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.

Categories: Group Blogs

On Job Negotiation

The Blogora - Thu, 2014-02-20 00:06

Get a Job!
'You Can't Always Get What You Want'
February 19, 2014
(Rhetorician) Cheryl E. Ball
A friend in a field with few jobs every year once told me that she wasn't about to negotiate her job offer because she was just grateful to have an offer. Job negotiations are tricky business but not beyond the realm of any offer. I've negotiated successfully for three jobs, gaining more than was in the original offer, but that doesn't mean I have received everything I have asked for.

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Categories: Group Blogs

James Madison and Elia Kazan: Theory and Practice

Crooked Timber - Wed, 2014-02-19 14:40

James Madison, Federalist 51:

The constant aim is…that the private interest of every individual may be a sentinel over the public rights.

Elia Kazan, on why he named names:


Reason 1: “I’ve got to think of my kids.”

Reason 2: “All right, I earned over $400,000 last year from theater. But Skouras [head of Twentieth-Century Fox] says I’ll never make another movie. You’ve spent your money, haven’t you? It’s easy for you. But I’ve got a stake.”

Categories: Group Blogs

Call for Awards for NCA Rhetorical and Communication Theory Division

The Blogora - Wed, 2014-02-19 14:05

Call for Awards for NCA Rhetorical and Communication Theory Division

The Rhetorical and Communication Theory Division of NCA invites nominations for the 2014 New Investigator Award, the 2014 Distinguished Scholar Award, and the 2014 Faculty Mentorship Award. Nominations are due by June 2, 2014.

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2015 RSA Summer Institute in Madison, Wisconsin

The Blogora - Mon, 2014-02-17 13:15

February 17, 2014
The 2015 RSA Summer Institute in Madison, Wisconsin, will provide the widest array of seminars and workshops since the first summer institute was held in 2005. With seven seminars and twenty-one workshops, the Summer Institute at Madison presents outstanding opportunities for scholars of all ranks and in all areas of rhetorical study to work with leading voices in the field.

The Summer Institute in Madison will be held from Monday June 1 through Sunday June 7, 2015.

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Categories: Group Blogs

In the dark shadow of history

Crooked Timber - Mon, 2014-02-17 09:17

I was born and raised (for the most part) in Budapest, my parents and other family and friends still live there, but I rarely comment on its politics. I couldn’t stay silent on a particular aspect any longer, however. Please read this piece I wrote, one that is very political, but also very personal. The place is a mess and the world needs to know. And it needs to care.

Categories: Group Blogs

The Long Tail and Higher Education

The Blogora - Sun, 2014-02-16 13:36

The Long Tail is the principle that, as more and more product is available and findable by customers, less and less demand will be placed on "hits" and more and more demand will fall to the mid-level and niche products. The rise of web-searchable databases for books and of ebooks means that more and more book sales come from the very deep backlist and the very small publisher, instead of from the bestseller. In some ways, desire for access to that backlist made Amazon and the Big Box retailers of the 1990s possible, in the book world.

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Categories: Group Blogs

Look Who Nick Kristof’s Saving Now

Crooked Timber - Sun, 2014-02-16 11:49

For the last few months, I’ve had a draft post sitting in my dashboard listing all the words and phrases I’d like to see banished from the English language. At the top—jockeying for the #1 slot with “yummy,” “closure” and “it’s all good”—is “public intellectual.”

I used to like the phrase; it once even expressed an aspiration of mine. But in the years since Russell Jacoby wrote his polemic against the retreat of intellectuals to the ivory tower, it’s been overworked as a term of abuse.

What was originally intended as a materialist analysis of the relationship between politics, economics, and culture—Jacoby’s aim was to analyze how real changes in the economy and polity were driving intellectuals from the public square—has become little more than a rotten old chestnut that lazy journalists, pundits, and reviewers like to keep in their back pocket for whenever they’re short of copy. Got nothing to say? Nothing on your mind? Not to worry: here’s a beating-a-dead-horse-piece-that-writes-itself about the jargony academic who writes only for her peers in specialized journals that only a handful of people read.

To wit, Nicholas Kristof’s column in today’s New York Times:

SOME of the smartest thinkers on problems at home and around the world are university professors, but most of them just don’t matter in today’s great debates.

Yet it’s not just that America has marginalized some of its sharpest minds. They have also marginalized themselves.

But, over all, there are, I think, fewer public intellectuals on American university campuses today than a generation ago.

Professors today have a growing number of tools available to educate the public, from online courses to blogs to social media. Yet academics have been slow to cast pearls through Twitter and Facebook. Likewise, it was TED Talks by nonscholars that made lectures fun to watch (but I owe a shout-out to the Teaching Company’s lectures, which have enlivened our family’s car rides).

I write this in sorrow, for I considered an academic career and deeply admire the wisdom found on university campuses. So, professors, don’t cloister yourselves like medieval monks — we need you!

Those are the bookends of Kristof’s piece. In between come the usual volumes of complaint: too much jargon, too much math, too much peer review, too much left politics. Plus a few dubious qualifications (economists aren’t so bad, says Kristof, because they’re Republican-friendly…and, I guess, not jargony, math-y, or peer-review-y) and horror stories that turn out to be neither horrible nor even stories.

Erik Voeten at The Monkey Cage  has already filleted the column, citing a bunch of counter-examples from political science, which is usually held up, along with literary theory, as Exhibit A of this problem.

But we also have all of us—sociologists, philosophers, historians, economists, literary critics, as well as political scientists—here at Crooked Timber, which is often read and cited by the mainstream media. There’s Lawyers, Guns, and Money: judging by their comments thread, they have a large and devoted audience of non-academics.  My cohort of close friends from graduate school write articles for newspapers and magazines all the time—or important research for think tanks that gets picked up by the mainstream media—and books that are widely reviewed in the mainstream media. (And what am I? Chopped liver?) Kristof need only open the pages of the Nation, the New York Review of Books, the London Review of Books, the Boston Review, The American Conservative, Dissent, The American Prospect—even the newspaper for which he writes: today’s Times features three opinion columns and posts by academics—to see that our public outlets are well populated by professors.

And these are just the established academics. If you look at the graduate level, the picture is even more interesting.

When I think of my favorite writers these days—the people from whom I learn the most and whose articles and posts I await most eagerly—I think of Seth Ackerman, Peter FraseKeeanga-Yamahtta Taylor, Lili Loofbourow, Aaron Bady, Freddie de Boer, LD Burnett, Tressie McMillan Cottom, Adam Goodman Matthijs Krul, Amy Schiller, Charles Petersen, Tom Meaney…I could go on. For a long time.

(And though Belle Waring has long since ceased to be a grad student, can someone at Book Forum or Salon or somewhere get this woman a gig? We’re talking major talent here.)

Whenever I read these folks, I have to remind myself that they’re still in grad school (or just a few months out). I sometimes think they’re way smarter than we ever were when we were in grad school. But that’s not really true. It’s simply that they’re more used to writing for public audiences—and are thus better equipped to communicate ideas in intelligible, stylish prose—than we were.

When I was in grad school, my friends and I would dream of writing essays and articles for the common reader. I remember when one of our cohort—Diane Simon—broke into The Nation with a book review (of Nadine Gordimer?). We were totally envious. And awestruck. Getting into that world seemed impossible, unless you were Gordon Wood sauntering into the New York Review of Books after having transformed your field.

The reason it seemed so difficult is that it was. There just weren’t that many outlets for that kind of writing. None of us had any contacts. More important, aside from, maybe, a local alternative weekly, there were no baby steps to take on our way to writing for those outlets. There really was no way to get from here—working on seminar papers or dissertation proposals—to there: writing brilliant essays under mastheads that once featured names like Edmund Wilson and Hannah Arendt.

I remember all too well writing an essay in the mid 1990s that I wanted to publish in one of those magazines. When I looked around, all I could see was The New Yorker, Harper’sThe New York Review, that kind of thing. I sent it everywhere, and got nowhere.

Today, it’s different. You’ve got blogs, Tumblr, Twitter, and all those little magazines of politics and culture that we’re constantly reading about in the New York Times: Jacobin, The New Inquiry, the Los Angeles Review of Books, n+1, and more, which frequently feature the work of graduate students.

Now there are all kinds of problems with this new literary economy of grad student freelancers. And from talking to graduate students today (as well as junior faculty), I’m well aware that the pressure to publish in academic venues—and counter-pressure not to publish in public venues—is all too real. Worse, in fact, than when I was in grad school. Because the job market has gotten so much worse. I often wonder and worry about the job prospects of the grad students I’ve mentioned above. Are future employers going to take a pass on them simply because they’ve written as brilliantly and edgily as they have?

Back to Kristof: Even from the limited point of view of what he’s talking about—where have all the public intellectuals gone?—he doesn’t know what he’s talking about.

So what is he really talking about, then?

You begin to get a clue of what he’s really talking about, then, by noticing two of the people he approvingly cites and quotes in his critique of academia: Anne-Marie Slaughter and Jill Lepore.

Kristof holds up both women—one the former dean of Princeton’s Woodrow Wilson School of Public Affairs, the other the holder of an endowed chair at Harvard—as examples of publicly engaged scholars. In addition to their academic posts, Slaughter was Obama’s Director of Policy Planning at the State Department (George Kennan’s position, once upon a time) and a frequent voice on the front pages of every major newspaper; Lepore is an immensely prolific and widely read staff writer at The New Yorker.

(Incidentally, as an editor pointed out on Facebook, Slaughter and Lepore, along with Will McCants, who Kristof also cites approvingly, are all published by Princeton University Press. So much for academic presses churning out “soporifics.”)

Now I happen to know Jill rather well. She and I first met in the summer of 1991, when she was looking for a housemate and I was looking for a temporary place to stay. I moved in for a time—one of our other housemates was Mary Renda, who would go on to write a kick-ass book on the US invasion and occupation of Haiti, which it would behoove a trigger-happy Kristof to read—and later got in on the ground floor of her dissertation. She’s a truly gifted historian.

But there are a lot of gifted historians. And only so many slots for them at The New Yorker.

The problem here is not that scholars don’t aspire to write for The New Yorker. It’s that it’s a rather selective place. Kristof says that Lepore “is an exception to everything said here.” She is, but not in the way he thinks. Or for the reasons he thinks.

If you’re flying so high up in the air—Kristof tends to look down on most situations from 30,000 feet above sea level—you’re not going to see much of anything. And Kristof doesn’t. He only reads The New Yorker, and then complains that everyone doesn’t write for The New Yorker. He doesn’t see the many men and women who are in fact writing for public audiences. Nor does he see the gatekeepers—even in our new age of blogs and little magazines—that prevent supply from meeting demand.

And to the extent that he’s right about the problem of academics publishing for other academics he doesn’t identify its real causes:

A basic challenge is that Ph.D. programs have fostered a culture that glorifies arcane unintelligibility while disdaining impact and audience. This culture of exclusivity is then transmitted to the next generation through the publish-or-perish tenure process. Rebels are too often crushed or driven away.

Not really. The problem here isn’t that typically American conceit of “culture” v. nonconformist rebel. It’s the very material pressures and constraints young academics face, long before tenure. It’s the job market.  It’s the rise of adjuncts. It’s neoliberalism. Jacoby understood the material sources of the problem he diagnosed. Kristof doesn’t.

But the material dimensions of Kristof’s oversight (or lack of sight) go even deeper. When we criticize Kristof or other academics-don’t-write-for-the-public-spouting journalists, we tend to do what I’ve just done here: We point to all the academics we know who are writing in well established venues and places and cry, “Look at them! Look at me!”

But there’s an entire economy of unsung writers with PhDs who are in a far worse position: Though they want to write, and sometimes do, for a public audience, they don’t have a standing gig the way I or The Monkey Cagers do. They’re getting by on I don’t know what. And while most of the people I mentioned above, including many of the graduate students, are getting their work into fairly mid- to high-level places, these folks aren’t. Certainly not in high enough places to pay the bills or to supplement whatever it is they’re doing to get by.

Take Yasmin Nair. Yasmin’s a writer in Chicago, with a PhD from Purdue. She’s also an activist. She’s impatient, she sees things the rest of us don’t see, she’s intemperate, she’s impossible, she’s endearing, and she’s unbelievably funny. Think Pauline Kael, only way more political. (Actually, Freddie deBoer did a pretty damn good job describing her work, so read Freddie.) She’s got two essays that I think are, as pieces of prose, brilliant: “Gay Marriage Hurts My Breasts” and “Why Is America Turning to Shit?

In my ideal world, Robert Silvers would reach down from his Olympian heights and snatch up Yasmin to write about or review, well, anything. (Didn’t that kind of happen to Kael with The New Yorker?) But that’s not going to happen.

And that not happening doesn’t even begin to describe the real challenges facing a writer like Nair. Somehow she’s got to pay the bills. But unlike professors like myself or even graduate students who’ve got fellowships or TA positions (and happen to be lucky enough to live in places with a low cost of living), at least for the time being, Yasmin doesn’t have a steady-paying gig.

This isn’t just an issue of precarity or justice; it’s intimately related to the Kristofs of this world bleating “Where have all the public intellectuals gone?” Yasmin is a public intellectual (there, I said it). But without the kinds of supports the rest of us currently have or will have in the future, her pieces in The Awl or In These Times or on her blog—which is how the rest of us academics make our beginnings in the public writing world—can’t give her the lift she needs to get her work up in the air where it belongs. Because she’s always got something else, here on the ground, on her mind: namely, how to pay the rent.

And she’s not alone. Anthony Galluzzo has a PhD in English from UCLA. He’s also been adjuncting—first at West Point, now at CUNY—for years. He’s written a mess of academic articles. Two years ago he wrote an article in Jacobin that I thought was pure genius. It was called “Sarah Lawrence, With Guns,” and it was about his experience teaching English at West Point. That’s a topic that another English professor at West Point has written about, but Anthony’s treatment has the virtue of being coruscating, funny, ironic, honest, and not boosterish. Like Mary Renda’s book, the kind of writing Kristof could profit from.

When Anthony’s piece came out, I thought to myself, “This is the beginning for him.” But it hasn’t been. Because he’s been adjuncting around the clock, sometimes without getting paid on time, and worrying about other things. Like…how to pay the rent.

I had to smile at Kristof’s nod to publish or perish. Most working academics would give anything to be confronted with that dilemma. The vast majority can’t even think of publishing; they’re too busy teaching four, five, courses a semester. As adjuncts, as community college professors, at CUNY and virtually everywhere else.

I don’t ever expect Kristof to look to the material sources of this problem; that would require him to raise the sorts of questions about contemporary capitalism that journalists of his ilk are not inclined—or paid—to raise.

But Kristof’s a fellow who likes to save the world. So maybe this is something he can do. Instead of writing about the end of public intellectuals, why not devote a column a month to unsung writers who need to be sung? Why not head over to the “Sunday Reading” at The New Inquiry, which features all the greatest writing on the internets for that week? Why not write about the Anthony Galuzzo’s and Yasmin Nair’s who deserve to be read: not as a matter of justice but for the sake of the culture? Who knows? He might even learn something.

(Special thanks to Aaron Bady for reading a draft of this post and contributing some much needed additions.)

Update (4:30 pm)

I mentioned Boston Review in my post. But as a friend reminded me, they deserve a special shout-out. Because not only do they regularly introduce and publish academics like myself—one of my earliest and IMHO most important pieces was chosen and championed by Josh Cohen, the magazine’s editor—but they often solicit work from graduate students like Lili or Aaron and non-academically employed PhDs. So if you’ve got that gem of a piece and are wondering where to send it, send it to Boston Review.

Update (5:45 pm)

Also, I should have said this in the piece, but this line—”He only reads The New Yorker, and then complains that everyone doesn’t write for The New Yorker.”—was something Aaron Bady wrote to me in an email. I should have quoted it and credited to it to him in the post. My apologies.

Categories: Group Blogs

The Future of Writing Studies

The Blogora - Sat, 2014-02-15 13:06

Categories: Group Blogs

The Obligations of the Professional (for a Friend)

The Blogora - Sat, 2014-02-15 07:23

A colleague has recently accepted a position at another university. I anticipated this day would come -- she is devastatingly successful as both an administrator and a scholar. There was no way, I knew, when she applied, she would not be a finalist. And unlike many successful academics, who present well on paper but who have hardened in their self-presentation (and so appear crusty or careerist or curmudgeonly), she is polished, professional, and kind. So I knew that, when she became a finalist and would be flown to campus, she would win the offer.

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The tooth fairy and the traditionality of modernity

Crooked Timber - Sat, 2014-02-15 02:22

Salon magazine reports another instance of CP Snow’s observation that all ancient traditions date from the second half of the 19th century. This time, it’s the Tooth Fairy. As you would expect, the Tooth Fairy turns out to be a codification and modification of a bunch of older local practices, many involving a mouse or rat.

This seemed like a good time to rerun one of my posts that stirred up plenty of trouble at the time, making the point that we are “now living in a society that’s far more tradition-bound than that of the 19th Century, and in some respects more so than at any time since at least the Middle Ages”.

I’ll just add that CP Snow was writing in the 1950s, pretty much equidistant between the late 19th century and the present day, strengthening my observation that the “invention of tradition” is now something of a traditional concept (though the phrase itself, due to Hobsbawm and Ranger, is a mere 30 years old).

As was pointed out in the comments to my karate post, the observation that most traditions are invented is getting somewhat traditional itself, going back as it does to the exposure of the Donation of Constantine as a forgery.

So maybe it’s time to turn all this around, and make the point that we are now living in a society that’s far more tradition-bound than that of the 19th Century, and in some respects more so than at any time since at least the Middle Ages.

The traditionality of modernity

It’s striking, if you’re not aware of it already, to observe that Christmas, as we now know it, was invented in the 20 years or so between 1840 and 1860, However, what is even more striking that it’s barely altered in the succeeding 150 years. Even the complaints haven’t changed in decades.

And what’s true of Christmas is true of most of the favourite examples of invented tradition. Clan tartans were invented out of whole cloth (as it were), as soon as the actual clans had been destroyed by the Clearances, but this process was pretty much complete by 1850, and the system is now as inflexible as if the Scots wha’ wi’ Wallace bled had done so in defence of a dress code. Moreover, at 150 years or more of age, these traditions really can claim to be ancient (at least in the eyes of a non-indigenous Australian).

A variety of cultural niches, once subject to the cycles of fashion, seem now to have been filled once and for all. Elvis, Marilyn Monroe and James Dean have all been dead for decades, but all are more instantly recognisable than any putative successor.

More significant institutions show the same kind of stability. Political systems and national boundaries are becoming more stable over time, not less. The collapse of the Soviet Empire led to the breakup of some federal states, but nothing like the wholesale resurgence of irredentist claims predicted by many.

One obvious factor assisting all this is technology. Just as printing has fixed languages once and for all, radio, TV and recorded music and video have a powerful effect in fixing cultural traditions of all kinds. Of course, this is the opposite of the usual story in which technology drives us to a postmodern condition of constant change. But that’s enough for me. It’s time to see what’s on at the (75-year-old) Commonwealth Games.

Categories: Group Blogs

Announcing the Capability Project

Crooked Timber - Sat, 2014-02-15 01:07

Within a week or so, I will start writing a series of posts on the capability approach, a theory/paradigm/framework that is used in philosophy and the social sciences for a variety of purposes (wiki, IEP, SEP). This Capability Project is in part a self-binding mechanism to make sure that by the end of the Summer I will not have to write to my editor at Open Book to tell them that, for the third year in a row, I need another year to finish my book on the capability approach; and the post series is also in part a chance to publicly respond to some issues that students and others have been emailing me about privately, or issues that have popped up in seminars or teaching.

If you have topics that you want to see discussed, or if you have questions about the capability approach, you can send them to me at ingrid.robeyns [at]; I will most likely not respond to those emails [apart from possibly acknowledging safe receipt] but hope to address all or most of them in due course here on our blog. Other Timberites have also done some work on the capability approach, so perhaps they may also join the party at some point.

Categories: Group Blogs

Silence and Segregation

Crooked Timber - Fri, 2014-02-14 15:33

Toward the end of his life the legendary French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan would lead his seminars in almost absolute silence. Though he suffered from some kind of aphasia, Lacan’s silences are often held to signify more than silence. In keeping with his theory, they mark a presence. Silence speaks.

I thought of Lacan when I read this statement from Clarence Thomas, which Jonathan Chait flagged the other day.

My sadness is that we are probably today more race and difference-conscious than I was in the 1960s when I went to school. To my knowledge, I was the first black kid in Savannah, Georgia, to go to a white school. Rarely did the issue of race come up. Now, name a day it doesn’t come up. Differences in race, differences in sex, somebody doesn’t look at you right, somebody says something. Everybody is sensitive. If I had been as sensitive as that in the 1960s, I’d still be in Savannah. Every person in this room has endured a slight. Every person. Somebody has said something that has hurt their feelings or did something to them — left them out.

Critics of Thomas like Chait see this kind of talk as either outright lies or utter foolishness. Can Thomas really believe that the segregated South of his youth was less race-conscious than today? Does he really believe that not talking about race (if southerners did in fact not talk about race) signifies the absence of race consciousness?

But the immediate pairing of these two sentences in Thomas’s talk—”I was the first black kid in Savannah, Georgia, to go to a white school. Rarely did the issue of race come up.”—is too suggestive to leave it at that.

Look carefully at what Thomas is saying: I personally desegregated a white school; we never talked about race. The juxtaposition is so jarring, it can only be read as a kind of Lacanian gap. That fissure is precisely where the secret of the sentences is to be found. However unintentional or unconscious, it signals the connection between absence and presence, silence and segregation.

If you think I’m over-reading this, remember that silence has long been a racially fraught topic for Clarence Thomas. He doesn’t ask questions during oral argument at the Supreme Court. Why? Because, he has said, he was teased when he was younger for speaking English in the Geechee/Gullah dialect of black slaves and their descendants. So he learned to keep quiet, as an undergraduate, at Yale Law School, and now on the bench. Silence was a protective mechanism against racist humiliation, a marker not of the absence of race but of the presence of racism.

There’s a structural, even causal, relationship between those two sentences of Thomas. And, despite his protestations, he knows it. Somewhere, somehow.

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