[Repost] How I became a reluctant monarchist

Monarchy is both a stupid idea and a good choice

Author’s note: This article first in May 2017. Reposting it today in light of the announcement of the Royal engagement.

On days like this, it is hard to defend Britain’s monarchy. It is beyond me how people manage to care about stuff like Pippa Middleton’s wedding. It has the banality and irrelevance of celebrity news, but lacks the colourful characters and outrageous behaviour. That combination is made even more grating because it is presented in a tone of fascinated obsequiousness, and in staggering volume. Every paper in the UK apart from the Guardian put the wedding on its front page today. By contrast, none found space for Iranians deying hardliners and re-electing their moderate president, an objectively significant story.

It is hard not to be aware of the absurdity of the Royal Family as an institution and, perhaps even more so, our reaction it. I laughed for several minutes when I first read a headline in the Daily Mash, Britain’s answer to the Onion, that went ‘Duchess wows easily-wowed crowd‘.

Despite all this I now consider myself a monarchist. That’s not always been the case. I was a republican up until 2011. That was the year of the William/Kate wedding. As you can probably deduce from what you’ve just read, I found that a rather trying period. Never has so much attention been paid to so little. Would her dress have sleeves? Oh seriously, who gives a ****?

I retreated to thesis writing. But as usually happens when I do that, procrastination followed, and for me that meant perusing blog after blog. Naturally, most of them considered the Royal Wedding in one way or another, and plenty of them considered it as strange as I did. Nonetheless,  many also found convincing rationales for the paegentry.

Two arguments particuarly stuck with me. The first from Chris Dillow at Stumbling and Mumbling:

John Band makes a superb point:

“I suspect it’s not a coincidence that the countries which are best at equality overall (e.g. Sweden, Denmark, Norway, the Netherlands) [he might have added Japan – CD] also tend to be monarchies.”

This, he says, is because monarchies remind us that our fate in life is due not solely to merit but to luck, and thus increases public support for redistribution. Is it really an accident that monarchical Spain is more equal than presidential Portugal, or Canada more egalitarian than the US, or Denmark more than Finland?

The Observer says that “meritocracy and monarchy is one marriage that just doesn’t work.” True. But a true meritocracy would, as Michael Young famously pointed out, be even more horribly inegalitarian than the fake one we have now. So given the choice, give me monarchy.

The other came from the philosopher Mark Vernon:

A republican will say that a president can [also embody a nation], along with the pageantry that surrounds the dignity of their office. Or that a country should be founded on explicit values, like liberty, fraternity and equality. Clearly, some countries opt for such alternative institutions – though I remember being persuaded that a monarchy has the upper hand when, after 9/11, it became almost impossible to criticize Bush without being taken as criticizing America too, because the political leader and the head of state were embodied in the same person. Similarly, a list of values will run into trouble when they conflict – as liberty and equality clearly do. A symbolic figure seems better able to hold together inevitable contradictions because they’re symbolic not explicit.

That the monarch is born, not chosen, is therefore also a good thing. In a democracy, where political power rightly rests with elected representatives and the electorate, hereditary ensures the head of state is above the political. Their power is soft, in all the good things they stand for.

After this, I came to see my own (and I confess other’s) republicanism as rather literal minded and, dare I say it, a bit adolescent. Not every institution needed to conform to every desirable ideal. Sometimes anachronisms that make little logical sense, can still serve a purpose. Events like royal weddings are inherently silly, but the people excited by it weren’t: They were enjoying a moment that bonded communities. So, when the Diamond Jubilee came round the next year, I gladly went along to a (as it turned out very wet) celebratory barbecue, safe in the knowledge that its absurdity was something to savour rather than reject.

Best reaction tweet:

Worst reaction tweet:

 

 

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The best things I’ve read recently (27/11/17)

Can China find aliens? Can the DPRK survive South Korean pop culture? Can Dan Brown write for toffee?

Dan Brown is a very bad writer by Matthew Walther (The Week)

“The novel’s most crucial scene is the stunning almost-but-not-quite-too-late moment when, having reached as far as he can into the depths of his (as is repeatedly impressed upon us) encyclopedic memory, it dawns upon Langdon, purportedly a member of the Harvard humanities faculty, that “Blake was not only an artist and illustrator … Blake was a prolific poet.” Bingo? This is like saying that John Carpenter is not only a composer of synthesizer music, he is also the director of such classic films as Halloween and The Thing.”

N Korean defection sheds light on influence of pop culture by Bryan Harris (FT)

‘US president Donald Trump has embarked on a strategy of “maximum pressure”, leaving “all options on the table”. North Korea, however, is demonstrating resilience to comprehensive international sanctions, while the estimated death toll of any military intervention makes the prospect unfeasible.

The alternative path for some watchers of the reclusive nation is to focus on its people — particularly the younger generation, who are increasingly familiar with foreign movies and music.

“This is such a point of leverage that is being underutilised,” says Sokeel Park of Liberty in North Korea, a group that helps scores of North Koreans defect every year.

“There is so much focus now on security problems and harsh rhetoric but ultimately that is playing North Korea’s game — and they are very well-practised. It is the soft underbelly of media, culture and the economy where South Korea, the US and the international community has massive advantages over North Korea.”

Analysts say the first step is to improve the quality and quantity of radio transmissions — a prospect that was boosted when the BBC Korea service began in September.

“We need a more diverse array of tailored media content for North Koreans,” said Mr Park, who contrasted the lacklustre efforts to break North Korea’s information blockade with those made to bring down the Soviet Union’s Iron Curtain. “We used to be better at this stuff.”’

What happens if China makes first contact? by Ross Anderson (the Atlantic)

“How would he reply to a message from a cosmic civilization? [Famous Chinese Science Fiction writer Liu Cixin] said that he would avoid giving a too-detailed account of human history. “It’s very dark,” he said. “It might make us appear more threatening.” In Blindsight, Peter Watts’s novel of first contact, mere reference to the individual self is enough to get us profiled as an existential threat. I reminded Liu that distant civilizations might be able to detect atomic-bomb flashes in the atmospheres of distant planets, provided they engage in long-term monitoring of life-friendly habitats, as any advanced civilization surely would. The decision about whether to reveal our history might not be ours to make.

Liu told me that first contact would lead to a human conflict, if not a world war. This is a popular trope in science fiction. In last year’s Oscar-nominated film Arrival, the sudden appearance of an extraterrestrial intelligence inspires the formation of apocalyptic cults and nearly triggers a war between world powers anxious to gain an edge in the race to understand the alien’s messages. There is also real-world evidence for Liu’s pessimism: When Orson Welles’s “War of the Worlds” radio broadcast simulating an alien invasion was replayed in Ecuador in 1949, a riot broke out, resulting in the deaths of six people. “We have fallen into conflicts over things that are much easier to solve,” Liu told me.”

Tweets of the week

Podcast of the week

Analysis examines the premium voters seem to be placing on ‘authenticity’ and why this is problematic. I would perhaps go with a slightly different conclusion than the show does and say that ‘authenticity’ is functionally a synonym for ‘entertaining’ and that this is a terrible criteria by which to choose leaders.

Video of the week

Militarisation (Cable from Korean #13)

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The Joint Security Area in the demilitarised zone (DMZ) between North and South Korea. American and South Korean soldier in the forground, North Koreans in the background. (Photo credit: author)

In an article for Esquire, Robert Bateman, a former American army officer, makes an argument that the US should be more grateful for Japan and South Korea. He persuasively posits that these countries are

…much more prepared than many Americans know, and with good reason: They’re a lot closer to the danger [from China and North Korea].

One of the points he uses to illustrate this is the size of South Korea’s military:

…South Korea, with a population of 51 million, has an active-duty Army that is actually a little bigger than the active US Army (490,000, versus our current 483,000 at the end of last year). At the same time, their reserve forces dwarf the US National Guard and Reserve elements. We have a total of about 820,000 part-time or emergency forces, but South Korea maintains a force of more than three million. And this is no mere mass of untrained cannon-fodder. The South Korean Army has some 2,400 tanks, and another 2,600 armored vehicles of other types.

To put this another way, the US Army has a total of 10 active-duty divisions, plus the equivalent of two or three more in non-divisional units. We have several more divisions in the National Guard, but those units generally take several months to come up to speed as trained organizations, so they are not of much use in a sudden fight. In contrast, the Republic of Korea fields a total of 49 divisions, and the equivalent of another six in non-divisional units. In other words, nearly five times what the US can put into the field around the entire planet. They can draw on their entire nation for the support they need in any fight on their own territory, and they are not designed for “expeditionary” warfare. They have one acid test, and they already experienced what happens if they are seen as “weak” by the North Koreans.

In order to get such a large force, South Korea requires every adult male to do two years of military service. Refusal to complete this service is punishable by eighteen months in prison. There is no allowance for conscientious objection. By all accounts it is brutal. Young men dread it and basically no one I have spoken to has anything nice to say about their time in the military. Armies tend to be deeply hierarchical organisations and Korea is a hierachical society, a combination that results in a situation where – to quote one of my friends – officers treat conscripts and subordinates ‘like slaves’. That may sound like hyperbole but earlier this year a general resigned after the military’s human rights commission found that service men assigned to his residence:

“had to stay on duty 24/7, wearing electronic bracelets to be alerted whenever they are needed. One of them was coerced into attending church services, although he was Buddhist. In addition, the soldiers were ordered by [General] Park’s wife to pick up clipped toenails and dead skin cells from the sofa. They were forced to be on duty from 6 a.m., when the general went for his early morning prayers, to 10 p.m. when he went to bed, regardless of their official working hours[.]

Also that:

One soldier at Park’s house had to wear an electronic paging device on his wrist to respond swiftly to calls from [General Park’s] wife, who threatened him to send to (sic) a military prison when he failed to react in time because of a discharged battery,

And most dramatically:

The wife threw a pancake at one soldier when he forgot to bring it to her son, hitting him in the face.

The situation is predictably even worse for young people in North Korea. Women serve for seven years, whilst men are in the military for a decade. Low rations appear to take many soldiers close to starvation and desperate enough to steal food from civilians. A poor diet and hygiene may explain why a North Korean soldier who recently defected via the DMZ was found to have a 27cm parasitic worm in his stomach. The situation is even worse for female soldiers, who generally have a lower rank and appear to be frequent targets of sexual abuse.

Screenshot (48)

While neither of these systems is pretty, they do allow the two countries to field huge militaries. Counting both active and reserve forces, the two Koreas have the largest militaries in the world. Note, that’s not combined but individually. South Korea has the largest, the North the second largest. That’s not counting the American soldiers stationed in South Korea. The result is that in the event of a conflict there would be almost 14 million combatants involved, even before international allies began sending forces to assist South Korea.

This is worth bearing in mind whenever people talk about pre-emptive strikes on North Korea or take actions that might provoke the regime such as tweeting that their leader is ‘short and fat‘. If those actions lead to a war – even a conventional one in which China did not intervene – we’d likely be looking at a war that involved the kind of casulties the world has not seen for decades.

Ratko Mladic deserves to die in prison

He was both a shocking throwback to Europe’s dark past and a disturbing herald of the power ethnic grievance still had in the continent

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A cemetery for victims of the Srebrenica massacre (Photo credit: author)

“People are not little stones, or keys in someone’s pocket, that can be moved from one place to another just like that…. Therefore, we cannot precisely arrange for only Serbs to stay in one part of the country while removing others painlessly. I do not know how [Speaker] Krajišnik and [President] Karadžić will explain that to the world. That is genocide”

Ratko Mladic

 

The BBC reported yesterday that:

Former Bosnian Serb commander Ratko Mladic has been found guilty of genocide for some of the worst atrocities of the 1990s Bosnian war.

Known as the “Butcher of Bosnia”, he faced 11 charges, including crimes against humanity, at the UN tribunal.

He was convicted of the massacre of more than 7,000 Bosniak (Bosnian Muslim) men and boys at Srebrenica in 1995 and the siege of Sarajevo in which more than 10,000 people died.

I hope that this is a case where life means life. Mladic’s crimes were so enormous and so without justification that nothing else feels adequate.

A heart of darkness

A few years ago I took part in an inter-faith visit to Bosnia. Srebrenica was one stop on our itinerary. We visited the cemetries, museums and the battery-factory where so many of the shootings took place. We also met some survivors. They were a group of otherwise normal seeming young men, nonetheless haunted by horrors they would have faced while they were still children.

Srebrenica was supposed to be a safe haven for Bosniak’s fleeing a program of ethnic cleansing. A UN Security Council resolution had decreed that it “should be free from any armed attack or any other hostile act“. UN peacekeepers guarded it. And it soon became home to thousands of refugees.

However, rather than affording protection to its inhabitants, the town became a trap for them. Mladic’s forces surrounded it, cutting it off from supplies. Refugees began to starve. The UN forces in the town were outnumbered and running out of food, ammunition and fuel. In a separate battle around Sarajevo, a group of French soldiers were captured. Mladic threatened to kill these men in the event of Western airstrikes on his forces. That removed the last serious impediment to a Bosnian Serb takeover of Srebrenica and Mladic ordered his forces to take the town. Aware of the weakness of their position and with many of their members captured, UN forces struck a deal with Mladic. In exchange for being allowed to withdraw from the city, they would turn over thousands of refugees, supposedly to be transported into Bosnian territory.

In fact, what happened was that the Mladic’s soldiers began splitting the refugees into two groups. Men were seperated from women and children. They supposedly needed to interogate the men about purported war crimes. The women were ‘spared’ – that being a relative term as many were raped – but they were eventually given to the Bosnian government. However, the men were being taken to the battery factory, shot and buried in mass graves. Thousands of them. As news of this spread throughout Srebrenica, thousands more of the men began fleeing into the hills and trying to make it towards government held territory. Many of them made it. Many didn’t.

It took less than a fortnight for the massacre to unfold. In that time in a single town, Mladic had overseen the massacre of as many as eight thousands souls.

These and the crimes the army Mladic led, were to constitute his legacy: an instigator of genocide, who drove tens of thousands from their homes, enabled mass rapes, ran concentration camps, defied international law, used peacekeepers as human shields, and had his forces shell the homes of ordinary people and architectural treasures. In order to commit these crimes, he flat out lied. He told both the international community and the Bosniak refugees in Srebrenica themselves that he would spare them. That he only wanted to move them from Serb territory. All this while already having made the decision to massacre them.

A warning from history

On the surface Mladic can seem like a throwback to an earlier period of European history, a figure from the 1930s/1940s somehow making misery in the 1990s. One imagines that had he been born in a different time or place, he would have been helping Hitler to murder Jews or Stalin to starve Ukranians, and that the manner in which he approached that grim task would have been much the same.

However, he also presents a disturbingly contemporary figure. He and the other leaders of Serbian nationalism were amongst the first in the Europe that emerged after the fall of communism, to harness the power of a fusion of ethnic chauvanism and Islamophobia. In videos of his arrival in Srebrenica, Mladic refers to the Bosniaks as ‘Turks’ and presents the capture of the town as revenge for the centuries during which Serbia was ruled by the Ottoman Caliphate based in Istanbul. At his war crimes trial, he and his lawyers would attempt to excuse his actions by suggesting he was defending Serbs from “ethnic and religious fanaticism” and point to the prescense of a handful of foreign “mujahideen” in Bosnia as evidence.

Across much of Europe democracy, human rights and the rule of law are under enormous pressure. As in Bosnia, the culprit is a toxic mixture of national, ethnic and religious sectarianism.

Clearly as bad as these situations are, they are not remotely close to approaching the horror that was unleashed in the former Yugoslavia. However, taking precautions against such darkness is worthwhile, and perhaps Mladic’s conviction can serve as a warning to would be strong men and demagouges across the continent.

Plus, the fact that someone as richly deserving of justice as Mladic has recieved it, does give one hope that perpetrators of atrocities in Syria, Myanmar and North Korea might also find themselves in the prison cells where they belong.

 

 

 

 

 

‘Liberal Christianity and sex’ revisited

 

You know how you were just telling me that you really wanted a follow-up to that post about liberal christianity’s unhealthy silence on sex and relationships I wrote back in 2013?

You know the one that said:

For a number of years, I’ve been attending various churches whose congregations would broadly be described as liberal. During that time I have heard sex mentioned once in a service. That was to admonish a preacher for using a wedding service as an opportunity to preach about abstinence before marriage. To be fair, that’s because the churches I’ve attended tended to be quiet and conflicted about their liberalism. Even those that are more assertive – like the church whose signs I blogged about earlier this week – tend to define their views negatively, asserting their differences from other Christians rather than discussing what they do believe. This reticence to discuss sex stands not only in contrast to an increasingly sexualised secular culture, but also to evangelicals and Roman Catholics who tend to be willing to opine that sex should only be within heterosexual marriage.

To the extent that liberal Christianity has a message it’s tolerance, but this is a very limited view. A hesitance to condemn is right but an outright refusal to do so is not. “Judge not lest the be judged” does not mean one cannot judge but that one must be prepared to live up to the standards you demand of others. Liberal Christians do not preach tolerance alone in other matters and are generally quite prepared to pass judgement on bigotry, greed and damage to the environment. And if you consider sex a subject uniquely immune to judgement, then may I ask you about your views on rape? Or if that seems an extreme example, may I ask if you’ve never been angered by a love rat? There is as much – perhaps even more – scope for people to be hurt where sex is involved as when it is not, and so we have to be ready call out people (including and especially ourselves) who do not “love their neighbour.” More fundamentally, while a call to tolerance can guide how we view the actions of others it is a useless guide to our own actions. Liberal Christians might not think that gay vs. straight is a matter of morality but we really ought to decide what is.

Of course, no one actually asked me for a follow-up to that. However, WordPress’s stats page tells me, that it is a surprisingly well read post even to this day. Plenty of people find it through google, which kind of proves my point. There is clearly a demand for liberal christian answers to these questions, and the supply is so meagre that people are finding their way to the blog of a nobody, who ironically doesn’t even provide any answers of his own. I concluded the post saying that for all my certainty that we needed positive suggestions, I had little idea what they might be.

Fortunately, the American journalist Conor Friedersdorf has actually come up with some. In an excellent article – that is nonetheless burdened with the mediocre title “When ‘Do Unto Others’ Meets Hookup Culture” – he presents the case I wish I had known how to make. When I first read it, I felt like I was seeing my own post in a reverse carnival mirror: he’d made clear and crisp things that I’d left messy and distorted. I was particularly impressed that he’d express ideas I’d voiced as regrets, but as something constructive.

While I would recommend reading the whole article, the heart of Friedersdorf’s argument can be found in an address he imagines a fictional pastor delivering to a hypothetical group of university freshers:

Christianity prohibits certain things, like murder and stealing and adultery. But I want to talk today about something that Jesus calls on his believers to do. He teaches us to love one another, to be good to one another, to treat others as we’d want to be treated. Christians aren’t alone in preaching that code. I raise it today in part because I expect you all already agree with it. And if you do agree that we have a responsibility to be good to one another, I’d ask one favor: As you proceed through this college, bear that obligation in mind! Do so even when you’re deciding how to live your sexual lives here. Doesn’t that sound like it’s the right thing to do? But of course, it isn’t always easy.

The dean of students talked to you about consent. By law and the rules of this campus, you need consent to be intimate with anyone. I want to remind you of something: If we’re truly trying to be good to one another, consent just isn’t enough. Maybe there’s a person who has a huge crush on you. You’re at a party. Maybe you’ve had a beer or two, and in the moment, kissing that person would be a lot of fun. But you know, deep down, that you don’t share the same feelings they have for you—that if you kiss, you’ll be leading them on, and they’ll be all the more hurt tomorrow or the next day when you’re not interested anymore. You have their consent. You want to kiss in the moment—but you don’t, because you decide it’s more important to be good to them.

Say you’re dating someone. And you want to have sex with this person. They consent without being pressured. Yet you can’t help but sense that they’re not ready for intercourse. You understand this is a big decision with many physical and emotional consequences. And so, to be good to them, you hold off, despite their consent. You err on the side of caution, even though you’d rather go ahead.

What I take away from this is the notion that our moral duty goes beyond asking if someone is consenting. We must consider their welfare in the round. Which is not in any way to diminish the necessity of consent – why it is so important should be very obvious just at the moment – but to argue that it is not sufficient. It’s presence, even in its most robust form, merely demonstrates that you are not committing an assault, and we should all be aiming to clear a much higher ethical bar than that. There are ways to harm people other than violence, and before we have relations with someone, we are honour bound to check we are not about to perpetrate any of them.

Friedersdorf acknowledges that his guideline does not generally produce definitive answers:

I don’t pretend that confronting these situations with the question, “How can I be good to others?” will lead all of you to the same answers, let alone to my answers…

Nonetheless, I would suggest that thinking this way does lead to at least one blanket prohibition. I cannot see a way that it allows for casual relationships. Which is not to say all such relationships are harmful. However, it seems to me, that you cannot know if you are going to harm someone, without first knowing them pretty well. Something to ponder perhaps?

 

6 Ragnarok reactions

N.B: Unless you’re REALLY spoiler-phobic this post should be ok for you!

1 – I liked it a lot. It’s funny, exuberant and inventive. It’s the MCU turned up to 11.

2 – It is by far the best Thor film to date. A large scale purge of the supporting characters pays off. While obviously very accomplished as actors, the likes of Natalie Portman, Anthony Hopkins and Stellan Skarsgard always seemed uncomfortable being in these films. Their replacements punch their way into Ragnarok already embracing their OTT camp glory. Tessa Thompson’s Valkyrie feels ready to join the main Avenger’s line-up from the get-go. And if we can see Taika Waititi’s Korg or Jeff Goldblum’s grandmaster again that would be great. Obviously that could be in another Thor sequel, but they both seem like they’d fit-in well in a GOTG adventure.

3 – Casting Cate Blanchett as the villain serves to illustrate the difference between a good actor and a great one. Marvel villains have generally been uninspiring. Even capable actors struggle to do much with their generic objectives and motivations, modest screentime and clunky dialogue. Blanchett doesn’t so much overcome those hurdles as devour them. The likes of Lee Pace and even Mads Mikkelsen struggle when their characters get into full flow: they need to deliver dire declamations with conviction, without seeming silly. Blanchett needn’t worry. Her performance is hammed up to a level beyond the pantomime, but even at Hela’s most overwrought, Blachett inhabits her, such that you never wind up questioning, a character who on even cursory examination is totally ludicrous. This video illustrates the point rather well.

#Thorsday 101 – What is Ragnarok?

A post shared by Marvel Entertainment (@marvel) on

4 – Ragnarok has a decidedly antipodean flavour. It was filmed in Australia, its director is a Kiwi, and much of the cast is from that part of the world. That helps make it feel distinct from the rest of the MCU. I felt that was reflected in a humour that’s a bit looser and more than the hyperverbal Whedony quipping you get in most Marvel movies. Not that I mind hyperverbal Whedony quipping, but some variety is pleasant. [Edit: put it this way. Marvel dialogue is generally very coffee. Ragnarok is more larger]

5 – The synth heavy score is exactly what this movie needs.

6 – If I had to find fault with Ragnarok, I would be point-out that:

  • he action scenes look cool but nothing more. I never really became invested in what was happening in them. Instead I’d enjoy the spectacle whilst waiting to return to the characters interacting entertainingly.
  • It takes about 20 mins to really click into gear. Doctor Strange’s inclusion felt unearned.
  • Idris Elba remains chronically underused, and Hiddleston feels sidelined to an extent that is suprising given the popularity of his character.

But honestly, I was having a riot, so none of this really bothered me.

7 – I am conflicted about the trailers. They stepped on many of the best moments, but were also really entertaining in their own right.

Meritocracy for thee, a leg-up for me: conservatism and the academy

What right-wingers usually think of positive discrimination

As a general rule people on the right tend not to like so-called ‘positive discrimination’. Take this op-ed from America’s most venerable conservative magazine, the National Review:

Excellence should be celebrated wherever it is found, and affirmative action policies undermine colleges’ ability to search for it.

Or the British conservative columnist Toby Young on getting more working class students from state schools into the UK’s top universities:

My own view, for what it’s worth, is that universities should not lower the bar for state school applicants because that would effectively be sending a message to state schools that they can never be as good as independent schools. Rather, they should have the same expectations of all their applicants, regardless of their educational background, and encourage state schools to compete with private schools on a level playing field.

A double standard

However, there is one group that many right-wingers are comfortable demanding university’s show a special preference towards: themselves.

Take this example from the US:

A bill in the Iowa Senate seeks to achieve greater political diversity among professors at the state’s Board of Regents universities. Senate File 288 would institute a hiring freeze until the number of registered Republicans and Democrats on the university faculty fall within 10 percent of each other.

“I’m under the understanding that right now they can hire people because of diversity,” said the bill’s author, Sen. Mark Chelgren, R[epublican]-Ottumwa. “They want to have people of different thinking, different processes, different expertise. So this would fall right into category with what existing hiring practices are.

This is an unusually stark proposal, but its subtext has been around for decades. In 1951, the National Review’s founder wrote a book called God and Man at Yale that argued that the curriculum of the famous university was biased in favour of liberalism and atheism. Since then universities have regularly been a been targets of conservative attacks on America’s coastal elites. As far back as 1989, the first President Bush attacked his Democrat opponent for having ‘the views of the Harvard Yard.’

As these things tend to, that idea has now made its way across the Atlantic. And we get outpourings like this:

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Do not mistake discernment for discrimination

The unexamined assumption underlying these accusations of bias is that universities – or rather the staff and students they are constituted from – should be treating all views equally. In fact, the opposite is true. While I deplore attempts to exclude views from universities through coercion, it is a natural part of how academia works that some ideas will first be attacked and then ignored. It would be absurd for universities to, for example, provide balance between mainstream earth scientists and flat earthers.

As Robert C. Post, a Yale Law professor, recently wrotes for Vox, universities exist precisely in order to help society discern which views have merit and those which don’t. As Post notes the people who make up a university simply can’t fulfill that function without giving greater prominence and respect to certain ideas than to others:

…universities can and must engage in content discrimination all the time. subject my students to constant content discrimination. If I am teaching a course on constitutional law, my students had better discuss constitutional law and not the World Series.

Professors are also subject to continual content discrimination in their teaching and their research. If I am hired to teach mathematics, I had better spend my class time talking about my equations and not the behavior of President Donald Trump. If I am being considered for tenure or for a grant, my research will be evaluated for its quality and its potential impact on my discipline. Universities, public or private, could not function if they could not make judgments based on content.

Critically scrutinising an idea like ‘Brexit is a desirable outcome’ fits with that mission. It is definitely the sort of thing university humanities and social science departments should be doing. The purpose of that enquiry is not necessarily to pass a singular judgement on the idea. However, if the majority of academics who look into it, come away unimpressed, then that does reflect poorly on the idea.

The closing of the conservative mind

Now confronted with this judgement, people who hold that idea dear have two basic responses. These are the same options that anyone confronted with criticism has. They can take the criticism on board and try to use it to help improve. Or they can get defensive and begin to deny its validity. Or put more metaphorically, you can either get mad with the bathroom scales, or try to eat better and do more exercise.

Not all right-wingers are of the yelling at the scales variety. For example, the conservative MP David Willetts changed his mind about whether income inequality was a problem in response to a pretty consistent finding by social epidemiologists that it was. And clearly, being reluctant to update your views in the face of contrary evidence is not something only people on the right do. There are examples, of it occurring on the left too. Indeed, it is probably something everyone does at some point. However, at the present moment in the US and the UK, it does seem more prevalent amongst conservatives. Take for example, attitudes to science:

A 54 percent majority of Democrats, compared with just 13 percent of Republicans, say they have “a lot” of trust that what scientists say is accurate and reliable. Eighty-eight percent of Democrats and 75 percent of Republicans trust scientists at least “a little,” with 5 percent of Democrats and 15 percent of Republicans saying they don’t trust them at all.

As Ezra Klein has noted, whilst causes like climate change denial have become mainstream amongst Republicans, Democrats have largely managed to resist buying into anti-science messages – such as on GMOs – that might appeal to left-wing inclined voters.

The difference is that conservatism’s mistrust of climate science has taken over the Republican Party — even politicians like Mitt Romney and John McCain have gone wobbly on climate science — while liberalism’s allergy to messing with nature hasn’t had much effect on the Democratic Party. And part of the reason is that the validators liberals look to on scientifically contested issues have refused to tell them what they want to hear.

Klein thinks the emergence of scientists like Bill Nye and Neil De Grasse Tyson as liberal opinion formers is especially important in this regard.

This dynamic is appears less severe in the UK. Perhaps for that reason, it has received less quantitative study. At least that I can find! Nonetheless, you still see signs of it. While prominent scientists and science popularisers, like David Attenborough and Brian Cox have voiced progressive views and opposition to Brexit, climate change denial has become mainstream amongst both Conservative MPs and their allies in the press. Indeed, the power within the British right of tabloid newspapers that combine reactionary politics, a penchant for pseudoscience, and a generally loose attitude to accuracy makes it kind of inevitable.

The mirage of ‘politically correct’ bias

Now it would be remiss of me not to acknowledge the possibility that there is real bias in academia and research. Sometimes your bathroom scales are broken, and sometimes universities favour ideas for reasons other than them being more truthful. This issue is probably clearest with regards to funding. For example, we almost certainly think the average medication is more effective than it is, because many clinical trials are funded by the people who make those medicines. Right-wingers have a theory for why academia might be biased against them. Universities are in the grip of a form of ‘politically correct’ groupthink. Academics do not want to voice conservative views, lest they incur the disapproval of their left-wing colleagues and students.

I find this unconvincing because:

  • It does not account for why left-wing ideas would have become dominant in the first place. If right-wing arguments were coherent and well evidenced wouldn’t they have become the dominant ones with which it is risky to disagree.
  • Many academics do produce work with ‘right-wing’ conclusions such as that children typically do better if their parents are married rather than cohabiting, tax increases being bad for economic growth or immigration depressing wages.
  • There is a well-funded ecosystem of media and think tanks promoting right-wing ideas that should not only foster ideas that could make their wake into academia. Plus that same funding could be directly applied to funding academic research.
  • The conservative tendency to pick fights with research applies as much to what are essentially empirical questions as ones that centre on values.
  • In academia as in many fields, being confirmist lowers not only risks, but also rewards. The most celebrated researchers tend to be iconoclasts, who overturn recieved wisdom. Therefore if academia generally ziggs left, there are incentives for individual academics to zag to the right.

All of which makes me think that the reason that right-wing ideas find so little support in academia is that they mostly don’t stand up to rigorous scrutiny. Instead of engaging in the hard, boring work of coming up with proposals that account for uncomfortable information, contemporary conservatism has chosen the easy comforts of conspiracy theories and tribal epistimology. ‘Alternative facts‘ are treated as if they are as good as the real thing. Institutions that raise questions about the movement’s proposals – including but not limited to academia, the media and the judiciary – have their legitimacy questioned. Rather than coming up with a conservative solution to the problem of climate change – probably the gravest one currently facing the world – many conservatives have opted to pretend it isn’t happening. The Brexit campaign was marked by claims that sounded just about plausible to a voter with a modest amount of attention to devote the the subject, but not to anyone able to study it in any kind of depth. We were told that the UK could save itself millions of pounds in budget contributions that had already been remitted back to us. Likewise we were warned that the UK didn’t have a veto on Turkey joining the EU, even though the treaty article governing the accession of new member states explicitly says that it can only happen if exist members including the UK “shall act unanimously” in support of it. Michael Gove’s notorious assertion that “Britons have had enough of experts” may have been true of the country, but it was definitely true of a campaign that had many reasons to face focused scrutiny, including from academia.

Role-models

The sad part about contemporary conservatives developing such disdain for universities, is that they are attacking the very places that previously incubated many of the most important right-wing ideas. Here are some examples:

  • It is hard to imagine the Thatcher revolution, and the monetarist economic policies which accomponied it, without the work of the Nobel Prize winning economists Milton Friedman and F.A. Hayek. Indeed, legend has it that Thatcher once interupted a presentation she felt misrepresented conservative thinking, by slamming one of Hayek’s books on the table and declaring this is what we believe!
  • Michael Oakeshott wrote his philosophical defences of a conservative disposition as a professor at the LSE.
  • Henry Kissinger went from Harvard to being Nixon’s most important foreign policy advisor.
  • The first generation of neoconservatives relied heavily on the work of Harvard sociologist Daniel Bell, and his critiques of sixties counter-culture.
  • The concept of Broken Windows policing – espoused most famously by Rudy Giuliani – was first developed by two Harvard criminologists, James Q. Wilson and George L. Kelling.
  • Public choice theory, the notion that you could use the tools of microeconomics to study the public sector as well as private markets, is relied on by many scholars from across the political spectrum. However, it was originally developed by conservatives working as academic economists, who were looking for a tool with which to critique the expansion of welfare programs. They included James M. Buchanan who would win a Nobel Prize for his work.

Take your own medicine

That the right has largely disengaged itself from that kind of serious academic work has hurt it. I don’t think it is a co-incidence that Thatcher and Reagan came in with a clear program they could implement, whilst the Brexiteers and Trumpians are flailing incoherently. Had either group engaged seriously with academics who work on public policy, they would almost certainly have been better prepared for the challenges they faced.

Thus the conservative movement would not benefit from positive discrimination in academia. Quotas for right leaning academics and attempts to root out imaginary ‘liberal’ bias, would just make the right even more intellectually lazy than it currently is. Instead it must practice itself, the message of tough love it preaches to others. Rather than asserting that they have a right to the respect of academia, right-wingers should set out to earn it. The way to do that is with good ideas backed up by convincing evidence and cogent arguments. The likes of Hayek, Oakeshott and Kissinger did that in the past. If their heirs cannot do that in the present, the fault is their own, not academia’s.