare benefits have been imposed in most countries, the traditional rightwing explanation that labour market inflexibility [arising from minimum wage laws or unions], is the cause of unemployment, appeals only to ideologues (who are, unfortunately, plentiful).

So, on the face of it, Cowen’s “New Old Keynesianism” looks pretty appealing. But what are the alternatives? Leaving aside anti-Keynesian views for the moment, the terminology suggests four logical possibilities: Old Old Keynesianism, Old New Keynesianism, New Old Keynesianism and New New Keynesianism.

But do these logical possibilities correspond to actual viewpoints, and, if so, whose?

[click to continue…]

Please Go Away Mao, You Are Banned As Well

by Belle Waring on January 22, 2014

Dearest Mao Cheng Ji,
We are the staff and posting priveliges of Crooked webmagazine. We have been recommended to you as a person of trustworthiness for any trolling enterprise. At the moment we have over 5,893,903 (five million, eight-hundred-and-ninety-three-thousand, nine-hundrend-and-three) US comments waiting in the spam queue of a blog that was formed by Hector St. Clare, until recently the most acclaimed and five-times elected troll of our blog. However, his blog has been shut down for some time while he has been in exile from his native land, and for this reason we have no way to access our comments, as we all lack passports because or paperworks problems due to our initial blog-formation not being intended to be a group blog. Our blog was expanded to have more members of the board but the requisite letters of incorporation are awaiting approval and must be approved in many countries at the same time if we are to regain bloggging passports. So we have contacted you to ask you to move to Hector St. Clare’s blog permanently in the hopes that as soon as he re-continues his blog we will be able to access our 5,893,903 US comments currently waiting in the queue. We will need you to assist us in this enterprise by commenting their a small amount to cover the transfer fees but we will be happy to repay you for this service with 20% of the comments 1,178,780 US comments. Thanks be to God, we are all very excited at the prospect of you commenting permanently at Hector’s blog, and never commenting here at Crooked Timber again, under any circumstances, even needing to use a false name. I speak for all of us in saying we were lucky to of been given the chance to use your help to get our comments back from Hector’s blog. We may be contacting you with more details about the 5,893,903 comments.

For real, no. Hector was a substantially better feminist than Mao when it came to recognizing that gendered threats of violence are a special case, worth considering as different from generalized internet threats, for reasons other than ‘prudishness’–namely they are an attempt to drive women out of public fora.

1 + 2 + 3 + 4 + 5 + … = -1/12

by John Holbo on January 21, 2014

I find this confusing. (via Gizmodo.)

For the first time I’m going to write the following sentence. The top YouTube comment link is helpful. Or would be, if I were good at math. I trust.

Belle and I agree that the sleight of hand comes at 3:11 when he ‘shifts it along a little bit’. (My cat is looking at me, skeptically.)

This earlier video provides a nice introduction as well.

The Liberal Surveillance State

by Henry on January 19, 2014

Long time readers of Sean Wilentz will remember him for greatest hits like his notorious piece on the “cutthroat, fraudulent politics that lie at the foundation of Obama’s supposedly uplifting campaign,” involving “the most outrageous deployment of racial politics since the Willie Horton ad campaign in 1988 and the most insidious since Ronald Reagan kicked off his 1980 campaign in Philadelphia, Mississippi, praising states’ rights,” or his claim that not only was Obama’s “most obvious change to liberal politics” the color of his skin, but Obama was the second coming of Jimmy Carter and a starry-eyed Russia-hugger to boot. So it’s very, very weird to see Wilentz criticizing Edward Snowden on the grounds that his “disgruntlement with Obama … was fueled by a deep disdain for progressive politics” – given his own track record on Obama’s brand of progressivism, why on earth would he believe this to be a problem?

But then the whole article – an attempted hack job on Snowden, Greenwald, Assange and the liberals who like them – is weird like that. In one sense, I can understand why the New Republic went for it – it’s perhaps the purest exercise in even~the~liberal~New Republic~ism that the magazine has published since its change in ownership. Yet it’s also so obviously intellectually shoddy and incoherently argued that you’d have thought that any half-way competent editor would have decided that no amount of contrarianism was worth the damage to the magazine’s brand. [click to continue…]

Since Crooked Timber is now a music blog …

by John Holbo on January 19, 2014

… I’d better get with it.

Belle is on this virtuous kick because we finally got all our vinyl out of storage after years and years. One of the first old tracks I elected to play, because random, was “Barricade Beach”, by the Insect Surfers. Here’s the video. (Also, “The Sound of the Surf”. Ah, the 80’s.) So I wonder: where are they now? Turns out they’re still around, and quite awesome. Good for them. Still playing surf stuff!

What band did you like and then forget about for thirty years and then realize are still around?

Or you could just abuse me for my inexplicable affection for the Insect Surfers.