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One of my favorite, and most intense, writing projects this year has been preparing a contribution to an in-progress volume celebrating the work and life of my late friend Erik Olin Wright. The essay, provisionally called “If you’re a socialist you need the Real Utopias Project whether you like it or not”, was prompted by reading and hearing numerous criticisms of either Erik’s book Envisioning Real Utopias, or the Real Utopias Project more generally. So what the essay does is argue for the importance of the RUP against those criticisms in a way that is much more defensive, combative, confident, and irritable than I would ever be discussing my own work. It’s been fun, though also quite strange to so inhabit the thought of someone to whom I was so close for so many years: I have had ‘new’ conversations with him in my head as the paper has unfolded.

I’ll share the final section below the fold, which will give you a sense of what I think. But, taking a leaf out of JQ’s book, I also thought some of you might like to read the whole draft and, even better, might be able to give me some feedback on it.

For those of you with more sense than to read an entire paper, here’s how the essay (currently) concludes:

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The Afghanistan Cricket Boycott

by Harry on September 21, 2021

I’m only slightly embarrassed that my first thought on seeing the chaotic, if predicted, consequences of the US handover of Afghanistan back to the Taliban was, “what about the cricket?”. Bear with me.

Cricket was at the forefront of the sporting boycott of apartheid, albeit accidentally so. The MCC initially did not select the South African born “cape coloured” player Basil d’Oliviera for the 1969 tour of South Africa, probably for political reasons. The consequent pressure on them, and the ‘injury’ to selected player Tom Cartwright (who, it is rumoured, withdrew in order to increase the pressure to select d’Oliviera), resulted, eventually, in the cancellation of the tour which, in turn, resulted in the widespread boycott. I supported the boycott almost without reservations and certainly without regret.

As things stand it is hard to avoid the conclusion that Afghanistan will face a cricketing boycott which, I suspect, is the only sporting boycott that matters in this case. In the past decade or so cricket as conquered Afghanistan, and Afghanistan, frankly, has conquered cricket, rising from an unknown participant in the third or fourth rank of cricketing nations, to becoming one of only 11 Test playing countries, with some of the best and most sought-after short from players in the world; no other sport comes close to it.

I am far more regretful about this one than about the South African boycott. Here are some thoughts.

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I wrote something a while ago about why I think forgiving all student debt is neither a good idea nor progressive. One of the common responses to people who make the kinds of argument that I make is that, indeed, forgiving student debt is progressive, because, at least on the plan Sanders had, it would be paid for by a tax on speculative trades. So, it is progressive because it redistributes down.

After I saw that objection several times I realized that I didn’t have a well-formed concept of progressivity or regressivity, and didn’t really know what other people meant by it. So I’m asking you to do either or both: help me understand what progressive means, and/or understand why it matters that some policy is progressive.

To be clear. I agree that, if paid for the way Sanders planned to pay for it, loan forgiveness would have the net effect of redistributing down. Now, that doesn’t impress me a huge amount. Imagine a proposal that redistributed down from the top 1% just to the next 9%, and does nothing for the bottom 90%. Sure, that redistributes down, but the population within which it redistributes isn’t really of interest to me for now.

The definition of “progressive” on which the transfer from the top 1% to the next 9% is progressive is:

  • A policy is progressive as long as it has the net effect of redistributing resources downward at all.

That’s clearly not the definition underlying my objection to student debt forgiveness being progressive. (As I say, I just didn’t have a clear idea of what definition was in my head, but it wasn’t this one).

Here’s a second possible definition:

  • A policy is progressive as long as it has the net effect of reducing inequality of resources in the whole population

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Diana Ross and Kevin Coyne

by Harry on June 27, 2021

Radio 2 has been playing Thank You by Diana Ross all week. I wondered why I’d never heard it before, and discovered it’s because it was just released and, therefore, I presume, written sometime after 1972. I wondered whether someone with more musical knowledge/understanding than I have (which is nearly everyone who reads this) would listen to the first 36 seconds of Kevin Coyne’s “Need Somebody” from his first solo album, Case History, and compare it with the first 29 seconds of Thank You. They sound unnervingly similar to me.(And, the home recorded version sounds even more like Thank You to me).

If I’m right, can you suggest examples of artists ‘borrowing’ from other artists that are more unlikely than the Ross/Coyne pair?

Just to be clear, I don’t actually think this is a case of borrowing: I don’t imagine for a second that anyone of Ms. Ross’s team has ever heard of Kevin Coyne, let alone heard anything he wrote, and if I am wrong about that I will admire her even more than I already do.

Swamp 81

by Harry on June 24, 2021

I’ve been listening to longform radio documentaries ever since I started listening to Radio 4/The Home Service more than 50 years ago. I can’t remember anything better than this series about the Brixton Riot of 1981, hosted by a chap called Big Narstie (of whom I had never heard, but who my somewhat-cooler-than-me son-in-law assures me is a generally good chap). The combination of careful historical analysis, eyewitness testimony, dramatic recreation (of which I am generally skeptical, but is done, here, carefully and sparingly) is brilliant. Mr Narstie himself is charming. He seems genuinely moved by some of the stories within the story, and manages to convey his enthusiasm about just how much progress has been made while insisting that much is left to do. It’s not until episode 7 (of 8) that we get to the riot itself. What the series does is explain why the riot (and the riots that followed in the summer of 81) happened, and to do that it traces the history of police/community relations in south London from the mid-1960’s. It’s not perfect. There’s no real discussion of the St. Paul’s riot from the previous year. And the thread about the New Cross house fire loses steam a little bit: it is not made clear to the listener that forensics eventually established that the fire began inside the house, which is a pity, because the relevance of the New Cross fire is that however it was started no reasonable person in that community could believe anything that the police told them.

Two police officers from the time tell their stories. One is frank and straightforward – the police force he joined was populated substantially by racist criminals, and almost entirely, otherwise, by people who were either implicated in, or happy to turn a blind eye to, the lawlessness of their colleagues. (Political scientists can correct me here, but from casual observation there does seems to be a pretty general rule: when you’re trying to explain rioting during peacetime in liberal democracies a good starting point is police/community relations, and it’s not unusual to find a long history of criminality toward the rioting community on the part of the police). The other officer is much more defensive, tarring the young men who were regularly stopped and searched under the Sus laws, beaten up, arrested, and “fitted up”, as criminals. But there is one amusing moment, in which he says, probably with at least an element of truth, something to the effect of “People say we were racist. But Blacks had moved into that area, and we treated them the way that we treated the people who had lived there before”.

Many of the stories of individual encounters with police officers that are told in the first few episodes are shocking and should be very hard to believe. I think it is worth dwelling a little, as the podcast doesn’t, on just why so many people not directly affected by the way Brixton and other Black communities were policed, did not understand the problem. To understand it you had to be willing to believe that (often violent) lawbreaking was the norm in the Metropolitan Police. Think of your own workplace. Imagine that you violently assaulted a someone you had just grabbed off the pavement/sidewalk in front of 10 of your colleague. How much push back would you get? Wouldn’t somebody get a little nervous that you, or they, would get into trouble? Now imagine that you do it again the next day. Now imagine that several of your colleagues do the same thing in the next few weeks. And then boast about it in the cafeteria. Most people in my parents’ and grandparents’ generations did not inhabit workplaces where that was normal, and, I think, found it very hard to take seriously the idea that the police, in particular, were like that. Especially if they lived in part of the country (and there were some) which was relatively well policed. [1]

Unless, of course, you had some direct experience of the Met yourself.

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Mars, Ares, Tiw/Tyr, God, Allah

by Harry on June 15, 2021

I’m alarmed by how interesting I find this comment by J-D in the Christian thread.

Attempts to answer the question of whether the God of Christianity and the God of Islam are the same God confront some of the same difficulties that confront attempts to answer the question of whether Ares and Mars are the same god, or whether Mars and Tiw are the same god; or, for that matter, whether the creatures that Chinese people call dragons and unicorns are the same creatures as the ones that European people call dragons and unicorns.

There must be a vast literature about this in philosophy of language and philosophy of fiction, and those of you who know it will doubtless find what I have to say extremely naïve. If someone can point us to some interesting work and/or, even better, explain it to us, that would be great. But here goes with a naive blog post.

I’ve no idea whether the God of Christianity and the God of Islam are the same God, and some of the difficulties in assessing whether or not they are are indeed the same as those involved in assessing whether Mars, Ares and Tiw/Tyr are the same god. So I tried to think about which difficulties might be different.

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Why I am not exactly a Christian

by Harry on June 14, 2021

The last talk I gave before lockdown (sometime in March 2020) was for the annual Freethought conference held by the Atheists, Humanists, and Agnostics of Madison (No, I don’t think they know Alan Partridge). It’s much looser, and more fun, than my usual talks: they asked me because the President of AHA had heard from a small group of my students the way I think about these issues, and, to be honest, I think they bugged him to invite me to force me to write something down. Here it is:

This talk doesn’t really contain an argument, unlike most that I give. It’s more an autobiographical sketch on the topic of its title – which is a sort of tribute to Bertrand Russell’s famous essay, but has a twist to it. I’m not a Christian. Not exactly. I’ll explain why I’m not, but also why it’s a little misleading to say I am not.

I’ll start with two stories about students.

First. About 13 years ago an evangelical Christian student was in my office discussing career options with me (this is one of the many great parts of my job). At one point I asked if she’d considered becoming a pastor. She shot back “No, I couldn’t be a pastor”. After a pause she added: “You should become a pastor”. My reaction was immediate: “Um.… I lack one key qualification”. “Oh, that’s ok”, she retorted, “I’m sure lots of pastors don’t believe in God. And, anyway, if you were a pastor, perhaps you’d come to believe in God”. [1]

Second. A student who just graduated [Dec 2019] is getting married and invited me, and many of her classmates from a class that she took (though didn’t much enjoy) as a freshman. Her spouse-to-be, impressed presumably, that she was inviting a professor not in her major, asked her if Brighouse would be willing to do a reading. She told us all that she replied, “Oh no, I don’t think he’d do that because he is an atheist”.

I’m glad she told us this. Because I said “Oh, I’d be happy to do a reading. I’m not that kind of atheist” and, to be honest, I was a bit surprised that she didn’t already know that. [Sadly, COVID prevented me and her classmates from attending the wedding, but I am glad to say it did go ahead without us]

Maybe you can tell something about the kind of atheist I am through this story, from the 1980s shortly after I moved to the US, and was still quite bemused by the culture. I heard a news story about a lawsuit. Football players at a public high school had been praying in the end zone during a game. And someone was suing the school district to try and get it to prohibit them from doing so. My immediate reaction went something like this:

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Testing the Tebbit Test

by Harry on April 16, 2021

You can still listen to Testing the Tebbit Test on BBC Radio 4 Extra in which Rajan Datar documents how many English people with ancestors who migrated from Asia, and maybe even from the Caribbean find the test deeply hurtful and offensive. This response is entirely apt — Tebbit must have known that it was hurtful and offensive, indeed that seems to have been the point.

I used to be flippant about the Tebbit test. It goes against the Englishness I was raised into. When I started watching cricket seriously, in 1974, India and Pakistan were the underdogs. I supported them against England, and, however naïve it sounds now, I assumed that everyone else in England did too. Supporting the underdog is what English people do (unless, possibly, the underdog is Australia, a contingency that hasn’t really arisen during my cricket-loving life). Quite independently I was taught that authentic celebration and enjoyment of the other side’s performance is intrinsic to both Englishness and the spirit of cricket. So, even in the cases, increasingly common as I grew older, in which England was the underdog and it was, therefore, consistent with my national identity to support England, that support had to be quite unenthusiastic.

In 1976 England’s captain Tony Grieg threw another consideration into the mix. I don’t believe Grieg was racist, or even bad (and, in retrospect, the Packer revolution was great for the sport), but when he said of the West Indies, in an accent which, at that point, I’d only ever heard from supporters of apartheid, that “we’re going to make them grovel”, he made it impossible to want England to win. Throughout the subsequent decade or so in which that extraordinary West Indies team dominated world cricket, I could never support England, even as underdogs, against them and, again, I didn’t see how any self-respecting English person could. (My dad took me to the day of the Oval test in which Richards made that magnificent double century, and cheered every boundary with delight). Yes, I longed for England to play well; but every WI victory was a small poke in the eye for the racists. Again, naïve it may have been, but racism, to me, seemed not only wicked, but also a betrayal of the kind of Englishness I’d been raised to.

The Tebbit test, then, seemed to condemn English people of Pakistani and Indian origin for behaving in exactly the way that any other self-respecting English person, wherever their ancestors came, from would (even if too few did). It was incoherent.

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Corporal Punishment

by Harry on March 11, 2021

Corporal punishment in state schools in the UK was made illegal in 1986. This is the story about how it was eliminated in one Local Education Authority, Oxfordshire, before that.

My dad became CEO of Oxfordshire in 1978. He was young, and opposed corporal punishment, but knew, as he puts it, that “in a time of cuts, if I went to the politicians and asked them for money for canes they’d ask me how many I wanted, and did I want the luxury versions”. So he didn’t talk to them about corporal punishment. Instead, he surveyed the schools on how often they caned pupils (caning was the only formal form of physical punishment, though I do remember witnessing some less formal physical punishment from particularly brutal teachers when I attended school in a different LEA). When the results were in, he gave each school a list, showing a league table, with the numbers of canings at each school, but the names of all other schools redacted. The head at the top of the list was shocked to see that his school accounted for 25% of all the canings in the LEA, but dad said something to the effect of “its ok, that’s the way you like to do things at your school; I hear the swish as I drive by” [honestly he might be making that bit up, though its quite believable if you know him]. The following year canings were down substantially, even at that school, but it was still at the top of the list, now accounting for 33% of all the canings. Again, he was reassuring. Within 2 years, the league table was empty — there were no canings.

When the government (a Tory government, remember!) proposed prohibiting corporal punishment in all schools, the politicians in Oxfordshire were distraught. “How are our schools going to keep order?”. Dad assured them there’d be no problem, because he’d been monitoring corporal punishment, and had discovered that none of the schools had been using it for some time.

It occurs to me that someone should interview my dad for some more of these stories before he goes doolally or kicks the bucket really.

The Boys Aren’t Back in Town

by Harry on March 3, 2021

A colleague from the school of Education who is visited my (in person, on campus) classes for the first time expressed surprise that out of 40 students total (distributed equally between two classes) only 8 are male. Both classes are in a classroom that is inside a large, new, well-ventilated building with a large atrium in which students typically sit and work (silently). Normally, I would say, that the students in that space are about 50% male. But, prompted by my colleague, I have started counting: from outward appearances the ratio of male: female seems about the same as in my classes. I’m on campus most days, so have started counting (its easy, there’s hardly anyone around). Every part of the campus I am on has about the same ratio, and that includes the Engineering side of campus which I walk through twice a day even when I am not, otherwise, on campus. I’ve inquired with my students: they report roughly the same ratios in the spaces they frequent and that among their friends a much larger proportion of women than of men are taking classes in person.

I presume that the registrar has data on who is taking our in-person classes. I’m curious whether people on other campuses have noticed the same phenomenon, or whether it is specific to Madison or even just that I have a highly unrepresentative experience. If it is a general phenomenon: why?

Teaching in person

by Harry on December 9, 2020

Here’s a piece by Deborah Parker at Inside Higher Education which describes what it has been like for her teaching in-person this semester. My experience has been almost exactly like hers, the main exceptions being that nobody spoke in Italian in my classes, and that attendance was close to perfect.

Speaking for myself here: teaching in-person has been almost completely normal. It turns out, for example, that once you have met in masks two or three times you stop noticing the masks. Sometime in October I bumped into a student with 3 of her friends on a walk and we had an extended conversation for about 20 minutes. Afterward I realised I had no idea whether she, or her friends, had been wearing masks (I was, but they didn’t have to be) — later she told me that she and one friend were maskless and the other two were masked, but honestly I had no idea. It shouldn’t be surprising that sitting at a distance feels normal – there’s a fairly rigorous social norm already of leaving an empty seat between oneself and the next student if one can. [1]

I would say that teaching in a mask is more tiring than normal teaching: I imagine that has something to do with speaking louder, and presumably getting less oxygen. But the teaching I’ve done over zoom has been exhausting, so teaching in a mask is less tiring than the available alternative. And there are many compensations: one gets to move around, share smiles and laughter with the students, hear the ambient noise, and share a sense of camaraderie.

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Election Day in the US

by Harry on November 3, 2020

In 2016 I was blithely confident that Clinton would win right up till about the last 3 or 4 days. It wasn’t exactly because I believed the polls: I just couldn’t really believe that swing voters would vote for someone as manifestly nasty and ill-suited to office as Trump. Previous Presidents during my time in the States were not manifestly nasty, and whereas I assume that Nixon was, he was also obviously capable of doing the job, and anyway those were different times. I understood perfectly well, because Nate Silver kept insisting on it, that statistically there was a non-trivial chance that Trump would win. But I didn’t believe that enough of my new compatriots were either reckless or vicious enough to make him President.

Then, in the final few days, I became uneasy. (I think this unease informs the post that I made on election eve, which I thought was lighthearted and optimistic, but which my daughter interpreted as a prediction that Trump would win). Sure, there was the intervention by a major government agency attempting to influence the outcome. But what made me feel worse were i) noticing that my Republican, but previously never-Trumpish, relatives seemed to have become Stepford Wives/Husbands and ii) observing the complete lack of energy that students on campus seemed to have around the election. On the day itself, from the moment I walked to my office, I just felt dread.

Last week a 22-year-old told me that her best friend has thanked her to making her vote in 2016. Her friend had still not voted by 30 minutes before the polls closed, and K told her she had to go, that it would only take a minute, and that an election isn’t over till its over. Her friend says that, given that Trump won Wisconsin, she would never have forgiven herself if she hadn’t voted against him in her first election.

This time around? Well the previously never-Trumpish relatives are still in Stepford. And while I spend most of most working days on campus, its a very lonely place — I never see colleagues, and the students are sparse. Even so the early polling stations that were up over the past couple of weeks were full of students voting whenever I passed (often at not-at-all peak times). I predict that on my campus the student vote will be very high indeed. My instagram feed is packed with students and former students urging their friends and family to vote, telling them exactly how to do it, and for whom to vote. Even the young Sanders enthusiasts whose friends were anxious that they would not vote for Biden have fallen into line. Whereas in 2016 Nate Silver was constantly emphasizing how likely a Trump win was despite the polls and his own model’s projection; in the last few weeks he has constantly been emphasizing how unlikely a Trump win is despite the polls and his own model’s projection.

I hope you all have a plan. Good luck, everyone.

Teaching in-person

by Harry on September 7, 2020

The Wisconsin State Journal ran this article (for which I was interviewed) about return to school. (For reasons I don’t understand, the article is not accessible in many countries: sorry). A colleague in the Economics department emailed me after seeing the article saying that, quite apart from admiring the picture of the back of my head, he envied me the in-person experience, and wished that the campus had a physically distance-able space for his 420-person class. The email brought into focus the thought that I’m kind of a free-rider here. If everything were in-person I don’t think I – or anybody – would be feeling safe, or enjoying it very much. But, given how we are actually doing it (with most teaching online), I feel very good about teaching in-person, and will regret it if we aren’t able to continue through to Thanksgiving (which is the plan). I have those of my colleagues who are not teaching in-person to thank.

How are we doing actually doing it? Well, it’s true, as the article says, that 43% of classes have some in-person component. Every single in-person element is small, socially distanced, and masked. And the 43% figure might really mislead you. For many classes ‘component’ is a key term. I’m thinking of a 240-person 4-credit class in which everything is online, except for 3 discussion sections. That class is included in the 43%: but out of 960-person-credit hours, only 60 are actually in-person. I don’t know the exact proportion of credit hours that are in-person, but judging by conversations I’ve had with students, and comparing the trickles of students on campus with the usual crowds I would be really, really, surprised if it is as much as 15%.

And I really do mean trickle. One of my classes is T/Th 11am in the Business School building (one of the few buildings new enough that all the rooms really were designed for learning). Usually during that slot the building is heaving with students – like Christmas shopping on Oxford Street but without the packages. Normally all the classrooms are fully occupied. Last Thursday, at what would usually be its busiest time of the week, the building was almost empty, with most classrooms free. It was no challenge at all to keep a 6 feet gap between yourself and the next person. It wouldn’t have been a challenge to maintain a 60 feet gap, if that were your preference.

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Notes from a Physically Distanced Classroom

by Harry on August 15, 2020

We tested some teaching strategies in a physically distanced classroom today. We filmed the proceedings, but obviously the film isn’t ready yet, so here are some initial thoughts.

First a caveat. The room was great: a room designed for learning. Good acoustics, screens on the walls, comfortable chairs which move easily and silently, and 6 tables each of which would, in normal times, seat 7-8 students. So, the best case scenario (I want to get us into some bad rooms soon).

Here are the rules. Everyone must wear a mask; everyone must remain 6 feet apart at all times, and there was no amplification (not a problem, in fact, in this room — I understand that in other rooms some sort of amplification will be provided). No moving of furniture is allowed, but moving students is, as long as they always at least 6 feet apart.

I’m hesitant about drawing conclusions, especially given how good the room was, but, for what it is worth, our whole team was surprised by just how well it went, and I’m much more optimistic about what my students will experience in the Fall than I was yesterday.

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What will (American) Football do?

by Harry on July 19, 2020

As I’ve probably made clear, I have no knowledge of or interest in any other sport than cricket (well… there’s also softball, obviously). Professional cricket has now restarted in both the UK and in South Africa. In South Africa, yesterday, the first match opened to scenes of the entire playing and management personnel taking a knee in support of the Black Lives Matter movement. Here are some pictures:

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