From the monthly archives:

December 2022

A few days ago, I tooted at Mastodon about a Christmas message I’d had from a Russian friend. I intended my post to convey something hopeful about peace and reconciliation, but got immediate pushback from someone who asked why, if there are are some good Russians, they haven’t stopped the war. Meanwhile, over on Elon’s death site, the theme of holding Russians collectively responsible for the war seemed to be gathering momentum with vehement assertions that this isn’t just “Putin’s war” but one backed by “the Russian people”. I think claims such as these, particularly in their maximal forms are absurd, and become all the more absurd when the alleged collective responsiblity of “the Russian people” is extended to an attitude of hostility and blaming towards individuals, simply because they hold Russian nationality. And many members of “the Russian people” are, after all, children. Yet in rejecting such absurdities, I also want to leave room for those Russians who feel their own responsbility keenly and who feel shame at the Russian government’s actions and who want to take responsibility by resisting, in great or small ways, what that government is doing.

One obvious point to make is that Russia is not a democracy and that Russian citizens have no effective means to restrain their government, even if they wanted to. Rather, they live under a tyranny, quick to mete out savage punishments to its opponents, and where public opinion is partly shaped by relentless nationalistic propaganda. In this light, one might think of ordinary Russians as being among the victims of the regime, even though there are others, most notably Ukrainians, who are suffering much more at its hands. During the Soviet era, it is worth noting, Western governments were keen to frame ordinary Soviet citizens as victims of dictatorship rather than holding them individually or collectively responsible, but this approach has been abandoned in some reponses to the war, including by Baltic politicians who refuse to accept that Russians who refuse to fight for Putin are legitimate refugees.
[click to continue…]

Book note – The Persuaders, by Anand Giridharadas

by Ingrid Robeyns on December 28, 2022

I recently listened to the new book by Anand Giridharadas, who is well-known for his previous book Winner Takes All. That book was about how (some of) the superrich are happy trying to contribute to some of the world’s problems, but never ask any questions related to why the world is so unequal as it is, what power and the workings of capitalism have to do with all of this, and whether their capitalist strategies are at all suited to address these problems. I thought that was a great book.

So I was looking forward to his new book. It is called The Persuaders. Winning Hearts and Minds in a Divided Age. It is a book about why we shouldn’t just give up on people who have political or social views that we find wrong, perhaps even horrible. The book presents a series of cases, the activists involved, and the techniques or strategies they use – interspersed with some insights from social psychology and other sciences on what works (and what doesn’t) to make people change their mind in a non-manipulative way.

My take-away from the book is that there is no point in believing you are right (or have the right policy, or the right analysis on what needs to happen on matter X), and believing the only thing that is needed for change is airing those views and that analysis. It’s just not enough. We need to actually spend time and effort to persuade others that this is the right analysis/policy/direction, and this persuasion cannot be merely cognitive; it requires understanding “where people are”, what makes them believe what they believe, and showing respect for them as a person at the outset. All of that requires listening, and being willing to engage in a genuine conversation, and finding out why people believe what they believe. Just believing I am right (and having all the arguments sorted out in my head) and airing my views, is not enough to also make a difference in the world, especially not in deeply divided societies. And, very importantly, trying to persuade others, and being willing to be persuaded, should be an essential part of any democracy. Thus, this book is also, at a deeper level, about what contemporary democracies need. [click to continue…]

My year in fiction

by Chris Armstrong on December 28, 2022

Reading novels is my life-blood; I can’t go more than a few hours between books. That said, this year was a slightly odd one in my reading career. First, the year leading up to August represented the home strait of a self-enforced 12 months of not buying books. So lots of reliance on the not-especially-good local library, and some re-reading. Second, this was a ridiculously busy year for me, and so my yearly total of 46 novels is slightly below par. With that said, here were my top 10:

Katie Kitamura, Intimacies
Natasha Brown, Assembly
Julia May Jonas, Vladimir
Hanya Yanagihara, To Paradise
Mary Lawson, A Town Called Solace
Jordy Rosenberg, Confessions of the Fox
Tessa Hadley, Late in the Day
Julie Otsuka, When The Emperor Was Divine
Ottessa Moshfegh, My Year of Rest and Relaxation
Elizabeth Strout, Oh, William!
[click to continue…]

Updates from Russia

by Ingrid Robeyns on December 27, 2022

And so it begins… Yulia Galyamina, the first Russian professor who got fired because “she is a foreign agent”.

And here’s Dmitry Vasilets, a Real Russian Hero.

Also, while we’re talking about Russia: Please consider supporting Meduza. Russians must have access to free press, just like all of us – and after it got banned, Meduza can only continue thanks to subscriptions and financial support from outside Russia.

A decade ago, when the issue of Republican anti-science bias was raised, a common response was to point to attitudes to vaccination, where, it was claimed, Democrats were the anti-science party. I observed at the time that this claim wasn’t justified by the available evidence. A little later, I noted the likelihood of the Republicans becoming anti-vax , a point on have been proved tragically right by the Covid pandemic.

But this case, and many more like it, hasn’t prevented the publication of a continued stream of pieces starting from the premise that “both sides do it”. The latest iteration relates to housing policy, and the claim that Democrats are the party of NIMBYism. For example this piece in The Atlantic by Jerusalem Demsas states

liberalism is largely to blame for the homelessness crisis: A contradiction at the core of liberal ideology has precluded Democratic politicians, who run most of the cities where homelessness is most acute, from addressing the issue. Liberals have stated preferences that housing should be affordable, particularly for marginalized groups that have historically been shunted to the peripheries of the housing market. But local politicians seeking to protect the interests of incumbent homeowners spawned a web of regulations, laws, and norms that has made blocking the development of new housing pitifully simple.

Demsas is way off the mark[1]. Biden’s infrastructure package included provisions for multi-family housing to be erected in traditionally residential zone. These provisions were vigorously resisted by Republicans, following the lead of Donald Trump, who used racist scaremongering to mobilise opposition.

More generally, the YIMBY (Yes In My Backyard) movement is now ascendant among leftists (AOC is a notable example), as well as moderate liberals like Biden. There are still plenty of left and liberal NIMBYs, but it’s Republicans who make NIMBYism a majority view.

Rather than go through this issue in detail, I’m going to propose a meta-theory to explain why Republicans are always wrong, and why they always get a pass from both-sidesists. The central propositions are

(i) Leftist and liberals start from the meta-belief that the right policies will be consistent with empirical evidence
(ii) Republicans and rightwingers start from the meta-belief that “owning the libs” is more important than any policy outcome
(iii) Bothsidesists start from the meta-belief that a situation where half the population is systematically wrong is unthinkable.
[click to continue…]

Russell Jacoby Against the Buzzwords

by John Holbo on December 26, 2022

Russell Jacoby has a piece out in “Tablet” that got approvingly retweeted by Richard Dawkins, then by Elon Musk. So maybe it’s worth giving it a read. (This post lightly edits my tweet response.)

I’m sympathetic to Jacoby’s old line: a lot of ‘theory’ silliness got spread about in the humanities in the 80’s-90’s. There were perverse incentives – professional rewards – for doing ‘philosophy’ badly in various ways. This was not good. I’m happy to badmouth bad stuff. But honestly, as Jacoby himself used to acknowledge, it wasn’t threat-to-the-republic-grade. Anyone who pretends ‘ivory tower-types being eccentric’ = ‘barbarians at the gates of western civ’ is one more funny, bug-in-his-ear character in some David Lodge novel. [click to continue…]

No laptops, no phones.

by Harry on December 22, 2022

In one of the end-of-term reflections I just read a first-year (freshman) student says “It struck me that there was a no technology rule, something my classmates and I were unfamiliar with… when you disconnect from your online presence, you can fully dive into the discussion”. I have a no-laptop, no phone policy in all my classes, and have yet to hear good reasons to give that up. Maybe you can give me some.

In the background: I believe her that most of the students who went to public schools would be unfamiliar with a no technology policy. The local schools rely on laptops entirely for access to textbooks, and until this year the school district has not permitted schools to have a no-phone policy. I think you can imagine that in high school preventing teachers from telling students to put their phones away and sanctioning them if they don’t comply is a total disaster, and is perceived as such by the teachers and, in fact, many of the students (“If other kids are on their phones the teacher can’t teach so there’s no point in paying attention, so I might as well be on my phone”). I vividly remember the first course in which phones were a problem for me: not until 2014, when 4 girls were just routinely on their phones in a small class in which I could see what they were doing, and I didn’t really know what to do. After that I adopted the policy I have now.

I teach philosophy, which is hard. And I trust that my students can read, so if I have a lot to tell them I write it down and get them to read it. That’s not to say that I don’t go over it sometimes in class. But the point of having class is to do learning that won’t (or possibly can’t) be done outside of class. That is, mainly, problem solving: thinking and talking together about the arguments and ideas that I want them to understand, and practicing the skills of analysis and reflection that philosophy is particularly good at developing, and which are essential to doing philosophy. So they don’t really need the laptops for note-taking.

Not that most students who use laptops use them for note-taking. I spend a fair amount of time observing other people’s classes, usually from the back. Few of the teachers are bad, and many are pretty good. In classes which allow laptops anything from 1/3 to 2/3 of the students have them in front of them, and at any given time almost all the screens I can see are email, shopping sites, gaming sites, and television/movies. I’ve sat in numerous classrooms in which fewer than half of the students are paying any attention to what is happening in class.

I don’t exactly blame them: once inattention is the norm, the instructor often defaults to lecture and its not uncommon for the lecture to be more or less word for word repetition of what is on very text-heavy slides.[1] But when they are not paying attention they are not learning, and it is exceedingly difficult to generate high quality engagement in a room in which half or more of the students are otherwise engaged.

[click to continue…]

Hello! My name is Kevin Munger, and I’m delighted to have gotten the call up to the blogging big leagues. I’ve been blogging since the beginning of the pandemic at Never Met a Science, a combination of meta-science (get it) and media theory that I intend to continue here.

Crooked Timber has been around for longer than Twitter, and it looks like that which has burnt brightest will burn shortest. 

Twitter’s spectacular conflagration, the wildfire currently burning through some of the dead wood of the digital media ecosystem, both entrances and illuminates. The fantastic release of energy produces pyrrhic phantasms, full of soot and fury…and while the catharsis and camaraderie of the bonfire are not to be taken lightly, we shouldn’t assign any meaning to the random sparks. Breathless attention to what Trump did every day in 2017 was understandable (if ineffective); breathless attention to what Musk does every day in 2022 is embarrassing.

I have been extremely critical of Twitter’s impact on intellectual life, yet I am not pleased to see so many academic colleagues “leaving” Twitter because a Bad Man is now in charge. This isn’t just hipster churlishness; being critical of a bad thing for the wrong reasons can be pernicious. The implication of the current critique is that if the Bad Man were removed, Twitter would be ok.

This wishful thinking has been the opiate of the academic/media/liberal professional class for the past six years, ever since the Great Weirding of 2016. The high water mark of any trend is of course the beginning of its decline, as evidenced by the fumbling of the Obama-Clinton Presidential handoff. This class–my class–has been adrift ever since, disoriented by the reality of contemporary communication technology. Rather than confront the depth of the challenge to the foundations of liberal democracy, we are sold crisis after crisis with the promise that solving this one will bring us back to “normal.”

To be clear: the crises are real. It’s the normalcy that’s fake: “Boomer Ballast” (the central argument of my recent book) has unnaturally preserved the façade of postwar America even as the technosocial reality shifts under our feet. I fear that ours is not an age for “normal science” in the social sciences, where ceteris is sufficiently paribus to engineer marginal gains. 
[click to continue…]

Sunday photoblogging: North Street, Bedminster

by Chris Bertram on December 18, 2022

North Street, Bedminster

My novel of the year: Pod, by Laline Paull

by Maria on December 16, 2022

This year I spent three months in Western Australia without the notebook I record my reading in, and never caught up again, so I’ve no idea whether I read ‘enough’ in the categories I intended to; nonfiction, fiction in translation, fiction in Irish and French. (I strongly suspect not, though.) I began recording books started/read about five years ago and found it instantly made me more able to give most away afterwards; once the book’s name, author and my impression have been written down, I feel far less need to hold onto it. At first, I kept another notebook and wrote a page or so about each text, but I immediately fell hopelessly behind. I switched to – hold your nose – using a smiley face system in the first notebook to record my impressions. Very occasionally I’ll add a comment like ‘great dismount’, but most books just get :-( :-| :-) or the coveted :-0 which means I was awestruck. It’s actually a neat little system, as seeing each book listed with others I read in the same month jogs my memory of them all, and reminds me of where I was. I also record an R for re-reads, P for poetry, NF for non-fiction and T for in translation. About 60% of what I read is novels written in English, so that dominant doesn’t need a category at all. At the end of the year I tot up the total. It’s edged from around fifty per annum to the high sixties (I don’t include most books or any parts of books read for research, or articles, etc.), which feels low compared to many book-ish people, but a reasonable amount to be getting on with. It’s also … clarifying … to realise that at this rate I’ll likely read – for interest and pleasure – only another two thousand or so books in my life. They can’t all be :-0 of course, but I’m now less likely to persevere with ones I don’t get on with.

Anyway, this is all to say that in 2022 one book swam swiftly through my system leaving no less than two :-0’s in its wake, and merits not just a proper write-up but a strong exhortation to consider getting your hands on a copy for yourself or someone else. On this final weekend before Christmas, I commend to you Pod, by Laline Paull, the most extraordinary, beautiful, dramatic and arresting novel I’ve read this year.

Pod is a novel about dolphins, mostly, told from the points of view of several marine creatures living in the Indian Ocean. Its main character is Ea, a young spinner dolphin who lives in a small, egalitarian and loving pod off an archipelago. Ea can’t spin or hear the ocean’s own soothing music, but she hears and can’t ignore the devastating song of pain and fear sung by a lone humpback whale out in the deep ocean. The pod is sympathetic to Ea’s disability, but her strong feelings of difference propel Ea out of her family group and into the orbit of the autocratic and patriarchal tribe of tursiops, or common bottle nose dolphins, who previously ejected her people from their ancestral home.
[click to continue…]


by Ingrid Robeyns on December 16, 2022

Once in a while, I listen to a book as an audiobook, rather than reading it on paper or on my electronic device. Especially during the pandemic, when I was walking a lot, I loved listening to stories while walking. And clearly, for people who are dyslectic, or who for another reason can’t read easily, they are a real blessing.

But I’ve noted something weird with audio-books that I can’t quite grasp – so perhaps someone here can help me understand what is going on. [click to continue…]

Welcome Macarena Marey!

by Chris Bertram on December 15, 2022

When we renewed our roster of bloggers a little while ago, I mentioned that there would be more announcements to come. Today I’m very happy to say that Macarena Marey will be joining us at Crooked Timber. I met Macarena a few years ago at a workshop in Bayreuth and was immediately impressed by her combination of rigorous scholarship (there mainly on Kant’s poltical philosophy) with passionate commitment. Macarena was born in a little city by the sea in the Argentinian province of Buenos Aires. She’s been living in the city of Buenos Aires since she was 4, so one could say that she is “porteña”. She is a Researcher at CONICET (the National Scientific and Technical Research Council for Argentina) and Lecturer in Political Philosophy at the University of Buenos Aires as well as being director of the Centre for Critical Studies and Philosophy of the Present at the Institute of Philosophy, Faculty of Philosophy and Literature, UBA. She is currently working on problems of political participation and on the work of the first American Marxist, José Carlos Mariátegui. She is the mother of Elías (10) and Galileo (3). Galileo is currently helping her learn a lot about ableism and how to fight it by unmasking autism, while Elías teaches her all about the science of engines in general and Formula 1 in particular. We look forward to reading what Macarena has to say!

Is “woke” a new ideology?

by Chris Bertram on December 14, 2022

Sam Freedman, whose Substack is the only one I subscribe to, recommended an essay by one James O’Malley on this subject. But reading the essay, it struck me as rather obviously wrong-headed, mainly for the reason that the characteristics it identifies as quintessentially “woke” are shared with other political tendencies and currents, albeit in ways that may be rendered less visible by dominant ideologies and frames of reference. Often, the claim that they are new is, to say the least, somewhat suspect, and I think O’Malley misconstrues various aspects of “woke”, most notably intersectionality.

O’Malley mentions six characteristics as defining “woke” they are:

  • identitarian deference
  • priority of harm reduction over free speech
  • a commitment to intersectionality that makes politics totalising
  • a prioritization of communitarianism over individual rights
  • a scepticism about progress
  • a prioritization of “right-side norms” over “accuracy norms”

Let’s take each of those in turn:

[click to continue…]

Sunday photoblogging: sunshine and frost

by Chris Bertram on December 11, 2022

Sometimes you walk all day with a camera and don’t take a single picture you like; at other times you just look out the window and the shot is right there.

Hebron Road Burial Ground_

The following is a lightly blog-ized version of a Twitter thread. I fear Twitter is going downhill so I really should transition back to blogging. Back to the land!

Start with a Chris Hayes tweet: “he’s a right-wing billionaire who was motivated to buy twitter because he thought it was antagonistic to right-wingers and wants, instead, to make it friendly to them. that’s it. that’s the whole story.”

And I respond. [click to continue…]