From the monthly archives:

December 2021

Strangelove redux

by Chris Bertram on December 30, 2021

We watched Don’t Look Up last night. Obviously satire, obviously really about our inability to act against climate change, but also about the comical inabilty of the United States to play the role it has arrogated to itself. Faced with a threat to the planet, the scientific Cassandras are blown off by a President focused on the short-term political narrative and, when they try to tell the media, relegated behind pop-trivia, goaded by lightweight news anchors, and ridiculed on twitter. When the adminstration does finally wake up to the threat from the meteor, it sabotages its own efforts in order to appease a tech-solutionist multimillionaire donor, who spies a chance to profit, with disastrous results.

As a film, it owes a lot to Dr Strangelove, with Mark Rylance, playing a kind of composite Jobs/Bezos/Musk/Thiel reprising Peter Sellers’s Werner von Braunish character and Ron Perlman taking on the Slim Pickens role. But it is the politics that interest me here, because the film accurately and savagely destroys the claim made by and for the United States of America to be a kind of universal state, able and entitled to act on behalf of humanity as a whole. A claim that has made at least since the Second World War and which continues to be implicit in the discourse of every centrist columnist at the New York Times, whose “we” is ambiguous between the US national interest and the world in general. It is, for example, in the name of this ambiguous “we” that pro-war shills are currently claiming that the US has the right, and possibly the duty, to attack Iran, whereas the US reserves the right to deny legitimacy to Russian or Chinese attacks on other countries. Team America World Police, as it were.
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Two Iron Laws of College Reading

by Harry on December 22, 2021

Someone (my daughter) preparing to teach her first Sociology college class (Sociology of Education, yes, that is funny) asked me how much reading to assign. Here are what I think of as the two iron laws of college reading.

Law One: The more reading you assign, the less the students will read.

Law Two: The more you talk in class, the less the students will read.

I suppose there must be a limit to Law One: if you assign no reading at all, they don’t do any, whereas if you assign 3 pages some of them will do it. If you assign 300 pages they won’t do less than if you assign 200 pages. So it only applies within a range. And Law Two can be broken by not talking about the reading at all, but then basing assessments on the reading alone.

My advice was: assign about 60 pages/week, given the conceptual complexity of the material I know she’s assigning (Philosophy the limit would be less than 60 pages, in English Literature or History it would be more). And talk no more than 50% of the time in class. (She’ll have about 30 students; if it were one hundred I’d go up to 2/3rds. Also, she’s a former secondary teacher, and I know she has pretty good skills; the less skilled a teacher is the more they have to talk).

This advice is grounded in the assumption that doing the reading contributes a great deal to student learning; as does spending a lot of time thinking in the classroom. If you don’t think that, then go ahead and assign as much reading as you want them not to bother doing!

One of my Ice Breakers: “Name a book that you think you ought to have read, but haven’t.”
Best answer: “Well, that would be all the novels that I was assigned in my English Literature class last semester”. She got an A.

Getting it wrong on the future of democracy?

by John Q on December 21, 2021

As I indicated in my previous post about self-driving vehicles, I’m trying to think more about where I’ve gone wrong in my analysis of current issues and trends, hoping to improve. I got some useful comments on that issue, though nothing directly applicable to my bigger predictive failures

The most important such failure has concerned the future of democracy, where my views were characterized by clearly unjustifiable optimism (see here and here). I’ve now shifted to extreme pessimism, but I would love to be convinced I’ve overcorrected, as I have done in the past.
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Sunday photoblogging: bonded warehouse

by Chris Bertram on December 19, 2021

Bonded warehouse

The Dawn of Everything, Part 2

by Miriam Ronzoni on December 17, 2021


So, I had promised a Part 2, and here it is. As I anticipated in Part 1, Graeber and Wengrow suggest that we should look at early Modern and Modern exchanges between, especially, Europeans and native North-Americans in a different way. If we take seriously what European intellectuals, missionaries and explorers of the time report, the story they tell us is one of encounters characterised by muscular, vibrant debates about the merits of different social arrangements and life-styles. Crucially, in these debates, both parties were active, passionate participants, and indigenous intellectuals had very sharp criticisms to make to western political structures, as they were getting to know them. This is not the central thesis of the book (which is about early humans, recall), but it is put forward as a clue to the fact that we might have a tendency to stubbornly deny certain pieces of evidence – even when they lie in front of us, in plain sight. [click to continue…]

Pregnant Judges

by Gina Schouten on December 15, 2021

In Justice, Gender, and the Family, Susan Okin wrote about a cartoon she once saw. “Three elderly, robed male justices are depicted, looking down with astonishment at their very pregnant bellies. One says to the others, without further elaboration: ‘Perhaps we’d better reconsider that decision.’” (102).

I read that book for the first time over a decade ago now, but that comic stayed with me for a long time. On the one hand, it seemed like such a clever way to make a very big and important point. On the other hand, when I tried to nail down the exact content of that point, I found myself bristling at it.
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How to make conferences more climate-friendly

by Ingrid Robeyns on December 14, 2021

In the Board of the Human Development and Capability Association (HDCA), where I’m currently serving as past-president, there has been an intensifying of the debate on the climate consequences of the annual conference. The HDCA is an international association of mainly academics, though it also attracts policy makers, activists, and others, who are interested in the human development approach (best-known from the UNDP’s Human Development Reports) and one of the main theoretical frameworks underpinning it, the capability approach.

The essence of the tension is clear: there is a significant cost in terms of greenhousegas-emissions of flying to another corner of the world to attend a three-day conference; greenhousegas-emissions need to be reduced as drastically and fast as possible in order to protect the climate, and a stable climate is an important precondition for human flourishing/human development. So what should an organisation such as the HDCA, or its individual members, do with this tension? Clearly, all academics still flying to conferences should ask themselves this question. Hence, let’s open up the discussion here, and see what insights (or good ideas) you might have. [click to continue…]

The Dawn of Everything – Part 1

by Miriam Ronzoni on December 14, 2021

I recently finished reading* The Dawn of Everything by David Graeber and David Wengrow; I enjoyed it very much indeed. I thought I’d write a two parts review for CT, and here’s the first – I will publish the second in a few days. It is a very long, sprawling (in a good way) book, and there are (at least) two main themes in it, so addressing each separately feels right. This post is mainly about the book’s attempt to dismantle the myth of “agriculture as the source of social inequality.” The next post will be about Graeber’s and Wengrow’s startling claim that European Enlightenment can be seen, to a large extent, as the result of a conversation with indigenous, non-western intellectuals and societies – indeed, as inspired by them. [click to continue…]

Sunday photoblogging: houses on the Portway, Bristol

by Chris Bertram on December 12, 2021

Houses on the Portway

Getting it wrong on self-driving vehicles

by John Q on December 9, 2021

A few years ago, I got enthusiastic about the prospects for self-driving vehicles, and wrote a couple of posts on the topic. It’s now clear that this was massively premature, as many of the commenters on my post argued. So, I thought it would be good to consider where and why I went wrong on this relatively unimportant issue, in the hopes of improving my thinking more generally.

The first thing I got wrong was overcorrecting on an argument I’d made for a long time, about the difference between radical progress in information and communications technology and stagnation in transport technology. The initial successful trials of self-driving vehicles in desert locations led me to think that ICT had finally come to transport, when in fact only the easiest part of the problem was solved.

There was also an element of wishful thinking. As commenter Hidari observed, the most obvious use of self-driving vehicles is to provide mobility for 75+ Baby Boomers. As someone approaching that category, and having never liked driving much, this is an appealing prospect for me. And I liked the idea of taking other bad drivers’ hands off the steering wheel.

That framing of the issue is very different from the way a lot of commenters saw it. Should self-driving cars be seen as automated taxis, and if so is automation desirable or not? Is any improvement in car technology a distraction from the need to shift away from cars altogether? I don’t have good answers to these questions, but they indicate that resistance to self-driving cars won’t be purely a matter of technological judgement.

Finally, having put forward a position, I am usually tenacious in defending it. Within limits, that’s a good thing, particularly in the context of a blog where the discussion doesn’t have any direct implications for what happens in the world. It’s good to put up the strongest case, and test it against all counter-arguments. But that approach carries the risk of being obstinately wrong.

I’m hoping discussion here will help me deal with more consequential errors of judgement I’ve made. So feel free either to discuss the original question of self-driving vehicles or the broader issue of how to think about mistakes, and particularly mistakes I’ve made.

Getting to know cities through science

by Eszter Hargittai on December 9, 2021

Covid times don’t allow for a lot of travel, but that doesn’t have to stand in the way of dreaming about and planning travel. My parents have written four books that put an interesting twist on getting to know a city: through its landmarks related to science. Their first in the series was Budapest Scientific, fitting since that is where they have lived for much of their lives and where they are both members of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences. Next came New York Scientific then Science in Moscow, and finally Science in London. Each is filled with many hundreds of photographs to illustrate how the various places commemorate important scientific achievements and researchers through statues, memorial plaques, and other ways of remembering. Some are well-known sculptures, others will be new even to locals. They make great gifts in case anyone happens to be looking for ideas. :-)

Let’s write a poem

by Ingrid Robeyns on December 6, 2021


Tall trees standing strong
in the distance a soft sun
wrapped in sweet silence

I turn my head up
searching to see a movement
a woodpecker taps

My walks never end
the trees keep calling me back
like a second home.

The American right and Franco (blast from the past)

by Chris Bertram on December 2, 2021

For just over a year before Crooked Timber started, I had a blog called Junius. As the American right get more and more attracted by “natcon” views, I remember how shocked I was that even back then they could be quite sympathetic to the Franco regime. And I remembered I posted this (from May 2003):

Sasha Volokh, in the middle of a trip to Spain, comments on the Spanish Civil War and, frankly, shocks me:

…with every revolutionary construction of the war, Franco becomes more and more palatable to people like me, which means losing the support of any of the middle class or landowners and possibly even getting some of the Western democracies to intervene on Franco’s side. (I don’t know whether those countries would have the ability or desire to do that, but at least I, as a potential 1930s French or English voter (or Spanish resident), would have little difficulty choosing between Communists and Franco.)

This from someone who styles himself as a “libertarian” (I suspect these remarks reveal a greater concern for private property than for liberty). There were brutal massacres on both sides in the civil war, but the numbers slaughtered by the Francoists far exceeded those killed by the Republic and the graves of those executed are still being discovered today. What of the Francoist vision of society? Here’s Antony Beevor from his The Spanish Civil War, describing the social order imposed by the Francoists:

Every Spaniard was decreed to be a Catholic; divorce and civil marriage had been instantly abolished in Nationalist territory; and the penalty for abortion was made even greater than under the monarchy. The orphans of Republicans killed in the purges were forcibly baptized and given new Christian names. The church was in a position to establish a thorough control of public morals. One of their posters ordered: ‘No immoral dances, no indecent frocks, no bare legs, no heathen beaches.’ (The Falange, meanwhile, seized girls on the street whom they considered to be immodestly dressed and cropped their hair forcibly.(p. 385)….

According the the Falange, the state would only be ‘strong if the woman at home is healthy, fecund, hard-working and happy.’ She was therefore liberated ‘from having to work outside the home’, which meant that she was barred from practically all jobs except that of a domestic servant.(p. 387)

There are pages of this kind of thing. I realize that Mr Volokh may have good reasons for hostility to the Communist Party, but in the passage I quoted from him he is explicitly imagining himself as an English, French or Spanish person of the 1930s (I wonder how he can be so sure of what his reactions would have been?). The regime imposed by the Francoists had many Taliban-like features and even middle-class voters with property have daughters! Of course, the Taliban (not to mention many other brutal dictatorships) owed their success to a similar anyone-but-the-communists attitude.

Twigs and branches

by John Q on December 2, 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!