Crooked Timber

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Out of the crooked timber of humanity, no straight thing was ever made
Updated: 1 hour 51 min ago

Sunday photoblogging: Oslo opera house

Sun, 2014-11-23 04:56

Categories: Group Blogs

Scabs, Scantrons, and Strikes at the University of Oregon

Sat, 2014-11-22 00:14

From the Department of You Can’t Make This Shit Up…

Grad students at the University of Oregon are about to go out on strike.

Last year, we talked here about how the faculty at the University of Oregon were trying to negotiate a fair contract with the administration. You’ll recall that the administration wasn’t doing itself any favors with its outlandish efforts to deny faculty privacy and encroach on faculty autonomy outside the university. Because of the pressure we managed to put on the administration, we helped to get the faculty a good contract. Now we need to stand with the grad students and their union fight. Only this time, the administration is being even more outlandish.

At the heart of the dispute is a demand by the Graduate Teaching Fellows Federation (GTTF) for two weeks of paid leave for illness or childbirth. The city of Eugene, which is where the University is located, mandates that all workers in the city get sick leave benefits. But university employees are exempted from the policy, so the GTTF has to bargain for the benefits.

Now it just so happens that the university’s interim president, Scott Coltrane, is a sociologist who’s a leading national spokesperson for the importance of…good family leave policies. He’s been featured in The Atlantic and on NPR. He was even at the White House last June to speak about how important these policies are. Well, he certainly wouldn’t be the first academic who talks left and walks right.

But here’s where things get really delicious.

Late last month senior administrators circulated a secret memorandum to deans and directors outlining a plan to break the strike by hiring scab labor and weakening academic standards for undergraduate education. You’ve got to read the whole thing to believe it, but here are some of my favorite parts.

First, the administration moots different possibilities for conscripting scab labor from the unionized faculty ranks.

It is generally understood that supervisors [i.e., chairs] can approach represented faculty [i.e., in the bargaining unit] and engage them in a dialogue about assisting for the duration of the strike. This assistance may include, but is not limited to: teaching, grading, or participating in the hiring of replacement workers…In the event that there is a specific need that may require assigning work to a represented faculty member who has refused to accept it, please contact Academic Affairs for further guidance about that particular situation.
Keep in mind that many of these full-timers who are to be “engaged in a dialogue” or face the possibility of being reported to “Academic Affairs for further guidance” are not tenured.

Then there’s the faculty who aren’t represented by any kind of union. Here’s how they ought to be approached for scab labor:

Similar to represented faculty, we will be seeking volunteers from among our unrepresented faculty ranks for coverage of work previously assigned to GTFs. Unlike represented faculty, there is no ambiguity as to whether departments can explicitly assign the work should the need arise. Again, every effort should be made to find volunteers to cover the work.
In the lexicon of UniversityofOregonese, “volunteers” can be “assigned” work. As is so often the case, language betrays the power it’s meant to serve.

If all that fails, there’s this:

Hire LCC instructors or other community subject matter experts.
And then there’s the delicate matter of final exams.

Now when I was at Yale leading the TA grade strike at the end of the fall semester in 1995, the university ran into this problem, too. They solved it, in a bunch of cases, by having students simply write on a card the grade they thought they should get. That’s the gentleman’s honor code.

At Oregon, they’re a little more…meritocratic.


For a strike occurring on or after finals week, departments should have a plan in place for covering finals and grading that is performed by GTFs.

1. Consider whether the final exam can be reformatted so that it can be graded easily (e.g., Scantron or multiple-choice). Please note that the reformatted final exams should have an equal level of rigor as originally planned.

2. To provide proctor coverage for exams, please use the teaching function strategies above.

3. Provide students with the following options:

a. Forgo the final and take the grade they had going into the final

b. Take the final, but receive an “X” (missing grade) until such time that the finals can be graded

I’m told that the university is spending more on legal and consulting fees (not to mention scab pay) than it would cost to cover paid leave.

Thankfully, twelve department heads and program directors issued a public letter to senior administrators refusing to engage in strikebreaking activities on practical, pedagogical, and moral grounds, threatening to resign their administrative positions if forced to do so. I hope more join them.

The strike could yet be avoided if the university administration were to offer meaningful concessions. And for that they need more pressure.

You can help by emailing President Scott Coltrane at pres@uoregon.edu and Provost Francis Bronet at provost@uoregon.edu and urging them to settle with the GTFF.

You can also sign this petition:
We—the faculty, staff, and students of the University of Oregon and the community at large—express our strong support for the Graduate Teaching Fellows Federation (the GTFF) in their current contractual negotiations with the University.

In light of the invaluable contribution GTFs make to the instruction and research missions of the University, we feel GTFs have earned a contract that provides them with fair compensation, respectful treatment, and the basic securities provided to other campus employee groups.

We demand that the University take seriously the GTFF’s bargaining proposals— a minimum wage that actually meets living expenses for graduate students in Eugene and paid parental and sick leave.

We stand beside the GTFF and call upon the University administration to take concrete and immediate steps, at the bargaining table and beyond, to provide GTFs with the fair wages, equitable benefits, and respectful working conditions they deserve.
Please make sure to reach out to these folks, and please circulate this post widely.

Special thanks to Joe Lowndes, associate professor of political science at the University of Oregon, for writing an earlier draft of this, which I posted at my blog.

Categories: Group Blogs

Love Come Down

Fri, 2014-11-21 00:05

I have all these songs cued up and stuff I wanted to say about The Dazz Band (it’s literally disco jazz! What is not to love?!), but then I listened to this track five times in a row today, and I thought, ‘Belle, old bean,’ I thought to myself, ‘why are you being so aintry with “Love Come Down” and bogarting this when you could be sharing it with everybody at Crooked Timber? Why?’ Readers, there is no good answer to this question, so here is Evelyn Champagne King. The first time I listened to this song about a month ago I thought I had a problem with the tinkling synth descent that opens the song and runs behind “ooh you make my love” in the chorus. Then I listened to it again. Then, I listened to it a few more times. Then I realized I loved those tinkling synth chords.

You might think I could be sharing this with one John Holbo, but there is a huge area of non-overlap in the Venn diagram of our musical tastes, and this falls right out there in the “Patrice Rushen, huh? Meh” area of John’s non-overlapping section. I can’t share it with my children because they don’t super go for this either, although, being young, they have frequently widening tastes. I introduced our older daughter to Sufjan Stevens the other day and she likes him a lot; our younger daughter objected after the first 30 seconds of listening to a purely instrumental section, “this is too sad.” I was like, “there’s a happy part here for a bit! Oh, God, no.” What is unquestionably one of the saddest songs ever recorded comes next. Violet: “is she dying? I told you it was sad! Turn it off!” OK, fine. The one verse in that song that truly pains me is “In the morning in the winter shade/ On the first of March, on the holiday/ I thought I saw you breathing.”

My brother and I were with my grandmother when she died, my father’s mother. He had finally gone upstairs to sleep, at two or three a.m., I convinced him. He had been up for so long, at the hospital, and then fighting to get her back home. My brother and I were just sitting in the room with her, with the TV on, talking, and I was holding her hand, and suddenly we fell silent and my brother said, “look.” It seemed as if she were dead, but the fan in the room was strong enough that her thin cotton nightgown was still fluttering on her chest, tiny sine waves I hoped were breaths. I had ordered ten of those nightgowns custom-sewn for her three years before she died. She only had a few she liked: all cotton, and opened all down the front and closed with snaps. But she had gotten so much thinner they gaped at the neck in too-deep a curve, and she was cold, and got chills that gave her back-spasms. I took one to a dress-maker in Savannah to have it reproduced and she sniffily told me to go to Sears, and I told her I had tried everywhere. I asked how much fabric she would need for each and I went and bought cotton by the yard, white with thin blue stripes, tiny pink polka dots, pale blue squares. And lace. The lady at the dress store didn’t even want to do it, she told me it’d cost more that $100 a gown for the work. I said my grandmother was a proud woman and this was all the clothes she was ever going to have for the rest of her life, and they should be just how she wanted, and they should take the damn money and make them. They weren’t done till after I left town and my dad was mad at me for spending too much money at my grandma’s (N.B. he was, separately, quite right, just not here); I found out later he was appalled by the cost also and had cut back on the nightgowns from ten to eight. I don’t know when I have been so mad in my life. So seeing the cotton tremble I told my brother he was wrong, and we sat in the stillness for a while longer before I really tried to check properly, because I wanted not to know just even for a few seconds more. Now Sufjan Stevens has probed a vein of sadness beneath the sheer pleasure of sharing “Love Comes Down” with all of you, but I invite you to enjoy it in a spirit of good cheer anyway. I think we would all be happy to die at 83, at home in our beds, taking liquid morphine, and with our family around us. Love does not, in fact, conquer all, but surely it snatches a kind of victory from the jaws of inevitable defeat.

Categories: Group Blogs

Why is comedy more painful than tragedy?

Wed, 2014-11-19 20:27

So there’s this bit by Aristotle (famous philosopher) where he discusses tragedy. (If you don’t know it … well, you should Know Your Meme. Do some research, already.) Why do good people like to watch bad things happening to good people, so long as it’s fictional? Katharsis? Related topics: why do people like watching horror movies, since they are scary, and being scared is, apparently, unpleasant?

I don’t have a positive thesis about this, but it strikes me that focus on cases in which the Worst Things happen on stage (or screen) is not focus on the Hardest Cases. Surely if you can explain why it’s fun to watch Lear die, you can explain anything hereabouts! (That seems to be the thought.) I don’t think so. More puzzling: why is comedy more painful than tragedy? Why do I squirm more in my seat at some awkward sit-com misunderstanding than at a lot of blood and gore and murder? It’s kind of a third-personal version of Hume’s puzzle: is it irrational to prefer the destruction of the fictional world to the pricking of a fictional little finger? I’ve watched tons of movies in which the world ends without being very affected. Meh. On the other hand, I can imagine a comedy in which someone accidentally pricks his finger at a dinner party with all this white linen and there is an absurd dilemma concerning how he is going to dispose of one innocent drop of blood and somehow, stupidly, he makes the wrong decision and suddenly the whole room is focused, disapprovingly, on the now apparently huge smear he’s made on an otherwise pristine white space and it’s just excruciating to watch. (Well, ok, maybe I need to send that scenario to rewrite, but you see the point.) I obviously have some way of processing Big Tragedy onstage without suffering too badly. So why do Small Tragedies slip straight past my suspension of disbelief defenses? Why doesn’t whatever allows me to watch dozens of people be gunned down at a wedding, without crying, allow me to watch a single person trip and fall at a fictional wedding, without wincing? It’s the social stuff. Always the social stuff. It hits you like … well, like somebody fell down at a wedding.

It may be I am unusual in my congenital incapacity to distance myself from situations in comedies but I’m hardly unique. Belle tells me she feels the same. Sit-coms cause more horror than horror films. (Not just the bad sit-coms, although those are the worst!)

This leads into the next question: why do I enjoy comedies, if I can’t distance myself from events in them? I wouldn’t like to be at a real wedding where someone fell down. It would be awkward. If the fictional wedding gets to me, like it’s real, why do I like it? It’s relatively obvious why I can watch people die like flies. I can suspend disbelief. But watching them live like fools? Given that I can’t suspend disbelief, at the level of my feelings, how can I stand it?

Possibly Adam Kotsko discusses this in Awkwardness [amazon], but I don’t recall him touching on this puzzle. If it is one.

Categories: Group Blogs

The World Is Squared: Episode 4 – In Hot Places

Tue, 2014-11-18 00:49

And the travelogue continues – this chapter covers my family’s visits to Jordan and to Sri Lanka. The next episode will take us to a seaside cottage in Bali …

1. Jordan motorways by night

So, out on the road in a Group B Mazda, the first car we’ve hired so far that has enough room in the boot for all our luggage. And the first culture shock is achieved. There is something really strangely terrifying about rolling down the road and not being able to read any of the signs, not even phonetically, not even to recognise them as writing or tell if you’re seeing the same ones one time after another. This turns a simple set of directions (“leave the airport and get onto the motorway”) into a cryptic ordeal. Added to that is the fact that the road signs are themselves referring to driving practices somewhat different from those we were used to. So a sort of squiggly arrow which certainly looked like it said “carry straight on and allow yourself to be led into a clover-leaf type loop to bring you into a left turn onto the motorway” actually meant “drift into the left hand lane, then do a U-turn on the motorway and drive back to the right turn, because on this particular stretch of road, the left lane is not just the high speed and overtaking lane, it doubles as the slip road for anyone wanting to do a U-turn, this sounds like it might be terrifying and nonsensical, and it is”.

This might have been more fun if it wasn’t all happening in the pitch dark, but I doubt it. We also had something like a tenth of a tank of gas in the hire car, which meant that we actually needed to do one of these suicidal U-ies ourselves, in order to reach a filling station – you might think that in a middle eastern state they would be everywhere, but they’re not. A nice helpful fellow motorist set us right; it turned out that it wasn’t a creeping paranoia that was giving me the dreadful sense we had lost all bearings and were going diametrically the wrong way, it was my sense of direction. So, with a slight turn from the local road onto the motorway, we reasoned that we had only wasted half an hour, and things could be worse. And that was when things did indeed begin to get worse.

For some reason we had convinced ourselves that Jordan was a super-rich Gulf state (this belief was surprisingly resistant to all other knowledge of either economics or geography), and that consequently the roads would be beautiful and flat and efficient. This was really very very not the case. “It must be a motorway, it’s got a concrete divider” was basically the state of play; I was reminded of a particularly hellish 36 hour bus trip I once took on a suspiciously cheap holiday to Poland in the early 1990s, where the switch from capitalist to Communist road surfaces happened at just the point in the trip when you were hoping to get some sleep. The French construction giant Lafarge had their logo up on a few of the bridges that crossed this road – I don’t know if this means that the state of it was their fault, but either way if I was them, I’d send a gang to get it taken down immediately, as it certainly created a material amount of badwill towards them in this traveller.

Speedbumps on the motorway. There is simply no other way to put it. That’s what they had. Speedbumps on the motorway. I don’t know what anyone could have been thinking. In so far as I can reconstruct the thought process, it must have been something like … there are stretches of the motorway (ie, the main arterial highway of Jordan, route 15), where it goes past towns. In these stretches, the land must in some way be zoned as a built-up area – specifically, a whacking great motorway, with a strip of coffee shops and fruit markets on the edge of it. Since it’s a built up area, it ought to have speed limits suited to that status, and the best way to enforce those speed limits would be to have great thumping brick policemen sticking out of the motorway surface, with a few desultory cats-eyes a couple of yards in front of them to give a token warning to drivers. Some of the speedbumps are signposted – some of them, not so signposted. I took to yelling “yeee-ha”, Dukes of Hazzard style as we went over them, and to looking out for sudden movements in the brake lights of cars in front. God only knows how long the suspension on these rental cars might last.

The “motorway traffic calming measures” really weren’t doing much for the safety of the lorry drivers who parked up on the hard-shoulder to buy coffee and fruit, chat, pick up hitchhikers and settle their vehicle infringements with the Jordanian highway police (a long suffering bunch). Nor was the quite widespread practice of advertising your roadside coffee shop by putting a massive bright flashing blue-and-red light on the top of it. Yes, one that exactly resembles the light on top of a police car. It took us a few tens of miles to get wise to this one. By the end of the journey, I saw something on a hilltop and couldn’t work out if it was a low flying plane, a radio mast or a particularly ambitious coffee shop.

The actual drivers didn’t seem to me to be particularly bad by global standards. White Mercedes taxis are a nightmare the world over, and although one guy I saw was definitely going to die young – tailgating at 110 kmh in your eighteen-wheel lorry full of building supplies on a two-lane stretch of bumpy highway is pretty special – in general the lorry drivers didn’t seem to be doing much that was different from what you see on British roads. The vehicles they were doing it in seemed quite frighteningly old and shabby though, and the general auto industry convention that red bulbs go on the back and white bulbs on the front seems to be taken more as a fashion statement in the local trade.

Three and a bit hours, total, from Amman airport to Petra. My family has a slightly unusual division of labour – by and large, unless something unusual has happened, Tess doesn’t cook and I don’t drive. Usually it’s fine because we both do what we like. This time round, her nerves were close to shot by the half way point – by the end of the journey, when the traffic calmed down, she seemed to be hallucinating that we had left the motorway and were driving in blank space. We wobbled out of the car at half past ten. I think she deserves a medal.

2. Jordan motorways by day

I was in two minds about whether to include the big “Jordanian motorways by night” section. I have never been a fan of the kind of travel writing where people go “I went to this foreign country and it was all foreign and scary, why isn’t everything nice like it is back home”. But I decided to let it stay in, for a few reasons. First, it’s an accurate record of what it felt like – I wrote it about half an hour after we’d reached our hotel, as an email to my mum. Second, I know that nobody really wants to read big thoughts about the world economy or little paragraphs about how much you love the exotic climes – they want to hear about the disasters. “World’s Most Terrible Journeys” is a book people want to read, “World’s Loveliest Holidays” is an advertising feature.

And third, there is actually quite a bit of economic significance to the state of the roads. The trouble is that it’s a self reinforcing system. The way that the trucks drive breaks the roads up, and the state that the roads are in breaks the trucks up. Jordan has two big highways – the King’s Highway and the Desert Highway – and it does its best to preserve them. In the daytime, we see that there are compulsory weighbridges at intervals along the motorways, and plenty of checkpoints and police controls, trying to stop the drivers carrying too heavy loads, and this is what all the traffic stops were about – combined with the fact that Jordan has about half a dozen “Duty Free Zones” in odd locations about the country where foreigners can buy booze, and so it needs to have quite a few internal customs stations. It seems like a pretty Sispyhean task to be regulating a weighbridge in Jordan though, given that the traffic is generally transporting very low value-density cargoes of building materials and bulk chemicals. The state of the trucks seems pretty terrible to me, and I would guess that it is only going to get worse, as Mercedes, Volvo and MAN all try to improve fuel efficiency for their core market, who will be driving along European motorways and want to cut out weight.

3. LTTE and card fraud

Monkeys sit by the roadside in Sri Lanka, presumably waiting for someone to chuck away something edible. They seem pretty friendly, or at least, reasonably scared of humans, but I try to warn my children away from them out of some half-remembered idea that they might bite. Someone tells me that they can be trained to open windows and steal from hotel rooms, which I can just about believe, but when she goes on to suggest that monkeys have also been trained to look over your shoulder and memorise your PIN number at cashpoints, my credulousness reaches its limits. It is true that Sri Lanka is one of the world hotspots for identity theft and card fraud – I have a couple of good-natured phone conversations about this subject with the security team from my bank, while trying to get my card unblocked. But this isn’t very much to do with the skills of the trained primates, it has more to do with the fact that card fraud used to be a quite important means of fund raising for the LTTE. In the cards industry, there was a famous case where it turned out that a single petrol station on the outskirts of Hull was one of the Tamil Tigers’ most important financial backers, due to some staff members who were skimming the numbers of a huge amount of cards and handing them over to be exploited in Sri Lanka.

More or less everyone with any degree of prominence of wealth and Tamil ethnicity seems to have been suspected at some point or other of raising funds for LTTE. Raj Rajnataram, the founder of Galleon Capital, was definitely suspected of it before going to jail for insider trading. As far as anyone can tell, though, he wasn’t guilty – he was just keeping all the crooked proceeds for himself.

4.Zalatimo Brothers

One thing you tend to notice about countries that don’t drink alcohol is that they tend to eat a hell of a lot of sweets and biscuits (and to drink very sugary drinks). If you were to go by the contents of roadside shops, you would guess that the staple diet of the Arabic world was Fanta Orange and biscuits. Up and down the Jordanian highways, the billboards are ubiquitous – “Zalatimo Brothers, For Sweets, since 1860”; I also checked out their flagship shop in Queen Alia Airport, and the Zalatimo Brothers seem to be doing pretty well, slaking the sweet tooth of their customers. And doing so since 1860! I have a huge amount of regard for these companies which have just dug in and kept on doing their thing as history happens all around them. Think what successive generations of that family firm must have seen – the fall of the Ottoman Empire, the arrival and departure of the British Mandate, TE Lawrence, the State of Israel, the Six Day War, the first and second Gulf Wars, all of that. And while all this went on, the Zalatimo Brothers continued to boil sugar, chop walnuts and add rosewater to cornflour. Good on them, I say. While I was in Greece, I noticed that FIX Hellenic Breweries were also celebrating their 150th anniversary, having been founded in 1864. Good luck to them too.

5.In the pharmacy

I don’t know what this says about the relative stability and functionality of their respective political and cultural systems, but it’s something I couldn’t help noticing after two weeks in which we went from Jordan to Sri Lanka, having popped into a couple of pharmacies in both while looking for eye drops, headache pills and the like. In Sri Lankan pharmacies I went into, there is one massive thundering absence – there isn’t any massive wall-length display of skin-lightening and hair-bleaching proprietary products. This was particularly notable since the Jordanian pharmacies seemed to be chock full of them.

6. Lawrence and the Sons of the Desert

It seems absurdly arch and patronising to refer to the Bedouin as the “sons of the desert”, but this is indeed how they refer to themselves – it’s up in big proud letters on the front of the secondary school project in the village at the entrance to the Wadi Rum national park. We toured the desert, seeing “Lawrence’s Spring”, “Lawrence’s House”, “Lawrence Canyon” and many others – Wadi Rum is where the Seven Pillars are located, and where the film version was made. The Bedouin guides were pretty clear on the fact that all of these things were actually ancient desert landmarks dating back to the time of the Nabateans (edit: as comments below show, I had originally written “Naxalites” here and elsewhere, presumably having Maoist rebels on the brain as I was writing it while in LTTE country), and that the TE Lawrence branding had simply been added to them for purposes of the tourist industry. When, toward the end of the trip, one of them pointed to an old Mercedes up on bricks and said “look! Lawrence’s car!”, I got the distinct impression that the sons of the desert did not actually revere TE Lawrence in the way that the guidebooks suggested they might, and indeed that they might not have completely taken at face value the official story that he was their tireless advocate and was entirely stitched up by the dastardly Sykes and Picot.

As far as I could tell, the inhabitants of the Wadi Rum national park have a sort of semi-nomadic life – all of them seem to have some sort of base in the village, but they also have family camps, which might or might not double as tourism businesses. At any one time there will be some family members in the house and some in the desert. And they still have a real affection for the nomadic lifestyle; they seemed to talk about the desert environment in the same way that I think about the Welsh mountains, albeit that I would put a stronger bet on the Bedouin to survive for a month in Snowdonia than on myself to last four hours in Wadi Rum. I was also introduced to one of the great sensual pleasures of the Middle East, an experience called “Not Riding On A Camel”. I realise that most readers will be having the experience of “not riding on a camel” practically every hour of most of their days, but believe me, you don’t really appreciate it until you’ve tried the alternative for contrast. I must have been doing something wrong, as it later transpired that no other family members were suffering from wearing away great saucer-sized bleeding blisters on their arse, but it wasn’t even that which was the worst of it. It was the strangest kind of muscular ache, and it was extraordinary. After two hours on the traditional camel saddle, I found myself choosing to walk ninety minutes across the desert in the middle of the day, and profusely thanking the guy who allowed me to do it.

7. In flight magazines, slight return

In the grandest tradition of globetrotting punditry, I get half of my views about any given country from the inflight magazine of its national airline. And it has to be said, as a provider of hooks for chin-stroking think pieces, Royal Jordanian did me proud. I was thinking about the fairly unique position of the Hashemite Kingdom Of Jordan in the region, as a state which is allied to the forces of modernity, but where the head of state’s claim to his position is based on his status the 42nd generation descendant of the Prophet. On the one hand, particularly as it can’t smooth over these contradictions with oil money, Jordan is inextricably linked to the secular West and constant liberalisation. On the other hand, it’s a Muslim country and can’t get away from that fact either. And then staring up at me from the inflight magazine, there it was.

The lead feature in the issue I read was a travel piece extolling one of its recently opened routes, and selling its readers on the joys of a trip to … Munich …in September. Apparently, this is a festival celebrating Bavarian culture, music and art, during which it is possible to see plenty of the locals dressed in their charming local costumes, in large tents which have been erected for the purpose of celebrating Bavarian culture. You can also get a really great meal in the traditional local restaurants, which offer excellent vegetarian alternatives. Yep, someone at the Royal Jordanian inflight mag had taken on the job of writing 2000 words about Oktoberfest, but doing so without mentioning either beer or sausage. Fair do’s, they rose to the challenge. As a triumph of papering over some fairly fundamental differences in outlook and ignoring the elephant in the room, you couldn’t beat it.

The inflight magazine of Qatar Airways had an article on rural development by one of the country’s most prominent surgeons. It was accompanied by a uniquely uninformative byline picture of the author in her burqa, but I leave heavy-handed metaphors like that to less talented pundits.

8. After life of brands

Brands that you half remember from childhood sometimes have a strange sort of afterlife in the developing world, which gives you a bit of deja vu when you come across them. Barbican, for example. This was a non-alcoholic lager developed by Bass in the eighties, at around the time when the drink-driving laws were considerably tightened. It was never much of a substitute for beer and when Guinness launched Kaliber, it didn’t even necessarily have top dog status in a category which was already failing to go anywhere. So it more or less disappeared from the UK market. It’s still alive and kicking in the Islamic world, though, and prominently displayed in fridges at petrol stations. I would guess that nothing has survived of the original product though – the selling point of Barbican was meant to be that it was brewed like a normal lager and then de-alcoholised, and although my knowledge of Islamic dietary restrictions is meagre, I’d guess this would have made the original Bass version haram.

Similarly, British Leyland is long dead and gone, taking its unenviable reputation for quality control and toxic industrial relations with it. At some point in its history, however, it must have concluded a joint venture called Ashok Leyland Lanka, and when BL went off to leak oil into the great car park in the sky, the joint venture carried on. It still seems to have the largest market share of buses and light trucks there, although Hyundai are making inroads.

Sri Lanka drives on the left hand side of the road, a legacy of old colonial days, but one which presumably keeps going because it means that the country has access to the world’s largest second-hand car market (Japan). Second hand cars are a big part of developing world economics – Fiji actualy switched from driving on the right to the left for exactly this reason. The jeep which carried us around the desert in Wadi Rum had started life in Bern, according to its registration plates. I also, via casual survey, put together a generalisation about the use of off-road vehicles, which basically seems to be that dilettantes drive Land Rovers, professionals drive Toyotas and locals drive Mitsubishis.

9. Petra

Petra is one of those things that has to be experienced – you can see the main landmarks and the most impressive buildings (the “Treasury” and the “Monastery”) in any number of photographs, but the place itself is pretty amazing, even if you do pretty inevitably end up with half your party sloping around with the beginnings of sunstroke. The thing that photographs can’t communicate though is the scale – this was a real city, built around the same time as ancient Rome, about the time that my own ancestors still thought that balancing one horizontal stone on top of two vertical stones was pretty amazing stuff.

And it’s perfectly preserved, not by being buried in volcanic ash or anything, but just because of the fact that things don’t tend to rot in the desert, and because once the original residents (the Nabateans) had decided to abandon it, nobody else moved in or even bothered to visit the place for hundreds of years on end. Its actual existence had been forgotten about – being located in a depression at the end of a canyon, it’s easy to overlook – for more than a thousand years. And it wasn’t a small or insignificant place; you can see from the architecture and the infrastructure that it was a propserous and populous city, and it was the capital of a powerful trading empire. In modern terms, it would be like all the residents deciding to leave Frankfurt, and over time everyone just forgetting that there was any such place.

When a civilisation disappears so completely and suddenly, you want to believe that there was some big or catastrophic event which caused it. This doesn’t seem to be the case for the Nabateans, who seem to have just disbanded and joined other empires without too much fuss. There were a couple of earthquakes, but not huge ones, and visibly, not ones which did so much damage to Petra as to render the place uninhabitable. There were the usual scuffles, but no big military disaster. All that happened is that the trade patterns changed, and Petra wasn’t on the way from everywhere to everywhere in the way that it had been before. Then, presumably, the city was faced with the cost of maintaining its infrastructure (particularly the system of channels which brought its water), and decided it couldn’t pay. So they all got together and left. It’s a strangely dignified end to a once glorious civilisation; they just made a sensible and unsentimental economic decision. I wonder what the Nabateans would have said about the sunk-cost fallacy, because heaven knows, there are some majestic sunk costs there.

The whole country of Jordan, by the way, has about a hundred years’ more water left in its aquifers at current rates of usage. I wonder if they will end up having to make the same sort of unpleasant decision as the Nabateans one day.

10. Airports and the things that happen in them

I was originally planning on titling this episode “Airports and other man made environments”, because we had a lot of travel time in this month, and I was anticipating having a lot more to say about the big statement-architecture airports of Qatar and Jordan than I actually did. There you go. Colombo Airport had some of the most comprehensive security measures I’ve ever seen – they’re not up in your face with questions like at Tel Aviv, but you have to go through four or five X-ray machines – one at each stage of the process – and there are armed guards everywhere. Of course, the reason is that this has historically been, literally, the suicide bombing capital of the world. Even to this day, something like half the suicide bombers that there have ever been were Tamil Tigers.

11. Potash City Limits

A grim geographical joke has made Jordan, a land almost entirely made up of desert, into one of the world’s bigger producers and exporters of potash, a bulk chemical mainly used in the manufacture of agricultural fertilisers. Potash can be manufactured, as ammonium nitrate is these days, but when you’ve got massive deposits of the stuff, like the ones around the Dead Sea, it’s cheaper to dig it out of the ground. The United Arab Potash Company has a massive mining facility not far from the Dead Sea resorts, including a mining town which is indeed listed on the maps as “Potash City”. The children grew quickly tired of our singing its name to the tune of “Nutbush City Limits”.

12. Salt in the foundations

You couldn’t ask for two more contrasting environments than Jordan and Sri Lanka. In the desert, there’s a real sense that the air is driving the life out of everything. In ten days driving up and down the country, I saw precisely one green field, which was next to a large irrigation scheme. Tough little thorn bushes grow out of the sand, and that’s about it. Nothing larger than a lizard seems to be able to exist outside the towns, and if you happen to wander a hundred yards from your water supply, you get a fairly immediate sense of having done something that wasn’t very clever.

In a jungle environment, on the other hand, the sense is exactly the opposite. Everything is alive, the air is moist and the place keeps on thrusting life at you – mosquitoes, flies, green plants growing everywhere and the most astoundingly coloured and camouflaged insects. For the first few days, I kept noticing a sort of reddish colour to the soil and wondering if Sri Lanka had large iron ore deposits; it took me that long to realise that this wasn’t the native soil at all. The reddish colour I kept seeing by the sides of roads and in people’s yards was rocksalt. As far as I can tell, more or less everything that’s built in Sri Lanka seems to have a healthy layer of rocksalt in the foundations. Presumably, it’s the only way that you can keep the plant life at bay and stop your macadam roads and concrete slabs being immediately punctured by roots and grasses.

The Sri Lankan road network seems to function though – as we drove around the country, I noticed that there was a “Central Fish Processing Facility” located pretty near the geographical centre of the island, which is surely something you’d only build if you were reasonably confident in your ability to get the fish there from the coast in reasonable time. All sorts of odd little government facilities seemed to have there offices by the side of the major highways – milk quality monitoring stations, fertiliser testers, all the things that an agricultural economy needs, but which developed world countries tend to tuck away at the other end of their road networks, and which really poor countries don’t have at all.

13. Red Sea at Eid-al-Abha

After the desert, we found ourselves wanting to run for the coast, and so we ended up in the resort town of Ayuba, on the last day of the Eid holidays – we were lucky to get a hotel room. The beach was boisterous and crowded, but the sea was cool and beautiful. There were five public beaches, all of which had different modesty codes for female bathing. Weirdly, they were set up so that things got more Western and secular as you got closer to the Saudi border, at which point they presumably reset with a crunch. We were on Public Beach Number 5, which wasn’t that much different from a Mediterranean one. I was interested to see that a large number of UNHCR tents had apparently found their way down to the beach, where they were being used to shelter from the sun and smoke hookah pipes in. Not entirely sure what was going on there – Jordan does have a huge refugee community, something like 40% of the population, but most of them are Palestinians, who are not clients of the UNHCR as they have their own agency, the UNRWA. I’d guess that at some point in the past, Jordan might have had more refugees (possibly as a result of the Iraq war) than it does now, and that at the end of the conflict someone at UNHCR decided that tents were bulky and cheap, and so it was less trouble to let them go cheap onto the Jordanian market than to pack them up to use somewhere else. Alternatively, it’s possible that we were just seeing some UNHCR employees who were having a holiday from looking after Syrian refugees and had liberated some spare tents.

I got talking to a guy in our hotel whose kids were playing with mine, and he was very specific in telling me that he was a Palestinian. I suppose this must be how things are; the refugee camps have been around for so long that they’ve developed infrastructure, including quite a lot of decent middle-class jobs working with the United Nations, of the sort that would provide a week’s holiday by the sea over the holidays. All that you see on TV of the Palestinians is the angry face of the inhabitants of the world’s largest open air prisons, but this is the iceberg below the surface; a pleasant, polite office worker with a United Nations NGO who has an overpowering sense of awareness that he is in the wrong place and that some past manouvering in the last stages of the big European empires has separated his family from their wells and their olive trees.

The Jordanian economy, given their lack of oil, is heavily dependent on foreign aid, which is poured into the country via the refugee camps. Although really, I think it’s wrong to think of this part of the budget as “aid”, given the way that things are arranged. I’d be more inclined to say that Jordan’s main exportable resource is its people’s hospitality to destitute travellers, and its willingness to bear and mitigate the tragic human consequences of the Great Powers’ continued and repeated appalling foreign policy decisions over the last fifty years. There’s always an ongoing discussion, usually a quite controversial one for obvious moral reasons, as to whether it might or might not be a good idea for geographically large and economically poor African countries to make an export industry out of accepting and processing toxic waste from industrial countries.

Without anyone necessarily intending this as a consequence, Jordan’s economy has shaped itself around an equivalent business model for human beings. As far as I can tell, they do their best, but a refugee camp is always going to be a horrible place, and it’s a place where traumatised children learn to have a very bad relationship with violence. There is an old proverb to the effect that “a scholar is a library’s way of reproducing another library”. I’ve always thought in similar terms, that a refugee camp is an atrocity’s way of producing a future atrocity.

14. Political styles of dress

The Democratic Socialist Republic of Sri Lanka is, quite rarely in the world, a Democratic Socialist Republic in which all three words can be taken to have their usual dictionary meaning, more or less. Local politicians have a taste, pretty common in the developing world, for sticking big posters of themselves up everywhere, dressed according to the image that they want to project. You have three basic styles, as far as I can see – there’s “Western business suit”, and there’s “traditional or religious robes”. These two old favourites have now, probably as a result of Chinese influence, been supplemented by “open shirt collar and Harrington style bomber jacket”. This last one is apparently meant to signify a hard-working man of the people who spends more of his time chatting in factories and on farms than doing dodgy deals, but gives the curious impression that some regions of the country are governed by mods.

I didn’t get any insight into Sri Lankan politics despite occasionally trying to raise the issue with drivers; the conversations tended to start and stop with a general remark about how awful the civil war was and a firm statement that this was now all over. Which it is, kind of sort of – we stayed in a village in a Tamil stronghold which had been incredibly dangerous as recently as ten years ago, and there was almost no sign of this ever having been the case. There was an army base a couple of kilometres from the cottage we were staying in, where a smiling sergeant major asked me what I was up to when I was taking a walk, but other than that, the country seemed largely free of one of my least favourite sights in the developing world – that of young soldiers sitting around doing nothing but carrying their guns in a vaguely intimidating way.

The determination to not talk or think about the civil war probably means that the Trincomalee massacre, which happened about eighty kilometres from the beach resort where we stayed, is never going to be satisfactorily investigated. The Amnesty International report on Sri Lanka, frankly, doesn’t make very attractive reading, by the way. I suppose one could argue that the truth-and-reconciliation approach isn’t the only way of dealing with the legacy of past conflicts, and that Sri Lanka is entitled to put continued development and stability ahead of justice for the victims of the past. But it’s clear that the police force have not unlearned any of the bad habits they picked up during the civil war; torture and extrajudicial killings are still common.

15. Attack of the rubber ducks

We checked in to a big resort hotel next to the Dead Sea for one night – this seemed like the easiest way to see it, although as we drove down from Potash City we kind of wished we’d made our own way and stopped at one of the beaches where the locals went. The hotel was fine, although it was pretty hard to escape the nagging sensation that this was a bloody big swimming pool to be found in a country that was slowly running out of water. The Dead Sea itself was …considerably weirder than I had expected it to be. The least surprising thing about it is the bouyancy. If you just float about on your back like the signs tell you to, you quickly forget that there’s anything particularly odd about the fact that you’re floating higher in the water than you might otherwise. If you try to swim it gets quickly weirder, as the immediate effect is an overpowering sensation that your arse is taking flight. But the strangest thing, to my mind anyway, is to just look closely at the stuff you’re floating in. It really doesn’t look like water any more – it’s all full of greasy swirls and whorls, and feels more like a kind of oil than anything else.

We walked along the beach a little to get away from the crowds, merrily ignoring the big signs saying “Jordanian Army, do not enter”. Nothing happened to us as a result, but in an unrelated incident, the Army did show up while we were there, in a big jeep with a mounting on the back of it where a machine gun would go (presumably the ordnance had been removed at the insistence of the local tourist industry, telling them “come on, you can’t go around with machine guns when there are tourists on the beach”). A detail of soldiers was sent out to comb the beach in the opposite direction, and came back in the company of a visibly embarrassed hotel employee, carrying a yellow inflatable rubber duck. I couldn’t tell – as I never saw it float in and don’t speak Arabic – whether it was suspected of being a Muslim fundamentalist duck planted by ISIS or a Zionist rubber duck sent over from Eilat. All I can say is that, although obviously they have to treat all incidents as serious, and it would be just like the terrorists to plant a bomb in something innocuous looking, it really isn’t possible to maintain one’s dignity while walking along a beach in camo gear, mirrored sunglasses, slung rifle and carrying a yellow inflatable rubber ducky.

16. Land title required

As we took the taxi to the airport from the north-east coast of Sri Lanka, I saw the surest sign that somebody believes that the Tamil conflict is over. A big billboard, with the name of a developer in all three of the local languages. The English version read “Will Buy Beachfront Property With Valid Title”. The last three words could form the basis for a whole term of development economics. Land title systems are one of the banes of trying to get anything done in the developing world – although Hernando DeSoto’s book on “The Miracle of Capital” was rather hijacked by lot of quasi-libertarian types, he is dead right that the absence of a formal system of land title is one of the big forces keeping peasant farmers poor and facilitating their exploitation. Sri Lanka has a more or less functional land registry, and that might be why it’s the only country in South Asia which gets a good rating on the UN HDI.

Categories: Group Blogs

Sunday photoblogging: Clifton steps

Sun, 2014-11-16 02:43

Categories: Group Blogs

Darkness Visible: The Depression of George Scialabba

Thu, 2014-11-13 16:38

Many of you will know George Scialabba simply as “geo,” one of our most thoughtful, incisive, and funny commenters at Crooked Timber. You may not know, however, that George has a day job. Two, actually. One is as the manager of a building at Harvard. The other is as one of our most brilliant contemporary essayists and critics. I discovered George’s essays about a decade and a half ago, and I’ve been hooked ever since.

One other fact about George you may not know: he has been suffering from acute depression for nearly a half-century.

In The Baffler today, he has a memoir of sorts about that depression. It’s really a record of the memos, emails, reports from the various doctors, therapists, psychiatrists he has seen over the years. While I’ve read some of the memoirs/reports of depression—William Styron’s and Andrew Solomon’s—George’s collection of documents is oddly more harrowing and desperate than those memoirs. Because you see just how baffled and helpless the doctors and helping professions often are as well. Every few years, they have to reinvent the wheel, it seems, and start from scratch.

What also marks George’s piece is his attention to the political economy of mental illness and its treatment. His conclusion, I fear, will be overlooked:

Let me bring this melancholy chronicle up to date. The last record printed here is dated July 2012. Things remained bad through August and September. In early October I began a three-month medical leave of absence, with pay; I had taken a similar leave in 2005, when the depression was at its worst. Harvard has a generous provision for medical leave, perhaps because of the presence of a strong union, the Harvard Union of Clerical and Technical Workers (HUCTW). Once again, the medical leave made possible a course of electroconvulsive therapy, this one only about half as long as before.


What would have happened if I had not received those medical leaves is something I’d rather not think about. At the least, a psychological ordeal would have eventuated in a financial calamity. The combination of an enlightened employer and a strong union is one that ever fewer Americans enjoy. Universal financial security is probably the single best countermeasure to the depression epidemic. It would certainly be more effective and more humane—and even, perhaps, cheaper—than providing antidepressants and ECT.



Anyway, you should read it. Here also is a piece in the Boston Globe about it. And an interview with George, too.

Categories: Group Blogs

Jerks will be jerks

Thu, 2014-11-13 06:06

The thing about an ICANN meeting is they’re mostly men, and most of them are lovely, especially the older, very techie ones. I do the policy circuit and the 16 hour days, and I mostly skip the big industry parties. (Actually, I’m not usually invited. Probably because I’m such a blue stocking.) So I don’t usually interact with the trade show marketing types, the back end salesmen and the domainer guys.

But once, I think it was in Dakar but they all blur into one, I’d had a couple of drinks and ran into a friend I call in my heart of hearts the ‘king of the registrars’, the hard scrabble companies that sell domain names and figure out how to game any system they can get to let them in. Whatever hotel this was, it had managed to create some mystique about having a club on the top floor that didn’t advertise itself. It was the place to be. My friend convinced me and a female colleague to go up for a nightcap.

Now my colleague was six feet tall, blonde and the kind of gorgeous that makes even straight women pause to enjoy an extra look. In fact, when my boss first introduced her as his incredibly capable new assistant, we all went ‘uh-huh, sure.’ (He took it on the chin and sure enough she turned out to be the smartest on the team and pretty much indifferent to being ritually dismissed for her beauty.) So she and I catwalked out of the elevator on whatever secret floor this club was on and right into a long glitzy bar we walked the length of, got seen to be seen, and went and sat down on a magically free sofa. It was just that kind of night.

Various youngish guys we didn’t know sat down to talk, offer us drinks and wander off. I was on water by now. Holding court beside us was the alpha guy I liked to call the king. A bit like ‘the king of the travellers’, in that you don’t get it by being born – you have to fight smarter and tougher than anyone else, and a bit of charisma doesn’t hurt either. Guys would ply their differing wares to him, then us, or vice versa. One glommed on to me, probably because I was older and plainer than my colleague. The conversation started off harmlessly enough, the usual ‘what do you do’ and ‘where are you from’. He was keen to show he was also a big time domainer or domain name seller or something, and he’d keep nodding in the direction of the king.

Then things got a little strange. He would ask me a question and I’d answer it, and he’d say something rude about my answer. I wish I could remember the actual things he said. They weren’t outrageous, just mildly obnoxious. I’d nod and wait for him to say or ask something else, and then say ‘right’ or ‘is that so?’ But he was quite insistent about me giving substantive answers that he would then say rude things about in a weirdly affectless way. I remember wondering if he was Aspergers or something, which is not unknown in the technical community, though this guy seemed far more interested in money than code. I swatting that idea away. The rudeness had an edge. It was intentional.

So I said to him ‘wow, that was really quite rude, did you mean to say it?’ And he said something like ‘come on, you liked it. You know I’m in charge’. Or something equally asinine.

And then the penny dropped.

I was being chatted up by a real live Pick Up Artist!

I burst out laughing and said ‘oh my god, I don’t believe it. You’re doing that thing, aren’t you?’
‘What thing?’ he asked.
‘You know, the thing where you try and make a woman feel bad enough about herself that she’ll suck your cock.’
‘Don’t flatter yourself’, he said.

Then my little lizard brain stirred deep down in the folds of the amygdala and said to me ‘you know what will work best here, don’t you?’. And I thought to myself, this doesn’t make me a good feminist, but it will be nasty good fun.

I turned to the king and said, over the guy’s head, ‘you’ll never believe what this guy just tried on. He negged me. Have you heard of that? The whole PUA thing?’

‘What, him?’ the king said, laughing, to us both. ‘Little jerk. Is he even old enough?’

And the little jerk slunk away, defeated.

Oh how we laughed.
Patriarchy. You’ve gotta love it.

Categories: Group Blogs

Oranges and lemons – fairness intuitions and “best execution”

Thu, 2014-11-13 01:44

I’m just in the middle of writing an article on the technicalities of the foreign exchange market, and what went wrong, and this example came up. I think the fair solution is pretty intuitive, but maybe others will differ. Presume below that this is a one-time interaction, so nothing to do with reputations, repeat business etc.

“You are on your way to the fruit market, because you want to buy five oranges. Someone you’ve never met before accosts you on your way and says “Hey, you! Could you buy me five oranges please? I’ll give you the money when you come back and I’ll pay you ten pence for doing it”. You think what the hell, and say yes. You ask what’s the maximum he’s prepared to pay for them and he says “Don’t care – whatever the market price is”.

Down at the market, there is one stall which has five oranges for sale at 50p each, and another stall with five oranges for sale but charging 55p each. You buy five oranges from each stall and head back home.

Your customer is waiting back at your gate. He gives you your ten pence, and asks “How much did my oranges cost?” What do you tell him?

You have three choices really (I’d be interested to know if anyone could justify any other price).

a) Tell him “50p each” – ie, you filled his order first and then your own
b) Tell him “55p each” – ie, you bought yours first, and then his
c) Tell him “52 and a half pence” – ie, you give him the weighted average of what you managed to pick up

In case a) your good turn has cost you a pretty penny – you paid £2.75 for your oranges when you could have got them for £2.50, and your 10p wages doesn’t cover the difference. Even in case c) you are down on the deal – paying £2.625 for your oranges, less 10p for an “all in” cost of oranges of £2.525 which is 2.5p more expensive than if you’d never met the guy. A lot of people would say case b) is perfectly fair – this guy clearly doesn’t really care all that much about how much he pays for oranges, or he would have gone to market himself rather than grabbing a complete stranger to do so. It’s also the point at which your profit from the overall transaction (10p) equals the wage that he said he would pay you.

Why should you subsidise him? But on the other hand, isn’t there something a bit hinky about deciding that all the best-priced oranges were for you, and all the worst deals were for your client?

Of course, I think people’s intuitions about fairness might change if your customer was paying you £10 to go to market for him, or if you had explicitly promised him that you would get him the best price possible. But in the simplest case (and this does match up pretty well to the actual structure and pricing of the FX market), I think it’s not obvious at all that the most intuitive concept of fair dealing corresponds at all to the regulatory concept of “duty of best execution”. Anyway, what do you think?

Update the longer post is now up.

Categories: Group Blogs

David Ricardo: Machiavelli of the Margin

Thu, 2014-11-13 00:27

In my grad seminar this semester at the CUNY Graduate Center, “The Political Theory of Capitalism,” we’ve been exploring how some of the classics of modern political economy translate, traduce, transmit, efface, revise, and/or sublimate traditional categories of and concepts in Western political theory: consent, obedience, rule, law, and so forth.

Through economic thinkers like Smith, Ricardo, Keynes, Schumpeter, Jevons, and the like, we try and read political economy as the distinctively modern idiom of political theory. In the same way that religion provided a distinctive language and vocabulary for political thought after Rome and before the Renaissance, might not economics provide modern political theory with its own distinctive idiom and form? In other words, our interest in the political moment of economic discourse is not when the state intervenes or intrudes on the market; it’s when economic discourse seems to be most innocent of politics. That’s when we find the most resonant and pregnant political possibilities.

I’ll give you an example.

For the last several weeks we’ve been reading and talking about Ricardo’s On the Principles of Political Economy and Taxation, which I have to admit, damn near killed me. Turns out it’s really hard to teach a text you don’t understand.

But one of the more interesting—and, at least to me, semi-intelligible—arguments in Ricardo is his account of rent. (I don’t think the problem is Ricardo; it’s me.) For it’s there, in his chapter on rent, that he introduces the idea of the margin. I could be wrong, but I don’t see anything like a notion of the margin in other parts of the book. It’s all in his chapter on rent. (Ricardo experts or intellectual historians: is that right? Are there other places in Ricardo’s texts where he talks about the margin? Were there other theorists prior to Ricardo who talked about it?)

Now that in and of itself is interesting: Is there something to be gleaned from or learned about the idea of the margin from the fact that it arose, for Ricardo, in the context of a discourse on rent?

Anyway, here are three places in his chapter on rent where he talks about the idea of the margin:
The reason then, why raw produce rises in comparative value, is because more labour is employed in the production of the last portion obtained, and not because a rent is paid to the landlord.

Raw material enters into the composition of most commodities, but the value of that raw material, as well as corn, is regulated by the productiveness of the portion of capital last employed on the land, and paying no rent; and therefore rent is not a component part of the price of commodities.

It follows from the same principles, that any circumstances in the society which should make it unnecessary to employ the same amount of capital on the land, and which should therefore make the portion last employed more productive, would lower rent.
Ricardo’s basic idea of rent is that it arises from the differential in the quality of two tracts of land. So we start with land that is lush and fertile and easily farmed. At some point the population will require more food and more land will have to be put into play. So we move to the next piece of land, which is slightly less fertile and lush. At that point, the first piece of land generates a rent: the farmer and/or capitalist who use it will be willing to pay slightly extra in order not to have to use the slightly less fertile lend. And then we move to the third piece of land. And so on.

Ricardo’s basic intuition is that rent arises from difference:
If all land had the same properties, if it were unlimited in quantity, and uniform in quality, no charge could be made for its use, unless where it possessed peculiar advantages of situation. It is only, then, because land is not unlimited in quantity and uniform in quality, and because in the progress of population, land of an inferior quality, or less advantageously situated, is called into cultivation, that rent is ever paid for the use of it. When in the progress of society, land of the second degree of fertility is taken into cultivation, rent immediately commences on that of the first quality, and the amount of that rent will depend on the difference in the quality of these two portions of land.
At some point, we reach a final piece of land, beyond which it simply does not pay to work it at all. That final piece of land generates no rent; all it can afford is a wage to the laborer and a profit to labor’s employer. The tract of land just before that one generates a very little bit of rent. The one before that a little bit more. And so on back to the best land.

That last piece of really crappy land—with its concomitant last exertion of labor or last expenditure of capital—sets the value for the class of commodities that are produced on all the lands. For it is there, on that worst land, that the most labor will have to be expended in order to generate the commodity (the amount of labor required to produce the commodity determines the value of the commodity).

The exchangeable value of all commodities, whether they be manufactured, or the produce of the mines, or the produce of land, is always regulated, not by the less quantity of labour that will suffice for their production under circumstances highly favorable, and exclusively enjoyed by those who have peculiar facilities of production; but by the greater quantity of labour necessarily bestowed on their production by those who have no such facilities; by those who continue to produce them under the most unfavorable circumstances; meaning—by the most unfavorable circumstances, the most unfavorable under which the quantity of produce required, renders it necessary to carry on the production.



And while that last bit of land generates no rent—for all the value of the commodities sold is devoted to the wages of labor and the profit of the capitalist—every infinitesimal differential above that last bit of land will generate a rent. And though that last bit of land doesn’t generate a rent, the value of the rents on the better lands will be set by the value of the commodities produced on that last bit of land. The value of the commodities on that last bit will be high—”with every worse quality [of land] employed, the value of the commodities in the manufacture of which they were used, would rise, because equal quantities of labour would be less productive”—so the more productive labor working the better land will produce more commodities, so that better land will fetch a high rent.

Anyway, that’s the little bit of economics I could figure out (and I probably didn’t even get that right.)

But here’s the interesting part for me, as a political theorist.

In political theory, the great political moment, the highest mode of political action, is the founding of a new polity. Read Machiavelli, Montesquieu, Rousseau, Tocqueville, Nietzsche, Arendt: the founding moment is when all the basic laws, institutions, customs and mores of the polity are set out. It’s a moment of great drama and great art (that’s why Aeschylus mined it to such tremendous effect in the last play of the trilogy The Oresteia).

For political theorists of this vein, the further away you move from the founding moment—the further in time and place—the more loss, decay, corruption you will see. There is simply a fact of entropy that sets in, once the fervor and fever of that founding moment is lost. Machiavelli’s great obsession with Rome has much to do with the distance in time and space that the republic/empire travels from its founding as a small city.

The art of politics, then, is to steal back from time (and space) what it takes from the polity as it was founded, to deprive age of its ravages, to find a way to repeat the intensity, the engagement, the connection and commitment, of that founding moment. Whether through education, laws, festivals, rites, wars, what have you.

It struck me in reading Ricardo just how much the marginal theory of rent turns that idea of a founding moment on its head. Where the western theoretical tradition begins with a moment in time and place, and sees a threat in any movement away from that time and place, Ricardo’s theory of the margin begins at the opposite end of that process, with the last tract of land, which is furthest removed from the original tract in both time and space. And where the founding tradition of political theory sees the founding as the source of value from which all politics and morals emanate and decay—the founding is the pacesetter of values—the marginal theory of rent sees the outer limits of decay and decadence as the source of value: of the labor on that outer tract of land that is required for the production of the commodity, of the value of the commodity itself, and of the rent that commodity will generate on the inner tracts of land.

Ricardo himself seems to have had some intuition of how strange this all is. Not from a political theory perspective (though his comments are quite generative on that score) but from a more general cultural and sociological perspective:

Nothing is more common than to hear of the advantages which the land possesses over every other source of useful produce, on account of the surplus which it yields in the form of rent. Yet when land is most abundant, when most productive, and most fertile, it yields no rent; and it is only when its powers decay, and less is yielded in return for labour, that a share of the original produce of the more fertile portions is set apart for rent. It is singular that this quality in the land, which should have been noticed as an imperfection, compared with the natural agents by which manufacturers are assisted, should have been pointed out as constituting its peculiar pre-eminence.



Rent arises from decay, from the distance traveled from that founding tract of land.

And here’s where the fact that the marginal theory arises in the context of an account of rent, of money paid to a semi-aristocratic landlord, might matter. For in classical political theory of the kind we’ve been examining here, the supreme political actor is often assumed to be some sort of propertied worthy, a member of the landed gentry (that was part of the Country tradition of Bolingbroke’s circle in 18th century England) or such. His landed independence frees from him the imperatives of fear and favor, makes him a creature of civic virtue. It is a precondition of his agency.

But in Ricardo’s hands, the landlord is completely without agency. He’s more than a parasite; he’s utterly passive. Not only do his rents derive from the activities of others, but they go up in response to the imperatives of population growth that compel the harvesting of new and less fertile lands. He doesn’t act at all; he merely presides over and profits from the expansions and exertions of others.

And where the landed gentry of the political tradition are expected to attend to the maintenance and the upkeep of the polity, the preservation of its founding fervor, the landlords of Ricardo have a vested interest in the decay and demise of the lands and labors surrounding them. For that decay and demise provide the raw ingredients of difference that serve as the source of their rents.

Without multiplying instances, I hope enough has been said to show, that whatever diminishes the inequality in the produce obtained from successive portions of capital employed on the same or on new land, tends to lower rent; and that whatever increases that inequality, necessarily produces an opposite effect, and tends to raise it.


…it is obvious that the landlord is doubly benefited by difficulty of production. First, he obtains a greater share, and secondly the commodity in which he is paid is of greater value.



If what I’m saying about Ricardo’s theory of rent (and the significance of the margin for that theory) is true, the question becomes: to what extent can we read the entire tradition of marginal economics, which comes later and moves significantly beyond the category of rent, in a similar light, as standing the basic categories and concepts of political foundings on their head?

Categories: Group Blogs

Confessional Brezhnevism and Brian Farrell

Wed, 2014-11-12 11:56

The Boston Review have just put up a piece I wrote on Ireland’s internal Cold War, which wasn’t about politics, but religion. My generation (and Kieran’s; and Maria’s) grew up in an Ireland where the Catholic Church’s control of politics and society was visibly rotting away from inside, but still strong enough to foreclose the alternatives. It was like Brezhnevism – a dying system, but one strong enough to make it difficult to imagine what life would be like if it were gone.

One vignette from the piece, describing the moment when Bishop Eamon Casey was revealed to have had a long term relationship and child resulting from same.

The day the news broke, I met one of my professors, who had a sideline as a scrupulously evenhanded television host, wandering across campus in dazed delight. “It’s over,” he said. “They’ve lost.” He was right.

I didn’t name the professor, although I didn’t exactly make it hard to figure out who he was. He was Brian Farrell (no relation), a very well known academic, intellectual and television host and interviewer, who died a couple of days ago at the age of 85. I don’t know what he’d have made of the piece – he very carefully kept his politics to himself. This is the only moment when I ever saw him break cover. Yet I don’t think this revealed any political or religious animus on his part, so much as a small-l liberalism, a straightforward pre-political desire that people be allowed to live their lives and love whom they wanted to, without having to live in fear of social ostracism or of losing their job. It must have been very hard to be gay, or living in an unmarried relationship in Ireland in the 1970s, and it still wasn’t especially easy in the 1990s. The Eamon Casey scandal undermined the religious and social institutions which made it so very hard, so that prejudice, while it continued, mostly went underground. This, I think, is why he was so happy.

That brief conversation with Brian, beside the ugly artificial lake at the center of University College Dublin, is the moment when it became clear to me that Ireland was finally, irrevocably, changing. It’s a different memory of Brian than most people who grew up watching Irish TV will have – his public persona was as a rather formal and mildly acerbic interviewer, who regularly grilled evasive politicians. Yet in person, even if you didn’t know him particularly well (I just knew him as a student taking his MA class on Irish politics) his decency and kindness came through. He will be very much missed.

Categories: Group Blogs

Planet saved … in Brisbane!

Wed, 2014-11-12 05:35

It’s hard to overstate the significance of the agreement announced today by Barack Obama and Xi Jinping to limit US and Chinese greenhouse gas emissions. The limits are significant in themselves: not enough to guarantee stabilization of greenhouse gas levels at the agreed target of 450 ppm, but enough that we can get there just by ratcheting up an existing agreement rather than by looking for something new.

I’ll write more later, but I wanted to note this event as soon as I could

Categories: Group Blogs

Lud-in-the-Mist

Wed, 2014-11-12 02:44

Hope Mirrlees’ 1926 fantasy novel/fairy tale, Lud-in-the-Mist, has a funny old publication history. An unauthorized version appeared in 1970, again in 1977, because publishers couldn’t figure out whether the lady – who died in 1978 – was alive. (Here’s Michael Swanwick, trying to sort it out.) I just noticed Amazon has a cheap Kindle edition available. I think you would be quite mad to read any other fantasy novel or fairy tale first, if you have so far failed to read this one, and are looking for anything of the sort with which to stock your electronic device.

It’s a fable of alienation and reconciliation. I’ll quote from chapter 1. Our proper Master Nathaniel has a strange secret, tucked into his soul.

All who knew Master Nathaniel would have been not only surprised, but incredulous, had they been told he was not a happy man. Yet such was the case. His life was poisoned at its springs by a small, nameless fear; a fear not always active, for during considerable periods it would lie almost dormant—almost, but never entirely.

He knew the exact date of its genesis. One evening, many years ago, when he was still but a lad, he and some friends decided as a frolic to dress up as the ghosts of their ancestors and frighten the servants. There was no lack of properties; for the attics of the Chanticleers were filled with the lumber of the past: grotesque wooden masks, old weapons and musical instruments, and old costumes—tragic, hierophantic robes that looked little suited to the uses of daily life. There were whole chests, too, filled with pieces of silk, embroidered or painted with curious scenes. Who has not wondered in what mysterious forests our ancestors discovered the models for the beasts and birds upon their tapestries; and on what planet were enacted the scenes they have portrayed? It is in vain that the dead fingers have stitched beneath them—and we can picture the mocking smile with which these crafty cozeners of posterity accompanied the action—the words February, or Hawking, or Harvest, having us believe that they are but illustrations of the activities proper to the different months. We know better. These are not the normal activities of mortal men. What kind of beings peopled the earth four or five centuries ago, what strange lore they had acquired, and what were their sinister doings, we shall never know. Our ancestors keep their secret well.

Among the Chanticleers’ lumber there was also no lack of those delicate, sophisticated toys—fans, porcelain cups, engraved seals—that, when the civilisation that played with them is dead, become pathetic and appealing, just as tunes once gay inevitably become plaintive when the generation that first sang them has turned to dust. But those particular toys, one felt, could never have been really frivolous—there was a curious gravity about their colouring and lines. Besides, the moral of the ephemeral things with which they were decorated was often pointed in an aphorism or riddle. For instance, on a fan painted with wind-flowers and violets were illuminated these words: Why is Melancholy like Honey? Because it is very sweet, and it is culled from Flowers.

These trifles clearly belonged to a later period than the masks and costumes. Nevertheless, they, too, seemed very remote from the daily life of the modern Dorimarites.

Well, when they had whitened their faces with flour and decked themselves out to look as fantastic as possible, Master Nathaniel seized one of the old instruments, a sort of lute ending in the carving of a cock’s head, its strings rotted by damp and antiquity, and, crying out, “Let’s see if this old fellow has a croak left in him!” plucked roughly at its strings.

They gave out one note, so plangent, blood-freezing and alluring, that for a few seconds the company stood as if petrified.

Then one of the girls saved the situation with a humourous squawk, and, putting her hands to her ears, cried, “Thank you, Nat, for your cat’s concert! It was worse than a squeaking slate.” And one of the young men cried laughingly, “It must be the ghost of one of your ancestors, who wants to be let out and given a glass of his own claret.” And the incident faded from their memories—but not from the memory of Master Nathaniel.

He was never again the same man. For years that note was the apex of his nightly dreams; the point towards which, by their circuitous and seemingly senseless windings, they had all the time been converging. It was as if the note were a living substance, and subject to the law of chemical changes—that is to say, as that law works in dreams. For instance, he might dream that his old nurse was baking an apple on the fire in her own cosy room, and as he watched it simmer and sizzle she would look at him with a strange smile, a smile such as he had never seen on her face in his waking hours, and say, “But, of course, you know it isn’t really the apple. It’s the Note.

Categories: Group Blogs

Adventures in Sexual Implicature

Wed, 2014-11-12 00:22

OK, let me see if I got this straight. (Here’s a copy of Limbaugh’s lawyer’s complaining letter to the DCCC, via TPM.)

OSU instituted a strong, positive ‘affirmative consent’ policy for student sexual relations.

‘No’ means no, and only ‘yes’ means yes.

Clear?

Rush Limbaugh mocked this policy, saying: “How many of you guys, in your own experience with women, have learned that ‘no’ means ‘yes’ if you know how to spot it?”

He rounded this out by saying: “Let me tell you something. In this modern world, that is simply not tolerated. People aren’t even gonna try to understand that one. I mean, it used to be said it was a cliche. It used to be part of the advice young boys were given. See, that’s what we gotta change. We have got to reprogram the way we raise men.”

Since Limbaugh’s intent was apparently to damn the OSU policy, not praise it, this was, apparently, irony. If anyone wants to know if Rush Limbaugh actually thinks the youth of today stand in dire need of a heavy dose of PC thought-policing, the answer is ‘no’.

Or so it would seem.

In other words, Limbaugh’s statement seemingly illustrates the truth of the following proposition.

Sometimes ‘Yes, ‘No’ means no, and only ‘yes’ means yes’ actually means: no, sometimes ‘no’ doesn’t mean no, hence not only ‘yes’ means yes.

The DCCC, reading Limbaugh in this straightforward way, quoted his remark in a fundraising letter. Now Limbaugh’s lawyer is saying that, despite the apparent irony of Limbaugh’s mock-advocacy of ‘no’ means no – yes, Limbaugh really does advocate ‘no’ means no.

I take it the lawyer’s notion is that Limbaugh is in the process of being seduced by the allure of political correctness (how indelicate that lawyers are nestling into this intimate space, but that’s modern liberalism for you!) Limbaugh is putting up a pro forma resistance, i.e. is saying ‘yes’, while seemingly meaning no, but only by way of whispering yes YES! at a deeper level. Limbaugh’s heart and OSU’s policy beat as one on this politically correct point. It makes the surrender so much sweeter, I suppose, that it should go so, sotto voce.

In short:

Sometimes ‘Yes, ‘No’ means no, and only ‘yes’ means yes’ seemingly means: no, sometimes ‘no’ doesn’t mean no, hence not only ‘yes’ means yes. But really it may mean that yes, ‘no’ means no, and only ‘yes’ means yes, precisely by way of our recognition that the opposite is, apparently, what is ironically meant.

Apparently, it would be impossible to read Limbaugh any other way.

I confess: I worry affirmative consent standards will generate serious problems, even while I acknowledge the real problems they are meant to address. But it is striking that the likes of Limbaugh, when called out for critiquing these standards, can’t stand their ground. The reason is pretty clear. Limbaugh doesn’t want to oppose such policies for reasonable reasons, although reasonable reasons for opposing them exist. He wants to oppose such policies for the reason he gives: namely, it takes the fun out of being on the lookout for cases in which ‘no’ means yes if guys aren’t allowed to act on it. Where’s the romance in college romance if it isn’t at least sometimes a bit … like that … the guy overwhelming the girl’s initial resistance with the force of his desire? (Hasn’t anyone ever enjoyed an old movie in which this happens?) This is pretty clearly Limbaugh’s attitude, and he’s right that 50 years ago it would have baffled most folks that there was any problem with the view that a certain amount of verbal coercion is a healthy part of courtship. It’s only liberals who have made us frown on such expressions of free speech. This makes this case, in addition to being a case study for Grice scholars, a good illustration of a rather puzzling phenomenon I’ve pointed out before: the Overton straightjacket.

UPDATE: It seems ‘I worry affirmative consent standards will generate serious problems’ has generated an unwanted implicature. I’m actually in favor of such measures. I think the problems the law is intended to solve are more serious and there isn’t any other way of dealing with them that is better. It’s a knotty problem.

Categories: Group Blogs

Remembrance Day

Tue, 2014-11-11 03:37

Every year on this day, I post on the futility of war, arguing that wars and armed revolutions are almost never justified. I haven’t convinced anyone, and there are probably more wars, frozen conflicts and insurgencies now than there were when I started blogging.

And I realise I haven’t even convinced myself. Intellectually, I know that wars will always turn out badly, but still when a new conflict erupts, I find myself picking sides and cheering for the good (less bad) guys.

Why do we fall for the spurious appeal of a simple, violent solution to complex and intractable problems? And why is it so hard to end a war once it has started? I have some half-formed ideas, but I’ll leave it to others to discuss.

In the meantime, Lest we Forget.

Categories: Group Blogs

Multicultural, Intersectional, It’s not Your Daddy’s KKK

Mon, 2014-11-10 20:51

So I know I wrote this in The Reactionary Mind:
Beyond these simple professions of envy or admiration, the conservative actually copies and learns from the revolution he opposes. “To destroy that enemy,” Burke wrote of the Jacobins, “by some means or other, the force opposed to it should be made to bear some analogy and resemblance to the force and spirit which that system exerts.”

This is one of the most interesting and least understood aspects of conservative ideology. While conservatives are hostile to the goals of the left, particularly the empowerment of society’s lower castes and classes, they often are the left’s best students.
Sometimes, their studies are self-conscious and strategic, as they look to the left for ways to bend new vernaculars, or new media, to their suddenly delegitimated aims. Fearful that the philosophes had taken control of popular opinion in France, reactionary theologians in the middle of the eighteenth century looked to the example of their enemies. They stopped writing abstruse disquisitions for each other and began to produce Catholic agitprop, which would be distributed through the very networks that brought enlightenment to the French people. They spent vast sums funding essay contests, like those in which Rousseau made his name, to reward writers who wrote accessible and popular defenses of religion.

Even without directly engaging the progressive argument, conservatives may absorb, by some elusive osmosis, the deeper categories and idioms of the left, even when those idioms run directly counter to their official stance. After years of opposing the women’s movement, for example, Phyllis Schlafly seemed genuinely incapable of conjuring the prefeminist view of women as deferential wives and mothers. Instead, she celebrated the activist “power of the positive woman.”…When she spoke out against the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA), she didn’t claim that it introduced a radical new language of rights. Her argument was the opposite. The ERA, she told the Washington Star, “is a takeaway of women’s rights.” It will “take away the right of the wife in an ongoing marriage, the wife in the home.” Schlafly was obviously using the language of rights in a way that was opposed to the aims of the feminist movement; she was using rights talk to put women back into the home, to keep them as wives and mothers. But that is the point: conservatism adapts and adopts, often unconsciously, the language of democratic reform to the cause of hierarchy.
Still, I was surprised to read this in the International Business Times:

White supremacist organisation, the Ku Klux Klan is rebranding as the “new Klan” by trying to increase membership to Jews, black people, gays and those of Hispanic origin.



Some black people have already expressed an interest in joining, after John Abarr organised a summit with civil rights groups.


Abarr, who has claimed that he is a former white supremacist, told the Great Falls Tribune, “The KKK is for a strong America. White supremacy is the old Klan. This is the new Klan.”


Abarr has organised a peace summit with religious groups and the National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People (NAACP) next summer.


The KKK organiser from Great Falls, Montana told the Associated Press that he filled out a membership card to NAACP, not only paying the $30 enrollment fee but also adding a $20 donation.


Jimmy Simmons, a president of the Montana NAACP chapter, said that while he questioned the use of the letters KKK, if the peace summit took place, he would “take a strong look” at joining the Rocky Mountain Knights.


“If John Abarr was actually reformed, he could drop the label of the KKK,” said Rachel Carroll-Rivas from the Montana Human Rights Network. “They know that their beliefs aren’t popular, so they try to appear moderate. I think it’s just a farce. Our mission for the last 24 years has been to shine a light on hatred.”


However, the more traditional elements of the organisation were unhappy about the direction Abarr is heading in.


Bradley Jenkins, Imperial Wizard of the KKK, said: “That man’s going against everything the bylaws of the constitution of the KKK say. He’s trying to hide behind the KKK to further his political career.”


In 2011 Abarr, describing himself as a former KKK organiser, ran as a Republican for Montana’s seat in the US House of Representatives, reportedly believing there would be a backlash against President Obama’s re-election.


According to an Associated Press report at the time, Abarr’s manifesto included “promises to legalize marijuana, increase mental health programs, keep abortion legal, abolish the death penalty… and ‘save the White Race.’”


At the time mainstream Republicans denounced Abarr as a racist. ”There’s no room for racism in our party,” said Rich Hill, a former Republican congressman who lost the 2012 election for Montana’s governor. “That is not what we are about, and we have never been about that.”

Categories: Group Blogs

Thoughts on Migration, Immigration, and Exile on the 25th Anniversary of the Fall of the Berlin Wall

Sun, 2014-11-09 12:02

In the post just before me, Chris writes:
Yesterday I was listening to BBC Radio 4, and they were remembering the people who died, shot by East German border guards. It doesn’t seem to occur to our official voices of commemoration that there are parallels today with the thousands who die trying to escape tyranny, war or poverty and who drown in the Mediterranean, perish from thirst in the Arizona desert, or with those who the Australian government turns back at sea or interns offshore.
He’s right. Years ago, I reviewed two books on migration, immigration, and exile—one by Caroline Moorehead, the other by Seyla Benhabib—for The Nation. Here’s a factoid from that review:

 
Between 1994 and 2001, at least 1,700 migrants from Mexico died trying to reach the United States. Throughout its entire existence, by contrast, exactly 171 people died trying to cross the Berlin wall.
And that, mind you, was under the Clinton regime, before the last decade and a half of agitation around the extension and elaboration of a security wall between Mexico and the United States.

And just in case anyone missed the parallels between the Berlin Wall and the separation wall in Israel, Palestinian activists are on the case (not that anyone in the Western media noticed them, as Chris notes).

Here’s another relevant bit from that Nation review:
Australia has been the leader of this trend, as Moorehead shows, establishing “one of the most exclusionary immigration policies of any democracy” in the world. Where most countries sell their beaches, nightlife or mountains to potential tourists, the Australian government has distributed a video depicting an island continent “inhabited by poisonous snakes, fearsome crocodiles, and man-eating sharks.” In 2001 the government instituted “the Pacific Solution,” in which trespassers would be intercepted at sea and deposited in Indonesia or transferred to “off-shore processing centers.” Under no circumstances would they be allowed on Australian soil and thereby gain access to the courts. Deprived of all hope–and traditional implements of self-destruction–detainees have been known to sew up their lips or drink whole bottles of shampoo.

On the Mexican border, US officials have built sharp slopes along canals separating the two countries, making it difficult for anyone to climb out on the American side. The Clinton Administration launched a succession of militarized endeavors–Operation Blockade, Operation Hold the Line, Operation Gatekeeper–in the name of “prevention through deterrence.” As a result, migrants and refugees now swim across rivers teeming with typhoid, cholera, and hepatitis, “holding their breaths under submerged bridges and along a twenty-foot culvert.”
It’s been years since I (and probably anyone) read that Nation review, so I thought I’d re-post it here. If anything I suspect what I had to say then is even  truer now.

• • • • •


Nathan Berzok, son of Joseph and Mollie, was born in Odessa on October 7, 1905. A multicultural metropolis on the Black Sea, Odessa was home to some 138,000 Jews—and the site, eleven days after Nathan’s birth, of a four-day pogrom that took at least 400 of their lives. The Berzoks survived; Mollie hid Nathan in a stove. But like many of Odessa’s Jews, they took the pogrom as a sign that it was time to pack their bags. On March 1, 1908, Nathan, his two older brothers and Mollie arrived at Ellis Island. Joseph was there waiting for them, having already left Odessa to scout out New York. When he spied his wife and three sons inside the immigration center, Joseph rolled them oranges under the railing—the sweetest of signs that they had permanently left Odessa and its pogroms behind.

Nathan Berzok was my grandfather. But it wasn’t until I had nearly finished Human Cargo, Caroline Moorehead’s book about contemporary refugees and migrants, that I even thought of these stories, which he told me while I was growing up. I hadn’t forgotten them. They just didn’t register as I read Moorehead’s harrowing tales of people fleeing persecution, warfare and destitution, traveling thousands of miles in search of a new and better life.

Despite the efforts of postmodern theorists to convince us that exile is the emblematic condition of modern life, when it comes to immigrants and refugees we still seem incapable of the barest gesture of recognition, much less empathy. We remember Oedipus Rex: lover of one parent, killer of another. We forget Oedipus at Colonus: exiled king who wandered twenty years in search of “a resting place” near Athens, “where I should find home” and “round out there my bitter life.” We feel Medea’s rage over Jason’s betrayal, driving her to kill their two sons. We scarcely notice her equally poignant—and more frequent—lament that she is “deserted, a refugee,” with “no harbor from ruin to reach easily.”

Even those of us who for reasons of personal background, religion or politics should be most sensitive to the suffering of refugees can be astonishingly indifferent to their plight. “Four hundred years of bondage in Egypt,” Cynthia Ozick has written, “rendered as metaphoric memory, can be spoken in a moment; in a single sentence. What this sentence is, we know; we have built every idea of moral civilization on it. It is a sentence that conceivably sums up at the start every revelation that came afterward…. ‘The stranger that sojourneth with you shall be unto you as the home-born among you, and you shall love him as yourself; because you were strangers in the land of Egypt.’”

Fine, even beautiful, words, both the original and the gloss. But where are we to find them in Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians, from the exile it thrust upon them in 1948 to the ongoing hostility to their return—or, for that matter, in Ozick’s anti-Arab fulminations? From one vantage, the story of Israel and Palestine can seem the most idiosyncratic of ironies: A people forced to wander thousands of years forces another people to wander for who knows how many years. From another vantage, the story is sadly universal: the refusal to see or imagine oneself in the pain of another, even—or particularly—when one has suffered a similar ordeal. If exile has any larger import, then, it is not that we all share in its status. It is that it occasions the most sacred and sublime of obligations—”love him as yourself”—and the most wretched of betrayals.

Consider two points often made in debates about refugees and immigrants. Writers and politicians, in this country and in Western Europe, have long complained that immigrants and refugees do not conform to the rules and norms of liberal democracy. Arabs and Africans, we are often informed, do not accept the rights of women; Muslims are more loyal to their religion than to the state (something said of Europe’s Jews not so long ago); immigrants carry, along with their luggage and food, the conflicts and violence of their countries of origin to their new homes. Since 9/11 writers and politicians have grown increasingly apprehensive about the security threat posed by Muslims and Arabs. Worried about insufficient assimilation and potential terrorism, many commentators now believe that Western countries need to reconsider their open immigration policies.

What’s most interesting about these claims is not their truth or falsity but the terms of the debate, in which even the most right-minded men and women feel free to toss off one or two adjectives as a complete account of an entire people. When a Dutch vegan murdered the gay right-wing politician Pim Fortuyn, the distinction between a criminal and his dietary tastes remained sharp. But when Mohammed Bouyeri, a Muslim with dual citizenship in the Netherlands and Morocco, murdered Dutch filmmaker Theo van Gogh, a leap was instantly made from a lone assassin to an entire religion and region. Debates about immigration not only turn newcomers into outlaws; they also transform native-born citizens into a church of unsullied virtue. Start an argument in France about Muslim women wearing the hijab, and suddenly every Frenchman is a feminist.

What is it about immigrants and refugees that frees us from the stricture against guilt by association and the duty to treat individuals as individuals? Perhaps it is simply because we can. It is in the nature of immigration regimes, after all, to classify each arrival or departure as an instance of a larger whole. And because the immigrant’s entry into or exit from a society is a question of choice—sometimes his or hers, always ours—there’s a tendency on the part of host countries to assume that vexing social issues can be resolved merely by removing a distasteful ingredient from the mix.

It would be a mistake, however, to view the immigrant—or the exile or refugee—as simply a symbol of our fallen humanity, forever standing outside the gates of time, accusing us of hypocrisy and disregard. Exiles, refugees and immigrants are the subjects and objects of history and politics: in their countries of origin and destination, in the economies that push and pull them, in the global conflicts between contending state powers. And it is Moorehead’s sensitivity to these historical circumstances and political contingencies—not to mention her considerable skills as a writer and storyteller—that makes her book such a vital contribution to debates over migration.

Moorehead is a British writer who has been reporting on human rights since the early 1980s. Working in an already crowded genre, she differs from those showy journalists of alarm who view the distress of others as an opportunity for overwrought prose and self-display. Though a vital presence on the page—indeed, we occasionally see her intervening in the lives of the refugees she profiles—she is devoted to the quiet narration of disquieting fact. Each of Moorehead’s chapters focuses on a different set of migrants trying to make their way across a different border. Wherever they are—in Sicily, northern Britain, Finland, Tijuana, Australia, southern Lebanon, Cairo or Guinea—she is with them. If her brief is universal, her eye and ear are local, attuned and affixed to the toll of state policies and their historical context. Inevitably, she brings to mind the great Martha Gellhorn, the subject of her last biography, whose “small, still voice” carried a “barely contained fury and indignation at the injustice of fate and man against the poor, the weak, the dispossessed.”

In the past century, Moorehead argues, no historical force has had more immediate effect on immigration politics than the cold war. Throughout that conflict, exiles and refugees were treated as political gold, especially in the West. Eager to expose the tyranny of the Soviet Union and its allies, the anti-Communist powers spearheaded international conventions and institutions that firmly established the refugee as a victim of repression, unable to go back to her native land because of “a well-founded fear of persecution.” The persecutors were presumed to be “totalitarian Communist regimes, and the refugees were therefore, by definition, ‘good.’” Whether Soviet scientists or Vietnamese boat people, refugees were happily received by the United States, Western Europe and other countries. Indeed, during the 1970s, some 2 million people from Indochina found a home in the West. (Though the United States, it should be pointed out, never rolled out the red carpet to the victims of its interventions in Central America.)

With the end of the cold war, millions of people living under former Communist rule could move more freely, whether out of fear of repression and civil war or in the hope of economic opportunity. Mass migration, free and forced, has always been a central element of capitalism, from the Europeans who colonized the Americas in the seventeenth century to the Indians who settled in Africa in the nineteenth. Once the Communist world succumbed to the free market, that economic migration accelerated—though not, Moorehead writes, as much as we might think. “Most people today, as in the past, are not mobile. Somewhere between 2 and 3 percent of the world’s population can be counted as international migrants…the proportion is no higher and no lower than at any time in the last fifty years.” Still, the promise of economic betterment—and the need for cheap labor—remains a potent lure, reinforced by the threat or reality of persecution and violence in the Third World.

Released from the constraints of the cold war, prosperous nations have devised more elaborate measures to control, limit and regulate this movement of peoples. (Ironically, for all the recent talk of global flows, the cold war may have paved wider lanes of traffic.) Racism and xenophobia are, of course, permanent fixtures of immigration politics, albeit in varying degrees of intensity. But the end of the cold war allowed Western governments to indulge an image of the refugee as an economic and cultural parasite—crawling across or burrowing beneath the border in order to sap the nation’s affluence and identity. September 11 and the “war on terror” have only hardened this impulse. “The whole notion of security, once seen as a matter of keeping refugees safe…has shifted. Now it is the refugees themselves who are seen to pose the danger.”

Australia has been the leader of this trend, as Moorehead shows, establishing “one of the most exclusionary immigration policies of any democracy” in the world. Where most countries sell their beaches, nightlife or mountains to potential tourists, the Australian government has distributed a video depicting an island continent “inhabited by poisonous snakes, fearsome crocodiles, and man-eating sharks.” In 2001 the government instituted “the Pacific Solution,” in which trespassers would be intercepted at sea and deposited in Indonesia or transferred to “off-shore processing centers.” Under no circumstances would they be allowed on Australian soil and thereby gain access to the courts. Deprived of all hope—and traditional implements of self-destruction—detainees have been known to sew up their lips or drink whole bottles of shampoo.

On the Mexican border, US officials have built sharp slopes along canals separating the two countries, making it difficult for anyone to climb out on the American side. The Clinton Administration launched a succession of militarized endeavors—Operation Blockade, Operation Hold the Line, Operation Gatekeeper—in the name of “prevention through deterrence.” As a result, migrants and refugees now swim across rivers teeming with typhoid, cholera, and hepatitis, “holding their breaths under submerged bridges and along a twenty-foot culvert.” Between 1994 and 2001, at least 1,700 migrants from Mexico died trying to reach the United States. Throughout its entire existence, by contrast, exactly 171 people died trying to cross the Berlin wall.

For all its pretensions to liberalism and openness, Western Europe has hardly been more welcoming. (Moorehead cites the case of one refugee in Britain leaving a suicide note that read, “You have to kill yourself in this country to prove that you would be killed in your own country.”) In response, many Africans have attempted to sail surreptitiously across the Mediterranean in vessels the Phoenicians would have scuttled long ago.

On a stormy night in September 2002, to cite just one of Moorehead’s examples, a boat built to carry fifteen people went down less than 100 meters off Sicily’s southern coast. As tourists danced unknowingly at a popular bar on the beach, thirty-five of the 150 Liberians on board drowned and twenty more disappeared. Watching the bloated bodies float to shore over a period of days was gruesome enough. But what truly haunted Vera Sciortino, a local resident, was the thought of hungry fish feeding on the corpses. The inverse of little Oskar Matzerath’s mother in The Tin Drum—so filled with disgust upon seeing a horse’s head writhing with eels that she begins to eat fish obsessively—Vera was never able to eat fish again.

It would be some comfort if we could confine the misery of life on the move to Western Europe, North America and Australia. But as Moorehead reminds us, 90 percent of all refugees remain in the region of their birth, and Iran, Pakistan and Tanzania receive the most refugees of any country in the world. Not surprisingly, these and other governments are just as reluctant—and certainly less able, economically—to absorb people from abroad.

Cairo, the mise-en-scene of Human Cargo, is “a staging post” for “Africa’s displaced people…a step on a journey that should, but seldom does, move from terror to safety.” As they wait for the gates of Fortress Europe or North America to open, refugees and migrants from Liberia and Sudan are hassled and beaten by the Egyptian police, robbed in the streets and forced to stand in lines at immigration centers that would make the most harried holiday shopper blanch—only to find at the end of the day that the store has closed or run out of goods. For many migrants, homelessness turns out to be a kind of salvation: Only in Cairo’s uncharted slums and squats can they be somewhat assured of protection from the police.

In southern Lebanon Palestinian refugees suffer from the racism of their hosts, which keeps them out of jobs and power, and from the fear among the Lebanese that this largely Muslim refugee population will upset the country’s delicate confessional balance. Forbidden to expand their refugee camps “outward,” Palestinians are forced to build Manhattans of misery out of cinder blocks and scraps of tin: “Much of the inner camp [of Shatila] is almost completely dark, the daylight reduced to a pale glimmer by the overarching buildings and the canopy of wires that dangle not far above the head. Windows open onto walls.” Where migrants to New York City like my grandfather could look out such windows and see the world, Palestine’s refugees gaze out on a road to nowhere.

Like Moorehead, Seyla Benhabib, a professor of political science and philosophy at Yale, writes out of a moral concern for the rights of refugees and migrants and the wrongs done to them. To this she adds a refreshingly cosmopolitan vision of travel and association between and among different peoples. Unlike Moorehead, though, Benhabib is a political theorist, whose profession requires a certain abstraction from the concrete and often ugly details of the refugee experience. If Moorehead’s credo is no ideas but in things, Benhabib’s, by necessity, is no things but in ideas.

Lest readers assume that the first enterprise is more to their liking, Benhabib’s The Rights of Others shows—unflinchingly, astutely and bravely—that immigration remains such a pitched battle in the West because it is part of a larger war of ideas, fought between two contending, even morally attractive, ideals. On the one side are the rights of democratic polities to govern themselves. On the other are the rights of asylum seekers, refugees and migrants to enter, remain and ultimately join those polities as full and equal members.

In many ways, this conflict is a version of the old debate between liberalism and democracy, between a commitment to universal rights, which cannot be challenged or overturned, and a vision of mass participation, which puts everything, even rights, up to a vote. But when liberal universalists—or libertarians and free marketers—square off against populist democrats over immigration, seemingly innocent moral positions can assume toxic political form. One side bends toward the dissolution of all borders, toward an international regime that would protect rights everywhere, inviting charges of despotism and imperialism. The other slouches toward national chauvinism, insisting that the people have a right to preserve “their way of life” from intruding others.

Benhabib argues that the second camp—which includes a surprisingly wide array of defenders in academia—makes a series of mistakes. Beyond ignoring the fact that most nations have already committed themselves, by treaty, to welcoming refugees and asylum seekers (though not economic migrants), many populists assume that the nation has a fixed identity, that its mix of customs, habits and history is indivisible and unchanging rather than conflicted and in flux.

Immigrants and refugees, in this view, threaten rather than renew or enrich a people. But “peoplehood,” Benhabib reminds us, “is an aspiration; it is not a fact.” A list of titles from the past three decades—Eugen Weber’s Peasants Into Frenchmen, Benedict Anderson’s Imagined Communities, Noel Ignatiev’s How the Irish Became White and Rogers Smith’s Stories of Peoplehood—echoes her argument that nations are made, not born, and that stories and myths, laws and institutions, are the necessary instruments of their making.

The most noxious element of the populist position, according to Benhabib, is that it dissolves the ideal of democracy in the illusions of blood, ethnicity and sameness. As all of us learned in high school or college, early Americans—like Americans today—were fundamentally divided about questions of power and authority. It was not their common racial stock but divisive conflicts among them, and between them and those who did not share their ethnicity or heritage, that set the nation on its faltering and unsteady march toward greater freedom and equality. Democracy is thus a political art, Benhabib observes, not a cultural or racial inheritance. Just as nothing in the literature or veins of a nation predisposes it to democracy, nothing in the immigrant precludes him or her from contributing to democracy.

In fact, one could argue—and Benhabib does—that immigrants sustain and expand democracy by fighting for rights and broadening popular notions of “we, the people.” This point was brought home to me one Saturday eight years ago, when I was organizing in Los Angeles around several items on the ballot: a referendum on bilingual education, another on the political contributions of labor unions and a city council election. Walking door to door with a Spanish-speaking hotel worker from Guatemala, I listened to her explain to her neighbors the ins and outs of American electoral law, the powers of local versus state governments and the US Constitution. The irony was not lost on me: Not only do immigrants deepen democracy; they sometimes understand its substance and procedures better than its native proponents do.

But if Benhabib refuses to join the second camp, she is also wary of the first. Though she finds the notion of a world without borders morally attractive, she fears that its political embodiment could be dangerous. Inherent in the idea of democracy, she argues, is that the authors of the law should be its subjects and that the subjects of the law should be its authors. Unless we imagine a world government or international-rights regime—which would radically dilute the power each individual exercises over and through her national government—we have to accept that democracy requires a territorially bounded space. As she points out, where “empires have frontiers,” extending as far as the metropolis can rule, “democracies have borders.”

Benhabib’s understanding of democracy as a territorially bounded unit does pose some problems, which she herself acknowledges. On the one hand, she favors a liberal immigration regime of “porous” but not “open” borders—where, first, asylum seekers and refugees, and second, migrants (in that order of preference) would be allowed to enter a country and, after a specified period of time, offered the opportunity to join it as citizens. But given her commitment to democratic deliberation—and the likelihood that many people would reject her preferred regime—how can Benhabib insist upon that regime, over and against the expressed wishes of the people? On the other hand, if those who are subject to a nation’s laws should be its authors, why shouldn’t immigrants have a say in formulating those laws? Surely no one is more subject to those laws than they.

Benhabib’s solution is to insist that all nations, particularly democracies, must ground their immigration policies in standards of argument and justification that everyone—including the immigrant—would accept as reasonable. These are standards that “you would accept if you were in my situation and I were in yours” and that treat men and women as individuals capable of rational debate and justification. Because these ideals of reciprocity and rational justification are the moral underpinning of liberal democracy, such democracies must not stray from them in their immigration policies.

What this means in practice is that no democracy can bar people from entering or, if they have already entered, from becoming citizens, because of their “race, gender, religion, ethnicity, language community, or sexuality.” Criteria like these would not be acceptable to all peoples. Nor do such criteria treat an immigrant or potential immigrant as someone who can enter a rational discussion with us.

At the same time, nations can require immigrants to “show certain qualifications, skills, and resources.” Because everyone can understand why a nation would need or want people with those skills or resources, these criteria would be acceptable to everyone. Nations can also establish “language competence” and “a certain proof of civic literacy” as conditions, where applicable, for entry or citizenship. Such criteria “do not deny” an immigrant’s capacity for dialogue or rationality. On the contrary, their very premise recognizes that capacity. Democratic debate over immigration may not be a free-for-all, then, but it does leave room for disagreement.

From Benhabib’s earliest work on Habermas and the Frankfurt School, her high standard of argument and justification has always been the best advertisement for a certain kind of cosmopolitan liberalism. There is likewise much to admire in this book, not least her willingness to give sound reasons for her positions. But The Rights of Others raises questions, at least for me, that need to be answered.

For starters, why should linguistic competence be a factor—or acceptable as an item of democratic debate—in determining citizenship? As my comrade for a day in Los Angeles would attest, a non-English speaker in the United States not only can get and hold down a job; she can also turn out the vote. Why should a non-English speaker be allowed to mobilize for American democracy but not to join it as a citizen?

Conversely, why should we require “a certain proof of civic literacy” for immigrants seeking to become citizens? I know a great many native-born Americans who could not pass such a test. Why should immigrants have to prove that which the native-born need not—and, in some cases, could not—prove? Doesn’t this double standard assume the very view that Benhabib so skillfully takes apart elsewhere in her book, namely, that Americans take in democracy with their mother’s milk?

While the economic criteria Benhabib accepts—”qualifications, skills, and resources”—avoid the ascriptive criteria of race and gender she rejects (though the two may be more closely linked in practice, a point I shall return to shortly), it’s not clear that these criteria stand the test of reciprocity she favors. Would a poor immigrant really accept the stringent economic qualifications that a middle-class citizen has voted for? Would she accept the underlying reasons for those justifications? Would an unemployed worker in a rich country accept the liberal immigration regime that a wealthy employer in that same country has lobbied for? Could each of us—citizen and immigrant, rich and poor, employer and employee—find a position that all of us would accept? I doubt it.

And what would such economic criteria look like in practice? Only people with advanced computer skills or a college degree need apply? Only those who have held down a job for five years can stay and become citizens? (The more likely scenario, of course, is that the employing classes of a prosperous country will favor liberal immigration policies—or allow, with a nod and a wink, millions of undocumented workers to cross the border in order to staff the bottom tiers of the economy.) It’s ironic that a regime implementing Benhabib’s criteria of “marketable skills” could prove more restrictive than the United States that allowed my grandfather into this country a century ago.

Benhabib could reply that yesterday’s United States is not today’s, that America in 1900 required millions of uneducated workers from Eastern and Southern Europe and East and Southeast Asia in order to build its expanding industrial economy. She might be right, but that only raises a deeper, more troubling, question: Has Benhabib offered a critique of society or—in some important respects—merely reflected it? How far does her theory, with its stringent opposition to policies of ascription and mild toleration of economic exclusions, depart from contemporary norms? Though I doubt that Benhabib personally would favor economic exclusions—she claims that democracies can institute them, not that she would support them—it says something about our moment that they can be accepted, without much argument, as the inevitable price of democracy.

There was a time when nothing so vexed left-liberals as how to justify such economic distinctions—not in the realm of immigration policies but in capitalism’s distribution of resources. Facing worker activism at home and then communist insurgencies abroad, theorists from John Stuart Mill to T.H. Marshall to John Rawls were forced either to defend the inequalities of capitalism or to offer some program for their amelioration and gradual abolition. Through their efforts, classical liberalism was nudged, ever so slowly, toward something approaching social democracy.

Benhabib has neither forgotten nor abandoned this heritage. In one section of her book, she discusses the inequalities of the international political economy, arguing that prosperous nations often accumulate their wealth through the misery of poorer nations—a fact, as she points out, that Rawls never confronted in his discussions of global economic justice. But the inferences Benhabib draws—and doesn’t draw—from this discussion suggest the contemporary weakness of that heritage. In countering the claims of Rawlsian leftists that the globe’s resources and assets should be redistributed in order to benefit the world’s “least advantaged,” Benhabib writes that we lack “clear and non-controversial judgments about who is to count as ‘the least advantaged’ member of society.” Yet even more controversy surrounds the ascriptive identities she wishes to take off the table. (Controversy would also surround, were they subject to genuine international debate, the economic criteria that Benhabib argues everyone would accept.) Why does one controversy inspire her to push and another to pull?

More important, Benhabib derives no moral conclusion about immigration policy from these international inequities. Distinguishing between economic and ascriptive criteria in theory, she overlooks how they are intertwined in practice—in part because of the very history of slavery and imperialism that she discusses. Race and class have made a witch’s brew of inequality in the United States, and many of the poorest classes in today’s Europe hail from its former colonies in Africa and the Middle East. If I understand Benhabib’s criteria correctly, it would not be unreasonable for Europe to refuse entry or deny citizenship to these men and women and their families on economic grounds, even though the motivation or effect of such refusals could be entirely skewed by the color of their skin.

Whether or not Benhabib’s distinction holds up in reality, shouldn’t the mere fact that the United States has ravaged its neighbors to the south play some role in its decisions about whether to accept economic migrants from that region? Shouldn’t the misery that Western Europe imposed upon Africa and elsewhere figure in the moral calculus of its immigration policies? Shouldn’t these histories of exploitation at least mitigate the “qualifications, skills, and resources” that wealthier countries require of newcomers? As South Asians and Caribbeans in Britain used to say, “We are here because you were there.”

Benhabib and Moorehead both show that people flee not only persecution and civil war but also poverty and destitution. That this reality—and the contributions of Western Europe and the United States to it—is not reflected in our contemporary immigration regimes or in the work of our best theorists is a problem. I wish I could say that it was Benhabib’s alone. Sadly, I think it’s ours, too.

Categories: Group Blogs

Sunday photo(re)blogging: the Wall then, and borders now

Sun, 2014-11-09 03:09

Yesterday I was listening to BBC Radio 4, and they were remembering the people who died, shot by East German border guards. It doesn’t seem to occur to our official voices of commemoration that there are parallels today with the thousands who die trying to escape tyranny, war or poverty and who drown in the Mediterranean, perish from thirst in the Arizona desert, or with those who the Australian government turns back at sea or interns offshore. Nor do such barriers as the “separation wall” in Palestine seem to evoke such horror in those voices as the Berlin Wall did then. These newer barriers are treated as necessary and normal and those deaths as self-inflicted by people naive enough to believe that a better life awaits in prosperous liberal democracies. Not that free movement is the only thing where official attitudes have changed. It isn’t long since the comprehensive surveillance of citizens depicted in Anna Funder’s Stasiland and in the film Das Leben der Anderen was emblematic of how communist states would trample on the inalienable rights of people in pursuit of state security. Today we know that our states do the same. I’m not making the argument that Western liberal democracies are “as bad” as those states were, lest any commenter come along and moan about “moral equivalence”. But I note that these kinds of violations were not seen back then as being impermissible because those states were so bad in other ways — undemocratic, dirigiste — but rather were portrayed to exemplify exactly why those regimes were unacceptable.

Here’s my photoblog from five years ago:

Two photos today. My partner, Pauline Powell and I visited East Germany and West Berlin in 1984. The first picture is a shot of the Berlin Wall from the western side, and seems appropriate as tomorrow is the 20th anniversary of its fall. The second shot, taken inside the Nikolaikirche in Leipzig, announces one of the prayers for peace meetings that helped to build the popular movement that would eventually contribute to the fall of the regime. Both pictures are Pauline’s, not mine (all rights reserved etc). We believe the swords into ploughshares picture is unique on the web, though perhaps others exist as prints. As such, it is something of a historic document.

Categories: Group Blogs

Inequality, migration and economists

Sat, 2014-11-08 04:42

Tim Harford has a column in the Financial Times claiming that citizenship matters more than class for inequality. In many ways it isn’t a bad piece. I give him points for criticizing Piketty’s default assumption that the nation-state is the right unit for analysis. The trouble with the piece though is the immediate inference from two sets of inequality stats to a narrative about what matters most, as if the two things Harford is talking about are wholly independent variables. This is a vice to which economists are rather prone.

Following Branko Milanovic, Harford writes:

Imagine lining up everyone in the world from the poorest to the richest, each standing beside a pile of money that represents his or her annual income. The world is a very unequal place: those in the top 1 per cent have vastly more than those in the bottom 1 per cent – you need about $35,000 after taxes to make that cut-off and be one of the 70 million richest people in the world. If that seems low, it’s $140,000 after taxes for a family of four – and it is also about 100 times more than the world’s poorest people have. What determines who is at the richer end of that curve is, mostly, living in a rich country.

Well indeed, impressive stuff. And as Joseph Carens noticed long ago, and Harford would presumably endorse, nationality can function rather like feudal privilege of history. People are indeed sorted into categories, as they were in a feudal or class society, that confine them to particular life paths, limit their access to resources and so forth. But there’s a rather obvious point to make which rather cuts across the “X matters more than Y” narrative, which is that citizenship isn’t a barrier for the rich, or for those with valuable skills. It is the poor who are excluded, who are denied the right to better themselves in the wealthy economies, who drown in the Mediterranean, or who can’t live in the same country as the love of their life. Citizenship, nationality, borders are ways of controlling the mobility of the poor whilst the rich pass effortlessly through. It isn’t simply an alternative or competitor to class, it is also a way in which states enforce class-based inequality.

Categories: Group Blogs

Learning Japanese; I Really Think So

Thu, 2014-11-06 01:42

John and I have stayed in Singapore so long for a number of reasons—mainly he has tenure in Philosophy now and prior to that a good tenure-track job with excellent housing benefits, which is not the easiest thing to find ever. But also it is a really good place for children, even if it might be a boring place for…older children? People in their twenties? Pure physical safety is an underrated quality. I can remember once when I was walking back home the 750 metres to our house from the children’s hospital, where Violet, then four, was deathly ill with a norovirus (she was either vomiting or having diarrhea every 45 minutes for the first five days; she would have died if she weren’t on an IV drip, and we had to carefully clean her up and change the sheets each time. And again. She was so brave. I couldn’t stop thinking about all the mothers in third-world countries whose babies were dying in their arms right then for want of this same simple treatment.) I stayed with her in the hospital all seven days, sleeping with her in her single bed, but John was spelling me so I could shower at home. The walk involves a trip under a big highway overpass. It’s decently lit, but not to way back up under the eaves of the ground and the ceiling of the thudding road. First of all, it doesn’t even smell much like pee! (I know, right?) It smells a little like pee. A little. Usually it smells like wet dirt after rain, or like dried-out leaves, or coppery mud, or stale exhaust from an idling double-decker bus (they pull a vicious U-turn there; it’s sort of magnificent, like the hippos doing ballet in Fantasia.) Like smoke, if Sumatra has been improvidently, per usual, set on fire. Like the water in the canal that runs between the two directions of the lower road, either uniform turbid red and two metres deep after the rain, or here and there transparent with skrims of various weeds and slimes that blossom instantaneously, and tadpoles that the egrets stalk in the hand-span deep water at the slack.

The point is this, though: I was walking under there by myself at like 3 a.m. with my headphones in, through the tropical night air (and as much as Singapore is too hot during the day, the feeling of a warm night breeze is a lovely one), and it occurred to me that it reminded me just a little of what this one area under the Rhodes Island Avenue Metro station in D.C. was like when I was a teenager. And that made me think of how much if I were in America I would NEVER BE WALKING IN THIS F#$KING place at all in the tar-black night and my headphones on, listening to Rare Essence. OK, maybe I would be listening to Rare Essence, but inside tho. I love Rare Essence. Singapore is hella safe! In this particular case there is a huge police station (one of the five biggest) in between my old place and the hospital, so it’s extra safe. There’s also not a culture of street harassment compared with places like the U.S. or Italy (other places I’ve lived.) There’s still some, and still groping on public trans, and dudes flashing you and stuff, but just mugging you, beating you up, stealing your stuff—for that it’s like night and day. Likewise people naturally get murdered by other people whom they know, and there is domestic violence, and abuse of domestic workers. Still, the random beatdown element is way different. Now, when I grew up I lived part of the time in D.C. and in NYC during their worst-ever crime periods, and even in SF/the East Bay in the late 90s it was not the greatest. I am partly comparing present-day Singapore with America of the past. I think people overestimate dangers in the States nowawdays. But my sister has had to bring the girls home from the park by my mom’s house because a big group of teenagers were trying to break into the closed school, and when that looked like it was failing were headed over to hassle them for the hell of it. And getting catcalled so much as a young girl is so, so, disturbing and upsetting. It ties your stomach in knots to have old men make gross soft noises with their mouths when you pass by, when you’re 12. It makes you hate your stupid high little breasts and wish they would be reabsorbed into your body so you could be normal again.

OK, that was a digression. (But, damn street harassment sucks SO BAD I HATED IT. When I think of people doing that to my daughters and making them walk along looking straight forward like soldiers in a war they’re losing, cheeks burning with shame, I want to hit people on the head with rocks.) We’ve stayed in Singapore. The safety thing is an underrated factor. Being able to afford a live-in maid on a white-collar worker’s salary is also an underrated factor because people are embarrassed to say how awesome it is. I am chronically ill as you (may not?) know, and I am stuck in bed a lot of the time. It would be a huge struggle for John and I alone to keep the household running even adequately. We don’t have any family to help. Instead of mere adequacy, we have Mary Poppins-like perfection. With the time saved by our helper Malou ironing the girls’ uniforms, I can sew their Chihiro from Spirited Away cosplay costumes by hand, without patterns, because I am so crafty! (No, ironing is not crucial. Yes everyone at school’s uniforms are ironed. The French and Japanese mothers do not hire maids but everyone else does.) But one of the main reasons for living in Singapore has always been our children learning Mandarin. They each started at three. Violet had an advantage in that the first pre-K class she was put in had a teacher from Beijing who could not speak two English words put together, and most of the children were native Mandarin speakers from Beijing. So she got a full immersion boost at the start that has kept her a little ahead of Zoë the whole way. They are both quite good, though. We sent them for many years—until last year—to a school which was in many ways totally unsatisfactory, just because it was run by a for-profit Chinese school that imported teachers from Beijing and had hours of Mandarin a day, unlike the 45 minutes you get at the Singapore American School (or did at the time I checked about placement. SAS has other issues, in any case.) They had classes like Art in Mandarin, and then for ‘Maths’ the kids would be split and the ESL kids would learn in Mandarin and the English-speakers in English. (Sort of a pain for the many native German, Korean, Dutch, Bahasa Indonesia, Burmese etc. speakers, but I guess they were used to it.)

If we had moved to Beijing or Hong Kong lo these many 14 years ago, I would have learned (some variant of) Chinese. But the thing is, Singaporeans don’t really speak Mandarin! OK, no, that’s not fair at all. Educated Singaporeans are capable speakers and excellent readers. Less well-educated, older Singaporeans still often speak a dialect, such as Hokkien, that their grandparents spoke when they immigrated. But even Singaporeans are down on themselves for their accent in Mandarin, which they (and unfortunately other Chinese-speakers whom I have spoken to) regard as atrocious. More problematic is the fact that no one really communicates often spontaneously with one another in Mandarin. Everyone can speak English. Or at least Singlish (a real live creole! With Malay, Hokkien, Hakka and Tamil loan words and Malay-grammatically-analogous particles, lah!) If I tried to speak Mandarin to taxi drivers I would run up against the fact that they don’t speak good Mandarin. It took my children years to work up the courage to explain to me that the taxi uncles weren’t asking the question, “so do you speak Chinese, little girls?” to them properly, since they were leaving out about 1/3 of the needed words. Leaving out 1/3 of the words is just how Singlish works, so this seems believable to me. Up till then I was thinking, is this school just ripping me off or what? More educated Singaporeans, closer in age to me, invariably speak better English than they do Mandarin (inasmuch as they speak perfect English), so there’s not really anyone to practice on! [Commenter david points out it kind of seems like I’m talking smack about Singaporean people here for being dumb at languages or bad at Mandarin or something. They’re not. Rather, they’re good at English, and have friends of varying ethnicities, with whom they communicate…in English. But I’m sure if I were studying Mandarin, reading Chinese-language press, and consuming the multifarious forms of Chinese-language TV/radio I would feel differently and find lots of people to practice on. Everyone else’s skills at English have caused learned helplessness in me.]

As you have no doubt realized, our older daughter is obsessed with all things Japanese. She has been wanting to learn Japanese for more than a year, and we finally got organized to get a tutor to come in starting in September. I decided I would go ahead and learn it also. Zoë’s got a huge advantage in that she hears native speakers all day (all her friends are Japanese and they switch back and forth as needed). She could already read/write hiragana and katakana at the start, while I had to learn them in the first week. Then, knowing so much Mandarin, she obviously knows a ton of kanji (characters borrowed from older Chinese) already (although they are different, being unsimplified, and also naturally stand for different sounds. Multiple different sounds, actually, and words.) I have been enjoying it a lot, although I need to get off the computer now and start memorizing words while my brain still works for the day. I am a big fan of flash cards and brute force memorization. Zoë has been studying using an interesting and effective method: she transcribes the lyrics to Vocaloid songs she likes, using the romaji (transcription into the latin alphabet) to figure out what the (single character) kanji say if needed, and then writes down the meanings, getting help from her friends and the internet to figure out which word is which. Because the songs are about similar themes she ends up learning quite a few useful words, and also some funny kanji that surprise her friends. I have been trying it and it’s fun. But this is my first time ever learning a non-Indo-European language! Or a language with non-syllabic characters! (Sanskrit’s alphabet is technically a syllabary as every ‘letter’ is followed by short /a/ unless otherwise shown.) What about you guys? How have you found it (learning some non IE language, I mean.) It’s also the first time I’ve learned a new language since I learned Italian at 27, and that’s super-easy (if you know Latin really well and French OK). I’m taking topamax for my terrible migraines and it makes you kinda dumb…I’m worried about that too. This was the real original point of my post, it didn’t end up being very balanced that way. Oh well. TELL ME YOUR STORIES.

Click cc/subtitles for lyrics translations. No romaji, sorry. (Confidential to mcmanus-sensei: we collect songs for all our favorite manga characters; this is the Ciel Phantomhive from Kuroshitsuji song. He is doomed. To hell. He could have loved other people, but he failed. It is an oft-pondered question: how will the manga end? Sebastian will eat Ciel’s soul? Unsatisfactory. Sebastian will renounce his claim? Undemonic and that’s not how binding magical contracts work. The mangaka Toboso-sensei will keep raking in money hannover-fist? Undoubtedly. Interestingly, our assumption of why they made Ciel a girl in the live-action was simply that no boy could be pretty enough, just like no boy is pretty enough to cosplay any male manga hero. Look at cosplay of Ciel online. Ain’t no boy can pull that off. But of course they could have just had the actress cross-dress as a stipulatively male character, so the point is well-taken—people couldn’t handle the implicit gay?)

Categories: Group Blogs