Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Stand-up comedy and our reptile brains

Note: HC wrote this guest post; LFC furnished the title. The post contains some language that certain readers may find offensive.

Bro (that’s me) and LFC went to a comedy club (actually a cinema-'n-draft-house doubling as a comedy club) on Saturday night. We originally set out to see a movie but got lost in Arlington (Va.) because I had jotted down the Google directions without looking at the Google map (always a mistake); so, in a decision that would have made André Breton proud, we gave up hope of making the movie (Doubt) and pulled up at a random movie house whose marquis advertised something starting at exactly the time it then was (9:45).

Turned out the thing advertised, Doug Benson, was not a movie at all but a stand-up comic best known for his jokes about pot and his movie about smoking too much of it (Super High Me). We had traded Doubt for Doug, exchanged a highbrow film with some capital-a acting for jokes about jacking off and gays. Whee! Plus everyone was smoking (cigarettes), there was no noticeable ventilation, and it was one of those bars where they had the contract with Heineken not Becks, which is almost as bad as Pepsi not Coke.

Doug himself was highbrow compared to the warm-up acts, which I don’t really remember, but I’ll try. Each guy had his schtick. The black guy talked about sex. Funniest bit was about getting old, which was not affecting his sex drive but was affecting his drive to do the stuff it took to get sex. First white guy talked about sex too, starting off with a joke designed to trigger/allay the anxieties of the guys in the audience. (Does size matter? Of course it does. You gals need to stay small and tight. I don’t want to be f---ing an open car door.) He also made jokes about his weight even though he was not really fat, just as the black guy was not really old. Second white guy did physical comedy about how he was a yellow belt in karate and how those karate moves (like the palm strike) were so gay.

Then came third white guy and main act of the evening, Doug, who seemed smart enough to know the audience, for the most part, probably wasn’t. He acted high, shuffling around the stage and reading jokes from napkins, then putting them either in the right (“yes”) pocket or the left (“no”) pocket of his vinyl windbreaker depending on crowd reaction. He had a patrician manner and occasionally used some big words and even made one joke about politics: McDonald's is a democracy because you get a choice of bacon or sausage on your McGriddles, unlike Florida and Michigan, where you don’t have a vote.

Doug was a method actor inhabiting a role. He probably rubbed his eyes a lot just to make them look bloodshot. Probably not that far from Philip Seymour Hoffmann in Doubt after all. The role allowed Doug to get away with some sophisticated stuff, because among your average kids today (by “kids” I mean anyone under 40 taking a date to a comedy club) being stoned seems to excuse all kinds of things, like word play and caring about politics, that would otherwise just be gay.

All in all it was pretty depressing but I admire any kind of public performance and I also admired the way the comics stood in the lobby afterward next to their CDs and t-shirts (their “merch” as Doug said) while the crowd avoided eye contact and filed by into the drizzly night.

Postscript. Did you see the piece in the NY Times the other day about how it’s hard to remember puns because the act of getting them resolves them so thoroughly that they are wiped out of our memory banks? I wonder if that’s true for jokes in general. Which would mean that comedians are bards, keeping alive an oral tradition that we can’t lodge in our heads. (Have you heard the one about x? Maybe, but tell us again, we can’t remember.) To put it another way, comedians are the collective memory of our reptile brains. Another Heineken please. I like the red star on the label.

-- HC

Friday, March 27, 2009


Last fall, UN-Habitat released its annual State of the World's Cities report. As summarized in The Guardian of Oct. 23, '08, the report highlights two trends in particular: (1) growing economic inequality within cities, in both developing and 'developed' countries; and (2) continuing rapid urbanization (and concomitant deruralization) in the global South.

On the first point,
according to The Guardian, the report finds New York "to be the ninth most unequal [city] in the world," while inequality levels in Atlanta, New Orleans, Washington, D.C., and Miami match those of Nairobi and Abidjan. The most unequal cities are in South Africa, Namibia, and Latin America.

On the second point, the report predicts that 70 percent of the world's population will live in urban areas by 2050, and of that population, well over half will live in Asian cities. Forty-nine new cities have been built in the past 18 years in China alone. "Urban growth rates are highest in the developing world, which absorbs an average [of] 5 million new urban residents a month and is responsible for 95 percent of world urban growth" [my italics]. At the same time, some older cities in the 'developed' world have been losing population as a result of deindustrialization and other factors.

In 2007, the four most populous cities were Tokyo (35.7 million), Mexico City (19 m.), New York-Newark (19 m.), and Sao Paulo (19 m.). In 2025, the report projects that Tokyo will still be number one (with 36.4 million), but numbers 2, 3, and 4 will be two Indian cities -- Mumbai and Delhi -- and Dhaka (capital of Bangladesh), with 26.4, 22.5, and 22 million, respectively. Dhaka, which had 13.5 million in 2007, will nearly double in population by 2025, according to this projection.

[Hat tip: A post of 10/23/08 at Blue Republic of America.]

ISI's "ambiguous" relation to the Taliban

Yesterday, listening briefly to an excerpt of the confirmation hearings for the lieutenant general who is the Obama administration's nominee for ambassador to Afghanistan, I took particular note of his acknowledgment that Pakistan's security service, the ISI, has an "ambiguous" relation with the Taliban. Was this fairly standard diplo-speak or a way of saying "we aren't really sure," or both?

Update (added 3/28): Adm. Mullen and Gen. Petraeus have spoken recently on ISI links with Taliban and al-Qaeda.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Monday, March 23, 2009

Soaring Eagles, departing journals

Two notes related to American University:
  • Despite my general indifference to basketball and almost total lack of interest in "March madness," I happened to see a bit of the A.U.-Villanova game last week (at least I think it was last week). The A.U. team lost, as expected, but made a surprisingly good showing. At one point a rather overexcited announcer declared that the Eagles represented "a great university" (I'm not saying, definitively, that they don't, I'm just saying the announcer was overexcited). Maybe we should start ranking universities by how many times sports announcers say hyped-up things about them. After all, some website is already ranking schools in terms of their proximity to "pumping surf" (see a recent post on this at The Monkey Cage).

  • The A.U. library is moving all its bound periodicals, with the exception of certain arts journals, off-site to the Washington Research Library Consortium storage facility. The space crunch is the main reason given (the library buys 22,000 new books each year), and the FAQ sheet on the relocation project also says that "our findings show that a little more than 6 percent of our bound-volume collection was used last year...." Of course, what this figure, however arrived at exactly, almost certainly misses is that at least a few people occasionally browse through the bound periodicals (much as others might browse through the book stacks), without photocopying a particular article or even taking a bound volume from the shelf back to a desk. Such browsing obviously will no longer be possible once the relocation is finished.

Saturday, March 21, 2009

Bach's birthday

Listening to the radio in the car just now, I was reminded by the announcer that J.S. Bach "was born on this day in 1685. Perhaps" -- the announcer added (gratuitously?) -- "the greatest genius in Western music."

I like Bach, but there are moods and times when only Rachmaninoff or Tchaikovsky (or perhaps Dvorák) will do.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Is there a "blogging community"?

I was in a bookstore the other day and happened to look at the jacket flap of Matthew Yglesias' book, which touts his prominence in the Washington, D.C. "blogging community." I know there are a number of bloggers in and around Washington, D.C., but do they/we form a community?

Maybe there's a secret, sinister listserv that I'm not on.

Narco-corruption in Afghanistan

Margaret Warner's report on the PBS Newshour yesterday underlined the severity of the problems.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Bonnie Honig on 'Slumdog Millionaire'

In a remarkable column on 'Slumdog Millionaire' (published in Indian Express last month), political theorist Bonnie Honig reads the movie as "a meditation on the contradictions of democracy and the ideological faces of global capital."

This is the kind of piece that probably should be read on the page not the screen, so, having not yet printed it out but just read it on the computer (and read it somewhat hastily at that), my reactions must be tentative. What Honig says about the movie's peddling a fantasy that the global capitalist economy rewards human singularity, when in fact it doesn't, seems right. But the movie's consciousness of the fantasy-like quality of its plot (among other things) prevents it, I would suggest, from being an apology for capitalism (and I suspect Honig would agree).

Where I am less convinced by the piece is its argument about democracy. What makes Jamal's story a "tale of democracy," Honig says, is its "dependence on chance," and she quotes Jacques Rancière on contingency's link to democracy. I do not really see this, at least not as clearly as she does. It's also telling, I think, that the words "justice" and "injustice" do not appear in the column. If instead of citing Rancière, Lacan, and Hannah Arendt, Honig had quoted, say, Amartya Sen or Thomas Pogge, the column might have had a somewhat different flavor. That said, this piece is still worth reading and, indeed, worth printing out.

[Hat tip: The Virtual Stoa]

Monday, March 16, 2009

Tell it, man

In a rather wild blog post (well, maybe all his posts are like this, I don't know), David Rothkopf at FP reports on a British medical study which concludes that rapid economic transitions (e.g., the ex-USSR's transition to its version of post-Communism) can be quite deadly, literally. In the course of this not-short (and, I must admit, occasionally funny) piece, Rothkopf suggests, inter alia, that Obama & Co. have replaced the bust of Churchill with a sculpture of Trotsky. Ha ha.

Quote of the day

"One of [Orwell's] most enduring interests was in the cultivation of pure and direct English, where his concern almost matched the intensity of Swift's. Sixty years later I remember resolving that the essay 'Politics and the English Language' (1946) should be a kind of touchstone (allowing for some Orwellian quirks) for my own writing, a memory clouded by the necessary admission that I have not used it often enough."
-- Frank Kermode, reviewing Orwell in 'Tribune': 'As I Please' and Other Writings 1943-7, in New York Review of Books, June 14, 2007

FMLN candidate wins in El Salvador

Mauricio Funes, candidate of the FMLN, which fought under a revolutionary banner in El Salvador's long and costly civil war that ended in the early 1990s, has won that country's presidential elections. Funes, 49, did not fight in the civil war but covered it as a TV journalist. Although his opponents depicted him as a clone of Hugo Chavez, Funes ran on what a San Francisco Chronicle piece published yesterday called a "moderate platform."

The SF Chronicle notes:

"Today, Funes avoids wearing the FMLN color - red - and has adopted several positions at odds with the party. He does not support dropping the U.S. dollar as the nation's currency nor legislation that would reverse a 1993 law granting amnesty to army officers accused of war crimes, arguing judicial and financial reforms would be a better way to address past injustices. He also says he is against big government.

'We're not talking about making the state bigger or intervening in the economy,' he said recently. 'We're talking about making a better state.'"

Doesn't sound much like Chavez to me.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Afghanistan update

The last few days have been bad even by the current standards, with a British soldier, a French soldier, four American soldiers, and a number of Afghan civilians killed and injured (the latter in a suicide attack on a NATO patrol in Kabul that killed civilians only). Plus there was a bomb attack on the mayor of Kandahar's convoy, which he survived.

Saturday, March 14, 2009

More on reification -- and some other matters

“Let us remember Mr. Justice Holmes’s dictum: ‘I always say that the chief end of man is to form general propositions,’ and let us not altogether forget what he added: ‘And no generalization is worth a damn.’”

-- George C. Homans, The Nature of Social Science (Harcourt Brace & World, 1967), pp. 9-10.

“Reification” (see this earlier post and comments) features in an article published last fall which I recently read: Mark Bevir and Asaf Kedar, “Concept Formation in Political Science: An Anti-Naturalist Critique of Qualitative Methodology,” Perspectives on Politics 6:3 (September 2008), pp.503-517. (Here is a link to a PDF version of the article. Note, however, that the page numbers in this post refer to the article as published in Perspectives, not the PDF version.)

Although the public may not generally realize it, social scientists (as well as philosophers) have been quarelling for over a century about what social science is and how it should be done. Are the social sciences immature cousins of the natural sciences, disciplines that can be expected eventually to produce a comparable body of cumulative knowledge? Or does the subject matter of the social sciences, namely human action, make them different in kind from the natural sciences, orienting them toward “understanding” rather than prediction, causal explanation, and control? Or is there a viable middle ground between these two views, one that sees very significant differences between the social and the natural sciences but holds that “general propositions” are not entirely beyond the reach of social science?

The authors of the article in question have a clear position on these issues. Bevir, a political science professor at Berkeley, and Kedar, a graduate student there, are critics of “naturalism,” the notion that the social sciences “should strive to develop predictive and causal explanations akin to those found in the natural sciences” (p.504). In their view, this aim ignores that human action “is meaningful and historically contingent” (p.505), and always rooted in particular contexts. Human conduct is inherently subject to choice and chance, hence inherently unpredictable by general laws – thus the argument runs.

So where does reification come in? Bevir and Kedar (hereafter B&K) argue that the work of political scientists Giovanni Sartori and David Collier on concept formation reflects flawed “naturalist” premises. Specifically, this work, according to the authors, is marred by “reification, essentialism, and an instrumentalist view of language” (p.507). For B&K, “reification” equals insufficient attention to the “meaningfulness” of human action.[1] Here’s the nub of what they say on it:

“Anti-naturalism implies that many – perhaps even all – social science concepts denote objects that are composed at least in part of meanings or intentional states. Reification occurs whenever these concepts are defined either in ways that neglect relevant meanings entirely or in ways that neglect the holistic character of meanings, thereby likening human action to meaning-less ‘things’…. Reification occurs whenever the attributes of a social science concept are regarded as reducible to causal laws, probabilities, or fixed norms. For example, the concept of ‘social class’ is reified insofar as it is understood in terms of supposedly objective socio-economic criteria such as relation to the means of production or income level, without taking into account how the members of a given social class themselves construe and experience their social situation.” (p.507)

As it turns out, what bothers me about this article is not so much the way the authors define “reification” as their conviction that reification (as they define it) is always bad or unwarranted. Take the notion of social class. As noted above, B&K condemn any treatment of class that defines it ‘objectively’ (e.g., in terms of income level or relation to the means of production) without also considering “how the members of a given social class themselves construe and experience their social situation.” However, there are times when a “reified” definition of social class is defensible, especially if one accepts (as B&K do not) the possibility of trans-historical generalizations. If, for example, you're interested in the role played by peasant revolts in social revolutions (or in the conditions under which such revolts have occurred), you may be more concerned with the institutional character of agriculture – e.g., are there mostly large estates or mostly small holdings? – than with the ways in which a particular group of poor farmers has construed its own situation. Moreover, the latter type of information may be difficult or impossible to assemble, since peasants have often been largely or entirely illiterate (thus leaving behind few written records in their own words), and since you can’t interview people who are dead. It’s not always possible, in short, to arrive at concepts “through a kind of dialogue with the social actors being studied” (p.508), desirable as that might often be. Although they do not say this explicitly, B&K’s position would discard such modern classics of historical sociology as Skocpol’s States and Social Revolutions, Wallerstein’s The Modern World-System, Tilly’s Coercion, Capital, and European States, and many others.

This all points to a more basic issue: Is there only one correct, philosophically defensible way to do social science? Some scholars believe that only an approach aimed at causal explanation is valid. B&K take the opposite side but adhere to an equivalent exclusiveness. The implication of their position seems quite clear: only one kind of social science will pass muster.

B&K are opposed to, or at least highly skeptical of, any effort at explanatory generalization. They admit the possibility of generalization but deny that generalizations explain anything: “[W]e can say that X, Y, and Z are all democracies but that does not explain any other feature they might have in common” (p.506). Not only do B&K posit, as some other writers have, a sharp dichotomy between “understanding” and “explaining”; they hold that only understanding is legitimate, since explaining is tied to a “discredited” naturalist perspective.[2] Although their article is subtitled “a critique of qualitative methodology,” it is actually a broader critique. While I’m sympathetic to certain of their points and while I certainly do not believe that all good social science must involve causal explanation, B&K have not persuaded me of the illegitimacy of any social science that aspires, however tentatively and imperfectly, to discern causes of social phenomena.


1. B&K observe that Collier defines reification as neglect of contingency and historical flux, whereas they define reification as neglect of “the meaningful or intentional nature of action” (p.511). They argue that their definition “better reflects the source of the concept in Hegelian and Marxist contexts where reification is the process whereby external objects are detached from their relation to (and origin in) human consciousness” (note 82, p.515).

2. There is disagreement in the literature about what counts as “explanation.” I won’t go into this here. See B&K’s note 24, p.514.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Words fail

See DaveNoon's Annals of Self-Immolation and the post to which it links.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Coming on Friday

More on "reification" (just in case the first pass wasn't enough).

Saturday, March 7, 2009

The dubious pleasures of IR theory; or, Why were you up so late last night?

A not-quite-Socratic dialogue between a questioner (Q) and me.

Q: So, why were you up so late last night?

LFC: I was keeping up with my field.

Q: Ahem ... really?

LFC: I should have gone to bed after watching the "Numbers" episode about the fancy computer that supposedly passes the Turing test but turns out to be a fraud. Instead, I turned on my own computer.

Q: Big mistake.

LFC: After looking at a couple of blogs, I wound up at the Cambridge University Press journals site. There's a new journal called International Theory (catchy, huh?), and the whole first issue is free.

Q: Go on.

LFC: I half-read, half-skimmed the lead article, which is called (as best I can remember) "IR and the False Promise of Philosophical Foundations."

Q: Yawn.

LFC: The authors, two graduate students (at least I'm pretty sure they're grad students) at the Univ. of Chicago, argue that IR scholars should recognize that all the philosophy-of-science positions in the field are shaky and accordingly should stop attacking each other's work on philosophy-of-science grounds.

Q: Sounds reasonable enough.

LFC: I think the authors may exaggerate some of the differences between Instrumentalism and Scientific Realism.

Q: Come again?

LFC: Instrumentalists care about whether a theory "works" or is "useful" not whether it's "true," whereas Scientific Realists care about how well a theory corresponds to, or captures, a mind-independent reality.

Q: Hmm.

LFC: But what both positions care about, in practice, is a theory's explanatory power.

Q: Or interpretive fecundity?

LFC: "Fecundity"?

Q: Sorry.

LFC: Also, there's the tiny problem that Instrumentalists don't like arguments based on unobservable phenomena, yet Kenneth Waltz, the ur-Instrumentalist, wrote his entire Theory of International Politics about unobservable phenomena -- namely, states and the state system.

Q: It's not actually that much of a problem. Waltz took the existence of states and the state system as a useful assumption rather than a postulate about the character or nature of an objective reality. In other words, epistemology trumped ontology, which is precisely what the authors say is the case for Instrumentalists.

LFC: Smarty pants.

Q: I'll ignore that. Well, after "IR and the False Promise of Philosophical Foundations" you must have been ready for bed -- either that or a scotch on the rocks.

LFC: Sadly, no. Since I was already at the Cambridge Univ. Press site, I decided to take a quick look at the current issue of World Politics. It's a special issue on unipolarity.

Q: Did someone say "boring"?

LFC: Most of the issue -- including articles by Marty Finnemore, William Wohlforth, and Stephen Walt, among others -- is behind a paywall. However, I glanced at some of the abstracts, then glanced at the introduction (which is free), and looked somewhat more closely at the concluding piece (which is also free), Robert Jervis's "Unipolarity: A Structural Perspective."

Q: And?

LFC: Well, Jervis is always worth reading, and the fact that I was able to read any of it, in my zonked condition at 3 a.m., testifies to his lucidity. Beyond the piece's specific points, which I was mostly too tired to engage with, I thought it had one overriding virtue.

Q: What's that?

LFC: It's not about the philosophy of science.

Thursday, March 5, 2009

The mythical "French temptation"

Roger Cohen in today's NYT is worried about the pendulum in the U.S. swinging too far in the direction of big government. We need change, according to Cohen, but we don't need to emulate the European "nanny states" which make it more "attractive" to be unemployed than employed. As if that were the problem right now -- people who have lost their jobs finding it more "attractive" to be unemployed! I'm not sure what parallel universe Roger Cohen is inhabiting, but it's a weird one.

Obama, Mr. Cohen says, must be careful to avoid his "French temptation" by not moving too much in the direction of étatisme. Mr. Cohen's historical clock seems to have stopped in 1983 or thereabouts, when capital flight "forced" François Mitterand to make a U-turn in his economic policies, thereby abandoning the platform on which he won the 1981 French presidential elections. Obama, for better or worse, is not Mitterand, and the differences in national versions of capitalism are rooted in structural factors that, again for better or worse, will not and cannot be changed by any U.S. president's actions and proposals, no matter how far-reaching. Well, let me amend that: by the actions of any U.S. president who actually is able to get elected. If Dennis Kucinich were president rather than Barack Obama, then perhaps -- perhaps -- the NYT could publish a column like this and not wind up embarrassed. However, Kucinich is not president, and the column is, for the most part, rather embarrassing.

Cohen waxes eloquent about the U.S. national mythology of boundless opportunity and the capacity for re-invention and innovation. "Americans are always, in their imaginations, at the new frontier." Cohen does not seem to realize that this is a mythology; to be sure, it has some (rather tenuous) basis in fact, but basically it is a creed rather than a roadmap to effective governing, especially in the midst of an economic crisis. National myths are important, but they should never be confused with accurate pictures of (or guides to dealing with) reality, which is always more messy. There really is no "French temptation" worth speaking of. It's a figment of Mr. Cohen's imagination and of the far more overheated imaginations of Mitt Romney, Rush Limbaugh, and their epigones.

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

The bust of Churchill; or, The Lamp of History and the Klieg Lights of Journalism

Judging from Dana Milbank's column in today's Wash Post ("No Colgate Moment, Indeed"), the journalistic consensus on both sides of the pond is that PM Gordon Brown, in his just-concluded visit, got a less-than-very-warm reception from Pres. Obama, compared at least to the precedents set by the Bush-Blair encounters. No joint press conference, no night at Camp David, and -- horrors! -- Obama sent back to the British Embassy the bust of Winston Churchill lent by Blair to Bush and kept by the latter in the Oval Office. Obama and Brown also had a somewhat awkward-sounding exchange about the possibility of playing tennis sometime. (The world economy is melting down, and they're chatting about tennis. I know, a cheap shot.)

So, does any of this matter? Not really. Obama may not be an Anglophile, but I wouldn't be surprised if he knows at least a bit more about British history than Bush (that wouldn't be hard). Obama and Brown may not have the warmest rapport, but, again, so what? Bush and Blair, after all, had too close a rapport: they are forever linked in the public mind with the invasion of Iraq, which was not their finest hour, to put it mildly.

And as for returning the bust of Churchill: this is not, heaven knows, about Churchill. The bust was a loan to Bush from Blair. No wonder Obama is not eager to keep it around.

"History with its flickering lamp stumbles along the trail of the past," Churchill famously remarked in the House of Commons (November 12, 1940). On the other hand, journalism, often called the first draft of history, turns its indiscriminate flood lights on the present, bathing everything in a garish glow and producing mountains of ephemera, through which some future historians -- can anyone possibly envy them? -- will have to wade. Give us a break: let the bust of Churchill alone, and focus on something more consequential than whether the president and the prime minister use the same brand of toothpaste.

Tuesday, March 3, 2009


Coming up:
  • Mega-cities
  • The global trade in domestic servants
  • The boy who refused to rip up the photograph

Monday, March 2, 2009

An Argentine Tocqueville?

I'm reading (for the first time) James McPherson's acclaimed 1988 book Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era (Oxford U.P.). The opening chapter is a portrait of U.S. economy and society in the mid-19th century. On page 19, McPherson quotes Domingo Faustino Sarmiento, an Argentine who traveled in the U.S. in 1847 (with a footnote referencing Michael Rockland, trans., Sarmiento's Travels in the United States in 1847 [1970]).

Here's the passage from McPherson:
"...[M]any American technological innovations were...contributed by workers themselves. Elias Howe, a journeyman machinist in Boston who invented a sewing machine, was one of many examples. This was what contemporaries meant when they spoke of Yankee ingenuity. They used 'Yankee' in all three senses of the word: Americans; residents of northern states in particular; and New Englanders especially. Of 143 important inventions patented in the United States from 1790 to 1860, 93 percent came out of the free states and nearly half from New England alone -- more than twice that region's proportion of the free population.... An Argentine visitor to the United States in 1847 reported that New England migrants to other regions had carried 'to the rest of the Union the...moral and intellectual aptitude [and]...manual aptitude which makes an American a walking workshop.... The great colonial and railroad enterprises, the banks, and the corporations are founded and developed by them.'"
OK, Sarmiento was probably not a genius like Tocqueville, but I needed a catchy title for the post, and it's still an interesting tidbit.

Sunday, March 1, 2009

The Bangladesh situation

A BBC analysis suggests that the recent mutiny by members of the Bangladesh Rifles (a paramilitary border-guard force) has redounded to the benefit of the prime minister, Sheikh Hasina, who made it clear that she was in control and prevented the army -- more than a hundred of whose officers were killed by the mutineers -- from taking matters into its own hands. In Bangladesh, which only recently emerged from a period of de facto military rule, this outcome is welcome (although of course the mutiny and the killing of army officers are not). (Update, 3/6: I think the death toll now stands at 74.)

The BBC piece does not ask whether Bangladesh needs, in any objective sense, a border-guard force of 70,000. My knowledge of the issues on the country's borders is patchy, so I don't know the answer to that. Even if the answer is no, the fact that the border force provides jobs for 70,000 people, even with apparently low pay (which triggered the mutiny), is not insignificant.