Out of the crooked timber of humanity, no straight thing was ever made
Updated: 5 weeks 4 days ago
I think that anyone who sits down to read the Wieseltier decades of critical reviews in The New Republic will notice that at some mysterious philosophical level a great many of those hundreds of essays seem to cohere. It is not because they display a particular ideological bent or follow a political line. Something deeper is at work, which I do not know how to describe. (It is a task for a philosopher-historian.) I note a nearly uniform predisposition against the doctrines of determinism, whether they be scientific or economic or identity-political. There has always been, in any case, an intellectual ardor, as if the entire “back of the book” were asmolder with passion—a passion for the creative labors of certain species of writers and artists and thinkers. For the uncorruptible ones, for the ones-of-a-kind, for the people who are allergic to fads and factions and the stratagems of self-advancement. Perhaps the entire section has been animated by the belief, keen and insistent and unstated, that humanity’s fate lies in the hands of those people. This is not the sort of belief that researchers will declare one day to be scientifically confirmed. But it has the advantage of generating a hot-blooded criticism—occasionally cruel or trigger-happy, but always intense, which means thrilling.
I can’t help wondering if Berman is making some class of a highly elliptical bid to be nominated for the Bad Sex Award (subsection on intellectual affairs). Discuss, if you really have to.
In the UK, we’ve just got the results of the Research Excellence Framework, successor to the Research Assessment Excercise, and the method that the state uses to disburse a very large amount of public money. Nobody is sure why the name was changed from “exercise” to “framework”, but since you can strap a person to a frame and then compel them to submit to sundry indignities, the change seems apt. The point of the REF is to measure the quality of research done at a particular institution and to give more of it, indeed most of it, to the departments that have produced the best work. It also has other effects, such as moving universities up and down in various league tables, and doing the same for their constituent departments. One further effect of those movements is to get university managers sharpening knives and threatening to close departments and sack individuals. It is all very unpleasant.
You would hope, then, that an exercise so fateful for the lives of academics and for the distribution of public money would measure what it is supposed to measure. No doubt there is some relationship between good research and REF scores, but there are also significant problems. One of these is that people are incentivized to produce research that will meet with the approval of the assessors and that this may have a conservative effect on disciplines, which also, thereby, become more disciplinary towards the heterodox. Another is that the rules for inclusion may be constructed in such a way that research that redounds to the credit of one institution may have been done somewhere else entirely. This has, in the past, resulted in a transfer market for “high fliers” and the payment of salaries to them which may have restricted entry-level opportunities. When this happens in the UK, we’ve effectively had a near zero sum game between institutions which won’t have done much to improve the overall quality of research done. The other issue has been the question of how to include people with fractional appointments in the assessment. This time, anybody employed on a 0.2 contract (that is, effectively one day a week) could be submit the same number of “outputs” to the exercise as a full-time employee. Although the inclusion of such a person would only increase the staff numbers eligible for “QR” funding by 0.2, their papers and books would still raise the average score of the department as if they counted for one, and this average, multiplied by the staff numbers, will benefit them financially. And, of course, such a department would rise higher in the league table than its comparators, with possible ill-effects for the displaced.
Of course, there may be perfectly good reasons to offer top American scholars 0.2 contracts at UK universities. They may improve the environment, be of service to graduate students, and so on. I’ve been assured that such were the reasons the University of Birmingham employed Paul Boghassian (NYU), Hartry Field (NYU), Kit Fine (NYU), Allison Jaggar (Colorado), Stephen Neale (CUNY), Susanna Siegel (Harvard), and Ralph Wedgwood (USC) in its Philosophy department. Still, when the BBC publishes a league table saying that “most world leading research” in Philosophy in the UK is done at Birmingham, one might think that claim a misleading one.
I’m also puzzled, given the effects on the disbursement of public money, why no UK university sought to challenge the 0.2 rule in the courts, to seek judicial review, given its perverse consequences.
In light of changing relations between Cuba and the U.S., I thought I’d post photos of cars I took in Cuba when I was there just over two years ago. The scene was even more amazing than one might expect. Some of the US cars from the ‘50s were in fabulous condition, the result of lots of hard work, no doubt. Others were less glossy, but no less impressive (and certainly functional). Also, having grown up in Budapest in the ‘70s and ‘80s, I got a kick out of seeing Ladas on the street, and even the occasional Polski Fiat.
And then there is the beach.
That is all.
At a meeting on refugee rights the other night, one of the other activists asked me if I am a Marxist. “No,” I replied, “though I used to be.” I think the last time it was a vaguely accurate description of me was probably sometime in the late 1980s or early 1990s. It is hard to be sure. Not that I mind being called one, or think that being one is something to be ashamed of. In fact, I felt slightly sorry to disappoint my interlocutor. But things are what they are. So despite there being an irritating buzzing noise somewhere on the interwebs telling the world that I am a “Western Marxist”, I’m afraid I have to disclaim the title.
Nearly six years ago, I wrote the following as a suggestion for how to explain Marx to people (students) who were coming to him cold:
Suppose I were lecturing about Karl Marx: I’d do the same thing. I’d probably start by discussing some of the ideas in the Manifesto about the revolutionary nature of the bourgeoisie, about their transformation of technology, social relations, and their creation of a global economy. Then I’d say something about Marx’s belief that, despite the appearance of freedom and equality, we live in a society where some people end up living off the toil of other people. How some people have little choice but to spend their whole lives working for the benefit of others, and how this compulsion stops them from living truly truly human lives. And then I’d talk about Marx’s belief that a capitalist society would eventually be replaced by a classless society run by all for the benefit of all. Naturally, I’d say something about the difficulties of that idea. I don’t think I’d go on about Pol Pot or Stalin, I don’t think I’d recycle the odd bon mot by Paul Samuelson, I don’t think I’d dismiss Hegel out of hand, and I don’t think I’d contrast modes of production with Weberian modes of domination (unless I was confident, as I wouldn’t be, that my audience already had some sense of those concepts).
Thinking about the matter again, I think I’d stick to those themes. Of course, then there’s the question of which texts would best illustrate those themes. It seems that some people believe those themes are best illustrated by looking at Marx’s early writings and that to do so would necessarily involve a distortion of Marx’s career bu concentrating on early texts. I don’t see it myself. When Corey Robin, Alex Gourevitch and I were thinking about freedom and the workplace, a central text for us was the chapter on the buying and selling of labour power, from volume 1 of Capital, you know, the one about “the exclusive realm of Freedom, Equality, Property and Bentham.” Thinking about human nature, work under capitalism, and its contrast with truly human work, I’d be sure to look at “The Results of the Immediate Process of Production” (included as an appendix to the Penguin edition of volume one of Capital). And central to explaining the importance of Marx to students of contemporary political philosophy would be the Critique of the Gotha Programme. Of course the themes you’d focus on and the texts you use are inevitably shaped by what you’re trying to achieve, the audience you’re addressing and similar matters. A comprehensive survey of Marx’s work, such as the two-year-long course Jerry Cohen ran in the mid 1980s at UCL (and which I was lucky enough to attend) would have a very different content to a taster course aimed at newbies.
You know what’s a good idea, if you have access to a university library? Checking out nice big fat art books. The older daughter and I have been undertaking a study of French art. She likes Daumier, not Picasso. The Essence of Line: French Drawings from Ingres to Degas [amazon]. Daughter says: great stuff! I also checked out The Age of Watteau, Chardin, and Fragonard: Masterpieces of French Genre Painting [amazon], because I wanted to show both daughters a better-than-web-quality reproduction of that Fragonard swing from Frozen. Disney has been on a Fragonard kick since Tangled. (But I don’t suppose so many Crooked Timber readers are heavy into Disney princess films. But Tangled is really a masterpiece, I say.)
Anyway, older daughter’s reaction to Fragonard’s The Swing: is this some kind of ironic political protest? Stands to reason that Fragonard must have been the Stephen Colbert of rococo art. Book says it was painted in 1790. Presumably Fragonard read the newspapers. But wikipedia says it was painted circa 1767. That makes more sense.
The thing that’s great about Fragonard is … the trees. Just look at this ridiculous thing, The Meeting. I want someone to do a fête galante superhero comic in the style of Fragonard, with all the trees like so much Kirby Krackle, and all the heroes and heroines in satin, flouncing about. Imagine if Fragonard had painted Galactus and the Silver Surfer.
But I digress. In the Fragonard book, on the facing page, we get an amazing addition to my informal collection of silly pictures of philosophers.
The Young Philosopher (1790), by Louis-Léopold Boilly (who was a good caricaturist). Anyway, this picture needs a caption, and that’s where you come in. Our only clue – the young lady’s dainty digit points at an inscription which reads, “Ce qui m’allume m’enteint“; ‘what excites me, consumes me.’
What should the caption be?
“What if we’re all zombies? How could we tell?”
“It’s a damn shame about The New Republic.”
“It’s really about ethics in games journalism.”
“I don’t know why everyone is so hard on John Holbo in Crooked Timber comments. I think he’s so clever.”
I’m sure you can do better.
A group of prominent liberal Zionists—including Michael Walzer, Michael Kazin, and Todd Gitlin—is calling for “personal sanctions” against “Israeli political leaders and public figures who lead efforts to insure permanent Israeli occupation of the West Bank and to annex all or parts of it unilaterally in violation of international law.” The personal sanctions they’re calling for include visa restrictions imposed by the US state.
Three thoughts about this move.
First, good for them. It’s limited and makes several assumptions that I don’t accept, but it ratchets up the pressure. That’s great.
Second, it shows just how aware these intellectuals are of the power of BDS. There’s little doubt that without BDS—especially the ASA academic boycott—this never would have happened. Indeed, as Haaretz explains, the group that organized this statement was formed in 2013 explicitly in response to BDS.
“All of us are very engaged in opposing the academic boycott and other boycotts,” said Walzer in an interview. He is author of numerous books, including “In God’s Shadow: Politics in the Hebrew Bible,” (Yale University Press) and last year retired as co-editor of Dissent magazine. “But at the same time we always insist we are against the occupation. This seemed to be a usefully dramatic way of focusing attention on where it should be focused and not where some of the BDS people are trying to put it,” Walzer said.
“This would provide a way of mobilizing votes against blanket boycotts but equally against the attempts to make the occupation irreversible,” Shafir said….
“We really are fighting on two fronts,” said Shafir, who was born in Ramat Aviv and began his career at Tel Aviv University, before moving to California in 1987. “That is our identity.”
Third, I am curious about the free speech implications of this move. As Haaretz reports, Cary Nelson opposes this petition on free speech grounds because it punishes these four figures merely for their statements (apparently, it’s okay to punish other individuals for their statements), but I think the move raises a different problem.
If a student group or scholarly association were to call for a ban on these four Israeli figures from speaking on a US campus or at an academic convention (or shout them down), I suspect the individuals signing this petition would immediately object on two grounds. First, not that the rights of these four individuals, but the rights of potential audiences in academia to hear them, were being violated. And, second, that by banning these speakers, students and academic associations were imperiling and narrowing open academic discussion.
But if the American state bans these four figures from entering the US, which would mean they couldn’t speak on US campuses or at an academic conventions, this group of signatories is okay with it.
It tells you something, I think, about the state of contemporary liberalism that when it comes to academic freedom and freedom of speech, some of its most thoughtful voices have a more permissive and indulgent view of the state than they do of students and scholarly associations.
Update (December 13)
As I pointed out to Michael Kazin last year, when he raised the call against the ASA academic boycott, the very same objection that he leveled against the boycott—why are you singling out Israel?—could be made against any move to oppose Israel. So in this case: seems like anyone who has bought into the “why single out Israel” line has to object to this move by Walzer et al. After all, why aren’t they calling for personal sanctions against four officials of the Chinese regime over their treatment of the Tibetans?
Yesterday was Human Rights Day, and I spent the evening at an excellent gathering organized by Bristol Refugee Rights about the UK’s record on indefinite detention of migrants. Around 30,000 people every year, mostly men, are detained by the British state by bureaucratic processes without judicial oversight. Some of them include extremely vulnerable people who have been torture victims in the countries they have fled from. When they are detained, often after a routine visit to a police station, they then face a future with no certainty at all. Some people have been detained for up to eight years: as a criminal you’d have to have done something pretty serious actually to serve that long. And these are prison-like conditions, administered mainly by private companies with poor records (to put it mildly) of looking after the interests of those in their charge.
It wasn’t the only news on Human Rights Day. We also heard what we’ve long known, that the United States routinely tortured on an industrial scale after 9/11. And then we have the seemingly endless series of post-Ferguson stories of police ill-treatment of black Americans and the failures of the judicial branch of that state to hold such official perpetrators to account.
Meanwhile, here’s a commonplace statement within political theory about what “legitimacy means”. It is from Andrew Altman and Christopher Heath Wellman’s book A Liberal Theory of International Justice.
“a state has earned legitimacy if it is willing and able (a) to protect its members against ‘substantial and recurrent threats’ to a decent human life – threats such as the arbitrary deprivation of life or liberty, and the infliction of torture – and (b) to refrain from imposing such threats on outsiders”. (p.4).
In other work, on immigration, Wellman has argued for the right of states to exclude would-be migrants, just so long as those states are legitimate. The trouble is, that lots of modern states, the ones tacitly referred to by liberal theorists when they distinguish between legitimate states, outlaw states and so forth, don’t actually meet the criteria for legitimacy that the same theorists endorse. Here, I’m not intending a dig at Wellman, but rather a statement of what participants in these conversations presuppose when they enunciate principles, give policy examples, and so forth. But when we leave the seminar room, there’s not an awful lot of legitimacy in the world.
What should be our attitude? I’m not completely sure, but here’s a stab at an answer. As campaigners, I think that lowering our standards for legitimacy would be a mistake as these express important principles which politicians play lip service to on high days an holidays. Just the other day, in a much-promoted speech on immigration, the British PM David Cameron went on about Britain’s proud record of providing sanctuary for those fleeing persecution. Did he believe what he was saying? Is his capacity to hold contradictory beliefs that developed? Or is he just a hypocrite? We should hold them to the ideals they profess. But for other purposes, such as political theory, maybe threshold standards of legitimacy have to go and we should take a more piecemeal attitude, granting authority to states, including non-democratic ones, in some of their functions (directing traffic, macroeconomic management, maintaining public health) but refusing it to them as a whole? Piecemeal philosophical anarchism.
I’m following up Henry’s post on the superiority or otherwise of economists, and Krugman’s piece, also bouncing off Fourcade et al, with a few observations of my own, that don’t amount to anything systematic. My perspective is a bit unusual, at least for the profession as it exists today. I didn’t go to graduate school, and I started out in an Australian civil service job in the low-status1 field of agricultural economics.
So, I have long experience as an outsider to the US-dominated global profession. But, largely due to one big piece of good luck early on (as well as the obligatory hard work and general ability), I’ve done pretty well and am now, in most respects, an insider, at least in the Australian context.
I’ve also followed an approach, strongly deprecated in US academia, of writing lots of papers on many different topics. That has exposed me to a lot of different subfields of economics, each with their own status hierarchy and criteria for what counts as good work.
My conclusion from this experience is that the obvious problems of academic macroeconomics aren’t unique to that field (in fact, as Krugman points out, the sharp divisions within the field make it unusually open in some ways). In many parts of economics, the status rankings and evaluation criteria are driven much more by internal and aesthetic factors than by empirical validity or policy relevance.
There’s a big arbitrary element to all this. If the seminal (sic) paper by the recognised smartest guy (sic) in the field formulated the core problem in a particular way, his (sic) grad students will learn and propagate that way of doing things, and will vigorously resist any alternative approach, even a purely technical reformulation. They have, after all, a lot invested in the idea that they have learned something valuable that no one else really understands.
If you want to see the mentality at first hand, and have a strong stomach, take a dive into the cesspool that is Economics Job Market Rumors. I should mention that my distaste for EJMR is fully reciprocated. The idea that an understanding of economics combined with attention to actual events is more useful than mastery of a highly specialised bag of tricks is totally antithetical to the ethos of the site (unsurprisingly, they hate Krugman even more than they hate me). In a less extreme form, that’s true of the econ profession in general, as the Fourcade et al piece shows.
I’m reposting this in advance of the release of the torture report, and because (via Digby), the ACLU is making a similar argument in all seriousness.
Consider an effort to measure the misdeeds of the ‘global war on terror.’ On the one side of the balance sheet, we have Richard B. Cheney. This gentleman, now in private life, is a self-admitted and unrepentant perpetrator of war crimes – specifically, of ordering the torture of Al Qaeda detainees. Along with other senior members of the Bush regime, he is also guilty of the outsourcing of even viler forms of torture through the extraordinary rendition of individuals to regimes notorious for torturing prisoners (including the dispatch of Maher Arar, who was entirely innocent, to the torturers of Syria). The Obama administration has shown no enthusiasm whatsoever for prosecuting Cheney, or other Bush senior officials, for their crimes. While Obama has effectively admitted that they were torturers, he has indicated, both through public statements and continued inaction, that he would prefer to let bygones be bygones.
On the other, we have Chelsea Manning. She appears to be a confused individual – but her initial motivation for leaking information, if the transcripts are correct, were perfectly clear. She was appalled at what he saw as major abuses of authority by the US, including incidents that he witnessed directly in Iraq. There is no evidence that her leaking of information has caused anything worse than embarrassment for the US. Yet she is being pursued by the Obama administration with the vengefulness of Greek Furies. While Manning was being kept in solitary confinement, and treated in an inhuman fashion, Richard Cheney was enjoying the manifold pleasures of a well-compensated private life, being subjected to no more than the occasional impertinent question on a Sunday talk show, and the inconveniences of being unable to travel to jurisdictions where he might be arrested.
It would appear then that the administration is rather more prepared to let bygones be bygones in some cases than in others. High officials, who ordered that torture be carried out and dragged the US into international disrepute, are given an ex post carte blanche for their crimes, while a low-ranking soldier who is at most guilty of leaking minor secrets at the lowest levels of classification, was treated inhumanely and sentenced to decades of imprisonment.
So here’s my proposal. It’s perfectly clear that Richard B. Cheney will never be prosecuted because a prosecution would be politically inconvenient. If that’s the Obama administration’s decision (and it’s pretty clear that it is the Obama administration’s decision), then the administration should own it. The president should grant Richard Cheney a pardon for his crimes. Simultaneously, as an acknowledgement that the high crimes of state officials should not go unpunished while the lesser crimes of those who opposed the Iraq war are exposed to the vengefulness of the military tribunal system, Chelsea Manning should receive a complete pardon too.
I can’t imagine that Richard B. Cheney would like getting a presidential pardon. Indeed, I rather imagine that he’d vigorously protest it. It would serve as the best formal acknowledgment that we’re likely to get that he is, indeed, a criminal. Obviously, it would also be an unhappy compromise for those who think that he should be exposed to the full rigors of the law. But I personally think that it would be an acceptable compromise (others may reasonably disagree), if it were applied to both sides rather than just one.
(Originally posted with minor differences here
DJ Earworm has come out with his 2014 year-end mix. For those who have not hear them before, he makes mashups at the end of the year with the top 25 songs. Since he started making ‘Summermash 13’ and ‘Summermash 14,’ the songs from earlier in the year don’t get as much love, which is sort of too bad if the good songs were earlier in the year, but OK since you can hear him use the same bit quite differently. Assuming you don’t know these songs (except three maybe, except none maybe) the lines of the song and even words of a line are all from different songs.
ANYWAY speaking of Magic, one of the not-good songs in the year-end mix was a meagre Canadian reggae song called “Rude,” which you must now go listen to the first 45 seconds of so you can fully appreciate the genius of this cover. No, go. No. Seriously, I’m not posting it until you—-OK, then. Now this you really want to watch. This is not you humoring me, this is straight awesome and not in some abstruse possibly ironic way where I double back and like Christina Aguilera (I don’t obvs.)
Marc Parry has a poignant, almost haunting story in the Chronicle of Higher Education about Saskia Sassen, the Columbia sociologist and urban theorist, whose father was Willem Sassen. If you’ve read Bettina Stangneth’s Eichmann Before Jerusalem—or are a close reader of Arendt’s Eichmann in Jerusalem—you’ll know that Willem Sassen was a Dutch Nazi who joined up with the SS. More important, he was part of a circle of Nazis in postwar Argentina, where he led a series of interviews with Adolf Eichmann, in which Eichmann outs himself as a committed anti-Semite and firm believer in the Final Solution. The Sassen interviews have always been a part of the Eichmann/Arendt story, but they have become especially important in the last few years with the publication of Stangneth’s book.
I bought and read the book back in September, and it was then that I realized that Saskia, who I’ve met and been in touch with over the years, was the daughter of Willem. I had no idea about the connection. But then I looked up Willem Sassen’s Wikipedia page, and there it was, for anyone to see. I asked a bunch of fellow academics, all of them readers or colleagues of Saskia. None of them knew about the connection either.
At one level, this is much of a muchness. There’s an entire generation of children, now grandchildren and great grandchildren, of Nazis and their fellow travelers, and they’ve all had to come to terms with the actions of their parents and grandparents. Saskia’s career and contributions have nothing to do with her father. Nor should they. I can certainly identify with her desire to be known on her terms: she was but a child when her father was conspiring with Eichmann to rehabilitate the latter’s reputation and that of the Nazis more generally.
What’s interesting to me about the story—in addition to the sheer and sad drama of any of us having to confront who our parents are and what they may have done in the past—is, given Saskia’s stature, how few of us knew about this story. Particularly with its cognate connection to Arendt. As I’ve been writing over these past few months, the Arendt/Eichmann story is of perennial interest, and the Sassen chapter of that story has become increasingly important. What’s more, Saskia’s husband—Richard Sennett—was a student of Arendt’s. And Saskia was part of a circle around Susan Sontag, who was also connected to Arendt in the 1960s, and who shrewdly cornered Saskia one day in the 1980s and asked her, “So what is your story in Argentina?”
As Stagneth documents, in the 1950s, it was common knowledge among government sources and agents, from Germany to Israel, that Eichmann was hiding out in Argentina. Everyone knew it, yet no one really seemed to know it. There’s a similarly purloined letter quality to this story about Saskia Sassen. In addition to the Wikipedia page, Saskia has given some interviews about her father over the years. Yet few people, even her closest friends, knew about it. As Parry reports in one of the most moving parts of the article, the urban sociologist Susan Fainsten has known Saskia since they were colleagues at Queens College many years ago.
Update (11 pm)
Just because, judging by some of the initial comments, I feel like we’re heading into a major clusterfuck of a comments thread, even by Crooked Timber standards, I want to make clear what I’m saying here and what I’m not saying, and why I posted this. As anyone who’s been reading my posts here these past few months knows, I’ve been fairly obsessed with the Stangneth book and the larger issues of the Arendt/Eichmann controversy. The Sassen file in that archive is hugely significant. So merely to find out about the filial tie between Saskia Sassen and Willem Sassen is of interest. But that’s not why I wrote this or what draws me to the story. What fascinates me—aside from the near universal quality of the story itself, insofar as it is about children confronting and coming to terms with the mystery and otherness of their parents, something that very few of us manage to do with any kind of grace or equanimity; again, a topic I’ve written about here before—is that this was a story that wasn’t hidden yet few people knew about. And it’s not an incidental story, insofar as the players are pretty big deals in their various worlds. Again: Arendt, Eichmann, Willem Sassen, Saskia Sassen. And the reason that that doubly fascinates me is precisely that it doesn’t seem as if Saskia actually kept it a secret. As I mention, and the article discusses, she gave interviews on the topic; it was on Wikipedia. That said, I don’t think she was obligated to tell people about this; I’m more struck by the fact that she did, yet so few people, even her close friends, knew. So for me this whole story is really about a puzzle: about how certain things can be in plain sight, yet not seen or known. The purloined letter, as I mentioned.
The New Republic is coming to an end. And the autopsies have begun. So have the critiques. But the real problem with The New Republic is not that it was racist, though it was. It’s not that it was filled with warmongers, though it was. It’s not that it punched hippies, though it did. No, the real problem with The New Republic is that for the last three decades, it has had no energy. It has had no real project. The last time The New Republic had a project was in the late 1970s/early 1980s, when it was in the journalistic vanguard of what was then called neoliberalism (not what we now call neoliberalism). That is what a great magazine of politics and culture does: it creates a project, it fashions a sensibility. The Spectator did it in the early 18th century, Partisan Review in the 1930s did it, Dissent in the 1950s did it, and The New Republic in the 1970s/1980s did it. I’m not saying that I like that last project; I don’t. I’m just saying that it was a project, and that it was a creation. Love them or hate them, great magazines gather the diverse and disparate energies of a polity and a culture and give them focus. They shape assumptions, they direct attention, they articulate a direction. The New Republic hasn’t done that since I was a teenager. (That’s the irony/inanity of Stephen Glass’ famed—really, fabled—fabulism: there was nothing fabulistic about it at all. His lies weren’t stretchers. They were social truths: they played to, repeated, every conventional assumption of the age of which the magazine was capable.) That’s why virtually every obituary for the magazine that’s been written by people of roughly my age opens or closes with a memoir of one’s high school experience; the entire constituency of the magazine seems to be suffering from a Judd Apatow-like case of arrested development. In the last three decades, The New Republic has generated controversy, clickbait, talk of the town. It’s sponsored solid journalism, smart criticism, bad policy and bloody wars. God knows, it has not suffered for talent or intelligence. But what it hasn’t done is create a sense or sensibility, a deep style in the Nietzschean sense. It has instead been living off the borrowed energy and dead labor of its past. It has long ceased to be the place where the intellectual action is. To mourn its demise now is to mourn something that disappeared years ago.
1. Thirty-four heads of departments and academic units at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign wrote a scorching letter to the University of Illinois’s new president. With some startling information about the effect the boycott is having on the University:
Most troubling of all, the ability of many departments to successfully conduct faculty searches, especially at the senior level, has been seriously jeopardized. While the possible negative effects on even junior searches remain to be seen, the Department of History has already abandoned a previously authorized senior search in U.S. history this year in recognition of the bleak prospects of attracting suitable applicants in the current climate. An open rank search in Philosophy attracted 80% fewer applicants at the rank of associate or full professor than a senior search in the same area of specialization just last year.
2. That 34 heads of departments and units are now signed on in opposition to the university’s handling of the case is also a big development. Back in the summer, it seemed as if we were hovering at about 15 or so departments. Clearly, far from diminishing, the controversy on campus has only expanded.
What’s even more amazing is where it has expanded: three of the signatories are chairs of the departments of chemistry, math, and statistics. The opposition has spilled beyond the walls of the humanities and social sciences. During the summer, lots of folks dismissed this story because the natural sciences weren’t involved. Well, some of them are now. (Cue the naysayers to say that chemistry is really just a branch of the English department.)
3. A major newspaper has finally run a lengthy, in-depth profile of Salaita. The profile not only gives him a chance to speak about his case and his opinions in his own words—and to speak at length—but it also gives him space to talk about his academic work. Long before he was a case or a cause, Steven Salaita was an academic, and it’s to this newspaper’s credit that it allows him to talk about that. Oh, the name of that newspaper? Haaretz. As with so many things in the Israel/Palestine debate, you find broader, more open discussion of the issues in Haaretz than you do in an American newspaper.
4. As I discussed in a post at my blog, we hosted Salaita for a great panel discussion with Katherine Franke at Brooklyn College. I moderated. We’ve got a video of the panel.
The video doesn’t show the Q and A. If you want to hear that, you can watch it here. I recommend that you do.
Our audience was diverse in every way—ideology, age, religion, ethnicity, class—and there were a fair number of difficult and contentious questions from pro-Israel members of the audience. Which was all to the good. Critics of the panel, like Michael Rubin at Commentary, can’t seem to fathom that there might be debate at such things (unlike the raucous agora he’s used to from his days at the Pentagon or at the American Enterprise Institute, where he hangs his hat now). But it’s pretty clear that that there is. Despite my agreements with Salaita and Franke, I pressed him on his tweets, and her on the question of civility, for example. And some in the audience were even harder on them. The whole thing is a great advertisement for Brooklyn College, if you ask me.
5. And, last, this story from Salaita himself:
After the event at the University of Michigan ended yesterday evening—a million thanks to the organizers—an older gentleman approached me. He handed me a check with a business card attached by paperclip. I was confused. I instinctively told him to please keep his check. I don’t have anything to do with donations to our legal/living fund (though I promise the fund is legit). I’m far too uncomfortable accepting money, even in the best of faith.
He cut me off and introduced himself, pointing to the card as further verification of his seriousness. Its bold header read: “Unitarian Universalists for Justice in the Middle East.” Beneath the header: “Larry A. Cooper, President—Board of Directors.”
The check was for a small sum, but its value is infinite. Mr. Cooper explained to me that he graduated from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and every year since he’s offered a donation to his alma mater. This year, however, he told the school he wouldn’t be able to contribute anymore and explained why. His sense was that they’ve heard the same thing from numerous donors. They put on a full-court press, as fundraising offices do, but he told them that this year he would be giving his annual donation to Steven Salaita.
The notes section at the lower left of the check says: “’73 UI grad.”
Mr. Cooper, should you happen to read this: I hope you won’t be angry or disappointed that I can’t bring myself to cash the check. I’d much rather keep it as a memento of kindness and generosity to provide a smile when less principled humans occupy our ground.
I just finished reading Jill LePore’s amazing book The Secret History of Wonder Woman (which, as you can see, is unlikely to be a #1 bestseller because it lacks the requisite paragraph-length subtitle). I’ve no idea why I wanted to read it—I was a Marvel , not a DC, reader as a kid, and before reading LePore’s carefully planted trailers most of what I knew came from the Lynda Carter series which I watched as a kid. So pretty much everything in the book was a revelation.
The book combines a biography of the man who conceived of and wrote Wonder Woman and the two (or three) women he lived with, with a history of the first wave of American feminism, and the story of the early years of comic books and, particularly, of course, Wonder Woman. Some reviews complain that the book focuses too much on William Moulton Marston, WW’s very strange creator and author; but I don’t think so. Wonder Woman was based on one of the women Marston lived with, Oliver Byrne, a former student of his, and also the niece of Margaret Sanger, and the mother of two of his children, neither of whom learned that Marston was their father until sometime after his death, despite having grown up in the same house. The comic books also contain references to his wife (with whom he also lived, and whose children did know he was their father), Elizabeth Holloway; and although Marston may take up more space (as he apparently did in life), LePore is much more interested in, and interesting about, the women. Marston remains enigmatic to me—I can’t tell whether he was someone who never grew up, or a self-absorbed hypocrite, or a combination of both, or something else entirely—whereas the women leap off the page as distinctive, real, and sympathetic; the only puzzles being why they lived with Moulton and why they seem to have been pretty happy with him. The book is all about secrets and lies—Marston was the inventor of the first lie-detector test, and LePore’s book detects the lies by which Marston, Holloway, Byrne, and Sanger all lived. I also learned a lot about Sanger—which I shall not mention because want to avoid spoilers! Most interesting of all to me was learning about the early Wonder Woman comics—the extent and symbolic significance of chains and binding in the stories; the almost-explicit and frequent references to homosexuality; the inclusion of 4-page inserts in every issue with biographies of “Wonder Women of History”, feminist heroines like Susan B. Anthony, Jane Addams, Madame Curie and Sojourner Truth; the support for workers rights; the channeling of the ideas and images from the first wave feminist movement; the anti-fascism (mark you, although my son has a picture of the first issue of Captain America on his bedroom wall, it was only in yesterday’s Times that I learned that issue was published a whole year before the US entered WWII, which made me feel better about having been a Marvel reader), etc…
LePore is evidently a terrific historian as well as a spectacular writer. She self-effacingly says that the people who have been interested in lie-detection, feminism, and comic books, have not intersected, implying modesty about her accomplishment. But on 212-213 she includes juxtaposed images which inadvertently demonstrate her particular skill as a researcher. One if from a suffrage parade in 1913; the other, clearly modeled on it, (or, more likely, on memory of the event, since WW’s artist was an elderly (male) suffragist who would have attended that parade) from a 1942 WW story in Sensation Comics #7 (the story is not about suffrage, but about the evils of monopoly capitalism). She must have read a lot of comics, and gone through a lot of archives of the suffrage movement.
The perfect holiday gift for your comic-book loving, feminist, lie-detecting friends and relatives….
 I became a Marvel reader because my parents, quite bizarrely, gave me a Fantastic Four annual one Christmas—I had asked for an Annual, but I meant the Beano or, with luck, Thunder (about ten years ago someone mentioned Adam Eterno on CT, who was my favourite). I’ve never asked them why they chose Fantastic Four—but it is completely out of character for both of them.
Marion Fourcade, Etienne Ollion and Yann Algan’s forthcoming piece on the ‘superiority of economists’ is a lovely, albeit quietly snarky, take on the hidden structures of the economics profession. It provides good evidence that e.g. economics hiring practices, rather than being market driven are more like an intensely hierarchical kinship structure, that the profession is ridden with irrational rituals, and that key economic journals are apparently rather clubbier than one might have expected in a free and competitive market (the University of Chicago’s Quarterly Journal of Economics Journal of Political Economy gives nearly 10% of its pages to University of Chicago affiliated scholars; perhaps its editors believe that this situation of apparent collusion will be naturally corrected by market forces over time). What appears to economists as an intense meritocracy (as Paul Krugman acknowledges in a nice self-reflective piece) is plausibly also, or alternately, a social construct built on self-perpetuating power relations.
Unsurprisingly, a lot of economists are reading the piece (we’re all monkeys, fascinated with our reflections in the mirror). Equally unsurprisingly, many of them (including some very smart ones) don’t really get Fourcade et al’s argument, which is a Bourdieuian one about how a field, and relations of authority and power within and around that field get constructed. As Fourcade has noted in previous work, economists’ dominance has led other fields either to construct themselves in opposition to economics (economic sociology) or in supplication to it (some versions of rational choice political science). Economists have been able to ignore these rivals or to assimilate their tributes, as seems most convenient. As the new paper notes, the story of economists’ domination is told by citation patterns (the satisfaction that other social scientists can take from economists having done unto them as they have done unto others, is unfortunately of limited consolation). Yet if you’re an economist, this is invisible. Your dominance appears to be the product of natural superiority.
E.g., this post by Noah Smith (who I like lots, but who is being very, very, economisty here). This bit – “A lot of academic disciplines look down on other disciplines—that’s part of the fun of academia” misses the point spectacularly in a very Raj-official-in-India kind of way. And while it’s true that many sociologists have a complex about economics, the tacit imperialism is compounded by this claim:As for economists’ “influence over the economy,” I am going to take a wild guess and say that it isn’t because of their arrogance or hierarchical insularity or “sense of authority and entitlement.” It’s probably because…drumroll…economics is the discipline that studies the economy. If politicians want to know how to reduce cancer rates, they should go to a biologist. If they want to know how to shoot missiles at Vladimir Putin, they should go to a physicist. If they want to know how to boost productivity at U.S. companies, or increase employment, or auction off broadcast spectrum rights, whom should they ask for advice? A sociologist?
Heaven forfend! After all, it’s not as if there’s a large grouping in sociology devoted specifically to the study of the economy or anything. And if there were such a peculiar tribe of sociologists, economists would surely know all about them!
More broadly, Noah argues that the reason that academic economists make more money is econ 101 – they have skills which are objectively more valuable in the outside marketplace, and hence exit options.why do economists have the option to go work in consulting and finance? The answer is simple: They have the technical skills to do so. I’m not talking about fancy math. No one hires you to do real analysis—that’s just something economists learn as an IQ test, then never use. If financial companies need someone to do serious math, they will hire a mathematician or a physicist. As for the general equilibrium models that macroeconomists call “math,” well…no one uses those for anything except publishing macroeconomics papers. The technical skill I am talking about is statistics. Economists learn a lot of statistics—much more than anyone else except for applied mathematicians and statisticians. There is a whole branch of economics, known as econometrics, dedicated to statistics. Most of the empirical work that economists do is applied statistics. Statistics is hugely valuable in the real world.
But as Arindrajit Dube points out, statisticians get paid less than economists. Perhaps it’s different when you look at statistics professors versus economics professors, but I doubt it – this data at least indicates that mathematics and statistics professors, on average, earn less money than social scientists, on average. I would guess (and am open to contradiction if wrong) that statisticians’ salaries in the academy are indeed more like sociologists than like economists (and while I’m on the topic, I dunno whether Noah ever cracks open sociology journals, but if he does, he’ll find plenty of statistical work, including work from people whose mathematical chops are unquestionable)
While I’ve no doubt that that external markets do play a role, I don’t think that it’s nearly as much of a role as Noah suggests. Instead, I suspect that much of the assumed authority of economists (just like the authority, in certain policy roles, of international relations scholars like myself), is socially constructed. Expertise is not just a matter of raw talent, whether mathematical or otherwise. It’s a matter of legitimation – of being anointed with the proper sacraments associated with publicly acknowledged expertise in a particular topic. And that is, unquestionably the product of a certain kind of politics, a kind of politics that sociologists have a lot of experience in studying.
One especially unfortunate aspect of economics is that its penchant for just-so stories can reinforce its imperialist blindnesses. If you’ve been trained systematically to look for examples of market efficiency winning out, you’ll likely be inclined to treat your own, and your discipline’s success as examples of market efficiency in action. George Mason University law school’s Moneybollocks mythology provides one cautionary tale as to how this can lead one to systematically overlook the role of politics in determining who wins and who loses.
The underlying point of the Fourcade et al. article is that politics and power play a far larger role in determining both the success of economics and the success of economics than economists are prepared to admit in public. Or, more succinctly, sociology provides a much better account of economics’ success than economics itself does. Obviously, that’s a claim that’s going to be uncongenial to economists, as well as one that many economists will have difficulty in absorbing (they usually aren’t trained to think in that way). If they were better versed in sociology, and also somewhat paranoid, they might want to treat the piece as a meta-Bourdieuian Trojan horse, that inherently elevates sociology at the expense of economics (although these imaginary well-read paranoid economists would still somehow have to deal with Fourcade’s previous work, which has tacitly rebuked economic sociology for its obsession with disproving economics). But the point would still remain – that the internal structures of economics, as well as its external influence, are very far indeed from a free market.
Update: Cosma Shalizi sends links to salary figures for statisticians and economists in the academy. As he notes, “from a quick comparison, academic economists make substantially more, at every level of rank and every level of university, than do academic statisticians.”
The other day at OrgTheory, Beth Berman had a very nice discussion on “inequality in the skies” about how much of space on planes is given over to different classes of passenger. Using seating charts, she calculated some rough Gini coefficients of inequality on board. For example, on a transatlantic flight in a three-class configuration with fancy lie-flat beds up front,
if we look again at how the space is distributed, we now have 21% of the people using about 40% of the plane, 27% using another 20%, and the final 52% using the last 40%. The Gini index has now increased, to 25.
She also noted in passing that, as unequal as that is, it’s “still nowhere near the inequality of the U.S., or the world.” I found myself wondering what a plane with seating laid out on the basis of the U.S. income distribution would look like. So, following Beth’s lead, I decided to get into the aviation business and launch Air Gini, America’s most American airline.
To begin, for context, here’s a regular old Airbus A330-300 in a three class configuration often seen on international flights. It has First, Business, and Economy Class cabins.
A plane with this layout carries two hundred and twenty seven passengers. There are one hundred and seventy seven lucky duckies in Economy, forty two in Business, and eight in First Class. As Beth did, we can see that the seventy eight percent of passengers in Economy get about fifty eight percent of the seating space on the plane. Business Class passengers get just over thirty one percent of the room, and First Class passengers get about eleven percent of the space. Perhaps you’ve flown Economy on a flight like this. As you boarded, maybe you walked past the Business Class seats, and you might also have caught a quick glimpse of the First Class seats way up front. So you have a sense of how much space different passengers have.
How does Air Gini improve on this arrangement? Those eight First Class passengers are about three and a half percent of the plane’s population; the Business Class group is eighteen and a half percent; and the remaining seventy eight percent of this little society are in Economy. So, what if the space on the plane was allocated in proportion to the share of total income earned by each class? With a bit of help from the Census Bureau, Emmanuel Saez, and the Federal Aviation Authority, Air Gini is proud to bring you the future of air travel:
In Air Gini’s three-class layout, some things look familiar and some things are a bit different. Economy Class makes up just under eighty percent of the passengers. Passengers seated there correspond to everyone who makes less than about $97,000 a year. Their share of total income in the US is just below fifty percent, and thus so is their share of the seating space. On the regular airline it was about fifty eight percent, so for these working stiffs the new arrangement is even more cramped than on our ordinary international flight. Economy Class passengers on Air Gini should expect less overhead bin space and more passive-aggressive interactions with the guy in front of them who insists on reclining his seat.
Up with the managers, meanwhile, things have become more compressed, too. Business Class travelers are just over eighteen percent of passengers, but now they get only fifteen percent of the space. That’s obviously still much better than Economy class, but it’s down from the thirty percent or so they had in the original plane. These fliers are almost all in the top quintile: in real-life terms, they correspond to everyone from just below the 80th percentile of the US income distribution up to just above the 96th percentile. Roughly, that’s households making between $97,000 and $280,000 a year. Yet many of them feel a little angry about how little space they have. Strange though it seems, some of those in the seats closest to the front of their section even feel somewhat poor—at least by comparison to those a bit further up the plane. Air Gini understands their situation and compensates them with a complimentary in-flight snack.
What has happened to make Business Class more cramped? The answer is to be found in Ruling Class. Sorry, I mean, First Class. On Air Gini, those eight most-valued passengers—three and a half percent of those on board—get thirty five percent of the available seating space. That’s a lot of legroom. So much, in fact, that as First Class passengers have spread out to take up the first third of the plane, Air Gini has been forced to replace the luxurious Business Class seats in the real-life configuration with still-comfortable but noticeably smaller chairs.
Not to worry, though. Air Gini’s eight First Class passengers can really enjoy themselves, which is the important thing. And yet, even here at the head of the aircraft, Air Gini’s layout hints that inequality may extend all the way up to the flight deck. Two of the first class seats are close to the front of Business Class, and behind a bulkhead. Awkward. Those passengers make about $300,000 a year. The passenger in the very front row, meanwhile, makes a hell of a lot more than that and has even more room to relax in than his peers. All things considered, you have to wonder exactly who is flying this plane—and more importantly, perhaps, who owns it.
Its been a long time coming, but we, at least, feel it’s been worth the wait. My book with Adam Swift, Family Values: The Ethics of Parent-Child Relationships, was published earlier this Fall. The book originated in conversations we started having many years ago when I was living in the UK, and we found not only that we were both planning to write books about the place of the family in liberal egalitarian theory, but had similar enough views, and different enough habits of mind, that a book written together would be better than either of us would write separately. Here’s the publisher’s blurb:
The family is hotly contested ideological terrain. Some defend the traditional two-parent heterosexual family while others welcome its demise. Opinions vary about how much control parents should have over their children’s upbringing. Family Values provides a major new theoretical account of the morality and politics of the family, telling us why the family is valuable, who has the right to parent, and what rights parents should—and should not—have over their children.
Harry Brighouse and Adam Swift argue that parent-child relationships produce the “familial relationship goods” that people need to flourish. Children’s healthy development depends on intimate relationships with authoritative adults, while the distinctive joys and challenges of parenting are part of a fulfilling life for adults. Yet the relationships that make these goods possible have little to do with biology, and do not require the extensive rights that parents currently enjoy. Challenging some of our most commonly held beliefs about the family, Brighouse and Swift explain why a child’s interest in autonomy severely limits parents’ right to shape their children’s values, and why parents have no fundamental right to confer wealth or advantage on their children.
Family Values reaffirms the vital importance of the family as a social institution while challenging its role in the reproduction of social inequality and carefully balancing the interests of parents and children.
You can read more about it, too, at the p. 99 test.
A good number of the ideas have been tested at some point or another on Crooked Timber, and we’re grateful to commentators for taking us to task. In fact we’ve been lucky in having been able to publish, and get feedback on, some of our ideas along the way – among the many reasons it’s taken us a while is that our ideas have evolved in response to the feedback we have gotten (this is my way of saying that the book is not a simple repackaging of the best-known papers we’ve published on the subject, but a wholesale rethinking with substantially different arguments and, in some cases, conclusions).
Since the book is about the family, I thought I’d share two of my children’s reactions when I first brought a copy of the book home. My 8 year old (boy) said “Oh you wrote a book, that’s interesting. Its a bit strange having that huge dead chicken on the cover, though”. The eldest (girl, whose friends were still frequenting the house in great numbers when the first copy turned up, just before she left for college) was less excited. “My friends are really impressed that you’ve written a book. But I’m not really. I mean, it’s just part of your job, isn’t it? It’s just what you’re supposed to do. I mean….its not like you taught a third grader to read, or something like that“.