Group Blogs

Sad Clown

Crooked Timber - Tue, 2014-03-04 00:16

Sometimes people need to be cheered up. And sometimes nothing cheers you up like a 6’8” sad clown/performance artist named Puddles nailing “Royals” so hard you can’t hear the real song in your brain anymore. It’s like he did a weird magic trick to me.


Imagine you see an impossibly tall clown in old-fashioned black and white clown makeup, bald head all covered up with white paint, and black lips and eye drops and just a little red paint on his nose, overly expressive, is what it makes him, with white clothes, and three enormous black bobbles in place of buttons on his shirt-front, and black rick-rack at his ruffled white satin sleeves and double neck-ruff, and white gloves on his huge hands, which he uses to mime the driving of imaginary Cadillacs to excellent effect, and a duo of backup singers so composed they look as if they are waiting for the Kronos Quartet to come on, at which point they will contribute 12 bars only and stay at the side for the rest of the time, and a pianist who…is never seen and may well be Satan, don’t ask me but I’ve just got a bad feeling about this guy—and then anyway upright bass, and drums with brushes because it’s MTV-Unplugged time, apparently…right, but Puddles is wearing a crown made of tin painted gold with a P on it and is…is… Man, y’all should watch this video.

I personally, am not afraid of clowns. There’s something humorously American about thinking, “oh, we’re the only one’s afraid of clowns, it’s Stephen King’s fault, etc.” No, fools! Everywhere in the world people wear masks, or face paint, and when they do that, they freak you right out. A tiny Japanese school-girl wearing a fox spirit mask? Scary. Even askew so you can see her real face? SCARY. These guys from Trivandrum in India, when they play the demons [I have been corrected by reader Peter Erwin,who notes that divine heroes also use the blood-red eyes. Having checked, it seems as if this man, with his red lips only, is probably a hero, while if he had similar green makeup with red slashes in it he would be a demon—but an awesome demon], they put a flower petal inside each eye at the bottom, under the lower lid next to the eyeball, to make their eyes blood-red. (I watched them do their make-up one time when I went to see the performance, you could go early.)

Verdict: SCARY. I have a mask from Lombok that’s of the evil Balinese king from a play (all the Balinese kings in all the plays are evil; it’s like having a Grand Vizier; you signed up for evil) and I used to have to go to ridiculous lengths so my kids wouldn’t have to walk past it at night.

Now it’s part of my shrine to evil so that’s OK I guess, though Violet still says “I don’t know how you can sleep like that with him…watching you.” [sotto voce: still scary.]

But this type of classic clown of mime makeup, so derided, so strangely expressive…it’s compelling somehow. Not the foam nose. I saw a real Punch and Judy show when I was a kid, sort of wooden theater and puppets beating the tar out of each other. I went to a one ring circus, too, outside Columbia, South Carolina. Some of those guys who were there in 1980 must have been some old-timey carnival types… Once at the real Ringling Bros Barnum and Bailey Circus in Savannah when I was 6 or something there were identical twins who were high-wire walkers and they would walk up these steep ramps of wire on either side and then across on the long flat. My mom took me and my brother. We had good seats, and caramel popcorn, we were right up over the lights when the one twin fell from almost all the way to the top of the platform, into the bank of lighting. He died instantly. I was sure he was dead, but I was willing to believe people lying to me that he wasn’t dead. They sent in for the clowns then, brother, not just a few, but every damn one they had, unicycles and juggling bowling pins and torches and coming up into the stands with pinwheel lollipops, and all that time trying to cover up the broken glass and the lights but get the body at the same time, but not get anybody else hurt, and then smuggle him out of the ring when the beautiful ladies in the spangled costumes came in standing on the horses. The other brother got down safely. I’m still not afraid of clowns, though.

Categories: Group Blogs

Should teachers of controversial issues disclose their opinions?

Crooked Timber - Mon, 2014-03-03 14:34

My colleagues Diana Hess and Paula McAvoy will publish a book later this year called The Political Classroom, containing a study of high school teachers who teach controversial issues. Their presentation at a recent conference for philosophers made me think it might be a good idea to articulate my answer to one of the questions the book raises: whether teachers of controversial issues should disclose their views about the issues they teach about (their earlier discussion of disclosure is included in Hess’s book, Controversy in the Classroom). I’m articulating it not to try and persuade anyone, but to broaden the discussion – I’ve only ever discussed these issues with my students themselves, and with close colleagues.

I’ve taught Contemporary Moral Issues most semesters for the past 22 years. It, or something like it, is a standard offering in Philosophy departments. It is not the most prestigious course – applied ethics basically – but it brings in students for general education requirements, and for most students will be the only sustained encounter they get to have with rigorous and dispassionate thinking about the moral aspects of policy and personal decision-making. In my department it has the largest share of student credits, partly because our Business School, for reasons best known to themselves, designates it as ne of the three classes (all taught exclusively by my dept) that meets the ethics requirement for their majors. [1] Standard topics include abortion, the death penalty, vegetarianism, duties to distant strangers, euthanasia, cloning – you get the idea. The course is typically taught in large lecture format – my classes are typically 160 or 80, but on many campuses 200-300 would be a normal size.

For some of the issues I teach, it is not that hard to find out my views, if you really want to, and are a minimally competent googler. But I take a pretty hard line on the disclosure question. I don’t disclose my views about the issues I teach. Here’s why.

First, all of the issues I teach are issues on which there are powerful arguments on more than one side. I do not see my job as presenting technical scholarly applied ethics so that they will become interested in the major, but in introducing them to a particular practice that requires certain intellectual resources that my discipline has developed: the practice of moral reason giving and taking. So it makes no sense to teach issues about which, though there is a public debate, the reasons are one-sided. This is why, for example, I do not teach same-sex marriage (I tried, it didn’t work) or gun rights and why, if I lived in the UK, I would not teach about the legitimacy of the monarchy. I want students really to understand that there are reasons on both sides, and worry that disclosing would give them the impression that, contrary to fact, I regard the issues as settled. (I should add: it might make complete sense to teach such issues in a social studies high school class, especially if the focus is on getting the students to articulate and defend their own positions; the aims of such a class might be different from mine).

Second, I want the students to take seriously the injunction that I have no interest in them coming to share whatever view I have about the issue at hand. Now, I do want them to share my views about what makes an argument strong, and if we expose a contradiction I want them to see it, and understand that it undermines a position. I understand that it is entirely possible for someone to disclose while continuing to convey that they do not regard the issues as settled. It just seems easier if you don’t disclose. I know, furthermore, that many students come to the class believing that some liberal professor is going to tell them what to think about the issues (and only some people who believe this resent it!). I want to frustrate that expectation, and quickly. Non-disclosure, I believe, helps.

Third, even when the class is large, I want there to be a good deal of discussion. I don’t think that students can learn how to do anything much simply by watching me do it, however well I do it. They need to do it themselves. On some of the issues most students do not have strong prior convictions. But on some – abortion is the most obvious example – they do. Most of my students are pretty fervently pro-choice, some ae anti-abortion, and very few in either camp have reasons for believing what they do that would survive a 3 minute interrogation by me. When the student who holds a different view from mine about an issue endures that interrogation, and then sees their peer being subjected to the same thing, I want them not to have in mind that really I might be favoring them, or conversely, their peer. And if, as sometimes happens, very few students in the class hold one view, I have to build an environment in which they feel comfortable giving their reasons – speaking out. I do not think that most students are afraid of their professor’s disagreeing with them, but many are silenced by the fear that their peers disagree with them. The professor has to help them overcome that fear by backing them up, encouraging others to join them. I believe it is easier for them to experience my backing as support if they do not know what I believe (and know that I regard what I believe as irrelevant to the process), than if they know, quite clearly, that I disagree with them and am only playing devil’s advocate.

During one of the early discussions when Hess and McAvoy were starting work on the book, another colleague – someone who is a political conservative (not in my department) and whose practice I know to be very much like mine—took me to task for generalizing that the practice we both use is the best or even the only right approach to take. He pointed to examples of truly great teachers who not only disclose, but openly and vigorously advocate for their own view on moral and political questions. His specific example was the legendary Marxist historian Harvey Goldberg, who inspired hundreds if not thousands of left wing students in his large lectures on American and on European history, giving a thoroughly Marxists interpretation.

So lets talk about advocacy, as opposed to disclosure, for a moment. Truly great teachers are poor models. I am not, and never will be, a truly great teacher, and what I am interested in is what counts as good practice for the vast majority of college teachers who are at best good teachers. Nor am I sure that even Goldberg could have pulled off the pedagogical goals I have in CMI using my subject matter. I’m pretty sure he couldn’t have pulled them off if he had engaged in the kind of vocal advocacy he engaged in. Its easy to see how being with a Marxist interpretation of history could help turn a student who disagreed into a careful thinker about history, but much harder for me to see how being presented with strong advocacy of a pro-choice view about abortion would help most anti-abortion students weigh the moral reasons (let alone the pro-choice student who, at a school like mine, would most likely have their tendency to complacency reinforced). Finally: even if someone can pull everything off while advocating forcefully, I am suspicious of anyone who thinks that they are that person. Given the absence of high-quality metrics of our performance as teachers, we should all assume a certain level of humility, and believing oneself to be successful at all seems hubristic, let alone believing oneself to be successful while engaging in a practice that there are so many reasons to suspect will only work for exceptional people.

Back to disclosure. In smaller classes, teaching philosophy majors, or students I have come to know well, I disclose more. Most students in my senior level political philosophy classes have a rough idea where I am coming from. And I do not know, for sure, how effective I am as a non-discloser in the contemporary moral issues course (or the freshman seminar I teach about the family, in which I have the same policy). [2] In this, as in other respects, I have sparse evidence about the effectiveness of my teaching. Many readers teach the kinds of class I am talking about, and many more have taken them, or similar classes. Should a teacher of controversial issues withhold their views about the issues?

(Xposted at ISW)

[1] Note: I am not complaining about this, I and my department benefit from it enormously, and I even think it is good for students, its just that, in general, being good for students is not the main criterion for decisions abut requirements.

[2] I do have some small bits of data. Examples here are of students whom I’ve taught in one or more classes, and have stayed in touch, so who know me pretty well:

1.Walking together on election day. S: “I’m off to vote. Are you going?” HB: “I can’t, I’m not a citizen”. S: “Oh you should be so you can vote”. HB: “You should only want me to do that if you think I’ll vote the same way you will. Do you know what my politics are?”. S: “Well…. You’ve never said anything that gives me a clue, but I think you are liberal” HB (disappointed): “why do you think that?”. S: “Well…. The only evidence I have is that I like you, and I think that I wouldn’t like you if you weren’t liberal”.
2.At a dinner at my house days after the 2010 election (ie, students who know me well enough to have dinner at my house), the issue comes up. HB: S just told me she doesn’t know what my political views are. Do you?”; R: “Kinda conservative I think”; P: “definitely not socialist”; Q: “middle of the road”; T:”I disagree with P, I think you are socialist”. V: “I know you support trade unions. Kinda conservative” (not kidding).
3.Conversation right around the 2012 election, about who the students will vote for: S has established that she doesn’t feel she knows enough to vote responsibly, and doesn’t know who to vote for. S: “Who would you vote for if you could?”; HB: “who do you think?”; S: “I don’t know, I keep trying to work it out. I know you have a good salary and I know rich people vote Republican, so that makes me think you would vote that way. But I know you’re a professor, and most professors here are liberal”. (After the election I told her whom I’d have voted for, and it turned out that she had, after our conversation, educated herself better so she could vote responsibly).

Categories: Group Blogs

Why your snazzy PDF report looks like *%$# on my desk

Crooked Timber - Mon, 2014-03-03 13:31

I have endless important topics I need to, should and must blog about, not least the fact that I was in Crimea some time back and am currently glued to the radio, thinking very hard about it and not sure quite what to say. But anyway, I hope this post may end up being useful to somebody, somewhere, sometime.

Right now, I’m doing a lot of what consultants term ‘desk research’. That is, I read a lot of stuff on the Internet, must of it about technical topics. Every now and then, some person or organisation I admire collects a lot of information into a report they are really proud of – and which looks incredibly useful to me – and I think ‘that is so good I’m going go ahead and read the whole thing.’ And that’s when the nuisance begins.

Look, I am old. Or what to my parents’ generation was called middle-aged, anyway. (When I was a teenager, women my current age wore scarves to protect their weekly set.) When I am very interested in something I’m reading on the Internet, I print it out and scribble, underline and write things on it. That’s what we old-timers do. Actually, I think that’s what most people still do when they want to ‘engage with a text’, and it’s why despite being a crazy-early adopter of Kindle type devices, I haven’t used one in over five years. (But I am grateful to e-readers for finally liberating me from the fear that scribbling on books and bending down their corners is desecration. It may also be my own mortality that causes me to mark things I am reading, as a none too subtle note to myself that it’s the only literary mark I am likely to make. Also, it helps me to remember later on that I’ve read something and even what I thought of it.)

Anyway, back to the PDFs of the useful and improving reports on matters technical or technocratic (it’s all the same in my world, that of Internet policy). The problem is, the people who produce these reports – and I am not naming names, because that would be ungrateful and the reports really are great, just unreadable – are so thrilled or relieved to finally get them out the door, they whip up something that looks great on the screen and just publish it to the Internet where saps like me download it and print it out at our own expense. Now I am happy and delighted to print this stuff at my own expense. It’s the ability of organisations to externalise this cost that makes it possible for many more people to get their stuff. But the wonderfully unbounded nature of online dissemination also stops those people from thinking about the reality and cost to their readers of actually printing and reading their work.

Probably back in the olden days when the world wide web was new, people would whip up something that looked great in print, put it online without doing anything else, be underwhelmed by the response and then sit through hours of expensive, off-site design seminars being told that is a totally wrong way to go about online publishing and the reason we can’t have nice things. Now the problem is kind of silly, really. People design documents that look great on a screen, publicise and publish it online, and send out to the home and office printers of the world an offering whose form is so irritating it detracts from the content.

So here is my free, in-your-own-time design seminar about what not to do when you hit ‘upload PDF’ to your website. I am sure that CT readers can add to this list:

Don’t for the love of God include pages of solid colour, e.g. the back cover or internal dividing pages to mark the end of the section. My colour toner is EXPENSIVE and has run out twice in the past 2 weeks printing out a couple of dozen ‘design features’ such as a page of blue or a page of orange. They add NOTHING to the prettiness of your report and just make me angry as I scroll through the print preview and think ‘there goes another twenty quid to Kodak / HP / etc.’

Do not use yellow for type face. Seriously! I can’t believe an amateur like me is begging document designer people to Not Use Yellow Writing, something every eight-year old knows. It is unreadable when printed out. Frankly, it’s not that great on a screen, either. I’ve just gone through a 100 page document where every heading, table title and even the page numbers were in yellow. I have now gone officially blind and it didn’t happen in the fun way.

Put the page numbers all back on the right hand side. Sad but true, most of us cannot indeed print double-sided. Or just stick them in the middle why don’t you. Fine. But alternating left to right left to right as I re-assemble documents that the printer has sprayed on the floor is not fun. Especially when they are yellow.

Please, please please consider making a version that doesn’t include a dozen photos of people around a computer / children in a classroom looking happy. Stock photography is also pointlessly expensive to print.

OK it doesn’t have to look as flamboyantly style-less as an IETF RFC - making those things doubly unreadable. But please just give a little thought to the individual – and she or he is a rare one, and deserving of consideration – who actually wants to read the whole thing.

Other suggestions?

Categories: Group Blogs

2014 IWAC Conference (at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis & St. Paul)

The Blogora - Mon, 2014-03-03 13:27

Colleagues---you are now able to register for the 2014 IWAC Conference (at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis) here. It is also still possible to get the early rate on hotel reservations at The Commons, by clicking here

A few highlights:

Thursday, June 12th: Three interactive pre-conference workshops (listed below)*; a mind-opening keynote address by New Literacies scholars Mary Kalantzis and Bill Cope; the first batch concurrent sessions, and a catered reception at the University's Weisman Art Museum.

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Categories: Group Blogs

If You Want to Be Truly Pessimistic about the Ukraine Crisis’s Geopolitical Consequences …

Crooked Timber - Mon, 2014-03-03 11:51

You may want to not just focus on the obvious questions. My gloomy prediction: it’s going to transform Europe’s debate about energy, in a largely negative direction. The current battle between environmentalists and business interests about how to deal with global warming is already heavily lopsided in favor of the business interests. Very shortly, it’s going to be a three way battle between (1) environmentalists, (2) business interests, and (3) people arguing that European security requires energy independence (many of (3) being funded by (2), which doesn’t mean that they don’t have a point). Efforts to find a quick and dirty way of escaping dependence on Russian gas are likely to focus on fracking as the obvious low cost alternative, and will ditch regulations that get in the way of hydraulic fracturing a-go-go. This, in turn, will create new and powerful business interests who have an interest in keeping the fossil fuel racket going as long as possible. Which means that Europe will scuttle backwards even more quickly from its global commitments, and from any process that might oblige it to make new ones. And then, basically, goodbye to any hope of tackling global warming in this generation or the the next, since Europe is the only major global actor plausibly willing to push for action.

There may be plausible counter-arguments to this (obviously – I’m not an energy economist). It could be, for example, that renewables can be scaled up quickly and easily enough to provide an alternative source of energy security. It could be that there’s some basic logical or factual flaw in my argument (wouldn’t be the first time). I’d really, really love to be wrong on this. But at the moment, I’m not seeing how.

Categories: Group Blogs

"Blade Runner takes place five years from now."

The Blogora - Mon, 2014-03-03 11:06

Via Krista Kennedy:
"Blade Runner takes place five years from now."

Categories: Group Blogs

Ukraine: who to read, what to believe?

Crooked Timber - Mon, 2014-03-03 08:06

As a non-expert, I find myself scouring the various news columns and op-eds trying to work out what’s true and false about the situation in the Ukraine, who to believe, what to trust. It isn’t easy, given that the two “sides” (or is that three or four) fail to sort themselves neatly into the mental maps we all have to organize this kind of thing. One such map, beloved of the “decent left” tries to fit everything into a 1938. That’s tempting, but then who is Hitler, who are the Nazis, who are the Sudeten Germans? Things don’t quite line up. And then there’s the narrative of the plucky little insurrectionists against their post-Soviet overlords: Hungary 56, Prague 68? But once again, people aren’t fitting neatly into the little boxes. Then think of those crises, Hungary in particular, or the East German revolt. How many Western leftists tried to read them (and misread them) through the glass of Soviet opposition to Nazism? During the Balkan wars of the 90s my own imaginary had plucky multi-ethnic Bosnia as the incarnation of liberal republicanism, resisting the ethnic tyranny of the Serbs. But there were plenty of of leftists who saw things in terms of the dastardly German-collaborating (and backed) Croats with their Ustaše past, versus the Serbian partisans. One friend from Northern Ireland said on Facebook that a relative had told him that the key to understanding any conflict was to work out who are the “Protestants” and who are the “Catholics”. I can’t think that’s going to help here (or in Syria for that matter): we all get trapped by these heuristics.

Reading Christopher Clarke’s The Sleepwalkers last night, I came across a discussion (I’ve only just started the book) of Serbia’s Foreign Minister Milovanovic and his predicament in the crisis of 1908: a moderate and pragmatist trapped by the rhetoric of the more extreme nationalists, who could and would denounce any compromise with the enemies of the people. Hard not to think or parallels with Vitali Klitschko and the other opposition leaders who cut a deal with Yanukovych but couldn’t make it stick with the Euromaidan for fear of being howled down as traitors themselves. Presumably they saw that running Yanukovych out of town on the day after the deal would be certain to get a nasty reaction from Putin, but what else could they do? And now here we are, with the Russians in the Crimea, the rouble plummeting and the prospect of a new cold war, with everyone apparently fated to play their allotted roles. Meanwhile, the hapless John Kerry tells us – with no self-awareness whatsoever – that, in the 21st century, you can’t invade foreign countries on trumped-up charges.

For what it’s worth I found Mark Ames useful, Paul Mason insightful and Timothy Snyder propagandistic. And here’s Ben Judah on why Russia no longer fears the West. With my political philosopher hat on, I can say that just states find ways to integrate their citizens across ethnic and linguistic divides, that the boundaries set by history should not be sacrosanct, but that people shouldn’t try to change them by force of arms. Political philosophy will not have much impact on how this all turns out.

Categories: Group Blogs

Scholarly Communication Institutes

The Blogora - Sun, 2014-03-02 10:06

by KEVIN SMITH, J.D. on FEBRUARY 28, 2014 ·
Later this year, the first in a new series of Scholarly Communication Institutes will be held here in the Research Triangle and we are looking for proposals from diverse and creative teams of people who are interested in projects that have the potential to reshape scholarly communications.

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Categories: Group Blogs

Short Announcements

Crooked Timber - Fri, 2014-02-28 23:18

(1) Three Quarks Daily is resuming its prize for best blog post in politics and social science. People should vote – there’s a decent prize – but should strongly consider posts on less well known blogs by less well known bloggers, since most of the social value of prizes like this comes from disseminating information on good writers who might otherwise not get attention. I liked this by Quinn Norton, and this piece by Xavier Marquez, myself.

(2) The Baffler has a blog and indeed has had one for a while, with good posts like this by George Scialabba. It also, obviously continues to have good articles, like this piece on Cambridge, MA and Aaron Swartz, and this takedown of Andrew Sorkin’s Dealbook. As well as other good articles that aren’t made freely available online too …

Categories: Group Blogs

A note on an argument about open borders

Crooked Timber - Fri, 2014-02-28 12:14

Open borders advocates often advance an argument in terms of a duty to help the global poor. Poor people who succeed in making the journey to more advanced economies are usually more productive; those who are locked out of such economies by hard border controls are kept in dire poverty, often within sight of great riches. And those who are admitted are often an important source of income to family left behind. Those who defend border controls and the right of states to exclude often make the following move: they concede a duty to help the poor, but say that such a duty can be discharged in ways other than admitting poor would-be migrants to wealthy countries. In particular, they argue that such a duty could be discharged by supporting the economic development of poor countries via development aid (Christopher Heath Wellman is an example).

But the problem with such an argument is that it has two parts. The first (conditional) part, says that it is false that we must open our borders to discharge our duty of assistance IF we can discharge that duty some other way. The second empirical part is the claim there is another way, because development aid is an effective way of helping the global poor that is comparable in its beneficial effects to (much more) open borders. In other words, the claim by philosophers and political theorists that the duty could be discharged by development aid needs to be backed up by sound economic evidence that development aid really is an effective means of helping the global poor. Economists such as William Easterly are skeptical that we know enough about economic development to make effective use of development aid. They may be wrong, but philosophers and political theorists shouldn’t make the easy argumentative move to development aid as an alternative to (more) open borders without being sure that the economics supports them.

Categories: Group Blogs

Notes on “academic blogging”

Crooked Timber - Thu, 2014-02-27 06:41

I had a fun day on Tuesday, as my friend Stuart White had invited me to speak at a conference on “academic blogging”, to be precise “Academic Blogging: Political Analysis in the Digital Age” at Oxford. There were some great talks and conversations, but, to me, something was quite weird about it. When we started Crooked Timber back in 2003, universities didn’t really want to know about blogging, it was a fundamentally unserious activity and a distraction from the central tasks of teaching and scholarship. There was also, recognizably, a “blogosphere” composed of sundry citizen-journalists, cranks and enthusiasts (and a few academics) whose members linked and interacted with one another (often in quite civil terms, despite deep differences). Now universities, at least British universities, want to get in on the act, as “impact” and “outreach” are suddenly important. Hence, the sudden impulse to fund blogs backed by universities, or university department or consortiums of universities.

I wish all of those engaged in these ventures every success, but to my mind, blogging-as-corporate-outreach and blogging-as-research-dissemination rather miss the point (never mind missing the decade). At the conference, there was lots of discussion of business-models and markets, of how many full-time staff were necessaary to run a decent blog, of budgets and (of course) of “reputation management”. And then, very much in tandem with this, there was much complaint about academics who are unable to write a blog post without it reading like a book chapter and whose every sub-clause had to be accompanied by a battery of supporting footnotes.

To be fair, may of the new initiatives, such as The Conversation, Politics in Spires, and the LSE Blogs are great, content-wise. But they do labour under the burden of being born in a different web environment. Much of the back-and-forth of the early blogosphere has been displaced by twitter and Facebook and so there’s inevitably a tendency for what is produced on blogs to be merely outward-facing pronoucements, reports of research or online op-ed columns. I’m occasionally annoyed by our commenters at CT, but the fact that we have a community here means that we retain that sense of conversation. Rosemary Bechler of OpenDemocracy (a site I very much admire) gave a great talk about constipated academics saving themselves and their thoughts for someone in the future (who?) and about the conflict between the corporate urge to restrict conversation through IP and the sharing, remixing and recycling that’s the natural to-and-fro of ideas on the internet.

For me (and for us, I hope) it was always for fun or it was nothing. There is a connection between blogging and academic teaching and research, but it isn’t really about “dissemination”, it is about putting tentative ideas out there, about chatting to people, about learning that someone in some other field is working on a similar problem (but you read different journals, so didn’t know of one another’s existence before). And it is also about hearing about new books and new writings and maybe getting to go places you wouldn’t otherwise have gone to. And then there’s just goofing about and discussing comics and pop music.

Over on the corporate side: there’s much anxiety about “quality control”, managing the flow of posts and who has the authority to decide what gets published. Over here, we’ve worked pretty well as an anarchic collective (a fact that upset a well-known anarchist) and nobody gets to tell anybody else what to say. If you write a duff post (and we all do) then it is, paradoxically, both gone in a week and there on the internet for all time.

During the conference, I joked on twitter that Crooked Timber started as a skiffle band but that academic blogging had now entered the Stock, Aitken and Waterman period. How long before the X-Factor phase kicks in, with senior university administrators in the role of Simon Cowell?

Categories: Group Blogs

Computers and Composition accepting nominations for awards

The Blogora - Mon, 2014-02-24 13:11

Computers and Composition is now accepting nominations for its annual awards in five categories. Award titles and descriptions may be viewed below. All nominations and supporting materials are due by March 15, 2014.

Dates of eligibility for all awards are January 1 through December 31 of 2013. All recipients will be honored at the 2014 Computers and Writing Conference. Queries and nominations can be directed to Kris Blair at and supporting materials and nominations for any of the awards can also be mailed to:

Kris Blair
Department of English

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Categories: Group Blogs

More on US hypocrisy

Crooked Timber - Mon, 2014-02-24 08:20

The piece that Marty Finnemore and I wrote on US hypocrisy and Snowden has led to a follow up debate at Foreign Affairs. Michael A. Cohen of the Century Foundation wrote a rebuttal to our piece; Marty and I wrote a response to the rebuttal. Foreign Affairs allows us to put up a version on the WWW for six months – so here it is, for comments, disagreement etc.

Hypocrisy Hype
Can Washington Still Walk and Talk Differently?

By Michael A. Cohen; Henry Farrell and Martha Finnemore

[Michael Cohen’s Response to the original Farrell/Finnemore article]

In their essay “The End of Hypocrisy” (November/December 2013), Henry Farrell and Martha Finnemore argue that the biggest threat from leakers of classified information such as Chelsea Manning and Edward Snowden is that “they undermine Washington’s ability to act hypocritically and get away with it.” According to Farrell and Finnemore, the more than 750,000 diplomatic cables and incident reports leaked by Manning and the highly classified material disclosed by Snowden have provided “documented confirmation . . . of what the United States is actually doing and why.” Thus, the country will find itself “less able to deny the gaps between its actions and its words . . . and may ultimately be compelled to start practicing what it preaches.”

The Manning and Snowden leaks do shed light on U.S. foreign policy, sometimes in an unflattering way. But they certainly do not prove that Washington acts hypocritically. Indeed, the most compelling revelation from Manning’s leaks is the remarkable consistency between what the United States says in private and does in public. Of the hundreds of thousands of diplomatic cables leaked by Manning, very few show wide gaps between the actions and words of U.S. officials. What hypocrisy the cables reveal is more often that of other governments, including, for example, U.S. allies, such as Saudi Arabia, which privately implored Washington to attack Iran to curb its nuclear ambitions while publicly opposing such a strike.

Snowden’s leaks do pose a number of dilemmas for U.S. policymakers, but they don’t really expose American duplicity. As Farrell and Finnemore note, before Snowden’s disclosures, “most experts already assumed that the United States conducted cyberattacks against China, bugged European institutions, and monitored global Internet communications.” And Farrell and Finnemore offer no evidence that the United States has denied such activities. Indeed, as the National Security Agency’s website plainly states, the agency “collects, processes, and disseminates intelligence information from foreign signals for intelligence and counterintelligence purposes.” So where is the hypocrisy? One could argue that Washington acted dishonorably by criticizing other countries for collecting intelligence on their own citizens while it was doing the same thing to Americans. But that exaggerates the intrusiveness of the NSA programs Snowden revealed, which look nothing like the active monitoring of citizens practiced by authoritarian states.

Like Manning’s leaks, Snowden’s revelations also highlighted hypocrisy on the part of other governments, which reacted to the disclosures by expressing outrage over actions that they almost certainly knew were taking place and even participated in themselves. For example, when Le Monde reported that the NSA had scooped up more than 70 million French phone records, Paris lodged an official protest with Washington. But days later, The Wall Street Journal revealed that the records in question had actually been collected by the French government outside of France and then turned over to the NSA.

If Farrell and Finnemore believe, as they write, that “the U.S. government, its friends, and its foes can no longer plausibly deny the dark side of U.S. foreign policy” and that exposures of U.S. hypocrisy will transform international relations, they ought to present a clear case that U.S. foreign policy actually possesses a dark, hypocritical side. But they don’t provide much compelling evidence for that claim. In fact, one of the most striking assertions Farrell and Finnemore put forward is that although the United States “may attempt . . . to draw distinctions between China’s allegedly unacceptable hacking, aimed at stealing commercial secrets, and its own perfectly legitimate hacking of military or other security-related targets . . . those distinctions will likely fall on deaf ears.” But if U.S. hacking is, in fact, legitimate and genuinely distinct from Chinese hacking, then aren’t accusations of American hypocrisy unmerited? Farrell and Finnemore seem to be arguing that the credibility of U.S. policymakers is undermined not by facts but rather by unproven allegations and false perceptions.


Still, even if one grants Farrell and Finnemore the benefit of the doubt, or concedes that even false accusations of American hypocrisy are harmful, it is difficult to accept their larger claim: that Washington’s alleged inability “to consistently abide by the values that it trumpets” will harm the national interest by changing the way other countries act toward the United States. Manning’s and Snowden’s leaks proved embarrassing, and Washington has had to deal with some short-term diplomatic fallout. But the leaks are highly unlikely to have lasting diplomatic effects. For the sake of comparison, consider the impact of the U.S.-led “global war on terrorism.” After 9/11, U.S. actions and policies on a wide range of issues, such as torture, detention, and preventive war, pointed to a fairly wide gulf between the country’s stated principles and its actual behavior. And during the Bush administration, Washington treated some of its close European allies so poorly that their leaders responded by publicly distancing themselves from the United States. In 2002, for example, German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder successfully ran for reelection by trumpeting his opposition to U.S. plans to invade Iraq.

Yet none of these actions led to a wholesale change in the transatlantic alliance or to global bandwagoning against Washington. The reason should be somewhat obvious: foreign countries, particularly close U.S. allies, continue to rely heavily on American diplomatic, military, and economic power. Farrell and Finnemore assert that the potential gap between Washington’s stated values and U.S. actions “creates the risk that other states might decide that the U.S.-led order is fundamentally illegitimate.” But that risk is vanishingly small: after all, the U.S.-led order greatly (even disproportionately) benefits U.S. allies, and even some rivals. Germany might be angry about the fact that the NSA bugged Chancellor Angela Merkel’s private cell phone, but not so angry that it will leave NATO or fundamentally change its bilateral relationship with the United States. Likewise, it is hard to imagine that Brazil would curtail its significant economic ties to the United States because of the NSA’s spying on Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff—or, for that matter, that China would disengage from the World Trade Organization because the United States is hacking Chinese computers.

Farrell and Finnemore never explain why other countries would respond to U.S. hypocrisy (real or imagined) by taking steps that could end up doing them more harm than good. Throughout the post–Cold War era, even when the United States has taken actions that other countries opposed, those countries have nevertheless maintained their fealty to the U.S.-led liberal world order. That is not a bug of the international system: it is its most important feature, and an indication of its strength.

This should hardly come as news to Farrell and Finnemore, who have long been insightful observers of international politics. But they perhaps should have looked more closely at some of the very evidence they cite. Consider, for example, their interpretation of remarks made in 2010 by then Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, who said that the national security implications of Manning’s leaks would be “fairly modest.” Farrell and Finnemore claim that Gates downplayed the impact of the leaks because they did not reveal anything that was truly unexpected. But that’s not why Gates thought the effect of the leaks would be mild. “The fact is,” Gates said, “governments deal with the United States because it’s in their interest, not because they like us, not because they trust us, and not because they believe we can keep secrets. . . . Some governments . . . deal with us because they fear us, some because they respect us, most because they need us. . . . So other nations will continue to deal with us. They will continue to work with us.”

Gates’ full statement, which Farrell and Finnemore disregard, is perhaps the most compelling refutation of their thesis: an unusually candid reminder of precisely how international cooperation works in the U.S.-led global order. Farrell and Finnemore are right to acknowledge that hypocrisy is the “lubricating oil” of that order. But they err in believing that is going to change anytime soon.

MICHAEL A. COHEN is a Fellow at the Century Foundation.


We hoped to provoke a good debate with our essay, and we are grateful to Michael Cohen for his admirably clear and forcefully argued response. Cohen’s case is not convincing, however. He argues that the United States is not hypocritical, although its allies and enemies are. He then writes that even if the United States were hypocritical, it would not matter, since other countries would still have no choice but to continue to work with it. Both claims are wrong.

Hypocrisy is, in fact, a pervasive element of U.S. foreign policy. For decades, Washington has extolled human rights, free trade, democracy, and the rule of law while also supporting unsavory regimes and pursuing opportunistic trade policies. In recent years, the U.S. government has condemned other states for engaging in torture at the same time that its intelligence agencies were waterboarding detainees or shipping them off to be interrogated in countries whose security services are notorious for conducting torture. The Obama administration has reformed such policies but declined to prosecute the senior officials responsible for introducing them—a failure that is especially striking when contrasted with the zeal with which the administration has pursued leakers such as Chelsea Manning.

Nor is U.S. hypocrisy limited to the issue of torture. Consider just a few more examples. The cables Manning obtained and that the anti-secrecy organization WikiLeaks released suggest that the Bush administration knew that civilian casualties in Iraq were higher than it ever acknowledged. And yet the administration dismissed the estimates of outside groups as inflated. Meanwhile, Snowden’s leaks revealed that the National Security Agency has worked in secret to weaken cryptographic standards that it claimed to be improving. In another vein, last year, an unnamed senior U.S. official admitted to Craig Whitlock of The Washington Post that the United States gives countries that cooperate on counterterrorism a “free pass” on human rights while trying to “ream” less pliant governments. So, for example, last July, when Egypt’s army toppled the country’s first freely elected government, the Obama administration did everything it could to avoid even acknowledging that a coup had taken place. As for the hypocrisies relating to U.S. trade and economic policy, these are too many to list and describe.

As our original essay showed, American condemnations of Chinese cyber-incursions hypocritically ignore Washington’s own attacks on Beijing’s computers. The United States has at times emphasized a distinction between “legitimate” incursions, aimed at military and political targets, and “illegitimate” ones, aimed at stealing commercial and technological secrets. But this distinction is unconvincing to those outside the small club of technologically advanced countries with an interest in protecting their intellectual property. Indeed, even the United States, when it was at an earlier stage of economic development, once had laws actively encouraging the pirating of foreign technology.


Cohen argues that other countries are hypocritical. We agree. American hypocrisy has not become more problematic because other governments are sincerely outraged by Washington’s behavior (although some foreign officials are genuinely shocked and unhappy). Rather, the real trouble is that the hypocrisies of the United States and those of other countries no longer reinforce each other. As we argued in our essay, countries that used to prefer to turn a blind eye to objectionable American behavior can now no longer ignore it. One case in point is Brazil’s reaction to the revelations of NSA spying on its state-owned oil company, Petrobras. Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff would likely have preferred to pretend that the spying had not happened, so that she could continue to build economic ties with Washington. But public anger at the revelations in Brazil led her to aggressively curtail relations and introduce legislation forbidding the export of Brazilians’ personal data overseas. This reaction is, of course, hypocritical. But Brazilian hypocrisy now cuts against U.S. hypocrisy rather than reinforcing it, by highlighting the contradiction between U.S. exhortations for a free and open Internet and its exploitation of that openness to compromise foreign computer systems.

European outrage at NSA spying is partly for show. European governments have their own spies and sometimes monitor their own citizens in intrusive ways. Yet the current outrage reflects genuine anger among citizens and is likely to have far-reaching consequences. Forthcoming European legislation will likely mandate harsh penalties for American firms that share the personal data of Europeans with the U.S. government, a restriction that will likely lead to a major transatlantic confrontation. U.S. President Barack Obama has described EU-U.S. electronic information-sharing arrangements as crucial to counterterrorism. Thanks to the scandal prompted by Snowden’s leaks, such arrangements are now threatened.

U.S. hegemony rests on military force and economic might as well as hypocrisy. Yet armies and money only go so far. Even the most powerful states need to persuade and exhort as well as impose. Over time, revelations of U.S. hypocrisy will tend to corrode this form of soft power. The United States will encounter increased resistance from allies, as advocates for civil liberties in other democracies decry American hypocrisy and stoke public outrage. Washington’s adversaries will use evidence of American hypocrisy as ammunition in their attacks on the U.S.-led liberal order. Finally, the decentralized international community that establishes the Internet’s technical standards will embrace stronger cryptography, which will make the NSA’s surveillance far more difficult and costly.

American hypocrisy has long remained unchallenged and deeply intertwined with U.S. foreign policy. This makes it nearly invisible to many members of the foreign policy elite, even ones as thoughtful as Cohen. One result is a good deal of inconsistency in the ways that U.S. officials have responded to the Manning and Snowden scandals, seeming to vacillate between denying that the leaks pose a major problem and harshly overreacting against those who have exposed the emperor’s nudity. Sooner or later, however, if the United States wants to remain able to convince others through the force of its legitimacy rather than just through threats or bribery, Washington must acknowledge the past importance of hypocrisy as well as its new limits.

Categories: Group Blogs

Trouble ahead for Ukraine if “the people” is understood in ethnic terms

Crooked Timber - Mon, 2014-02-24 04:06

Hard not to take pleasure when a corrupt and autocratic leader is forced from power by popular pressure. Nevertheless, I can’t be the only person whose frisson of excitement at the revolutionary form of the overthrow is accompanied by a shudder at some of the content. As with Egypt, we have the unfortunate precedent of someone who was in power through elections being forced out by non-electoral means, albeit that, like Morsi he abused democratic norms in power. (Erdogan in Turkey also springs to mind as an abuser of democratic norms; I hope the Turkish people vote him out.) Then there are the frankly fascist affiliations of some of the opposition leaders, like Oleh Tyahnybok whose Svoboda party has “observer status” in an “Alliance of European National Movements” that includes the Hungarian Jobbik and the British National Party.

However, one can perhaps overlook some of that as an exigency of circumstance and hope that most of the insurgents are cut from more liberal cloth. However, we now have the fact that the Parliament just annulled a bill permitting Russian to be an official language in regions with largely Russian-speaking populations. That’s a clear sign that the new Ukraine does not regard all its citizens are equals and as genuine members of the state, that the winners conceive the “people” as an ethnos rather than a demos. Personally, I hope the EU make any financial support – which Ukraine will need to pay its Russian gas bills – conditional on the full integration of all Ukrainians as equals without regard to ethnic or linguistic background.

Categories: Group Blogs

TAs and MOOCs: Supporting our Newest Colleagues

The Blogora - Fri, 2014-02-21 14:06

In my experience, I have found my colleagues in Rhetoric and Composition to be generous, collaborative, and inquisitive. As a graduate student I was invited to participate in conferences and studies with faculty-mentors, as a job candidate I received advice from mid-career colleagues at conferences, and I even found my time with hiring committees to be instructive.

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Categories: Group Blogs

A Problem Like Viktor

Crooked Timber - Fri, 2014-02-21 11:57

The below is a guest post by Erin Baumann, who is an occasional lecturer in politics at University College Dublin, and is currently working on two academic articles on the politics of Ukraine.

After speculation began early this morning with an announcement from the Ukrainian presidential press service, Opposition leaders and the Foreign Ministers of Poland, France, and Germany have finally confirmed the outline of a temporary agreement on the resolution of Ukraine’s current political crisis.  Under the new agreement work is set to begin sometime in the supposed near future on the formation of a “government of national trust” and on the reinstatement of the country’s 2004 Constitution – which strips the president of a number of powers and, for all intents and purposes, reforms the state into a parliamentary republic.  In addition, the agreement stipulates the calling of early presidential elections.

In effect these reforms meet the demands of those protestors who have now spent months occupying Maidan Square and days fighting in the streets of Kyiv, Lviv, and other Ukrainian cities.  Yet, there is still significant ground to cover between the current situation and the kind of resolution this agreement appears to forge.  The extent to which protestors and other elements of the public will be satisfied with the reforms called for in this agreement is questionable.  Already Opposition leader Arseniy Yatsenyuk has offered a qualified apology to his supporters, suggesting that he “could not do more”.  In his public statement the Batkivshchyna leader further alluded to the dissatisfaction of Oleh Tyahnybok and his populist right-wing Svoboda party.  This leaves the question of how effective the resolutions offered in this agreement can truly be.  If elites aren’t satisfied how likely is the mistrustful public to be?  If Svoboda isn’t satisfied how likely are the more radical elements of Ukrainian civil society, such as the militant Right Sector, going to be with these outcomes.  Finally, the glaring question at the end of it all must remain ‘what happens to Viktor Yanukuvych?’

Yanukovych’s Party of Regions continues to be widely popular, particularly in the more industrialised regions of Southern and Eastern Ukraine.  Though they have been more reticent to take to the streets in support of their government than Opposition supporters, populations in these regions seemingly have yet to lose faith in the President.  As Yatsenyuk noted this morning, the continued power of Yanukovych and the Party of Regions in parts of Ukraine “can not be ignored”.  It is unlikely that a Party of Regions candidate will win a presidential election in Ukraine anytime in the near future.  It is also unlikely, however, that the next President of Ukraine – whoever it may be – will have the full support of Yanukovych’s former base.  Such divisions rarely make for stable politics in any state.

Further complicating matters are the norms and structures of politics in Ukraine.  The 2004 Constitution, which it now appears the country will revert to, has been championed by the Opposition because of the limits it places on executive power, and more specifically the power of the president.  In effect, however, this Constitution has proven before to be less than helpful in managing the basic functioning of Ukrainian politics.  The awkward balance of powers and responsibilities it creates between the President, the Prime Minister and the Government leaves significant room for personal and political conflict to trump productivity in a system where the norm of confrontational politics is already deeply entrenched.  It is symptomatic of the myopia of the political elite in Ukraine that a country which has known little other than chaotic politics for the last 20 years would look to its past to solve its current problems.

Whether Ukraine’s exit from the current crisis is led by Yanukovych, Yatsenyuk, Klitchko, Tyahnybok, or some other figure, it is unlikely that the country’s problems will be resolved without significant structural reform.  As improbable as it is that supporters of Batkivshchyna, Svoboda, or Vitali Klitschko’s Ukrainian Democratic Alliance for Reform (UDAR) will vote for a Party of Regions candidate in future elections, it is equally improbable that Party of Regions supporters will vote for a ‘Western reformer’.  This is not because they are divided by language, ethnicity, or national identity.  It is because Ukrainians are divided by their vision of Ukraine’s role in the world.  Cleavages stretch across the state’s population – crosscutting regional, linguistic, and religious divides – along the lines of age and economics.  While older voters at the extremes of the socio-economic spectrum tend to support a ‘multivectoral’ vision of Ukraine balanced between strong relationships with both Europe and Eurasia.  Younger voters and those from the middle class tend to view Ukraine’s future through a European lens.  At present there are few political figures in the state and even fewer political structures that have the potential to rectify this divide.

According to traditional logic, presidents are supposed to be a unifying figure in countries where they are head of state.  Having a national constituency should, theoretically, give them a degree of universal authority unmatched by locally or regionally elected parliamentary representatives.  In post-Soviet Eastern European practice, however, presidents have consistently proven to be divisive characters.  A series of presidents in Moldova – elected in a series of different ways – have exacerbated existing divisions within the state’s population and existing dysfunction within its political system.  The President in Belarus has used his position as head of state and head of government to entrench his authoritarian hold over the country.  In Ukraine presidents have managed to do a little bit of both.  The sort of unifying figure that a president should theoretically be, however, is exactly what Ukraine needs.

Structural change is the only mechanism by which long-term stability in Ukraine can be achieved.  One possible solution to spanning the seemingly intractable divides within the state may be to move to a fully-fledged parliamentary system overseen in name only by a ceremonial head of state.  There needs to be an actor in the political system who unifies the country, bridging the divide between the rural Western steppe and the Eastern industrial cities.   Someone who can represent the interests of Ukraine from the Mitteleuropa cafés of Lviv to the steel mills of Donetsk.  A popularly elected president cannot achieve this.  Other European states have publically popular, politically respected, and functionally critical heads of state appointed through consensus by the parliament.  To achieve this in Ukraine an upper house of parliament needs to be created to both assist in the choosing of a consensus head of state and the running of the legislature.  There must be a body tasked with the responsibilities of promoting political compromise and ‘cooling down’ the political ‘mosh-pit’ that is the Verkhovna Rada.

Today’s temporary ‘peace’ agreement in Ukraine is a necessary step in the right direction.  It is not, however, the last step needed.  The fundamental question that must be resolved is not how do we solve the Euromaidan crisis.  It is how do we build consensus politics in a country that has never known political consensus.  Until this is achieved there will be more Euromaidan-like crises and the tumultuous nature of Ukrainian politics will continue.




Categories: Group Blogs

DJ Earworm: Just What It Says On The Tin

Crooked Timber - Fri, 2014-02-21 08:38

Every year since 2007, DJ Earworm has brought us the United States of Pop for the given year, made of the top 25 hits on the US charts. (2009 was the breakout year that he took it to the next level, though.) DJ Earworm is by no means my favorite mashup artist, that being Girl Talk. (Or bootleg artist. Remember when they were called bootlegs? Remember get your bootleg on, guys? OK, successors exist wev. Le sigh.) But what Girl Talk does is take good songs—well, and some cheesy songs that you suddenly love—and make amazing, full-length immersive album-length experiences. If he has a defect it’s that he’s a cock-tease. He will have you losing your mind for 53 seconds after which the dropped stitch of under-track two is picked up to be the instrumental for a hilariously incomprehensible Weezy rap about how it ain’t his birthday but he got his name on the cake. Which, admittedly, is funny, but sometimes you just want to shake Girl Talk by the shoulders and say, “enough with the art, bitch; make me a song!” Like here, this whole track should just be Radiohead vs Jay-Z. It is superlative. Yet!—the last minute is a riot and could hold its own as a separate track. It would rank #108 vs the first minute’s #1, but still.

DJ Earworm is, by contrast, working with a limited palette of songs that includes Katy Perry. Nonetheless he makes decent tracks out of them! Good, even! (Now I am certain that not even one person will agree with me in comments. Because you are tedious sometimes, despite all your wonderful qualities. But the lurkers will support me in email. Additionally, I must note that DJ Earworm makes just tons of mashups, many of which are excellent songs not created under artificial generic constraint. Check it out.) There may be an underpaid dwarf in the soundbooth who will show up and claim DJ Earworm’s first-born child after this whole straw drossery into argento dorato routine. Here is this year’s outing:

Now, my girls and I have been feeling like 2012 was better. And looking back there were more good tracks on the list to work with, like “Locked Out of Heaven,” “Set Fire to The Rain,” “Starships,” “Carry Me Home” by fun. with Janelle Monáe (and wouldn’t life be easier if it was just all Janelle Monáe? And why is her amazing 2013 album not charting, and yet Taylor Swift’s slender white neck has been spared the executioner’s axe?), “Gangnam Style,” “Call Me Maybe,” “Somebody That I Used to Know.” This year he leaned heavy on Lorde’s “Royals,” which was sensible, and Imagine Dragons, whom I had never listened to before and are adequate, and whom I have warm feelings about now solely because they allowed me to make an off-the-cuff crack to my daughters that has had us weeping for days but as it would be incomprehensible to you I will not relate it here. But I would have gone with way more “Get Lucky” and “Blurred Lines” and Bruno Mars than what we got here. The Miley Cyrus was inevitable, so no issue there really; he did a good job with what he took.

Macklemore. The f#@k? (This is a complaint about the listeners of America, not DJ Earworm.) This is beyond novelty song to…shouldn’t even have been one-hit wonder. Two songs up here in the top 25? Has the fateful day come to pass, that Ice Cube hath prophesied, when “pretty soon rap won’t be nice/No more Ice Cube just Vanilla Ice”? The bong-hit-wonder version “Pot Shop” was hella funny and frankly a better song. I didn’t even know there was a real song until I heard what I thought was the Pot Shop song on the radio in Singapore and thought…surely non (it was “Thrift Shop”)? The true mystery looking at all of the years is that and Fergie exist. The Black-Eyed Peas hardcore sucked. Lady. Lumps. Lady lumps, people. Then hits on into infinity, year after year? This is so, so wrong. I think someone may have made a contract with Satan; if only it had been for musical genius rather than just getting high on the US pop charts! I admit the latter is more parsimonious in the service of getting rich off music. Much. Like, maybe, orthogonal to the other proposal. Hm. So, 2012 happened.

Even if you are thinking to yourself at this point, “I guess I’m just not a mashup person,” you still might be! Because there are often artists with beautiful voices who are given crap songs and vile production. Listen to this isolated Whitney Houston vocal—she had an amazing voice! [Have I typed a sentence with a less alluring link, ever? No? You don’t have to listen all the way through. Fine, read my post to the end then, at least. God you are so picky it’s like what even.] Had she herself also been a talented songwriter in addition to having that set of pipes—like, what if she had been writing Prince songs for herself all the time? She would have been genius.

Beyoncé, too, is like this. She has a huge, incredible voice, and seems as if she may have come from another planet of people with superhuman beauty and dancing ability. When she sings “A Change is Gonna Come,” it is gorgeous. No, actually, watch this clip of the Obama’s first dance at the first inauguration ball. I stayed up till a million o’clock to watch this and I cried. Drones and so forth may have drained your eyes since but mine still well up at that point. But actual Beyoncé songs, am I so much with the loving them? That’s why my favorite Beyoncé song is a Tom Petty song, “Free-Falling Boy”. By DJ Earworm. And damn, it used to have a sweet-ass video. Copyright lameness. Although the mentally unbalanced woman who has posted this has done something kind of killer in her way. For real, REALLY for real, listen to this. This is my jam.

Categories: Group Blogs

Not Just Geopolitics: The Institutional Background to Ukraine’s Problems

Crooked Timber - Thu, 2014-02-20 16:40

(This is a guest post by Antoaneta Dimitrova, associate professor at the University of Leiden. We have edited for style.)

As the protests in Ukraine descended into violence in recent days and weeks, commentators focused on Russia’s geopolitical game and the EU’s incapability to counteract it. It’s hard to doubt Russia’s leadership was seriously perturbed by the Orange revolution and is determined not to lose influence in Ukraine again. It also seems clear that Putin’s intention in urging President Yanukovich not to sign the long negotiated Association agreement with the EU has been to encourage Ukraine to join the Russia-dominated Eurasian Economic Union instead. According to a friendly source, a treaty for Ukraine is currently under preparation in Moscow. Further speculations that Putin and more recently Medvedev have urged Yanukovich to use violence are still unproven, if plausible, and smack of the justifiably forgotten science of Kremlinology.

Having studied how the EU and Ukraine interacted while preparing their abortive Association agreement, I think that apart from geopolitics, there are important lessons in the institutional changes in Ukraine. I have been trying to understand both why the EU’s approach went wrong, and what the EU might be able to do in the future, should some compromise to end violence be found. Preferably as soon as possible.

In retrospect, the reforms that Yanukovich started introducing in 2010 were clearly intended to strengthen what has been known from Russia as ‘the vertical of power’ and to weaken the key non-presidential institutions of the Parliament (Rada) and the judiciary (Malygina 2010)

For some time, I and others thought there was little difference between the oligarchic domination of the Ukrainian political system under former President Yushchenko and Yanukovich’s rule. I now think we were wrong. Informal rules were as important as formal ones in that system, as Malygina rightly noted, which has prevented outside observers from getting a grip on what was going on in Ukraine.

As Melnykovska and Schweickert (behind pay wall) explained in an insightful article in 2008, the Ukrainian system was a closed system; a vicious circle of oligarchic power in which access to state power allowed oligarchs to secure their economic interests and enrich themselves, which in turn allowed them to increase their political power. This seemed to be the paradigmatic example of post communist state capture, showing how bad it could get. The old oligarchic system exhibited some signs of what Carothers (2002) termed (PDF) ‘feckless pluralism.’ Carothers argued that the regimes he labelled as fecklessly pluralistic experienced one change of government after another, but the state remained weak and politicians unable to solve the problems of society and the economy. Ukrainian elites seemed to have taken their cue from their Russian peers, which as Holmes and Krastev showed in their book on Russia, neither needed nor tried to engage with the electorate at all. What worked in Russia, thanks to oil and other natural resources based wealth, did not work in Ukraine, as is evident from its current balance of payments problems. Citizens were angry, but helpless and focused their hopes for change on the EU.

Yet, as we have seen in the last couple of weeks, even the oligarchic pluralism seems to have been better than an authoritarian system under a President intent on preserving his own power at any cost. The system changed in gradual but definitive steps after came to power as President in 2010. In contrast to Yushchenko’s uneasy cohabitation with Parliament, Yanukovich had support from the Party of the Regions, which had a parliamentary majority. He was able to initiate political and constitutional changes that transformed the relatively pluralistic oligarchic system into a strongly neo-patrimonial and much less pluralistic one, with his own ‘Family’ in all key positions, a toothless judiciary and a weakened parliament. For example, when he reorganized the Council of Ministers, Yanukovich gave positions to competing groups of oligarchs, strengthening his own position as the arbiter between them.

All this helps explain the so-called fiasco in Vilnius and the EU’s current inability to make any impression on or influence Yanukovich. It is even more relevant to understanding why the protesting citizens are so angry. Their protests are not any more about the EU, but about the path which Ukraine has taken and which Yanukovich seemed to cement with his last minute rejection of closer ties to the EU.

Various reports from the Vilnius summit itself further suggest that his refusal to sign the long negotiated Association agreement should be understood as driven by personal rather than national interests. One diplomat apparently commented that it appeared as if Yanukovich had nothing in common with the EU leaders, as if he was coming from another planet.

European politicians and diplomats and Commission civil servants were not so naïve as to have failed to notice the important role of oligarchs as informal veto players in Ukraine (Dimitrova and Dragneva 2013) However, a number of important oligarchs such as Rinat Akhmetov, Dmytro Firtash and Viktor Pinchuk had recently been rumoured to be favor establishing closer trade ties to the EU. What the EU underestimated was not only Russia’s determination to never let Ukraine out of its orbit, but also, more importantly, the personal interests of the President and his son and other members of his circle.

It wasn’t hard for Putin to understand Yanukovich’s motivations; Russian elites have been engaged with their own capture projects. Yet in the run up to Vilnius, many European politicians seemed to think it was all about whether the President was prepared to let Ms Tymoshenko go abroad for treatment or not.

The EU – both its technocratic and its political actors – does not understand this model of politics and seems to have invested little energy in understanding what drives Yanukovich. However, there arguably is not much that the EU could have done, as it is not in the business of personally bribing politicians to sign agreements. It would probably have done no good to make Ukraine a more generous financial offer as it would have come with reform plans attached, which would have made it far less attractive for Yanukovich and his Family.

What are the implications of these domestic factors, if the various actors involved find a way to stop the violence? The most important priority for reform – and the protesters clearly know this – would be constitutional change, to avoid such concentration of power in the presidency ever again. To make it stick, rule of law will be needed, so that any new constitutional legislation adopted would be upheld. The European Union and the US would have to invest in the training of civil servants and judges and support for peaceful civil society initiatives, as they have done in the Balkans. The EU would have to reconsider its focus on exporting its own regulations and prioritize rebuilding Ukraine’s political system instead. But that all concerns problems that we have not reached, and may never reach. For now, we can all only hope a diplomatic solution and a compromise is found before a full blown civil war erupts. In the end, it is possible that Yanukovich will find himself in the position of Romania’s late dictator Ceausescu. Violence to one’s own people often doesn’t pay.

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