From the monthly archives:

February 2015

Awakening to Cultural Studies

by Corey Robin on February 28, 2015

Leonard Nimoy’s death reminded me of a moment in college. I don’t remember what year it was, but I was talking with a student who was writing a paper—or was it his senior thesis?—on Star Trek. The paper/thesis was about how the TV show’s representations of race filtered and processed various anxieties and aspirations of the Cold War, particularly ideas about civil rights in the US and decolonization abroad.

Recalling this conversation, I was reminded of one of the critical aspects of my college education: realizing that mass culture or popular culture was a thing, something to be studied, analyzed—read (now that was a concept: reading mass culture)—with the same critical eye that you would bring to a literary text or historical event. [click to continue…]

Anti-anti-anti-science

by John Quiggin on February 28, 2015

I’ve been meaning to write this post for a while, and Paul Krugman has given me a nice jumping off point with this column on how to respond to economists (including highly credentialled ones) who push zombie ideas such as the threat of imminent hyperinflation. As Krugman notes, providing evidence-based criticism, whether politely or rudely, has no impact on people who have strong reasons for wanting to believe something. This is even more true on topics like climate change than it is on economics.
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How to keep your dignity at bonus time

by Daniel on February 27, 2015

I have an article in today’s Weekend FT! The theme is on how to handle bonus season with a modicum of grace, and preferably while maximising the amount of money that one extracts from Global Finance Capital’s wallet and into your own. To be honest, you lot are probably going to hate it; at least I can promise that it’s protected by the FT paywall, so anyone who is offended or outraged by it can’t say that they didn’t read it on purpose.

What Do Hannah Arendt and Mel Brooks Have in Common?

by Corey Robin on February 27, 2015

Mel Brooks, interview with Mike Wallace:

How do you get even with Adolf Hitler? How do you get even with him? There’s only one way to get even. You have to bring him down with ridicule….If you can make people laugh at him, then you’re one up on him…One of my lifelong jobs has been to make the world laugh at Adolf Hitler.

Hannah Arendt, interview with Joachim Fest:

 

In my opinion people shouldn’t adopt an emotional tone to talk about these things [the Eichmann trial], since that’s a way of playing them down….I also think you must be able to laugh, since that’s a form of sovereignty.

Noted With Surprisingly Little Comment

by Belle Waring on February 27, 2015

From an article by Stephen Totilo on a recent talk given at NYU by Feminist Frequency commentator and noted target of #gamerhate Anita Sarkeesian:

Sarkeesian never acknowledged the security [metal detectors, an overall “heightened” NYU Security presence], and she only briefly mentioned the online harassment she’s received for her work. She fielded one audience question from a guy who said a female Gamergate supporter had been at the talk, had shaken her head at much of what Sarkeesian had said, had left early and, this questioner wanted to know, what Sarkeesian would say to this woman.

At press time the man, now approaching what one might–charitably–call the late-middle-age of his youth, was also reported to have a girlfriend in Toronto. “Megumi” particularly enjoys playing the new Bayonetta 2, because of the way it makes full use of the capabilities of the Wii U gaming system.

Maagdenhuis Occupation

by Ingrid Robeyns on February 25, 2015

At this very moment, you can watch a live stream of the occupation of the Central Building of the University of Amsterdam. This is in fact the second building that students have been occupying: in the last ten days, they occupied another historical university building, the Bungehuis, which will be turned into a posh hotel. That building was occupied for 10 days, but was forcefully evacuated yesterday; 46 people have been arrested.

The demands of the students can be found (if and when their website is not down) at this website. Basically they want to have a more democratically run university – with a university board that is elected by both staff and students (right now, Dutch Faculty and students have only very weak and indirect democratic power.) In addition, they are protesting what you could call the increasingly utilitarian or economistic approach to higher education and science policy. I can’t give you all the details in this post, but the story is familiar, and sounds quite similar to what has been happening in the UK (my hunch is that the Netherlands is following the UK’s path, with a few years time lag).

The members of the University of Amsterdam’s Board spoke to the occupiers about an hour ago – and it was quite surreal to be able to watch this form of direct action/civil disobedience at the same time from that close yet from far away (I am simply at home in another town). Yet the board of the university has filed a legal complaint, and the latest news would be that the Maagdenhuis-building could be evacuated in the next hour. In which case, you may be able to see it on the live stream. Who knows.

Amsterdam being Amsterdam, most of the discussions are held in English, so you can simply follow this real-life political drama right now. For your information, it’s 11.30 pm when I’m posting this and the occupation started at about 8 pm.

Who blinked?

by John Quiggin on February 24, 2015

So, the latest round of the Greek debt crisis has ended in a typical European combination of delay and compromise, much as Yanis Varoufakis predicted a week ago. But in view of the obvious incompatibility of the positions put forward, someone must have given a fair bit of ground. The Greeks wanted continued EU support, and an end to the Troika’s austerity program. The Troika (at least as represented by German Finance Minister Schauble) wanted Syriza to abandon its election program and continue with the existing ND/Pasok policy of capitulation to the Troika.

Put that way, I think it’s clear that the Troika blinked. The new agreement allows Syriza to replace the Troika’s austerity program with a set of reforms of its choice, focusing on things like tax evasion. Most of Syriza’s election platform remains intact. Of course, it’s only for four months, and none of the big issues has been resolved. But four months takes us most of the way to the next Spanish election campaign, hardly an opportune time to contemplate expelling a debtor country from the eurozone with utterly unpredictable consequences.

If the negotations were a win for Greece (feel free to disagree!) how did it happen?

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Megan McArdle quite reasonably takes me to task for a seemingly (but not actually) throw-away phrase in my post about the recent dispute over the mission of my university. I’m very much in sympathy with the direction of her piece, so I thought I’d explain what I meant. One caveat — she very clearly specifies that she is talking about public flagship universities like mine, and I shall stick with that, so neither of us should be interpreted as implying anything about any other kind of institution (she takes her main example from an Ivy league school, but that example could just as easily have been at Madison).

She says this phrase caught her eye:

First, and most obviously, undergraduate education is central to the mission of the institution. Although at UW-Madison we have as many graduate and professional students as we do undergraduates, most of the graduate students are here because the undergraduates are here, and a very large proportion of our professional students are recruited from the undergraduate pool. Take away the undergraduates and the whole enterprise is done for.

She’s not sure what I meant by it (I’ll clarify in a moment) but she suspects that:

“Undergraduates are central to our mission” is a kind of polite public fiction within the university community, the sort of thing that everyone believes ought to be true but often isn’t, like “America is a great melting pot.”

The main evidence she has that it is a fiction concerns hiring, promotion and retention decisions:

One of my favorite professors at the University of Pennsylvania, a truly gifted and amazing teacher, failed to get tenure the year I was a senior. After a grassroots campaign by his adoring students, the department reconsidered and gave him an extra year, after which he again failed to get tenure, and he went off to the West. I eventually got to ask someone else in the department why he’d been let go, and the answer was simple: His scholarly work was not impressive enough. So arguably the best and most beloved teacher in the department, the one whose class I have carried with me lo these 20 years and more, wasn’t good enough to teach undergraduates at Penn because he wasn’t publishing enough groundbreaking research.

Does that sound like an institution where educating undergraduates is central to the mission? Not really. Or at least: It is not central to the mission of the faculty, because if it were central, it would carry more weight in deciding who to hire and retain

and

So to people outside, teaching undergraduates seems like a nice thing that the faculty would like to do, or at least persuade someone else to do, rather than an overriding priority.

As she points out, even if faculty don’t value undergraduate teaching, that doesn’t mean it is not at the core of the mission. Maybe Administrators care about it:

As a group, the administration is probably more focused on undergraduates than the faculty are, if only because the administration is responsible for keeping them out of trouble.

But I’m not sure that this means they think of educating undergraduates as core to their mission. Graduating undergraduates, yes. Keeping undergraduates from dying, or suing — yes. Getting undergraduates jobs, yes. Giving undergraduates a happy college experience that will later turn into fat checks from nostalgic alumni, yes. But educating them? Is that really their core mission? Again, from outside, it seems that administrators are more focused on student life outside the classroom than they are on what happens inside it.

Ok, so there is a lot to discuss here, and I might not get to it all, but here goes.

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Sunday photoblogging: Liverpool bus

by Chris Bertram on February 22, 2015

The Dread Pirate Roberts as Statebuilder

by Henry on February 20, 2015

My new piece at Aeon.

bq. Ulbricht built the Silk Road marketplace from nothing, pursuing both a political dream and his own self-interest. However, in making a market he found himself building a micro-state, with increasing levels of bureaucracy and rule‑enforcement and, eventually, the threat of violence against the most dangerous rule‑breakers. Trying to build Galt’s Gulch, he ended up reconstructing Hobbes’s Leviathan; he became the very thing he was trying to escape.

Human Rights, Blah Blah Blah

by Corey Robin on February 20, 2015

Of the war on terror, Christopher Hitchens once said: “I realized that if the battle went on until the last day of my life, I would never get bored in prosecuting it to the utmost.” Now comes Bernard-Henri Lévy, who, when asked by Jon Lee Anderson why he supported the intervention in Libya, says, “Why? I don’t know! Of course, it was human rights, for a massacre to be prevented, and blah blah blah….” Never underestimate the murder and mayhem men will make, just to escape their boredom. Every enthusiasm, though, has a shelf life. Even imperialism.

Reciprocity vs. Baseline Communism

by John Holbo on February 19, 2015

I was rereading David Graeber’s Debt over the weekend. The intervening two years, since our book event, have not caused it to be the case that Graeber doesn’t owe Henry an apology, after all. But the life of the mind goes on. We do not freeze intellectual accounts due to outstanding personal debts. That is to say, the free market of ideas is baseline communist, in Graeber’s sense. If I have a bright idea, I do not expect to be paid back, by those who receive it, in the form of two half-insights – or 100 comments, each containing but a grote’s worth of thought; none of that. (I expect intellectual credit, of course.)

My bright idea for the day is that I have no idea what the difference is between reciprocity and baseline communism. [click to continue…]

Another Guantanamo conviction overturned

by John Quiggin on February 19, 2015

It didn’t get a lot of attention in the US Press, but it’s front page news on Oz that the Court of Military Commission Review has just overturned the conviction of David Hicks, one of two Australians tortured and held at Guantanamo Bay, and one of only six people convicted through the Military Commissions process (this is the third successful appeal). The NY Times ran a story (interestingly, in its “US” section), which covers the main points.

We won! UMass Backs Down!

by Corey Robin on February 18, 2015

UMass issued the following announcement today:

The University of Massachusetts Amherst today announced that it will accept Iranian students into science and engineering programs, developing individualized study plans to meet the requirements of federal sanctions law and address the impact on students. The decision to revise the university’s approach follows consultation with the State Department and outside counsel.

“This approach reflects the university’s longstanding commitment to wide access to educational opportunities,” said Michael Malone, vice chancellor for research and engagement. “We have always believed that excluding students from admission conflicts with our institutional values and principles. It is now clear, after further consultation and deliberation, that we can adopt a less restrictive policy.”

Federal law, the Iran Threat Reduction and Syria Human Rights Act of 2012, requires that the U.S. Department of State deny visas to Iranian students wishing to engage in certain fields of study related to the energy sector, nuclear science, nuclear engineering or a related field at U.S. colleges and universities. To comply with the law and its impacts, UMass Amherst will develop individualized study plans as appropriate based on a student’s projected coursework and research in conjunction with an offer of admission. The plan will be updated as required during a student’s course of study.

NBC News has more on the story.

Thanks to everyone who wrote to the university to express their opposition to the university’s policy of prohibiting Iranian nationals from applying to select departments in engineering and the natural sciences. This was a story, I’m proud to say, that got broken here and at my blog (thanks to a tip from a professor in Colorado), and which rapidly got picked up in the national  media. Well done, everyone!

A while back, in a context I can’t exactly remember, I made the point, which seemed to me to be obvious, that all property rights are derived from states governments, and so it’s impossible to sustain a claim that state government interference with property rights is inherently wrong. It rapidly became apparent that this point is controversial in all sorts of ways, so I thought it might be worthwhile to work out where the main lines of disagreement run.

The great thing about a blog like CT is that, on (almost) any topic, lots of my co-bloggers and readers know more than I do, and most aren’t shy about saying so. So, please point me to the relevant literature (about my only reference point here is James C Scott).

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