From the monthly archives:

April 2014

Right wing tribalists: A lost cause

by John Quiggin on April 30, 2014

Rightwing tribalism seems to be the topic du jour, or maybe I’m noticing it more having just done a long-planned post on the topic. Here are some recent examples

* Jamelle Bouie in Slate, headed “Conservative Tribalism” with the write-off

Mass transit. Common Core. Light bulbs. Conservatives hate these things for no better reason than that liberals like them.

* Tim Donovan in Salon, on The Right’s Paranoid Tribalism

and relatedly

* Digby in Slate on Southern white males as a voting bloc unremittingly hostile to the Dems on tribal grounds (my thoughts on this here)

Over the fold, I’ve reprised the piece (from a 2007 review of Clive Hamilton’s book Scorcher) when I first realized the central role of tribalism, as opposed to ideology or economic self-interest, in contemporary rightwing politics. Rereading it, I’m happy with most of the analysis, though obviously, with my characteristic over-optimism and shortening of time-frames, I did not anticipate the full tenacity of rightwing resistance on this issue.

What can be done about rightwing tribalism? There’s no point in traditional strategies of compromise and bargaining. The right don’t hate policies, they hate the people and groups they see as proposing those policies. So, as Bouie observes, the moment Obama adopts a policy favored by the right, they turn against it.

The strategy of trying to frame issues in rightwing terms, pushed by Lakoff and others, is similarly hopeless: it’s not the issues, but the people that are the problem. There’s one big exception to this: if they issue can be framed as Big Government vs the little guy, as in the cases of NSA surveillance and, more interestingly, of attempts by utilities to suppress rooftop solar power using ALEC-backed legislation, it’s possible to make common cause with at least some on the right, who hate “the guvment” even more than liberals and environmentalists. But that’s only true of a minority of the right, and a handful of issues.

Most of the time, none of these strategies will work. The only thing that will work is persuading rightwing tribalists to abandon their tribal identity, and persuading non-tribalists of conservative inclinations that they should not ally with this group. And of course, waiting for time and demography to take their course, as has already happened to a substantial extent.

[click to continue…]

Inequality and the arts

by Henry on April 30, 2014

Tyler Cowen on inequality and the arts.

>Piketty fears the stasis and sluggishness of the rentier, but what might appear to be static blocks of wealth have done a great deal to boost dynamic productivity. Piketty’s own book was published by the Belknap Press imprint of Harvard University Press, which received its initial funding in the form of a 1949 bequest from Waldron Phoenix Belknap, Jr., an architect and art historian who inherited a good deal of money from his father, a vice president of Bankers Trust. (The imprint’s funds were later supplemented by a grant from Belknap’s mother.) And consider Piketty’s native France, where the scores of artists who relied on bequests or family support to further their careers included painters such as Corot, Delacroix, Courbet, Manet, Degas, Cézanne, Monet, and Toulouse-Lautrec and writers such as Baudelaire, Flaubert, Verlaine, and Proust, among others.

> Notice, too, how many of those names hail from the nineteenth century. Piketty is sympathetically attached to a relatively low capital-to-income ratio. But the nineteenth century, with its high capital-to-income ratios, was in fact one of the most dynamic periods of European history. Stocks of wealth stimulated invention by liberating creators from the immediate demands of the marketplace and allowing them to explore their fancies, enriching generations to come.

Corey has [argued]( that this passage displays a Nietzsche-meets-Hayek logic under which the idle rich serve (and should serve) as cultural taste-setters for the rest of us. Tyler would very likely disagree. But if he were to disagree, I think he’d have to state why it is better for culture that only the independently wealthy and their intimate dependents enjoy this kind of liberty. Cue [George Scialabba](, in a recent post on the history of _Partisan Review._

>There’s a reason why a lot of modern culture was produced by people living on a shoestring, from the New York intellectuals to all those poets and painters starving in their fabled garrets. It’s time-consuming to do something original; it requires bad manners, or at least a lack of automatic deference for received wisdom; and it helps to have an abundance of low-paid but undemanding jobs around–mailman, night watchman, librarian, clerical worker–that one can drift in and out of, as well as a few cheap urban neighborhoods where like-minded artistic riff-raff can congregate. (Russell Jacoby’s description, in The Last Intellectuals, of the ecology of the freelance intellectual has never been bettered.)

>This scruffy, relaxed, undisciplined lifestyle–which rested on a political economy of full employment, free education, generous public services (including, let’s not forget, a fully funded postal service not handicapped by the current huge giveaway of practically free service to the credit-card industry), decent urban mass transit, and public subsidies for culture–is just what a business-dominated society makes it increasingly difficult to achieve, or even aspire to. Globalization, tight money, slashed government budgets, the destruction of unions: the result of all these and the rest of the corporate agenda is pervasive insecurity.

If you want to argue that Piketty (and other critics of inequality) fail to appreciate how inequality fosters the “dynamic productivity” of culture, you really need to show how culture is more dynamic under high inequality than it is under conditions of low inequality. Otherwise, your argument is beside the point (if all that you’re saying is that high inequality has some cultural payoffs while admitting that low inequality has greater payoffs, your criticism is probably not worth articulating in the first place). More precisely, you want to show that confining cultural production to a small minority of independently wealthy individuals (or those who can be supported by wealthy families or patrons) is better than allowing a larger, and much more heterogenous group of people the necessary freedom “from the immediate demands of the marketplace” to produce art and culture. Otherwise, your argument for the cultural benefits of high inequality undermines itself. If freedom from the marketplace is a good thing for culture, then, as per George’s discussion, it surely should be spread around among a wider variety of people.

I’ve just finished Elizabeth Bear’s _Eternal Sky_ sequence (Powells, Amazon). It’s fantasy, based around a rough analogue to Central-Asia-plus-China-plus-bits-of-Rus, in which pasty skinned Westerners are weird and occasional aberrations. It’s also enormous fun. It’s also technically impressive in its grasp of how feudal and tribal societies actually work. Bear really gets the consequences of imperfect information sharing in pre-modern societies and uses it as a core engine of plot. Rather than the usual fantasy model of ‘bunch of disparate comrades united on a single heroic quest,’ it goes for the far trickier ‘bunch of disparate comrades who split up and go in many different directions, most of the time with only the vaguest idea of what the others are doing.’ It pains me to think how much work she must have done to keep track of who knows what at which point, but it pays off. The really nice part is that the villain (who bears a strong resemblance to Hassan-i Sabbāh) is not a commander of the usual armies of mindless hordes. Instead, he mostly has to work through treachery, dissimulation and manipulation of collective knowledge. His magics (which are costly) mostly involve better communication, which allow him both to work more easily with subordinates, and to spread disinformation so that it takes hold quickly, forestalling some alliances while encouraging others. [click to continue…]

The New York Times reports on a complicated Supreme Court case involving the First Amendment rights of a public employee in Alabama (h/t Mark Ames). The case boils down to this: Edward Lane, a state employee, was subpoenaed to testify at a federal trial about the corruption of another state employee. As a result of his testimony, Lane was fired by his boss. Lane claims that his First Amendment rights were violated; the lower courts have ruled against him. Now the Supreme Court is considering the case.

But this in the Times report is what caught my eye: [click to continue…]

A Parade of Improbabilities

by Henry on April 29, 2014


Felix Gilman’s new book, _The Revolutions_ is out (Powells, Amazon) . It’s very, very good. The novel starts from the strange blend of middle-class self improvement, encounter with (and misappropriation of) ideas from Asia and social change that led to an explosion of occultism in the late Victorian period. In Gilman’s fin-de-siecle London, the theosophists’ view of the universe was _actually right_ (or, if not right, at least possessed of a convincing verisimilitude), allowing him to mix astral travel, lordlings of dubious personal character, ruthless newspaper magnate-magicians with a planetary romance involving diaphanous Martians, now exiled from their ruined world to its two moons. But it’s a Gilman book, hence tricky. The title combines the “revolutions of the spheres,” that occultists must calculate to travel outside the boundaries of the Earth, with the revolutions in human understanding, as people really began to understand the nature of cosmological space and geological time.

[click to continue…]

Not Actually Sunday Anymore Sunday Photoblogging

by Belle Waring on April 28, 2014


Countering Thomas Piketty’s critique of inherited wealth, Tyler Cowen suggests that such dynastic accumulations of private wealth may be a precondition of great art:

Piketty fears the stasis and sluggishness of the rentier, but what might appear to be static blocks of wealth have done a great deal to boost dynamic productivity. Piketty’s own book was published by the Belknap Press imprint of Harvard University Press, which received its initial funding in the form of a 1949 bequest from Waldron Phoenix Belknap, Jr., an architect and art historian who inherited a good deal of money from his father, a vice president of Bankers Trust. (The imprint’s funds were later supplemented by a grant from Belknap’s mother.) And consider Piketty’s native France, where the scores of artists who relied on bequests or family support to further their careers included painters such as Corot, Delacroix, Courbet, Manet, Degas, Cézanne, Monet, and Toulouse-Lautrec and writers such as Baudelaire, Flaubert, Verlaine, and Proust, among others. [click to continue…]

Sunday photoblogging #3: Boats moored at Reykjavik

by Chris Bertram on April 27, 2014

How We Do Intellectual History at the New York Times

by Corey Robin on April 26, 2014

You see, says Sam Tanenhaus, it’s not just that Thomas Piketty may be right, or that he’s been doing this research for years, or even that he’s tapping into widespread concerns about inequality. No, it’s that every decade, America needs an icon of ideas, who embodies in her person (rather than merely her arguments), the dream life of the nation. In the 1960s, it was Susan Sontag. In the 1970s, it was Christopher Lasch. In the 1980s, it was Allan Bloom. In the 1990s, it was Francis Fukuyama (who wrote his essay in 1989, but decades will be decades). In the 2000s, it was Samantha Power. Yes, Robert Putnam was a “gifted thinker,” but remember the Rule of Decades: you can only have one every ten years. And, sure, Tanenhaus says you can have two or three, but you definitely can’t have two whose last names start with P. And Power has a “flowing red mane”—like Sontag had a flowing black mane, and then a flowing black mane with a silver streak—so she was the better choice. And now there’s Piketty. And he’s French, you see, which means he’s kind of like Sontag. And he’s good-looking like Sontag and Power. And he has hair too. And on Twitter they’re debating whether he’s hot or not. Which they would have done with Sontag back in the Sixties, but there was no Twitter then. And, oh shucks, let the man speak for himself:

All of which is to say that however original Mr. Piketty’s economic argument may be, he is the newest version of a familiar, if not exactly common specimen: the overnight intellectual sensation whose stardom reflects the fashions and feelings of the moment.

And that, my friends, is how we do intellectual history—no, sorry, “cultural studies” (they really use that phrase, right above the headline, which is “Hey, Big Thinker”; where is Dwight Macdonald when you need him?)—at the New York Times.

Henry has nudged me a little, every so often, towards participating more in the life of Crooked Timber — or participating at all, really, since it’s been almost four years since my last posting. Fair enough. And so now, without further ado: Here I am again, ready to complain.

The Marxist Internet Archive ( is a vast and growing resource, run entirely by donated labor, and as polylingual as circumstances permit. (Do they have Trotsky in Tagalog? Indeed they do.) Yesterday, a notice appeared in the Archive’s Facebook group, and also on its homepage, saying that Lawrence & Wishart’s lawyers demand removal of material from the Marx-Engels Collected Works: “Accordingly, from 30th April 2014, no material from MECW is available from English translations of Marx and Engels from other sources will continue to be available.”

Responding to L&W’s demand in a suitable manner would require someone with Marx’s or Engels’s knack for invective and scatology, and I’m not even going to try. But the idea that most of their work is going to be removed from the website on May Day is just grotesque.
[click to continue…]

On the death of Gabriel García Márquez

by Corey Robin on April 23, 2014

Greg Grandin writes in The Nation:

Born in 1927, Gabriel García Márquez was 87 when he died last week. According to his younger brother, Jaime, he had been suffering from complications caused by chemotherapy, which saved his life but accelerated his dementia, a disease that apparently ran in his family. He’d call his brother and ask to be reminded about simple things. “He has problems with his memory,” Jaime reported a few years back.

Remembering and forgetting are García Márquez’s great themes, so it would be easy to read meaning into his senility. The writer was fading into his own solitude, suffering the same fate he assigned to the inhabitants of his fictional town of Macondo, in his most famous novel, One Hundred Years of Solitude. Struck by an insomnia plague, “sinking irrevocably into the quicksand of forgetfulness,” they had to make signs telling themselves what to remember. “This is a cow. She must be milked.” “God exists.” [click to continue…]

Happy Krauthammer Day

by Henry on April 22, 2014

The day has rolled around again when we celebrate Charles Krauthammer’s linking of his, and his administration friends’ credibility to a confident prediction about Iraqi weapons of mass destruction.

bq. Hans Blix had five months to find weapons. He found nothing. We’ve had five weeks. Come back to me in five months. If we haven’t found any, we will have a credibility problem.

We’ve had over twenty five five month periods since then. There have been lots, and lots of words from Charles Krauthammer in the interim (most recently – pushing against “disclosure”: of political funding because people might be mean to rich donees). Discoveries of Iraqi nuclear weapons? Not so much.

Tu Quoque

by John Quiggin on April 21, 2014

I’ve written many posts and articles making the point that the political right, in most English speaking countries[^1] has been taken over by a tribalist post-truth politics in which all propositions, including the conclusions of scientific research, are assessed in terms of their consistency or otherwise with tribal prejudices and shibboleths.

Very occasionally, intellectuals affiliated with the political right (conservatives and libertarians) will seek to deny this, arguing that isolated instances are being blown out of proportion, and that the right as a whole is committed to reasoned, fact-based argument and acceptance of “inconvenient truths’ arising from the conclusions of scientific research[^2], [^3].

But, far more often their response takes the form of a tu quoque or, in the language of the schoolyard, “you’re another”. That is, they seek to argue that the left is just as tribalist and anti-science as the right. Favored examples of alleged left tribalism included any rhetoric directed at rightwing billionaires ( Murdoch, the Kochs and so on). The standard examples of alleged left anti-science are GMOs, nuclear power and anti-vaxerism, but it is also sometimes claimed that US Democrats are just as likely as Republicans to be creationists.

I’ll argue over the fold that these examples don’t work. What’s more important, though, is what the tu quoque argument says about those who deploy it, and their view of politics. The implied claim is that politics is inherently a matter of tribalism and emotion, and that there is no point in complaining about this. The only thing to do is to pick a side and stick to it. What passes for political argument is simply a matter of scoring debating points for your side and demolishing those of the others. So, anyone who uses tu quoque as a defence, rather than seeking to dissuade their own side from tribalist and anti-science rhetoric, deserves no more respect than the tribalists and science deniers themselves, who at least have the defence of ignorance.

[click to continue…]

Max Weber’s Birthday

by Henry on April 21, 2014

Max Weber was born 150 years ago today. People should read his two seminal essays, Science as a Vocation, and Politics as a Vocation (PDFs), if they haven’t already. Both are rambling, but with nuggets of genuine genius. To mark the occasion, the famous closing paragraphs of Science as a Vocation (these words carry a very different resonance after Nazism and the Holocaust than before)

The fate of our times is characterized by rationalization and intellectualization and, above all, by the ‘disenchantment of the world.’ Precisely the ultimate and most sublime values have retreated from public life either into the transcendental realm of mystic life or into the brotherliness of direct and personal human relations. It is not accidental that our greatest art is intimate and not monumental, nor is it accidental that today only within the smallest and intimate circles, in personal human situations, in pianissimo, that something is pulsating that corresponds to the prophetic pneuma, which in former times swept through the great communities like a firebrand, welding them together. If we attempt to force and to ‘invent’ a monumental style in art, such miserable monstrosities are produced as the many monuments of the last twenty years. If one tries intellectually to construe new religions without a new and genuine prophecy, then, in an inner sense, something similar will result, but with still worse effects. And academic prophecy, finally, will create only fanatical sects but never a genuine community.

To the person who cannot bear the fate of the times like a man, one must say: may he rather return silently, without the usual publicity build-up of renegades, but simply and plainly. The arms of the old churches are opened widely and compassionately for him. After all, they do not make it hard for him. One way or another he has to bring his ‘intellectual sacrifice’–that is inevitable. If he can really do it, we shall not rebuke him. For such an intellectual sacrifice in favor of an unconditional religious devotion is ethically quite a different matter than the evasion of the plain duty of intellectual integrity, which sets in if one lacks the courage to clarify one’s own ultimate standpoint and rather facilitates this duty by feeble relative judgments. In my eyes, such religious return stands higher than the academic prophecy, which does not clearly realize that in the lecture-rooms of the university no other virtue holds but plain intellectual integrity. Integrity, however, compels us to state that for the many who today tarry for new prophets and saviors, the situation is the same as resounds in the beautiful Edomite watchman’s song of the period of exile that has been included among Isaiah’s oracles:

He calleth to me out of Seir, Watchman, what of the night? The watchman said, The morning cometh, and also the night: if ye will enquire, enquire ye: return, come.

The people to whom this was said has enquired and tarried for more than two millennia, and we are shaken when we realize its fate. From this we want to draw the lesson that nothing is gained by yearning and tarrying alone, and we shall act differently. We shall set to work and meet the ‘demands of the day,’ in human relations as well as in our vocation. This, however, is plain and simple, if each finds and obeys the demon who holds the fibers of his very life.

At National Review Online, Jonathan Adler writes:

Over at the progressive blog, Crooked Timber, Corey Robin lists “Eleven Things You Did Not Know About Clarence Thomas.”  The items Robin lists shouldn’t surprise avid court watchers, or others who have paid much attention to the conservative justice.  Judging from the comments, however, several of the items were quite a revelation to CT’s readership.  I can only imagine the surprise if Robin had blogged on Justice Thomas’s jurisprudence, further challenging the caricature of Clarence Thomas that continues to dominate so much liberal commentary about him.

Actually, a fair number of commenters claimed not to be surprised by these revelations at all.

In any event, you’d think Adler would have been pleased that a group of progressives were having some of their misconceptions about Thomas challenged, if not dispelled. Instead, he complains about the fact that the misconceptions of a group of progressives are getting challenged, if not dispelled. Apparently the only thing worse than the left not knowing something about the right is…the left learning something about the right.

Wingers whine when we don’t pay attention to them; they whine when we do pay attention to them. Why do they whine so much? What does the winger want? [click to continue…]