From the monthly archives:

February 2014

A note on an argument about open borders

by Chris Bertram on February 28, 2014

Open borders advocates often advance an argument in terms of a duty to help the global poor. Poor people who succeed in making the journey to more advanced economies are usually more productive; those who are locked out of such economies by hard border controls are kept in dire poverty, often within sight of great riches. And those who are admitted are often an important source of income to family left behind. Those who defend border controls and the right of states to exclude often make the following move: they concede a duty to help the poor, but say that such a duty can be discharged in ways other than admitting poor would-be migrants to wealthy countries. In particular, they argue that such a duty could be discharged by supporting the economic development of poor countries via development aid (Christopher Heath Wellman is an example).

But the problem with such an argument is that it has two parts. The first (conditional) part, says that it is false that we must open our borders to discharge our duty of assistance IF we can discharge that duty some other way. The second empirical part is the claim there is another way, because development aid is an effective way of helping the global poor that is comparable in its beneficial effects to (much more) open borders. In other words, the claim by philosophers and political theorists that the duty could be discharged by development aid needs to be backed up by sound economic evidence that development aid really is an effective means of helping the global poor. Economists such as William Easterly are skeptical that we know enough about economic development to make effective use of development aid. They may be wrong, but philosophers and political theorists shouldn’t make the easy argumentative move to development aid as an alternative to (more) open borders without being sure that the economics supports them.

Notes on “academic blogging”

by Chris Bertram on February 27, 2014

I had a fun day on Tuesday, as my friend Stuart White had invited me to speak at a conference on “academic blogging”, to be precise “Academic Blogging: Political Analysis in the Digital Age” at Oxford. There were some great talks and conversations, but, to me, something was quite weird about it. When we started Crooked Timber back in 2003, universities didn’t really want to know about blogging, it was a fundamentally unserious activity and a distraction from the central tasks of teaching and scholarship. There was also, recognizably, a “blogosphere” composed of sundry citizen-journalists, cranks and enthusiasts (and a few academics) whose members linked and interacted with one another (often in quite civil terms, despite deep differences). Now universities, at least British universities, want to get in on the act, as “impact” and “outreach” are suddenly important. Hence, the sudden impulse to fund blogs backed by universities, or university department or consortiums of universities.
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More on US hypocrisy

by Henry on February 24, 2014

The piece that Marty Finnemore and I wrote on US hypocrisy and Snowden has led to a follow up debate at Foreign Affairs. Michael A. Cohen of the Century Foundation wrote a rebuttal to our piece; Marty and I wrote a response to the rebuttal. Foreign Affairs allows us to put up a version on the WWW for six months – so here it is, for comments, disagreement etc.
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Hard not to take pleasure when a corrupt and autocratic leader is forced from power by popular pressure. Nevertheless, I can’t be the only person whose frisson of excitement at the revolutionary form of the overthrow is accompanied by a shudder at some of the content. As with Egypt, we have the unfortunate precedent of someone who was in power through elections being forced out by non-electoral means, albeit that, like Morsi he abused democratic norms in power. (Erdogan in Turkey also springs to mind as an abuser of democratic norms; I hope the Turkish people vote him out.) Then there are the frankly fascist affiliations of some of the opposition leaders, like Oleh Tyahnybok whose Svoboda party has “observer status” in an “Alliance of European National Movements” that includes the Hungarian Jobbik and the British National Party.

However, one can perhaps overlook some of that as an exigency of circumstance and hope that most of the insurgents are cut from more liberal cloth. However, we now have the fact that the Parliament just annulled a bill permitting Russian to be an official language in regions with largely Russian-speaking populations. That’s a clear sign that the new Ukraine does not regard all its citizens are equals and as genuine members of the state, that the winners conceive the “people” as an ethnos rather than a demos. Personally, I hope the EU make any financial support – which Ukraine will need to pay its Russian gas bills – conditional on the full integration of all Ukrainians as equals without regard to ethnic or linguistic background.

A Problem Like Viktor

by Erin Baumann on February 21, 2014

The below is a guest post by Erin Baumann, who is an occasional lecturer in politics at University College Dublin, and is currently working on two academic articles on the politics of Ukraine.

After speculation began early this morning with an announcement from the Ukrainian presidential press service, Opposition leaders and the Foreign Ministers of Poland, France, and Germany have finally confirmed the outline of a temporary agreement on the resolution of Ukraine’s current political crisis.  Under the new agreement work is set to begin sometime in the supposed near future on the formation of a “government of national trust” and on the reinstatement of the country’s 2004 Constitution – which strips the president of a number of powers and, for all intents and purposes, reforms the state into a parliamentary republic.  In addition, the agreement stipulates the calling of early presidential elections. [click to continue…]

DJ Earworm: Just What It Says On The Tin

by Belle Waring on February 21, 2014

Every year since 2007, DJ Earworm has brought us the United States of Pop for the given year, made of the top 25 hits on the US charts. (2009 was the breakout year that he took it to the next level, though.) DJ Earworm is by no means my favorite mashup artist, that being Girl Talk. (Or bootleg artist. Remember when they were called bootlegs? Remember get your bootleg on, guys? OK, successors exist wev. Le sigh.) But what Girl Talk does is take good songs–well, and some cheesy songs that you suddenly love–and make amazing, full-length immersive album-length experiences. If he has a defect it’s that he’s a cock-tease. He will have you losing your mind for 53 seconds after which the dropped stitch of under-track two is picked up to be the instrumental for a hilariously incomprehensible Weezy rap about how it ain’t his birthday but he got his name on the cake. Which, admittedly, is funny, but sometimes you just want to shake Girl Talk by the shoulders and say, “enough with the art, bitch; make me a song!” Like here, this whole track should just be Radiohead vs Jay-Z. It is superlative. Yet!–the last minute is a riot and could hold its own as a separate track. It would rank #108 vs the first minute’s #1, but still.


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(This is a guest post by Antoaneta Dimitrova, associate professor at the University of Leiden. We have edited for style.)

As the protests in Ukraine descended into violence in recent days and weeks, commentators focused on Russia’s geopolitical game and the EU’s incapability to counteract it. It’s hard to doubt Russia’s leadership was seriously perturbed by the Orange revolution and is determined not to lose influence in Ukraine again. It also seems clear that Putin’s intention in urging President Yanukovich not to sign the long negotiated Association agreement with the EU has been to encourage Ukraine to join the Russia-dominated Eurasian Economic Union instead. According to a friendly source, a treaty for Ukraine is currently under preparation in Moscow. Further speculations that Putin and more recently Medvedev have urged Yanukovich to use violence are still unproven, if plausible, and smack of the justifiably forgotten science of Kremlinology. [click to continue…]

James Madison and Elia Kazan: Theory and Practice

by Corey Robin on February 19, 2014

James Madison, Federalist 51:

The constant aim is…that the private interest of every individual may be a sentinel over the public rights.

Elia Kazan, on why he named names:

 

Reason 1: “I’ve got to think of my kids.”

Reason 2: “All right, I earned over $400,000 last year from theater. But Skouras [head of Twentieth-Century Fox] says I’ll never make another movie. You’ve spent your money, haven’t you? It’s easy for you. But I’ve got a stake.”

In the dark shadow of history

by Eszter Hargittai on February 17, 2014

I was born and raised (for the most part) in Budapest, my parents and other family and friends still live there, but I rarely comment on its politics. I couldn’t stay silent on a particular aspect any longer, however. Please read this piece I wrote, one that is very political, but also very personal. The place is a mess and the world needs to know. And it needs to care.

Look Who Nick Kristof’s Saving Now

by Corey Robin on February 16, 2014

For the last few months, I’ve had a draft post sitting in my dashboard listing all the words and phrases I’d like to see banished from the English language. At the top—jockeying for the #1 slot with “yummy,” “closure” and “it’s all good”—is “public intellectual.”

I used to like the phrase; it once even expressed an aspiration of mine. But in the years since Russell Jacoby wrote his polemic against the retreat of intellectuals to the ivory tower, it’s been overworked as a term of abuse.

What was originally intended as a materialist analysis of the relationship between politics, economics, and culture—Jacoby’s aim was to analyze how real changes in the economy and polity were driving intellectuals from the public square—has become little more than a rotten old chestnut that lazy journalists, pundits, and reviewers like to keep in their back pocket for whenever they’re short of copy. Got nothing to say? Nothing on your mind? Not to worry: here’s a beating-a-dead-horse-piece-that-writes-itself about the jargony academic who writes only for her peers in specialized journals that only a handful of people read.

To wit, Nicholas Kristof’s column in today’s New York Times: [click to continue…]

The tooth fairy and the traditionality of modernity

by John Quiggin on February 15, 2014

Salon magazine reports another instance of CP Snow’s observation that all ancient traditions date from the second half of the 19th century. This time, it’s the Tooth Fairy. As you would expect, the Tooth Fairy turns out to be a codification and modification of a bunch of older local practices, many involving a mouse or rat.

This seemed like a good time to rerun one of my posts that stirred up plenty of trouble at the time, making the point that we are “now living in a society that’s far more tradition-bound than that of the 19th Century, and in some respects more so than at any time since at least the Middle Ages”.

I’ll just add that CP Snow was writing in the 1950s, pretty much equidistant between the late 19th century and the present day, strengthening my observation that the “invention of tradition” is now something of a traditional concept (though the phrase itself, due to Hobsbawm and Ranger, is a mere 30 years old).
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Announcing the Capability Project

by Ingrid Robeyns on February 15, 2014

Within a week or so, I will start writing a series of posts on the capability approach, a theory/paradigm/framework that is used in philosophy and the social sciences for a variety of purposes (wiki, IEP, SEP). This Capability Project is in part a self-binding mechanism to make sure that by the end of the Summer I will not have to write to my editor at Open Book to tell them that, for the third year in a row, I need another year to finish my book on the capability approach; and the post series is also in part a chance to publicly respond to some issues that students and others have been emailing me about privately, or issues that have popped up in seminars or teaching.

If you have topics that you want to see discussed, or if you have questions about the capability approach, you can send them to me at ingrid.robeyns [at] gmail.com; I will most likely not respond to those emails [apart from possibly acknowledging safe receipt] but hope to address all or most of them in due course here on our blog. Other Timberites have also done some work on the capability approach, so perhaps they may also join the party at some point.

Silence and Segregation

by Corey Robin on February 14, 2014

Toward the end of his life the legendary French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan would lead his seminars in almost absolute silence. Though he suffered from some kind of aphasia, Lacan’s silences are often held to signify more than silence. In keeping with his theory, they mark a presence. Silence speaks.

I thought of Lacan when I read this statement from Clarence Thomas, which Jonathan Chait flagged the other day.

My sadness is that we are probably today more race and difference-conscious than I was in the 1960s when I went to school. To my knowledge, I was the first black kid in Savannah, Georgia, to go to a white school. Rarely did the issue of race come up. Now, name a day it doesn’t come up. Differences in race, differences in sex, somebody doesn’t look at you right, somebody says something. Everybody is sensitive. If I had been as sensitive as that in the 1960s, I’d still be in Savannah. Every person in this room has endured a slight. Every person. Somebody has said something that has hurt their feelings or did something to them — left them out.

Critics of Thomas like Chait see this kind of talk as either outright lies or utter foolishness. Can Thomas really believe that the segregated South of his youth was less race-conscious than today? Does he really believe that not talking about race (if southerners did in fact not talk about race) signifies the absence of race consciousness?

But the immediate pairing of these two sentences in Thomas’s talk—”I was the first black kid in Savannah, Georgia, to go to a white school. Rarely did the issue of race come up.”—is too suggestive to leave it at that.

Look carefully at what Thomas is saying: I personally desegregated a white school; we never talked about race. The juxtaposition is so jarring, it can only be read as a kind of Lacanian gap. That fissure is precisely where the secret of the sentences is to be found. However unintentional or unconscious, it signals the connection between absence and presence, silence and segregation.

If you think I’m over-reading this, remember that silence has long been a racially fraught topic for Clarence Thomas. He doesn’t ask questions during oral argument at the Supreme Court. Why? Because, he has said, he was teased when he was younger for speaking English in the Geechee/Gullah dialect of black slaves and their descendants. So he learned to keep quiet, as an undergraduate, at Yale Law School, and now on the bench. Silence was a protective mechanism against racist humiliation, a marker not of the absence of race but of the presence of racism.

There’s a structural, even causal, relationship between those two sentences of Thomas. And, despite his protestations, he knows it. Somewhere, somehow.

Death and Taxes

by Corey Robin on February 14, 2014

Last year I wrote, somewhat tongue in cheek, that socialism is about converting hysterical misery into ordinary unhappiness.

This is what I meant.

Socialism won’t eliminate the sorrows of the human condition. Loss, death, betrayal, disappointment, hurt: none of these would disappear or even be mitigated in a socialist society. As the Pirkei Avot puts it, against your will you enter this world, against your will you leave it. (Or something like that.) That’s not going to change under socialism.

(Oh, by the way, Happy Valentine’s Day.)

But what socialism can do is to arrange things so that you can deal with and confront these unhappinesses of the human condition. Not flee from or avoid them because you’re so consumed by the material constraints and hassles of everyday life.

I was reminded of that post reading this wonderful piece by Anya Shiffrin about the death of her father.

Last spring, André Shiffrin, the legendary publisher, was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer (he died in December). A New Yorker through and through, he nevertheless decided to spend his last months in Paris, where he and his wife had an apartment and where he had been born. It proved to be a wise move, as Anya explains. [click to continue…]

Two cheers for Scottish independence

by Chris Bertram on February 13, 2014

Britain’s Tory Chancellor of the Exchequer, George Osborne, is today threatening pro-independence Scots that if they secede then they can’t have the pound sterling as their currency any more. This is a problem for SNP leader Alec Salmond because he’s been peddling the idea that an independent Scotland will continue to enjoy a common currency, a notion that appeals to risk-averse Scots. A few years ago, the euro might have looked an appealing alternative to sterling, but now it looks much less so. But though Salmond has rather painted himself into a corner on this one, I’m struggling to see why an independent Scotland having its own money would be such a bad idea. After all, the various Scandinavian countries seem to get by perfectly well with their different kroner, so why not Scotland? Scotland’s economy is significantly different from England’s anyway, with natural resources playing a bigger part in one, and financial services in other. Better for everyone to have separate currencies, with different interest rates and floating exchange rates so as to adjust to circumstances. (Having a different currency for the north of England and Wales might be nice too … or alternatively grant independence to London as a new Singapore.)

The other major worry about independence from the official Great British point of view is that “we” would have far less weight and influence in the world. The UK already has less influence that its political elites delude themselves that it has, but at least an independent Scotland would end that delusion. Facing up to reality probably means that the UK would be less tempted to waste billions on the post-imperial accoutrements of military power (new fighters, nuclear weapons and the like). And then not having that stuff would make the UK less able, and therefore less willing, to join in with rash invasions and interventions, and to to send task forces to recapture distant outposts. Further, without the delusion that the UK is a great power, its politicians would be forced to adopt a more co-operative relationship with neighbouring countries, both in the EU and the various states that would compose our Atlantic archipelago. No longer able to go it alone: the UK would have to work with others.

So Scottish independence, what’s is there not to like about it? Well, nationalism, I suppose. But having more and smaller democratic nations, forced to rub along with their neighbours for pragmatic reasons of mutual-self interest. Sounds good to me. Of course the English left worry about the prospect of permanent Tory government if Scotland secedes. This concern is probably exaggerated. The political dynamics of a weakened Anglo-Welsh rump would be different over time and the demographics probably favour the left, as younger voter are considerably more liberal and cosmopolitan in their attitudes than the over 55s. So here’s hoping for the end of the UK and its replacement by a post-imperial patchwork of smaller countries.