Friday, December 28, 2012

Outcasts and thugs in the Egyptian revolution

This post from last January by Ahmed Badawi, which opens with a vivid description of Egyptian street children (of whom there are approximately a million, he says), is still worth reading a year later, I think. (I learned of it because it is quoted in the opening of an article in the current issue of Am. Pol. Sci. Rev. -- an article which, as it happens, has nothing directly to do with Egypt.)

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Lal Bahadur Shastri, anyone?

Just over at Stephen Walt's blog, where I hadn't been for a while. On Dec. 10 he wrote a post asking readers to nominate foreign policy makers of integrity. In order to look at the comments I had to create (yet another) account on (What is with those people? Every time you go there they have another sign-in hurdle.) Anyway, I created the account and looked at the comments. The most interesting nomination? Lal Bahadur Shastri, India's second prime minister. I don't know offhand whether or not that nomination makes sense.

Sunday, December 23, 2012

Knight & Johnson on pragmatism and democracy

I've recently finished reading Jack Knight & James Johnson's The Priority of Democracy: Political Consequences of Pragmatism.  (NB: I haven't read it with the care I would if I were writing a proper review of it; I skipped some of the footnotes and skimmed a few bits of the text here and there. So take this post for several thoughts on the book, nothing more.)

The Priority of Democracy maintains that democracy -- meaning both political argument and voting -- is able to perform certain tasks that other kinds of governance mechanisms cannot. When it comes to "facilitat[ing] effective institutional choice" and "addressing the ongoing conflict that exists in modern society" (p.20), democratic institutions, when operating under the right conditions (an important proviso), have an advantage over markets, courts, and bureaucracies, Knight and Johnson (hereafter K&J) contend.

K&J say that democracy is not necessarily the best way to deal with any given substantive issue, but it is the best way to decide how and through what means particular issues should be addressed. In this sense democracy has what they call a 'second-order priority'. A properly functioning democratic system constantly monitors its own performance and that of its component parts to ensure that they are working effectively. The point of democracy, on K&J's view, is not to bring everyone to the same views but to ensure that contending positions clash productively, over the same conceptual landscape so to speak, rather than talking past each other, and that all sides get a roughly equal chance to be heard. Drawing on Dewey's pragmatism, the authors favor institutional experimentation and argue that good institutional performance depends on effective democratic participation, which in turn requires what they call 'equal opportunity for political influence'.

The book, as might be gathered, proceeds at a high level of abstraction, despite the authors' claim -- not put in exactly these words -- that they are bridging the gap between normative and explanatory theory. They pay virtually no attention to the literature on historical institutionalism and to the actual historical record of institutional performance. Instead their main engagements are with rational-choice models of institutions, on the one hand, and theorists of deliberative democracy on the other. Against Habermas, they maintain that democratic deliberation should aim not to bring people to consensus or agreement but rather to "structure the terms of disagreement." (On the rational-choice point, see the end of this post.)

K&J write that "[t]heoretical analysis can make important contributions to our understanding of issues of institutional performance, but alone it cannot provide definitive answers to questions of actual effect. Such answers can only come from the cumulative experience of using the various institutions at our disposal" (p.165). Despite this statement and others like it, they make, as already mentioned, little or no effort to examine the historical record of such "cumulative experience" to see whether, or to what extent, it might support their argument.

That said, I'm inclined to agree with their critique of markets, which as I understand it boils down to saying that markets require demanding conditions in order to function properly but -- and here is the contrast with democratic institutions -- markets are not good at monitoring their own performance and ensuring that the necessary conditions for their effective functioning exist. In their terminology, markets, unlike democratic institutions, are not "reflexive."

However, like markets, democracy requires demanding conditions -- such as equality of influence -- to work properly, and meeting those conditions is simultaneously a normative imperative and a practical prerequisite of effectiveness and legitimacy, K&J argue. But they don't go into much detail about the kinds of state intervention that would be required to ensure something approaching 'equal opportunity for political influence'. 

The authors view political actors as mostly (though not always) self-interested, rather than as acting from a conception of the public interest (p.281). 'Winners' will seek to keep their advantages, while 'losers' -- the relatively disadvantaged -- will seek to change institutions in their favor. The push-and-pull of such democratic contention involves, they say, "an inherent learning process" (p.281) and presumably conduces to (gradual) improvements -- though the words "progress," "reforms," and "improvements" are not much in K&J's vocabulary, preferring as they do the more antiseptic diction of academic political theory. Note, too, that for 'losers' (i.e. those previously or currently disadvantaged) to play a constructive part in democratic struggles, they have to have resources and influence to begin with (hence the 'equal opportunity for political influence' condition).

The authors' range of reference is impressive and their book is clearly the result of much thought. Those with a professional interest in democratic theory and social choice theory will want to read it if they haven't already.  

However, as someone without such a professional interest, I found the book to be somewhat frustrating. K&J claim to reject the dichotomy between ideal and non-ideal theory, but I think the book is mostly the former, in spirit if not under the technical definition of 'ideal theory'. It makes a good theoretical case for a kind of democracy that does not presently exist, at least not in the U.S., but offers few concrete suggestions about how to bring such a democracy into being. Since the authors never said they would do that, I suppose this amounts to criticizing the book for something it never claimed to do. However, the authors do say that political theorists have explanatory and analytical tasks as well as normative ones, and I think the explanatory part of their argument could have benefited from a more historical and empirical perspective.

In terms both of its ambitiousness and its rather ponderous and repetitive style, The Priority of Democracy may bear some comparison with Rawls's A Theory of Justice (TJ). Of course The Priority of Democracy is less monumental in length and scope than TJ -- most books are -- and not only its 'project' but its targets are different. The latter fact partly reflects, I'd suggest, the difference in the intellectual climate between the mid-twentieth century, the era of which TJ is a product, and the early twenty-first century. To oversimplify for the sake of contrast, Rawls's main target in TJ was utilitarianism, whereas K&J take aim at what might be called market fundamentalism and, by extension, neoliberalism (though they don't use these terms in the book). Neoliberalism really came to the fore in the late '70s and early '80s, well after TJ was published. And the sources of inspiration are different: for Rawls it was the social contract tradition and (especially) Kant, for K&J it's pragmatists like Dewey, Richard Rorty, and Richard Bernstein. (Note that Dewey's name appears only twice in TJ, both times in a footnote.) K&J also frequently cite Amartya Sen's Development as Freedom and Richard Posner's Law, Pragmatism and Democracy, among others. 

At the beginning of the book K&J criticize Rawls, charging Rawlsian ideal theory with neglecting "the tasks of showing how any institutional arrangement governed by [the] principles [of justice] could emerge or sustain itself" (p.16). But as already indicated, I found their own account of institutional emergence and functioning to be too abstract and not empirical enough.

Finally, since I have criticized K&J for ignoring the literature on historical institutionalism (including the work on path dependency), I should mention that this a conscious choice on their part: they acknowledge that "several brands of institutionalism have emerged in recent years" (p.17) and say that they focus on rational-choice models of institutions for several reasons, among them that such models are usually and mistakenly assumed to "underwrite a robust challenge to democratic theory" (p.18). By making their case on this supposedly unfriendly terrain, they write, "we tacitly assume a rather substantial burden of argument" and, via a "distinct interpretation" of rational choice, "aim to place pressure on advocates of rational-choice approaches to explore more carefully the ways their analytical proofs, their explanatory claims, and their normative pronouncements hang together" (p.18). I haven't gone into this aspect of the book in this post and will leave others to judge whether and to what extent K&J succeed in this particular aim.

Added later: Compare Cosma Shalizi's take on the book, which I read after writing and posting my own. 
Added still later: See also H. Farrell's and C. Shalizi's draft paper (May '12) on cognitive democracy (link via here).
And see my postscript on democracy and individual capacities.                  

Friday, December 21, 2012

LaPierre's press conference

I just read the transcript of LaPierre's remarks. Among other things, he blamed violent entertainment for creating a culture of violence. But Fareed Zakaria answered this claim very effectively in a column yesterday:
Is America’s popular culture the cause [of gun violence]? This is highly unlikely, as largely the same culture exists in other rich countries. Youth in England and Wales, for example, are exposed to virtually identical cultural influences as in the United States. Yet the rate of gun homicide there is a tiny fraction of ours. The Japanese are at the cutting edge of the world of video games. Yet their gun homicide rate is close to zero! Why? Britain has tough gun laws. Japan has perhaps the tightest regulation of guns in the industrialized world.
The data in social science are rarely this clear. They strongly suggest that we have so much more gun violence than other countries because we have far more permissive laws than others regarding the sale and possession of guns.
As Zakaria pointed out, the previous assault weapons law in the U.S. that expired in '04 had a large number of loopholes and exceptions. This is what allows the NRA to claim such laws don't work. They haven't worked because they have been too weak.

After reading LaPierre's remarks, I find it hard to avoid the conclusion that it is going to be difficult if not impossible to carry on a reasonable conversation with him and his organization. He wants to put armed guards in every school in the country, he hires a former secretary of the Dept. of Homeland Security to create a so-called Model School Shields Program, he wants to turn schools into fortresses. He would rather do this than deprive the four million members of the NRA of their "right" to possess what he called "civilian semi-automatic firearms." 

LaPierre claimed that we have no time to debate legislation that "won't work". But it is disingenuous to imply that Hutchinson's task force is going to come up with its model plan tomorrow. Hutchinson, whose remarks followed LaPierre's, made a point of saying that he would consult with all sorts of experts and so on. That takes time. So the notion that legislation would be too slow, while the NRA's task force will be speedy, I find dubious. I suppose, as a short-term 'solution', some schools may want to hire armed security. But the real solution is much tougher gun regulation. Australia did it. It worked. There is no reason the U.S. cannot do it if the political will is there.

Update: Recent conversation at Crooked Timber has underlined for me how little I know about guns. For ex., is it true, as a commenter at CT says, that virtually all guns in use today are semi-automatic, so that an effective, 'non-cosmetic' ban on semi-automatics is equivalent to a ban on all guns? I don't know.

P.s. For those here who may be new to Blogger and its ways: "No comments" below the post does not mean comments are forbidden; it means no one has commented yet. There usually are not many commenters here; however, for the record, I will delete any obscene, libelous comments or those that I deem to be obvious trolling. Disagreement is welcome, but I may decide not to answer particular comments or get into an extended debate.

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

If I had a Twitter account...

...I'd say: "Plowing (or struggling) through to the end of Knight & Johnson, Priority of Democracy. Hope CrookTimb has its promised seminar. Otherwise may want these hrs of my life back."  But this way I don't have to count the number of characters.

[added later]: Just found out about the Erik Loomis thing. Sigh.

Update: See this statement in support of Loomis.

Monday, December 17, 2012

A tipping point?

There are indications of some shifts of legislative opinion (at least in the U.S. Senate) about guns in the wake of the Newtown CT shootings. Such changes in position (e.g. by Sens. Warner and Manchin) are good signs, as anything that indicates a weakening of the NRA's grip on many legislators is to be welcomed.

The murder of young children is especially shocking and revolting, and I hope that reactions rooted in normal emotions of revulsion will lead, in this instance, to some change in policy.  

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Albert Hirschman on "the intended but unrealized effects of social decisions"

Note: I altered the title of this post slightly on 4/2/21. It's otherwise unchanged.

The death of Albert Hirschman prompts me to interrupt the break to quote a couple of passages from his The Passions and the Interests. First, from p.117:

In an old and well-known Jewish story, the rabbi of Krakow interrupted his prayers one day with a wail to announce that he had just seen the death of the rabbi of Warsaw two hundred miles away. The Krakow congregation, though saddened, was of course much impressed with the visionary powers of their rabbi. A few days later some Jews from Krakow traveled to Warsaw and, to their surprise, saw the old rabbi there officiate in what seemed to be tolerable health. Upon their return they confided the news to the faithful and there was incipient snickering. Then a few undaunted disciples came to the defense of their rabbi; admitting that he may have been wrong on the specifics, they exclaimed: "Nevertheless, what vision!"

Ostensibly this story pours ridicule on the human ability to rationalize belief in the face of contrary evidence. But at a deeper level it defends and celebrates visionary and speculative thought no matter if such thought goes astray. It is this interpretation that makes the story so pertinent to the episode in intellectual history that has been related here. The Montesquieu-Steuart speculations about the salutary political consequences of economic expansion were a feat of imagination in the realm of political economy, a feat that remains magnificent even though history may have proven wrong the substance of those speculations.
I wish I could quote the ensuing discussion in toto. There is a bit on pp.130-31, however, that is too good not to quote. Here Hirschman contrasts the "unintended effects of human actions," for which social scientists are often on the lookout, with intended effects that never occur:
Curiously, the intended but unrealized effects of social decisions stand in need of being discovered even more than those effects that were unintended but turn out to be all too real: the latter are at least there, whereas the intended but unrealized effects are only to be found in the expressed expectations of social actors at a certain, often fleeting, moment of time.
What's more, the original expectations that are not borne out are 
likely to be not only forgotten but actively repressed. This is...essential if the succeeding power holders are to be assured of the legitimacy of the new order: what social order could long survive the dual awareness that it was adopted with the firm expectation that it would solve certain problems, and that it clearly and abysmally fails to do so?
And there is a further consideration here. Writing in 1977*, Hirschman noted that "no twentieth-century observer" (p. 118) could maintain that the Montesquieu-Steuart view -- i.e., that commerce would have a peace-inducing, "gentling" effect on politics within and among nation-states, a view by the way that Marx (predictably) ridiculed (see p.62) -- had been vindicated by events, although Hirschman added that "the failure of the [Montesquieu-Steuart] vision may well have been less than total" (p.118). Fast forward to 2012. How does the Montesquieu-Steuart position look now? Perhaps somewhat better than it did thirty-five years ago? Or perhaps not.
*[note added 12/15/12, edited 1/26/16]: The book was published in '77 so the words were actually written earlier, and in the acknowledgments Hirschman says he wrote a first draft of the book in 1972-73. But nothing of consequence turns on precisely when in the 1970s the passages were composed, at least as far as this post is concerned.     

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Last post before the break

V. Yadav at the Duck notes that Obama is planning a trip to Myanmar/Burma and adds:
Meanwhile, Burmese Nobel Laureate and opposition leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, has supported the idea of sending more government troops to Rakhine state to quell the violence between Buddhists and the Rohingya Muslim minority population — increasing the correlation between winning the Nobel peace prize and supporting a “troop surge” to two.
The situation of the persecuted Rohingyas is an underreported story in the U.S. and something I've been meaning to mention for a while. Vikash beat me to it. It is probably connected, in probably complicated ways, to recent tensions and violence between Muslims and Buddhists in Bangladesh (h/t HC). (Might help to be a specialist on the region fully to untangle these threads.)

This is my last post before I take a break from posting (which will also entail something of a break from my perusal of the blogosphere in general). [So this is also your last chance to comment before the break.]  

Monday, November 12, 2012

Mead strikes out

From the opening of Walter Russell Mead's review-essay "Peace Out," in the current issue of Foreign Affairs:
The modern peace movement is almost 200 years old; its origins can be traced to the period that followed the devastating wars of the Napoleonic era in Europe. In those two centuries, peace movements have had little discernible impact on world events, and what effect they have had has often been bad: the European peace and disarmament movement of the 1930s, for example, greatly facilitated Hitler's plans for a war of revenge. For all the good they have done, those well-intentioned souls who have sought to achieve world peace through the organization of committees, the signing of petitions, the holding of rallies, and the promotion of international treaties might just as well have stayed home.
Mead may be half-right about the peace movement of the 1930s, but overall this passage is wrong. Modern peace movements obviously failed to prevent the twentieth century's world wars but they have nonetheless had a long-term positive impact: see e.g. here.

Then in the next paragraph Mead refers to "the argument of the economist and British parliamentarian Sir Norman Angell that war's economic irrationality would prevent twentieth-century wars...." In fact that is not what Angell argued, as I've had occasion to point out before.

That's two strikes, and let's give Mead a third strike for writing and publishing this at all. So Mead strikes out.

Sunday, November 11, 2012

Friday, November 9, 2012

Substance vs. 'the horse race'

There's been some blogospheric gnashing of teeth on the question of Nate Silver's accuracy vs. the innumerate pundits' stupidity. That's right, as far as it goes, but it overlooks the point that a relentless focus on prediction (however accurate) does contribute to the draining of substance from a political atmosphere already struggling to keep a small amount of substance in the discourse (sorry, mixed metaphor). 

As Bob Somerby says here (h/t), that's not Silver's fault, and good predictions are to be preferred to stupid predictions; nonetheless, it does happen to be the case that the more focus there is on prediction the less time there will be to focus on other things. Michael Gerson tried, I think, to make this point in a column quoted by Somerby in the linked post, but Gerson made the mistake of taking some overly broad swipes at political science in general, thereby earning a rebuke from Prof. John Sides.

P.s. Speaking of substance, I am very aware that I have not bestirred myself to say much of substance about the election results. I will be linking to something else soon by way of partial remedy. [added later]: Actually I won't be. Changed my mind.

Thursday, November 8, 2012

Harrington event

If you're in the vicinity of Georgetown U. this evening, might want to know that the documentary "Michael Harrington and Today's Other America" is being shown at 7 p.m., followed by a panel discussion. (This year marks the 50th anniversary of Harrington's The Other America.) I gather the film was made in the late '90s (could be wrong about that) but I've never seen it. Details about the location of the event etc. can be found here

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

The U.S. election

It's over.

How's that for sophisticated analysis?

By the way, I turned on my computer this morning to see the final results and the Wash. Post, which comes up as my home page, had a headline "a second term." I read some of the accompanying story, which said Obama had passed the 270 electoral vote threshold even though Fla. remains too close to call. I then clicked on the map that went with the piece, the banner (or headline) of which showed Obama with 249 electoral votes, not 270. WaPo hadn't bothered apparently to update the banner on the map. Typical of WaPo's coverage of the returns, which I thought was deficient, to put it very politely.

Update: WaPo has now fixed the map.

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Quote of the day

"Speaking French also means speaking about human rights, because the rights of man were written in French."

François Hollande in the Dem. Rep. Congo, on the occasion of the summit of the Int'l Org. of La Francophonie, as quoted in Newsweek, Oct. 29, 2012, p.8.

Monday, November 5, 2012

Sunday, November 4, 2012

'Big-picture' historical sociology: still rolling

Just discovered (thanks to this post) that M. Mann has published the third volume of The Sources of Social Power and the fourth volume will be coming out in Jan. 2013. Meanwhile, I. Wallerstein published the fourth volume of The Modern World-System in 2011.

ISA-NE postscript

As with any conference, but even more in this case because I was there only briefly, there were a number of papers I would have liked to hear but didn't.

A very small sampling: Andrew Yeo (Catholic U.), "Realism, Critical Theory, and the Politics of Peace"; Tomohito Baji (Cambridge), "Global Governance and IR in History: Alfred Zimmern's Political Thought from the mid-1930s"; Eric Blanchard (Columbia), "International Lying: A Constructivist Response to Mearsheimer"; Sherrill Stroschein (University College London), "Institutional Change and Identity Shift: The Case of Scotland"; Giovanni Mantilla (Minnesota), "The Political Origins of the International Rules for Internal Conflicts."

Saturday, November 3, 2012

Onuf and 'heteronomy'

Yesterday afternoon I drove to Baltimore and went to a couple of sessions at the ISA-NE conference (the program is here [pdf]). One of the sessions I attended was a roundtable on Nicholas Onuf's work.

At the roundtable Onuf made a reference or two to "heteronomous" orders. I couldn't recall how he used the word in his recently reissued 1989 book World of Our Making (it had been a long time since I'd looked at it), so earlier today I pulled my copy off the shelf and briefly perused ch.6, where the idea is discussed. To simplify, for Onuf "heteronomy" is a form (or "category") of rule (the other two being hierarchy and hegemony) in which exploitative social relations are disguised under a mantle of formal equality and the ruled (including workers dependent on the sale of their labor-power) in effect participate in their own oppression, under the illusion that they are exercising some sort of self-determination. Though the word "heteronomy" is taken from Kant, Onuf's description of a 'heteronomous' order (or form of rule) owes a good deal to Marx, as he acknowledges. 

As far as I'm aware, however, Onuf's use of 'heteronomy' has not been adopted, even by those who might agree with his analysis. Nor did the papers or subsequent discussion at the roundtable directly address this aspect of World of Our Making. Onuf sees exploitation as inevitable, as he makes clear at the end of the book, so perhaps it's not too surprising that, embedded as it is in a quite pessimistic worldview, the word 'heteronomy' as he uses it has not (again, as far I'm aware) caught on with those who might have been its natural constituency, namely Marxists (of one sort or another) and critical theorists. I stand open to correction in comments, as I'm not an expert on critical IR theory (or all the strands of constructivism, etc.).

P.s. I was not at the conference today, where there was a follow-on session "Whither Constructivism?" I hear that the debate was lively and I understand that ProfPTJ will be posting a recording of the session, which I will link to when it's available.

Update: PTJ has now posted the audio here. I'm planning to listen to it soon.

Thursday, November 1, 2012

A.M. linkage

Pressman on whether the U.S. and Israel continue to share values.

D.C. Exile on sovereignty and drone strikes.

[added later] More on Israel: The Fall 2012 issue of Dissent, which I just bought in a bkstore, contains an exchange on Israel between James Rule and Michael Walzer, as well as a review-essay "Zionism and Its Discontents." Haven't read either one yet.    

Wednesday, October 31, 2012

How to write a (somewhat misleading) headline

"Lebanon's Sunnis at risk of radicalization," blares this WaPo headline. But the opening graphs of the story have quotes from young Sunnis in the Beirut neighborhood in question saying they are not aligned with any group. But -- wait -- they're flying a black flag "inscribed with the Islamic creed" that is "often associated with the global al-Qaeda franchise." Oooh, the black flag. Cue the headline writers. "At risk of radicalization."  

Quote of the day

Continuing with the RFK theme (see here), a passage from Rick Perlstein's Nixonland, pp. 270-71, describing the 1968 Democratic primary campaign in Oregon. The passage can function as a little quiz: how many of the celebrity names do you recognize?  

[Eugene] McCarthy prevailed in Pennsylvania and Massachusetts. RFK won in Nebraska and South Dakota. It came down to Oregon on May 28 and California on June 5: the insurgent still standing would take on the Humphrey Machine. The drama was inescapable. The tousle-haired First Brother, traveling through Oregon in JFK's old bomber jacket with his brood of photogenic children and their cocker spaniel, Freckles, scampering down the jet gangway ahead of Bobby and whatever local pol was by his side; the intense former college professor, the "man the people found" and the "Clean for Gene" hordes that followed him, a piercing wind of idealism in a low-down and dirty age. Shirley MacLaine, Sammy Davis, Bobby Darin, Peter Lawford, Sonny and Cher, superstar Olympic decathlete Rafer Johnson, and football star Rosey Grier traveled with Kennedy. McCarthy campaigned with Elaine May, Tony Randall, Eli Wallach, and Robert Ryan -- and as a reproach to Kennedy, who, McCarthy fan Mary McGrory wrote, "thinks the American youth belongs to him as the bequest of his brother," Dustin Hoffman, star of the anti-grown-up hit The Graduate.

I know most of these names but would have to consult Wikipedia for Robert Ryan.

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

What am I doing here?

Nothing like an ambiguous title for a post, is there?

I've been blogging since May '08 (with occasional breaks to recharge, figuratively, the batteries, etc.). Periodically I ask myself why I am doing it, and as we approach the end of another calendar year, and as I'm planning to take another of my breaks once the dust from the election settles (from around Nov. 12, say, through Dec. 31 at least), it seems to be a good time to pose the question again. Except usually I pose it just to myself, not to anyone who happens to be reading.

The question, unfortunately, doesn't have a very satisfactory answer. My closest relatives don't usually read this blog and nor, with a couple of highly valued exceptions, do my friends (I mean my non-virtual, non-online friends, not that there is a huge number of them but I do have some, friends from the past and whatnot). So I'm not blogging for my relatives and friends. I'm also not blogging to keep the functional equivalent of a personal diary or journal: to me that implies a degree of privacy, and even though very few people may read a post here, in theory anyone with an internet connection can. I'm not blogging to disseminate or promote my own academic or scholarly work (which is, at the moment, nonexistent), which is an honorable motive for some other blogs, or to push a particular political agenda (though I'm not shy about expressing my political views). So why does a low-traffic blog with no clear, precisely focused mission or purpose keep going? Why have I done this for more than four years now? I suppose I must find something slightly intoxicating, for lack of a better word, about having a platform (and this is essentially the only one I have: I'm not on Twitter or Facebook or Tumblr). Every time I think about stopping, I find myself not stopping. Sometimes I say posting is going to be light and it turns out not to be. What gives? As I say, I don't have a very good answer.

As far as I can tell, there are roughly three groups of people who find their way here. This is not an exhaustive categorization but it will do. First, there is a very small group of regular or semi-regular readers, most of whom I don't know and most of whom never leave comments, so I don't even know for sure why they are regular readers (btw, it's very easy, technically, to comment here, I've even considered disabling the captcha but haven't taken the time to figure out how to do it). [clarification: I'm glad to have these readers, I'd just like a better sense of what's attracting them to the blog and perhaps what they'd like to see more or less of.]  Second, there are people who end up at a particular post as a result of typing something into Google or another search engine (or, occasionally, who come via Blogger). Third, there are people who come here, or follow a link here, when I post something having to do with academic debates or discussions in IR. (And I suppose there is some overlap among the three groups.) A solid average weekday at this blog sees maybe 15 'unique' visitors, a good day might see 25 or so, and anything much above that, although it does happen from time to time, counts as a red-letter day (do people still use that expression?).

So I'm obviously not blogging to keep satisfying the demand of a large, established readership for material, since there is no large readership here. So again: what am I doing here? I'm not really sure. But, for the moment, I'm still here.

P.s. As I said in comments on an earlier post, my thoughts now are with those in New York, New Jersey and elsewhere coping with power outages (I have a friend in New Jersey in that situation) and worse. Luckily and contrary to my expectations, the power stayed on where I am, for which the local utility (Pepco) must be given some credit.

Klein nails it

This, I think, is right on the mark.

Richard Cohen's unfair comparison

Readers of this blog will know that I have not been an uncritical booster of Obama, though I am definitely supporting him for re-election. But Richard Cohen's WaPo column comparing Obama unfavorably to Robert Kennedy strikes me as somewhat unfair.

Cohen writes:
Kennedy had huge causes. End poverty. End the war. He challenged a sitting president over Vietnam. It could have cost him his career. It did cost him his life. The draft is long gone, and with it indignation about senseless wars. Poverty persists, but now it is mostly blamed on the poor. When it comes to the underclass, we are out of ideas . . . or patience. Or both. Pity Obama in this regard. It’s hard to summon us for a crusade that has already been fought and lost. We made war on poverty. Poverty hardly noticed.
If you accept the premise of this passage, then the fault lies more with the times than with Obama. 1968 was a different era. Yet Cohen then proceeds to ignore his own insight. I agree Obama should have been more vocal about climate change, about the plight of young black men many of whom are in prison or unemployed (or underemployed), and about some other matters, too. But Obama is who he is: his 2008 campaign was not an especially marked departure from the center of gravity of the Democratic party, which has shifted rightward since the days of RFK. For that matter, it's shifted rightward even since 1980, when Edward Kennedy gave his unforgettable speech at the Democratic convention of that year ("the dream will never die").

Richard Cohen knows this, which is another reason his column seems unfair. It has attracted a lot of comments on the WaPo site, or so I surmise from the fact that the "loading comments" function there seems to be groaning under the strain. But I haven't read any of the comments there except one or two. A lot of them, no doubt, won't  have anything to do with what Cohen wrote.

Added later: I don't agree, by the way, with Cohen's implicit blanket dismissal of the 'war on poverty', which had some real accomplishments. But that's a whole other subject.

Monday, October 29, 2012

Note on Argo

I saw the movie Argo recently. It was good (apart from a couple of fairly minor things). In a nice symmetry, the movie is as smart as the fake movie-within-the-movie is silly. Argo is suspenseful and never boring, the prologue properly sets the historical context (noting the CIA-engineered coup against Mossadegh), and it's also hard to complain about a screenplay that includes, toward the end, a reference to the opening of Marx's Eighteenth Brumaire. And the cast, led by Ben Affleck (who also directed), is excellent.

Friday, October 26, 2012


Most people here probably have already seen B. DeLong's brief, eloquent piece on the battle of Stalingrad at 70 (h/t), but if you haven't it's worth reading.

Much else worthy of note in the press and the blogosphere, but I'm afraid there'll be no more linkage right now. (And to those who happen to be on the U.S. east coast: weather the storm and stay safe.)     

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Thoughts on 'the territorial peace' and related matters

Note: This (fairly long) post will be of interest mainly to those concerned with the academic literature on borders, conflict, state formation, etc. Others may wish to skip it.

In his book The Territorial Peace, Douglas Gibler argues -- as I understand his argument based on his recent posts at The Monkey Cage -- that the 'democratic peace' is "a subset" of a more encompassing and fundamental phenomenon. He contends that involvement in territorial disputes (especially those involving core 'homeland' territories) leads to authoritarianism and 'centralization' (or pushes in that direction), whereas countries that are not involved in territorial disputes tend to be less authoritarian, more democratic. The reason is that militarized disputes over territory (defined, per the Correlates of War project, as anything from a brief display of force to full-scale war) produce large armies, which subsequently are often used for internal repression and more 'centralization' (measured by the number of 'veto points' in the state apparatus). An absence of territorial disputes has the opposite effect, thus leading to both democracy and peace. Questions can be raised about aspects of this argument (see e.g. the comment thread to this post and also further discussion below), but it seems intuitively somewhat plausible, or at least not completely implausible.

Gibler's work can be seen as part of a recent wave of scholarship which, in different ways and from different perspectives, addresses the effects and causes of an overall decline in armed conflict, especially traditional interstate war. Work on the territorial integrity norm (Zacher 2001 [pdf]) and the rarity of 'state death' after 1945 (Fazal 2007) attributes the reduction in interstate war to norms concerning the inviolability of state boundaries and the unacceptability of conquest. (Arguments about the obsolescence of great-power war, discussed elsewhere on this blog, also focus on norms and their development.)

Not everyone agrees, however, that settled territorial boundaries always lead to less conflict. Boaz Atzili in his book Good Fences, Bad Neighbors argues that (to quote from the abstract of an earlier article of his):
In regions in which most states are socio-politically strong, fixed territorial ownership is a blessing. It enhances peace, stability, and cooperation between states. In regions in which most states are socio-politically weak, however, fixed territorial ownership is largely a curse. It perpetuates and exacerbates states' weakness, and contributes to internal conflicts that often spill over across international borders.
Atzili defines "the sociopolitical strength of the the state's capacity to maintain a monopoly over the legitimate use of force,...rule effectively over its society (including extracting sufficient revenue and providing sufficient public goods), and...maintain a reasonable level of social cohesiveness and identification of its residents with the state as such" (Good Fences, p.33). Thus he treats "the ideational facet of the state" as "just as important, and sometimes more" important than the institutional dimension (p.4).

His basic argument, as the above quote indicates, is that the norm of fixed borders often perpetuates state weakness, which in turn facilitates internal conflict that can spill over boundaries and become a form of interstate conflict, not for the most part "Clausewitzian wars in which two regular armies meet each other in the battlefield" but "transnational conflicts" involving state and non-state actors (p.49). The border-fixity norm thus has different effects depending on the strength or weakness of states.

Good Fences, Bad Neighbors contains a number of case studies. Two of the four main cases -- Brandenburg-Prussia in the 17th and 18th centuries and Argentina in the 19th century -- predate the border-fixity norm, while the other two main cases -- Lebanon 1950-2006 and Congo (DRC) 1960-2006 -- are set in the fixed-borders world. Space and time preclude anything like a proper summary of the cases and of  the various dimensions of the argument; however, a glance at the Congo discussion will give a flavor of the approach.   

What is now the Dem. Rep. of Congo was "a very weak state at its independence" (p.141) and, with its existence effectively guaranteed by the norm against conquest, it did not face the same structural pressures and incentives to become a stronger state that polities in the 'flexible-borders world' of early modern Europe did. Mobutu's corrupt and kleptocratic rule had much to do with keeping Congo (then Zaire) weak, but Mobutu's successors Laurent Kabila and his son Joseph Kabila did not improve things greatly, because incentives for state-building remained largely absent. When Congo's weakness met the Rwandan genocide of 1994 and its aftermath, which sent large numbers of Hutu perpetrators across the Congo border to form "a state in exile" (p.184), the result was the long war that drew in a number of Congo's neighbors. 

The argument about state weakness and border fixity, we are told at the outset, is "probabilistic rather than deterministic" (p.8). And one sees this illustrated, for example, by Tanzania, which, unlike Congo/Zaire, used "forceful policing and efficient sealing of the border by the Tanzanian military" to prevent Rwandan Hutu refugees in western Tanzania from staging attacks into Rwanda (p.184). In other words, Tanzania, existing in the same international normative environment as Congo/Zaire and facing the same structural incentives (i.e., no prospect of 'state death'), became a somewhat stronger state than Zaire. This does not invalidate Atzili's argument, since he acknowledges that outcomes may vary depending on leadership and political culture (p.9). But he maintains that leaders of weak states in a 'fixed-borders world' have a more difficult job of state-building than leaders in a 'flexible-borders world' had: "The task of building strong states in a world of fixed borders is daunting" (p.220).

On p.39 of his book Atzili discusses Gibler's article "Outside-In: The Effects of External Threat on State Centralization" (Journal of Conflict Resolution, 54:4, 2010). Atzili criticizes the article on several grounds (noting, for example, that he uses a "broad and holistic concept of state strength" in contrast to Gibler's focus on centralization), but also says that Gibler's findings support one of his (Atzili's) hypotheses, namely that "a world in which there is no normative prohibition on conquest and annexation (flexible-borders world) is likely to result, over time, in sociopolitically stronger states" (p.36). 

Yet it seems to me that Gibler and Atzili approach the whole problem from somewhat different angles not only in terms of their methods (which is clearly the case) but in terms of the causal arrows (causal mechanisms, if you prefer that phrase) that each sees at work. For Gibler, the absence of territorial disputes -- as indicated by, among other things, settled boundaries -- leads to democracy and peace via less 'centralized' states. For Atzili, settled boundaries produce or enhance peace only under certain conditions, namely the presence of 'strong' states, where 'strength' is understood not as 'centralization' but more broadly, i.e. as a state's overall capacity and legitimacy.

In terms of policy recommendations, Atzili would not get rid of the border-fixity (territorial integrity) norm, since in large parts of the world its effects are positive, nor does he advocate returning to the era of territorial wars. He suggests what are, in effect, less drastic steps to put pressure on weak states to engage in state-building, such as the threat of ejection from international organizations for "states that cannot be considered states by any positive measure (such as Somalia and the DRC)" (p.220). He also suggests that "in some cases state building may need to take precedence over democratization" (p.220). I'm not sure what I think about this or indeed about Atzili's general argument: obviously I think it is interesting enough to blog about, but I have certainly not read the book with the care that would be required to reach a considered judgment. (Perhaps I will have some additional thoughts later.)  

I'm going to leave it here, without a tidy conclusion. Comments are welcome, including those politely telling me that I'm confused and have got things all mixed up.

Added later: See also R. Dannreuther, "War and Insecurity: Legacies of Northern and Southern State Formation," Review of International Studies 33:2 (April 2007).

Monday, October 22, 2012

A few notes

(1) The foreign policy (supposedly, at any rate) debate: The less said the better about this rather unilluminating exchange. The highlight for me was Obama's "horses and bayonets" and "we're not playing Battleship" riposte to Romney on the size of the navy.

(2) Dan Nexon has asked IR bloggers to help publicize this.

(3) Gary Hart on the NewsHour earlier this evening spoke warmly and sensibly about the legacy of George McGovern.

(4) If you're an IR type, stay tuned for my post on borders and conflict later this week.

[added later] (5) Greg Weeks on Romney's paternalism toward Latin America.

Thursday, October 18, 2012

Evening linkage

Dobbs on the Cuban missile crisis.

Slaughter on Kaplan's The Revenge of Geography.

G. Palast (via Democracy Now) on Romney and Paul Singer.

Monday, October 15, 2012

Greenwald on Raddatz etc.

Here. [h/t] One of his points is that Raddatz's questions revealed her acceptance of the U.S. foreign-policy establishment's assumptions. No big surprise there. There is a set of 'establishment' views and someone who has spent a career covering the Pentagon is likely to have absorbed them. 

This passage, from the end of Greenwald's column, may be worth quoting:
One more note about Raddatz: near the end of the debate, she asked the two Catholic candidates how their religion influences their views on abortion. This was a reasonable question unto itself, but also reflects standard DC assumptions on these issues.
It is often noted that the Catholic Church stridently opposes reproductive rights. But it is almost never noted that the Church just as stridently opposes US militarism and its economic policies that continuously promote corporate cronyism over the poor. Too much emphasis on that latter fact might imperil the bipartisan commitment to those policies, and so discussion of religious belief is typically confined to the safer arena of social issues. That the Church has for decades denounced the US government's military aggression and its subservience to the wealthiest is almost always excluded from establishment journalistic circles, even as its steadfast opposition to abortion and gay rights is endlessly touted.
I'm not sure I'd say that the Catholic Church "opposes U.S. militarism" as stridently as it opposes abortion, but there is no doubt that the Catholic hierarchy (both the Vatican and the U.S. bishops) has been critical of U.S. foreign policy. Readers of a certain age (including your blogger [cough]) may recall, just to take one well-known example, the 1983 bishops' letter on nuclear weapons. The Church also opposed Reagan-era U.S. policies in Latin America, if my memory serves, and as Greenwald's link reminds, Pope John Paul II was a firm opponent of the 2003 invasion of Iraq.
Note: Rather than a creating a topic label "Catholic Church," I'm going to use the existing label "Holy See" (which is the name for the Vatican in international law) so as not to increase recklessly the already high number of labels.

Friday, October 12, 2012

Thought for the day

Political scientists want the public to support, through their elected representatives, National Science Foundation and other funding for their research. That research, as reported for example on The Monkey Cage blog, seems to suggest that the public is, generally speaking, largely incapable of forming independent judgments, ignorant, ill-informed, and inattentive. So political scientists (at least those who study American politics) are in the position of wanting the public to support research that reveals and emphasizes the public's shortcomings. Political scientists want the public to support research that almost never flatters it but usually does the reverse. Of course the public presumably does not know that the research does not flatter it, but if it did, I think it would probably not be inclined to rush to the barricades in support of federal funding of political science research.

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Conscience is a funny thing

This evening I'm sliding to the conclusion that I should probably do a few hours of phone banking into Virginia or whatever the Obama campaign in this area is having volunteers do. That way if the election turns out badly (which, let me hasten to say, I don't think it will), I can say to myself: well, at least I did a little work.

And as long as I'm thinking aloud: there's a ballot question in Md. about redistricting involving a district which, as I understand it, has been somewhat tortuously drawn (to put it politely) to produce another Dem. seat in the House. Bit of a dilemma, perhaps. Actually I think I'm going to vote 'no' on that. I grew up politically in an era in which the message of 'good government' groups was, as political scientists like to say, salient. Hence "gerrymandering" is a 'boo word' for me. But as usual, I probably won't make final decisions on things like this until the day before.

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Two intellectuals and the Communist Party

The brilliant historian E. J. Hobsbawm (1917-2012; NYT obit here)  joined the Communist Party (CP) as a student at Cambridge, having earlier been a member of a Communist student group as a teenager in Germany. The brilliant novelist and philosopher Iris Murdoch (1919-1999) joined the CP as a student at Oxford. Their paths crossed briefly: Murdoch's biographer Peter Conradi notes that after her first year at Oxford, in the summer of 1939, she "attended a one-week Communist Party summer school in Surrey, where the future historian Eric Hobsbawm, then studying at Cambridge, was deeply impressed by her looks, character and intelligence...." (Iris Murdoch: A Life, p.98, citing a 1999 interview with Hobsbawm)   

Not too long thereafter their political trajectories diverged. Hobsbawm stayed in the Party for most of his life, whereas Murdoch left the CP before the Second World War ended. Hobsbawm's recent death brought out critics who charged him with blindness to the horrors of Stalinism, a charge that does not affect the bulk of his historical work, including the well-known three volumes on 'the long nineteenth century'. (To quote the NYT obit, "in 1994 [Hobsbawm] shocked viewers when, in an interview with Michael Ignatieff on the BBC, he said that the deaths of millions of Soviet citizens under Stalin would have been worth it if a genuine Communist society had been the result." On the other hand, in The Age of Extremes, p.380, Hobsbawm wrote of Stalin that "few men have manipulated terror on a more universal scale.")

As for Iris Murdoch's politics, they turned into fairly standard liberalism, in more or less the American sense of that word (see, e.g., the chapter on politics in her Metaphysics as a Guide to Morals), though she was much more interested in ethics and aesthetics than political theory. Peter Conradi writes: "It could be said that all [Murdoch's] fiction, and much of her moral philosophy, are acts of penance for, and attacks upon, the facile rationalistic optimism of her extreme youth...." (Iris Murdoch: A Life, p.78) That may be a bit of an overstatement but there is something in it, as anyone can attest who is familiar with, to take just one of many possible examples, Murdoch's portrait of the revolutionary theorist Crimond in The Book and the Brotherhood. Her novels do not, for the most part, take much notice of world events; an exception, The Accidental Man, in which the Vietnam War complicates the moral and practical life of a young American intellectual living in Britain, proves the rule.

Hobsbawm and Murdoch, markedly different in their interests and outlooks for most of their lives, wrote completely different kinds of books which are united only by the probability that people will still be reading them a hundred years from now. They are two of many gifted people for whom the Communist Party seemed, in the era of Depression and fascism, the right and necessary political choice.

P.s. on Hobsbawm: The first sentence of the NYT obituary (linked above) refers to his "three-volume economic history of the rise of industrial capitalism." This is not a wholly accurate description of the "Age of..." volumes. I was glancing at my old paperback copy of The Age of Revolution several days ago, and it appears that some of the most engaging writing in it is in the chapter on the arts (ch.14).

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

First pres. debate: brief reaction

In terms of the level of discussion, it was quite a good debate: to get into policy in this much detail treats voters as adults, which is a good thing.

Both had their moments. One of Obama's best moments, I thought, was his recitation of Romney's failure to be specific about his plans: on which deductions and loopholes in the tax code he would propose to close, on which parts of Dodd-Frank he would keep and not keep, on what he would replace the Affordable Care Act with. Romney's reply, that he is laying out principles and would hammer out details in consultation with Congress, didn't really cut it. Romney made an interesting statement or two about weaknesses in the Dodd-Frank rules (e.g. 'qualified mortgages' have not yet been defined) but didn't really lay out his own alternative.

That said, in terms of effectiveness of overall presentation -- not substance but style, if you will -- I think one has to give this first debate to Romney. He hammered continually on certain points -- the $90 billion Obama has devoted to green energy, the $716 billion supposedly taken from Medicare -- the latter a false charge but the figure will stay in some peoples' minds. And Obama could have replied on the first point by bringing up global warming and the vital need for alternative energy -- which he really didn't -- and he didn't specifically reply on the false Medicare charge, though he did effectively criticize Romney's voucher plan. This is one of these debates where a review of the transcript alone would probably yield a draw but on the screen (computer screen, in my case) Romney seemed, as Shields said on PBS, happier to be there. And Obama was perhaps too 'cool' where an occasional flash of real passion and old-fashioned irritation (not anger, but irritation) might actually have helped. But I don't think in the end that it will sway many votes one way or another.

Update: Award for good line to Dan Nexon: "Romney's muse is unfettered by the shackles of truth and consistency."  

Monday, October 1, 2012

Note: light posting

There's a lot of backlogged reading that I need to focus on, which means there won't be much posting here in October.

Sunday, September 30, 2012

Romney the frugal

Long article in WaPo about Romney and his money. A fortune in excess of $190 million and he takes small economies, e.g., not ordering Perrier in a restaurant but going across the street to a 7-Eleven, buying a six-pack of Perrier and bringing it back to the table.

I know what you're thinking: he would be so good with the deficit. Bullsh*t. It means he's neurotic. End of story.

You (all) can write the rest of this post yourself. Insert apposite quote from The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. Accuse me of ignoring the sociohistorical roots of irrational frugality. Accuse me of not realizing that every penny Romney saves on beverages is another penny he can donate to charity. Charge me with not understanding the profoundly self-reliant character of someone who...  Etc.

(P.s. I'm fairly frugal myself. But then I don't have a fortune in excess of $190 million, a beach house in San Diego, a mansion in New Hampshire, etc.) 

Friday, September 28, 2012

Why do Straussians write horrible books?

A tendentious question, yes. And one that suggests its own answer.

It occurs to me as a result of quickly reading this review of Charles Kesler's book on Obama, which sounds both awful and delusional (though in a more measured and intellectual way than, e.g., Dinesh D'Souza, who borders on being clinically insane).

Mark Lilla, the NYT Book Review's reviewer of Kesler's I Am the Change,  describes Kesler as a "Harvard-­educated disciple of the conservative philosopher Leo Strauss, an admirer of Cicero and the founding fathers and Abraham Lincoln and Martin Luther King Jr. and Ronald Reagan... [who] teaches at Claremont ­McKenna College [something of a hotbed of Straussianism--LFC] and is the editor of The Claremont Review of Books...."

So what is the overriding problem here? If you guessed "disciple of the conservative philosopher Leo Strauss," you're right!! Ding, ding, ding!! Go to the head of the class.

Strauss is polarizing (disciples adore him, others don't), and I hesitate to even suggest something to read for those who want to find out about him (though a piece by Myles Burnyeat in the New York Review of Books many years ago remains a good statement of the 'anti' case, I think). Also, Alan Gilbert at the Democratic Individuality blog has much to say about Strauss (none of it positive) in an erudite vein.

P.s. For a recent post by Ben Alpers about Strauss and one of the lesser-known of his works, see here.

P.p.s. Of course there's always the option of trying to read Strauss himself. (But life may be too short for that.)

P.p.p.s. About the only good thing I can say about Strauss is that, unlike some people, I do not hold him posthumously responsible for the invasion of Iraq.

Update: Strauss's colleague and collaborator Joseph Cropsey died this past summer. Obituary from U. of Chicago site here.

Thursday, September 27, 2012

The immorality of the U.S. drone war

I'm going to vote for Obama. I live in a safely blue state but, perhaps a bit irrationally, I don't feel like taking any chances. Romney in the White House would be horrible. There are important issues where the chasm between the two is wide and the Romney approach would be very bad. There is the issue of prospective Supreme Court appointments. And so on.

All that said, am I going to vote for Obama enthusiastically? No, I don't think I can say that. Conor Friedersdorf's description of the drone war (via CT) captures the major part of the reason:
The drone war [Obama] is waging in North Waziristan isn't "precise" or "surgical" as he would have Americans believe. It kills hundreds of innocents, including children. And for thousands of more innocents who live in the targeted communities, the drone war makes their lives into a nightmare worthy of dystopian novels. People are always afraid. Women cower in their homes. Children are kept out of school. The stress they endure gives them psychiatric disorders. Men are driven crazy by an inability to sleep as drones buzz overhead 24 hours a day, a deadly strike possible at any moment. At worst, this policy creates more terrorists than it kills; at best, America is ruining the lives of thousands of innocent people and killing hundreds of innocents for a small increase in safety from terrorists. It is a cowardly, immoral, and illegal policy, deliberately cloaked in opportunistic secrecy. And Democrats who believe that it is the most moral of all responsible policy alternatives are as misinformed and blinded by partisanship as any conservative ideologue.
I'm hard pressed to do anything except agree with this. I don't share Friedersdorf's conclusion (he's voting for the libertarian candidate), but on this issue I think he's pretty much right. That is, he's right that it's an immoral policy. (He's not right in the conclusion that it requires a vote for someone other than Obama. Sometimes one has to vote for a candidate who is pursuing an immoral policy, if the other candidate with a chance to win would pursue more immoral policies.) 

Also, see a new study of the drone campaign described here (h/t).

P.s. (added later): As things I've written here before suggest, I recognize that the issue is not an easy one, given Pakistan's refusal to deal with the Haqqani network and other groups which have been carrying out cross-border attacks into Afghanistan from the border region. Still, the 'collateral' cost of drones, in terms of civilian casualties and hardship, makes the campaign in its current form hard to justify.  

Monday, September 24, 2012

Adam Elkus vs. John Mueller: Is war on the way out?

This is a propitious time, one might think, to be pushing back against the argument that war is obsolescent. A bloody, prolonged civil war is raging in Syria and major powers and international organizations seem unable or unwilling to stop it. In Yemen, tribal militias have been fighting al-Qaeda. In Pakistan and elsewhere, U.S. drone strikes continue. Then, of course, there is the war in Afghanistan. It doesn't seem as if war is on the way out -- until one looks a bit deeper and at long-term trends. Then the question becomes at least an open one.

Adam Elkus, in a piece at Infinity Journal, joins the ranks of those criticizing the war-is-obsolescent view. He is right, I think, to sound a cautionary note about John Mueller's thesis, in The Remnants of War, that war these days is becoming a matter of thugs and criminal gangs (assuming that's what Mueller said in The Remnants of War -- I've read some of Mueller's work but not that particular book).

Unfortunately, however, Elkus doesn't give some of Mueller's other arguments, as stated in his Retreat from Doomsday and in his 2009 article "War Has Almost Ceased to Exist" [pdf], their due. For example, why was World War I such an important turning point in this context? To read Elkus's piece, you'd think it was because the war was extraordinarily costly for certain countries, wiping out almost an entire generation of young men in several of the main belligerents. That's true, of course, but as Mueller points out in his 2009 article, a key fact is that an anti-war movement existed in the belligerent countries (certainly in Britain and to a lesser extent in some of the others) before the war. Thus an anti-war discourse was in the air, available for appropriation by broader groups of people (including writers and opinion-molders) after the war ended. That's important because the driver in Mueller's argument is ideational change. It's not just that World War I was extremely bloody. It's that a set of ideas existed and was in circulation before the war which, while largely ignored by most people in 1914, became increasingly plausible as the war dragged on and especially once it had ended and the enormous costs were fully visible and undeniable.

Elkus writes: "Indeed, the enduring popularity of overly tragic World War I histories like those of Barbara Tuchman suggest[s] an urgent need to portray major war as an irrational – even accidental – act rather than the result of determined political choices to engage in violence." This is, I think, largely beside the point. It doesn't matter, from the standpoint of Mueller's argument, whether WW1 was accidental or non-accidental, whether it was the result of "determined political choices to engage in violence" or not. What matters is that, whatever one's view of the war's genesis, it had certain effects on the prevailing ideas about war in the West. Before WW1, serious, respectable people wrote about war as glorious, as necessary for the health of the species, and so forth. World War I marked, in effect, the end of the widespread glorification of war in the public discourse of the West. Elkus's piece, titled "Only the West Has Seen the End of War," suggests that he might implicitly understand this. But it is not made explicit in the piece. Rather, Elkus's unnecessarily dismissive reference to Tuchman's The Guns of August -- a book, don't forget, that apparently exercised a salutary influence on John F. Kennedy during the Cuban missile crisis, if certain accounts are correct -- is coupled with the message that there is an "urgent need" to portray major war as "irrational." But there is no such "urgent need." Obsolescence and irrationality are two different things. Mueller says major war in the 'developed' world has become unthinkable ("subrationally unthinkable" is his phrase), not "irrational." The two notions are not quite the same. 

Elkus is right about some things in this piece, for instance that the official military doctrines of China and Russia reveal "a strong appreciation for the role of force." But so, to some extent and indeed tautologically, do the official military doctrines of all major powers. The Pentagon is not going to issue a white paper declaring major war obsolescent. That doesn't mean major war is not obsolescent, it just means you're not going to read that in an official Pentagon document.

One might think Mueller, as an established scholar, needs no defenders. But there seems to be a growing tendency to dismiss or ignore or minimize his arguments. Thus Elkus's piece continues a  pattern. Maybe it's time for Mueller to do some pushing back of his own.

P.s. (added later): I recognize, of course, that fascism often glorified war. But the post-WW1 change in discourse and attitudes is nonetheless striking. 

P.p.s. In the opening of this post I also could have mentioned the recent fighting in Mali.

Fort Sumter and the Tonkin Gulf

I recently read Andrew Delbanco's essay The Abolitionist Imagination [Amazon link].  He traces the abolitionist impulse through U.S. history and into the present, detecting, for instance, "structural" (if not "substantive") similarities between the movement to abolish slavery and the anti-abortion (or 'pro-life') movement of today (pp.48-49), and  the movement for Prohibition in the early twentieth century (pp.46-47).

Delbanco's attitude toward the original abolitionists is ambivalent. Moreover, he views with some sympathy those who, despite being opposed to slavery, declined to join the abolitionists' ranks. He closes with a quotation from John Jay Chapman, who spoke of "the losing heroism of conservatism" with reference to "New England judge[s] enforcing the Fugitive Slave Law" (e.g., Lemuel Shaw) despite their personal opposition to it (pp.54-55).

My attitude to the abolitionists is more positive than Delbanco's, but I think he makes some interesting points even if I'm not persuaded by them. Toward the end of the essay he provocatively compares the Civil War to recent (and not-so-recent) American wars abroad (Vietnam, Afghanistan, Iraq). I don't think these comparisons work. A quote or two will indicate the tenor of his argument.

He writes (p.43):
...[I]f we imagine ourselves living in the America of the 1850s, how sure can we be of our judgment on the question of intervention in what people of advanced views today might call "the indigenous culture" of the South?

Would we have regarded the firing on Fort Sumter as the abolitionists did -- as a welcome provocation to take up arms against an expansionist power? Or would we have regarded it as a pretext for waging war, akin to that notorious event in every baby boomer's memory, the Gulf of Tonkin incident? If we could have known in advance the scale of the ensuing carnage, would we have sided with those who considered any price worth paying to bring an end to slavery? Or would we have voted for patience, persuasion, diplomacy, perhaps economic sanctions -- the alternatives to war that most liberal-minded people prefer today in the face of manifest evil in faraway lands?

He pushes the point a little further (p.44):
Most of us live quite comfortably today with our knowledge of cruelty and oppression in nation-states whose exports are as essential to our daily lives as slave-grown cotton once was to the "free" North--yet few of us take any action beyond lamenting the dark side of "globalization." Are we sure we would have sided with those who insisted that all Americans--even if they had never seen, much less owned,a slave--had a duty forcibly to terminate the labor system of a region that many regarded, to all intents and purposes, as a foreign country? None of these questions yields an easy answer--but they should at least restrain us from passing easy judgment on those who withheld themselves from the crusade, not out of indifference but because of conscientious doubt.
An obvious problem with this line of thought is that although the South might have been seen in the North as a foreign country, the South was in fact part of the same country. As Delbanco himself observes earlier in the essay, Lincoln's original war aim was to preserve the Union, not to abolish slavery. It was only in the summer of 1862 that Lincoln's "mind was opening to new possibilities" (p.13), leading him to free the slaves in the Confederate states but not in border states that had remained in the Union.

Another point is that the Gulf of Tonkin incident was, at least on some accounts, completely manufactured: "North Vietnamese gunboats were probably operating in the area [of the U.S. destroyers Maddox and Turner], but no evidence has ever been produced to demonstrate that they committed hostile acts" (G. Herring, America's Longest War, 2d. ed., p.120). By contrast, there is no doubt that Fort Sumter was fired upon.

Then, too, it is far from clear that going to war to preserve an independent South Vietnam (i.e., independent of absorption into the Communist North) constituted in practice an especially noble goal, given that South Vietnam's rulers, from Diem to Thieu (and pre-Diem as well), were not exactly paragons of democratic legitimacy. By contrast, going to war to preserve the Union seems considerably more justified -- though not, I concede, an open-and-shut case. And to be sure, the Civil War proved very costly in terms of lives and I agree that has to be weighed (cf. Delbanco, p.54).

All this doesn't answer Delbanco's question of how sure we can be of our judgments had we been living in the 1850s. But it does suggest that some of the comparisons he draws are more than a bit strained.
Note: Delbanco's essay, originally a lecture, was published with several responses. I've looked at the responses but not properly read them.

Thursday, September 20, 2012

Suu Kyi, Pussy Riot, and the corridors of power

Two WaPo reporters recount an event at the Newseum in which Aung San Suu Kyi, fresh from receiving her delayed Congressional Gold Medal, rubbed shoulders with supporters and relatives of Pussy Riot, the Russian punk rocker feminists three of whom are now serving time in a Moscow prison for, in effect, insulting Vladimir Putin.

The WaPo reporters are taken with the notion of strange-seeming allies and with how, sooner or later, "everyone" (their word) comes to Washington, D.C. to make his or her "case."

I admire Suu Kyi (who doesn't?). I'm fine with Pussy Riot. But as someone who was born in Washington, D.C. and has lived much of his life in the city or its environs, I find the smug, self-congratulatory tone of the reporters' article, with its comfy assumption that "everyone" comes to Washington, D.C., to be false and somewhat repellent.

It reminds me of a D.C.-based bank (perhaps no longer in existence) which used to run advertisements, some years ago, referring to itself as "the most important bank in the most important city in the world." Pardon me while I reach for the barf bag.

Washington, D.C. is not the center of the universe. New York City is not the center of the universe. These are delusions held by people who have spent too much time in or around what the WaPo article calls, without really even a hint of irony, the "corridors of power."

The WaPo article quotes a Univ. of California professor who blogs about social movements on how cool it is for Suu Kyi and Pussy Riot to be sharing a stage and a spotlight. But the article is more interested in a faux anthropological-sociological analysis of the difference between being on Washington's A-list, which Suu Kyi is, and the contrasting status of the Pussy Riot people, who have to be driven by someone from Amnesty rather than getting a Secret Service escort.

Does anyone really care about this kind of gossipy trivia? The answer is apparently yes: readers of the WaPo Style section. Year after year, decade after decade, the Style section has specialized in this sort of thing, always guided by the comforting and false assumption that its readers unfolding the paper at breakfast were privileged participants in, or at least privileged onlookers to, the most important happenings in the most important place in the world.

That assumption was never true, but at least in the days when most readers unfolded a hard-copy Washington Post at breakfast it had a certain surface claim to wink-iness. As in: we the people writing and you the people reading this newspaper are (wink) important, we are (wink) in the know, we are (wink) where it's at, we are mere steps from the corridors of power. Now that many people read the paper online and can do it anywhere from Wheeling to Waukesha to Nairobi to Oslo, this kind of insular appeal no longer has even much surface plausibility.

But that hasn't stopped the Style section from continuing to use the same old figures of speech, the same old conceits, patting its (local, if not other) readers on the back for their enormous luck in happening to live where they do.

The reporters who churn out this stuff probably don't even know that the phrase "the corridors of power" was not coined by someone in D.C., not even by an American. It comes from the title of a novel by the British scientist and writer C.P. Snow.

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Romney's latest howler; or, he's no Reagan

Update: Turns out the Romney people cut off the last sentence of the Obama quote in question.

So now Romney is picking on Obama's 1998 remarks about "redistribution," claiming that redistribution has "never characterized America" (paraphrased). Ye gods. One has to be either profoundly ignorant or profoundly stupid (or both) to say such a thing. I guess I'll go with profoundly ignorant.

This is just more of the same old tired ploy of trying to portray Obama as a socialist. I know some socialists. Believe me, Obama is not one. And that will remain true no matter how often Romney repeats that he, Romney, is for a "free society" as opposed to a "government-centered" society, that he (Romney) knows that "redistribution" is so un-American, blah blah blah.

Ever since Reagan's election in 1980 Republicans have been trying to bottle the Reagan magic by repeating his bromides. But Reagan didn't win because of his bromides. He won because he projected an image of confidence and optimism. He was an actor by profession whose favorite recreation was to ride horses and split logs. Romney does not, as far as I know, split logs (although his wife does like horses). As a youth, Reagan was a lifeguard. Romney by contrast carried the hockey team's sticks and helped cut off a kid's hair because he thought it was too long. Romney's efforts to channel Reagan by repeating all this garbage about redistribution will fail. It's really a sign of desperation.

Added later (to cross the t's and dot the i's): Virtually every country's public policies are redistributive, both upward and downward, to one extent or another. That there is less redistribution, particularly less downward redistribution, in the U.S. than in certain other countries does not mean there is no redistribution at all or that the notion of redistribution is alien to the U.S.
Romney is interested in contrasting European domestic policies on redistribution to U.S. policies but this is a contrast that easily can be overdrawn. Of course, for political reasons Romney has an incentive to overdraw it, or at least he thinks he does.