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.

Is Yahweh a constitutional monarch?

And was King David his prime minister?

I recently commented — as I’m not the first to notice — that an important advantage of having a monarch sitting formally on the throne, but prohibited from doing anything, is that it prevents the people wielding real power, like the prime minister, from putting on regal airs. You wouldn’t think such a silly trick would work, but it seems to.

It occurred to me that the origin of this trick could be seen in the political philosophy of the Hebrew Bible. God is repeatedly referred to as the King of Kings, and he is not at all pleased when Israel insists on having a king of their own. A king? he says. Are you out of your fucking minds? A king will be making war all the time. He’ll tax your grain and livestock. He’ll take your sons for his army and your daughters to serve in his palace. You’ll be slaves. “And in that day you will cry out because of your king, whom you have chosen for yourselves; but the Lord will not answer you in that day.” But even then, it’s a very limited sort of kingship, because the real monarch is the King of Kings.

It’s a perfect solution, for keeping kings in their place. Even Queen Elizabeth meddles in affairs of state. What better way to keep the regalia from messing with human politics than to bestow them on a deity who is (depending on your perspective) either too busy to get involved with human trifles, or simply imaginary?

I got to think about this again in reflecting on what I find one of the most fascinating stories in the Hebrew Bible, the story of the prophet Natan and King David. King David, the story goes, seduced Bathsheba, and she became, as the expression goes, with child. The problem was, her husband Uriah was a soldier out on a long-term deployment, so a pregnancy was liable to raise some eyebrows. No problem! He’s the king! He summoned Uriah back from the field, asked him for a report on the status of the front line, and then suggested he take advantage of the opportunity to see his wife. But instead, Uriah slept outside the king’s door.

David said to Uriah, “Have you not come from a journey? Why did you not go down to your house?” Uriah said to David, “The ark and Israel and Judah dwell in booths; and my lord Joab and the servants of my lord are camping in the open field; shall I then go to my house, to eat and to drink, and to lie with my wife? As you live, and as your soul lives, I will not do this thing.”

The king got him drunk, but he maintained his scruples. So the king decided to have him “accidentally” killed in battle. That worked, and David could take up openly with Bathsheba.

Problem solved! One could hardly imagine anyone criticising Rameses for accidentally on purpose bringing about the death of one of his subjects; nor Nebuchadnezzar; nor Louis XIV, for that matter. The story is set up so that the death is a soldier’s death in battle. The only crime was in David’s intention.

But then comes the prophet Natan and announces God’s anathema (to be punished by the death of their firstborn child — when I read the story as a child, I of course thought, why is the child being punished for this?). Actually, he gets David to condemn himself, by presenting his deed as an anonymous case of a wealthy man who stole the little that his neighbour had.

I’ve always been amazed that people 2500 years ago were able to formulate the principle that everyone, even a king, even the most majestic of holy priest kings, must respect the basic rights and dignity of other human beings. And a king who violates this principle is no better than a common thief.

But what never occurred to me before is to think that part of the trick was to declare the absent god to be the real king, and the king on earth to be just another servant. It took another couple of millennia for the West to instrumentalise this lesson.

German politics in one sentence

In the context of the ongoing coalition negotiations in Germany, Spiegel quoted Mike Mohring, the leader of the CDU (center-right, the party of Angela Merkel, with a near-majority of the Bundestag seats) in the state of Thüringen speaking in favour of a coalition with the Greens, the environmental party, that started out as an insurgent far-left party in the 70s, but is now a disciplined party of the intellectual left. (Hence the need for the Pirate Party to fill the gap in the political spectrum by focusing on more up-to-date issues (not that the environment is ever not an important issue, but the well-heeled environmentalism of today’s Greens can shade into NIMBYism). Sadly, the Pirates didn’t clear the hurdle to make it into the Bundestag this time.)

Anyway, Mohring summarised the move of the Greens toward their “realistic” (Realos, contrasted to the Fundis, the leftist fundamentalists) wing by saying

Ein Großteil der Wähler der Grünen ist fest im Bürgertum verwurzelt.

A large portion of the Green voters is securely rooted in the middle class.

“Middle class” is only a weak translation for the German Bürgertum, with its undertones of right-thinking and class struggle. And the Greens (or rather, their voters) have not only made it, they are even “rooted”. There’s enough condescension to power a whole revolution right there (except that the Greens and their voters are too middle-class to revolt).

Post-Newtonian politics, or, Psychopathology and national security

A short addendum to the comment about the seemingly counter-productive tactics of the US and European security apparatus in its attack on everyone involved in the Snowden NSA-document affair. Inspired by remarks of John Quiggin, I observed that we can’t understand what is happening when we view the state as a unitary goal-directed entity. Much of what is going on now can only be interpreted as eruptions of an internal power struggle, where the security services feel threatened, and are throwing their weight around.

Talking about throwing weight around puts one in mind of celestial mechanics. Under most circumstances we can consider planets as being simple objects, a mass located at a single point, the so-called centre of mass, whose motion is defined by a single momentum vector. It is only when we look at the fine structure, long-term behaviour, or extreme events that we need to consider the internal disposition of the mass. So it is with governments, that we may incline to see as unitary objects moved by the single will of the president or prime minister. Of course, political theorists and historians know that even the most extreme dictatorship has factions and power structures that shape the master’s will.

The analogy has been applied to the philosophy of mind. Two decades ago Philosopher Daniel Dennett introduced the definition of the self as a “center of narrative gravity”. We have intuitive models of human psychology that work, like Newton’s Laws, to predict people’s behaviour without reference to their complex inner life. Thus, if I arrange to meet you at a restaurant at 6, it suffices for me to have a few high-level beliefs about you — you want to see me, you know where the restaurant is, you have a watch — to predict that you will be there at about 6. I don’t need to concern myself with your inner life, and, in fact, for me to do so would be intrusive. It is only when behaviour becomes pathological that the unitary self loses traction.

Similarly, the pathological outbursts of the security apparatus (calling them “services” suggest that they are serving someone other than themselves, which is doubtful) force us to consider the complex power relations between government institutions.

We need to turn to some unemployed old kremlinologists to understand our own governments.

Politics and Plagiarism in Germany

There’s a new plagiarism scandal in the German Bundestag! [link in German]

“A nation reveals the nature of its political culture in its choice of scandals.” That’s not a maxim, but it ought to be. I first thought of it in 1992, when the German economics minister and vice-chancellor Jürgen Mölleman was forced to resign because of what was called the “Letterhead affair”: He had used departmental stationary to write in support of a relative’s business marketing to wholesalers a plastic chip that shoppers could keep in their wallets and use instead of a 1-mark coin as the deposit on a shopping trolley. “A clever idea!” he enthused. (“Eine pfiffige Idee.”) At the time I thought it reflected well on German politics, that they could hatch a scandal of such unrelieved banality; I compared it with Italy, where at the same time politicians in the pay of organised crime barely rated a mention in the national news unless underaged prostitutes were involved.

In the past couple of years the German government has been repeatedly roiled by plagiarism scandals. What? I hear you cry. How can a politician commit plagiarism? (Barack Obama refusing to admit that his first book was ghostwritten by Mumia Abu Jamal isn’t plagiarism.) Okay, there was Joseph Biden cribbing his stump speech from Neil Kinnock, but plagiarism is one of those crimes that only certain people can commit — like adultery, or violating the secrecy of the confessional — and those people are writers and academics. Politicians aren’t paid for original turns of phrase. Continue reading “Politics and Plagiarism in Germany”

Statisticians of the World, Unite!

You have nothing to lose but your Markov chains!

From “A Brief History of Britain 1066-1485”, by Nicholas Vincent:

Finally, as in all modern debates from which statistics and the spirit of Karl Marx are never far distant, it has been argued that, by 1200, Philip of France was far richer than the King of England and therefore ideally placed to seize the Plantagenet lands.

Statisticians or Stakhanovites? You decide…

Weather and Politics

From the old “Moving to Canada” blog, originally posted on 22 Jan, 2006:

Two things I did not anticipate for January in Kingston: A federal election, and having to remove my coat to cool off while bicycling.

Weather (or où sont les neiges d’antan?)

I didn’t expect to be able to bicycle at all in the winter, since I expected the roads to be icy and dangerously narrowed by snowbanks.  Instead, the two feet or so of December snow have vanished, except for a few tough icy rinds, and we’re back to shuttling Chaya to daycare in her bike trailer.  Some nights it has not even been dipping below freezing.  It’s like an unending late fall, with the days getting longer. Meanwhile, Europe has been having a Canadian winter.  The natives here complain about the weather.  It’s too slushy. They want the streets properly frozen.

Skating is a big deal in Canada.  Skating rinks are an essential public service, and municipal governments are judged in their effectiveness on their ability to keep them well maintained, and in their social conscience on making them available to the poor.  In this, they are like the swimming pools in German cities, or railway bicycle storage in the Netherlands.  Or prisons in the US…  The Market Square in Kingston (soon to be renamed the Springer Market Square, according to a backroom city council sponsorship deal which is now the topic of legal action) has had a cooled outdoor ice rink installed, open 12 hours a day every day, and several parks have had wooden ovals installed, which they hose down at regular intervals and let freeze, if the weather is cold enough.  Whereas middle class men in the US are always off to their basketball leagues, here they go play hockey at midnight, because that’s when they were able to get the ice free. Continue reading “Weather and Politics”