My colleagues Diana Hess and Paula McAvoy will publish a book later this year called The Political Classroom, containing a study of high school teachers who teach controversial issues. Their presentation at a recent conference for philosophers made me think it might be a good idea to articulate my answer to one of the questions the book raises: whether teachers of controversial issues should disclose their views about the issues they teach about (their earlier discussion of disclosure is included in Hess’s book, Controversy in the Classroom). I’m articulating it not to try and persuade anyone, but to broaden the discussion – I’ve only ever discussed these issues with my students themselves, and with close colleagues.
[click to continue…]

I have endless important topics I need to, should and must blog about, not least the fact that I was in Crimea some time back and am currently glued to the radio, thinking very hard about it and not sure quite what to say. But anyway, I hope this post may end up being useful to somebody, somewhere, sometime.

Right now, I’m doing a lot of what consultants term ‘desk research’. That is, I read a lot of stuff on the Internet, must of it about technical topics. Every now and then, some person or organisation I admire collects a lot of information into a report they are really proud of – and which looks incredibly useful to me – and I think ‘that is so good I’m going go ahead and read the whole thing.’ And that’s when the nuisance begins.

Look, I am old. Or what to my parents’ generation was called middle-aged, anyway. (When I was a teenager, women my current age wore scarves to protect their weekly set.) When I am very interested in something I’m reading on the Internet, I print it out and scribble, underline and write things on it. That’s what we old-timers do. Actually, I think that’s what most people still do when they want to ‘engage with a text’, and it’s why despite being a crazy-early adopter of Kindle type devices, I haven’t used one in over five years. (But I am grateful to e-readers for finally liberating me from the fear that scribbling on books and bending down their corners is desecration. It may also be my own mortality that causes me to mark things I am reading, as a none too subtle note to myself that it’s the only literary mark I am likely to make. Also, it helps me to remember later on that I’ve read something and even what I thought of it.)

Anyway, back to the PDFs of the useful and improving reports on matters technical or technocratic (it’s all the same in my world, that of Internet policy). The problem is, the people who produce these reports – and I am not naming names, because that would be ungrateful and the reports really are great, just unreadable – are so thrilled or relieved to finally get them out the door, they whip up something that looks great on the screen and just publish it to the Internet where saps like me download it and print it out at our own expense. Now I am happy and delighted to print this stuff at my own expense. It’s the ability of organisations to externalise this cost that makes it possible for many more people to get their stuff. But the wonderfully unbounded nature of online dissemination also stops those people from thinking about the reality and cost to their readers of actually printing and reading their work.

Probably back in the olden days when the world wide web was new, people would whip up something that looked great in print, put it online without doing anything else, be underwhelmed by the response and then sit through hours of expensive, off-site design seminars being told that is a totally wrong way to go about online publishing and the reason we can’t have nice things. Now the problem is kind of silly, really. People design documents that look great on a screen, publicise and publish it online, and send out to the home and office printers of the world an offering whose form is so irritating it detracts from the content.

So here is my free, in-your-own-time design seminar about what not to do when you hit ‘upload PDF’ to your website. [click to continue…]

You may want to not just focus on the obvious questions. My gloomy prediction: it’s going to transform Europe’s debate about energy, in a largely negative direction. The current battle between environmentalists and business interests about how to deal with global warming is already heavily lopsided in favor of the business interests. Very shortly, it’s going to be a three way battle between (1) environmentalists, (2) business interests, and (3) people arguing that European security requires energy independence (many of (3) being funded by (2), which doesn’t mean that they don’t have a point). Efforts to find a quick and dirty way of escaping dependence on Russian gas are likely to focus on fracking as the obvious low cost alternative, and will ditch regulations that get in the way of hydraulic fracturing a-go-go. This, in turn, will create new and powerful business interests who have an interest in keeping the fossil fuel racket going as long as possible. Which means that Europe will scuttle backwards even more quickly from its global commitments, and from any process that might oblige it to make new ones. And then, basically, goodbye to any hope of tackling global warming in this generation or the the next, since Europe is the only major global actor plausibly willing to push for action.

There may be plausible counter-arguments to this (obviously – I’m not an energy economist). It could be, for example, that renewables can be scaled up quickly and easily enough to provide an alternative source of energy security. It could be that there’s some basic logical or factual flaw in my argument (wouldn’t be the first time). I’d really, really love to be wrong on this. But at the moment, I’m not seeing how.

Ukraine: who to read, what to believe?

by Chris Bertram on March 3, 2014

As a non-expert, I find myself scouring the various news columns and op-eds trying to work out what’s true and false about the situation in the Ukraine, who to believe, what to trust. It isn’t easy, given that the two “sides” (or is that three or four) fail to sort themselves neatly into the mental maps we all have to organize this kind of thing. One such map, beloved of the “decent left” tries to fit everything into a 1938. That’s tempting, but then who is Hitler, who are the Nazis, who are the Sudeten Germans? Things don’t quite line up. And then there’s the narrative of the plucky little insurrectionists against their post-Soviet overlords: Hungary 56, Prague 68? But once again, people aren’t fitting neatly into the little boxes. Then think of those crises, Hungary in particular, or the East German revolt. How many Western leftists tried to read them (and misread them) through the glass of Soviet opposition to Nazism? During the Balkan wars of the 90s my own imaginary had plucky multi-ethnic Bosnia as the incarnation of liberal republicanism, resisting the ethnic tyranny of the Serbs. But there were plenty of of leftists who saw things in terms of the dastardly German-collaborating (and backed) Croats with their UstaÅ¡e past, versus the Serbian partisans. One friend from Northern Ireland said on Facebook that a relative had told him that the key to understanding any conflict was to work out who are the “Protestants” and who are the “Catholics”. I can’t think that’s going to help here (or in Syria for that matter): we all get trapped by these heuristics.

Reading Christopher Clarke’s The Sleepwalkers last night, I came across a discussion (I’ve only just started the book) of Serbia’s Foreign Minister Milovanovic and his predicament in the crisis of 1908: a moderate and pragmatist trapped by the rhetoric of the more extreme nationalists, who could and would denounce any compromise with the enemies of the people. Hard not to think or parallels with Vitali Klitschko and the other opposition leaders who cut a deal with Yanukovych but couldn’t make it stick with the Euromaidan for fear of being howled down as traitors themselves. Presumably they saw that running Yanukovych out of town on the day after the deal would be certain to get a nasty reaction from Putin, but what else could they do? And now here we are, with the Russians in the Crimea, the rouble plummeting and the prospect of a new cold war, with everyone apparently fated to play their allotted roles. Meanwhile, the hapless John Kerry tells us – with no self-awareness whatsoever – that, in the 21st century, you can’t invade foreign countries on trumped-up charges.

For what it’s worth I found Mark Ames useful, Paul Mason insightful and Timothy Snyder propagandistic. And here’s Ben Judah on why Russia no longer fears the West. With my political philosopher hat on, I can say that just states find ways to integrate their citizens across ethnic and linguistic divides, that the boundaries set by history should not be sacrosanct, but that people shouldn’t try to change them by force of arms. Political philosophy will not have much impact on how this all turns out.