From the monthly archives:

April 2020

When to bury an academic paper?

by Ingrid Robeyns on April 30, 2020

Last November, a paper of mine got an impossible-to-do R&R by an academic (ethics/political philosophy) journal – it amounted to a de facto rejection, except if I was willing to write a very different paper. The paper had been rejected before, and I was at a point where I wasn’t sure what to do with it. The 5 referee reports (all very elaborate) wildly differed in what they found lacking in the paper. Several referees wanted me to write another paper, but they all suggested something very different. The reports also differed a lot in what they found plausible and implausible in the paper. It demotivated me, and then I did the most stupid thing a scholar can do – to leave the paper sitting there, not working on it, not having a plan at all about what to do with the paper. [click to continue…]

Another open thread on the pandemic

by John Q on April 29, 2020

Most of us are six weeks or so into some kind of lockdown by now, so it would be interesting to read some comments on our experiences. From the discussions I’ve had (almost entirely online rather than in person) my perception is that people with office jobs and no kids at home are finding it much easier than might have been expected, but that those with kids at home are finding it every bit as hard as you would think. So far, the impact on those who have lost jobs (or work like conference organization) has been cushioned by income support, in Australia at any rate. Less online discussion with those still working, of course.

Experiences and thoughts?

Sunday photoblogging: trees

by Chris Bertram on April 26, 2020

I’m reading Richard Powers’s magnificent novel The Overstory at the moment, so I’m learning and appreciating a lot about trees that I hadn’t before. And I’m wishing that I’d know those things before encountering the magnificent specimens in this Sunday’s offering. First, a tree with magnificent roots and multiple trunks (probably from the fig family) that I saw in the grounds of the Brasilia Palace Hotel outside Brasilia in 2013. Second, the wonderful redwoods in Muir Woods in northern California.

Brasilia Palace Hotel-2

Muir Woods, redwoods


by John Q on April 26, 2020

While trawling through my old posts, I came across this one, which looks at the case for the death penalty presented by Cass Sunstein and Adrian Vermeule. At the time, I was moderately familiar with Sunstein, but knew nothing at all about Vermeule, who has now emerged as an advocate of theocracy (called “integralism” in its Catholic version). I thought about a three-degrees separation, running off the fact that, while I am no fan of Sunstein, quite a few people I respect and work with like (and, I think, work with) him. Before I wrote it though, I searched CT for references to Vermeule, and found him contributing to a 2013 book event we held, on Johnson and Knight’s The Priority of Democracy. What he writes there seems sensible enough to me, pointing out potential problems for democracy but not implying anything like his current position

It appears that Vermeule converted to Catholicism recently, so maybe this was part of some intellectual crisis, or maybe he was just swept up in the Trumpist wave. Any thoughts?

Noises off

by John Q on April 22, 2020

A couple of weeks ago, I recorded a video presentation about the likely employment effects in Australia, as part of my university’s response to the pandemic. The sound quality wasn’t great, what with reliance on my computer microphone, a spotty Internet connection and my accent, which is too strong even for some Aussies.

The communications people at the Uni got back to me and said it might have to have subtitles, but they could improve things by lowering the volume of the background music. My immediate reaction was unprintable, and while I managed to calm down, I wrote back to say that under no circumstances would I accept any kind of musical accompaniment. They cut out the music and managed to get it done with closed captions (the kind that are turned off my default).

But, obviously, I’m in an aging and shrinking minority here. David Attenborough’s documentaries, which I used to love, are now unwatchable (or rather unlistenable), with lush orchestral music crashing over his narration. If it’s not that, it’s an annoying metronomic repetition of the same five notes over and over. When people complain, the answer is “this isn’t a lecture”. But that’s exactly what I want from a documentary – a lecture with high-quality video combining to convey more information than either alone. Music, by contrast, conveys no information at all (except, I guess, “this is bad music”). If I wanted a content-free audiovisual experience, I’d far prefer a live band at the pub, with smoke and strobe lights, to someone’s musical interpretation of animal behavior overlaid on some barely audible talk.

Thinking about this brings up the more general issue of background music in films. It’s such an established convention you barely notice it most of the time. But I’ve quite often had the experience of hearing vaguely dissonant music as a character enters a room, and not knowing if this is part of the film, supposed to be audible to the character, or just part of the soundtrack. It’s just as artificial in its way as the characters in a musical bursting into song at the drop of a hat, and yet it’s a standard part of what is supposed to be realistic drama.

That’s it from my Grumpy Old Guy persona. Does anyone share my grumpiness, or want to persuade me out of it.

Show me your books …

by Henry Farrell on April 17, 2020

was once a demand made by Kieran on Chatroulette (remember Chatroulette?), but is now becoming an amateur spectator sport, as people scope out other people’s bookshelves on Zoom, and some of those other people in turn likely artfully arrange their books so as to present the best possible image of their serious or not-so-serious intellectual life. The Twitter commentary on this Pete Buttigeig bookshelf has already started.

For me, the interesting bit was not the volumes of Dragonball, or the Piketty in and of itself, so much as the way in which Piketty and a few issues of N+1 bracketted a copy of Juan Zarate’s decidedly non-leftwing book on US financial power, Treasury’s War. Perhaps the message that was intended to be conveyed was of how a leftwing attack on the power of capital and global inequality might be organized around the awesome power of the US over the global financial system. Or, perhaps, that’s just me.

Either which way, one way to keep some of us occupied is to scope out each other’s bookshelves. Here’s mine (as the disorder suggests, I haven’t artfully rearranged it at all, though I have chosen the bookshelf in our house with the greatest concentration of intellectually ‘serious’ books).

Feel free to snoop, and to disparage my taste. Feel just as free to include links to photos of your own bookshelves in comments (it looks as though img src is disabled in CT comments, but links should work fine).

What are we watching?

by Chris Bertram on April 17, 2020

As we are all (or most of us) shut behind our front doors for fear of the plague, and once we’re through with improving ourselves or home-schooling others, what are we watching? I’m always in need of a good recommendation, but happy to share too. At the moment the two drama series that are occupying me are Baron Noir and Babylon Berlin (both series 3 now). I’m guessing, possibly incorrectly, that Baron Noir will be the less familiar of the two to CT readers. It follows the career of socialist mayor Phillipe Rickwaert from the mayor’s job at Dunkerque to the highs and low of national power. Rickwaert is both a Machiavellian tactician (not above dirty tricks and electoral fraud), personally ambitious but also deeply attached to the historic socialist cause. One of the grittiest depictions of how the political sausages get made of recent times. You should start at the beginning with series 1, which is excellent, and persevere through series 2, which gets a bit flabby, since series 3 is again taut, well-plotted and acted. The France of Baron Noir is a parallel one that is just a tiny bit different (the eventual Macron figure is female and the Mélenchon character is vain and narcissistic). Really compelling stuff. Babylon Berlin, based on the novels by Volker Kutscher, is a Weimar era detective series in which our heroes Gunther Rath and Charlotte Ritter battle against dark forces. The plot is sometimes incomprehensible, but the depiction of 1920s Berlin is wonderful.

His Dark Materials Trans-Atlantic Book Club

by Maria on April 17, 2020

So, I (presumably) got the thing but of course there is no testing in the UK for people who need it, let alone assorted members of the general public like myself who’d just like to know if they’re through the worst. Then I was great for a couple of days, then really, really not so great, and that not-so-greatness has lingered. Net result; cancelling and foregoing various paid work things, letting people down, and not doing my central ‘life’s work’ things. Which is trying, but I am nonetheless going boing boing boing on middle class lockdown bingo. Growing tomatoes. Returning to piano-playing. Complaining about joggers. Starting and not finishing a potential longread about Parfit, past and future selves and why we ignored the letters from our future that China and Italy were kind enough to despatch. Also, tweeting too goddamn much. Eating too goddamn much. (now the food shortages have eased and I can also leave the house to buy some – I quarantined for 2 weeks, but the UK guidance seems to be only 7 days after first symptoms. In something that lasts a lot longer, that seems wrong?) Also comfort-reading.

I was 1/3 through Anna Burns’ Milkman when we went into lockdown about a week before the UK’s official lockdown. Found almost immediately I couldn’t manage it any more. Then tried Tim Maugham’s near-future post-apocalyptic Infinite Detail. Ha! past self who thought you could still read something like that for general interest! you were so so wrong. I don’t remember why exactly, but my thoughts turned to Northern Lights; specifically the Everyman edition of the His Dark Materials trilogy I bought for Ed to bring on his last tour and which he left at home. (His interest piqued to see me reading ‘his’ book, and read the dedication to him, he then said it was just the book he should have brought but only not having done so does he now understand his former self and how he has changed and really should have?)

Then, out on a neighbourhood walk a couple of weeks ago, I knocked on the door of a friend and retreated back to the footpath. Grey area activity, this, but the conversation was short and no sunbathing took place. My friend and her two children came out and Milo whinnied through the gate to be let in to raid their cat bowl. We ignored him and got quickly to book-chat, HDM, and made a plan for a HDM book club online the following night. Invitations went out. (I am that person who’s refused to use whatsapp since the day facebook bought it, but for work reasons have used zoom for years. there is no security or privacy logic to this.) 7pm the next night, those two kids, my two Washington nephews, two of my sisters, Ed and me all got on zoom for a proper conversation that was Not Work and also not ‘well, nothing much happened today, let me tell you about our new composting methodology’. Best online conversation I have ever, no really ever, been part of.

The kids are alright. They are so incredibly, togetherly alright it’s almost funny. We did it again this week, though connectivity problems meant two of my sisters couldn’t join. But I learnt so much from these people who were born when I was already in my thirties – about gender, race, class, story structure, you name it. It is just such a joy and in a moment where I can’t work, can’t read, can’t write, can just about cook and put up a pea-frame thing in the garden with bamboo and string let’s see if it lasts, this hour a week is an oasis of an almost lost sense of being through not very taxing but nonetheless incredibly nourishing doing. [click to continue…]

At a time when coronavirus dominates the headlines, other news struggles to get out. Yet one piece of news deserves to get a much wider hearing, namely, the story of how Labour full-time officials opposed Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership of the party to a degree where they preferred the party do do badly in elections. The same party officials were responsibly for feeding contacts in the media a constant drip of anti-Corbyn leaks, particularly around anti-semitism and Corbyn’s alleged failure to deal properly with complaints. Now a leaked internal party report, commissioned during Corbyn’s time in office, has revealed some of what went on and much about the attitudes and behaviour of senior Labour staffers, particularly during the 2017 general election when Labour did better than expected and denied the Tories a majority. Reports: Aaron Bastani at Novara Media, The Morning Star (1, 2, 3), The Independent.

The details revealed are very shocking although perhaps not surprising to anyone who had encountered these individuals or others like them in student politics in earlier decades. Essentially, they regarded themselves as the true guardians of legitimate mainstream Labour, understood as being very right-wing social democratic indeed (probably well to the right of former leader Ed Miliband and possibly his predecessor Gordon Brown) and believed that the elected leadership of the party and the majority of the membership were illegitimate. The epithet frequently used is “trots”. They devoted their time to rooting out from the party those on its left by trawling social media for statements that could justify exclusion (perhaps someone just “liked” a tweet by the Green Party). In communications (including to a private WhatsApp group) they gave full rein to their attitudes and even violent fantasies about those they hated, expressed hostility towards Muslims and solidarity with journalists who promoted an Islamophobic agenda. During the 2017 election campaign, they diverted resources from marginal seats towards candidates they approved of, expressed dismay at any good polling results, and when the actual results started to come in were angry and disappointed that the party had done well. Following that election they redoubled efforts to destroy Corbyn’s leadership.
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Sunday photoblogging: Valentine’s bridge, Bristol

by Chris Bertram on April 12, 2020

Valentine's bridge

Guitar advice sought

by Harry on April 10, 2020

I have a child who has declared they want to learn the guitar. NOW! And it does seem a rather good time to have him do that. He has an exceptional singing voice and wants to accompany himself because… well, because currently I’m his only accompaniment, and he is gradually realizing that I lack both talent and ability — including, importantly, having no sense of rhythm at all. But. My own guitar is too big for him, and the guitar stores round here seem to be closed for some reason. So, I want to buy him a inexpensive guitar over the internet that will sound ok and, just as importantly, will work with his small hands (he’s about 4 ft 8 inches, with hands that match). What should I get for him? In return for good advice I’ll endeavor to convince him to make some uplifting music recordings for us all….

Uplifting music, please!

by Ingrid Robeyns on April 9, 2020

Social media are a mixed blessing, but in these times of physical distancing they help us to get a bit of a sense of how others are doing (at least, those with whom we are connected). And increasingly, people are voicing that they find the physical isolation with all its consequences tough, sometimes very tough.

Today, I had a particularly bad day in that respect. And suddenly it occurred to me that we should seek out uplifting music. There are a couple of albums that are in its entirety uplifting, such as Buena Vista Social Club, but instead I spent a bit of time compiling my own selection of music that I find uplifting and/or energizing. If you’re on Spotify, you can find my Against Corona Blues selection there. Anyone else made a compilation of music to get us through these difficult times? Share it with us!

A guest post by David Owen (University of Southampton).

T. Alexander Aleinikoff & Leah Zamore, *The Arc of Protection: Reforming the International Refugee Regime*, Stanford University Press, 2019.

This book is a bold attempt to rethink the requirements of an international protection regime for forced migrants as well as a significant challenge to the view I recently proposed in my own book (reviewed [here]( by Chris Bertram). Combining a revisionist history of the international refugee regime and a call for a contemporary widening of that regime, it traces proposes a set of principles and practices of protection that the authors take to be adequate to challenges of our current circumstances.

That the international refugee regime is far from well-functioning is hardly a controversial judgment and Aleinkoff & Zamore begin by sketching out the character of its failure and the relationship of that failure to the shift to thinking of refugees in humanitarian terms. As they rightly note, the 1951 Refugee Convention is much more focused than current humanitarian practice on rights and on the integration of refugees – as social, economic and even political agents – into their states of residence. Their reconstruction of the post-WW2 emergence of our current refugee regime provides the basis for the pivotal claim of the book, which is a rejection of what they term ‘the Modern Standard Picture’ (MSP) of refugee protection according to which (1) citizens are entitled to the protection of their basic rights by their home state, (2) a refugee is someone whose home state has failed to protect them so that they have had to flee from it and (3) international protection is a surrogate or substitute for the responsibilities of their home state implemented through the protection of another state. MSP is a widely held view (my own work may be seen as a version of it) but they argue that it cannot make sense of the focus of the Refugee Convention on overcoming obstacles to the rebuilding of refugee lives in the host state by establishing requirements on host states to provide some rights in forms equivalent to those enjoyed by citizens and the remainder in the form enjoyed by the most favoured immigrants: ‘if international protection is a surrogate for anything, it is the inability or unwillingness of the host state to protect and assist refugees in their territory’ (p.51). The simple but radical redirecting of the focus of refugee protection onto the obligation of the international community to provide the rights and resources for refugees to be able to rebuild their lives, to enjoy agency and welfare wherever they are, provides the basis on which their argument and proposals stand.
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by Henry Farrell on April 6, 2020

Attention conservation notice: below the fold is a lengthy and spoiler-filled response to William Gibson’s new book Agency. Probably best not to read unless you’ve already finished Agency, or have no intention of reading it and want to get some sense as to what the book is about. In either case, you’re likely better off reading Mike Harrison’s Guardian review, which covers much the same ground as below, but with more subtlety and fewer spoilers.

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Few colleges are talking opening about what instruction will look like in the Fall, and my prediction is that it will be a while before they do. There is an elephant in the room, which college administrators are well aware of, but most college faculty and the general public are oblivious to.

Here’s what we are all aware of. A decision about whether to continue with ‘alternative’ delivery (i.e., online teaching) in the fall may affect acceptance rates for selective colleges. A student may have her heart set on attending College X, but probably her heart is set on actually being there in person, and if she thinks that her first semester there will be online she may well choose, instead, to go to College Y, which also seems pretty good, if she thinks that College Y will be in person. (For simplicity’s sake I am ignoring the possibility that sophomores etc might decide just to skip a semester or a year, if we stay online in the Fall — that possibility matters a lot for the financial stability of the institutions, but not for what I am going to tell you). So, assuming that we are allowed to make choices about whether or not to be open in-person, there will be huge pressure to go in-person.

Here’s the complication.

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