Tennis Gets Anxious

Asad Raza in The New Yorker:

Tennis-Anxiety-2-690Change, John Kenneth Galbraith wrote, comes from the changing of generations. Tennis fans understand the sentiment, and a constant theme of U.S. Open commentary is worrying about when the next generation of stars will emerge. Maybe the Open’s placement in the calendar, on the cusp of fall, inspires these annual reflections. This year, the tone of these conversations is louder and more pessimistic—one writer, not atypical, pronounced, “Call me Cassandra if you like. The ATP Dark Age is coming.” In the lead-up to Flushing Meadows, these anxieties seemed to intensify, to the point that the question was no longer “When will they get here?” but “Will they get here at all?”

Some of this worry is a natural, if preëmptive, reaction to the imminent disappearance of champions who link us to the sport’s past. Thirty-four-year-old Venus Williams, who reached her first final here in 1997, and whose accomplishments include being the first African-American woman No. 1 in the Open era, joined the tour when it still featured Martina Navratilova, Steffi Graf, and Monica Seles. Her sister, thirty-two-year-old Serena Williams, who first won this tournament in 1999, possesses seventeen Grand Slam singles trophies, four Olympic gold medals (an achievement matched by her sister), and a regal bearing that has edged beyond diva and toward natural force. Then there is thirty-three-year-old Roger Federer, whose win over Pete Sampras in the fourth round at Wimbledon, in 2001, is considered the dawn of the most numerically successful and aesthetically appreciated career in the history of men’s tennis.

It’s hard to say goodbye to beloved players, followed faithfully for many years, and this might explain fans’ escalating worry about what the sport will be like after Federer and Serena Williams.

More here.

Can we talk? The unruly life and legacy of Joan Rivers

Kathleen Geier in After Hours:

Joan RiversThere's something about the outpouring of sentimental tributes to the late Joan Rivers that just feels wrong. The Rivers celebrations have shown a disconcerting tendency to sanitize this messy, maddening, and sometimes appalling human being. In truth, Rivers was a profoundly unsettling figure, and if you were paying any attention at all, it's almost impossible not to have deeply ambivalent feelings about her.
For one thing, in their apparent efforts to turn this acid-tongued comic into a lovable, albeit slightly naughty grandma, many of these encomiums grossly misrepresent the nature of her humor, which was utterly scabrous. For example: in her recent book, Rivers charged HBO with committing “crimes against humanity” for putting Lena Dunham's “fat ass on display.” That is far from the only time Rivers viciously mocked Dunham's weight. Earlier this year, she claimed that Dunham is “sending a message out to people saying, 'It's okay. Stay fat. Get diabetes. Everybody die, lose your fingers.'”
Some critics claim to discern a humanistic project behind Rivers' comedy of cruelty. For example, Mitchell Fain argued that Rivers “says things out loud what we’re all thinking, in our worst moments,” and that by doing so, “the monster gets smaller.” What seems far likelier is that the monster gets socially sanctioned. For decades, a staple of Rivers' act have been nasty jokes about female celebrities who are fat, stupid, or slutty, and male celebrities who are allegedly gay. Rarely did she talk smack about straight male celebrities. I'm a longtime Rivers watcher and I'm hard-pressed to think of any prominent examples.
That brings us to Joan Rivers' politics, which mostly were horrible.
More here.

Can Pseudonyms Make Better Online Citizens?

Erin O'Donnell in Harvard Magazine:

NamePeople socialize online more than ever: posting photos on Instagram, job-hunting on LinkedIn, joking about politics on Twitter, and sharing reviews of everything from hotels to running shoes. Judith Donath, a fellow at Harvard’s Berkman Center for Internet and Society, argues against using real names for most of these Internet interactions and relying instead on pseudonyms. A made-up handle is essential to maintain privacy and manage one’s online identity, she says. Her new book, The Social Machine: Designs for Living Online (MIT Press, 2014), also contends that well-managed pseudonyms can strengthen online communities, an idea that contradicts the conventional wisdom that fake names bring out the worst in people, allowing “trolls” to bully others or post hateful, destructive comments without consequences. Real names, such thinking goes, keep online conversations civil.

But Donath often uses a pseudonym online, not because she wants to “anonymously harass people or post incendiary comments unscathed,” as she explained in a commentary published on this spring, but because she prefers to separate certain aspects of her life. In the age of Google, a quick search of a person’s name gathers everything he or she has posted under that name, from résumés to college party photos. As a public figure who studies how people communicate online, Donath’s academic writing can be found online under her real name. But when she writes product reviews on shopping sites such as, or restaurant reviews on Yelp, she might use a pseudonym. “I would like to be known online for what I write,” she says. “I don’t necessarily feel like I need to be known for what I’ve been eating.”

More here.

A Doctor’s Malaise, and a Profession’s

Florence Williams in The New York Times:

BookSandeep Jauhar’s new memoir, “Doctored: The Disillusionment of an American Physician,” tells the story of two midlife crises: the author’s own,, and that of modern American medicine, now in about its fourth decade under managed care. Both prove to be frustratingly intransigent, with only small signs of hope. “Intern: A Doctor’s Initiation” t become much better, at least not for Dr. Jauhar, who takes his first job at Long Island Jewish Medical Center and becomes the director of its heart failure program. (He is also an occasional contributor to The New York Times.) Full of ideals about saving lives and providing compassionate, ethical care, he finds himself underpaid, overworked and pressured to cut corners in every direction. describes a profession that is like so many of its patients: full of malaise and desperation. Doctors are reported to commit suicide at a higher rate than other professionals, and Dr. Jauhar cites a 2008 survey in which only 6 percent of 12,000 physicians rated their morale as positive.

Then again, Dr. Jauhar is constitutionally dissatisfied. Just ask his father, who says of his wife, the author’s mother, “Like you, she is not a happy person.” (Some of the best scenes feature the father, who comes across as comically histrionic, neurotic and self-absorbed. “If you lose your job,” he tells his son, “we are finished. I will be the first to have a heart attack!” And then he tosses in: “And make some friends, Sandeep. You have no friends.”) Then Dr. Jauhar has his wife to contend with. Also a doctor, she keeps putting off her own job to stay home with their toddler, while telling her husband to bring home more money. “Money doesn’t buy happiness,” he counters. “Yes it does!” she replies.

More here.

Tuesday Poem


Something in me repeats in an obsessive beat
that I may have lost something
or left it behind
in the café or the bookstore
where I’d been
I searched my possessions
and no loss was found
nor did I discover what had been lost
but the loss
kept asserting its existence
through palpitations and minor fits
Athenian sophists philosophized:
“A thing you haven’t lost
is necessarily in your possession
you haven’t lost a tail—therefore, you have a tail
or vice versa
what you’ve lost was necessarily yours”
but what have I lost?
I must look for my loss
in order to know what I’m looking for
is it an object or a thing or the thing
and was it mine before it was lost
or is it that some inner authority
is trying to bequeath me, like a Hellenistic sophist,
something I had never possessed
as for example a chance
as if I ever stood a chance

by Mordechai Geldman
from Halachti Shanim Le-Tzidcha
publisher: Hakibbutz Hameuchad, Mossad Bialik, 2011

Speech, Civility and the Salaita Case

by Gerald Dworkin

In a talk given some years ago at the University of Illinois Urbana (UIUC), which is the object of a boycott protesting the Salaita decision, I described myself as a “first amendment fanatic.” Having grown up in the era of McCarthyism as the child of a member of the Communist Party, having endured a mild amount of FBI scrutiny of my travel and organizational affiliations, surely contributed to this bias in favor of freedom of speech. The text I most enjoyed teaching by the philosopher I admire most, John Stuart Mill, is his defense of freedom of speech in On Liberty.

I have always been suspicious of bans on “hate speech” and thought a bit about how it might or might not differ from crimes which created additional punishments for particular victims of assaults. I was inclined to favor such additional sanctions for, say, the elderly who were more likely to be seriously injured by such assaults, and to be more fearful of using the streets. But I was inclined to oppose such increases for those attacked because of their race or sexual orientation. It smacked too much of punishing not just the acts but hateful thoughts as well.

This is where I stood when considering the question of whether to sign on to a petition to the Chancellor of the University UIUC condemning her action of de-hiring, or not appointing, or firing –depending on arcane views about the nature of contract law — Steven Salaita. I assume that many of the readers of this blog are aware of the wide-spread controversy, and proposed boycott–refusing to speak at the campus– of UIUC, by the academic community. Philosophers have been particularly prominent in this effort. For those who are new to this issue, here is some basic information, a critique of the decision, and a defense of it:


The issue is, as a matter of law, very complicated. Experts in contract law–does he have a valid contract before the Board of Trustees approves the appointment?– are divided on the matter. The constitutional issue seems clearer. The First Amendment has been long interpreted as forbidding state agencies–including public universities– from punishing employees for the expression of political viewpoints. But this is consistent with such agencies being able to ensure they can discharge their legitimate functions. So there is room–given various empirical assumptions–for the decision being upheld. But, absent any evidence that Salaita has made his classroom a hostile one by his tweets, it is likely that he is protected by the First Amendment.

However, I think that there are moral, political and institutional issues that arise in this case , and which are invoked by the protesters and the defenders, that need to be discussed in isolation from the purely legal issues. These are my focus in this blog post.

Read more »

“Never Forget”—And How I Can’t Help But Remember 9/11

by Debra Morris

Best South Tower photoAlong with thousands of others that day, I emerged from the South Tower of the World Trade Center with a crippling fatigue in my knees. Of the walk down, in my case from the 61st floor, certain things stand out: the speed with which one can descend a flight of stairs and smoothly pivot on the ball of the left foot, to begin again; a few stray remarks from strangers (“I think something hit the North Tower.” “They're saying the building's safe and we can go back up.”); our slowing pace as we continued downward, to make room for those entering the stairwell at each floor. And this, of course: at a standstill, just outside the 18th floor; a pause no more than a half minute but time enough for the second jet to slam through floors 78–84 above us, with a sound like a freight train, jolting us against the handrail and blurring the stairs at our feet. Seconds more, waiting—unaware, mercifully, that we were waiting—for the unmistakable sound of a building's slow, groaning collapse. Then someone saying quietly, “It's OK; let's go,” and we began the descent again, our steps suddenly desperate and clumsy.

And now, certain disclaimers, which are always on my mind on the rare occasion I relate any of the above. I, and thousands of others that day, emerged from the South Tower with no obvious wounds—no burns, no cuts, no eyes bloodied by pulverized glass and concrete. Because my floor was below the plane's point of impact, I always had hope of making it to safety, and hope is an especially precious and bounteous thing under certain circumstances. It's remarkable, too, how quickly a person can get down even 61 floors when she has been told to do so—meaning that I was outside and away from the tower with time to spare. Enough time to wonder: how different, really, was my experience from that of the millions traumatized by the televised accounts of the day?

Perhaps I recount it now with the hope that you will tell me where you were at that same moment—and confess: did the world blur before your eyes, too?

Read more »

Poetry in Translation


after Iqbal

All right, mate. Dish out the dirt.

Suffering, seeking, yearning, burning
I have the strength of hopelessness

Heavens! Will you ever return?

No bazaars, Jaguars, rouge et noir—
Bestow these gated lawns on the pious

Angels are bright still, after all.

From my despair: Gods’ fire.
I am the warp of wisdom’s robe.

by Rafiq Kathwari, the present winner of the Patrick Kavanagh Poetry Award.

Imran Khan’s Misstep

by Ahmed Humayun

Imran-khan-niazi1The 2013 elections in Pakistan gained the Pakistan Tehrik-e-Insaf (PTI) the government in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa province as well as the third most prominent position in parliament. This striking success was a vindication of Imran Khan, PTI's leader, who had struggled for many years to break into a sclerotic system dominated by autocratic political parties organized around familial and financial interests.

But the results were a crushing disappointment for Khan and many of his supporters who became convinced that the elections had been rigged against them. Over the last several weeks, the country has become embroiled in a severe political crisis in which Khan and some of his followers are staging protests in Islamabad against last year's election results and the current government of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, the head of the Pakistan Muslim League (PML-N).

Some of Khan's arguments deserve to be taken seriously. There are undoubtedly deep flaws in an electoral system that is still nascent. Last year was the first time, after all, that one elected regime transferred power to another in Pakistan's history. To the extent that the PTI has elevated the issue of improving electoral accountability in the country's national debate, it deserves credit. Yet Khan has advanced a series of improbable, evidence-free conspiracy theories that have muddied rather than clarified the debate. Worse, by intriguing to overthrow Sharif's regime, he has damaged Pakistan's fragile democracy.

Khan's allegation that ‘rigging' took place is almost certainly true, but the assertion that a host of Pakistani institutions connived to rig elections in Sharif's favor is almost certainly false. Here are just a few reasons to be skeptical of Khan's sweeping claims. First, while claims about a stolen election have been asserted with great certitude, no evidence for a vast conspiracy has been provided. Khan has leveled highly specific allegations, incriminating the Chief Justice, the head of the election commission, and various others, without any proof. Second, consider the sheer improbability that some 70,000 polling stations, where perhaps 600,000 people worked, under the direction of a cabal consisting of the election commission, the superior judiciary, and Nawaz Sharif, worked in unison to deliver a result adverse to Khan. Third, at the time of the elections, the Pakistan People's Party (PPP) was in power and oversaw the holding of the elections. If such a vast conspiracy is possible, then why did the PPP suffer a drubbing, and why did it allow its political nemesis, the PML-N, to triumph? Fourth, why is only PTI and not the other political parties—who presumably would be equally suspicious of the adverse election results—protesting? Instead, while happy to see the Sharif government flounder, the parties have stood by the government. Fifth, if the election was stolen by the PML-N in order to prevent PTI's victory, it was done in a rather half-hearted manner – awarding the PTI rule in a province, and making it into the third largest party in the national assembly.

All independent observers, including international monitors, concede the flaws in the 2013 elections but aver that, nonetheless, these were the freest and fairest elections in Pakistani history. This is not a high bar to cross, but it suggests why all of Pakistan's parties accepted the results when they were announced and formed the government.

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Out of Egypt

by Ruchira Paul

And suddenly I knew, as I touched the damp, grainy surface of the seawall, that I would always remember this night, that in years to come I would remember sitting here, swept with confused longing as I listened to the water lapping the giant boulders beneath the promenade … I wanted to come back tomorrow night, and the night after, and the one after that as well, sensing that what made leaving so fiercely painful was the knowledge that there would never be another night like this… not this year or any other year… I had caught myself longing for a city I never knew I loved.

Out of Egypt

The city was Alexandria, Egypt, the year 1964 and the person thinking the thoughts, a thirteen year old boy whose family was about to depart from the city the next day – for ever. André Aciman’s Out of Egypt is an enchanting memoir that draws from history, childhood memories and probably a bit from the author’s imagination. I recently re-read the book after a gap of more than a decade and found it just as absorbing as it had been the first time.

Out of Egypt recounts the story of the author’s extended family, Sephardic Jews with their footprints in many parts of Europe and the Middle East – Italy, France, Germany, Syria, Turkey and finally, Egypt. The large, loud, colorful clan was polyglot (Aciman’s two grandmothers spoke to each other in six different languages), contentious, sharp of tongue and at times snobbish. Even after three generations in Egypt, they hadn’t learnt to speak Arabic well except to communicate with the baker, the butcher and the domestic help in a pidgin version. They considered themselves French, Italian and German although most arrived in Alexandria via Constantinople. Used to seeing their fortunes wax and wane, Aciman's great uncles were forever ambitious and optimistic that the next financial scheme was bound to strike gold. To that end they tirelessly utilized their social and political connections, a bit of chicanery and if the target was a family member with means, arm twisting. Their sisters and the women they married were by turn shrewd, neurotic, theatrical, acid tongued and in times of crises, generous and supportive. In the midst of many near disasters and real catastrophes, the whole family rallied to help each other. By the time the book ends, several older family members had died and others were scattered through Europe and America. The events after WWII and the burgeoning nationalistic fervor made Egypt an inhospitable place for its non-Muslim residents.

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Spaghetti with a Dash of Dostoyevsky

by Lisa Lieberman

Wallach-in-bathtub-GoodBadUgly-300x162My favorite line from The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly (1966), spoken by the late, great Eli Wallach, captures the essence of the Spaghetti Western. Here's Tuco, the Mexican bandit played by Wallach, taking a bubble bath in some half-destroyed hotel room, when a one-armed bad guy barges in, holding a loaded revolver in his left hand. The last time we saw this guy, Tuco had left him for dead after a shoot-out. He's been thirsting for revenge ever since, he says, and in the time it's taken him to find Tuco, he's learned to shoot left-handed. Blam! Wallach's character blows him away. “When you have to shoot, shoot. Don't talk.”

Sergio Leone loved Westerns and the image of America they conveyed. You see this in his craftsmanship, the careful attention to detail, the gorgeous panoramas reminiscent of John Ford's best work. Even when Leone undercuts the conventions of the genre (as in the scene with Tuco and the one-armed bad guy), he pays them tribute, substituting his own, more nuanced myths for the old cowboy clichés. “Fairy tales for grown-ups,” he called them in an interview with Christopher Frayling.

ClintOf course, Europeans are the grown-ups: worldly, cynical, not prudish about sex, more concerned with surface style, it must be said, than with the moral underpinnings of their heroes. Who is “Blondie,” Clint Eastwood's character in the film? We never learn his real name, where he came from, who his daddy was. A man of few words, he's unconcerned with social niceties, having no interest in women, good or otherwise, no long-range plans, dreams, or ambitions. He dresses well, however.

Clothes Make the Man

The trademark hat with tooled leather hat band. The poncho. In his later masterpiece, Once Upon a Time in the West (1968), Leone put all of his actors in dusters like the one Blondie wears when Tuco is forcing him across the desert, kicking off a fad for the long, fawn-colored coats among trendy Parisians. But those dusters are really dusty. Compare the nice, clean hero of an American Western to his sweaty counterpart in one of Leone's films. At the end of a hard day's ride in The Searchers (1956), John Wayne's horse is pretty sweaty, but apart from needing a shave, Wayne himself is fresh as a daisy.

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Ayasofiya2by Maniza Naqvi DSC01672

Just Wow! At every turn, and corner in Istanbul—you are bound to say—Wow.

The obvious example is, of course, at the Basilica of Aya Sofiya—built by Emperor Justinian in 537 AD. Legend has it, that Justinian wanted this magnificent Eastern Orthodox Church, in its beauty and scale to rival Solomon's great Temple. So that even Solomon would have been Wowed. Whether, Solomon would have been Wowed, or not, subsequent emperors, certainly were—And in 1204, the Aya Sofiya, was converted to a Roman Catholic Church, and then in 1453 the Ottoman Emperor was certainly wowed, because he appropriated the Basilica, and converted it into a mosque,—which it remained till 1935, when it was turned into a museum, for a Basilica and a church and a mosque, by the State of Turkey. The histories of Roman, Byzantine and Ottoman empires, were now showcased, and encapsulated in one space. Istanbul, is afterall, just that kind of an ‘and-and' place. The word Aya, in Greek means holy, and Sofiya means wisdom. Aya Sofiya: Holy Wisdom.


When I visited, the Museum of Aya Sofiya, again this Spring, I moved away from the hordes of tourists, to a quieter corner, and found there a small display of calligraphy. Here, I saw depicted, in a single stroke of ink, the Arabic letter pronounced as wow. Letters of the Arabic alphabet are used as symbols in Sufism, to signify a greater meaning of perfection.

WowletterThe letter Wow, shaped like a bowed head, like a tadpole—like an embryo like a germinating seed, like the sun's millions of warm smiles on the waves of the water, takes just one stroke to create: one stroke, in a swirl like a strand of honey, dripping or a whirl—like a whirling dervish. It caught my eye, and reminded me of itself, in the thriving, pulsating streets, and cafes and mosques and later even on a friend's posting on facebook. Wow, wow, wow.

This letter Wow, has the numerical value of six, which also symoblizes perfection and resembles the number six as written in English. The Arabic word Wadood which begins with the letter Wow means love and is—one of the attributes of God. Thus, the letter Wow is shorthand for aspects of loving, in Sufi Orders. It symbolizes the sense of being spiritually elevated. And, the letter Wow is the first letter of how the word ‘and' is spelt in Arabic—Wa. Several verses of the Quran extolling love begin with words starting with the letter Wow. And so many of the verses begin with the word Wa meaning and. For example in the Chapter Al Buruj ‘And He is the Forgiving, the Loving, Lord of the Throne of Glory, Doer of what He wills.

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From Normativity to Responsibility etc


Richard Marshall interviews Joseph Raz in 3:AM Magazine:

3:AM: One of the ideas you have argued for(in your 2000 Seeley Lectures)is that we ought to accept the legitimacy of difference. So you think someone can reasonably approve of normative practices that are positively hostile to each other, but that only commits one to respecting both positions and not engaging with them. Is that right, and if it is, doesn’t non-engagement itself suggest a lack of respect?

JR: Accepting, or respecting difference is of course code. What we should respect are practices, styles of life, ideals and aspirations that are valuable, or that have some good, some value in them, and we should respect them for that reason (even when we have a very imperfect understanding of their value). I put it like that for pure gold is rarely found in human affairs. Our lives are wrought of alloys of mixed quality elements, some inferior or even seriously flawed. Human practices that have value often also enshrine prejudice or superstition, and perpetuate objectionable discriminations or exclusions. In saying, as it were, that that’s life, I do not mean that we should be complacent about the unworthy aspects of our practices, or those of others. On the contrary, I suggest that we should not be complacent and should try to identify the less wholesome aspects of our own practices, as well as in those of others, distance ourselves from them and strive to rectify them.

So one reason why it is important to know about and to have a balanced view of practices we have no intention of sharing is that understanding them is close to being a precondition for understanding ourselves and our engagements with various practices. The recognition of the value in what is strange or alien to our ways anchors our humanity, protects us from smugness and intolerance. Our knowledge of and respect for other people’s practices also creates for us the opportunity to change, to come to engage with people who might otherwise appear strange or worse, and possibly also to find that we can acquire a taste for the practices that initially were so alien to us – that is the second main reason for seeking to understand and for coming to respect the value of those practices. I am not suggesting that we should for ever be looking for new friends, or for a change in our activities and tastes, merely that it is good to have the option, and the option is made real in part through understanding what it is like to take it.

In the preceding comments I emphasized the barriers between people and the hostilities that sometimes accompany them that are bred by ignorance leading to narrow and misguided understanding of the range of activities and practices that can contribute to human fulfillment, to the quality of our lives. I also implied that being unaware of the shortcomings in our own practices may well contribute to such hostilities.

More here.

The International Interest


Komala Ramachandra in Caravan (Photo: Adnan Abidi/REUTER):

OVER THE LAST FEW MONTHS, scrutiny of foreign funding for non-governmental organisations in India has been increasing. Although this trend is widely acknowledged, few commentators have pointed out that growing suspicion of NGOs that receive such funding is part of an emerging global reaction to civil society. India has joined the likes of Russia, Egypt, Israel, Venezuela, Bolivia and Ecuador in trying to silence groups that raise objections to human rights violations and environmental degradation. These governments allege that foreign-funded NGOs threaten national security, often conflating such security—which it is their duty to provide—with the economic interests of private corporations that stand to benefit from silencing democratic opposition. What these governments have not done, however, is address the substantive concerns such organisations raise about lapses in due process for those harmed by industrial projects, and about such projects’ long-term environmental impacts.

In early June, an Indian Intelligence Bureau report blaming foreign-funded environmental organisations for a significant slowdown in economic growth was leaked to the press. The report alleged that these groups were acting on behalf of foreign entities rather than in the best interests of the Indian people, and argued that foreign influence should be controlled to protect India’s “national economic security.” It cited examples of non-governmental organisations stalling investments in fields such as nuclear power, coal mining, large-scale infrastructure and genetically modified crops, and raised the spectre of what has often been called a “foreign hand” guiding NGOs.

Around the time the IB report was leaked, in Russia the Ministry of Justice registered five internationally funded NGOs as “foreign agents” under a 2012 law aimed at organisations attempting to influence state decision-making or policies. (Infringements of the statute, which is enforced partly through annual audits and surprise inspections, are punishable by thousands of dollars in fines and up to three years in prison.) A week earlier, the Russian government had issued a notice of violation to a foreign-funded human rights NGO for providing legal assistance to other groups targeted under the law.

This followed similar crackdowns around the world, by governments across the political spectrum. In late December, a high-ranking minister from the office of Bolivia’s president, Evo Morales, announced the immediate expulsion from the country of a Danish-funded rural-development NGO called IBIS, which was accused of political action against the government. IBIS had supported peoples’ organisations expressing concern about the impacts of industrial development and climate change in indigenous areas, and trying to influence democratic decision-making—activities protected under the Bolivian constitution.

More here.

The Trouble With Harvard


Steven Pinker in The New Republic:

The most-read article in the history of this magazine is not about war, politics, or great works of art. It’s about the admissions policies of a handful of elite universities, most prominently my employer, Harvard, which is figuratively and literally immolated on the cover.

It’s not surprising that William Deresiewicz’s “Don’t Send Your Kid to the Ivy League” has touched a nerve. Admission to the Ivies is increasingly seen as the bottleneck to a pipeline that feeds a trickle of young adults into the remaining lucrative sectors of our financialized, winner-take-all economy. And their capricious and opaque criteria have set off an arms race of credential mongering that is immiserating the teenagers and parents (in practice, mostly mothers) of the upper middle class.

Deresiewicz writes engagingly about the wacky ways of elite university admissions, and he deserves credit for opening a debate on policies which have been shrouded in Victorian daintiness and bureaucratic obfuscation. Unfortunately, his article is a poor foundation for diagnosing and treating the illness. Long on dogmatic assertion and short on objective analysis, the article is driven by a literarism which exalts bohemian authenticity over worldly success and analytical brainpower. And his grapeshot inflicts a lot of collateral damage while sparing the biggest pachyderms in the parlor.

We can begin with his defamation of the students of elite universities. Like countless graybeards before him, Deresiewicz complains that the kids today are just no good: they are stunted, meek, empty, incurious zombies; faithful drudges; excellent sheep; and, in a flourish he uses twice, “out-of-touch, entitled little shits.” I have spent my career interacting with these students, and do not recognize the targets of this purple invective. Nor does Deresiewicz present any reason to believe that the 18-year-olds of today’s Ivies are more callow or unsure of their lives than the 18-year-olds of yesterday’s Ivies, the non-Ivies, or the country at large.

More here. See also this bloggingheads discussion between William Deresiewicz and Glenn Loury.

What The Economist should have read before suggesting that US slavery wasn’t always so bad

Chris Blattman over at his website:

First, remind me, when I’m writing my first book, to try to get The Economist to write a racially insensitive review. I’m pretty sure Edward Baptist’s sales are pretty terrific right now.

The Economist has withdrawn the offending book review and apologized (the book in question, and the article and apology). Here’s the uncontroversial bit:

Mr Baptist, an historian at Cornell University, is not being especially contentious when he says that America owed much of its early growth to the foreign exchange, cheaper raw materials and expanding markets provided by a slave-produced commodity. But he overstates his case when he dismisses “the traditional explanations” for America’s success: its individualistic culture, Puritanism, the lure of open land and high wages, Yankee ingenuity and government policies.

Nothing in history (least of all the growth of the largest economy humankind has ever known) has a single explanation. Academics like to overstate their case and need to be reined in a little.

Even so, here’s the jawdropping finale:

…Slave owners surely had a vested interest in keeping their “hands” ever fitter and stronger to pick more cotton. Some of the rise in productivity could have come from better treatment. Unlike Mr Thomas, Mr Baptist has not written an objective history of slavery. Almost all the blacks in his book are victims, almost all the whites villains. This is not history; it is advocacy.

What could have shed light on this, had The Economist writer bothered to read the literature (and had the academics bothered to write in comprehensible prose)?

First, when do employers use coercion and how well does it work? There’s a pretty new and exciting literature here:

* Violence and pain work better in labor markets where people have really poor options, and are easily controlled, like children or the least educated. You see this in child labor during British industrialization, or even in child soldiering in Uganda (my own work). Here’s a graph of how long someone stayed with a rebel army in Uganda based on his age of conscription. The paper argues that ones you can scare and indoctrinate the easiest (in this case, kids) stay longest:

Screen Shot 2014-09-05 at 10.07.24 AM

More here.