In defence of

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. 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’s.

(And the money gouging continues whether you use 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 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 account. I’m not compromising what little dissemination my work gets, with no institutional backing, in order to prove your point.

Yes, profiteers on my labour. So does your university. Yes, 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, 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

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 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 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 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.

Just because I agree with you doesn’t mean you get to spam me

By: | Post date: October 7, 2017 | Comments: 4 Comments
Posted in categories: Culture

I write this with trepidation. I don’t wade into political matters, and I’m a conflict-averse kind of person. I am also discovering I’m more politically moderate than I used to fancy myself, and that is never a comfortable thing.

But, having the courage of my convictions is a novel experience; one that drove me off Quora. Now that I’m off Quora, the discourse I’m exposed to, on Facebook and on Medium—from my putative ideological stablemates—is much less considered, and less thought through: a sad consequence of the democratisation of social media, which unearths the poor arguments that used to whirl around the pub and the café, and elevates them into common, tub-thumping currency. On both sides.

(Yes, it was ever thus; and yes, the mobs used to run out of control and burn and lynch. But “my side” was supposed to be moving past that kind of thing.)

And I could let that pass, or I could try out saying, on occasion, no, that stance is not cool. That argument makes no sense, and discredits my side. And I will not assent to it.

Here’s an example.

Like many Australians, I voted on the Australian marriage equality plebiscite a couple of weeks ago. Like many Australians on the left, I had misgivings about putting human rights up for vote to the mob. Not that the party of Tony Abbott has earned my trust about administering human rights any more than the mob. (Nor for that matter the party of Joe de Bruyn, who blocked Labor from voting for marriage equality when it had the chance.) But once the vote was approved, after some rather specious attempts to block it on the basis of how it was funded, I felt obligated to vote my opinion as a citizen, and vote YES I did.

And if the mob turns out to have voted YES to marriage equality after all, as polls indicated, we now have the bizarre spectacle of Andrew Bolt’s latest editorial, after months of decrying the evils of the gay marriage, saluting the outcome as a blow for trusting the Wisdom of the People.

But the libertarian-cum-social conservative stylings of Andrew Bolt are not what I’m writing about here.

A week after I voted, I got an SMS from the YES campaign, urging me to vote.

A lot of people who’d voted YES got the SMS. Not a few people who’d voted NO got it too—notoriously including arch social conservative Cory Bernardi, who was busy organising his own robocalls for the NO campaign.

People broadly expressed confusion and annoyance at getting spammed with political SMSs, in offices (like mine did) and online. Some people went so far as to say they would reconsider their vote in light of their annoyance.

The following things were said in retort, including on The Project, Michelle Grattan’s editorial on The Conversation, and a few friends on Facebook:

  1. SMS spamming is a legitimate component of modern-day political campaigning, just as robocalls were.
  2. The SMS was sent to randomised numbers, so noone’s privacy was invaded.
  3. Any objections to the SMS are mischief-making by conservatives.
  4. You have no right to protest being spammed by the YES campaign, because YOU KNOW WHO HAS THE RIGHT TO BE ANNOYED? GAY PEOPLE WHOSE RELATIONSHIPS ARE BEING INVALIDATED!! THAT’S WHO!!
  5. If you’re prepared to change your vote based on annoyance about being spammed, then you are a very superficial person.

Well, no.

  1. Either spam is bad or it is good. If spam is bad, and this is spam, then this is bad.
    • Spam does not become non-spam just because it is sent out from people we agree with.
    • Spam does not become non-spam just because the content of the spam looks innocuous: “The Marriage Equality Survey forms have arrived! Help make history and vote YES for a fairer Australia.” The comparable spam sent out shortly afterwards at a grassroots level from the Christianists of Rise Up Australia looked innocuous too: “Vote NO for SSM. Please watch this brief video and pass it on to your contacts.”—until you clicked through to their fire and brimstone sermon on YouTube.
    • Spam does not become non-spam because the government SMSs bushfire warnings to residents who might be affected. (Yes, I actually saw that argument; mercifully it was advanced in a comments page, rather than by anyone with a clue.) I’m not aware of the Australian Marriage Equality campaign becoming an arm of local government.
    • Spam does not become non-spam just because it advertises a political party instead of detergent.
    • For that matter, spam does not become non-spam because currently legislation says it is not spam: “It is important to note that if these calls, emails or SMSs are not commercial — that is they do not have a commercial purpose — they are generally allowed and not required to comply with the obligations under the Do Not Call Register Act 2006 and the Spam Act 2003”. Legislation can change, and the more SMSs of this kind you see, there more pressure there will be to change the legislation. And to me (and not just to me), this is spam.
  2. We have the lobby group’s assurance that the numbers were randomised, and that noone’s privacy was compromised.
    • And I should trust an unelected partisan lobby group, who tells me that the paperwork is in the mail, why?
    • Journalists (doing what Michelle Grattan used to do) have queried whether this is the case—although the own-goal of sending an SMS to Cory Bernardi does suggest the campaign was not targeted with laser-like precision.
    • “If a few highly confidential numbers were by chance reached, it’s hard to see what harm was done”, says Grattan. I used to respect Grattan. But this is exactly the line of thinking that has brought us the Victorian State Premier today calling civil liberties a “luxury” that a leader like him does not have, 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.” Well, no. Slippery slopes are real, whether they involve handing over all your drivers licence photos over to the feds for facial recognition, or giving lobbyists carte blanche to call unregistered phone numbers.
  3. I don’t always enjoy reading The Australian, Murdoch’s broadsheet. It has enough left-baiting and retrograde social conservatism to make me scowl of a Saturday morning.
    • Yet it also hosts ideological diversity (as long as it’s not left-wing); and I was gratified to see one commentator on its pages (Van Onselen? Kenny?) recently say that, just because you might not like the advocates of marriage equality, does not mean that the cause isn’t right.
    • Same goes in converse for the protests about the SMSs. Just because right wing bigots are among those protesting the SMSs, doesn’t mean the SMSs were a good thing. And to read every protest in this currency under a lens of who benefits politically is the kind of myopia that… well, that I would sadly expect from someone who has covered politics in Canberra for decades.
  4. The “you are not allowed to complain about SMSs” line is one that has done the rounds in Facebook, and one that I reserve especial contempt for. It’s the argument of the motorist pulled over for speeding, and telling the cop, “why aren’t you out there catching murderers.”
    • Felonies are more serious than misdemeanours; that does not excuse misdemeanours, or exempt them from being sanctioned.
    • I agree that it is ethically and socially wrong that the gay and lesbian friends I know in long-term relationships do not have them recognised by the State to the extent that my straight friends’ relationships are. I agree that this causes them more distress than being spammed by a lobby group causes me. That is not an argument in favour of spamming: it is a blatant attempt to shut down discussion through exercise of piety. And it astonishes me that anyone would think this a constructive contribution to the discussion.
    • Then again, it came from Facebook. Which is not the home base of constructive contributions to debates.
  5. As for the superficiality of the voter swayed by their annoyance over SMS—
    • If you’re in the battleground of civil rights not being a matter for the vote of the mob, then the stupidity and mercuriality of the mob is an argument for you to use.
    • Once you’re no longer in that battleground, and you’ve agreed to campaign for a vote, you’re in the business of winning votes. You win votes by persuading those voters who can be persuaded: not those already bolted on at your side of the argument, nor those who follow Cory Bernardi or Rise Up Australia and think you the devil, but those in between.
    • Maybe they’re undecided because they’re superficial; maybe their votes are up for grabs because they lack civil engagement.
    • But telling them so to their face is not how you win their vote. And winning their vote is your business now, not asserting your moral superiority over them. As Talleyrand said—and the more I read of culture war battles, the more relevant his dictum seems to me: it’s worse than a crime: it’s a mistake.

RFC 2739

By: | Post date: September 28, 2017 | Comments: No Comments
Posted in categories: Information Technology

I’ve been doing a fair bit of development work of late on Upwork, joining the gig economy in my spare time. Yes, that gig economy time eats into my blogging time, and yes, the pay is… well, it’s gig economy pay.

But I’ve missed programming, and I do enjoy it. Even if programming now, compared to programming in the 90s, seems to involve a lot more Googling and a lot less remembering how each language does things differently. Like Thoth groused once: this new tech will destroy people’s memory.

I’ve been doing a fair bit of work for Ribose, and their involvement in RFC standards. IT Standards have been something I’ve been involved with professionally for over a decade, though I’ve been working in areas more heavy-handedly run than RFC. It’s been good to put some coding support behind such efforts; and you can peek at my handiwork over at github.

What’s not been as good has been to look up close at how some of those RFC standards have actually been specified. Heavy-handed process has its advantages, and in at least some instances, those advantages have been foregone. As a result, there are some RFC standards… with holes in them.

I know this shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone. I also know that vCard 3.0, one of those RFC standards I’ve been grappling with writing a grammar for to validate, is a standard that people look at sneeringly with good reason. It’s old, it’s texty, it’s clunky. And it’s way too lax compared to vCard 4.0: people did learn over time that a thousand flowers blooming in IT standards is not a good thing, and v4.0 is miles more tractable. (But of course, it’s the bad old lax version that still has market share.)

But I haven’t had occasion to look that closely at an RFC spec before. And vCard 3.0 was quite a baptism of fire.

I won’t go into the full detail of all the inconsistencies and vaguenesses of the vCard 3.0 spec in RFC 2426. At least, not yet. I will however point to the rather large list of errata associated with RFC 2426, and the even larger list associated with vCard 4.0, RFC 6350.  (Of course RFC 6350 has more errata: it has a more rigorous grammar.) Errata don’t come up when you google RFCs and take the text file as your first hit; and I feel greatly disappointed that errata are not promoted more aggressively in the publication of RFCs: that’s just negligence. It’s also a mechanism that can’t keep up if the initial specification did a really poor job: there are several errata which have been acknowledged as valid, but are not being actioned (Held for Document Update), because to address them would require a brand new version of the spec. RFC 6350 dates from 2011: still waiting for those Held for Document Update fixes…

I reserve special ire, though, for RFC 2739.

vCard 2.1 was a much dumber version of the spec than v3.0. It also was conjured up outside the RFC process, and good luck finding a spec for it online now. One of the vCard 2.1 misfeatures that v3.0 addressed was its mystery meat parameters. In v3.0, all parameters of properties are key/value pairs:

ADR;TYPE=WORK,PREF:;;100 Waters Edge;Baytown;LA;30314;United States of America

The key is TYPE, and its values are WORK and PREF.

In vCard 2.1, the TYPE key was implicit in parameters: you could leave it out:

ADR;WORK;PREF:;;100 Waters Edge;Baytown;LA;30314;United States of America

If you’re parsing this, of course, that’s a gratuitous headache: why should I have to store a bunch of exceptions, and have values stand in for keys?

So. That went away in v3.0. Good.

RFC 2739 is an update to vCard. Since it is an RFC spec, it can only be an update to an RFC spec, and the only RFC version of vCard at the time was v3.0. In fact, that’s the version of vCard they cite: “[3] Dawson, F. and T. Howes, “vCard MIME Directory Profile”, RFC 2426, September 1998.”

Let’s go to §2.3 of RFC 2739, shall we?

Since the vCard [3] specification doesn’t specify how to encode
calendaring URIs in a vCard, this section is provided as an extension
to vCard which specifies how to encode calendaring URIs within a

Inside a vCard object, four new properties are defined: “CALURI”,
“CAPURI”, “CALADRURI”, and “FBURL”, as defined above.

Any vCard can have one or more of these properties, each representing
a calendar or free/busy time that is associated with the user.

One of these properties can be designated as the “default” by adding
the “PREF” parameter.

Here is a simple example of a vCard containing a “FBURL” and a

 FN:Alec Dun
 ORG:Microsoft Corporation
 ADR;WORK;POSTAL;PARCEL:;;One Microsoft Way;

Do you see what they’ve done?


Look again:

One of these properties can be designated as the “default” by adding the “PREF” parameter.

The… which parameter?

the “PREF” parameter.

v3.0 doesn’t have a PREF parameter. We got rid of it as v2.1 mystery meat, remember? What it has instead is TYPE:PREF.

Don’t tell me…


You’re seeing that, right? My eyes are not playing tricks on me, right?


And what does their vCard 3.0 example look like, in an RFC publishing an official update to the vCard 3.0 spec, and illustrating how their new properties look?


Which is of course vCard 2.1 mystery meat parameter for CALADRURI; In the official illustration of a new vCard 3.0 property.

Oh, that’s not the worst of it. The worst of it is:

ADR;WORK;POSTAL;PARCEL:;;One Microsoft Way; Redmond;WA;98052-6399;USA

;WORK? ;POSTAL? ;PARCEL? This is not vCard 3.0. That’s vCard 2.1. And an RFC spec has put this stuff, in an example illustrating its proposal, under a VERSION:3.0 header.

Which means that I’ve had to introduce PREF as a vCard 2.1 style mystery meat parameter into my vCard 3.0 grammar, because after all, that’s in what’s in the spec.

Who do I excoriate for this, then?

      T. Small
      D. Hennessy
      F. Dawson

Yeah, they’re the authors of RFC 2739, and they deserve a whole lot of opprobrium. You only had one job, guys. To write an update of an RFC spec. An update of an RFC spec that is not supposed to undermine the spec itself, and send it through a wormhole back in time, back to a land of mystery meat and Word Documents publishing technical standards.

But you know, that’s not my main annoyance here.

Go to

Yup. No errata reported. Since January 2000. On a version of vCard that remained the latest version for the next 11 years, and still has most of the market share.

I did just stumble on this issue, and I have no idea how prevalent this kind of thing is with RFCs. But technical standards trade in reputation: that’s what gives them their authority. If you can’t trust an authority to keep their technical standards error free (over 17 years), it’s going to be hard to trust any spec that authority comes out with.

On Facebook Groups about Quora that I cannot stay in

By: | Post date: September 27, 2017 | Comments: 5 Comments
Posted in categories: Quora

My detoxification from Quora is progressing well. I am managing to stay away from checking on comments there are maybe a week at a time. I no longer daydream about slapping Jonathan Brill in the face. I am actually reading websites other than Quora, although I am dismayed to discover how stupid they have become while I was away. ( in particular has succumbed to crowd pleasing superficiality about Trump, at a time when superficiality is the last thing you need from an American masthead.)

My ego is gratified to find that I have not yet been forgotten back at Quora; people are on occasion saying that they miss me, and people on occasion invite me to private Facebook groups about Quora. Those groups fill a valuable function, since the dead hand of BNBR policy quashes much meaningful meta-discussion about Quora; and Quora is hardly optimised for group discussion to begin with.

I have just unjoined my second such group, and I think I owe people an explanation. Or at least a forewarning.

I am happy that people are continuing their Quora communities off-Quora. I am offended and repulsed that Quora Inc uses a closed off-Quora community to cultivate its Elect (its Top Writers), and give them preferential access to staff and information. But then again, I’m offended by the institution of Top Writers to begin with; and I’ve been repeatedly assured that they’re not getting that much more information or influence than the sans-culottes outside.

(The real inner sanctum of users with direct access to staff and influence on Quora is far, far smaller; and if you stick around long enough you can work it out. Anecdotally—as I’ve been told from a former insider—it’s who Brill huddles with in Top Writer meetups. From my own observation, Chris Van Lang is definitely in there, and I suspect David Rose is as well.)

I have been mostly courteous on Quora, mostly willing to listen to others’ perspectives, and mostly willing to change my mind about things. But there are two classes of people on Quora that I will not break bread with. Not many people are in those classes, but a few are.

The first class are reflexive defenders of Quora Inc. That’s reflexive defenders, not defenders in general: I’ve had good exchanges with people who defend Quora Inc, because they have been courteous to me, and because they have conceded that I was not merely hallucinating in my critiques.

But if you are a long-term beneficiary of the Top Writer Quill, and the selective enforcement of moderation that comes with it, I expect some acknowledgement that other writers are still part of the same community as you, and have legitimate grievances. I expect some humility towards those who have not been as lucky as you. (And do not tell me it isn’t luck. Do not tell me that you are ten times the writer I am, and it is my lack of merit that has stopped me from getting the Quill, or any number of brilliant writers who haven’t.)

And if you say to critics of moderation, say, “Pretty Please with sugar on top, shut the fuck up. You don’t get a say”, then I want no fellowship with you. Especially when you are not held to the same standard as those critics of moderation, because you’ve made Top Writer five times in a row. (In other words, because you happened to get in early.)

The second class are instablockers. Again, blocking is a useful resource, and I don’t begrudge people using it where appropriately. But putting your hands over your ears and shouting “Quora is not a debate site” may make your stay on Quora more pleasant—but it also makes you a poor citizen. If you block me for merely disagreeing with you about something, then I block you right back, and I want nothing to do with you.

And if my tone was not consistently at the level I aspire it to be, then maybe you blocking me was a fair call. But I still want nothing to do with you.

Like Andrew Baird, who told me to fuck off and stop trolling him and blocked me, when I poked fun at his obsession with saying there was no such thing as a Byzantine Empire, and answering all questions about the Roman Empire so as to include the Byzantine Empire. That’s Humpty-Dumptyism, and it was doing querents a disservice, when they clearly meant the political entity extinguished in 476. I may have poked a little fun, but his reaction was so over the top, I concluded Quora was not the right forum for him. (And indeed, he ended up banned a year later.) If he chose to block my content, that was his loss: it’s not like there were a lot of people writing on Byzantine matters to begin with.

Like Ward Chanley, who gave an answer about common law marriages that was US-centric, and I commented as much. (“That’s a US-centric answer to a US-centric question.”) If that’s grounds for blocking me, well, I don’t think I have that much to learn from you anyway.

I got added to a Facebook group by a user concerned that the Top Writers Lounge group was excluding other writers, and generating disgruntlement among non-Top Writers.  A laudable initiative, given how much resentment the group had aroused, and I passed on the invitation.

The group welcomed Top Writers as well as non-Top Writers. Again, laudable, and I do not want to be part of artificially dividing the community, the way Quora Inc already has by setting up Top Writers in the first place.

But of course, the premise of the group was that it was open to non-Top Writers, and that non-Top Writers have concerns that they haven’t been able to discuss off-Quora.

There was one discussion thread about what the criteria for awarding the Quill were. Which showed some of the disgruntlement at play within the community. Then there was one discussion thread (launched by me) about what the criteria were for posting death notices on users’ profiles (see How does Quora decide which deceased members to add the “Remembering” tagline to their profile?) Which showed some more of the disgruntlement at play, because it was divulged  that not all users are seen as equally deserving. A Top Writer retorted “But user X was the boyfriend of Top Writer Y and the business partner of Top Writer Z”. Sure. That doesn’t make their death inherently more worth commemorating than non-Top Writer W; and to intimate that it does is pretty damn low.

And after those two discussions, the same Top Writer said that this was not the forum for such negativity, and it should be a place where we celebrate the community we have made with each other. Before an extensive to-and-fro of that Top Writer with another couple of Top Writers, about what good friends they were.

I’m sorry. I thought I was joining a forum where non-Top Writers were going to be made to feel welcome. And said Top Writer was not even the owner of the group. If I wanted to be talked down to by reflexively defensive Top Writers, I’d already be following them on Quora.

I wished the group founder well in his endeavours, and I unjoined. So did La Gigi.

I got added to a Facebook group by a user where people could discuss trolls.

Not my cup of tea, and in fact I’ve been quite fortunate to have had a troll-free existence on Quora; but I accepted. If they put that trust in me as a user, well, I didn’t want to repudiate the gesture.

… Until I saw a post by Ward Chanley.

So what, now I’m going to be on a Facebook group dedicated to deriding trolls—with at least one member who has decided, on the basis of a single anodyne comment, that I’m a troll; and whose name I did not wish to see again?

I wished the group founder well in her endeavours, and I unjoined.

I’ve made friends on Quora, and I wish to stay in touch with them, on Medium or here, or on Facebook. I’ll even join Facebook groups on invitation, though I won’t be seeking those out.

And if I sign out of those groups, because there are people on them I was well contented never to see again, well, please don’t take it amiss.

I’m back

By: | Post date: September 12, 2017 | Comments: 8 Comments
Posted in categories: Admin

I’m back.

This is going to all sorts of audiences, so I now need to spell out where I’m back to, and where I’m back from.

I maintained two blogs up until 2011. was a blog about Greek linguistics, and was a blog about everything else. Hellenisteukontos in particular developed quite a following, and was even cited in print a few times.

I resumed writing online in 2015 at Quora (see my profile there), and I continued doing so until it became untenable for me to (see my statement). I dare say I developed a following there too.

One thing I did relearn during my stay on Quora was that I can write both about stuff I do know about, and stuff I actually don’t know about—but with enough insight that I can make a reasoned argument. That’s something I enjoyed doing greatly, and I hope to keep doing it. Just as I hope to keep sharing the expertise I have on things I am an expert in.

When I decamped from Quora, I followed an exodus of users to Medium (see my profile there), and I may have provoked a few others to join me. For all Quora’s grotesqueries (and they are legion), Quora was a more congenial place to me than Medium: compared to my Quora feed (admittedly after two years of curation), Medium was a lot more clickbait, a lot more superficial, and a lot more full of sterile political posturing. I will continue to check in there with the Quora Diaspora, but I won’t be making it my home.

So I’m coming home to the blogs I had left six years ago, but I am relocating them to WordPress instances: and I encourage you to update any links you have to the prior blogs; I will not be updating them. I have migrated both my blogspot and my relevant Quora content to those two new instances on my website. Quora makes it very difficult to get your content out of its honeytrap, and none of the topics or comments export. I’ve spent a couple of days categorising the Quora posts; you’ll pardon me if I don’t manually retag them as well.

I have also broadened the scope of Hellenisteukontos: moving forward it will cover not the Set Intersection of Greek and Linguistics, but the Set Union. Greek culture, music, literature and history are in scope of it now; so is general linguistics and linguistics of other languages.

I won’t be posting with the same level of frequency I did on Quora, a frequency that was clearly unsustainable. I aim to be doing larger essays, although I did plenty of essay writing on Quora anyway. But I will welcome people suggesting Quora questions for me to answer here. I will not be posting anything to Quora; my friends from Quora are free to do with my content what they will on Quora (so long as they link back here.)

I look forward to reconnecting with old friends and new, and I look forward to thinking out loud and posting what strikes my fancy, in a forum that I find more congenial.

I’m back.

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