• Roy Orbison and Judith Thomson

    by Harry on June 7, 2019

    To oldster’s dismay I casually referred to a story about Roy Orbison that I relate in class without actually relating it. So… here it is.

    In her paper A Defence of Abortion Judith Thomson makes an argument that “the right to life”, although everyone as it, should not be interpreted as involving either the right not to be killed, or the right to the bare minimum needed to sustain life. Her argument against the latter is a thought experiment. Suppose that I am dying, on the East Coast, and the only – literally the only – thing that will cure me would be the cool touch of Henry Fonda’s hand on my fevered brow. That would be the bare minimum needed to sustain my life, but I, clearly, have no right to it. It would be lovely of HF to fly from the West Coast and save me, but he is doing nothing wrong by staying put – he is not obliged to save me, so I have no right to the bare minimum needed to sustain my life.

    What does this have to do with Roy Orbison? Well, this is a story I remember from my teens. A girl of about my age was in a coma in a hospital in Scotland. The coma lasted a long time, and it got into the press, which also reported that she was a Roy Orbison fan (this is why it stuck in my head – it seemed so odd to be a Roy Orbison fan then whereas, now, it seems entirely normal). It was one of those news stories which persisted, and you’d get updates about how she was doing. Anyway, the story is that Roy Orbison (whose own life was, itself, replete with tragedies) got wind of the situation, and made a cassette tape in which he personally talked to her and played some of his songs. And, as I remember it, the girl came out of the coma very soon after her parents started playing her the tape. Of course, we don’t know that Roy Orbison’s voice was the bare minimum needed to sustain her life, nor did Roy Orbison actually cross the channel to save her; but it helps students to think that the example isn’t quite as fanciful as it seems.

    Inconveniently I didn’t cut the story out of a newspaper and put it in a scrapbook because I didn’t, for some reason, anticipate that it would serve me well as a way of rendering a thought experiment more real and intuitive. (When teaching Singer for the third time I remembered suddenly that I once saved a toddler from drowning, albeit rather inadvertently and at an age barely older than the toddler myself). In fact I think I got the final part of the story from a TV news report, so couldn’t have cut it out anyway. I’ve gone to very modest lengths to verify the story, and I can’t (I tell the students that, too—conceivably, I suppose, it is a figment of my imagination but that seems very, very unlikely).

    And… I often tease them about the fact that they don’t know who Roy Orbison is. But, every time I teach it, by the end of the class someone has told me that they have become a fan.

    { 9 comments }

    Keynes and Versailles, 100 years on

    by John Quiggin on June 7, 2019

    The 100th anniversary of the Treaty of Versailles is coming back. I have a piece in The National Interest which ran under the headline (selected by the subeditor, as is usual), America Needs to Reexamine Its Wartime Relationships. Keynes first came to public attention with his critique of the Versailles Settlement, The Economic Consequences of the Peace, whith foreshadowed, in important respects, The General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money.

    I argue that the rise, fall and rise again of the standing of Keynesian macroeconomics runs in parallel with views on the justifiability of the terms imposed at Versailles and more generally of the use of war as a policy instrument.

    { 2 comments }

    A team working on developing a short handbook for professors about how to manage TAs – this being, like so many other teaching-related matters, something we have little training and guidance in – asked me to come up with a few comments to start of the process. Below the fold are the initial thoughts which, with your help, I can revise to provide them with a starting point. Please comment away as you see fit – most of you have either managed, or been, or had, TAs, and have some sort of insight into what goes well and what goes badly, and what might be good advice for the professors who supervise them.

    [click to continue…]

    { 16 comments }

    Uses and Abuses of Tarps

    by Belle Waring on May 31, 2019

    It took me so long to find this quote. I remembered that it was Solovki, yes! And that Maxim Gorky was the visitor! And the tortures with the logs, and being staked out for the mosquitoes, and rolling the prisoners down the stairs, and the brave boy who told all, all! to Gorky and was left behind to be shot the moment Gorky’s ship left the horizon empty and barren! And the tarps. But could I find the quote? I damn sure could not. I was in the position of Edward Gorey’s Mr. Earbrass who starts up in the night having thought of the perfect lines for an epigraph: “His mind’s eye sees them quoted on the bottom third of a right-hand page in a (possibly) olive-bound book he read at least five years ago. When he does find them, it will be a great nuisance if no clue is given to their authorship.”

    I had to read before and after many instances of the mention of Gorky I will tell you what. But virtue prevailed! The Solovetsky Archipelago is almost certainly what the name of the Gulag Archipelago comes from, as Solzhenitsyn considered it the mother of the Gulag, and the primary site before the cancer metastasized. The Soviets, eager to show that the camps are actually rather nice if you think about it sent Maxim Gorky to investigate. He was newly-returned to the Soviet Union and probably disinclined to rock the boat which currently supplied him with some vast apartment and a dacha (irrelevantly, haven’t we all sort of wanted a dacha? They sound great. Perhaps Trump will get one eventually.)

    [click to continue…]

    { 43 comments }

    Hits and Misses

    by John Quiggin on May 29, 2019

    Looking back at past posts, it’s enjoyable to find those where I went out on a limb and have been proved right by events, or at least supported by subsequent evidence. A couple of examples

    It’s less fun when things don’t go as expected. Take Bitcoin as an example. Its uselessness is now even clearer than it was when I started writing about it 2013. Use in legitimate market transactions is almost non-existent, while the darknet illegal markets in which it is the preferred currency are being busted so frequently as to suggest that anyone using them is taking a big risk of losing their money, or worse. Meanwhile, the dream that Bitcoin would justify itself through the magic of blockchain has evaporated. As far as I can tell, cryptocurrencies on the Bitcoin model are the only genuine examples of blockchain technology in actual use (the label has been attached to some other projects for marketing purposes.

    I’ve always said that, given the irrationality of markets, no one can predict when Bitcoin will reach its true value of zero, and I was careful to maintain this position when I posted on Bitcoin’s decline below $4000 late last year. Still, I have to admit that I expected this mania finally to come to an end. That hasn’t happened; in fact the price has doubled.

    I won’t worry too much about the occasional (or not so occasional) error. My track record is still far better than that of the many pundits who predicted success for the Iraq war and continued claiming imminent victory years after the disaster had become evident. And most of them are still in business, apparently just as credible as ever to their audiences.

    { 28 comments }

    I’ve been getting a lot of queries about Clarence Thomas’s concurring opinion in Box v. Planned Parenthood of Indiana and Kentucky. Briefly, Thomas spends all but a few paragraphs of his twenty-page opinion outlining what he sees as the eugenicist dimensions of abortion and birth control. This, as many have noted, is a new turn in Thomas’s abortion jurisprudence. Thomas essentially argues here that abortion is the way that women select and de-select the kinds of children they’re going to have.

    What’s more, while much of the discussion on the right in this regard focuses on how considerations of the sex of the fetus or the presence of Down syndrome may influence the decision to have an abortion, Thomas focuses overwhelmingly on questions of race. Indeed, he spends an inordinate amount of time in his opinion rehearsing the role of racism in Margaret Sanger’s birth control movement. He discusses her work in Harlem and among African Americans in the South, as well as the connections between Nazism and eugenics. From there he goes to abortion. Reading Thomas, one comes away with the sense that abortion has nothing to do with the autonomy or equality of women but is instead a racist practice to control the size of the black population. The same goes for birth control.

    At one point in the opinion, Thomas makes a point of noting the NAACP’s concerns during the 1960s about the racist dimensions of the birth control movement:

    Some black groups saw “‘family planning’ as a euphemism for race genocide” and believed that “black people [were] taking the brunt of the ‘planning’” under Planned Parenthood’s “ghetto approach” to distributing its services. Dempsey, Dr. Guttmacher Is the Evangelist of Birth Control, N. Y. Times Magazine, Feb. 9, 1969, p. 82. “The Pittsburgh branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People,” for example, “criticized family planners as bent on trying to keep the Negro birth rate as low as possible.” Kaplan, Abortion and Sterilization Win Support of Planned Parenthood, N. Y. Times, Nov. 14, 1968, p. L50, col. 1.

    At another point in his opinion, Thomas slyly mentions that the majority opinion in Roe v. Wade cites the work of an extraordinarily influential and renowned British legal scholar who, according to Thomas, flirted with eugenics:
    Similarly, legal scholar Glanville Williams wrote that he was open to the possibility of eugenic infanticide, at least in some situations, explaining that “an eugenic killing by a mother, exactly paralleled by the bitch that kills her misshapen puppies, cannot confidently be pronounced immoral.” G. Williams, Sanctity of Life and the Criminal Law 20 (1957). The Court cited Williams’ book for a different proposition in Roe v. Wade, 410 U. S. 113, 130, n. 9 (1973).

    By the time the opinion is over, it seems like abortion and birth control are simply a Nazi-style mode of racial management of the demographics of a population.

    However extreme this opinion may be, it is very much in keeping with Thomas’s overall approach to constitutional questions. I have a book about Clarence Thomas, The Enigma of Clarence Thomas, coming out on September 24, and I don’t want to give too much of it away, so let me just say this: One of Thomas’s most consistent moves in his jurisprudence is to take constitutional matters that left and right disagree about but nevertheless argue about on similar terms—Thomas consistently takes these matters and transforms them into questions of race. He does this with the Establishment Clause: where both sides are debating questions of religion, he makes it all about race. He does the same with the Takings Clause: where both sides are debating questions of eminent domain, he makes it about race. He does this with campaign finance: where both sides are debating speech and the First Amendment, he makes it about race. In each instance, he takes the topic at hand and says, nope, this is really about race. And goes from there.

    What’s more, as I show in the book, this isn’t just a ruse or a way of trolling the left. It’s not just a simple playing of the race card. It’s, well, you’ll have to read the book. Which, as I said, is out on September 24 and which you can pre-order now.

    There’s also a lengthy footnote in Thomas’s opinion in Box, where he compares the thinking underlying eugenics to that which underlies disparate impact, a doctrine that falls under the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. He cites the work of the conservative black economist Thomas Sowell. I think Thomas’s jurisprudence on disparate impact, as well as the impact and influence of Sowell upon Thomas, has been radically misunderstood. But again, I don’t want to give away too much of the book here. So…

    Update (2 pm)

    My wife Laura, who works in the reproductive rights movement, just made an excellent point about the parallel between Thomas’s opinion and the Anita Hill controversy. During the Senate confirmation hearings, when Hill accused Thomas of sexual harassment, there was a struggle in the commentary that boiled down to this question: Who gets to be black? Thomas and his supporters presented him as the embattled voice of the black community; Hill was depicted as a treacherous woman in alliance with liberal groups, trying to bring the black man—and with him, the black community—down. Thomas was black; Hill was a woman: that was the way the controversy played out, at least on one side. This was one of the many explosive insights at the heart of Kimberlé Crenshaw’s pioneering article “Mapping the Margins: Intersectionality, Identity Politics, and Violence Against Women of Color.”

    Fast-forward to Thomas’s opinion in Box v. Planned Parenthood. Studies show that black women are far more likely to get an abortion than other women. Support for abortion among black women is among the highest of any demographic group. And as Jamila Taylor argued, because black women are more likely to live in states with restrictive abortion laws, they have a lot more to lose from Thomas-inspired or Thomas-inflected opinions. So who gets to be black here? Once again, in Thomas’s world, it’s not black women; this time, it’s the fetus.

     

    { 40 comments }

    I’ll Find You Ronnie

    by Belle Waring on May 27, 2019

    Roar has a concept EP about Phil Spector imprisoning his Ronnie Spector (formerly of the Ronettes) in their mansion, surrounded by barbed wire fences and guard dogs. It is the greatest thing to happen to me in months. Actually though. My younger daughter recommended it to me strongly, but I didn’t listen to it right away. More fool me, because that was like a week and a half I wasn’t listening to it on repeat, and I’ll never get those days back. It’s creepy and beautiful and combines wall of sound type sections with terrifyingly beautiful rock I don’t totally know how to characterize. I got to tell her in turn that she would like Apples in Stereo, which she does due to certain transitive properties of liking music. (They were in a loose group of bands including Neutral Milk Hotel, so you know they are good.) There is only one thing for which Roar should be criminally prosecuted, and that is that both the songs and the EP itself are too goddamn short. My second favorite song, Duck or Ape, is 1:39! It’s verse chorus verse chorus achingly beautiful bridge to nowhere that’s two. Lines. Long. I feel that 2:59 (with some wiggle room) is the perfect length for a song, accepting that Sufjan Stevens can make me cry for 6:25 or Joanna Newsom can write songs about the tragic outcome of interstellar battles and I’m cool with that. (More on the 2:59 anon.)

    “Christmas Kids” is about that time Phil Spector got ahold of a pair of twins and brought the children to Ronnie as a Christmas present. Surprise! Actual human beings as a gift! Bet you wonder where I got them! The children (they adopted one more) came out much later to say that they were imprisoned also and at times kept in cages. Ronnie broke free, barefoot, with the help of her mom. She gave up all future music earnings because she was so terrified he would kill her after she escaped as he had always threatened. Phil Spector didn’t go to jail on the back of any of this? He had to murder someone first? I agree that he’s a towering genius of production and song writing, but uh…how exculpatory is that really? I’m sure Ronnie and the children will feel better if they five him.

    Strangely quiet but normal speed: Christmas Kids

    Last two lines, why you got to pierce my heart like that and then leave me to press repeat until my thirst is slaked? Duck or Ape

    { 3 comments }

    Sunday photoblogging: car park

    by Chris Bertram on May 26, 2019

    Car park, Liverpool One

    { 1 comment }

    May’s tears, and what’s to come

    by Chris Bertram on May 26, 2019

    The criminal shitshow that is British politics continues, with a Tory leaderships contest, ultimately to be decided by a handful of elderly misanthropes, following Theresa May’s resignation. Currently, the bookie’s favourite is serial liar and buffoon Boris Johnson, a man who makes Donald Trump look like a model of virtue and who is now holding out the prospect renegotiation with the European Union, in violation of the agreed terms of the recent extension, followed by the no-deal exit which the Tory undead wish to foist on the country’s youth. In between we have the prospect of European Parliament results, where the largest share of the vote will probably go to Nigel Farage’s alliance between the right-wing Christian evangelism of Anne Widdecome and the paedophile-excusing ex-Revolutionary Communist Party.

    Still, as an hors d’oeuvre, Theresa May’s resignation speech wasn’t bad. She appealed to the spirit of Nicholas Winton, who saved thousands of children from the Nazis just before the Second World War by anizing the Kinderstransport, which necessitated, among other things, the falsification of papers. Under Theresa May’s regime, Winton would have faced prosecution and a lengthy stretch inside for people smuggling and those he saved would have been left to their fate. As Home Secretary and Prime Minister she has presided over the most refugee-hostile government of recent times, with child refugees stranded and separated from their families and those refugees who make it to the UK forced to subsist on £5 a day. Many other migrants have had their lives destroyed under May’s “hostile environment” regime that has split families, increased racial discrimination in housing, and has seen foreign students falsely accused of cheating and removed in their thousands with the loss of all their money and reputations. And the system of indefinite detention for thousands of migrants continues. These are, of course, just the charges that come to mind, there are many others. But she cried from self-pity and tried to wrap herself in the mantle of a modern saint.

    { 31 comments }

    Fiveness

    by Belle Waring on May 24, 2019

    Everyone always says that fiveness a worthwhile life strategy, and is for you, not for the other person who wronged you. This seems obviously true in some cases—in principle if you are nursing a rather trivial grudge which is bothering you, it would be better to let it go. In severe cases there is evidence that anger or misery can dampen your immune system, shave years off your life, give you heart disease, etc. The NYT has recently advocated both the somewhat paradoxical advice to hold on to grudges under certain circumstances, and the more traditional suggestion to let go of them. (At the former link there is a kind of fun quiz you can take to see how serious the grudge is, and whether you should allow yourself the petty pleasure of nursing it. Also, it’s clearly meant to apply to that girl in fourth grade who said that you used crayons and colored pencils on your poster of the solar system, and it didn’t match, and she didn’t want to sit with you at lunch for three days.) The latter is the advice most often given by psychologists and 12-step programs and self-help books.

    [click to continue…]

    { 95 comments }

    Liverpool, near Albert Dock

    by Chris Bertram on May 19, 2019

    I’ve been rooting through my archives, reprocessing some files, and this one comes from a decade ago.

    Liverpool, near Albert Dock

    { 2 comments }

    This is as much a request for information as anything else, and I imagine that it is information that other academics want too!

    Most of the courses my department teaches fall into one of four categories. There are large and small courses, and there are courses aimed at majors and courses not aimed at majors. Plenty of small courses are not aimed at majors; most large courses are not aimed at majors (the exception, sort of, is 101, which is aimed, partly at least, at attracting majors). In our context, large means 80-100 (with, occasionally, 160); small means 15-30.

    I suspect, as do most of my colleagues, that more learning-per-student occurs in the small than in the large classes. This is far from certain, because we lack high quality measures of learning. We also assume that some teachers are better than others in large courses, and some are better than others in small courses, but we don’t know a great deal about who, because…. we lack high quality measures of learning.

    We are not going to engage in a wholesale reform of our curriculum (that’s a prediction, not an insistence). Like most departments, though, we have some latitude in deciding how large our courses will be. The key choice that we can make is in how big to make the big courses, and how small to make the small courses. So, for example, we could keep our large courses as low as 80, and pay the cost in terms of allowing caps on our smaller courses to rise to (say) 30. [Of course we could decide to teach all, or nearly all, of our classes, as mid-sized, and if you could find me research that convinced me that was optimal I would share it with colleagues and try to persuade them, but I am putting that possibility aside to simplify things]. Because we lack high quality measures of learning, and because sample sizes are anyway small, we can’t make those decisions on the basis of what we know about our own situation, so it would be handy to have research that could tell us something useful.

    But the research I have seen doesn’t tell me anything useful.

    [click to continue…]

    { 19 comments }

    Five stitches and R?bic’s music

    by Ingrid Robeyns on May 12, 2019

    I was for the second time in my life as a parent on the emergency room yesterday. Our youngest (11yo) son and I went shopping in the afternoon, and bought a new bread knife. Well, it was sharp, and because he has been using our (very old) bread knife for a long time without ever causing any problems, we had not worried enough about what would happen if we let him use a razor-sharp new bread knife. He made a mistake when cutting a bun, and suddenly was standing in front of me with a yawning gap in his hand. [click to continue…]

    { 14 comments }

    Sunday photoblogging: Pézenas archway

    by Chris Bertram on May 12, 2019

    Pe?zenas archway

    { 3 comments }

    On Eric Hobsbawm and other matters

    by Corey Robin on May 9, 2019

    I’m in The New Yorker this morning, writing about Richard Evans’s new biography of the historian Eric Hobsbawm, explaining how the failures of Evans the biographer reveal the greatness of Hobsbawm the historian:

    Hobsbawm’s biographer, Richard Evans, is one of Britain’s foremost historians and the author of a commanding trilogy on Nazi Germany. He knew Hobsbawm for many years, though “not intimately,” and was given unparalleled access to his public and private papers. It has not served either man well. More data dump than biography, “Eric Hobsbawm: A Life in History” is overwhelmed by trivia, such as the itineraries of Hobsbawm’s travels, extending back to his teen-age years, narrated to every last detail. The book is also undermined by errors: Barbara Ehrenreich is not a biographer of Rosa Luxemburg; Salvador Allende was not a Communist; one does not drive “up” from Santa Barbara to Los Angeles.* The biography is eight hundred pages because Hobsbawm “lived for a very long time,” Evans tells us, and he wanted “to let Eric tell his story as far as possible in his own words.” But, as we near the two hundredth page and Hobsbawm is barely out of university, it becomes clear that the problem is not Hobsbawm’s longevity or loquacity but the absence of discrimination on the part of his biographer.

    Instead of incisive analyses of Hobsbawm’s books, read against the transformations of postwar politics and culture, Evans devotes pages to the haggling over contracts, royalties, translations, and sales. These choices are justified, in one instance, by a relevant nugget—after the Cold War, anti-Communist winds blowing out of Paris prevented Hobsbawm’s best-selling “The Age of Extremes” from entering the French market in translation—and rewarded, in another, by a gem: Hobsbawm wondering to his agent whether it’s “possible to publicize” “Age of Extremes,” which came out in 1994, “& publish extracts on INTERNET (international computer network).” Apart from these, Evans’s attentions to the publishing industry work mostly as homage to the Trollope adage “Take away from English authors their copyrights, and you would very soon also take away from England her authors.”

    Hobsbawm was obsessed with boredom; his experience of it appears at least twenty-seven times in Evans’s biography. Were it not for Marx, Hobsbawm tells us, in a book of essays, he never would “have developed any special interest in history.” The subject was too dull. The British writer Adam Phillips describes boredom as “that state of suspended anticipation in which things are started and nothing begins.” More than a wish for excitement, boredom contains a longing for narrative, for engagement that warrants attention to the world.

    A different biographer might have found in Hobsbawm’s boredom an opening onto an entire plane of the Communist experience. Marxism sought to render political desire as objective form, to make human intention a causal force in the world. Not since Machiavelli had political people thought so hard about the alignment of action and opportunity, about the disjuncture between public performance and private wish. Hobsbawm’s life and work are a case study in such questions. What we get from Evans, however, is boredom itself: a shapeless résumé of things starting and nothing beginning, the opposite of the storied life—in which “public events are part of the texture of our lives,” as Hobsbawm wrote, and “not merely markers”—that Hobsbawm sought to tell and wished to lead.

    ***


    Down the corridor of every Marxist imagination lies a fear: that capitalism has conjured forces of such seeming sufficiency as to eclipse the need for capitalists to superintend it and the ability of revolutionaries to supersede it. “In bourgeois society capital is independent and has individuality,” “12bet app” claims, “while the living person is dependent and has no individuality.” Throughout his life, Marx struggled mightily to ward off that vision. Hobsbawm did, too.

    But what the Communist could not do in life the historian can do on the page. Across two centuries of the modern world, Hobsbawm projected a dramatic span that no historian has since managed to achieve. “We do need history,” Nietzsche wrote, “but quite differently from the jaded idlers in the garden of knowledge.” Hobsbawm gave us that history. Nietzsche hoped it might serve the cause of “life and action,” but for Hobsbawm it was the opposite: a sublimation of the political impulses that had been thwarted in life and remained unfulfilled by action. His defeats allowed him to see how men and women had struggled to make a purposive life in—and from—history.

    The triumph was not Hobsbawm’s alone. Moving from politics to paper, he was aided by the medium of Marxism itself, to whose foundational texts we owe some of the most extraordinary characters of modern literature, from the “specter haunting Europe” to the resurrected Romans of the “Eighteenth Brumaire” and “our friend, Moneybags” of “Capital.” That Marx could find human drama in the impersonal—that “the concept of capital,” as he wrote in the “Grundrisse,” always “contains the capitalist”—reminds us what Hobsbawm, in his despair, fot. Even when structures seem to have eclipsed all, silhouettes of human shape can be seen, working their way across the stage, making and unmaking their fate.


    You can read it all here.

    Also, as many of you know, for the last two years, I’ve been making the case that Donald Trump’s presidency is what the political scientist Steve Skowronek calls a “disjunctive” presidency. Over at Balkinization, I use the opportunity of my deep, deep agreement with the great Jack Balkin—whose views on so many things I share, and who also has argued for Trump as a disjunctive presidency—to raise some questions about our shared position, and where our analysis may go awry. You can read that here.

     

    • Several astute readers pointed out to me that this locution of traveling “up” somewhere is often used in Britain to signify going from a smaller to a larger place rather than traveling from south to north. I passed the information on to my editor at The New Yorker, and they’ve now cut the phrase from the text. I’m leaving it here because, well, the error was mine, and in a passage where I’m pointing out Evans’s errors, I should acknowledge my own.

    { 27 comments }