From the monthly archives:

May 2016

No, But We Have a Word For That, Pt 2

by Belle Waring on May 31, 2016

Right, so, The NYT has an article on how DNA analysis is helping African-Americans learn about their family history. The author’s grasp on the English language seems to slip away from them at one point (originally two), though. Exhibit A:

Buried in DNA, the researchers found the marks of slavery’s cruelties, including further evidence that white slave owners routinely fathered children with women held as slaves.

MmmmmmOK. This one was changed in an update! Because it sucked before:

The researchers observed that the X chromosome of African-Americans has a greater African ancestry than other chromosomes. Dr. Gravel and his colleagues believe this variation is explained by European men and African women producing children — in other words, slave owners raping the women they held captive.

Thanks for explaining what happens when a rape victim and her rapist “produce children”! Because rape is totally the exact actual word we should use when someone coerces someone else into having sex with him against her will. That might be mebbe by, like, standing right over the person with an axe handle, or else could be something more like keeping your own children enslaved in America so that she couldn’t escape you in France (coughJeffersoncough).

Now, I do understand that people have a general unwillingness to say things like, “noted statesman and confirmed serial rapist Thomas Jefferson exercised extraordinary taste in designing his home.” It just…it just sounds real, real bad. But when talking about slaveowners generally, what is with the “fathered children” thing? Or, let’s grant that people are reluctant even to say that about such a huge number of white citizens often thought to be morally adequate in some vague way as a class (I’m not really seeing it, but, eh.). Nonetheless, even when it comes to the most universally loathed men in the world, like Josef Fritzl, I have noticed a strong inclination for writers to say that someone “fathered children with” their rape victim. At the time of the case, particularly, I found it disturbing to read these words so many times: “fathered children.”

John’s hypothesis was that, to some degree, the rapine part of slavery is baked into the enslavement, with the result that further rape doesn’t seem like the most salient thing? (He was not looking for weird justifications for this abuse of language, just speculating.) About abductors…mmm…same, sort of? Like, the kidnapping is the part where volition goes out the window, and then all further activities are assumed to be unwilling and there’s therefore no need to specifically say raped many times afterward? But I don’t hear it that way. Quite the opposite. Rather, it seems as if people think you can only be raped so many times before…something other than rape is taking place? Or, perhaps, the “was she kicking and screaming” element that is meant to pick out rape rape infects the way people discuss rapes that don’t involve physical violence every single time?

I can easily imagine a lived complexity in which Sally Hemings had some power in her relationship with Thomas Jefferson, emotional power or even sexual power of a kind. But this is something for a novelist to talk about–a journalist or historian needs to say “raped” again even for the 200th instance of forced sexual relations. And “fathered” is just weird and messed-up sounding, redolent of horse-breeding. I do feel things have improved in the last five years. I notice it particularly in reading sites like the (nominally?) feminist Jezebel–commenters will always correct quoted articles of this kind to include the word rape, and I do feel people notice.

“Buried in DNA, the researchers found concrete evidence of slavery’s cruelties, including the fact that enslaved women often became pregnant as the result of being repeatedly raped by their white masters.” Is that even any harder to say, or is it just more unpleasant to read? Thoughts?

We Have a Word For That, Pt. 1

by Belle Waring on May 31, 2016

The NYT has an interesting article on how DNA analysis is helping African-Americans
(especially in the south) discover more about the carefully erased history of their families. Most people need to know at least the name of the white families who enslaved their forebears in order to make much progress, but as more information is digitized and collated this can become easier. I ran across this article about an informal genealogy research group in Savannah when I was searching for something else. The list of references includes the ‘Joseph Frederick Waring II papers,’ MS 1275:

Contains 35 items on African-American churches (not dated); 18 items on African-American members of the Republican Party of Georgia from 1867-1869; slave bills of sale from 1856-1859; a list of slaves from 1859, leases to African-Americans from 1865-1866, and a letter from 1851 which discusses a fugitive slave riot.

There’s also the less morally disturbing ‘Antonio J. Waring Collection, MS 1287,’ which contains “The Case of the Africans,” discussing the slave trade from 1817-1820. These two references, and an earlier note from the ‘Joseph Vallence Beven papers,’ MS 71, which, “[c]ontains correspondence dating from 1787 between George Mathews, Thomas Pinckney, and General James Jackson concerning armed fugitive slaves” brought two things home to me.

One, my brother’s friend Tom Pinckney, and a ton of Macintyre’s live along the stretch of the May River within a half-mile from my house. Pretty sure there’s even a Ravenel up in there closer to town. There are zero black families along that stretch of the river. This is obviously morally wrong. However did this inequity arise? At least I don’t go around explaining how I never benefited materially from chattel slavery because my family all emigrated from Ireland 12 minutes ago and were treated exactly like black slaves, except for not being owned outright or made legally sub-human or subject to the dreaded ‘one drop of Irish blood’ test, or even the ‘are you lighter than this piece of A4 typing paper on which I spattered some watered-down sepia ink from a toothbrush’ test. That’s a pretty low bar, though. It’s not exactly “take all thou hast, and give to the poor”-type stuff. More like, “I’m not an aggressive dickweasel! Yay me! Please give me some benne brittle!” Mmmm, tastes like exploitation of West Africa.

Two, the history of slavery in America is always taught as if there was little to no resistance from slaves. I have wondered about that plenty, thinking, when S.C. was 80% black, how in God’s name did white people keep from getting straight murdered all the time? I mean, “by using inhumanly savage violent repression,” obviously, but even so I thought there would be more “whoops, the plantation house caught on fire and nobody could get out mumble because people were standing outside in a circle armed with hoes and axes mumble.” But I’m starting to think that the slavers’ nightmare happened much more than I think, but the news of it was repressed as savagely as the small rebellions, so as to keep anybody from getting any ideas. OK, this wasn’t actually my initial point at all but it is worth considering, so I’ll just break this post up for easier commentatin’.

Look what they’ve done to my song, Ma

by John Quiggin on May 31, 2016

My discussion of intellectual property inevitably raised questions about my argument that property rights are not natural rights, but are socially constructed and, in the modern world, exist only as part of the legal structures created and enforced by states. The “moral rights” of artists over their creative works has been raised as a suggested counterexample. In fact, this example reinforces my original argument. Two cases arise, both of interest:

In the United States, the moral rights of artists were effectively unrecognised by law until accession to the Berne Convention 1989, and remain extremely limited. The result is that, once an artist has sold the rights to her work, she has no control over its subsequent use, unless she can make a case separate from moral rights, for example that use in an advertisement misrepresents the artist as endorsing the product. So, for example, it’s perfectly legal to use London Calling to advertise Jaguars, or to clip Fortunate Son to fit a jingoistic ad for jeans. Moral rights are widely recognised, and may generate social opprobrium for those who violate them (as with other misuses of property rights) but they have no legal standing.

In France and other European countries, artists have inalienable moral rights over their work, to prevent misuse of the work by the initial or later purchasers. This is not a property right, but a constraint on property rights. To the extent that moral rights are recognised after the fact, they constitute a taking from the purchaser of the property right. To the extent that they are recognised when artists sell rights to their work, they (like any restriction on alienation of property) represent a constraint on the property rights of the artist. Melanie Safka recognised this, in an ironic fashion, in her classic Look what they’ve done to my song, Mawhen she wrote

It’ll be all right ma, maybe it’ll be okay
Well, if the people are buying tears
I’ll be rich someday, ma

Coming back to the general issue, property rights and (perceived/socially accepted) natural rights have features that mean they tend to coincide in some ways and conflict in others. Most obviously, they are both associated with the general feeling of rightful possession, so that a system of property rights is more stable when it coincides with natural rights. On the other hand, natural rights are mostly perceived as inalienable and indivisible, while property in its ideal form is infinitely transferable and divisible. Moral rights for artists are a classical example of the clash between inalienability and unfettered property rights but the same clash arises at every point in the production process.

The lead story in today’s New York Times is a devastating attack on CUNY, where I’ve been teaching for nearly two decades, and the state’s criminal under-funding of a once-great institution. An above-the-fold photograph of a library at one of CUNY’s senior colleges features students studying at tables, surrounded by buckets strategically placed to catch the gallons of water dripping down from the ceiling. It’s a near perfect tableau of what it’s like to teach at CUNY today: excellent, hard-working students, encircled by shabbiness, disrepair, and neglect.

Though you should read the entire piece, here are some of the highlights.

The infrastructure is collapsing

The piece begins thus—

On the City College of New York’s handsome Gothic campus, leaking ceilings have turned hallways into obstacle courses of buckets. The bathrooms sometimes run out of toilet paper. The lectures are becoming uncomfortably overcrowded, and course selections are dwindling, because of steep budget cuts….

—and it doesn’t let up, across 50 paragraphs and seven columns, relentlessly documenting an institution facing near collapse.

It reports on a college library with an entire annual book budget of $13,000—that’s less than the individual research budgets of many professors at elite universities—and books covered in tarps to protect them from rainstorms and leaky roofs. At another college, a biology professor is stalked across the stage of her genetics lecture by giant water bugs. There are computers that still use floppy disks, Wi-Fi that doesn’t work, elevators and copy machines out of commission, and more.

The piece makes a brief nod to my campus, Brooklyn College, whose “rapidly deteriorating campus” has earned it the moniker “Brokelyn College.”

I can personally attest to that. On Thursday, as I left campus, I stopped in the men’s room of our wing of James Hall. One of the two urinals was out of business, covered by a plastic sheet. I sighed, and thought back to the time, about a year ago, that that urinal was so covered for about six months. The clock in my office has been stopped for over a year. Our department administrator tried to get it fixed: it worked for two days, and broke again.

Last fall, our union launched a hashtag campaign #BroklynCollege. Go on Twitter, and you’ll see photographs like this: [click to continue…]

Sunday photoblogging: Cork door

by Chris Bertram on May 29, 2016

Cork, door

What Kind of Belt Is That Guy Wearing?

by John Holbo on May 28, 2016

The Library of Congress Flickr photostream is a steady source of curious gems. Today, for example: what kind of belt/waistcoat is that boater hat guy on the left sporting?

Marines in France (LOC)
I downloaded the original file. Here’s a closer look. [click to continue…]

Vindictive billionaires

by Henry on May 26, 2016

There’s been a lot of reaction to the news that Peter Thiel secretly funded Hulk Hogan’s lawsuit (which has led to a $140 million award) against Gawker. Thiel is, of course, not only a Silicon Valley billionaire, but a man of strong, if idiosyncratic, libertarian views. Hence, it’s ironic that he illustrates some of the blind spots of libertarianism – in particular, the tendency of many libertarians to discount the problems of wealth inequality.

A few weeks ago, Tyler Cowen wrote this post on Trump: [click to continue…]

Another draft extract from my book-in-progress, Economics in Two Lessons. It’s the last part of the section on “predistribution”, dealing with Intellectual Property. Next up, “redistribution” through taxation and public expenditure.

As always, encouragement is welcome, constructive criticism even more so.

[click to continue…]

Polanyi and Clopenings

by Henry on May 24, 2016

This piece by Mike Konczal and Patrick Iber on Polanyi’s double movement, Trumpism, and the difference between left neo-liberalism and the social democratic left is fantastic. Go read it – I’m not going to try to excerpt from it, and certainly don’t think I can improve on it. One of the things that it does, which I’ve wanted to write about for a little while, is to pick up on Polanyi’s notion that labor and land are fictitious commodities – that is, that much of the problem with classical liberalism is that it presumes them to be commodities when really they are not. Konczal and Iber pick out a key quote:

Labor is only another name for a human activity which goes with life itself, which in its turn is not produced for sale but for entirely different reasons, nor can that activity be detached from the rest of life, be stored or mobilized; land is only another name for nature, which is not produced by man; actual money, finally, is merely a token of purchasing power which, as a rule, is not produced at all, but comes into being through the mechanism of banking or state finance

One very good example of how treating labor as a commodity goes wrong is ‘clopenings’ – near back-to-back shifts, combined with the practice of many employers of requiring their workers to agree to irregular shift work where they may not know until very shortly before when they are supposed to turn up to work. Steven Greenhouse wrote a strong piece on this for the New York Times:

On the nights when she has just seven hours between shifts at a Taco Bell in Tampa, Fla., Shetara Brown drops off her three young children with her mother. After work, she catches a bus to her apartment, takes a shower to wash off the grease and sleeps three and a half hours before getting back on the bus to return to her job. … Employees are literally losing sleep as restaurants, retailers and many other businesses shrink the intervals between shifts and rely on smaller, leaner staffs to shave costs. These scheduling practices can take a toll on employees who have to squeeze commuting, family duties and sleep into fewer hours between shifts. The growing practice of the same workers closing the doors at night and returning to open them in the morning even has its own name: “clopening.” … Last summer, Starbucks announced that it would curb clopenings on the same day that The New York Times published an article profiling a barista, Jannette Navarro, mother of a 4-year-old, who worked a scheduled shift that ended at 11 p.m. and began a new shift at 4 a.m. … But several people who identified themselves as Starbucks employees complained on a Facebook private group page that they still were scheduled for clopenings, despite the company’s pronouncement. One worker in Texas wrote on Jan. 30, “I work every other Sunday as a closer, which is at 10:30 or really 11-ish, then scheduled at 6 a.m. the next morning.” Another worker in Southern California wrote, “As a matter of fact I clopen this weekend.” Laurel Harper, a Starbucks spokeswoman, questioned the authenticity of the Facebook posts.

Markets, given that they are what they are, treat labour as a commodity. There are obvious efficiencies for firms if they can require their employees to carry out clopenings, or be available at short notice for unexpected shifts. Perhaps, indeed, one could construct a model demonstrating that consumers will benefit in the aggregate – that their venti half skim lattes with an extra shot will each cost one or two cents less if firms can rely on these kinds of labour models. But labour is performed by actual people, with actual families, which often involve children or dependents relying on them. This is a significant part of Polanyi’s point – and modern shift practices in the service economy are an example which should be viscerally tangible to those of us who have had to juggle our work lives and raising kids or looking after other dependents (which is not all of us, but is many of us). Ways of thinking that turn labour into a commodity, divorcing it from the human beings that carry it out, are apt to produce monstrosities.

On Beyond Zarathustra

by John Holbo on May 24, 2016

[UPDATE March 21, 2021]: Looking for the latest On Beyond Zarathustra? It’s here. I’m updating old posts with outdated links.

2016 presidential elections in Austria

by Ingrid Robeyns on May 23, 2016

The Austrians just elected Alexander Van der Bellen, a Green politician, as their new President – with 50,3% of the votes. The other half of those holding the right to vote preferred Norbert Hofer, the candidate of the populist right-wing (or, as some have it, neo-fascist) party FPÖ. I haven’t followed Austrian politics close enough to know whether that qualification is justified. It’s a difficult debate about which qualifications are justified for the various European radical right-wing parties, but either way it seems that their becoming more mainstream has not made them less radical (Dutch political scientists who have studied various radical right-wing European political parties claim that they do not moderate their principles and ambitions when they gain power – they only moderate their tone).

Either way, those of us who see the European radical right-wing parties as dangerous for values such as toleration, solidarity and international cooperation, have an uphill battle to fight. Van der Bellen may have won last night – but we should not forget that half of the Austrians prefer a radical right-wing president. Too much of this reminds us of the toxic political climate we had in Europe in the past. And I find it increasingly hard not too worry that there are too many signs of some of that returning.

Trump and tribalism

by John Quiggin on May 23, 2016

Watching the rapid consolidation of the Republican Party around the candidacy of Donald Trump, I’ve tried to make sense of this in terms of the “three party system” analysis I presented a few months ago. I saw the Republicans as the “hard neoliberal” party relying on the votes of (white Christian) tribalists and making symbolic gestures in their direction, but largely ignoring them, particularly if their interests came into conflict with those of big business.

What’s become clear since then, I think, is that the Republican Party apparatus (politicians and party officials) is more tribalist than this analysis suggested. Faced with the prospect of electing their hated tribal enemy, Hillary Clinton, as President, the vast majority look like backing Trump (some, but not all of them, holding their nose as they do so).

From a hard neoliberal viewpoint, this makes no sense. Clinton’s Democratic Leadership Council background is that of the stereotypical soft neoliberal. Her candidacy is the best chance of maintaining the long-running alternation in office between the hard and soft variants of neoliberalism. Admittedly, she will be pulled to the left by the general shift exemplified by the Sanders insurgency, but she is unlikely to do anything that would fundamentally undermine capitalism. By contrast, a Trump takeover of the Republican Party would be a disaster for neoliberalism (which does *not* mean it would be good for the left). That would be the inevitable result of a Trump victory. Even a creditable defeat, which would be blamed on the old establishment, could leave the tribalists in control of the organization.

The only groups where the #NeverTrump analysis seems to hold sway are the business donor class and the remnants of the rightwing intelligentsia (hard to believe they were carrying all before them only 20 years ago). The donors obviously have no interest in throwing money at someone like Trump. As for the intelligentsia, even if they were willing to embrace Trump, it’s obvious he has no use for any but the most total hacks, and not even many of those.

The Palm House, Sefton Park, Liverpool

Post-Democracy

by Maria on May 20, 2016

I’ve been reading and re-reading Colin Crouch’s Post-Democracy on and off for about eighteen months, and just spotted a nice precis of it on OpenDemocracy in a piece by Kit de Waal about celebrity activism:

The term ‘post-democracy’ was coined by Colin Crouch to refer to the fusion of corporate power with government, generating an elite politics based on a political-financial cycle in which money buys power and power rewards money. Post-democracy is a plausible imitation of democracy. It has a popular, consultative appearance, while the real politics of power and money consists of a continuing round of inter-personal transactions among elites.”

What makes Post-Democracy hard for me to digest more than a dozen pages at a time is not, I think, its relentless rightness, which I personally find more or less inarguable, but how little there appears we can do about it. My experience of reading it is basically ‘yes, this is better researched and thought through than I’d ever manage, and I agree; we’re basically fucked.’

I get that I’m experiencing nothing more than the cognitive dissonance of a social democrat who knows capitalism is awful and probably tending towards disaster – but more the chronic debilitating disease kind of disaster of, say, a slow-boiled lobster, than the explosive, revolutionary and strangely psycho-sexual climax of sudden foment and change – but who has neither the temperament nor the constitution for either ripping it up or walking away. (Hello Rosa Luxembourg. Like my hero Virginia Woolf, you would despise me, too.) But simply knowing this doesn’t help.

About a decade ago I was at a weekend conference in New York on what was then called ‘the new philanthropy’. The impeccably well-educated and well-spoken man who’d been Angelina Jolie’s fixer in the world of Davos and the UN system was there to say how great it was that celebrities were now getting down into development issues and doing things that governments didn’t have the will for. At the Q&A, I made myself a bit awkward by asking how democratic it was that those people could re-order policy priorities on a whim, and wouldn’t it be better if they just voted and paid their taxes like the little people. The guy got a bit irate and basically said how we needed celebrities and millionaires to improve the system and should be grateful to have them. I’m being unfair to him, I’m sure – memory is pretty self-serving. The session was being chaired by a friend who unexpectedly broke with protocol and came back to me for a response to the response, but I wasn’t expecting it and flubbed. I suppose you dwell on the things you get wrong, and the whole philanthropist – corporate – state nexus has bugged me since then even more than it would otherwise.

But we’re still all basically fucked, right?

Consistency is the most common currency of political debate. But what is it worth, would you say? And why? Apart from obvious monomaniacs, few people are highly philosophically consistent in their thinking about politics on all levels – from high principle down to partisan practice and all points in between and/or to one side or the other, as politics slops into other areas of thought and life. I don’t just mean: everyone slips. I mean: every attractive view has major tensions. (That’s what we call them when they’re ours. When other people have them: utter contradictions! Repulsive stuff!)

So what is the value of consistency arguments in politics – bold exposures of the other side’s contradictions, bouts of tidying up of one’s own? Would you say?

It’s tempting to say that consistency is an asymptotic or regulative ideal: we approach but know we aren’t really going to get there. But that doesn’t really seem right. It doesn’t seem right that we really value consistency very highly. (See above: most consistent people seem like fanatics.) No one switches partisan sides because the other side seems to have assembled a more internally coherent match of policies and principles. It doesn’t seem as though, as people become more sophisticated, politically, they become more consistent, philosophically. Possibly this has something to do with pluralism about value. (Feel free to make reference to pluralism – or hobgoblins – in your answer.) But if pluralism means it’s ok to be inconsistent, what is the value of consistency?

I also don’t mean to imply that even the most philosophically sophisticated students of politics are as utterly, intellectually self-betraying as your average partisan idiot. Getting shot with 500 bullets is way more bullets than getting shot with 5 bullets. Still, dead is dead. I think John Rawls, for example, is a more consistent political thinker than Donald Trump. But I also think that Rawls’ political philosophy suffers from at least five fatal defects: unresolvable, fairly central contradictions (inconsistencies, tensions, call them what you will.) Does it make sense to favor a view that suffers from five fatal contradictions over a view that suffers from 500 on grounds of consistency, per se?

All the same, I really can’t feature not valuing consistency quite highly. What do you think?