The ASA’s Boycott Lacks Seriousness

The Executive Committee of the American Association of Universities has issued a statement condemning the American Studies Association’s boycott of all Israeli academic institutions. The AAU’s decision makes sense, and I support it. Claiming that all academics at all Israeli institutions bear responsibility for all actions taken by the government of Israel — whatever you think of those actions — is absurd. Playing fast-and-loose with academic freedom is more than regrettable in an environment where such liberties are under increasing threat at the margin.

I find it bemusing that someone like Corey Robin would disagree, given his own institution’s recent employment of General Petraeus. Robin protested that decision, vehemently, but given that his side was unable to prevent Petraeus from teaching at CUNY I doubt he would appreciate being banned from conferences, publications, or other academic symposia because his institution hired the leader of a war many believe to have been unjust and illegal. The American Association of University Professors (sensibly) opposes blanket boycotts as a matter of principle for just this kind of reason. In this case the Palestinian government agrees. Solidarity should not just be in the mind, and one can support Palestinian self-determination (and oppose the expansion of settlements in the West Bank) without playing games of guilt by association.

Tyler Cowen argues the positive case — would the world be better if the boycotters’ demands were met? — but I think that’s the wrong way of looking at it. This is pure mood affiliation via cheap talk. If it would actually have any real world impact I doubt most of these folks would support such a boycott for precisely the reasons Cowen gives. And if they did we would easily be able to identify their moral and scientific unseriousness.


UPDATE: I took a closer look at the text of the ASA’s website and one of the things I wrote above is misleading if not outright wrong. Specifically, individual Israeli academics are not being boycotted; only institutions. In practice this might be a distinction without a difference… but maybe not. In any case, here is the full statement from the ASA. The relevant part:

Our resolution understands boycott as limited to a refusal on the part of the Association in its official capacities to enter into formal collaborations with Israeli academic institutions, or with scholars who are expressly serving as representatives or ambassadors of those institutions, or on behalf of the Israeli government, until Israel ceases to violate human rights and international law.

The resolution does not apply to individual Israeli scholars engaged in ordinary forms of academic exchange, including conference presentations, public lectures at campuses, or collaboration on research and publication. The Council also recognizes that individual members will act according to their convictions on these complex matters.

A Test Designed to Provoke an Emotional Response

For several years now Black Mirror has been my favorite television show despite the fact that U.S. audiences could only view it using, erm, “less-legal” methods. Apparently the show is now airing on something called the Audience Network on DirecTV and I’d encourage folks to give it a try.

Slate has a Slate-y take on the series, but here is the gist of what you need to know: each episode has a completely different cast and crew. There is no recurring plot. There are no returning characters. The writers and directors are all different from show-to-show as well. The only consistency is the techno-dystopian theme of each episode, which has some resonance in the age of Snowden and Facebook face-recognition algorithms.

In some ways Black Mirror‘s closest analogue is The Twilight Zone, but with one key difference: there is little surreal or absurdist about the premise of the episodes. The show is futuristic but just barely: the worlds in the show look functionally the same as our own, except that technology is extrapolated two or three short steps beyond where it presently is. There are no phasers or teleportation devices, just slightly better artificial intelligence. In some episodes the entire narrative is possible given existing technology. The show’s name refers both to an unpowered LCD screen and to an Arcade Fire song… tangible things that presently exist.

Refreshingly, the show also refuses to be dystopian in any one particular way. The first episode involves a terrorist plot to humiliate a head of state. Another imagines one possible future of Google Glass: the ability to revisit video of every event in your life’s past… no more need for hazy memories to settle a he-said-she-said dispute. To bear the loss of a loved one why not download a lifetime’s social network data into a replicant body? It’d be like they never left. In several cases the characters believe they have overcome part of the human condition via technology, only to realize that problems frequently require something other than a technical solution.

But that is not the fault of the technology. The show’s creator, Charlie Brooker, is an avid user of Twitter and a casual technology optimist. His chosen medium is television, not print. The takeaway from the show is not to turn off the smartphone, disconnect from Facebook, and re-learn your penmanship. The technology is never the real problem. The people are. It is a point that frequently gets lost in discussions over the relationship between technology and society. And that is why the show is such a needed interjection into the culture.


You Never Give Me Your Money/ You Only Give Me Your Funny Paper

After the Pope’s recent screed I wrote on Facebook that I didn’t understand why he was getting so much attention, particularly from non-devout Catholics. After all, hasn’t a very long history demonstrated that anything the Pope writes should be taken as utter horseshit until conclusively proven otherwise? The most common pull-quote in the 200+ letter is this:

[S]ome people continue to defend trickle-down theories which assume that economic growth, encouraged by a free market, will inevitably succeed in bringing about greater justice and inclusiveness in the world. This opinion, which has never been confirmed by the facts, expresses a crude and naïve trust in the goodness of those wielding economic power and in the sacralized workings of the prevailing economic system. Meanwhile, the excluded are still waiting.

Others have noted that his empirical claim is dubious at best. I’d also note that his theoretical claim (“inevitable”) is a straw man. People have always been concerned with the “goodness of those wielding economic power”. If we’re being consistent we’d also be concerned with the “goodness” of what is one of the wealthiest institutions on earth, and one of the least transparent. This is why we in the decadent West have regulatory institutions, progressive taxation, and a welfare state deployed by elected representatives of the people. No similar checks and balances in Vatican City.

Meanwhile, as Hitchens noted in his polemic against the “ghoul of Calcutta,” the Pope’s own organization has been less a friend of the poor as of poverty. The church opposes the liberation of women and the sagacity of demographic planning, which is a precondition for escaping Malthusian social dynamics. Historically the church has actively worked to promote ignorance, oppose scientific inquiry, and limit the erosion of its own prestige by rising bourgeois and working classes — the very things that have enhanced human dignity. At present it refuses to divest any of its substantial assets to improve the material lives of the suffering. If a capitalist can be defined by a logic of accumulation then there has been no greater capitalist in world history than the church in Rome. These are not actions that demonstrate concern for the least among us (and we will know them by their actions).

Until these policies and doctrines are not only abolished but thoroughly repudiated I won’t take seriously lectures from Jorge Mario Bergoglio on questions of political economy. This should be obvious to practically everyone, and I would encourage well-meaning people of the left to not accept poisoned friendships so easily.

But I hadn’t actually considered another aspect of this. Among the world’s poorest the situation is the exact opposite of what Bergoglio describes.

“All the data show households with humbler jobs and lower incomes enjoying faster income growth than those with fancier jobs and higher incomes,” observe Batson and Gatley. “China’s income inequality has been quietly getting better.”

Via Scott Sumner, who adds that the Pope should really be less Euro-centric. Indeed he should.

UPDATE: If I’d noticed this FT exposé on the financial malpractice of the Vatican that published a few days ago I would’ve worked it into this post. I didn’t, until now, so I’ll just link to it. It’s pretty bad.