From the monthly archives:

October 2015

I Died When He Proposed ‘Tapping Dat EZ-Link Card’

by Belle Waring on October 31, 2015

Would you like to watch a pro-natalist video from Singapore…and Mentos or something? The answer is sort of that you wouldn’t because it is the single most embarrassing thing in the world. It’s waaaaay more like the Lonely Island’s (awesome) song “I Just Had Sex” than it is like anything remotely appropriate as a domestic policy, er, proposal. But it is real. (Congratulations on the 50 years, Singapore!) I mean, you can see that it’s intended to be funny, yet…

“Aw yeah baby, I want to hang out in your void deck.” THIS WAS A REAL THING. There is a moment where you think, someone had to actively approve of this idea.

Lifted from YouTube comments (!) “Response by my London friends: ‘LOL That’s hilarious!’ Response by Singaporean viewers: ‘HAH? WHAT STROLLER? LIAK BO KIEW!’ It’s terrible when foreigners get the song more than locals. We have a terrible sense of humour.” This is not evidence of a lack of humour per se or anything other than being price-conscious IMO. Relatedly, I saw an ad for OCBC or something on Singapore Airlines: father and young son approach huge carousel and ticket booth manned by improbable moustachioed Irish fellow. “How much?” “One dollar and children under five are free.” “I’d like two tickets then.” Irish guy: “how old is your son?” “Six” Leaning in close, the Irish guy, “you know, you didn’t have to buy him a ticket. I never would have known.” “No,” says the dad looking down at his son’s gleaming, parted hair, “but he would.” I was kind of moved by this commitment to Asian values (I am a soft touch generally) until I realized the ad was ostensibly about a Singaporean refusing a free ticket. Just, no.

ETA: how exactly did they Iggy Azalea that accent up?

When We Betray Our Students

by Corey Robin on October 30, 2015

A couple of months ago, at the beginning of the semester, I posted on Facebook a plea to my fellow faculty that they not post complaints there about their students. You know the kind I’m talking about: where students are mocked for the errors they make in class, the faux pas of the politically incorrect, and so forth. I said that I considered such public commentary a kind of betrayal, even when the students weren’t named.

Yesterday, Gothamist reported that an undercover cop had been spying for months, if not years, on a group of Muslim students at Brooklyn College, leading to the arrest of two women last spring for allegedly planning to build a bomb.

Set aside the problem of entrapment with these schemes. Set aside New York City Mayor de Blasio’s promise to stop this kind of surveillance of Muslims in New York. Let’s focus instead on the leadership of CUNY that either knowingly allows this kind of spying on our students to continue or does little to nothing to stop it.

Tolerating, actively or passively, undercover officers of the state on our campus, allowing them to spy on our students, to report back to the state what our students say, as they meet with their friends to share in their studies, swap their stories, figure out their faith, shoot the shit, or whatever it is that students do when they believe themselves to be among friends, is a betrayal. Of the worst sort.

I posted my comment on Facebook because I believe we, as faculty, have a trust to uphold with our students. That when they come to our campus, they will be allowed to try on new clothes, nudge themselves away from who they were toward who they will become, make a stab at independence, that they will be allowed to make mistakes—in full knowledge that their fumbles and foibles are safe with us.

As my friend Moustafa Bayoumi, who’s also a professor at Brookyn College, writes in his book This Muslim American Life, which is just out with NYU Press:

Americans of all types are expected to acquiesce to intrusions into their private lives, supposedly for greater security, while any objection is interpreted as “having something to hide.” But having something to hide—or having the right to hold an inner life and to be free to determine how much of yourself you show to others—is not only a guarantee of our democracy but also a necessary part of being human. Losing that right is troubling and dangerous for the same reason that Elaine Scarry identifies as the dark innovation of the Patriot Act. “The Patriot Act inverts the constitutional requirement that people’s lives be private and the work of government officials be public; it instead crafts a set of conditions in which our inner lives become transparent and the workings of the government become opaque.”

The same applies, even more so, when we are talking about students.

When we allow officers of the state onto our campus to monitor and surveil our students as they make their way into the world, to troll for trouble (even creating the circumstances for that trouble), we betray that trust. We simply cannot build a campus that is true to its mission if we allow this kind of practice to continue.

There’s a petition being circulated calling on CUNY Chancellor James Milliken to stop this practice. I urge you to sign it. And to share this post, and the petition, widely.

No New Coal Mines

by John Quiggin on October 29, 2015

Along with 60 other Australians, mostly more eminent than me, I’ve signed an open letter to world leaders calling for a moratorium on new coal mines and coal mine expansions. The letter focuses particularly on Adani’s proposed Carmichael mine in Queensland but this is part of a global movement to stop new coal mines everywhere in the world.

The underlying reasoning isn’t spelt out but ought to be clear enough. If we are to stabilize greenhouse gas concentrations at 450 ppm or below, as the world’s leaders have already agreed we should, it is necessary for carbon dioxide emissions to peak soon, and decline to zero over the next 30 years or so. Given that burning coal creates major health hazards in addition to C02 emissions, coal burning needs to eliminated even more rapidly. That means first, that no new coal mine can expect to work for an operating life of more than 30 years, and second that any new coal mine must be offset be additional closures of existing coal mines. Once these factors are taken into account, it’s essentially impossible for new coal mines to make economic sense within the constraints imposed by a limited carbon budget. Certainly, that’s the case for Carmichael, which is a massive boondoggle keeping alive only in the hope of extracting some form of government assistance or compensation.

Labour Lords Resign the Whip

by John Quiggin on October 27, 2015

I don’t have much to say about this, but I couldn’t resist the multiple absurdities embodied in the title. For those who haven’t heard anything about this, two appointed members of the House of Lords (Warner and Grabiner) have announced that they will no longer follow the direction of the Labour Party on how to vote, and a third (Mandelson) has made noises suggesting he may go the same way. This is a result of the party’s leadership election, in which the members a (nominally, at least) democratic socialist party chose a (nominally at least) democratic socialist leader.

For those who are a little closer to the action, this is your chance to comment or speculate on the implications.

Sunday photoblogging: another boat at Gruissan

by Chris Bertram on October 25, 2015

Boat at Gruissan

Nietzsche On Migration and Immigration

by John Holbo on October 25, 2015

One of my students was wondering about the following passage from The Gay Science (section 356): [click to continue…]

Sheldon Wolin, 1922-2015

by Corey Robin on October 23, 2015

Sheldon Wolin, the political theorist, has died.

In the last five years or so, we’ve seen the exit of an entire generation of scholars: David Montgomery, Carl Schorske, Peter Gay, Marshall Berman. This was the generation that taught me, sometimes literally. But Wolin’s death hits me hardest. I took two courses with him as an undergraduate: Modern Political Theory (Machiavelli to Smith) and Radical Political Thought (Paine to Foucault). The first in my freshman year, the second in my sophomore year. I would have taken more, but Wolin retired the following year. Those courses set me on my way. I would never have become a political theorist were it not for him.

There will be many texts and appreciations in the days and months to come. Wolin taught generations of students, many of whom are now leaders of the field, and their students are now teaching other students. At CUNY, we’re always swimming in his seas: Robyn Marasco, at Hunter, was the student of Wendy Brown and Nick Xenos, both of whom were students of Wolin. John Wallach, also at Hunter, and Uday Mehta, at the Graduate Center, were both students of Wolin. There’s probably no more powerful a demonstration of Wolin’s vision of political theory as a tradition of continuity and innovation, as a transmission across time, than these students of students of students.

While many of these texts and appreciations will focus, and rightly so, on the political side of Wolin—as mentor and participant and commentator on the student movements of the 1960s, particularly at Berkeley; as leader of the divestment movement at Princeton in the 1970s and 1980s; as searching public critic of technocratic liberalism, market conservatism, and American imperialism, in the pages of the New York Review of Books and his wondrous though short-lived journal democracy; as a theorist of radical or “fugitive” democracy—I want to focus here on the way he did political theory. Less the substance (though I’ll come to that at the end) than the style.

The first thing to note about Wolin’s approach is how literary it was. It’s hard to see this in some of his texts, but it was on full display in his lectures. I don’t know if Wolin was at all trained in New Criticism—I seem to recall him citing I.A. Richards’s Practical Criticism somewhere—but he read like a New Critic. The opening paragraph or page of every text was the site of an extended exploration and explication, as if the key to all of the Second Discourse was to be found in that arresting image of the statue of Glaucus which Rousseau mentions at the outset.

Chekhov has a line somewhere about how if you put a gun on the wall in the first act, you damn well better make sure it goes off in the second. Wolin paid attention to those guns, especially when they didn’t go off. He was endlessly curious about a theorist’s metaphors, asides, slips, and allusions, and mined them to great effect. Long before we were reading de Man and Derrida, he was reading like them. But without all the fuss. He just did it. [click to continue…]

Richard Cohen on Tipping: To Ensure Proper Servitude

by Corey Robin on October 21, 2015

Richard Cohen has a…I’m not sure what to call it. Formally, it’s an oped in the Washington Post.* In defense of tipping. In reality, it’s more like an overheated entry from his diary. In which Cohen confesses that his feelings of noblesse oblige toward waiters are really a cover for his fantasies of discipline and punish. Where there’s no safe word. Except, maybe, “check please.”

The context for Cohen’s musings is that Danny Meyer, the restauranteur, has decided to eliminate tipping at his restaurants. This has prompted a spate of articles, praising Meyer and criticizing the anti-democratic elements of tipping. Enter Cohen.

I love tipping.

The practice originated with European aristocracy…

And he’s off. Now remember, in DC parlance, Cohen is considered a liberal.

There are four moments worth noting in the piece. First, this:

Like almost everyone else in America, I was once a waiter — and a busboy, and a short-order cook and a dishwasher — and I never felt I was groveling for tips. I did feel, as a friend told me before I went off on a wait job, “Remember, you work for the customer, not the restaurant.” If tipping doesn’t quite shift loyalties so neatly, it does put loyalties into play.

There’s the democratic nod to Cohen having once been a waiter. From Lincoln to Cohen, how many relationships of deference in the United States have been justified by reference to one’s own humble past, by invoking this escalator of social mobility, in which one begins at the bottom, serving a superior, and arrives at the top, being served by an inferior?

There’s also that invocation of loyalty. Though the capitalist workplace is often described by its defenders and critics as a glorious (or gory) space of untrammeled self-interest and personal advance, for many of its denizens, it is a domain of loyalty (and subordination). For Cohen, that loyalty is never to one’s co-workers; it is either to the boss or to the customer.

Finally, there’s that claim that when he was a waiter, Cohen “never felt I was groveling for tips.” No, I’m sure he did not. (Just as I’m sure he doesn’t feel as if he’s groveling for a different kind of tip when he sucks up to power now: once a courtier, always a courtier). There’s a reason Sartre, in Being and Nothingness, chose the waiter as one of his paradigmatic examples of “bad faith.” Wrote Sartre: “I am a waiter in the mode of being what I am not.” Cohen was/is a waiter in the mode of being what he is.

Here’s the second moment of Cohen’s piece:

The waiter is my guy for the duration of the meal. He’s my agent. He looks out for me and, if he does a good job, I look out for him. He has an incentive to give me exceptional service, not some mediocre minimum, to ensure that my water glass is full, that my wine is replenished, to make sure that the busboy does not prematurely remove the plates — that I am not hurried along so that the owner can squeeze in another sitting. The waiter is my wingman.

Again, notice the sublimation that goes on in the capitalist workplace. For most observers, I think, the relationship between a waiter/restaurant and a customer is a relatively straightforward exchange of money for service (the tip, as Cohen and others like to say, stands for “to insure promptitude”). But notice the affective element that gets introduced here: the waiter becomes Cohen’s agent, his wingman. In that exchange of money for service a bromance develops, a rather one-sided bromance, in which Cohen gets to imagine that this man—my guy—cares about him, really cares about him, as a self, a soul. And that he, Cohen, cares about the man. My guy. That this bromance is consecrated by the exchange of money is incidental or ornamental.

Or maybe not, as Cohen makes clear in this third passage:

I hesitate to mention another reason I like tipping. I like to make a difference, not just to be a bit of a big shot or be noticed or appreciated, but to give some of what I make to those who make less. I’m not flipping silver dollars into the air or hurling twenties around with abandon, but I am a healthy tipper (once a waiter, always a tipper) because this is my way of recognizing a good job. A healthy tip is like a pat on the back.

The tip is recognition of service well-performed. It shows that I care, that I notice — that I recognize what the restaurateur way back in the kitchen does not because he cannot. Why would I want to treat everyone as if they were equally good at their tasks?

The real signification of that exchange of money is that it allows Cohen—and not some impersonal mechanism like the market or the law—to distribute benefits and largesse to the staff. Partly because he wants to recognize the help, to lift the individuals among them above the dross and drab of democracy, where everyone is treated equally and no one gets noticed. Tipping is about making distinctions, about awarding distinctions, which are threatened by those egalitarian rules of equal pay for equal work.

The real object of that art of distinction, however, is not the waiter doing an excellent job but the tipper who is recognizing and rewarding him for it. Notice the ostentatious subject of virtually every single sentence in this passage: “I hesitate…I like tipping. I like to make a difference…I make… I’m not flipping silver dollars…I am a healthy tipper…my way of recognizing a good job….I care…I notice…I recognize…Why would I want…”

In the act of dispensing rewards, Cohen gets to play the part of a lord. Money is the means of his conveyance. Circulating it advances his cause, elevates him above the crowd. Dispensing money puts his signature on the otherwise drab world of democracy and exchange.

And elevates him a particular sort of way. The last passage:

I like to reward, but occasionally I like to punish. Make my meal an ordeal, make me anxious about whether you got the order straight, and no 20 percent tip will come your way. Maybe that’s not democratic, but a meal is not a town hall meeting.

Reminds me of that passage from the ancient Laws of Manu, which de Maistre loved to cite:

Punishment is an active ruler; he is the true manager of public affairs; he is the dispenser of laws; and wise men call him the sponsor of all the four orders for the discharge of their several duties. Punishment governs all mankind; punishment alone preserves them; punishment wakes, while their guards are asleep….The whole race of men is kept in order by punishment.

If only someone would write a book about all this.

*H/t Andrew Seal.

Worthwhile Canadian Initiative

by John Quiggin on October 20, 2015

I’m writing from the other side of the planet, but there are enough Oz-related links to offer some thoughts on the Canadian election result.

First, taken in conjunction with the recent removal of Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott, this is a big win for the planet. Abbott and Harper were the only two world leaders who were clearly climate denialists (despite some official denial-denialism) and now they are both gone. That leaves only the US Republican Party as a serious political force dominated by denial (of course, a big “only”). The chance for a decent agreement coming out of the Paris conference in December has improved significantly

Second, as the UK election also showed, the combination of multiple parties and First Past the Post voting is highly unpredictable. If things had shaken out a little differently, Harper might have managed it back into some kind of minority government, or we could be seeing the NDP rather than the Liberals winning on the basis of strategic voting. Applying this to the UK example, the idea that Cameron’s victory was in some sense inevitable is fallacious. Had a few things gone differently, we could all be talking about the mysterious appeal of Ed Miliband.

Third, the supposed dark magic of Oz spinmeister Lynton Crosby did Harper no good. If anything, Crosby’s dog whistle strategy motivated the majority to vote strategically against Harper. But I suspect that people like Crosby are better at selling themselves to politicians than at selling politicians to the public.

Cultural anxieties about migration

by Chris Bertram on October 19, 2015

This is more of a bleg than a post, I’m looking for contradiction. One of the often-claimed worries about immigration is of cultural loss, that the incomers will overwhelm the natives who will then lose the distinctive identity that they value. Supposedly, open borders would lead to the erosion of difference, people would lose their countries, and be bereft. But thinking about it, I’m struggling to think of *any* cases of cultural extinction due to the kind of immigration that results from individuals and families simply choosing to move to another country for a better or different life. Open borders within Europe haven’t caused the Germans and French to disappear. Open borders within the UK (and with Ireland) haven’t led to the demise of the Scots, the English, the Welsh or the Irish. And such immigrants as have come, have just turned into regular folks with slightly unusual names or atypical appearance within a generation. Not that there haven’t been historical cases of some peoples chasing out or killing other peoples, of course there have. But all the instances — at least all the modern ones — I can think of are *state-sponsored projects* of colonialism, genocide, forced relocation and the like. In the absence of deliberate state action and political mobilization, peoples of ethnic, cultural, religious, or linguistic distinctiveness seem to be pretty robust entities. Though Henry Sidgwick and Michael Walzer seemed to think they needed borders and border control to preserve themselves, mostly they don’t.

The real challenge is getting employers to take a more assertive and, though we dare not say so aloud, paternalistic role when it comes to non-elite employees.

Williamson is advocating that we transmute the public safety net (some portion of it) into a federally-subsidized archipelago of regimes of private power, a web of patronage relations, bonding employees to employers. Company towns are proposed as a model, but this time around their creation would be back-stopped by the central government. [click to continue…]

Locke’s Road to Serfdom

by John Quiggin on October 18, 2015

The second instalment[^1] of my critique of Locke’s propertarian liberalism is up at Jacobin. I’m looking at an obvious (but, AFAICT, rarely asked) question about Locke’s theory: if land is acquired through agricultural labor, how is it that agricultural laborers have mostly been landless? The answer is simple: thanks to slavery and serfdom, it’s the owners of the laborers who acquire the property. To quote Locke

the grass my horse has bit; the turfs my servant has cut … become my property

Locke’s political practice in the Americas was consistent with his theory. In his Constitution of the Carolinas, he suggested the creation of “leetmen” — a hereditary class of landless laborers, tied to specific areas, and bound to work for aristocratic landowners. As I observe (the point isn’t original)

Locke didn’t really need a new word for this institution. The founding figure of classical liberalism was proposing, literally rather than metaphorically, a Road to Serfdom.

[^1]: I’ve done with Locke, but I’m planning a third instalment on Jefferson, his most important successor.

Sunday photoblogging: beach huts, Quiberville-Plage

by Chris Bertram on October 18, 2015

Beach huts - Quiberville-Plage, Quiberville, France

(for a much better photograph of a similar subject in a nearby location look [at this picture by Harry Gruyaert]( via the Online Photographer, and then buy his book!)

Mill As Science Fiction Author

by John Holbo on October 17, 2015

In addition to teaching Nietzsche, I’m teaching Science Fiction and Philosophy. (Yes, I lead a charmed life.)

One of the fun games hereabouts is digging up cases in which old philosophical texts anticipate sf tropes or terms. Plato’s Cave, Descartes’ demon, Leibniz’ thinking mill. You get the idea.

Here are two slightly less well-known examples from Mill. The first, from Chapter 3 of On Liberty: [click to continue…]

Populism and Patrimonialism

by John Quiggin on October 17, 2015

Nuance is nearly always appealing to academics. For a long time, that was true of my approach to economic issues, particularly including income distribution. When presented with simplistic populist solutions to inequality like “Make the rich pay!”, I was inclined to responses along the lines of “It’s more complicated than that”.

A big problem with “Make the rich pay!” is that with the kind of income distribution that prevailed in the mid-to-late 20th century, any change to income tax that would raise significant revenue would have to apply to the top quintile (20 per cent) of the income distribution. People in the top quintile of the income distribution mostly derive their income from (typically professional or para-professional) employment, don’t think of themselves as rich, and aren’t, in general, seen this way by others. So, the slogan didn’t match the implied policy.

But with the rise of the patrimonial society, that’s largely ceased to be the case. The top 1 per cent of the US population now get more than 20 per cent of all pre-tax income, considerably more than the total revenue of the Federal government. Within that group, the top 0.1 per cent have done better than everyone else, and the top 0.01 per cent even better.

So, taxing the 1 per cent more makes sense. I responded a little while ago to a piece trying to argue increasing the top marginal tax rate would make no difference to inequality. And while I was drafting this post, the NY Times came out with an article that reached broadly the same conclusion as mine.

There’s nothing inherently ludicrous in the suggestion that the very rich should pay most or all of the costs of sustaining a system that benefits them so greatly[^1]. And, as in the 1920s, the very rich are different from everyone else. Their wealth is derived primarily from capital, or from control over capital (as business owners or from the financial sector). And, while most of the current cohort of ultra-wealthy did not inherit large fortunes, that’s an inevitable consequence of the fact that there weren’t many large fortunes to inherit until recently. As Piketty demonstrates, a society dominated by large accumulations of wealth will inevitably one in which inheritance, rather than effort, education or talent, determines life outcomes.

[click to continue…]