From the monthly archives:

September 2017

Miéville on revolution

by Henry on September 28, 2017

I’ve a new piece up at Jacobin, talking about how the discussion of revolution in China Miéville’s October (his wonderfully written non-fiction book on the October Revolution), is prefigured and informed by his earlier novels, Iron Council and Embassytown. China’s politics are different than mine (I’m a standard-issue meliorist social democrat), but I’m cautiously happy with how the piece has turned out, and hope that it shows how China’s way of thinking captures possibilities that other, more ground-hugging ideologies such as my own are liable to miss.

October, China Miéville’s new book, describes the October Revolution as a moment of possibility. In its closing pages, Miéville explains why he wrote the book, despite the revolution’s aftermath:

Those who count themselves on the side of the revolution must engage with these failures and crimes. To do otherwise is to fall into apologia, special pleading, hagiography – and to run the risk of repeating such mistakes. It is not for nostalgia’s sake that the strange story of the first socialist revolution in history deserves celebration. The standard of October declares that things changed once, and they might do so again.

October depicts a pell-mell avalanche of one event crashing down on another, and men and women trying with varying success to guide the collisions — or at least survive them. Miéville’s novels often show people who thought themselves to be acting freely discovering that instead they have been enacting an inexorable logic, which, while not entirely determining their fates, renders many of their actions perverse or irrelevant. Yet there’s also a thread of counter-argument — a skein of moments in which people turn the tables on structure and write their own history.

Crowd-funding Robert Heinlein

by Henry on September 26, 2017

Farah Mendlesohn, a long time friend of Crooked Timber, writes:

I had to withdraw my book on Heinlein from the original publisher due to length. As I explored other options it became clear that no academic publisher could take it without substantial cuts, and no one who read it, could suggest any. In addition, the length would have pushed up the price for an academic publisher beyond what people could afford. Unbound, a crowdsourcing press, have agreed to take the book and have been able to price it at £12 for the ebook and £35 for the hard back.

The crowd-funding site is here. I’ve read and loved two of Farah’s previous books on f/sf (and have been contemplating a reply to her analysis of Neil Gaiman’s The Wolves in the Wall for several years) – I’ve no doubt this is going to be great.

Anthem Sprinting

by Henry on September 26, 2017

Tyler Cowen on American reverence for the Star Spangled Banner:

At a rally on Friday and on Twitter since, we have seen President Trump taking pokes at NFL players who do not show what he considers sufficient respect for the national anthem, namely by kneeling in protest during the song (is it so bad to kneel in public on a Sunday?). On the other side, some NASCAR team owners have threatened to fire drivers and crew members who don’t show proper respect during the anthem. Such disputes won’t improve the quality of either our sports or our politics. We live in a country where very often the concession stands don’t stop operating during the anthem, nor do fans stop walking through the concourse. We’re fooling ourselves to think that current practices are really showing respect for the nation or its military.

This reminds me of one of Ray Bradbury’s short stories, “The Anthem Sprinters,” based on his experiences in Ireland while working on John Huston’s Moby-Dick. The story isn’t available online (though brief summaries can be found here and elsewhere, but the plot is straightforward enough, concerning an American visitor’s discovery of a peculiar national sport. Since there was a requirement after all cinema performances that the Irish national anthem, a peculiarly lugubrious number called “The Soldier’s Song,” be played, and since Dublin cinema goers were more enthusiastic about getting to the pub to get a round or two in before closing time than about demonstrating their fidelity to the national ideal, they used to rush towards the exits in a class of a race, to avoid having to stay and stand through the rendition. Bradbury’s suggestion that this was transformed from a disorganized herd-like stampede into an actual sport is probably poetic exaggeration, but I don’t doubt that the underlying practice existed.

I’m sure that I’m not the only imported American to find the required sincerity of American nationalism a bit disorienting – it’s not what I grew up with in a country where even the greenest of 32 counties Republicanism was shot through with ambiguities. It’s not just a right wing thing either (the Pledge of Allegiance having been famously written by a socialist). Nor did I realize until the recent controversy that one of the verses of the “Star Spangled Banner” apparently looks forward to the death of American slaves freed by the British who fought in their regiment. A little more ambiguity and anthem-dashing might be no bad thing.

Of Penguins and Power

by Yochai Benkler on September 25, 2017

In Why Coase’s Penguin didn’t fly, Henry follows up his response to Cory’s Walkaway by claiming that peer production failed, and arguing that the reason I failed to predict its failure is that I ignored the role of power in my analysis.

Tl;dr: evidence on the success/failure of peer production is much less clear than that, but is not my issue here.  Coase’s Penguin and Sharing Nicely were pieces aimed to be internal to mainstream economics to establish the feasibility of social sharing and cooperation as a major modality of production within certain technological conditions; conditions that obtain now.  It was not a claim about the necessary success of such practices.  Those two economist-oriented papers were embedded in a line of work that put power and struggle over whether this feasible set of practices would in fact come to pass at the center of my analysis.  Power in social relations, and how it shapes and is shaped by battles over technical (open/closed), institutional (commons/property), ideological (cooperation/competition//homo economicus/homo socialis), and organizational (peer production & social production vs. hierarchies/markets) systems has been the central subject of my work.  The detailed support for this claim is unfortunately highly self-referential, trying to keep myself honest that I am not merely engaged in ex-post self-justification.  Apologies. [click to continue…]


A rare outbreak of unanimity on PFI

by John Quiggin on September 19, 2017

I’m doing some work on privatisation and wanted to look at recent UK experience with the Private Finance Initiative. So, I Googled for PFI in the last year (as Google personalizes searches, your mileage may vary). The result is a surprising degree of unanimity. Across the political spectrum, there is agreement that

* PFI is a disaster, enriching private firms at the expense of the public
* The other side is (mostly) to blame

[click to continue…]

Chelsea Manning and Harvard

by Henry on September 18, 2017

It occurs to me that it may be worth spelling out more explicitly the logic of why I think the Harvard Kennedy School has gotten itself into trouble. So here goes. The Harvard Kennedy School Dean, Doug Elmendorf’s statement is here. The key sentences, as I read them:

Some visitors to the Kennedy School are invited for just a few hours to give a talk in the School’s Forum or in one of our lecture halls or seminar rooms; other visitors stay for a full day, a few days, a semester, or longer. Among the visitors who stay more than a few hours, some are designated as “Visiting Fellows,” “Resident Fellows,” “Nonresident Fellows,” and the like. At any point in time, the Kennedy School has hundreds of Fellows playing many different roles at the School. In general across the School, we do not view the title of “Fellow” as conveying a special honor; rather, it is a way to describe some people who spend more than a few hours at the School.

… I see more clearly now that many people view a Visiting Fellow title as an honorific, so we should weigh that consideration when offering invitations. In particular, I think we should weigh, for each potential visitor, what members of the Kennedy School community could learn from that person’s visit against the extent to which that person’s conduct fulfills the values of public service to which we aspire. This balance is not always easy to determine, and reasonable people can disagree about where to strike the balance for specific people. Any determination should start with the presumption that more speech is better than less. In retrospect, though, I think my assessment of that balance for Chelsea Manning was wrong. Therefore, we are withdrawing the invitation to her to serve as a Visiting Fellow—and the perceived honor that it implies to some people—while maintaining the invitation for her to spend a day at the Kennedy School and speak in the Forum.

[click to continue…]

Sunday photoblogging: Étang de Montady

by Chris Bertram on September 17, 2017

Étang de Montady

Back to Sunday Photoblogging. I’ve been on hiatus from CT due to some family matters, and others have taken up the photoblogging job. This is the Étang de Montady as seen from the Oppidum d’Ensérune (both near Béziers in Languedoc). Both have Wikipedia entries, so please consult, but the story is that monks constructed this in the 13th century. They drained the swamp/pond by creating a drain at a central point which flows through an underground culvert and the radial ditches that result force the fields into their triangular pattern.

Harvard Kennedy School (discussion)

by Henry on September 15, 2017

This post is a stub, intended to allow people to discuss the Harvard Kennedy School decision to revoke its invitation to Chelsea Manning, since the main post comments section is being used as a petition.

The New York Times reports that the Harvard Kennedy School’s Institute of Government has revoked its invitation to Chelsea Manning to be a fellow this year.

The decision by the Kennedy School followed forceful denunciations by a former top official at the C.I.A. and the current director at the agency. Michael J. Morell, a deputy director at the intelligence agency under President Barack Obama, resigned as a fellow on Thursday, calling the invitation to Ms. Manning “wholly inappropriate.” He said it “honors a convicted felon and leaker of classified information.” … Pompeo, who graduated from Harvard Law School, wrote in a letter to a Kennedy School official, adding that he commended Mr. Morell’s decision to resign. He added, “It has everything to do with her identity as a traitor to the United States of America and my loyalty to the officers of the C.I.A.”

It appears that the decision was taken by the Harvard Kennedy School’s Dean, Doug Elmendorf.

Institutions like the Kennedy School both reflect and advise the senior levels of the US political system. This means that they work with and invite people with a wide variety of beliefs and past histories, some of which I personally find obnoxious, and some of which I personally think are worthy of great moral condemnation. I’m more or less OK with the Kennedy School doing that – given what it is, that’s plausibly part of its mission. It hasn’t stopped me from e.g. giving a talk there, or considering other forms of participation.

But when the Kennedy School rescinds an invitation – as it just has – because of pressure from one side in the debate, it seems to me that the Kennedy School cannot appeal any more to that kind of defense. It isn’t reflecting both sides in a debate – instead, it is suggesting that people on one side of it (including such universally celebrated luminaries as Corey Lewandowski and Sean Spicer) are worthy of being honored, while Chelsea Manning is not. Personally, I’m not prepared to go along with that.

Hence, unless the Kennedy School changes this decision, or otherwise shows evidence of a real change in heart (e.g. if a new administration makes it clear in future years that people like Manning are welcome), I’m going to have nothing to do with the Kennedy School as an institution in the future. Specifically, I will not accept any future invitations to give talks there, nor will I participate in conferences, workshops or other events organized by the Kennedy School. Nor will I do anything else that suggests my personal willingness to be involved in Kennedy School activities (where there are borderline cases, my rule of thumb will be to refuse activities with Kennedy School that either suggest personal endorsement, or that provide me with personal benefits). I will continue to maintain personal contacts with individuals at the Kennedy School, while making my unhappiness with their institution’s politics clear.

I don’t have any particular illusions that this will change minds at the Kennedy School (although perhaps if many other academics feel the same way I do, it will). But since this is the one small thing I can do, I’m doing it.

Update: I’ve gotten a request via email to turn this into a petition. So if you agree feel free to sign on below. If you have broader comments make them here instead.

Michelle Jones and the Shame of Harvard

by Rich Yeselson on September 14, 2017

There is an extraordinary, enraging story in the New York Times today about a brilliant and remarkable woman who did a horrific thing and spent 20 years redeeming herself in prison. When she sought admission to graduate school at Harvard, our most prestigious university itself did a terrible thing of a different kind. John Stauffer and Dan Carpenter, senior scholars, precipitated the rescinding of Jones’s admission to Harvard’s history program, but, even worse, President Drew Faust failed to blunt their cravenness, and instead ratified it.

The very good news? Sounds like NYU got a terrific student for their Phd program in history.

There is also–and here I ride my own sad little hobbyhorse–something to be said here for the value of procedural neutrality, both normatively and, often, to protect individuals who fall outside of “typical” circumstances protected by elite institutions. Admissions decisions to graduate programs at Harvard and elsewhere are the responsibility of departmental faculty. The university technically had the right (I infer) to overrule this decision, but it did so only out of fear of rightwing media! (Read the remarks by Stauffer, which are extraordinary in their explicit moral cowardliness.) Leaving decisions about the intellectual and scholarly potential to those most qualified to make that determination–the indigenous “interpretive community” as Stanley Fish might put it–would have prevented the university’s top administrators, including its president, from exercising a perverse oversight in this case.

New DJ Earworm

by Belle Waring on September 14, 2017

DJ Earworm’s Summermash was an unusually weak outing, partly because it’s slow, and rebooted innocent Miley is boring, and other problems. But this Radio City Liverpool mashup is great; it’s the thing I always want him to do, namely mash up things from different years. Now if he would only mash up actually good songs that never crack the top 50 my life would be more complete, because he is like an painter given a child’s crappy watercolor kit with one of those plastic brushes with horrible stiff bristles that go in all directions, and told to paint something awesome. And he paints pretty great stuff! But what if we gave him some Mountain Goats and Janelle Monáe and stuff?!

Post Script: Ed Sheeran is the actual worst what is the deal.

Richard Posner has finally become a pragmatist

by Henry on September 14, 2017

This exit interview with Richard Posner, who is retiring as a judge, is interesting.

“About six months ago,” Judge Posner said, “I awoke from a slumber of 35 years.” He had suddenly realized, he said, that people without lawyers are mistreated by the legal system, and he wanted to do something about it. … He had become concerned with the plight of litigants who represented themselves in civil cases, often filing handwritten appeals. Their grievances were real, he said, but the legal system was treating them impatiently, dismissing their cases over technical matters. “These were almost always people of poor education and often of quite low level of intelligence,” he said. “I gradually began to realize that this wasn’t right, what we were doing.” …

Judge Posner said he hoped to work with groups concerned with prisoners’ rights, with a law school clinic and with law firms, to bring attention and aid to people too poor to afford lawyers.
In one of his final opinions, Judge Posner, writing for a three-judge panel, reinstated a lawsuit from a prisoner, Michael Davis, that had been dismissed on technical grounds. “Davis needs help — needs it bad — needs a lawyer desperately,” he wrote.

On the phone, Judge Posner said that opinion was a rare victory. “The basic thing is that most judges regard these people as kind of trash not worth the time of a federal judge,” he said

I don’t want to be snarky – it is unqualifiedly great that someone of Posner’s stature on the right is taking up this cause. I do want to point out though, that it can be interpreted as a partial completion of something that was incomplete before – Posner’s commitment to pragmatism as an approach to understanding the law. [click to continue…]

The Center for Ethics and Education has announced an essay prize for the best submitted paper by a graduate student “that uses philosophical insight and argument to address an important issue in educational policy and/or practice”. The deadline is Feb 1 2018, and the first prize is $3000. If you can, please circulate this link widely to students who might be interested. Please don’t think this is only for students who identify as philosophers of education: we are trying to induce talented philosophers to work on issues in education and talented scholars of education to think more philosophically about their subject. The full call is as follows (pasted from the link):

The Center for Ethics and Education is pleased to announce an essay competition for graduate students. We are looking for essays that use philosophical insight and argument to address an important issue in educational policy and/or practice. The problem the essay addresses might arise in early childhood education, compulsory education, or post-secondary education, or in the way children are raised in families. The essay might, for example, concern any of the following topics:

The proper content of moral education and of the rights of parents to choose its content
The place of religion in schools
Justice and efficiency in the allocation of public funds across schools and school districts
The proper aims of schooling in a democratic society
The commercialization of schools and childhoods generally
The obligations to students with special educational needs
The rights of students to privacy, freedom of expression, or freedom of association
Ethical issues of teaching or school leadership
The rights and obligations of teachers with respect to abusive or violent children
Ethical considerations in college admissions and enrollment

We emphasize that this list is illustrative and not exhaustive.

[click to continue…]

Robert Heinlein writes letters to editors and librarians

by John Holbo on September 12, 2017

Enough Lovecraft! Robert Heinlein! I’m reading Innocent Experiments:Childhood and the Culture of Popular Science in the United States, by Rebecca Onion. Chapter 4, “Space Cadets and Rocket Boys: Policing the Masculinity of Scientific Enthusiasms” has quite a bit of good stuff on Heinlein – well it would have to, wouldn’t it? If you’ve read some Heinlein you kind of know what Heinlein is like. But there’s good stuff here about his exchanges with editors. The guy was one serious SJW, insisting on his minority quotas. Of course, he always manages to make it weird in his cosmopolitan-but-All-American, messianic-rationalist-masculinist libertarian-disciplinarian anti-authoritarian-but-in-an-authoritarian-way way.

In a [1946] letter to Blassingame written while he was working on Young Atomic Engineers [which became Rocketship Galileo], Heinlein wrote that his heroes were of Scotch English, German, and American Jewish extraction and warned, “You may run into an editor who does not want one of the young heroes to be Jewish. I will not do business with such a firm. The ancestry of these three boys is a ‘must’ and the book is offered under those conditions. My interest was aroused in this book by the opportunity to show to kids what I conceive to be Americanism.” The conflict did not arise, perhaps in part because Morrie, of Rocket Ship Galileo, was never explicitly identified as Jewish, despite the presence of certain vaguely invoked cultural and religious markers. During the editorial process for Tunnel in the Sky, which included a prominent black female character, Caroline, Heinlein told Dalgliesh [this is 1955] that he “wanted Caroline identified as Negro from the start. . . . This girl’s characterization all through the book is believable only if she is colored, I want her tagged from the start.” Replying to Dalgliesh’s concern that “this Negro secondary character would lose us sales in the South,” he wrote back, “This is not a point on which I am willing to budge.” He did, however, change the identifier used to describe Caroline from “black” to “Zulu,” thereby giving her an exotic provenance that would explain her “characterization” as a brash, uncouth female warrior while also abstracting her from present-day conflicts in the United States. While Heinlein defended Caroline’s right to exist, he marked her as different: loud, violent, and romantically unfit (important in a book whose plot included more than a few romantic pairings).

We can laugh about it now, but it was 1955 at the time.
[click to continue…]