Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Dueling mandarins: Vidal & Buckley in 1968

One of the better moments in The Best of Enemies, the currently playing documentary about the TV encounters between Gore Vidal and William F. Buckley Jr. in 1968, is a three-minute side-by-side comparison of the two men's origins.  Both came from privileged if not especially 'old money' backgrounds, both went to elite prep schools, both rode horses well as teenagers, or so the photographs on the screen indicate.  Both were intellectuals.  Both spoke with the sort of upper-class accent that has now almost vanished.  Both ran for office (Vidal more than once).  A Marxist -- or anyone else, really -- from another planet might wonder how in the world these two men ended up calling each other names on prime-time TV during the Republican and Democratic presidential nominating conventions in That Year, 1968.

Class is not always destiny, would be a five-word answer to that question.  And yet, as one of the many (too many) interviewees in this movie suggests, it is possible that each man saw a bit of himself in the other, maybe just enough to nudge dislike over the boundary into loathing.  Despite -- or, who knows, perhaps because of? -- his utterly despicable political and ideological stances, it is Buckley whose charm and air of insouciance (for lack of a better phrase) are more evident when the two square off in front of the ABC-TV camera.  Vidal was, as the person with whom I saw the movie remarked, more self-contained, his gestural, non-verbal language a bit less naturally suited to TV.  There was nothing shabby about Vidal's verbal performance, however, even if, as Hendrik Hertzberg points out with reference to the most infamous exchange, it was not actually true that Buckley was a crypto-Nazi, though he was unquestionably a reactionary.  Still, it's not difficult to see why Vidal, responding to a somewhat loaded question from moderator Howard K. Smith and faced with an annoyingly interrupting Buckley, reached for an insult.

The Best of Enemies is a thesis movie, i.e. it has an argument, and that argument is that the Buckley-Vidal encounter was the ur-moment that shaped TV punditry as it came to exist in the U.S. in the ensuing decades.  Maybe, though I think the argument is pressed a bit too hard.  I have no recollection of watching the Buckley-Vidal encounter at the time: my memories of 1968, somewhat sketchy in general given my age then, are not primarily televisual, though I do have a couple of memories of the Democratic convention that I think must derive from having watched some of it.

In the end, despite this movie's best efforts to convince one otherwise, the Vidal-Buckley debates must be considered, I think, basically an interesting footnote to a tumultuous, historic year -- even if it was a footnote that generated subsequent essays and lawsuits by the protagonists -- rather than a central event.  However, as many of us know, footnotes are not necessarily unimportant; and The Best of Enemies, despite its flaws as a movie, will help ensure that this particular footnote will continue to be remembered.

Monday, August 24, 2015

A few insular notes

1) Just heard on the NewsHour that it was nine years ago today that Pluto was demoted to the status of a dwarf planet.  Not something I'd ordinarily take note of, but given this blog's title, why not.  Btw, the title was decided upon on the spur of the moment when I started the  blog; my first couple of choices (I think Cries and Whispers was one of them) were already in use and thus unavailable.

2) It was well more than a year ago (two years? longer? whatever, not bothering to check) that I tried unsuccessfully to move this blog to WordPress.  There was a glitch involving my registration that WordPress, despite my notifying them of the issue on the help forum, never fixed.  Hence there is an inactive, empty WordPress blog of this name just sitting there, gathering dust, because of WordPress's negligence. Hooray for WordPress.

3) Google Analytics does not give a complete picture of this blog's readership but I think it gives a reasonably good indication, and its figures suggest that average daily readership of Howl at Pluto is probably at its lowest point since the blog's launch in May 2008.  Also, this year is on track to feature the fewest number of posts of any year since the blog's launch. Speaking of which, I think this will be my last post in August.

Politics and sex

"If politics is concerned with who gets what, or with the authoritative allocation of values, one may be pardoned for wondering why it need involve so much talk.  An individual or group can most directly get what it wants by taking it or by force and can get nothing directly by talk.  The obvious difficulty is the possibility of resistance, and it is counterforce that talk may circumvent.

"The employment of language to sanctify action is exactly what makes politics different from other methods of allocating values.  Through language a group can not only achieve an immediate result but also win the acquiescence of those whose lasting support is needed.  More than that, it is the talk and the response to it that measures political potency, not the amount of force that is exerted.  Force signals weakness in politics, as rape does in sex."
-- Murray Edelman, The Symbolic Uses of Politics (Univ. of Illinois Press, 1964, paperback 1967), p.114 (footnote omitted)

Sunday, August 23, 2015

Quote of the day

"The rhetoric [of the Republican presidential candidates] is really out there. On foreign policy, this is the most-aggressive kind of stuff I've ever seen."
-- Richard Herrmann of Ohio State Univ., as quoted in this Aug. 2 article in The Columbus (Ohio) Dispatch

Saturday, August 22, 2015

Human trafficking, Andaman Sea version

I've mentioned the Rohingya and their plight here before.  This NYT piece from last month (h/t HC) gives some interesting background on the human smuggling business that has grown up in recent years focused on, but not restricted to, stateless Rohingyas eager to flee Bangladesh for Malaysia.  Increasingly, the article notes, "ordinary Bangladeshis" are trying to get to Malaysia: "By early this year, Bangladeshis made up 40 to 60 percent of the migrant traffic, according to the United Nations’ refugees agency." 

Friday, August 21, 2015

The most dangerous candidate?

The most dangerous of the current bunch of presidential candidates may be Ted Cruz.  He strikes me as a demagogue par excellence.  Of course I realize he has competition for that title.

Tuesday, August 18, 2015

Solitary confinement in Mississippi and elsewhere

TBA posts on an NYT piece about a county jail in Mississippi holding a mentally disturbed teenager in solitary confinement (for much of two years).  This inhuman practice has not been confined to Ms., as recent stories about Riker's Island indicate.

ETA: There are also a fair number of prisoners being held in solitary in federal prisons (though I don't have time to look up the numbers right now).

ETA (again): on a different but somewhat related issue, see here (h/t to a commenter at CT).

Monday, August 10, 2015

Roots and implications of the Iran nuclear deal

Peter T., who has guest-posted and commented insightfully at this blog, sent me an analysis (link) of the Iran deal by Sharmine Narwani.  She argues, essentially, that the changed strategic situation in the region represented by the rise of ISIS and its gains in Syria and Iraq (and continued strength of other extremist Sunni groups, e.g. the Nusra Front) drove the U.S. to make an opening to Iran in 2012 in order to take "the old American-Iranian 'baggage' off the table..., allowing [the U.S. administration] the freedom to pursue more pressing shared political objectives with Iran."  Iran stood up to 'the Empire' and its allies, Narwani maintains, rode out UN sanctions, and emerged with an agreement that, in exchange for sanctions relief, blocks it from doing something it never wanted to do in the first place: namely, acquire an operational nuclear weapons capability.

While Narwani's assessment has its strong points, it perhaps goes too far in painting a rosy prospect of Iranian-U.S. strategic cooperation in the region.  The two countries do not have formal diplomatic relations; unilateral U.S. sanctions on Iran that are unrelated to its nuclear program but relate to its support for groups such as Hezbollah are, afaik, unaffected by the nuclear deal; and 36 years of 'baggage' cannot be entirely taken off the table, istm, in one fell swoop. The past several decades must have left a substantial residue of psychological scar tissue between Iran and the U.S. that no agreement, no matter how 'win-win' in its basic structure, can remove overnight.

Narwani's piece looks behind certain statements of the principals to get at what she thinks are the real motivations behind the deal.  This mode of proceeding is not without merit, but it risks overlooking some points.  The main U.S. ally in the region, for better or worse, is Israel, to the maintenance of whose military superiority -- its 'qualitative military edge', in the ghastly-sounding bureaucratic phrase -- the U.S. is committed to the tune of several billion dollars a year (a commitment that may go up).  This fact standing alone imposes certain limits on the degree to which Iran and the U.S. can jointly pursue their "shared political objectives".  Iran's human rights record and the fact that it still has several American citizens, one of whom is an American-Iranian reporter for The Washington Post, in custody also tells against an immediate warming of U.S.-Iran relations in the wake of the deal (assuming the deal survives congressional scrutiny and Obama retains enough congressional support to sustain a veto of a disapproval resolution, which I think he will).

Finally, it might be worth scrutinizing the "shared political objectives" of the U.S. and Iran a bit more closely.  Iran is of course a major backer of Assad.  And the fact that the Pentagon, as detailed for example in a front-page NYT article of July 31, is trying (with very limited success to date) to train 'moderate' Syrian fighters primarily to attack ISIS, rather than Assad, might suggest, as some other developments (including arguably the deal itself) do,  a convergence of interests between Iran and the U.S.: ISIS is the main perceived threat by both.  And yet the very same NYT article of July 31 pointed out that the CIA still has a covert program in place to train Syrian fighters to battle Assad, noting that the CIA and Pentagon programs are working somewhat at cross-purposes.

Narwani may be right that the nuclear deal represents a quasi-epochal shift in strategic alignments in the region.  I would be inclined however to a more muted judgment.  The Obama administration was not motivated to reach, along with its allies, a deal with Iran mainly because of the rise of ISIS, contrary to what Narwani suggests. The Obama admin was also facing a situation in which the pressure for a military "solution" to the perceived Iranian nuclear "problem" was rising, both domestically and also from Israel.  What the nuclear deal most obviously and immediately does is remove much of the pressure for a military "solution," pressure to which the Obama admin was unlikely to have succumbed but which might have grown increasingly irksome and irritating. This, it seems to me, is perhaps the deal's most significant implication.

Note: Minor edit after initial posting.

Added later: For another perspective, see this article in Counterpunch (7/15/15), which views the nuclear deal as a move toward U.S./Iran détente and examines the forces impelling it as well as the motives behind the opposition.  

Friday, August 7, 2015

Sewell on the capitalist epoch (and its possible end)

Following someone's Twitter trail, I came upon an entire issue from 2014 of the journal Social Science History that has been made freely available (link). It contains an address by sociologist William Sewell, as well as a piece by Julian Go on British imperialism 1760-1939, among other things.

Friday, July 31, 2015

"Immature sentimentality"

The NYT Book Review for July 17 carried a review by Randall Kennedy (prolific author on race relations and professor at Harvard Law School) of Harper Lee's Go Set a Watchman.  The 'teaser' for the review says (this is a close paraphrase): "Go Set a Watchman forces readers to abandon the immature sentimentality ingrained by middle school and the film version of To Kill a Mockingbird."  The nice thing about these teasers or summaries is that occasionally, as in this case, they make reading the review, if not exactly unnecessary, then perhaps optional.  One question though: Doesn't Atticus Finch lose the case in To Kill a Mockingbird? How "sentimental" can that outcome be? (Yes, I've seen the movie; no, I don't really remember it that well. Was a hell of a long time ago. And no, I haven't read the Kennedy review of Watchman yet.)

Thursday, July 30, 2015

An unrealistic summer reading list

The Patterson School's 2015 summer reading list, linked by Farley here, strikes me as unrealistic in the sense that I don't know who except for a speed reader is actually going to plow through every word of eight pretty hefty books (one of which is Piketty, btw) in the space of a month or two.  The prefatory note says something like: "get an iPadAir2 and take advantage of your spare hour or two at the beach or in the mountains."  Ok, whatever you say.  The inclusion on the list of Bass's The Blood Telegram is interesting; I reviewed a book on the same subject, Raghavan's 1971, on this blog some time ago (here).  

Wednesday, July 29, 2015

On "turning points" and "critical junctures"

It is a truism that historical narratives impose a pattern on the past.  Narratives demand a structure, which the messiness of reality resists.  Hence historians' talk of "trends," "major developments," "main events," "phase transitions," "turning points."  Most writers deprived of recourse to these sorts of words and phrases would probably produce something either unreadable or confusing, or both.

Moreover, historians have long understood that metaphors -- tides, winds, take-offs, etc. -- can help make their narratives more vivid.  To take a not-quite-random example, E.J. Hobsbawm, in his chapter on the industrial revolution in The Age of Revolution (Mentor paperback ed., 1962, pp.45-6), borrowed the phrase "take-off" from W.W. Rostow.  Hobsbawm wrote:
...[S]ome time in the 1780s, and for the first time in human history, the shackles were taken off the productive power of human societies.... This is now technically known to the economists as the 'take-off into self-sustained growth'.... [C]areful enquiry has tended to lead most experts to pick on the the decisive decade, for it was then that, so far as we can tell, all the relevant statistical indices took that sudden, sharp, almost vertical turn upwards which marks the 'take-off.' The economy became, as it were, airborne.


The recognition that history has to be narrated and that most narratives involve the imposition of pattern and order has given rise to at least two sorts of academic controversies, or, to use a perhaps better word, conversations.  Both of these conversations themselves have a long history, but to simplify things we can restrict ourselves to their recent installments. 

One of these discussions has revolved around issues of objectivity and truth.  As recounted by Andrew Hartman in A War for the Soul of America: A History of the Culture Wars (Univ. of Chicago Press, 2015, pp.259-60), a divide emerged or re-emerged in the 1980s and '90s between those historians who, influenced by postmodernism, were inclined to emphasize the subjective dimension of historical narrative, and those who stressed, in the words of the authors of Telling the Truth about History (1994), "the need for the most objective possible explanations...."   Much could be said about all this, but it's not the focus of this post.

A second scholarly conversation, the one with which this post is concerned, involves the question of continuity and change.  Almost everyone agrees that these are not completely opposed categories.  There is no such thing as a completely static social system, and even those that appear to be static are subject to changes or variations in the course of reproducing themselves, as sociologist Wilbert Moore, among many others, pointed out (Social Change, Prentice-Hall, 1963, pp.11-16).  The anthropologist Marshall Sahlins put a very similar point this way: "Every actual use of cultural ideas is some reproduction of them, but every such reference is also a difference.  We know this anyhow, that things must preserve some identity through their changes, or else the world is a madhouse" (Islands of History, Univ. of Chicago Press, paperback 1987, p.153).      

The proposition that continuity and change are not cleanly opposed categories, that no change is ever total, doesn't resolve the issue, of course, but simply opens it.  Which changes are more or less important, and how does one decide?  John Lewis Gaddis has endorsed another scholar's suggestion that historians should look for "a point of no return," i.e., "the moment at which an equilibrium that once existed ceased to do so as a result of whatever it is we're trying to explain." (Gaddis, The Landscape of History, Oxford Univ. Press, 2002, p.99, citing Clayton Roberts, The Logic of Historical Explanation, 1996.)

Somewhat more helpfully perhaps, Paul Pierson, a political scientist, has emphasized in Politics in Time (Princeton Univ. Press, 2004) that the evolution of societies or institutions is often heavily influenced by relatively small events that happen early in a developmental path; that is, he stresses the "self-reinforcing" character of path-dependent processes.  Pierson cites (pp.52-3) as one example his sometime co-author Jacob Hacker's "analysis of the development of health-care policy in the United States...."  The failure to adopt national health insurance during the New Deal "generated powerful positive feedback, institutionalizing a set of private arrangements that made it much more difficult to make a transition to national health insurance at a later point in time" (emphasis in original).  In other words, the U.S.'s failure to adopt national health insurance in the 1930s was not a dramatic-appearing event, but it had long-term consequences for the direction of future policy.  This is the sort of 'self-reinforcing' effect that Pierson suggests occurs quite often.  

This point that "critical junctures" need not be large-scale, big-bang events -- that they can even be the failure of something to occur, rather than a positive occurrence -- is a significant one, as are, no doubt, some of the other arguments in Pierson's book (I haven't gone through all of it carefully).  But I suspect that, in the end, an element of subjective judgment is inescapably involved in deciding what counts as a critical juncture or a turning point, except for a few obvious instances that would garner wide agreement.  Some may find this a disappointing conclusion, but so be it.

Friday, July 24, 2015

Quote of the day

From Bernard Brodie, War and Politics (1973), p.5:
When General Maxwell Taylor admonished the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in 1966 that France had lost its Vietnam war not in Vietnam but in Paris, which he considered to be an important object lesson to the United States, the proper reply might well have been: "Of course; where else should they have made the appropriate decision?"  The French army, which is to say its professional officer corps, was outraged by its government's decision after Dien Bien Phu to liquidate the war, and these feelings were to accentuate the subsequent bitterness over Algeria.  However, Premier Pierre Mendes-France agreed with the common judgment that whatever benefits accrued to France from keeping Vietnam as a colonial dependency were in no sense worth the cost.... Significantly, Mendes-France remained under the Fifth Republic the most respected of the political figures of the preceding regime, an attitude shared even by so nationalistic and imperious a figure as Charles de Gaulle, who in fact followed his example under the more difficult circumstances of Algeria.

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Kasich's economics

Announcing his presidential candidacy today, John Kasich said that the way to create jobs is to "balance the books," and he had kind words for the idea of a balanced-budget amendment to the Constitution.

It's as if these Republicans are living in a mixture of the austerian 2000's and 1920.  As if the Great Depression never happened and Keynes never existed.

ETA: Remember Nixon's "we're all Keynesians now"? When it comes to domestic policy, Nixon would be derided by today's Republicans as a RINO. (Clarification: I'm talking about Nixon's domestic policies when he was President.  His earlier career is a different matter entirely.)

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

Very brief thoughts on the Iran deal

From what I've gathered from the coverage, the Iran nuclear agreement is a good outcome; Susan Rice, appearing on the NewsHour this evening, did an excellent job of explaining and defending it.  Jeb Bush (according to the opening summary on the same program) called it appeasement, which is a silly remark showing that he is more worried about his right flank in the primaries than he's willing to admit.

Monday, July 13, 2015

An indirect route to the two-state solution

An article in the July/August issue of Foreign Affairs (Grant Rumley and Amir Tibon, "The Death and Life of the Two-State Solution") argues that the best way for Palestinians to get their own state "is, paradoxically, to give up on trying to get one."

The authors suggest that one thing Israeli officialdom would like even less than a viable Palestinian state is the roughly 4.5 million Palestinians of the West Bank and Gaza incorporated into Israel as citizens with voting rights.  Hence Palestinians should push for such incorporation, saying that what they really want is to be Israeli citizens (which is apparently true for much of the younger generation; Rumley and Tibon cite a 2013 poll showing that only 48 percent of the 18-to-28 age group favor two states).  As a result, the two-state solution would appear in a new light to Israelis: i.e., as the preferable alternative to Palestinian incorporation.

Would this approach work? I don't know, and I don't agree with every single statement in the article.  Still, the piece is interesting.  The concluding passage:
In such a situation...this [two-state] outcome could credibly be presented to Israeli voters not as a soft act of justice or charity...but as a hard act of self-preservation.  Dov Weisglass, who was [Ariel] Sharon's chief of staff during the Gaza disengagement negotiations, has said that Sharon presented the pullout to Israeli voters in "fluent Likudish."  Sharon did not conjure up fantasies of everlasting peace; he framed the decision as necessary for Israel's survival.  A pullout from the West Bank will need to be explained in similar terms.  Only then will the threats [or claimed threats--LFC] that come with it stop trumping the supposed opportunities of some distant peace accord.

ETA: On a related issue, Tom Gregory at Duck of Minerva had a post on the UN report on last summer's Gaza war (here).

Tuesday, June 9, 2015

When language, religion, and urination collide

This NYT column from last month (h/t HC) by Tahmima Anam focuses on the shortage of public toilets in Dhaka, Bangladesh.  The result has been a great deal of outdoor excretion by men (but not women).  To discourage it, the government has hired an ad agency and covered the walls in Arabic, urging the populace not to urinate on a language most of them can't read because it is the holy tongue (or some such reasoning).  This is beyond stupid.  As Anam writes:
[The program] tells Bangladeshi citizens that it is acceptable to urinate on their own language, but not on Arabic. At a moment when the shadow of Islamic fundamentalism looms large, the subtext of the signage is to declare the conservative religious forces triumphant in this symbolic struggle over language. Predictably, the ministry has been heavily censured. Critics argue that the government should spend its money on building toilets, not painting signs.
No! What a concept! Use the money to build more toilets. Duh. Of course one of the underlying problems is that Dhaka was never designed to be a city of tens of millions of people (it's projected to have 20 million people by 2025, Anam notes; Wikipedia, citing Mike Davis's book (Planet of Slums), says 25 million by 2025).  Anyway, having 67 public toilets, many of which apparently don't really function, in a city of some 15 million people, a fair portion of whom are either working outdoors or scrounging survival on the streets, is absurd.

Monday, June 8, 2015

Scalia: Pres. must not have "uncontrolled mastery" over foreign affairs [cough]

The SCOTUS passport case that came down today (pdf here) reflected mostly a liberal-conservative split (Kennedy writing the majority opinion), with Thomas wandering off on his own.  At issue was a statutory provision requiring the State Dept., on request, to list Israel as the place of birth in a passport of a U.S. citizen born in Jerusalem.  The majority struck this down, saying it improperly constrained the President's power to recognize foreign governments and noting that the official executive-branch policy is (in the words of the syllabus, i.e. the opinon summary) that it "does not recognize any country as having sovereignty over Jerusalem."

Scalia, writing the main dissent (which was the only opinion I spent any time looking at), was indignant ("nonsense," logic worthy of "Mad Hatter") and professed to have enormous concern for the separation of powers and that the President should not have "uncontrolled mastery" over foreign policy.  Two things: first, Scalia insisted that recognition is "a type of legal act," not "a type of statement," which ignores or glosses over the fact that legal acts of recognition are themselves statements; second, one might be forgiven for wondering whether Scalia would have been so concerned about untrammeled presidential power in foreign affairs if this case had concerned something other than Israel and Jerusalem.

Note: Post edited slightly after initial posting.

Friday, June 5, 2015

Another Ataturk?

Margaret Warner on the upcoming Turkish elections (here):
this is an election at which you don’t have at stake the classic issues of war and peace or the economy. It’s really about Erdogan’s wanting to fulfill this lifelong dream of becoming another Kemal Ataturk, the all-powerful Turkish president who founded modern Turkey almost 100 years ago.
Of course, Ataturk founded Turkey as a secular state and Erdogan's party is an Islamic one. Details, details.

The usually perspicacious Ms. Warner also said this:
And so what you have now is, of course [Erdogan] still has a huge base of rural, conservative, Islamic support. And nobody thinks he won’t win most votes or his party won’t win most. But enough voters are telling pollsters that they are worried that, if he gets the kind of huge margin he wants to ram through this constitutional change [increasing executive powers], then he will become very much like Russia’s Vladimir Putin, in other words, an elected, but authoritarian ruler.
'Competitive authoritarianism' much? Where are Levitsky & Way when you need 'em? [link]

Update (6/10): The election is over and Erdogan did not win by the margin he needed to revamp the constitution.

The just war tradition and sovereignty (book review)

James Turner Johnson, Sovereignty: Moral and Historical Perspectives. Georgetown University Press, 2014. 181 pp. (including bibliography and index).


James Turner Johnson is an expert on 'the just war tradition,' and in Sovereignty he considers the co-evolution of ideas about sovereignty and just war.  Indeed the book probably should have been called something like The Just War Tradition and Sovereignty, since that would have more accurately indicated its contents than the title it actually carries.

Johnson's starting point is a conception of sovereignty that predates the modern state, one that defined sovereignty "in terms of the moral responsibility of the ruler for the common good of the people governed" (p.2).  Johnson is rather vague about what this meant in practice, but at a minimum a ruler's "moral responsibility" entailed meting out just punishments and protecting the political community from external (and internal) threats.  The 'sovereign', a ruler "without temporal superior," was sometimes required to wage war for these purposes.  This particular notion of sovereignty thus developed in tandem with what Part 1 of the book calls the 'classic just war tradition.'  One probably could also make a case, though Johnson does not do so, that this somewhat paternalistic view of authority traces back, at least in the West, to Plato's description of the guardians in the Republic

In any event, one of the book's main arguments is that this older view of sovereignty, in its concern with the quality of rule and the sovereign's responsibility for the common good, has a moral dimension that the modern view, with its emphasis on territorial integrity and non-intervention, lacks.  Yet some writers, such as Robert Jackson in The Global Covenant and Brad R. Roth in Sovereign Equality and Moral Disagreement, have argued that the principles of territorial inviolability and non-intervention have their own moral foundation, inasmuch as they allow, at least in theory, each 'political community' to shape its own destiny with a minimum of external meddling.  Roth's position is that " law's highest and best uses remain those given pride of place in the United Nations Charter: the establishment of a platform for peaceful accommodation among states representing a diversity of interests and values, and the protection of weak political communities from overbearing projections of power by strong foreign states"
(Sovereign Equality and Moral Disagreement, p.5).  By contrast, Johnson is less concerned with "overbearing projections of power" from outside and more concerned that existing sovereignty norms often serve to shield bad behavior by oppressive or murderous rulers.  This in turn raises questions about, among other things, the moral status of state boundaries and state autonomy, questions that Johnson tends to answer only indirectly. 


Although there is a nod in the first chapter in the direction of Augustine and "the Augustinian heritage," the book's historical discussion really gets underway with Aquinas, who listed "three requirements for a war to be just: the authority of a prince [auctoritas principis], a just cause, and a right intention" (pp.16-17).  The prince's responsibility was to uphold "the moral order itself" and thereby "the divine will," by punishing injustices and those who had committed them (pp.19, 20).  Aquinas distinguished between rulers who acted in the interest of the political community and 'tyrants' who did not; however, he was not consistent on "how to respond to tyranny" (p.41).   

quinas's main concern was jus ad bellum, i.e. the grounds for starting a war, rather than what came to be called jus in bello, i.e. the conduct of a war once begun.  The latter considerations entered the tradition via the writing of Honoré Bonet and Christine de Pisan during the Hundred Years War (1337-1453) (p.43).  These writers "joined the chivalric 'law of arms'" to Aquinas's jus ad bellum requirements, and the "combined conception was then passed on into the debates over warfare in the early modern period" (p.43).  Thus by the fifteenth century, if not before, 'just war theory' already encompassed two basic questions: (1) Under what circumstances is it just to begin a war? and (2) What constitutes just conduct on the battlefield (and in the treatment of noncombatants, prisoners, etc.)?

After discussing Aquinas and several of Aquinas's Neo-Scholastic successors, Johnson moves on to Luther and some other Reformation thinkers, and then to Grotius.  Grotius (drawing on some previous writers such as Vitoria) shifted "the locus of authority to wage just war...from the prince to the commonwealth," with the prince now seen as the polity's agent or representative (p.82).  Grotius also put more emphasis on defense, especially defense of the polity's territory, as a justification for war (p.84).  The political community's right to defend itself is now seen as derivative of the individual right to self-defense, and the authority to act in the community's defense is delegated from its members to the ruler.  

Johnson sees the Grotian emphasis on self-defense as a narrowing of the earlier conception of just war and sovereignty.  Here Johnson takes the traditional view of the Peace of Westphalia, i.e., he regards it as having laid the ground for the close connection between sovereignty and territory that has characterized the modern state system.  However, this view of the Peace of Westphalia has been quite persuasively criticized in recent years.  Older, 'feudal' notions of territoriality and authority clearly persist in the Westphalian treaties; Johnson neither acknowledges this nor quotes any articles of the treaties.  He does say that the shift in focus from the ruler-as-independent-actor to the ruler-as-the-polity's-agent resulted from reading the Peace of Westphalia through a Grotian lens (p.93), but that's a different point.  There's nothing wrong with accepting the dominant linguistic conventions and retaining the adjective "Westphalian" to refer to the current sovereignty regime (or key aspects of it), provided one notes -- as Johnson fails to do -- that its link to the actual provisions of the Peace of Westphalia is rather tenuous, to say the least.       

In the book's second part Johnson discusses issues of contemporary resonance, namely Islamic views of just war (ch. 6) and 'the responsibility to protect' (ch. 7), taking a broad view of the latter.  He is, however, unduly critical of the UN (p.160).  I'm not going to summarize these chapters in any detail here (so readers who are interested in them will have to consult the book).

The brevity of this book is welcome but it comes at a cost: Johnson does not engage with most of the secondary literature on the writers he discusses.  A fairly standard work like Richard Tuck's The Rights of War and Peace is not in the bibliography; nor is Edward Keene's Beyond the Anarchical Society, which connects Grotius to colonialism.  (Nor, with a couple of exceptions, does Johnson reference recent work on sovereignty and territoriality, though it's admittedly somewhat more removed from his main concerns.)  Still, Johnson's core chapters do provide an overview of some of the main lines of thought on just war and sovereignty in the Western tradition.  Rather than adopting the neutral tone of a textbook or survey, Johnson makes a definite argument, and one that might be questioned on certain points; this book is therefore probably best read in conjunction with other treatments of the same general ground that take a different perspective.

Tuesday, June 2, 2015

Demography 101

There seems to be a fair amount of misinformation being purveyed in the comment thread to Loomis's post about population, though at least a few of the comments are accurate, such as the one that noted that global population is on track to level off at about 8.5 or 9 billion.  The problem is not the simple one of too many people, but rather, as a few comments noted, how environmental issues, land use, consumption patterns, and maldistribution of resources interact with population density.  The projected impact of climate change on the low-lying areas of Bangladesh (which comprise a large part of the country) is a case in point.  

The fertility trend in many countries has been downward, often sharply so, in recent decades, with sub-Saharan Africa, if I'm not mistaken, being an exception.  One would expect the poorest countries in the world not yet to have completed 'the demographic transition', i.e., birth rates in those countries have remained high while death rates have fallen (e.g., infant and child mortality in sub-Saharan Africa, although still substantial and unacceptable from a human-rights standpoint, is notably lower than 20 or 30 years ago).  I don't follow these issues all that closely but I believe what I've said here is roughly correct.  The 'demographic transition' is Demography 101, and the apparent absence of reference to it in the LGM comment thread is perhaps indicative of the thread's quality.

Saturday, May 23, 2015

What I learned tonight (or is it this morning?) at LGM

(1) I learned that among the sites my old computer can't really handle (too much ad volume, I guess) is a site called The Toast. (I'm still using the old computer because I've been too lazy to do certain essential preliminary things on the new one. Soon [sigh].)

(2) I learned that my friends Ronan and TBA are still regular readers of LGM, which I more or less knew -- I just hadn't been over there for a while. (Btw, thanks for defending me vs. 'troll' charges in that thread, Ronan.)

Have a great weekend, all!

(P.s. For those who may be new to the blogosphere, LGM = Lawyers Guns & Money.)