From the monthly archives:

May 2021

Sunday photoblogging: Brazil, shop at night

by Chris Bertram on May 30, 2021

Pirenópolis: shop at night

The tribute vice pays to virtue

by John Quiggin on May 29, 2021

Unsurprisingly, the forced grounding of an airliner flying over Belarus, and the arrest of a critical journalist on board has provoked a burst of whataboutery from Russia and a reciprocal round of ‘false equivalence’ from the West.

The parallel case is that of the forced landing of the Bolivian presidential plane, with President Evo Morales on board, on the basis of the false suspicion that it was also carrying Edward Snowden. The grounding, at the behest of the Obama Administration, was carried out by European governments (France, Spain, Portugal and Italy) which refused to allow the plane transit through their air space. Faced with the risk of running out of fuel, the plane landed in Austria, and was eventually allowed to proceed. This conduct was of a piece with Obama’s general willingness to take extreme measures against whistleeblowers.

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Wow

by Eszter Hargittai on May 27, 2021

I’m rather unlikely to post about sports, but you have to watch this. I’m not even a baseball fan, which I feel a bit sacrilegious saying as I sit just a few miles from Wrigley Field, but unless you know absolutely nothing about baseball, you should watch this.

One of the lessons of Branko Milanovic’s work on global inequality has been the realization that location, and perhaps more pertinently, nationality, is a more important explanation of how well and badly off people are than class is. Citizens of wealthy countries enjoy a “citizenship premium” over the inhabitants of poor ones that exists because they have access to labour markets and welfare systems that their fellow humans largely do not. Of course, there’s a sense in which this global difference also represents a class difference, with many of the workers simply located elsewhere while the residual “proletarians” of the wealthy world enjoy a contradictory class location (to repurpose a term from Erik Olin Wright). While it might be that world GDP would increase dramatically if barriers to movement were removed, as some economists have claimed, the relative position of the rich world poor depends upon those barriers being in place. Or to put it another way, free movement could make many poor people much better off and might not make the rich world poor any worse off in absolute terms, but it would erode their relative advantage. And people, however misguidedly care about their relative advantage.

What kind of politics would we expect to have in rich countries in a world like ours, if people were fully cognizant of this citizenship premium? I suspect the answer is that we would expect to see stronger nationalist movements seeking to preserve the advantage of members of the national collective over outsiders and correspondingly weaker parties based on class disadvantage within those countries. Which is, in fact, the tendency we do see in many European countries where traditional social democracy is struggling badly at the moment. In those same countries we might also expect to see some voters who are unthreatened by freer movement, or by the rise of new powers in the world, being more open to a more cosmopolitan politics and more preoccupied by other issues such as climate change and the environment. And this is, in fact, what we do see.

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Twigs and branches

by John Quiggin on May 24, 2021

Another open thread, where you can comment on any topic. Moderation and standard rules still apply. Lengthy side discussions on other posts will be diverted here. Enjoy!

Restaurant, Pirenopolis, Brazil

The “simple logic” of immigration control

by Chris Bertram on May 19, 2021

In a recent column in the Times (paywall), James Kirkup, Director of the Social Market Foundation and writer for various right-wing outlets, argues that “liberals” should be more accommodating of the state’s desire to enforce exclusionary immigration policies and that, if only they were, a more open policy would be feasible. But, given, public anxieties about immigration and the stubborn refusal of the likes of us to co-operate, the public were going to put people like the UK’s authoritarian Home Secretary, Priti Patel, in charge. Our non-co-peration, or even resistance, is, supposedly self-defeating.

One thing he says is this:

There’s a simple logic about immigration: unless you believe your country should have no borders and be entirely open to anyone in the world, you must accept that the state needs to be able to remove uninvited people. I accept this as someone who has long argued for a liberal, open migration policy.

This rhetorical move gets made a lot by advocates and apologists for immigration control. I remember a similar point being made to a representative of the Stansted 15 on BBC Newsnight. Either the state gets what it wants, or … open borders.

But it is a rhetorical move that needs to be resisted, because you don’t have to be an advocate of open borders to believe that the actual policies being enforced by the state are cruel, unjust and unjustifiable to the point where reasonable people have the right, and possibly sometimes the duty, to disobey, even to resist and sabotage them.[^1] Moreover, when they are sufficiently unjust as a general rule, it is reasonable of people to believe that any particular act of enforcement will be unjustifiable and that the burden of proof is on the other side.

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Sunday photoblogging: Capri – church roof

by Chris Bertram on May 16, 2021

Capri: church roof

Response

by Kim Stanley Robinson on May 14, 2021

When I attended the Clarion Science Fiction Writers’ Workshop in 1975, our first teacher Samuel R. Delany gave us some advice: don’t respond to critics. It never does any good. Don’t even write reviews.

It was good advice, and I’ve followed it ever since. But here I am. Did I make a mistake? Maybe so.

On the other hand, I’ve published a lot of non-fiction in recent years. What was I saying in those pieces? Couldn’t I respond like that?

Maybe so. Quite a bit of my non-fiction consists of appreciations of other writers, like this one of Gene Wolfe. These were expressions of love.

And I’ve answered lots of interview questions. These were like conversations. There’s no harm in love or conversation.

So I’m going to try this: I’ll happily express my appreciation for all the generous giving of time and thought that I see in the responses below; and I’ll do my best to answer any questions they ask. If there are complaints about my book (and there are), I’ll stick to my long-time practice, and hold my tongue.

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This Is How It Gets Better

by Suresh Naidu on May 13, 2021

It’s a real privilege to comment on this book.From the Mars trilogy to my personal recent favorite, Aurora, Kim Stanley Robinson has been one of my favorite science fiction authors, staying with me as I went from teenage escapism to middle-aged escapism. There are so many great ideas in The Ministry of the Future (TMFTF), where Stan has clearly combed the academic and activist literature for the boldest ideas to grapple with the climate crisis and used the medium of fiction to communicate them. There are engineering feats, like the propping up of glaciers to slow melting, direct air capture of CO2 at economically feasible scale, alongside political transformations like the mutually-assured-destruction made possible by targeted kinetic pebble smartbombs, a rebirth of Indian democracy, and carbon quantitative easing? Everyone who cares about climate change (and really at this point it should be everyone with some stake beyond the next 10 years) should read it. But beyond being a hardware store full of tools for decarbonization, it also charts a politically possible trajectory to a transformed economy. TMFTF is not just outlining a future sustainable economy, but showing a properly historically contingent path to it. [click to continue…]

… is set out over the fold. I’m confident readers who take a little time to think about it will realise it’s far superior to existing policy, and to any alternative proposed so far. (Previously posted in 2011).
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Philip Roth has been in the news, as has Palestine. By sheerest coincidence, a piece I’ve been mulling over—on the uncanny convergence between the lives and concerns of Roth and Hannah Arendt, particularly when it came to Jewish questions such as Zionism—came out in The New York Review of Books this morning. It starts with the Blake Bailey controversy, but goes on to explore what the surprising parallels between these two writers, who knew and respected each other, has to say about the left, Jewish identity politics, and American political culture today.

In 2014, the mystery writer Lisa Scottoline wrote an instructive essay for The New York Times about two undergraduate seminars she took with Philip Roth at the University of Pennsylvania in the 1970s. One of the courses was the literature of the Holocaust. Hannah Arendt was on the syllabus.

In his five-page discussion of those years at Penn, Roth biographer Blake Bailey makes no mention of this course or Arendt. Instead, he focuses on the other course, “The Literature of Desire,” and Roth’s erotic presence inside and outside the classroom. In the wake of the allegations of sexual assault and inappropriate behavior that have been made against Bailey, the omission may seem small or slight. Yet it is telling. As Judith Shulevitz argues in a searching analysis of the allegations and the biography, Bailey is as incurious about Jewishness as he is about the reality of women. When the two come together in the form of Arendt, his interest seems, well, nonexistent.

The result is a life stripped of one of its vital currents. Arendt was a real presence for Roth, and the unexpected convergence between their biographies and concerns, particularly regarding Jewish questions, is as uncanny as the doubles that populate Roth’s novels.

The difference between the two writers is obvious. She was born in Germany in 1906; he was born in Newark in 1933. She fled Hitler and never looked back; he fled his parents and kept going home. She wrote The Human Condition; he wrote Portnoy’s Complaint.

Yet, throughout the postwar Jewish ascendancy in America, as other writers and scholars eased their way into the conversation, Arendt and Roth distinguished themselves—not by stirring up the little magazines but by contending with the Jews. Summoning the anxious wrath of a still vulnerable community, Roth and Arendt occupied a singular position: defending the margin against the marginalized, refusing the political pull and moral exaction of an embattled minority. Today, at a moment of rising anti-Semitism and increasing polarization, when the tendency, even among writers and intellectuals, is to circle the wagons in defense of team and tribe, their shared archive of heresy among the heretics pays revisiting.

You can read on here.

Technocracy and Empire

by Henry on May 12, 2021

The Ministry for the Future is a novel, not a manifesto. That complicates things. As Francis Spufford described Red Plenty nine years ago in his own CT seminar:

I was trying to stitch together a sort of story that paid more attention than usual to the economic motives for human behaviour, but even there, I wanted my account of causes to be as broad and open as possible, and not to collapse without residue into any single one of the rival diagrams of economic behaviour. Basically, I wanted to be awkward. I could take advantage of fiction’s built-in tolerance of overdetermination, in which multiple possible causes for an outcome can be allowed to exist alongside each other without being resolved, or even given definitive weights. Storytelling lets you bring negative capability into economics.

KSR was in that seminar too, arguing that Red Plenty was a novel. And so is TMFTF – it brings negative capability into the politics of climate change, allowing it to capture both how we need radical changes, and how we can’t be sure exactly which radical changes, in which combinations, we need. You can read the book as presenting KSR’s best guesses as to how such changes might unfold. But – and this is my argument – that’s not the only reading of the book. Because it’s a novel, it folds those best guesses together with the uncertainty that they will be right, and with the presupposition that actual history emerges, as the imagined history of the novel does, from disagreement and conflict between people with different guesses, different theories, different ideologies. From this perspective, the novel invites people who disagree with KSR’s surmises to advance their own, recreating in real life something like the arguments that drive the book.

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Half the Earth ?

by John Quiggin on May 11, 2021

When I read fiction, it’s mostly either the 19th century classics or speculative fiction – what was and what might be, as opposed to what is. I live in the present, and spend most of my waking hours analysing the economy and society of today, along with the recent past and near future. In doing that, I am, for the most part, in agreement with Mr Gradgrind – what I want is facts, nothing but facts.

But in relation to the future (and, in many ways, the past) we don’t have facts, only possibilities. And, unlike the present, we don’t have lived experience to help us understand those possibilities. Speculative fiction, at its best, extends our thinking to encompass possibilities we wouldn’t otherwise consider, and to imagine ways of life no one has actually experienced. [click to continue…]

The Sudden Tempest of Ultimate Summer

by Belle Waring on May 10, 2021

O Kali’s feet are red lotuses wherein lie heaps of holy places. 
All sins are destroyed by Kali’s name as heaps of cotton are burnt by fire. How can a headless man have a headache?
I am irresponsible, cruel and arrogant,
I am the king of the great upheaval,
I am cyclone, I am destruction,
I am the great fear, the curse of the universe.
I have no mercy,
I grind all to pieces.
I am disorderly and lawless,
I trample under my feet all rules and discipline!
I am Durjati, I am the sudden tempest of ultimate summer,
I am the rebel, the rebel-son of mother-earth!
Say, Valiant,
Ever high is my head!
—Kazi Nazrul Islam
[Translation: Kabir Chowdhury] 

We can think of two versions of The Ministry of The Future, each of which invites us to imagine a world in which we make difficult, creative choices to mitigate the effects of climate change, and ultimately prevail. In the first book, a whirl of technological, sociological and financial solutions are attempted. Some are cautious science, some desperate acts of brute force, such as filling the atmosphere with particles to rival the cooling effects of the 1991 Mount Pinatubo eruption (and indeed, scientists are seriously considering this, which I have always thought would be the first true action on climate change). In the second book, a careful ruthlessness prevails. People still use container ships? They are sunk in spots to create new reefs. Billionaires have gotten rich on carbon fuels, and have no plans to stop? They are brutally stabbed to death in their own beds before their companions can even grasp what’s happening. But, which of these two books above has Kim Stanley Robinson written? Having written the first seems to say he can’t write the second, and yet can he still have written both? [click to continue…]