“What’s Wrong with being sexy?” “No, sex*ist*”

By: | Post date: November 11, 2017 | Comments: 1 Comment
Posted in categories: Australia

Those of my vintage will recall these two scenes from This Is Spinal Tap:

There was something of a reenactment of that on The Project last night.

The Project, as Australians know and others don’t, is a talk show hosted by Australian Muslim public intellectual Waleed Aly, along with some people who aren’t Muslim or public intellectuals.

Waleed (who I see has now finally gotten his PhD) has been asked whether he thought he was slumming it by being on a commercial TV talk show. His response was that broadcasting on an ABC radio show was no less dumbing things down—broadcast media is not an academic monograph, no matter how high end it is supposed to be.

Still, you will occasionally note a flurry of consternation across his brow during The Project, typically at the comedian sidekicks trying to be funny. Although Waleed is a thoroughly modern and hip Australian (he played guitar in a Pink Floyd cover band for an industry award ceremony), you will occasionally see some cultural disconnects, other than his refusal to drink alcohol.

Last night, The Project featured the fuss around Honey Birdette. Honey Birdette is a lingerie store operating in suburban shopping malls. Honey Birdette uses provocative imagery in its shop windows, such as women in lingerie in a party with men in suits:

—and a petition has circulated that the imagery should not appear in shopping malls, where mums and dads have to explain “why are those ladies not wearing any clothes” to their seven-year-olds.

The obligatory child psychologist was interviewed, and then Waleed chatted briefly with his two comedian sidekicks, Meshel and Lehmo. Meshel concurred that she should not have to explain to her daughter the imagery as being illustrative of the evils of patriarchy, and flaunting the power imbalance between the lingerie-clad women and the suit-clad men.

A familiar flurry of consternation came across Waleed’s brow. “But… surely that’s not the point. Surely the point is that there shouldn’t be hypersexualised imagery in a shopping mall at all.”

Oh no, Meshel and Lehmo nonchalantly answered. If the guys were in Speedos, that would have been quite alright.

And co-host Natarsha Belling quickly threw to an ad break, as Waleed’s features contorted into a Study in Whisky-Tango-Foxtrot…

University presses as rentiers

By: | Post date: November 11, 2017 | Comments: 6 Comments
Posted in categories: Academia

In days of yore, before computers, books were how knowledge was disseminated. And a knowledge economy had developed in the humanities, that went like this:

  • A humanities scholar got tenure in a university by producing one or more published monographs.
  • Because published monographs are still goods, there had to be suppliers and consumers of the monographs.
  • The consumers were university libraries, which were budgeted to buy monographs.
  • The providers were university presses, which were budgeted to produce monographs.
  • The point of the published monographs was to circulate contributions to knowledge. It was not to satisfy market demand, which would prioritise only certain kinds of knowledge.
  • So this was not a laissez-faire economy of knowledge production, with commercially competitive presses and competing libraries. This was a natural monopoly, and a command economy. The limited print runs involved kept monographs out of the purchasing capability of mere mortals (they cost hundreds of dollars), but the system was considered fit for purpose.
  • As an incidental benefit, the scarcity of the published resources required some gatekeeping from the universities themselves, to guarantee that what was being published was not crap.

Like so much, this economy has been disrupted by electronic media. So while XKCD has just discovered that libraries are the best way of preserving knowledge

—university libraries have gotten out of the buying books business. Their funders (the universities themselves), enthralled by the shininess of digital resources, don’t see the point of funding the purchase of dead trees.

Since there is no longer a natural consumer for print monographs, the providers of print monographs have lost their market. Therefore, they will now only print monographs if they can be guaranteed a market for the monograph outside the vanished university library purchasers: the monographs have to be sellable to the general public. Which means they have to be commercially viable.

Hence the lamentation from an erstwhile assistant at Oxford University Press in the Chronicle of Higher Education, that academics cannot write a book proposal to save themselves, and that they write in unreadable convoluted jargon that the general public would not want to buy.

Ah, but she can help, by helping junior academics write good book proposals and more legible prose.

Now, I will concede that academics do have a responsibility to communicate their research to the public; the dearth of the public intellectual is an indictment on Anglosphere academia in particular.

And I will concede that academic prose can be needlessly obfuscatory. Chomsky is notorious for this in linguistics, but only because linguists don’t suffer from that malady as badly as other disciplines in the humanities. (Partly because linguists don’t regard themselves as being in the humanities to begin with.)

But Toor’s article is the plea of a rentier, and it profiteers from the noxious survival of an expired arrangement.

(And to think people actually say that academia.edu is the problem.)

The point of the ecosystem in days of yore was not to make money for Oxford University Press. The point was to disseminate knowledge produced at Oxford University, or any number of other Universities. And it was to disseminate any knowledge—not just the knowledge that was currently in fashion or that was crowd-pleasing and telling people what they want to hear (which is what the market is going to favour).

If that ecosystem is disrupted, then the universities have the responsibility to come up with an ecosystem which still satisfies its ground requirement—the dissemination of knowledge.

Which can be met by PDFs, on academia.edu, or if you prefer on an institutional repository.

If they want the gatekeeper function for quality, fine, put that on the institutional repository.

But my god, don’t go telling academics that the only way they should earn promotion is by writing a sexy book proposal. The point of academic promotion is not to make rentiers a profit.

Of course, the academic enterprise is compromised to begin with: you don’t get a competitive research grant unless you are researching something sexy and popular (as judged by your peers), and you don’t get a job as an academic unless you are researching something sexy and popular (as judged by your peers). The university presses aren’t selling to the command economies of university libraries any more, but they are selling to your peers. So in fact the current state of affairs is more of the same. And universities, as ossified and self-serving institutions (like all human institutions) are not going to be agile enough to see through the flaw in the knowledge ecosystem: they’re still expecting a dead tree published by a university press.

That doesn’t make it justified. The fact that the peers mostly used to act in collusion with the State, and often now act to critique the State, doesn’t make it justified, either.

And it doesn’t make me have any affection for Toor’s argument. Particularly as she compares the lean times of university presses to the lean times of the Houston real estate market—as if laissez faire capitalism benefiting university presses should always be the metric by which academic promotion should be established.

But the argument that academic promotion should not be conditional on a sexy book proposal is hardly the argument that a rentier is going to make, is it.

I’m filled with misanthropy from this. This species really does deserve a Carrington Event.

Nick vs the Dean of Law, UNSW

By: | Post date: October 29, 2017 | Comments: No Comments
Posted in categories: Australia

On the day of the High Court decision upholding the strict interpretation of Section 44i, I posted on the Facebooks:

Why am I surrounded in this country by dolts?

The High Court passed down the banhammer on the pollies. (Fun fact: turns out I’m as British as Xenophon is.) [False alarm.] The commentators get wheeled out on Channel 9. “We’re a country of immigrants, it’s a 100 year old regulation, we should change it.” Does the fool who said that realise that needs a referendum? And that Australians don’t pass referendums at the best of times? And that Australians would be itching to use it as an excuse to punish politicians?

It would seem I have just called Prof George Williams AO, dean of law at the University of New South Wales, a dolt:

Two ways forward now that the High Court has ruled on citizenship of MPs

The second option is to recognise that section 44 of the Constitution is ill-suited to modern times and should be amended. This part of the Constitution was drafted in the 1890s when dual citizenship was rare, and Australia more isolated and inward-looking. Today, the section runs counter to Australia’s national interests. It is not consistent with our sovereignty to permit the eligibility of our parliamentarians to be determined by the citizenship laws of foreign nations.

There’s rich irony in the same issue of The Age, carrying Wiliams’ comment, also carrying this article claiming that Australian universities are funding researchers collaborating with the People’s Liberation Army of China, and working to undermine the technological primacy of the American military.

… Which one could argue is also counter to Australia’s national interests, and is a context where dual citizenship does get to be looked at askance.

So. Am I comfortable to call Williams a dolt?

On the basis of that editorial, sure.

To some extent, because of the principle of it. The High Court is still satisfied by reasonable steps taken to renounce foreign citizenship (I think); so the fear that we are at the mercy of foreign countries undermining our parliament through citizenship law changes is unfounded (and was anticipated the last time this issue went to court, thanks to Phil Cleary). It does impose vigilance on would-be parliamentarians, to check for changes to their ancestral countries’ citizenship law—and inasmuch as those changes could still lead to conflicts of interest, it is right to. Saying probity is old-fashioned because multiculturalism is no argument, especially when a renunciation of dual citizenship is both already a routine matter for the Labor party, and a reasonable undertaking to do one’s job as an Australian legislator, purer than Caesar’s Wife. And “probity is old-fashioned because multiculturalism” is certainly not an argument of law, in which Williams is more expert than me.

To a much greater extent, because of the sheer impracticality of it. Constitutional amendments to address the indigenous people of Australia are repeatedly floundering—most recently this very week. Politicians aren’t convinced the Australian people will vote in a referendum to remedy the injuries done to indigenous Australians in the past, because it will be seen as overreach. Yet Williams assumes Australians will happily vote in a referendum to make things easier on political parties to dodge probity checks? Really?

Williams’ address to the National Press Club a few months back, inevitably, is rather more nuanced than his editorial today. It’s still politically naive though. He says that we used to vote on constitutional referenda all the time up until the Republic referendum of 1999; and then we lost our ticker for constitutional reform.

You know what else the Australian people lost in the last two decades? All remaining respect for the political class, and all inclination to make things easier for them. As witnessed by the upsurge in third party votes. Does Williams really think that politicians losing the ticker for constitutional reform is unrelated to the crisis of confidence in politicians?

Wherein I am not a British Overseas Citizen

By: | Post date: October 28, 2017 | Comments: 4 Comments
Posted in categories: Australia

So, we’ve had a little constitutional crisis here. The Australian Constitution disqualifies people from running for parliament if they have allegiance to another country, as part of its eligibility conditions.

44. Any person who –

(i.) Is under any acknowledgement of allegiance, obedience, or adherence to a foreign power, or is a subject or a citizen or entitled to the rights or privileges of a subject or citizen of a foreign power: or

(v.) Has any direct or indirect pecuniary interest in any agreement with the Public Service of the Commonwealth otherwise than as a member and in common with the other members of an incorporated company consisting of more than twenty-five persons:
shall be incapable of being chosen or of sitting as a senator or a member of the House of Representatives.

In fact, an MP was in trouble just recently for 44v, having shares in a shopping centre that included a post office.

I have no problem with the probity conditions of the Australian Constitution, or the fact that the High Court ruled on it strictly.

  • An MP is meant to be immune from external influence, pecuniary or governmental.
  • The fact that there are lobbyists now that there weren’t in 1900 does not mean the principle should be diluted.
  • The fact that dual citizenship is much more commonplace now than back then does not mean the principle should be diluted. If you want to run for parliament, you can good and renounce your dual citizenship. Explicitly. On paper. As grown-up parties (Labor, but clearly not the Nationals or the Greens) already insist you do. Like the opinion piece in The Australian said today: this isn’t about “the vibe”, we aren’t meant to be mind-readers about how a pollie feels, when they run for office. And I applaud it for scolding the government it politically aligns with, for trying to subvert the constitution.
  • The fact that a New Zealander or Canadian in 1900 were not subject to 44i in 1900 does not mean the principle should be diluted. In fact, I’m insulted by the suggestion that, if a Greek would be caught by 44i in 1900, a New Zealander should be let off the hook now because he would have been part of the Empire then. I don’t care if the constitution framers would have waved through Fellow Britons and block The Swarthy or The Non-Whites; the principle of foreign influence still holds.
  • The fact that the rest of the Commonwealth isn’t as strict about MPs having allegiance to their country does not mean the principle should be diluted. They want to be slack about it, that’s their problem.
  • The fact that the US doesn’t impose restrictions on dual citizenship on Congress impresses me even less. This is the country that from its inception blocked its citizens from foreign titles, and its own president from being foreign born. If they didn’t extend those restrictions to Congress, that’s an inconsistency, not a model to emulate.

My particular interest, above the fact that this country has even more political turmoil than the recent norm, was piqued by the peculiar status of Nick Xenophon, and the bizarro semi-citizenship he unwittingly acquired from his father Theo Xenophou, as a British Overseas Citizen.

  • This is not a hellenisteukontos post, but I do have to comment on the surname. Cyprus, now as in Arcado-Cypriot days, is renowned for its archaism, and Ancient Greek names and surnames are popular there. So people can be surnamed Xenophon. But they are surnamed Xenophon *in the vernacular*; and in the vernacular, there is no third declension. Surnames formed from proper names in Cyprus are in the genitive: the surname Nicholas in Greek is Nikolaou, a normal second declension genitive. Theo was also surnamed with a normal second declension genitive: Xenophou, not the expected Xenophontos. Of course both Xenophou and Xenophontos would have caused confusion in English, among anyone who had heard of Xenophon. Just as my uncles and father anglicised Nikolaou to Nicholas, Nick anglicised it to the nominative Xenophon.

My understanding was that Nick Xenophon did make steps to try and renounce it in time, and was ignored by the British High Commission. (In which case, thanks a bunch, British High Commission; and I doubt pollies are going to take silence as an answer here in the future. But any answers Xenophon would have gotten from the British High Commission, he would also have gotten from the Wikipedia article.)

However, the High Court ruling didn’t rely on that, so much (pity), as the fact that British Overseas Citizenship is so pointless, it would not act as an incentive for an MP to do anything contrary to the interests of Australia. Wikipedia again:

Because the status of British Overseas Citizen is not associated with the right to live or work anywhere in the world, it is often considered a useless citizenship (unless the holder has no other nationality, in which case he or she may register as a British Citizen). However, there are some minor benefits to having British Overseas Citizenship.

Some of these rights are common to all Commonwealth citizens (i.e. British Overseas Citizens with another form of Commonwealth citizenship already have these rights):

  • Right to vote in the UK if resident in the UK.


Other rights are specific only to British Overseas Citizens but not to Commonwealth citizens (holders of some other classes of British nationality may also qualify for some of these rights):

  • Acquiring British Citizenship is simpler and cheaper (registration instead of naturalization), although residency requirements are the same as for other nationalities.
  • Indefinite Leave to Remain is valid for life, regardless of time spent outside the United Kingdom.
  • Ability to hold certain jobs and offices in the UK that are restricted to British Nationals (although positions restricted to British Citizens remain off-limits).
  • Ability to benefit from the Youth Mobility Scheme with no quotas.
  • Ability to claim personal exemptions on UK income if considered non-resident for UK tax purposes. (Prior to 6 Apr 2010 this was available to all Commonwealth Citizens).
  • Consular protection from the UK government if outside the UK and travelling on a British passport.
  • Visa-free access to the UK for visits up to 6 months, if travelling on a BOC passport. (Many other nationalities, commonwealth and non-commonwealth, also have this benefit.)

… Meh.

Xenophon’s story is not my own story (as I thought for ten panicked minutes, because goddamnit, I don’t want to be a Pom); but it is in fact the story of at least one of my cousins. It’s the story of the messy conflict between imperial subjecthood, and national citizenship.

So let me share, drawing on Wikipedia: British Subject.

My uncle George came to Australia from Cyprus in 1947. In Cyprus, he was a British subject. When he arrived in Australia, he was a British subject. And so was everybody in Australia. Both were part of the British Empire.

(And if anyone tells you about the brave ANZACs of Gallipoli forging Australian identity, point out to them that the flag they fought under was the Union Jack, as part of the British Army. My high school still had a Union Jack draped over its War Memorial in the 1980s. As I’ve read somewhere, it was much easier to conscript the ANZACs into Australian nation-building mythology, once the actual original ANZACs started dying off.)

In 1949, everybody in Australia became an Australian citizen, as well as a British subject. My uncles and my father left behind in Cyprus became “Citizens of the United Kingdom and Colonies (CUKC)” (as well as British subjects), because Cyprus was not a Dominion like Australia, but a Crown colony. (They’ve called those remaining British Overseas Territories since 2002.)

My uncle George was not born in Australia, and as far as I can tell, he remained a CUKC rather than becoming an Australian Citizen.

In 1959, my uncle George had his first child, Nick, in Australia. Nick Xenophon was also born in Australia to a Cypriot father in 1959. Birth in Australia will have conferred to both of them Australian citizenship. Yet as the High Court has confirmed, birth to a Cypriot father also conferred to both of them CUKC status.

In 1960, Cyprus became independent, and my uncles and aunts in Cyprus changed automatically from being British subjects, to being Cypriot citizens. That also applied to my father, who only left Cyprus for Australia in 1966.

But any Cypriots that left for other parts of the British Empire (or the Commonwealth, if you accept that fig leaf) did not change automatically to anything. They left as British subjects to other countries that had British subjects, and they remained British subjects. And that seems to have applied to all my uncle George’s other children, born between 1959 and 1968: “citizens of countries that had become republics, such as India, were grouped as British subjects.”

Australia abolished the notion of British subject in 1987, though it has kept it retrospectively on the electoral roll. In 1981, meanwhile, Britain cleaned up the citizenship status of its former colonials, by splitting up CUKCs into British citizens (e.g. born in Britain or descended from someone who was); British Overseas Territories citizens (if you were still connected to a colony in 1983); and British Overseas citizens.

British Overseas Citizens was a catch-all for everyone else, who hadn’t sought out their newly independent country’s citizenship:

British Overseas citizenship is a residual category of British nationality, in that there is very little provision for the acquisition of British Overseas citizenship after 1983; and with the passage of time the category will become extinct.

As British Overseas citizenship is a “mop-up” category for CUKCs who did not acquire British citizenship or BOTC in 1983, there are many ways in which someone may have acquired that status.

These include:

  • persons holding CUKC by connection with a former colony or protectorate who did not acquire that country’s citizenship on independence. This applied particularly to some former colonies, such as Kenya, that did not grant citizenship to all CUKCs born or naturalised in that colony.
    • So people that became stateless in their own country on independence. Ouch.
  • persons who retained CUKC on independence of their colony based on a connection to another colony which subsequently became independent before 1983
    • So colonials who moved to another colony, so they didn’t get citizenship when either colony became independent. Again, ouch.
  • British subjects born before 1949 who did not acquire citizenship of any Dominion (Australia, Canada, India, Pakistan, Ceylon, South Africa), Ireland or Southern Rhodesia when these countries introduced citizenship laws, and were not connected in any way with India or Pakistan.
    • And I guess at the time, noone was strongly motivated to, because everybody was part of the British Empire. That might have been the case for my uncle George and Nick Xenophon’s dad. Except…
  • minor children who acquired CUKC by registration at the British High Commission in an independent Commonwealth country on or after 28 October 1971
  • persons who were allowed to retain their CUKC statuses even though they acquired the citizenship of a newly independent Commonwealth country (see Penang and Malacca and Cyprus immediately below)… Persons resident in any area of the Commonwealth (excluding Cyprus) immediately before 16 August 1960 retained CUKC even if they acquired Cypriot citizenship.

… Bingo. Even if my uncle George and Theo Xenophou sought out Cypriot citizenship after independence, the UK still made them CUKC (and now British Overseas Citizens), by virtue of them residing elsewhere in the Empire at the time. And in fact, even if Nick Xenophon and my cousin Nick have Australian citizenship, by virtue of being born in Australia—they still got to be British Overseas Citizens, because their fathers were colonials who migrated within the Empire.

George’s other children born after Cypriot independence, Perry, Steve and Mary—seem to have been British subjects under Australian law, regardless. The same would apply to my uncle Chris’ children Nick and Irene, as Chris had moved to Australia in 1953. But they don’t seem to have ended up as British Overseas Citizens. Australia being a Dominion seems to have safeguarded them from acquiring CUKC status as far as Britain was concerned, after 1960. (Had my uncles moved to Mauritius or the Bahamas, on the other hand, their children would still have ended up BOCs.)

It’s messy, but really, the mess is not the fault of those who drew up the British Nationality Act of 1981 (although British Overseas Citizenship really is an insultingly nothing kind of citizenship.) They were doing cleanup after the demise of the Empire, and mopping up the former colonials whose citizenship was up in the air because they were out of town at the time. The mess was inevitable, in transition from an imperial notion of being a British Subject anywhere where the map was coloured in red, to when those parts of the map in red becoming nations of their own.

At any rate, my father was a Cypriot citizen when he got here, so I have no eligibility to being a British Overseas Citizen, and that’s fine by me.

OTOH, it turns out that I am eligible for Cypriot citizenship, through jus sanguinis (mpf): per Acquisition of Citizenship due to Cypriot Origins, application type M123. I’d have thought that eligibility for Cypriot citizenship means I don’t have Cypriot citizenship right now; but if I ever do consider a career in Australian politics, form M130 to renounce Cypriot Citizenship would be something I’d want to look at.

In defence of academia.edu

By: | Post date: October 23, 2017 | Comments: 4 Comments
Posted in categories: Academia

Sarah Bond has published an article on Forbes, titled: Dear Scholars, Delete Your Account At Academia.Edu.

Dear Sarah Bond:

How about—No.

Academia.edu arose as a response to the exclusive distribution of articles by journal publishers—whose money gouging is orders of magnitude more obtrusive, and more obstructive to disseminating scholarship, than academia.edu’s.

(And the money gouging continues whether you use academia.edu or not, because academic careers still rely on peer reviewed journals overwhelmingly published by commercial publishers.)

Bond’s suggestion of Institutional Repositories as an alternative is cold comfort to independent scholars like me—or like the independent scholar who applauded this article on my Facebook feed. (Is putting up your papers on your personal website so much better then?) Not to mention how having papers scattered to the winds, one repository at a time (or one personal website at a time, for independent scholars), means noone will ever be able to search them in the one place. There have been moves to federate repositories for decades now, and they still won’t deliver the economy of scale that academia.edu has, driven by profit as it is. (Shall I opt out of Google too because they sell ads?)

Other disciplines, in the sciences and medicine, have dealt with this a lot better (arXiv for example). But for the humanities, we’re not there; and until such time as Humanities Commons, which Bond touts, gets there, I have no interest in deleting my academia.edu account. I’m not compromising what little dissemination my work gets, with no institutional backing, in order to prove your point.

Yes, academia.edu profiteers on my labour. So does your university. Yes, academia.edu keeps trying to get me to upgrade. I’m used to it by now. It’s no worse than the model that came before it.

If you want to bring down academia.edu, build a Commons that has its economy of scale and size. Those of you who are employed within academia have better resourcing to do so than I do. Until such time, I’m OK with being monetised by academia.edu.

Or, for that matter, Google.

Dan Andrews, meet Tom Huston

By: | Post date: October 16, 2017 | Comments: 1 Comment
Posted in categories: Culture

Last week, my State Premier Dan Andrews approved the wholesale transfer of drivers licence photos to the Feds, because terrorism. And he also dismissed any concerns about civil liberties as a luxury (a luxury) that he cannot afford as a leader, because terrorism.

Some people have the luxury of being able to have that notional debate. Those of us in positions of leadership do not have that luxury.

Nor of course does leadership have the luxury of actually standing for anything any more. Particularly in the centre-left.

We don’t have many public intellectuals or civil libertarians left in our benighted age, to tell Dan Andrews and all the other leaders how full of it they are. We do at least have Waleed Aly pointing out how expedient this talk is, when the actual imminent crisis that is going to kill a whole lot more people than Tha Muzlims, climate change, raises only a complacent “meh” from leaders of the putative integrity and steely-eyed bravery of Andrews.

I finished reading John Farrell’s biography of Nixon last night. And there was a quote there from the Church Committee hearings, the post-Watergate cleanup of all the Cold War abuses of civil liberties by the US government, that stopped me in my tracks, because it’s a quote we’re going to hear again, when the following forty years of abuses (because terrorism) are called to reckoning. And people will say, Oh, How Could We Have Been So Blind. And those people will not be worth answering, because the evidence of their blindness is all around them right now.

It’s a quote from Tom Huston, the Nixon aide who came up with the Huston Plan. Which he came up with at Nixon’s bequest in 1970, and which would have been implemented in full had it not been blocked by, of all people, J. Edgar Hoover:

Among other things the plan called for domestic burglary, illegal electronic surveillance and opening the mail of domestic “radicals”. At one time it also called for the creation of camps in Western states where anti-war protesters would be detained.

And of course that kind of thing is happening again, without challenge, because terrorism.

When Huston proclaimed his penitence to the Church committee, he said the following. (You can watch the video from C-SPAN if you have the patience to.) It’s as true now as it ever was, because slippery slopes are always real. And people only paid attention to it for what, five years? Ten? Because these lessons keep having to be relearned:

The risk was that you would get people who would be susceptible to political considerations as opposed to national security considerations, or who would construe political considerations to be national security considerations, to move from the kid with the bomb to the kid with the picket sign, and from the kid with the picket sign to the kid with the bumper sticker of the opposing candidate. And you just keep going down the line.

… There’s a reason I can no longer watch House of Cards

In disagreement with Tuvel

By: | Post date: October 13, 2017 | Comments: 5 Comments
Posted in categories: Culture

Following on from my defence of Tuvel:

I’ve read Tuvel’s article, which a lot more than can be said of many who have criticised it.

  • “My friends have been harassed by TERFs because of this specific essay,” for example. Then those TERFs didn’t read the article either: the article takes the right of trans people to determine their own gender identity as axiomatic. And people were using Dolezal as a cudgel to deny trans people their identity a long, long time before Tuvel pondered, based on that cudgeling, whether race and gender are different. The notion that harm is done because people don’t bother to read an article, and therefore the article should never have been written, is no argument. Like Grrrrrobert said: “Yes, our work can be misused by people who want to do evil with it. That’s true. There’s no way to stop that except to stop doing the work.”
  • As a couple of commenters online have mused: it’s not like there’s any shortage of established academics in feminism who dismiss trans identity, and couch womanhood in essentialist terms—something Tuvel has simply not done. To demand Tuvel’s article be retracted, and to say that it inflicts pain on trans people, yet not to venture the same action against anything by Sheila Jeffreys—to use one of the more egregious Australian examples—looks opportunistic. Is it only submissions to Hypatia by junior academics that are to be held to a higher standard, then?

I don’t want to say the article is superficial, because I don’t want to give aid and comfort to censors, who have not advanced any academic argument against the paper other than “did not cite enough trans scholars and scholars of colour”. I think the article is interesting, and well-reasoned, but I also think it is ultimately too simple a view of identity.

I don’t think so because it doesn’t cite enough critical race theory. In fact (and this argument has been raised too) privileging the testimony of those whose identity is contested over any other voice is problematic, because those voices are biased by self-interest, like any interested party’s is.

Yes, so are their opponents’ voices. And that’s where judgement and reasoning is supposed to come in, to make sense of it. Unless you conclude that judgement and reasoning are bankrupt, which in fact the scholars calling for retraction do. That, I’ve spoken about already.

My concern is that this is a paper about identity construction, and it doesn’t seem to be aware of social identity theory, or all the thinking that has come since, on how social identity is constructed. It’s sociology without the sociology.

  • Then again, it is also race theory without the race theory, as its critics said; and Trysh Travis is right: I can’t fault a philosopher for not writing a sociology paper. Winnubst’s response delegitimises analytical philosophy as unrighteous, even when it is is politically informed, as Tuvel’s flavour is; I’m not interested in doing the same.
  • And at least analytical philosophy, with its “ideal theory”, is capable of asking challenging questions, that can help advance understanding. L’affaire Tuvel leaves me skeptical that Continental philosophy is set up to do the same, and to be self-critical as well as other-critical.

In particular, by taking the right of people to define their own identity as an axiom, Tuval makes of identity a primarily individual expression, when it clearly isn’t. Adherence to a group identity is a contract between the individual, the in-group who would recognise the individual as their own, and the out-group they would define themselves against. It’s hard to see how a social identity can ever be constructed divorced from society.

That’s the real problem with Tuvel bringing up the example of conversion to Judaism, as being a matter for the individual and, at most, the rabbi establishing the convert’s bona fides. The question of Who Is A Jew is a much more involved question than that (as Tuvel will know from her own upbringing), and it has a lot more stakeholders. The tribe gets to say a lot about tribal identity; to make one’s creed purely a matter of individual confession with a single religious gatekeeper is… well, it’s very Protestant. It certainly doesn’t sound like any credal identity I’m familiar with from the Balkans. And if you replace Judaism with, say, being Japanese (or any number of other notoriously insular identities), an individual’s desires are not going to count for much with anyone involved in the identity.

Tuvel is aware that it takes two to tango when an individual aligns with an identity—the individual and the collective; but she minimises the role of the collective thoroughly, and asserts the primacy of the individual. That perspective does underpin how trans people arrive at their identity; and to question it is repugnant to our sense of individual rights. (Mine and her’s, at any rate.) Yet when time comes for Tuvel to ask, not how Dolezal is different, but how “otherkin”/furries or the transabled are different—why people can’t also just declare allegiance to a different species, or act as if they are disabled when they’re not—it’s only then that she appeals to the collective as necessary to ratify that identity choice.

She also posits the proviso that society can only ratify that choice, when it is feasible for the person to actually experience life as what they identify as. A person can’t really experience life as an amputee unless they amputate; they can’t really experience life as a dog unless they walk on all fours and pee on your leg.

Tuvel thinks that argument draws a clear line between transracialism and furries. I think the clear line is still on the other side of Dolezal, given how overwhelming the social rejection of Dolezal’s construction has been. If the collective gets a say on an individual’s self-definition, you don’t get to put provisos on that say: the collective has made its own decisions. This has the uncomfortable corollary that how race is constructed is contingent on current social consensus and history, rather than true for all time. But social identities are contingent: they are societal constructs. How can they not depend on current social consensus and history?

And there’s the further discomfort, which looks to have animated Tuvel’s questioning to begin with. Do we therefore invalidate trans people’s identity, by saying it too is contingent on current social consensus and history?

There’s the whiff of philosophical pragmatism around that argument: only that is true which is useful; that hundreds of thousands of people who experience gender dysphoria outweigh one person experiencing racial dysphoria. It’s a messy, time-bound, compromised notion, but it is one I accept, precisely because identity is formed in societal contexts. (And I concede the point to Tuvel’s critics that that is indeed how race is constructed, and that how race is constructed is different to how gender is constructed.)

That pragmatic argument leads in turn to an even more scary conclusion, which I’m not as eager to accept: that in societies where people didn’t and don’t have access to permeable constructs of gender, they couldn’t really claim for themselves transition to the other gender, as far as their society understood that gender (or even as they themselves understood it). Tuvel anticipates those arguments, and she does not welcome them. But again, the claim that someone aligns with a gender is culture-specific and only makes sense within that culture. When Native Americans made social sense of gender dysphoria through the notion of two-spirit, and other cultures devised notions of third genders—proposing their own gender constructs—were they being oppressive by denying the possibility of permeability of gender? And how is it useful to say that?

I come back to an exchange I reported on a few months ago.

Gender dysphoria–or at the very least, awareness of gender/sex mismatch—seems to be very old, given the number of attestations of gender-diverse instances in human societies, and of androgynous cultural artefacts.

What is new is the way that society—and individuals within that society—deal with gender dysphoria. That’s not just about veneration vs punishment from the social norm. That’s also about how individuals express a gender identity under dysphoria; what options their culture afforded them. […] The construals and options of gender, as social phenomena, have changed, even if the psychological and biological drivers behind dysphoria are the same.

I made the argument above to my friend Janna, that the dysphoria is old, but the social construals are new. And she made a very insightful point: the social construals have to be new. Because society is dynamic, in a way that biology is not.

On petitions to retract articles: II

By: | Post date: October 12, 2017 | Comments: 2 Comments
Posted in categories: Culture

L’affaire Tuvel continues to haunt me.

To get you up to speed: here’s the dime summary from Wikipedia.

The feminist philosophy journal Hypatia became involved in a dispute in April 2017 that led to the online shaming of one of its authors, Rebecca Tuvel, an untenured assistant professor of philosophy at Rhodes College in Memphis. The journal had published a peer-reviewed article by Tuvel in which she compared the situation of Caitlyn Jenner, a trans woman, to that of Rachel Dolezal, a white woman who identifies as black. When the article was criticized on social media as a source of “epistemic violence”, scholars associated with Hypatia joined in the criticism and urged the journal to retract it. The controversy exposed a rift within the journal’s editorial team, and more broadly within feminism and academic philosophy.

In the article—”In Defense of Transracialism”, published in Hypatia‘s spring 2017 edition on 25 April—Tuvel argued that “[s]ince we should accept transgender individuals’ decisions to change sexes, we should also accept transracial individuals’ decisions to change races.” Three days later, a small group on Facebook and Twitter began criticizing the article and attacking Tuvel. From 29 April an open letter, naming Alexis Shotwell of Hypatia‘s editorial board as its point of contact, urged that the article be retracted. Its publication had sent a message, the letter said, that “white cis scholars may engage in speculative discussion of these themes” without engaging “theorists whose lives are most directly affected by transphobia and racism”.

On 30 April on the journal’s Facebook page, Cressida Heyes, one of Hypatia‘s associate editors, posted an apology for the article’s publication on behalf of “a majority” of the associate editors. By 2 May the open letter had 830 signatories, including scholars associated with Hypatia and two members of Tuvel’s dissertation committee. Referring the matter to the Committee on Publication Ethics, the journal’s editor-in-chief, Sally Scholz, said that she stood by the article and that, in having apologized, the associate editors had acted independently. Hypatia Inc.’s board of directors confirmed on 18 May that the article would not be retracted. The associate editors’ apology remained on Hypatia‘s Facebook page, updated to say that it did not represent the views of the editor or directors. In July 2017 Scholz resigned and the directors suspended the associate editors, thereby removing the authority of the latter to appoint the next editor.

And here’s the supporting literature:

Three reflections.

First: You don’t outsource your editorial processes to Facebook

To retract an article is as close as academe comes to blackmarking your record. That’s something you don’t walk back from in your resume. To muse that it would be a “amazingly revolutionary gesture in philosophy”, which would highlight the marginalisation of black philosophers, is astonishingly cavalier about the fact that this would also destroy a junior academic’s career. Just as Tuvel has been accused of being cavalier, by not citing enough black or trans theorists, or reflecting enough on black or trans pain.

This is the kind of dangerous precedent that, if you’re going to do it, requires consideration. It requires weighing up of consequences. It requires thinking through what it says not just about your cause, but about the academic enterprise in general: what you do in a journal in feminist philosophy, and the critique of academic discourse that you further with it, very much affects what happens in journals in linguistics, or veterinary science, or jurisprudence.

And it’s something you should make damn sure you have a persuasive argument for. If it’s not hurt feelings but poor scholarship, then don’t keep bringing up hurt feelings. The vacillation between the two ends up addressing neither. (It also shows your awareness that scholarship is not designed to accommodate hurt feelings or hegemonies, making it expedient to recast your outrage in terms of scholarly norms; are you subverting the scholarly paradigm, then, or aren’t you?)

If it is poor scholarship, offer more specifics of where the scholarship was poor, than merely “did not cite enough black or trans people”. (And for that matter, do not assume that either black or trans people are going to be monolithic in their scholarship or opinions. That is a tokenism so rank, only a white cis ally could come up with it. And the fact that the people shouting down Tuvel were neither black nor trans has been remarked on by not a few commenters.) And think long and hard about whether an argument as essentialist as “did not cite enough black or trans people” is tenable in a scholarly context, and that it doesn’t degenerate into checkboxing.

This is the kind of dangerous precedent that you don’t kick off with an online petition. That’s not how scholarship in done, now any more than in a Leonidio town hall in 1906.

This is the kind of dangerous precedent that you don’t respond to in your capacity as an associate editor, without consulting with your editor-in-chief, let alone your board.

This is the kind of dangerous precedent that you don’t respond to on fucking Facebook. “Oh my God. They’re baying at the gates. We have to say something Right Now.” No. No you don’t. For the selfsame reason you don’t formulate US foreign policy on Twitter.

There was something of an admission of this in Guenther’s comment on her post, though not an abject enough one:

The speed with which this situation escalated was astonishing, and I, like many people, felt that it was important to take a collective stand ASAP, esp given the failure of the journal’s editor-in-chief to make a statement that acknowledged the substantive objections to the paper’s publication (something along the lines of: I hear you, let’s create a forum to work through these issues structurally and substantively, rather than: Join the dialogue! # Hypatia). So at this point in world history, I would not sign an open letter calling for retraction. 36 hours ago (or whatever), it seemed like the right thing to do. I say this not to justify or excuse my decision, but just as a recognition of the point that Alison makes above about the speed of social media and the difficulty of working both with and against this speed.

You joined an online shaming mob in 2017, not in 2005 when Facebook was new and there was no Twitter. In joining an online shaming mob, that’s someone’s professional reputation you’ve been party to trashing. Someone whose dissertation committee you were on. “Woopsies, seemed like the right thing to do at the time” really doesn’t cut it. And “let’s create a forum to work through these issues structurally and substantively” doesn’t sound all that different, or more substantial, from “Join the dialogue! # Hypatia”. It does sound way different, though, from “Retract this article now, because she’s racist and transphobic and a kook for not citing the right people”.

And finally, if the associate editors are going to ignore their editor-in-chief and their board, apologise for the article, and assent to calls for its retraction, it’s still a bad idea for the apology and offer of retraction on fucking Facebook to be made by an associate editor (Cressida Heyes) whom the paper had expressed disagreement with.

Conflict of interest. It’s not just for the patriarchy.

(That looks like a throwaway jab. It actually isn’t just a throwaway jab, and I’ll come back to it at the end.)

As it stands, Hypatia is immolated. The editor-in-chief has defended the peer review the paper went through, and resigned anyway. The board has booted the associate editors, so that they can’t pick the next editor-in-chief. And for a discipline that has struggled to be taken seriously, as Winnubst writes, feminist philosophy now has a flagship journal whose name is mud.

Talleyrand again: It’s worse than a crime. It’s a mistake.

Second: Snark is not a “critique”

I’ve read the Guenther and Winnubst ripostes, and…

… and I can’t even, as the young kids say.

I alluded to the disconnect between the liberal and the radical view of censorship in my previous post on journal retractions. And the Guenther riposte in particular is from a different dominion from that which I call home. A dominion I don’t care to call home.

(The Winnubst riposte merely dismisses the reaction as patriarchal and pursues grievance; and I’ve found less to engage with there. “I signed the open letter as part of a continuing effort to make feminist philosophy something other than a damaged, dutiful daughter to the deeply troubled discipline of philosophy.” Thereby burning the village in order to save it. Lots of truly righteous gold in the comments to her piece, including lots of criticism of the paternalism of white cis senior academics presuming to speak for trans and black people.)

There are some bits Guenther said in her main post that I can reluctantly agree with:

But ideal theory is not the only alternative to irrational “baser instincts.” What ideal theory abstracts from–and this is the reason why Mills argues that ideal theory is ideology– is the network of power relations that shape particular historical contexts and meanings.

Just as I reluctantly agree with Wyckoff:

All I can say, right here and now, is that to reach a settled position I would have to ground the question in the concrete realities of blackness and its history—realities reported by the very people who experience them. And I’m certain that I don’t know nearly enough to write a paper on any of this.

Sure, arguments are not made in a social vacuum; and sure, social context needs to be considered, especially when you’re discussing social constructs; and sure, freedom of speech is not carte blanche to advocate genocide or beating people up. (As if that’s what Tuvel did.)

And still, that does not make a case for retraction; and contrary to the pious wording of Wyckoff, of course the impression this leaves is that some theses are verboten to articulate, and philosophers must not say anything that gives offence to any group, even when that was the furthest thing from what they intended.

(As I said above, the comments to Wyckoff are more enlightening. The welcome class critique of the critics by HeavyHeart is a particular delight—so long as we accept that a Canadian untenured lecturer in Tennessee is “immigrant labour”, which honestly is not far off the mark. But the comments by Steven Levine, Anon, and Eric Odgaard are all cogent criticisms from within the framework of what this all means for academic discourse.)

Pretty much nothing Guenther said in comments, on the other hand, I can agree with.

Here’s the most dispiriting bit of Guenther’s riposte, and there are many:

Adam Thurschwell: Overly-dramatic I’m sure, but this whole event highlights what seems like to me, at least, to be the situation of “philosophy” today, including whether it’s even possible anymore, objectively, for there to be such a thing, to the extent that philosophy necessarily and essentially incorporates a moment of “ideal theory.” I’m actually not sure there’s anything left for philosophy to do at this point but think this very situation — something along the lines of the relation of historicity to history/politics/the actual, etc. (and I’m not sure even that can be “philosophical” in the proper sense). Everything else is praxis and maybe that’s what we should just call it, without pretending to the “philosophy” label.

Lisa Guenther: I don’t think that’s overly dramatic at all! I think it’s spot on. But I actually think that philosophy is, or can be, a form of praxis. A praxis of critical – and collective – sense-making.

… A nice piece of self-citation there, from Guenther’s own work with Death Row prisoners. But this praxis is to not to be run with the civility and presumption of good will that defines academic discourse; and it’s certainly not to be collegial sense-making, right? The struggle is too pressing for mere courtesy, after all. (Or perhaps only prisoners deserve courtesy, and white cis scholars like Tuvel—and Guenther—don’t.)

Here’s the most tone-deaf bit, and there are many:

Philibert Nguyen: I sent Ms Tuvel a message of support.

Lisa Guenther: It’s Dr Tuvel.

Prof. Guenther would know that it’s Dr Tuvel. She was on Tuvel’s dissertation committee.

Prof. Guenther would know that Dr Tuvel needs support. She subscribed to the open letter trashing Dr Tuvel’s reputation, and continued to defend it.

There was a response of disgust to that “Dr Tuvel” correction on Facebook, which I’m not repeating, but which I sympathise with. A friend characterised it as microaggression itself, and that I’m in sympathy with too.

Here’s the most incendiary bit, and there are many:

Lisa Guenther: It’s been interesting to see how closely liberal and alt-right discourses on free speech align when black (and) trans people’s lives, perspectives, and critical analyses are on the line. (And by “interesting” I mean predictable but enraging.)

Abe Roth: Goodness. Are you really making this comparison?

Lisa Guenther: It’s not a comparison, it’s a _structural critique_ of liberalism and its investment in current structures of domination through the deployment of rhetoric such as free speech, civility, or “diversity and inclusion” — which are not _the same_ as the rhetorics and tactics of the alt right, but remain utterly incapable of _fighting_ the alt right — rather than actively confronting domination and struggling for collective liberation.

Leaving aside the puzzling notion of a snarky one-liner on fucking Facebook constituting a structural critique: that’s the same school of thought that came up in my previous post: reason will not combat the alt right, therefore we need to do more. Somehow. And liberalism does not give us the tools to do it, so they’re no better than the alt-right; and any notion of free speech and civility are smokescreen constructs that preserve the comfortable status quo. As opposed to… Antifa punching fascists in the head, I guess.

(Just remember. Street thug fascists have had a better track record with violence than tenured academics.)

As a “critique”, it is, of course, not more compelling than the “critique” that started this all in the first place:

This is why it should not have been published in Hypatia, and why the demand for a retraction is not simply the irrational whim of an “angry” mob, but a critique of white feminist ideal theory as transphobic and anti-black ideology.

… Why can’t it be both? 😐 And more importantly: how effective a critique is it, if it comes across as the former?

Third: To the barricades with you!

So. Free speech and civility are the smokescreen of the entitled, then. You know what else is a “smokescreen”?

Academe. The notion of free enquiry. The notion of double blind peer review, and of having people’s argumentation be subject to evaluation, rather than their personhood, lived experience, or identity alignments. The notion that reasoned debate is preferable to combat. The notion that the pursuit of knowledge can be disinterested. The notion that conflicts of interest, such as Cressida Heyes’, should be avoided. (Told you I’d get back to that.) The notion that the accountability of associate editors counts for as much as the accountability of the editor-in-chief. Academe: the compromised, privileged sham that pays the salaries of everybody involved; and that requires the sham of double blind peer review in order to keep funding those journals.

A sham I’m going to retain confidence in. All human institutions are shams and compromised, especially including revolutions. The particular sham of academia and free enquiry, though, has had a decent track record. Again, a better track record than most revolutions.

Chomsky drew NATO funding in his early days too, when the military thought his research would help them with machine translation of what the Russkies were up to. So I guess undermining the model that you inhabit can be made to work for you.

But Thurschwell above was right. It is definitional to philosophy (or at least, to traditional analytic philosophy) that it asks abstract questions. If asking abstract questions is harmful or an indulgence, and there is nothing left for analytical philosophy to do (a malaise the Quillette article diagnosed)—then as my friend John Cowan anticipated me saying: the barricades await. Praxis is for the streets, not for the lectern.

But while you are behind the lectern, you remain complicit in the practice you call a sham, and in the aspiration to free discourse that you decry. And you are bound by its rules of collegiality and integrity and open inquiry, because all the other people complicit in that sham are going to make sure you are, and so are the agencies funding you. (Cressida Heyes, for instance: just finished ten years as Canada Research Chair in Philosophy, and I’m sure she’s welcoming being on sabbatical now.)

Where did Charles Mills critique “ideal theory”, after all? Oh, that’s right. In an academic journal. In Hypatia itself, as it turns out.

And frustrated though you might be that the alt-right don’t disappear in a puff of smoke, I will not accept that silencing the adversary and the inconvenient is the answer.

  • Because Jacobins don’t have a good record when it comes to the welfare of the collective.
  • Because a collective liberation worthy of the name does not arise from illiberality.
  • Because paternalistic cries of microaggression are themselves (as my friend Jennifer Edeburn has pointed out to me) “another method of silencing, when people end up making no comments because they must speak so carefully to say anything that it isn’t worth the effort.”
  • Because an idea that cannot be defended in the face of challenge, whether that challenge is in good faith or malicious, is not an idea that will recruit effectively—or for that matter an idea that can be upheld with intellectual integrity.
  • And because intellectual integrity does actually still matter to me.

If intellectual integrity doesn’t matter, if the struggle for collective liberation outweighs the niceties of academe, if the Jacobins have the answers that the mealy-mouthed liberals don’t—then come out from behind your lectern: the barricades await. But don’t call what you do scholarship then: it’s polemical journalism, and it’s journalism you should be aspiring for people outside of academe (you know, on the barricades) to comprehend. Which means you don’t get to say “praxis” as often. And you don’t get to snort, when adversaries misconstrue your use on fucking Facebook of the phrase “discursive transmisogynistic violence”, that your adversaries “did not have the conceptual competence to engage with the post”, as Nora Berenstain did. The underprivileged you purport to speak for don’t have a PhD either. Pull down thy vanity.

If intellectual integrity doesn’t matter, if the struggle for collective liberation outweighs the niceties of academe, then don’t beat Tuvel up for not meeting scholarly standards, when those standards are unabashedly ideological. And don’t bring into disrepute the scholarly venture which—despite its known corruption, and known shortcomings, and known biases, still works as a way of deliberating and of furthering knowledge. If that’s not your venture, stop pretending it is.

Leave it behind; the barricades await. Don’t live a lie to get a paycheck: that just makes you look suspect. Don’t keep angling to undermine the system from within: messes like these are what result when you try to hybridise revolutionary action with civil discourse. And try a bit more self-critique: The Long March Through The Institutions has succeeded; but the Long March Through The Institutions has failed. It did not prevent Trump from gaining power, after all. In too many ways, it enabled it.

God speed on your barricade. Not that the barricades have had a convincing track record, but god speed anyway. I guess. And I’ll keep my distance from you when you get there. “But when you talk about destruction / Don’t you know you can count me out.”

To the barricades with her

And I’ll give not John Lennon, but Rebecca Tuvel the last word. Just as Hubert Pernot lamented back in 1930, “that’s not how scholarship is done”:

Any words of wisdom for folks working on stuff where the conclusions are potentially incendiary, especially untenured folks such as ourselves?

I would like to shift the question away from advice to the people writing controversial conclusions to those engaging them. I would advise those engaging controversial ideas to do so charitably. We philosophers teach our students to engage their interlocutors charitably. It will be depressing if our internal discourse cannot instantiate that practice. I think part of charitable reading involves not jumping to the conclusion that the person who wrote the controversial argument could only have had nefarious motives, which various people accused me of.

Or even, she adds, how work on the barricades is done:

I don’t think an open letter in response to a published article is an appropriate way to deal with anyone making a good faith effort to do anti-oppression work. An appropriate response, in my view, might have been to acknowledge that people were upset but to suggest that we slow down and revisit appropriate responses later when we are less heated. The open letter and apology were issued with remarkable speed. Many people who signed the letter and commented on the paper admitted to not having even read it. Moreover, I think a call for retraction is strategically unwise since it feeds into the increasingly prevalent media stereotype of the political left as censorial and intolerant of dissent.

“Why? To What End?”

By: | Post date: October 9, 2017 | Comments: 3 Comments
Posted in categories: Culture

When I alighted on Medium, almost all the Classics content there was Eidolon.

Eidolon is an unabashedly leftist (well, more to the point, identity-politics–driven) Classics online publication. When Eidolon isn’t talking about the collisions of Classics and modernity, it talks a lot about how to stop making Classics complicit in US white supremacist discourse.

The latest contribution to Eidolon by its editor weighs in on a comparable shit-fight in mediaeval studies, between Asian mediaevalist Kim and White mediaevalist Brown (and throwing some elbows of its own): Learn Some Fucking History. It is inter alia a call to arms that says it is not enough to correct white supremacists on matters of history; classicists also have to (somehow) atone for how the discipline has previously contributed to white supremacist discourse… in a way that goes beyond correcting white supremacists on matters of history.


Yes, it is that frustratingly open-ended; and since we’ve departed the realm of scholarship and are now in the realm of culture war, I don’t think it’s particularly effective polemic either (and I’ve commented as much):

… If the alt right are impervious to correction via historical fact, they’ll be a lot more impervious to correction via reception theory. And if the audience you’re seeking to convince are those “who aren’t hardened keyboard warriors”, and who are still open to being persuaded, then I’d have thought they’re going to be more readily persuaded via historical fact than via reception theory, too.

If doing historical scholarship is not actually “fighting” the alt right, neither is doing critical theory scholarship. And if the aim is persuasion of the middle (as opposed to street-fighting, or preaching to the converted), then penitence and sackcloth has limited rhetorical appeal. (As do ad hominem attacks.)

Another reader’s response to Zuckerberg’s essay, though, was so righteous, and so clear-eyed, that I thought it deserved republication here (with permission). The more so as the only response it’s had to date was to reiterate some ad hominems.

By: Grrrrrobert. [Original comment on Medium]

Profs Kim and Brown have longstanding internet beef. Why not mention that? You write like Brown’s current salvo came from nowhere. Her and Kim have been clawing at each other’s flesh like near-sighted Maenads for awhile. Admittedly, almost no one is as cool as this Maenad. No one could be.

I ❤ confused leopards.

Brown comes close. Her point is solid. Do your job. Social media is the dark side.

And this call to ally with Kim, and pile on Brown, is begging a number of questions in any case. The main being “Why?” and “To what end?” They are both adult academics with jobs and a personal grudge.

And speaking of begging the question, the question is severely begged by Kim’s statement quoted by Brown. “How are you signalling in your classroom that you are not upholding white supremacy, when you are teaching the subject loved by white supremacists?”

Why? To What End?

Has the field reverted to 19th century norms? Are current history departments pumping out white supremacy and apologist articles?

No. No they are not. Show us an open white supremacist in the field, with a job, doing white supremacist work. In the classics or in medieval studies? Where is a University which is willing to hire a White Supremacist leaning classicist or medievalist? Where are they? Nowhere. So what has happened? What is Prof. Kim saying? She’s saying Brown is a Nazi and a white supremacist.

Thank God. Thank God that Prof Kim lives in a country with liberal libel laws. In the U.K. or Germany or Ireland she’d be drowning in lawsuits already. She has no case. She would deserve them.

Brown says she isn’t a white supremacist. Her work doesn’t reflect white supremacy or Nazism. I believe her.

Some tiny minority of college aged racists with reactionary racist politics twist various disciplines’ historical arguments for their politics. So now all medievalists (and by association academics whose work is twisted in the same way) are suspected white supremacists, and in the classroom we must immediately disclaim? Or else we’re picking a side?

Wait. What? The whole thing is actually off the rails.

I still occasionally work in 20th century history in a public capacity as a Referent for a Concentration Camp Memorial. Hitler wore pants. Often. I dare say he liked them. I do not have to signal to the world that I am not a Nazi by wearing only my kurze Lederhosen. (He wore those too, unfortunately, see below) At this rate,in order to properly signal, I will have to lecture naked to signal that I am not a Nazi.

Nazis ruining everything. As usual.

Ye Gods.

Lots of holocaust revisionists and other Nazi apologist filth have a steeped interest in German and 20th century history. That doesn’t make the group of people licenced to teach seminars and do tours at Dachau suspected Nazis.

Why do I have to signal anything at all? The more I signal that I am not an alcoholic the less people believe me.

Yes, I have read Prof. Kim’s article, and I do take issue with the idea that academics have to be activists, especially active signalling activists. It is not a given that

“Today, medievalists have to understand that the public and our students will see us as potential white supremacists or white supremacist sympathizers because we are medievalists.”

That’s rubbish. No one cares about medievalists, or classicists really. The only time either get noticed is when administrators see how much money they are worth if their departments are dissolved.

And we are not supposed to be “ideological arms dealers.” We are supposed to do history or whatever our disciplines are and well.

The work should work for you. The public history done at Dachau does exactly that. No politics are required, just the truth as far as we can prove it. For people doing public history at the Gedenkstätte, their personal politics and activism are not actually welcome.

Plus too much politics, unless the work is about politics, ruins the work.

And now apparently everyone who even wants to approach the subject has to pass some kind of ideological purity test? And if you refuse you are taking the side of the Charlottesville marchers?


I can understand Brown’s anger in the face of something like that. And her rhetoric.

No academic needs to signal their good intentions as a result of 19th and early 20th century sins of other academics. And especially not as a reaction to the minority (if there are any) actual modern classics or medieval students and scholars that are open white supremacists. Where are they? Do we actually have any holocaust-denial style modern publishing classicists or medievalists?

Nö, we do not.

Is there a Wiedergutmachung?

Yes, our work can be misused by people who want to do evil with it. That’s true. There’s no way to stop that except to stop doing the work.

In any case. Good solid work can easily do 10 times the good of a sermon. It’s harder to do. Preaching is easy. And it takes longer to do, and longer for the effect to sink in, like the difference between a bush and a Tree.

But a well planted tree eventually overshadows all the bushes. And think of how everyone can benefit. The Maenad has some where to hang her snake, lean her Thyrsus, a place for the Leopard to nap, and somewhere to shady to sit. Everyone wins.

On petitions to retract articles: I

By: | Post date: October 7, 2017 | Comments: 3 Comments
Posted in categories: Culture

De Koine en de Oude Dialekten van Griekland

The most interesting thing about Tsakonian is not that it is descended from Doric. That impresses nationalists, but the survivals of Doric are less overwhelming than the nationalists would like to think. The most interesting thing about Tsakonian, compared to other dialects of Greek, is the extreme phonological and morphological meltdown that it underwent. There’s nothing like it in the history of Greek. It’s like how Latin phonology melted down into French.

Or how Germanic morphology melted down into English.

Not enough Greeks know of the Dutch hellenist Dirk C. Hesseling, a pioneer of Early Modern Greek studies. Those few Greeks who do know of Hesseling are unlikely to know that he was also a pioneer of creole linguistics, working on Negerhollands, the now extinct Dutch creole of the US Virgin Islands.

That means that Hesseling was an early inventor of hammers; and that motivated him to look for nails, not only in creole linguistics, but also in Greek linguistics. Accordingly, Hesseling suggested (one year after publishing his book on Negerhollands) that the morphological meltdown of Tsakonian might be explained—just as the meltdown in English has been explained—by Tsakonian having been a creole at some stage in its history. It would have to have been an early stage, and Hesseling looked at the history of the Peloponnese, and suggested the Avars as being involved.

  • Hesseling, D. C. 1906. De Koine en de Oude Dialekten van Griekland. (Comptes rendus de l’Academie d’Amsterdam, Afdeeling Letterkunde, 4th series, part 8.) Amsterdam.

Now, there are several reasonable responses to Hesseling’s surmise.

  • It’s unknowable what happened in the Peloponnese in the 7th century, but the hypothesis is intriguing. Tsakonian does look oddly like English.
  • It’s unknowable what happened in the Peloponnese in the 7th century, but the hypothesis is unnecessary. People aren’t as enthusiastic about the Viking Creole origin hypothesis of Middle English as they used to be; and it’s not like you need a creole to explain changes as radical as Tsakonian’s. (I owe that argument to my old colleague Gabby Bodard, who is not a linguist or a neohellenist, but is pretty clueful.)
  • It’s unknowable what happened in the Peloponnese in the 7th century, which makes the hypothesis methodologically useless, as an instance of ignotum per ignotum—explaining an unknown with another unknown. We have no idea, after all, what language the Avars spoke, let alone whether they came to the Peloponnese in the requisite sort of numbers.

The following, I submit, is a non-reasonable response:

  • Taking offence on behalf of Tsakoniandom, as the resident not-very-good linguist (Michael Deffner).
  • Alerting the town fathers of Leonidio about the offensive speculations against the patrimony of the Tsakonians.
  • Getting the town fathers of Leonidio to pass a vote of condemnation against Hesseling’s paper.

I know of the incident from Hubert Pernot, Hesseling’s collaborator, arguably the best historical linguist of Modern Greek there has ever been, and without argument the best scholar of Tsakonian there has ever been. (Not enough Greeks know about him, either.) Pernot’s sad note about the town fathers incident, in his grammar of Tsakonian, was a laconic “that’s not how scholarship is done.”

There are reasons to fear that that is how scholarship is done now; at least by some. In the next post, I’m going to write about l’affaire Tuvel, which I consider a glaring example of this. In this post, I’m going to write about a less clearcut example: the article in the centre of the controversy was incendiary, and there are good arguments to be made that it was not scholarly. And yet petitions calling for it to be expunged are still, in my view, counterproductive.

The Case For Colonialism

Two petitions have recently circulated on change.org about The Case For Colonialism (Petition 1, Petition 2), published as a viewpoint essay in Third World Quarterly, calling for that essay to be withdrawn from the journal.

It is hard to defend that article. It seems to have been straightforwardly incendiary, as its abstract shows:

For the last 100 years, Western colonialism has had a bad name. It is high time to question this orthodoxy. Western colonialism was, as a general rule, both objectively beneficial and subjectively legitimate in most of the places where it was found, using realistic measures of those concepts. The countries that embraced their colonial inheritance, by and large, did better than those that spurned it. Anti-colonial ideology imposed grave harms on subject peoples and continues to thwart sustained development and a fruitful encounter with modernity in many places. Colonialism can be recovered by weak and fragile states today in three ways: by reclaiming colonial modes of governance; by recolonising some areas; and by creating new Western colonies from scratch.

In addition, concerns have been raised about the editorial process having been bypassed; and the editorial board did in fact protest the publication, and mass resigned. The article has in fact been retracted, and it took me a fair while to find a copy elsewhere.

How does one address speech of this ilk?

The both liberal and libertarian answer is, with more speech: debate. Because the moral agent is meant to be in the business of persuasion, and dissuading their audience from harmful arguments by refuting them.

The both radical and reactionary answer is, with less speech: censorship. Because the moral agent is meant to be in the business of combat, and safeguarding their audience from harmful arguments by quashing them.

Censorship is on the ascendancy, after a few decades when it wasn’t; whether it’s in the academic domain, or the political, or the societal. Censorship still has a poor reputation in the West—which is why academic venues are quick to argue that what they do, in suppressing speech they disapprove of, is not censorship, and why petitions to withdraw articles focus on accusations of academic malpractice, rather than offence.

They do well to. Because suppressing an opinion on the grounds that you hold a contrary opinion is not how knowledge is furthered—nor how a society is furthered. There’s a reason censorship has a poor reputation.

Here, I suggest, are some valid responses to the paper:

Here, I suggest, are some less valid responses:

  • That the article is offensive.
    • Scholarship is not about making anyone feel good. Whether you’re oppressed or the oppressor. Both now get to use the tools of scholarship to their own ends; and both are meant to be subjected to the blind review of their peers still.
    • The outcome of scholarship is not meant to be the remediation of social ills. It is meant to be knowledge and understanding—which you can then, if you choose to, apply towards the remediation of social ills. And the unwelcome gadfly has a critical role in impelling understanding. (If they’ve making a cogent case, which hardly appears to have happened here. It’s more clearly the case in l’affaire Tuvel.)
  • That the article is damaging.
    • That’s giving academic editorials a power they simply do not have; and racists are not waiting for academic editorials to justify their beliefs: they already have plenty of commentators in the media or in their local pub, with far broader reach, to appeal to.
  • That the article should be subject to the judgement of a change.org petition, circulated to people unlikely to have read the paper to begin with.
    • That is no more how scholarship is supposed to be done, than town hall meetings in Leonidio is. That’s what editorial boards of journals and journal editors and publishers are for; and that’s the mechanism that got anything done.
    • Poorly, as it turned out:
  • Threatening the journal editor, and thereby allowing the retraction of the article to be couched in these terms:

    Following a number of complaints, Taylor & Francis conducted a thorough investigation into the peer review process on this article. Whilst this clearly demonstrated the essay had undergone double-blind peer review, in line with the journal’s editorial policy, the journal editor has subsequently received serious and credible threats of personal violence. These threats are linked to the publication of this essay. As the publisher, we must take this seriously. Taylor & Francis has a strong and supportive duty of care to all our academic editorial teams, and this is why we are withdrawing this essay.

    • The change.org petitions got the retraction they sought. I’m sure those aren’t the words they wanted it retracted under. Making a martyr of both the author and the editor is an own goal.

Here are counterarguments I would expect, and am not compelled by:

  • That I am speaking from a position of privilege, and I do not appreciate the pain the editorial has caused.
    • I’ll admit that the essay’s contention that underdeveloped countries should pay the West to colonise them got an arched eyebrow out of me instead of tears. But education has a better long-term prospect of reducing the amount of hateful speech in the world than quashing it. And it has done so already. Repeatedly.
  • That the underprivileged should not have to eternally explain the obvious, and prove (as the Greek saying goes) that they are not an elephant: that this amounts to yet another microaggression. In fact, one of the comments about Third World Quarterly said that the contention of whether colonialism was a good thing should be considered an “asked and answered” question for that journal—that the journal’s founding premise, after all, was that it wasn’t.
    • Not every brown person in the West should eternally have to play the role of Explainer In Chief to clueless white people. I can even concede that Third World Quarterly might not have been the right venue for the article.
    • It is good and meet that people do step up to that role, though. Because that repairs the world. And because the alternative to such education is a separatism that simply can’t be enforced any more. (And that education should be part of people’s Bildung and upbringing; it shouldn’t be primarily the responsibility of visible minorities to begin with.)
  • That the article is violence, and violence must be met with violence. Hate speech is now suppressed by society, and it should be.
    • Suppressing hate speech is now the Zeitgeist. The thing is that hate speech doesn’t end that way, and an over-eagerness to label speech hate speech is infantilising rather than salutary. If the article was indeed, as has been speculated, the work of a Milo Yannopoulos-style provocateur, then elevating it to hate speech is the last thing that should be done with it: it’d be the reaction the provocateur was hoping for.
    • As for violence (even if I do concede that hyperbolic usage of the term): if it isn’t coming from the State, with its monopoly of violence, the exercise of violence is a risky game. Usually the guys on the reactionary side of the street have more crowbars than you do, and the crowbar count shouldn’t be how pressing moral issues of the day are decided. (Crowbar count differential is why social justice has not prevailed historically, after all.) And involving the State is something the petitioners have been very, very careful to avoid: they know the State has no great affection for progressive activists either.
    • The State doesn’t get to get involved in the US anyway, because of the First Amendment. Journals and fora are quite happy to point out that the First Amendment does not obligate them to provide a forum for those they disapprove of. That of course also makes them powerless to prevent their adversaries from setting up their own journals and fora elsewhere. And blocking out the speech of those you don’t want to engage with may give you repose; but it doesn’t give you outreach. It doesn’t redress the problem; it merely pushes it out of sight.

That aside, I found this response from Bleeding Heart Libertarians speaks for me. As a group that identifies both as libertarian and as committed to social justice, I suspect they might speak for me in a few more facets, too.

That an article upsets people is no grounds for its withdrawal. […] It might be argued that Gilley’s paper should be retracted because his arguments do not support his conclusion, and so these are undermined “as a result of… [argumentative] error”. But to argue in this way would require that one first demonstrate where Gilley is mistaken–one would have to engage with his work, not simply call for its retraction. And even if one could show that his arguments were flawed this should not be used to support a call for retraction, for this would justify the retraction of any paper whose conclusions have been arrived at through erroneous argumentation. And this is not how academic debates are conducted—and nor should it be. Instead, persons present their conclusions supported by the best arguments and evidence that they can muster. These are then subject to critical scrutiny with the aim of identifying and correcting errors in the arguments. If the arguments are found not to support the conclusion then the original paper should be rebutted—not retracted.

But there’s more to be said in this case. The petitions demanding the retraction of this article secured over 15,000 signatures. I very much doubt that everyone who signed these petitions actually read the paper. Demanding that a paper be retracted because you don’t like its arguments is bad enough. Demanding that it be retracted because you don’t like what you think its conclusion is without having even read it is despicable. Moreover, if you’re an academic, a demand for retraction on either of these grounds would be a clear abdication of your professional responsibility.

And if that’s too libertarian for you, well, this from Current Affairs is more mainstream liberal, and more pragmatic than principled in rejecting retraction. And I’m ok with its take too:

And so I’m worried about how the response to this article may play out. I am not signing the petition to have it retracted, because I believe that the journal shouldn’t retract it simply because there was public pressure. I am also very concerned that this could be a PR coup for the right, as so many of these things are. It’s tough, of course, because for the reasons I’ve outlined above, the article shouldn’t have been published. Gilley did not meet the standards that should be expected of an academic. He falsified history. When evaluated by a fair standard, he has not upheld the honesty and rigor that should be expected of someone in his position, and the article is a factual disgrace as well as a moral one. But it would be very easy to fall into a certain predictable trap, where the left calls Bruce Gilley a racist, and Gilley declares that they simply can’t handle the truth. And while I’m sympathetic to the argument that we should avoid that by Not Even Addressing Such Rubbish, bad arguments fester when they go unaddressed. (This is why I put myself through the ordeal of reading The Bell Curve.)

I think, then, that all responses to this article should be rigorous and careful. I think everyone should try to read the full thing, to know what Gilley argues and what he doesn’t argue. And we must repeatedly emphasize that the reason Gilley’s piece is so wretched is not just because it advocates something that contradicts our sense of justice, but because he has deliberately produced a false version of history. I am sick and tired of people on the right saying those of us on the left simply Can’t Respond To Their Arguments. I’ve read their arguments, and they’re bad.

This was difficult to write. I think the next post will be easier, in that the calls for retraction were more clearly unjustified. It will also be harder, because the article in the centre of the controversy is thornier, and warrants very close study.

  • January 2019
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