From the monthly archives:

March 2018

During the past term, I was on strike for fourteen days and I’m now on “action short of a strike” and, like my colleagues up and down the UK, I’m waiting to vote in a consultative e-ballot next week that may determine whether we reach a settlement with the employers and go back to work. But this post isn’t about the rights and wrongs of the dispute, it is about what it has felt like to be on strike — the highs and the lows — and about how the shared desire for a better university that has emerged from our unity and solidarity may be helped or hindered by how the strike is resolved and by the stories we tell ourselves about it.

A big part of striking (at least for those who choose not to sit at home) is picketing. I’ve been on picket lines (a long time ago) where the purpose of picketing was to stop people from going to work, but our picket lines now have been more symbolic and demonstrative. They’ve been about standing together, feeling a sense of comradeship, and sharing jokes and conversation. In this we’ve been joined by many of our students, giving rise to a renewed feeling of the university as an intellectual community bringing together teaching and research staff, other university staff and students and joining us together across disciplinary boundaries. This experience, together with associated demonstrations, teach-ins lunches, coffees and social events, has been the source of a growing sense of collective determination that a different kind of university is possible and that we mustn’t go back to the normality of submission to bullying micromanagement, the obsessive chasing of metrics and rankings and individualized anxiety and self-loathing.
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Sam Harris and the ideology of reason

by Henry on March 30, 2018

There’s lot’s that has been said in the last couple of days about Sam Harris, and not much to say about Charles Murray, race, and IQ that hasn’t already been said over the decades. But the whole tone of his writing in this exchange, aggrieved postscript and all, is worth noting briefly as a specific example of a broader phenomenon. One of the minor plagues of our time is a specific flavor of Enlightenment Man Rationalism – see Harris, Dawkins, Pinker – in which the Enlightenment Man (gender specificity intended) casts himself as the bold-honest truth-seeker, who is willing to follow reason wherever it takes him, even if (and perhaps especially if) this upsets the vulgar prejudices of the right-thinking herd. Quite often (as in Pinker’ recent book) this is linked to a particular ideal of the Enlightenment, some of the rhetorical aspects of which do support the image of the lonely man of truth standing against the mob. [click to continue…]

There Are Walls

by John Holbo on March 30, 2018

Another installment in my series of attempts to source tropes and themes in SF and fantasy. Help me find examples of what I’m looking for!

A very standard fantasy trope is ‘there are doors’.

In “On Fairy Stories” Tolkien implies why this must be. “The definition of a fairy-story — what it is, or what it should be — does not, then, depend on any definition or historical account of elf or fairy, but upon the nature of Faërie: the Perilous Realm itself, and the air that blows in that country.” Every bit as important as the atmosphere is the border. Travel between realms is restricted and a lot of dramatic tension revolves around difficult passage. Ergo, fantasy contains fun doors, from Narnia to Monsters, Inc. to … what’s your favorite door in a fantasy novel? And the architectural inverse of ‘there are doors’ – ‘there are walls’ – is also a highly respectable trope.

That’s what I want today. Not the doors so much but the walls. Weird walls. Stories that revolve around the reality of weird, often unaccountable barriers that appear, perhaps rise up, unexpected. They challenge and provoke protagonists to go around or get through somehow. I’m happy to get fantasy examples, but I’m looking more for SF analogs of what is, originally, a fantasy – fairy story – trope. SF is full of weird doors, just like fantasy. Often these don’t come equipped with attendant walls – they’re wormholes or black holes or transporters or whatever. But sometimes you get walls. Often these are ‘pocket universe‘ stories, in effect. The protagonists bump against closer confinement than they were expecting. Hollywood has produced very memorable, evocative scenes and images: Truman bumping his boat against the painted wall of his world in The Truman Show; that scene in Dark City where the protagonists finally get to Shell Beach, find the brick wall, go to work on it; that scene in The Matrix where Mouse frantically pulls back the curtains, sees the brick wall where none should be, realizes he’s fucked. [click to continue…]

Economics in Two Lessons, Chapter 7

by John Quiggin on March 27, 2018

Thanks to everyone who the first six chapters of my book, Economics in Two Lessons. That brings us to the end of Lesson 1: Market prices reflect and determine opportunity costs faced by consumers and producers.

Now its time for Lesson Two: Market prices don’t reflect all the opportunity costs we face as a society.

I’ll start with a brief intro and then the draft of Chapter 7: Property rights, and income distribution

As usual, I welcome comments, criticism and encouragement.
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Is there too much immigration?

by Chris Bertram on March 26, 2018

I spoke yesterday at the Oxford Literary Festival in debate with Sunday Times journalist Sarah Baxter on the theme “Is there too much immigration?” Something like the following constituted my opening remarks.

The title of this panel asks whether there is too much immigration? I’m inclined to wonder whether this question is simply a mistake. My own focus in a forthcoming book [Do States Have the Right to Exclude Immigrants?]( is not so much on whether immigration is good or bad for the country, but on whether states have the rights that politicians, pundits and journalists simply assume that they do, to regulate migration according to whether it is good or bad for the economy, strains public services, makes some people better off or worse off, and so on.

My book is a work in political philosophy rather than an intervention in current debates (though it can’t help being that to some extent). Let me just sketch the main argument and then I’ll get on to some further remarks about our current predicament. States are compulsory and coercive bodies. Legitimate states use that coercive force to limit the freedom of people subject to them. But there’s normally a quid pro quo involved: the state limits our freedom but also protects us from the threat that we, as individuals, pose to one another’s freedom. This tradeoff provides us with reasons to comply with the state’s authority. But unlike resident citizens would-be immigrants get all of the coercion with none of the protection. The world is divided into many states, some of which do a much better job for their subjects than others. And mobility is something that human beings have practised since forever. To make the regulation of migration legitimate, states ought to comply with principles that ought to be acceptable to everyone. Insofar as such principles don’t exist, legitimate states need to be working towards creating them (just as they regulate other areas of international life).
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Francis Bator has died

by John Quiggin on March 26, 2018

Francis Bator, the economist who popularized the term “market failure”, has died at the age of 92 after being hit by a car. His NY Times obituary is here.

Francis’ passing is a cause of sadness for me as my book, Economics In Two Lessons draws heavily on his work from the 1950s and 1960s. He had read excerpts on Crooked Timber and corresponded with me about it, much to my surprise and delight. I was looking forward to sending him the manuscript but now I won’t get the chance.

I have survey results to my two ‘weird questions’. Kind of a weak response, I’m sad to say (sub-100 responses.) But enough to establish that I am very much in the minority, in regarding Lovecraft as ‘not SF’. Only 10% of respondents agreed with that. Then again, 25% felt it was only a ‘sort of’ case. Honestly, I could go with ‘sort of’. There was a roughly even split between those who feel ‘weird’ is distinct, generically, from ‘supernatural’ and ‘horror’ and those who do not. That’s unsurprising.

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In other survey news, Eric Schwitzgebel got solider results for his survey concerning the cold, meaningless quality of the universe. Turns out: it’s not so bad.

86% of respondents either agreed or strongly agreed with the statement “There is value in living, either value that we can find if we search for it, or value that we ourselves can create” and only 6% disagreed or strongly disagreed. In contrast, only 31% of respondents agreed that “The world is a pointless cesspool of suffering and death” (49% disagreed). Interestingly, 24% of respondents agreed with both claims.

While I’m at it, I guess I’ll recommend some weird fiction (in case you have already chewed through that whole VanderMeer volume I recommended.) My favorite contemporary weird fiction writer – far and away, hands down, no contest – is Laird Barron. You should read more Laird Barron, if you like weird stuff. I love Laird Barron. [click to continue…]

Economics in Two Lessons, Chapter 6

by John Quiggin on March 22, 2018

Thanks to everyone who the first five chapters of my book, Economics in Two Lessons. Now here’s the draft of Chapter 6: The opportunity cost of destruction This is the last part of the book devoted to Lesson 1 Market prices reflect and determine opportunity costs faced by consumers and producers. and the one where I agree mostly with Henry Hazlitt’s Economics in One Lesson. It seems particularly apposite 15 years after the beginning of the Iraq War.

As usual, I welcome comments, criticism and encouragement. I’d appreciate any comments on/ alternative suggestions for the opening quote – it’s not a perfect fit, but the best I could come up with.

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The travesty of liberalism

by Henry on March 21, 2018

More in the suddenly topical vein of ‘who will rid us of those troublesome leftists’ from Sean Wilentz. For Chait, the problem is “It’s obvious to me why conservatives want everybody who’s alienated by the callout culture to self-identify as a conservative. It’s less obvious to me why liberals should also want that.” For Wilentz:

These shifts and attempted shifts in vocabulary are not of passing or merely semantic significance. Insisting upon the proper meanings of terms is not divisive or sectarian bickering. The words at stake embody different worldviews. To merge basic concepts that are plainly distinct, such as socialism and New Deal liberalism, is not a useful step toward clarifying our politics. It is, however, a Republican fantasy.

Hence, Wilentz’s proposed way forward:

It may be that the future of the Democratic Party will be determined by the extent to which men and women to the left of the right learn to appreciate the differences between liberal and progressive—and, as an important first step, to appreciate the difference between liberalism and the progressive travesty of liberalism.

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Posters for your March For Our Lives event

by Eszter Hargittai on March 20, 2018

Are you participating in a March For Our Lives event this coming Saturday, March 24th? There are hundreds of events taking place across the world. And now you don’t even have to worry about what sign to carry. Members of Action Together Zurich have created March For Our Lives posters, 89 of them (plus two to carry up front for some context). Each one is unique, with the front listing a common-sense gun bill that Congress has failed to act on, and the back listing the names of gun violence victims. The idea is for folks to print out the posters for marchers to carry at their local March For Our Lives event. Please spread the word. is the link to share.

Scalded Chait

by Henry on March 20, 2018

I want to write about other things on Crooked Timber than Jonathan Chait. Really, I do. I have a half-finished essay on The Globalists that is going to be so much more worth your time (if only because the book itself is so good). But since he’s written again today to defend the proposition that we should too be bagging on Political Correctness Gone Mad, it’s worth spending a few minutes pointing out quite how bizarre his understanding of the threat actually is.

Chait’s quite straightforward claim is that if the true awful force of political correctness were unconstrained, it would whisk us all up and deposit us in the gulag.

all illiberal left-wing ideologies, Marxist and otherwise, follow the same basic structure. These critiques reject the liberal notion of free speech as a positive good enjoyed by all citizens. They categorize political ideas as being made on behalf of either the oppressor class or the oppressed class. (Traditional Marxism defines these classes in economic terms; more modern variants replace or add race and gender identities.) From that premise, they proceed to their conclusion that political advocacy on behalf of the oppressed enhances freedom, and political advocacy on behalf of the oppressor diminishes it.

It does not take much imagination to draw a link between this idea and the Gulag. The gap between Marxist political theory and the observed behavior of Marxist regimes is tissue-thin. Their theory of free speech gives license to any party identifying itself as the authentic representative of the oppressed to shut down all opposition (which, by definition, opposes the rights of the oppressed). When Marxists reserve for themselves the right to decide “which forms of expression deserve protection and which don’t,” the result of the deliberation is perfectly obvious.

In the contemporary United States, these ideas are confined by the fact that only in certain communities (like college campuses) does the illiberal left have the power to implement its vision, and even there it is constrained by the U.S. Constitution. If illiberal ideas were to gain more power, the scale of their abuses would widen.

Since this quote is not quite Gulag-y enough for some of our commenters, here’s Chait again, making the point even more explicit:

The upsurge of political correctness is not just greasy-kid stuff, and it’s not just a bunch of weird, unfortunate events that somehow keep happening over and over. It’s the expression of a political culture with consistent norms, and philosophical premises that happen to be incompatible with liberalism. The reason every Marxist government in the history of the world turned massively repressive is not because they all had the misfortune of being hijacked by murderous thugs. It’s that the ideology itself prioritizes class justice over individual rights and makes no allowance for legitimate disagreement. (For those inclined to defend p.c. on the grounds that racism and sexism are important, bear in mind that the forms of repression Marxist government set out to eradicate were hardly imaginary.)

American political correctness has obviously never perpetrated the brutality of a communist government, but it has also never acquired the powers that come with full control of the machinery of the state.

Now I think that it’s perfectly fair to argue with and against student activists. They can be idiots (as can every human being; as can the professors and administrators who they are railing against). But even when they are idiots, they are not a Gestapo in the making. The notion that when the Political Correctness Police come to power, people like Chait are going to be hauled off to the camps for compulsory gender reassignment surgery (after having been convicted in mass show trials of Gross Heteronormativity in the First Degree) is … well, actually, it’s quite mad.

Furthermore, it’s politically toxic. On the one hand, Chait holds himself out as the practitioner of a liberalism devoted to “permeability, [and] openness to evidence and diverse perspectives.” On the other, he wants to make out that the people who are to his left on race and gender are a crowd of neo-authoritarians in the making, who will kulakize the lot of us if they are ever let anywhere near “the machinery of the state.” One is left with the impression that Chait’s proposed coalition for taking on the right consists of a few middle aged white guys, all former staff writers or contributing editors to The New Republic When It Was Really The New Republic, who alone are both intelligent enough to understand the true commitment to liberalism at the heart of the American dream, and brave enough to defend it against the zealots to their left and to their right. Likely, that is a quite unfair summation of what Chait wants. But if Chait continues to insist on demonizing everyone from Ta-Nehisi Coates on leftwards, it’s what he is going to get.

Weird Questions

by John Holbo on March 20, 2018

Having grumped about Annihilation, based on Jeff VanderMeer’s novel [amazon], I’d like to make a post in praise of that author’s anthology work.

A couple years back, while working up a syllabus for my ‘Science Fiction and Philosophy’ class, I considered The Big Book of Science Fiction (edited by the VanderMeers) [amazon]. I didn’t adopt it. I went for this one [amazon]. But I liked it. It achieves escape velocity from the Anglosphere, as it were. Stuff from around the world, not just usual suspects. For teaching purposes I wanted more usual suspects but, as a reader who has read all that, I discovered new stuff and enjoyed it. (It’s not that the usual suspects are excluded. But even the choices of stories by the big names seem uncanonical. That’s fine.)

I just got another big book edited by the VanderMeers, The Weird: A Compendium of Strange and Dark Stories [amazon]. It looks great! Like Big Book they’ve worked to achieve global coverage, not just the usual English language, mostly American/British names. I’m looking forward to expanded horizons. I am a bit puzzled by the decision to exclude titles from before the 20th Century. This is stated in the Introduction, not on the cover. I feel one should get a bit of The King In Yellow in there, since it is of a piece with 20th Century stuff they’ve included. The earliest here is Alfred Kubin and Algernon Blackwood. I don’t mind. I can roll my own LeFanu, thank you. (LeFanu coined ‘weird fiction’, I think, so there would be a logic to starting with him?) But, like I said, it’s huge. 750,000 words. 20th Century will do fine, thanks.

While I’m on the subject I have two weird questions for you. (I did a joke survey about Annihilation, so I’ll do a semi-serious one this time.)

1) Do you think at least some Lovecraft stuff is SF?
2) Do you think of ‘weird’ tales as being distinct from ‘supernatural’ stuff, on the one hand, and ‘horror’ on the other?

Kindly take 10 seconds to record your responses here. (Feel free to leave qualitative critiques of my survey design in comments!)

A few of my own thoughts about these questions under the fold. (But I don’t want to pollute your responses unduly, so maybe respond first?) [click to continue…]

The Persistence of Mummery?

by John Holbo on March 20, 2018

Our Corey has a good piece in Harpers, “Forget About It”. He concludes by reflecting on how and why his ‘continuity-of-Trump-with-conservative-tradition’ thesis rubs people wrong:

My wife explained it to me recently: in making the case for continuity between past and present, I sound complacent about the now. I sound like I’m saying that nothing is wrong with Trump, that everything will work out.

It seems rhetorically effective – even obligatory – to treat an urgent problem as exceptional. But:

The truth is that we’re captives, not captains, of this strategy. We think the contrast of a burnished past allows us to see the burning present, but all it does is keep the fire going, and growing. Confronting the indecent Nixon, Roth imagines a better McCarthy. Confronting the indecent Trump, he imagines a better Nixon. At no point does he recognize that he’s been fighting the same monster all along — and losing. Overwhelmed by the monster he’s currently facing, sure that it is different from the monster no longer in view, Roth loses sight of the surrounding terrain. He doesn’t see how the rehabilitation of the last monster allows the front line to move rightward, the new monster to get closer to the territory being defended.

Speaking of monsters, this is a great line, regarding the famous Welch/McCarthy confrontation:

Welch’s broadside was less an announcement of McCarthy’s indecency, about which nobody had any doubt, than a signal of his diminished utility, a report of his weakness and isolation. Declarations of indecency are like that: they don’t slay monsters; they’re an all-clear signal, a statement that the monster is dying or dead.

Let me note: there are two theses here, one about what is effective; one about the truth. Is it rhetorically more effective to frame Trump as exceptional, or does this mean a short-term gain in focus but a long-term drain in overall awareness? Two, is it true that Trump is exceptional?

I’m of two minds about both. On the one hand, Corey demonstrates an amnesiac absurdity to some presentist alarmism. That’s most definitely a thing. But it’s possible that a-mnemonic mummery accompanies exceptional developments. People may be surprised, wrongly, when they ought to be surprised, rightly. As to the purely rhetorical point, it’s a real rock-and-hard-place problem, to which I’m not sure there is any steady solution. But it’s a really good piece, very well-written, too.

Sunday photoblogging: snow

by Chris Bertram on March 18, 2018

We’ve just had our second late-in-the-year dose of snow in the UK, although this photo is from 2013.
Bristol snow: Cotham Gardens

Economics in Two Lessons: Chapter 5

by John Quiggin on March 17, 2018

Thanks to everyone who the first four chapters of my book, Economics in Two Lessons. I’m continuing with policy applications of Lesson 1: Market prices reflect and determine opportunity costs faced by consumers and producers.
That will be followed by Lesson 2: Market prices don’t reflect all the opportunity costs we face as a society.

Now here’s the draft of Chapter 5. Again, I welcome comments, criticism and encouragement.
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