From the monthly archives:

September 2019

Sunday photoblogging: storm in the Venice lagoon #2

by Chris Bertram on September 29, 2019

And yes, this is a colour photo!

Venice: storm in the lagoon

On photos and parental smirks

by Gina Schouten on September 27, 2019

Since becoming a parent I’ve been experiencing a new flavor of gentle inter-generational antagonism. The thing that I call a “pack-‘n-play? My parents call it a “play-pen.” This linguistic development is amusing to them. I kind of think they’re right to be amused. I’m not sure if it’s funny that we can’t handle product names that evoke a sense of our children as animals, or if it’s funny that we can’t accept that our children basically are (sometimes) just animalistic things to be contained. But they’re right that there’s some plausible story behind this product’s evolution that says something sweetly laughable about those of us on this end of it.

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The Enigma of Clarence Thomas: On sale today!

by Corey Robin on September 24, 2019

I’ve been on an extended hiatus from Crooked Timber. Trying to finish a book, teaching new classes, and generally trying to stay off the internet to get some new writing and thinking done. But I’m really happy to come back to announce that The Enigma of Clarence Thomas, a book I’ve been working on for six years and periodically blogging about here, goes on sale today.

With the help of a rave review in this morning’s New York Times. In the Times, Jennifer Szalai writes:

It’s a provocative thesis, but one of the marvels of Robin’s razor-sharp book is how carefully he marshals his evidence. He doesn’t have to resort to elaborate speculation or armchair psychologizing, relying instead on Thomas’s speeches, interviews and Supreme Court opinions. Just as jurists make ample use of the written record, Robin does the same.

The result is rigorous yet readable, frequently startling yet eminently persuasive.

It isn’t every day that reading about ideas can be both so gratifying and unsettling, and Robin’s incisive and superbly argued book has made me think again.

If you’d like to read a little more about the book, there was a long excerpt of it two weeks ago in The New Yorker. It also has been widely reviewed—among other places, in Bookforum, The Atlantic, Harper’s, and National Review, which, despite the criticisms, called the book “thoroughly researched and engagingly written…a valuable and overdue engagement.” I was also interviewed about the book in Vanity Fair.

You can buy the book at Amazon, or if you prefer other vendors, there’s a list here.

I hope you will get the book. I worked long and hard on it, and not only do I think it does something new, but I think that you’ll learn something new. A lot of people have an understandable block against Thomas, not really wanting to hear much about him at all. This book won’t convince you he’s any less dangerous or toxic than you already think he is. Nor is it designed to do that. Instead, it will convince you that he’s far more interesting, and speaks to many more constituencies, than you might have thought. And is, therefore, perhaps, even more dangerous and unsettling. And thus worth learning about.

I look forward to hearing your thoughts!

Meanwhile, what the grown-ups are doing

by Maria on September 24, 2019

As the UK’s Prime Minister has followed up his multiple parliamentary defeats with a devastating judgement by the Supreme Court on his honesty and competence today, an email from the Irish government popped into my in-box. Now, the Irish government is far, far from perfect, but this email is an example of the basic competence we expect from minimally adequate governments; it has informations about available resources and activities for businesses affected by Brexit.

Enterprise Ireland is encouraging businesses to step into new markets and ensure that their exports are sufficiently diversified. Find steps to support Irish companies here
The Construction Industry Stakeholder Forum took place last week, where discussion was held around no deal Brexit. Businesses manufacturing or using CE-marked construction products could be affected, learn more here
Free seminars on “Practical steps to keep agri-food trade moving” continue over the next week. Invaluable advice and information will be available at events in Wexford and Cork, further details below.
Panel discussions and engagements around Brexit were held in the Government of Ireland Village at the National Ploughing Championships, where thousands of the Getting your Business Brexit Ready – Practical Steps booklets were distributed.

It goes on in this vein with links to events, advice clinics and financial resources. I’ve been getting these emails for two years, now, and just wanted to post it here as a reminder of what governments are meant to do. Not lie and hide information about whether we’ll still have life-saving drugs, fresh food, access to markets or freedom of assembly.

Don’t get me wrong. Brexit is still all manner of cluster-f*ck for Ireland, and we won’t be offering more than the basic, self-serving cooperation to the UK any time, soon. But this is mitigation, folks. This is information. This is the minimum we should expect from an adequately functioning, medium-capacity late-capitalist state in the face of wholly man-made disaster.


by John Q on September 24, 2019

Looking for a different story in the business pages of The Guardian, I happened across a headline stating The men who plundered Europe’: bankers on trial for defrauding €447m. That attracted my attention, but the standfirst, in smaller print, was even more startling

Martin Shields and Nick Diable are accused of tax fraud in ‘cum-ex’ scandal worth €60bn that exposes City’s pursuit of profit

I think of myself as someone who pays attention to the news, but I had missed this entirely. Google reveals essentially no coverage in the main English language media. There’s a short but helpful Wikipedia article and that’s about it. The scandal has been described as the ‘crime of the century’, but it’s just one of many multi-billion dollar/euro heists, with the GFC towering above them all.

It remains to be seen how the trial will turn out, but it’s already clear that, as usual, the banks have got away with it. The bank most closely involved in the scam, HypoVereinsBank in German has set aside €200 million euros to cover its potential liability. That’s less than 1 per cent of the tax avoided or evaded (the lawyers will be fighting out which, for some time, but the effect on ordinary citizens is the same).

The crucial point here isn’t the failure of the law to punish wrongdoing.

What matters is that crooked deals of this scale suffice for a complete explanation of the growth of the global financial sector since the 1970s. The point of the financial sector is not to allocate capital more efficiently, but to undermine the regulatory and tax systems that are supposed to make the economy work properly. Unsurprisingly the huge financial boom has been accompanied by miserable productivity growth, repeated business collapses and massive growth in inequality.

The only way to fix the problem is to shrink the financial sector to a tiny fraction of its current size, and tightly regulate what remains. The rational route to achieve this would start with the kinds of reforms being proposed by Elizabeth Warren. But we may be stuck with a messier path, in which courts tire of giving slaps on the wrist to recidivist banks and start shutting them down.

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I wrote a pamphlet for the Fabian Society in 2000, arguing for reform of the private school system, based on the assumption that it was impossible to abolish them (I still think it unlikely, and am quite curious what will end up in the manifesto). If you feel like reading it, here it is.

*I have done some edits on September 24th, thanks to some input by Tim Waligore and Brian Carey, whom I thank.

There is no need to point out to the readers of this blog that the debate between gender critical feminists (henceforth GCFs) and the supporters of strong transgender rights* is both as lively and, unfortunately, as toxic as ever.

I have long been sitting on the fence with respect to this issue, for very obvious reasons of self-preservation – apart from organizing a small workshop on the topic last May, whose primary aim was to bring people together hoping that a genuine debate might ensue, rather than taking a stand.

I still have no plan to leave the fence properly (let alone for the fact that I am no expert, to say the least!), but let’s say that this post is a timid attempt to take a peek at what happens if I climb down from it and take a few steps. The aim is to very tentatively make three points which, to my knowledge, do not feature in the debate as it is currently unfolding -  although the first two are actually fairly long-standing insights within the feminist literature more broadly, beyond the gender identity debate narrowly construed. And by the way: I am very happy to be corrected if this is not the case and these points are actually being made in the current debate! So – bracing myself – here we go. [click to continue…]

Congratulations to Gina, whose book Liberalism, Neutrality, and the Gendered Division of Labor was published early in the summer (but I waited to say anything till fall, when I thought people would be more receptive).[1]

Here’s a very rough account of what the book’s about: Women and men do unequal amounts of domestic and caring labor, and this inequality contributes to unequal outcomes between men and women in their careers. This is the ‘gendered division of labor’. But are the inequalities, or the processes generating them, unjust? And, if so, should the government act to change anything?

Here’s the problem: No laws enforce the gendered division of labor; and while women face some discrimination in the labor market, most of the gendered division of labor seems to be explained, immediately, by people’s choices which are, in turn, responsive to influential social norms. We – liberals who believe in democracy and freedom – presume that people should be free to act on their own judgments, and are uneasy about government intervention that would attempt to change the social norms. This commitment is captured by the popular idea that, for the most part, the government should stay out of people’s personal lives – and that appears to include things like how members of a household decide to divide up the time doing the dishes, looking after a child, or caring for an ailing parent.

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Sunday photoblogging: Hamburg

by Chris Bertram on September 22, 2019

Hamburg: warehouses

The most blasphemous idea in contemporary discourse?

by Ingrid Robeyns on September 21, 2019

I have no idea how he found it, but George Monbiot read an (open access) academic article that I wrote, with the title “What, if Anything, is Wrong with Extreme Wealth?‘ In this paper I outline some arguments for the view that there should be an upper limit to how much income and wealth a person can hold, which I called (economic) limitarianism. Monbiot endorses limitarianism, saying that it is inevitable if we want to safeguard life on Earth.

As Monbiot’s piece rightly points out, there are many reasons to believe that there should be a cap on how much money we can have. Having too much money is statistically highly likely to lead to taking much more than one’s fair share from the atmosphere’s greenhouse gasses absorbing capacity and other ecological commons; it is a threat to genuine democracy; it is harmful to the psychological wellbeing of the children of the rich, and to the capacity of the rich to act autonomously when it concerns moral questions (which includes the reduced capacity for empathy of the rich); and, as I’ve argued in a short Dutch book on the topic that I published earlier this year, extreme wealth is hardly ever (if ever at all) deserved. And if those reasons weren’t enough, one can still add the line of Peter Singer and the effective altruists that excess money would have much greater moral and prudential value if it were spent on genuine needs, rather than on frivolous wants.

Monbiot wrote: “This call for a levelling down is perhaps the most blasphemous idea in contemporary discourse.”
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Sunday Photoblogging: Palazzo Tursi, Genoa

by Chris Bertram on September 15, 2019

Genoa: Palazzo Tursi, Via Garibaldi

This is your phone on feminism

by Maria on September 14, 2019

A couple of weeks ago, I gave a talk in Austria on smartphones and cybersecurity.

“Put up your hand if you like or maybe even love your smartphone,” I asked the audience of policymakers, industrialists and students.

Nearly every hand in the room shot up.

“Now, please put up your hand if you trust your smartphone.”

One young guy at the back put his hand in the air, then faltered as it became obvious he was alone. I thanked him for his honesty and paused before saying,“We love our phones, but we do not trust them. And love without trust is the definition of an abusive relationship.”

We are right not to trust our phones. They serve several masters, the least of whom is us. They constantly collect data about us that is not strictly necessary to do their job. They send data to the phone company, to the manufacturer, to the operating system owner, to the app platform, and to all the apps we use. And then those companies sell or rent that data to thousands of other companies we will never see. Our phones lie to us about what they are doing, they conceal their true intentions, they monitor and manipulate our emotions, social interaction and even our movements. We tell ourselves ‘it’s okay, I chose this’ when we know it really, really isn’t okay, and we can’t conceive of a way out, or even of a world in which our most intimate device isn’t also a spy.

Let’s face the truth. We are in an abusive relationship with our phones.

I ‘m really proud of this piece. The rest of it is here.

Comments here at CT v. welcome especially as there’s more I’d like to say about Kate Manne. Anyone here read ‘Down Girl, the Logic of Misogyny? Her thing is that while sexism is the rationalising part, misogyny is the law enforcement branch of patriarchy. (this is a scandalously short and impertinent summary. It’s a fantastic book and I recommend reading it.) I’m thinking that, analogously for surveillance capitalism, exploitation is the rationalisation and predation the policing mechanism. But not sure if that quite works, i.e. if the terms match up, as well as the overall analogy.


9/11 babies are voters

by Chris Bertram on September 11, 2019

It doesn’t seem like 18 years, but it is. Babies born that day are now voters, among other things. Crooked Timber, 16-years old now, came out of the eruption of blogging that followed 9/11. In the atmosphere that developed after 9/11, many of the ways of thinking, arguing, abusing and obfuscating that we associated with the new populism became commonplace. Those who expressed critical opinions, even people of the stature of Nelson Mandela or Mary Robinson, were subject to character assassination by armies of keyboard vigilantes. Ordinary people who said something critical had no chance: recall Cindy Sheehan? Fake and fakish news and associated panics became part of the landscape. In the subsequent wars, particularly in the Middle East, criticisms of US or Israeli actions were blunted by swarms of amateur online experts comparing and undermining photographic evidence. Maybe we’d have ended up here anyway, but that terrible and murderous day set us on the path to the pit of Trump and Brexit, a pit that will be hard to climb out of.

UPDATE: I’m reminded via twitter that the anthrax scare was about a real thing, even though the anti-Muslim spin that was part of the panic around it was confected. I’ve changed the OP to reflect that.

Haters gonna hate

by Chris Bertram on September 10, 2019

I spent a couple of hours the other afternoon reading Amia Srinivasan’s wonderful paper [“The Aptness of Anger”]( One theme of that paper is that anger can be a fitting response to a moral violation and that our evaluation of whether someone should be angry does not reduce to instrumental considerations about whether being angry does any good. I find Srinivasan’s argument persuasive but I also found myself wondering about a side-issue that is not really dealt with in the paper. If anger is an apt response to a moral violation, where that violation might be a betrayal by a friend or global injustice, we obviously need an independent theory of morality to anchor our judgements about when anger is appropriate. After all, people get angry all the time when they are denied something they believe themselves entitled to, but the anger is only a candidate for being justifiable when they are actually entitled to that thing. (Srinivasan [has written eloquently about incels](, who are very angry at being denied something they are not entitled to.)

Some of the angriest people around at the moment are supposed to be the so-called “left behinds”, althouth perhaps relatively prosperous people often perform “being angry” on their behalf. Insofar are they are angry about the neglect that they and their communities have suffered at the hands of central governments, the lack of regional and industrial policies, or the growth of inequality, then their anger does seem to be a reaction that is indeed an appropriate response to a moral violation, namely, social and economic injustice. But a lot of the anger that we’ve seen stoked up in recent years has been anger towards “immigrants”, where “immigrants” denotes both actual immigrants and non-white people perceived as such by those who resent them. The “moral violation” that this anger corresponds to is the sense that those people don’t belong in the bigot’s safe space. It is the mere presence of such “foreigners” in a space the haters think of as being theirs and reserved for them that constitutes the perceived outrage and generates the anger. (Similar anger at mere presence of unwanted others can be seen in other cases, such as, for example, gentrification.)
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Passports and Brexit

by John Q on September 9, 2019

I was looking over this post from 2016, on the consequences of a relatively successful Brexit

I’m finding it hard to see that anything will happen to justify the massive effort involved. The Poles and other EU citizens whose presence was the biggest single justification for Brexit won’t go away. On the contrary, it seems pretty clear that all EU citizens will get permanent residence, even those who arrived after the Brexit vote. Even with a hard Brexit, the benefits of consistency with EU regulations will be overwhelming. The terms of any trade deal with non-EU countries won’t be any better than the existing EU deals and probably worse.

Even symbolically, what’s going to happen? Typically, national independence is marked by a ceremony where the flag of the imperial power is lowered, and the new national flag is raised. But, from what I can tell, the EU flag is hardly ever flown in the UK as it is. The same for national currency, passport, official languages and all the other symbolic representations of nationhood. So, after a successful Brexit, Britain will be a little poorer and more isolated than before, but otherwise largely unchanged. Will that count as success in the eyes of those who voted to Leave. I don’t know.

Most of that still looks about right. But as commenters at the time pointed out, I was wrong about passports. One of the big things Leavers disliked about the EU was the replacement of the blue British passport with EU burgundy. It turns out that the colour change wasn’t compulsory, and the reintroduced blue passports will be printed in France, but at least that is a symbolic win for the Brexiteers.

On the other hand, how does this fit with the oft-repeated claim that Leave voters were “left behind” “stayers”? To be nostalgic for blue passports, you would presumably need to have undertaken a fair bit of international travel before 1988, when they were replaced. That experience, combined with the assumption that Britain is far superior to the EU, sounds like the profile of a stereotypical well-off, middle-aged or older, Tory voter. And, as far as I can tell, it was this category that provided the core support for Leave. That’s consistent with Trumpist voting most places in the English speaking world.