From the monthly archives:

July 2014

Jean Jaurès, 1859-1914

by Harry on July 31, 2014

Chris Brooke reminds us that today is the 100th anniversary of the assassination of Jean Jaurès.

Give It Your All – Then Give Some More

by John Holbo on July 31, 2014

Everyone’s complaining about the dumbness of the use-100%-of-your-brain premise for Lucy. (Which I expect is a bad movie.) I have an idea for a superhero that I think fixes this problem. Coaches are always yelling at players that they need to ‘give 110 percent!’ out on the field. So: what if someone actually figured out a way for you to do that? (Makes you think, eh!) You could have these amazing scenes where, after the super-sciencey treatment, the hero is being tested. Running on the treadmill, solving math problems, stacking raisins. In each case the guys in labcoats, gathered around the readouts are smiling, amazed. ‘Sir, we’ve done it! He’s using 110% of capacity!’

The point being: this guy (or gal!) is going to be able to beat Lucy, whoever she is. End of story. Mischief managed.

Corey arrested

by Chris Bertram on July 29, 2014

Our co-blogger and comrade Corey Robin has been arrested at the Israeli mission to the UN, 800 Second Avenue (at 42nd Street), for committing civil disobedience in protest at the Israeli actions in Gaza. Respect to Corey for his courage and we hope he is released and home before too long.

Uncle Tom’s Cabin

by John Quiggin on July 28, 2014

The concept of self-ownership came up in discussion as a result of my passing slap at Nozick in the post on Austrian economics and Flat Earth geography. I’ve been planning posting on some related issues, but I realise there are some critical points I need to clarify first, most notably on the relationship, if any, between self-ownership and property rights.

I’m inclined to the view that there is no such relationship, or more precisely that our inalienable rights over our own bodies represent a constraint on the legitimate scope of property rights, rather than forming a basis for such rights. But, there’s lots that I know I don’t know about this, and, presumably, more that I don’t know I don’t know.

The problems for me start with language. As far as I know, no one has ever remarked on the title of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s anti-slavery classic Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Yet the core of the book is that Tom owns neither the cabin nor himself: both are the property of his owner. And that brings up another striking feature of language (at least English). We use the possessive case to refer to Tom’s owner, but, obviously the owner was not Tom’s possession whereas, legally, the reverse was true.

The abolition of slavery hasn’t resolved the contradictions here: for wage workers, it’s natural to divide the hours of the day into “company time” and “my time”, while for house workers the common complaint is the absence of any “time of my own”.

So, some questions to start off with

First, how universal is the linguistic conflation of the possessive case with possession in the sense of ownership (Wikipedia suggests that there may be some exceptions, but the distinctions described are not precisely the ones I mean). And, if there is such a linguistic universal, what conclusions should we draw from it?

Second, have political philosophers looked at the question in this light: that is, on the relationship between the broad use of the possessive to denote relationships of all kinds and the particular use to denote property ownership. If so, what is the relationship between self-possession and self-ownership?

The Higher Sociopathy

by Corey Robin on July 28, 2014

In the annals of moral casuistry, you’d be hard pressed to find a better example of the perils of moral reasoning than this defense, brought to you by The New Republic, of the slaughter of Palestinian civilians in Gaza:

We can say that there is a principle worth fighting and dying for: Civilians cannot be used to make just wars impossible and morality will not be used as a tool to disarm. And once we have that principle, the proportionality calculation changes. The deaths of innocents are not simply outweighed by Israelis’ right to live without daily rockets and terrorists tunneling into a kibbutz playground; but by the defense of a world in which terrorists cannot use morality to achieve victory over those who try to fight morally. It is the protection of that world, one in which moral soldiers still have a fighting chance, that justifies Israel’s operations against Hamas today. And it is that greater cause that decisively outweighs the terrible toll in innocent life.

That’s the last paragraph of a piece that attempts to confront one of the many challenges of defending the Gaza war: namely, that on a critical principle of just war theory—the proportionality principle, which states that “the military value of a target must outweigh the anticipated harm to civilians”—Israel, as the author acknowledges, “may seem to fail the test.”


Can we confidently say that the anticipated harm to innocents is justified by Israel’s expected military gains? The degrading of Hamas’ rocket capabilities, and most of all the destruction of its terrifying network of offensive tunnels (fortified by the limited cement that Israel permitted into Gaza for humanitarian purposes) are valuable military goals. But as the Palestinian death count rises above 500 [editorial note: it’s now over 1000]—many of these civilian—I find myself bewildered: Are these tunnels really worth the lives of all those children?

A normal person might be drawn up short by such a question. A normal person might answer that maybe, just maybe, the war isn’t worth it. But a normal person is not a philosopher of war.

Rather than confront reality, the philosopher of war resorts to reason. If the problem is the mismatch between the terrible grandeur of the means and the pedestrian poverty of the ends, don’t rethink your means, much less the war; simply inflate the ends.

There is, however, a way out of this paradox. And we find it at the moment we realize that Hamas’ actions have made this war about more than Israel or Palestine; it’s a war about future of morality in armed conflicts. For if Israel declines to fight, we live in a world where terror groups use their own civilians, and twist morality itself, to bind the hands of those who try to fight morally. In this world, cruelty is an advantage, and the moral are powerless in the face of aggression and indiscriminate attack. And make no mistake: The eyes of the world are on Hamas, and terrorist groups worldwide will—as they have for generations—learn from the tactics of Gazan terrorists and the world’s reaction. So if Israel allows Hamas’ human shields to defeat it now, we will all reap the results in the years to come.

And that’s how we come to that gruesome last paragraph.

The Gaza war, you see, is not a war over tunnels. It’s not even a war in defense of Israel. It’s a war about…war, a war in defense of just war. Once upon a time, crackpots thought they were fighting a war to end all wars. That was its justice. Now they’re fighting a war in order to make just war possible. That is its justice.

The theory of just war is supposed to impose limits upon the launching and fighting of wars. It’s a condition of, a constraint upon, war. But here it becomes the end—both the aim and the justification—of war. Because that is the aim of Israel’s war, “civilians cannot be used” to make such a war “impossible.” They must instead be used to make it possible.

Hannah Arendt would have had a field day with this kind of reasoning: how it takes an action that it acknowledges to be dirty, puts it through the ideological rinse cycle, and makes it come out clean; and how it turns the manufacture of human corpses into the instrument of a higher law. It’s not, as the idealist would have it, that the law places a condition or constraint on the manufacture of corpses. Nor is it, as the cynic would have it, that the law provides an excuse or justification for the manufacture of corpses. It’s something stranger, more terrible: the law requires the manufacture of corpses.

Austrian economics and Flat Earth geography

by John Quiggin on July 27, 2014

One of the striking features of (propertarian) libertarianism, especially in the US, is its reliance on a priori arguments based on supposedly self-evident truths. Among[^1] the most extreme versions of this is the “praxeological” economic methodology espoused by Mises and his followers, and also endorsed, in a more qualified fashion, by Hayek.

In an Internet discussion the other day, I was surprised to see the deductive certainty claimed by Mises presented as being similar to the “certainty” that the interior angles of a triangle add to 180 degrees.[^2]

In one sense, I shouldn’t be surprised. The certainty of Euclidean geometry was, for centuries, the strongest argument for the rationalist that we could derive certain knowledge about the world.

Precisely for that reason, the discovery, in the early 19th century of non-Euclidean geometries that did not satisfy Euclid’s requirement that parallel lines should never meet, was a huge blow to rationalism, from which it has never really recovered.[^3] In non-Euclidean geometry, the interior angles of a triangle may add to more, or less, than 180 degrees.

Even worse for the rationalist program was the observation that the system of geometry (that is, “earth measurement”) most relevant to earth-dwellers is spherical geometry, in which straight lines are “great circles”, and in which the angles of a triangle add to more than 180 degrees. Considered in this light, Euclidean plane geometry is the mathematical model associated with the Flat Earth theory.

[click to continue…]

So What Gives? (About Tolerance)

by John Holbo on July 27, 2014

Philosophically, recent protestations by conservatives that ‘liberals are the intolerant ones now!’ are flim-flam. I say so. Brendan Eich. Hobby Lobby. Same-sex marriage. I get why they have to play it that way, trying to turn the tables. It’s such an obligatory rhetorical gambit it almost doesn’t bother me – well, most days. In each such case the most generous possible response is: no, you are obviously confused about what liberal tolerance is, or religious freedom, or you are confused about the facts of the case, or all three.

So I’m sincerely baffled that Damon Linker – smart guy! – is apparently taken in by this poor stuff. Indeed, he’s been banging on like this for a while now, at The Week [just follow the links in the one I linked]. He dissented from our Henry’s sensible line on bigotry some months ago, in a manner that made absolutely no sense to me.

That post got almost 10,000 comments. (Wow!) So it doesn’t seem likely that Damon (I met him once, so I’m going to call him that) suffers from a lack of people telling him that what he says makes no damn sense.

What to say, what to say, when I’m already 10,000th in line to read him the riot act? [click to continue…]

Sunday photoblogging: bike shadow

by Chris Bertram on July 27, 2014

A rarish film shot from me: Rolleiflex T, Ilford FP4+

A Gaza Breviary

by Corey Robin on July 27, 2014

1. One benefit of the carnage in Gaza is that it has given people who’ve never said a word about the carnage in Syria an impetus to say a word about the carnage in Syria.

2. On Friday night, there was a fundraiser for “Friends of the IDF” at a synagogue on the Upper West Side. On Shabbat. Which means cessation, stopping.

3. “It’s all but inevitable…that civilians will die.” A law professor defends Israel’s actions in Gaza.

4. Next time someone tells you that an academic boycott is a bad idea because Israeli universities are bastions of dissent against the Israeli state:

Tel Aviv University is giving students who serve in the attack on Gaza one year of free tuition.

“Tel Aviv University embraces and supports all the security forces who are working to restore quiet and security to Israel, including its students and employees called up to reserve duty,” the institution says in 24 July statement on its official website. [click to continue…]

Hazlitt, Keynes and the glazier’s fallacy

by John Quiggin on July 24, 2014

I’ve been working for quite a while now on a book which will respond to Henry Hazlitt’s Economics in One Lesson a book that was issued just after 1945 and has remained in print ever since. It’s an adaptation of the work of the 19th century French free-market advocate Frederic Bastiat for a US audience, specifically aimed at refuting the then-novel ideas of Keynes.

My planned title is Economics in Two Lessons. In my interpretation, Hazlitt’s One Lesson is that prices are opportunity costs[1]. My Second Lesson is that, in the absence of appropriate government policy, private opportunity costs (market prices) won’t reflect social opportunity costs. Here’s a central piece of the argument, responding to Hazlitt’s exposition of Bastiat’s glazier’s fallacy.

[click to continue…]

Severian of Nessus, Amateur Bayesian

by Henry on July 22, 2014

“Noah Smith today”:

Consider Proposition H: “God is watching out for me, and has a special purpose for me and me alone. Therefore, God will not let me die. No matter how dangerous a threat seems, it cannot possibly kill me, because God is looking out for me – and only me – at all times.” Suppose that you believe that there is a nonzero probability that H is true. And suppose you are a Bayesian – you update your beliefs according to Bayes’ Rule. As you survive longer and longer – as more and more threats fail to kill you – your belief about the probability that H is true must increase and increase. It’s just mechanical application of Bayes’ Rule.

Gene Wolfe, The Citadel of the Autarch

Often their chants sounded so clearly that I could make out the words, though they were in no language I had ever heard. Once one actually stood on his saddle like a performer in a riding exhibition, lifting a hand to the sun and extending the other toward the Ascians. Each rider seemed to have a personal spell; and it was easy to see, as I watched their numbers shrink under the bombardment, how such primitive minds come to believe in their charms, for the survivors could not but feel their thaumaturgy had saved them, and the rest could not complain of the failure of theirs.

Richard Thompson: Acoustic Classics

by Harry on July 22, 2014

Earlier this year CB sent me an email alerting me to the fact that Richard Thompson was going to perform, soon, in Madison, and recommending him to me. In fact I already had tickets — I am a huge Richard Thompson fan, and have seen him live about as often as I have seen Belle’s relative Loudon Wainwright, over the past 35 years. I went with my wife (who doesn’t like him much), and two friends, one of whom is a fan but had never seen him before, and the other of whom had no idea who he was. I hadn’t really thought about the dangers of taking someone who doesn’t know him to see him: what the effect of seeing him live before having heard any of his music would be. His son was the support act — lovely voice, ok songs — so that, in a way, made it worse. Because Thompson was, in fact, the best I have ever seen him: haunting, crisp voice, one acoustic guitar sounding like an orchestra, a perfectly designed set (occasionally the sets are slightly off, when he plays all-request shows, or picks an album name out of a hat, to show that he’s ready with every song he’s ever written — though I suspect that he doesn’t include Henry the Human Fly in the mix, since I don’t think I’ve ever heard him play a song from that, my favourite, album live). Simon Mayo, interviewing him on yesterday’s show (around 1 hr 06 mins), recalled seeing him playing solo, and drinking half a glass of water during a song without any apparent effect on the sound coming from the guitar. Anyway, at a certain point, I saw tears running down our friend’s face, and, at the end, she said “Why didn’t you tell me it was going to be like this?”. Imagine that you’d never heard of Richard Thompson, and the first time you heard 1952 Vincent Black Lightning was live, when he is at the top of his game. You’d weep.

His new album, Acoustic Classics, so-named because, well, it consists of acoustic re-recordings of some of his classics, is out today. It doesn’t have every song you’d want (“Al Bowly” is a particular, post HtHF, favourite of mine that’s missing, and one that he seemed extremely reluctant to play when it was requested at the live show). I think it contains the best versions of “Bright Lights”,”Beeswing” and “Shoot Out the Lights” I’ve heard. Fans won’t want to miss it; and non-fans could do worse than to start with it. But it is no substitute for seeing him live.

And here he is talking to Aggers about playing cricket in LA — plus about his songwriting process, which is very interesting. He turns out to be a Geoffrey Boycott fan (would it surprise anyone to know that I am too? — the batting, not the commentating I hasten to add), so Aggers introduces them at the end of the interview, and Boycott manages to open with an insult.

Incongruous songs

by Harry on July 21, 2014

I guess that few of our readers have seen The Lego Movie. Luckily, I have, so was very surprised to hear my boy’s cohort singing “Everything is Awesome” at the camp’s late night show. The Lego Movie is about the evils of corporate power — a kind of kid’s version of They Live — and “Everything if Awesome” is the song which all the people are supposed to sing to keep them mindless and satisfied. Not something I’d have chosen for a 7-year-olds’ camp song.

Everyone knows that “Born in the USA” was used by the Reagan campaign; evidence either of Al Stewart’s thesis that nobody listens to lyrics, or that political operators believe that nobody listens to lyrics (My “Everything is Awesome” story is evidence that nobody even looks at song titles: how could a song with that title and refrain be anything other than satire?). Fair enough, given the similarly odd use of “Jerusalem” by English conservatives, and the fact that”This Land is Your Land” is an entirely kosher song for American public schoolkids. Slightly orthoganally, I just learned the heartwarming story that as soon as Benny and Bjorn learned that Danish People’s Party was using “Mama Mia” as a rally song they sued (and if you really want to feel good about your guilty pleasures, read down the page to see which party Benny made a 70k pound donation to).

Other, incongruous, uses of songs?

Sunday photoblogging: meerkats

by Chris Bertram on July 20, 2014