Cornpone opinions in academia

I was commenting recently on the attempt by University of Illinois (Urbana-Champaign) Chancellor Phyllis Wise to explain to all of us addleheaded profs that her ability (and that of US employers more generally) to fire people for expressing their opinions really has nothing at all to do with freedom of speech or academic freedom:

People are mixing up this individual personnel issue with the whole question of freedom of speech and academic freedom.

Political scientist Corey Robin has taken up the same quote, and explained how pervasive it is, and how fundamental it is to the machinery of repression in the US. It seems like one of those dogmas that is patently absurd to the uninitiated, but for those inside the machine (and by “the machine”, I mean simply mainstream American thinking about politics) it is self-evident.

Robin has nothing on Mark Twain, who wrote more than a century ago:

It is by the goodness of God that in our country we have those three unspeakably precious things: freedom of speech, freedom of conscience, and the prudence never to practice either of them.

He explained at greater length in his great essay “Corn-pone Opinions”, telling of a young slave whom he knew in his boyhood, who told him

“You tell me whar a man gits his corn pone, en I’ll tell you what his ‘pinions is.”

I can never forget it. It was deeply impressed upon me. By my mother. Not upon my memory, but elsewhere. She had slipped in upon me while I was absorbed and not watching. The black philosopher’s idea was that a man is not independent, and cannot afford views which might interfere with his bread and butter. If he would prosper, he must train with the majority; in matters of large moment, like politics and religion, he must think and feel with the bulk of his neighbors, or suffer damage in his social standing and in his business prosperities. He must restrict himself to corn-pone opinions — at least on the surface. He must get his opinions from other people; he must reason out none for himself; he must have no first-hand views.


Mixing up the issues

The Salaita fiasco rumbles along. I have commented before on the case, where the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign took advantage of ambiguities in its hiring process to try to destroy the career of a tenured professor of American Indian Studies, whom they pretended to want to hire, and then fired after he had resigned his old job, but before his new contract had formally started. (Admittedly, by presenting it in these terms I’m pretending that it is not just a giant cock-up. This is what it looks like if you try to pretend that the people acting for the university have any idea what they’re doing. Depending on your perspective, I’m being either generous or unfair.) The current state of play is well summarised here. This was punishment for anti-Israel tweets that had attracted unpleasant attention of some of the university’s major donors.

Anyway, having made her university a place where senior academics need to consult with expert legal counsel before accepting a job offer — if they even want to challenge an international boycott and join an academic pariah — UIUC Chancellor Phyllis Wise (who insists, according to the Chicago Tribune, simultaneously that “she wished she had “been more consultative” before rescinding Salaita’s job offer, and said it could have led her to a different decision” and that “there was “no possibility” that he would work at the U. of I.”) has told the Chronicle of Higher Education that

“People are mixing up this individual personnel issue with the whole question of freedom of speech and academic freedom,” she said in an interview. “I stand by the fact that this institution and all of higher education stands on the bedrock of the importance of academic freedom and freedom of speech, and that we should be and are the place where we deal with the most contentious and difficult and complicated issues that face the world, and that we have to provide the platform where discussions that are difficult and contentious and uncomfortable and unimaginable happen.”

That’s the kind of careful thinking on challenging questions that we look to academic leadership for! Some confused people are mixing up the issues. UIUC stands foursquare behind the principles of academic freedom, and the open discussion of “difficult and contentious and uncomfortable” issues, while confronting the completely unrelated practical real-world challenges of firing a professor for openly making contentious and uncomfortable statements in a public forum.

Or, as the irrepressible Abraham Foxman, National Director of the Anti-Defamation League of B’nai Brith since before the Flood, more succinctly put it,

Donors give money and they expect certain things. There’s nothing wrong with them voicing their opinion.

Scotland, England, and Europe

I have no clear opinion about the upcoming referendum on Scottish independence — on the one hand, as a citizen of another former English colony, I understand the emotional appeal of revolution. On the other hand, as a current resident of England I fear the ensuing chaos, and rationally I really don’t think the negative consequences will necessarily — or even primarily — be felt south of the border. Furthermore, a UK without Scotland will be more conservative (and Conservative) and more xenophobic and anti-Europe.

This last point does suggest, though, a convenient resolution to one of the sticking points of Scottish independence — membership of the EU. The current UK government claims that an independent Scotland would have to negotiate membership like any other new applicant, and so would certainly lose the opt-out from the Euro, and other benefits, if secession-fearing members like Spain don’t block Scottish membership altogether; the Scottish nationalists say they would be negotiating a change of terms from inside the EU. But the Conservatives — who would doubtless attain a majority in a Scotland-free Parliament — have promised a referendum on withdrawal from the EU in the near future. Perhaps these could be coupled, and Scotland could simply inherit the UK seat in the EU. It would save everyone a lot of strife.

But saying that, it makes me wonder about the outcome of the EU referendum. I’d always assumed that Scottish independence would guarantee the UK’s exit from the EU. But would politicians in London really be willing to see their counterparts in Edinburgh and Dublin making European policy, and themselves excluded? It seems hard to imagine.

David Cameron’s other operation

Headline in the Guardian:

David Cameron: I will not resign if Scotland votes for independence

It reminds me of the Monty Python sketch about hapless gangsters, the Piranha brothers:

they began to operate what they called ‘The Operation’. They would select a victim and then threaten to beat him up if he paid the so-called protection money. Four months later they started another operation which the called ‘The Other Operation’. In this racket they selected another victim and threatened not to beat him up if he didn’t pay them. One month later they hit upon ‘The Other Other Operation’. In this the victim was threatened that if he didn’t pay them, they would beat him up. This for the Piranha brothers was the turning point.

If Cameron really wants to preserve the union, he needs to switch to the other other operation, promising that he will resign if Scotland votes to stay in the UK.

Logical crisis in Parliament

One of my favourite logical paradoxes (What, doesn’t everyone have a favourite logical paradox?) is the Unexpected Hanging. I first read about it from Martin Gardner, but you can read a summary here. A recent article in the Oxford Times, about the career plans of a local MP, raised a corresponding problem in the political realm:

Conservative Tony Baldry MP has announced he will stand down at the next General Election.

In a statement Sir Tony said: “One of the consequences of now having five year fixed term Parliaments is that if I succeed in being re-elected at the forthcoming general election, given my age, most people will assume that Parliament will be my last.

“I think this creates a danger that I may be unable to be as effective as I would wish to be; and that the constituency will be distracted from more important issues by the need to choose my successor.”

We might summarise his argument as beginning with three axioms:

  1. It is irresponsible for a politician to stand for parliament if the strong expectation is that this would be his or her last term.
  2. There is a strong expectation that someone will not stand for parliament past age 70.
  3. Terms are now fixed at five years.

Consider, now, the position of a responsible politician, whom we will call Tony65, who who will be, shall we say, 65 years old at the next election. He could stand for parliament now, but he will be 70 at the next election (axiom 3), and so the strong expectation is that he will not stand at the next election (axiom 2). Hence, by axiom 1, and the fact that he is responsible, he should not stand in this election.

But now consider Tony’s younger colleague; call him Tony60, who will be 60 years old at the next election. If Tony60 is elected, he will be 65 at the following election. As a responsible politician, like Tony65, he will stand down at that age. Thus this would be his last term, so by axiom 1 he will not stand at this election either.

By the same reasoning, Tony55 will not stand, since we know that he won’t stand again when he is 60. And so, we can keep backing it up to Tony20, who also can’t stand, because he won’t stand again when he is 25. (18 is the minimum age for election to the House of Commons.) Thus, we have proved:

Theorem: No responsible politician can stand for election to the House of Commons.

This theorem does not apply, for obvious reasons, to the House of Lords, so there will still be space for responsible (if unelected) government.



Peaking at the headlines

I was somewhat nonplussed by this headline on the BBC web site today

Screenshot 2014-09-04 11.34.08

In the centuries-long march of British anti-semitism, was the maximum really reached two months ago, since when it has begun its inexorable decline? Clicking through to the article reveals that, no, there is no evidence of a decline. Instead,

A charity set up to protect Britain’s Jewish community has recorded its highest-ever monthly total of anti-semitic incidents.

The Community Security Trust (CST) said it was aware of 302 such events in July, compared to 59 in July 2013.

So, even more disturbing than the headline suggested. Peaks have two sides, and you don’t know when the peak was until you’ve passed it.

Helicopter parents avant la lettre

I’m always intrigued by the eternal present of “nowadays”: Trends that rise and rise like an Escher staircase. Just now I was coming to the end of Anna Karenina — which I had expected would be just Madame Bovary on the steppes, but it was vastly more — and found this passage:

“He assures me that our children are splendid, when I know how much that’s bad there is in them.”

“Arseny goes to extremes, I always say,” said his wife. “If you look for perfection, you will never be satisfied. And it’s true, as papa says,—that when we were brought up there was one extreme—we were kept in the basement, while our parents lived in the best rooms; now it’s just the other way—the parents are in the wash house, while the children are in the best rooms. Parents now are not expected to live at all, but to exist altogether for their children.”

“Well, what if they like it better?” Lvov said, with his beautiful smile, touching her hand. “Anyone who didn’t know you would think you were a stepmother, not a true mother… Well, come here, you perfect children,” Lvov said to the two handsome boys who came in…

The time when children knew their place, and parents could enjoy themselves, is just a generation past, and apparently it always was.

Metric overlap

big ben faceI was just reading this article about the failure of the US to convert to the metric system in the 1970s — a review of the book Whatever Happened to the Metric System? by John Bemelmans Marciano. (About whose title I wonder, whatever happened to the phrase “what ever”? Isn’t “whatever” a completely different word? Whatever.)

It reminded me of my school days, when the units unit — the unit on converting between English and SI units — was a regular feature of every year’s math lessons. We were told that this would be important for the future, since everything was going to be converted to metric. Something to justify a lifetime of skepticism toward those

At the time, I thought it strange that so much time was being spent on converting between the old and the new units. Once you start using new units, you rarely need to convert to the old ones; and most of the conversion can be done with double-marked measuring utensils, like the measuring tapes that were then and still are ubiquitous. (I was fascinated when I first saw the 18th century clock faces that have the hours subdivided simultaneously into fours and into fives, the latter to accommodate the new-fangled minute hands, the former for the old one-handed system, where a single hand showed the time on a 12-hour or 24-hour scale (or 10-hour, if it was late 18th century Paris), with each hour subdivided into quarter hours. An example, from a much later date (mid-19th century, pictured above) is the face of Big Ben in London.

Emphasising conversions made it seem like metric requires hard math, as well as remembering things like 3.28 feet in a metre, or 454 grams in a pound, whereas it actually means you can stop remembering things like 5280 feet in a mile, or 4840 square feet in an acre, or 4 pecks in a bushel. But I remember being particularly struck at the time (the time being about 1980) by an argument I read, claiming that metric conversion would impose untold costs on the US economy, requiring the replacement of everything from shot glasses to wrenches. I found this claim very odd. Surely, I thought, the fact that we measure the size of drinks in millilitres rather than ounces doesn’t forbid us from making a drink have an odd number of millilitres, at least until the old glasses break.

It reminds me of when Deutsche Telekom, in the pre-competition days, proposed changing the basic unit of charging for local calls from three minutes to half a minute, or maybe it was even less. I remember listening to a call-in show on the radio where this was being discussed, and an elderly woman called to express her outrage. “Who would make a half-minute call? What can you discuss in so little time?”

Anyway, metric didn’t happen in the US, except for the 2-litre pop bottles, and gram bags of cocaine. But even where it did happen there remains an overlap of older units. In Britain, which has been metricated by law since EEC accession in the 1970s, house sizes are in square metres, petrol sold by the litre, and fruits are priced in pence per kilo, but beer is sold by the pint and distances between cities are generally measured in miles. People’s weights seem to be given equally in pounds, kilos, or stones (14 pounds). Commonly imperial units are given as alternatives to officially required metric units, suggesting that at least some portion of the public has a better intuitive grasp of the imperial units. But even in Germany, which had the metric system imposed by Napoleon more than 2 centuries ago, people still talk of “Ein Pfund Butter”, even if this “pound” of butter is a metricated pound, rounded to 500 grams.