Category: Other

A visit to Poland

I’ll shortly be leaving for a semester in the University of Łódź in Poland.  It’s an adventure – an opportunity to learn about a country I’ve not been to before,  to learn a language I don’t speak, and to get a different perspective on life.  It comes at a time and the effect of Brexit on rights to travel and work in the EU may well mean that it would be much more difficult to do anything of the sort in a year’s time.

My other work includes books on collectivism (close to completion) and on poverty, where I’m currently waiting for input from my collaborators.  I’ll continue to watch and comment on issues in the UK, such as the development of social security in Scotland.

Academics ought to be able to discuss colonialism and empire without flinching

In September, I commented on the controversy about a paper on The Case for Colonialism.  This week, a similar argument has exploded in the University of Oxford.  A proposal for a series of seminars on  the ‘Ethics of Empire‘ has been established in the University’s McDonald Centre.  It states that ’empire’ can mean many different things, that both “apologias and critiques” of  empire need to be tested against the historical evidence, and that there are lessons to be drawn for contemporary engagement by the Western Powers. (Note that it refers to “apologias” rather than “defences”; this is not an agenda that puts arguments for and against empire on an equal footing.)  The seminars that have taken place to date have considered the Assyrian, Roman and Chinese empires.

In reply, a letter to the Guardian has been sent by a large and assorted collection of 58 academics, mainly historians, who object to the premises of the proposal.  They claim that that the project is based in ignorance of current scholarship and proposes a “crude cost/benefit analysis” of empire.  (I cannot comment on the first, but if it is true, then a dedicated series of seminars featuring presentations of historical empires by international experts  should help to diminish the scope of the organisers’ ignorance.   I do know something about cost-benefit analysis, and I think I can say more confidently say that there is nothing in the proposal, either explicitly or implicitly, which does argue for such an approach.)  The objectors are on stronger ground when they write:  “Developing a ‘Christian ethics of empire’ is not an intellectually sound, let alone an academically robust, endeavour ”.  The suggestion that the project will offer “a nuanced and historically intelligent Christian ethic of empire” seems to imply that there can be such an ethic, analogous to the idea of a just war; that is controversial, and it may indeed be “political” in the terms criticised in the letter.

It hasn’t helped that the Daily Mail has now stuck its oar in.     The objectors are advocates of an “ugly totalitarianism’, and to prove the point the Mail digs out any mud that it can throw: some of them are opposed to Brexit, five are anti-Israel, and several are (gasp!) supporters of the Labour Party.  The Mail‘s article, by Guy Adams,  is rambling and ill-focused, but at the core it does have a point.  The objectors are basically trying to suppress a dispassionate discussion of  issues in an academic context, because it is framed in terms that they disagree with.  If we can’t discuss the Assyrian empire without prior political genuflections, we’re in trouble.

Defamation: an argument for academic freedom hits the buffers

The Scottish Law Commission has published a lengthy report on defamation.  I raised a couple of points in my blog last year, when I thought I wasn’t going to make a submission; but then I started to feel guilty about my indolence, changed my mind, and dashed off an e-mail to the consultation (complete with typos).  As it turns out, I’m cited at length in a paragraph in the report: only 15 submissions picked up the point about academic freedom, on both sides, and that is hardly enough to derail an argument.

5.37 Paul Spicker pointed out that, in terms of material subject to peer review, the net is much wider than journals – books and academic bids for funding tend also to be peer-reviewed. He observed that it is, in any event, questionable to what extent a focus on peer-reviewed material offers protection against defamation. The primary focus of peer review tends to be recognised as being to make judgements about the rigour and validity of a submission. This does not generally include any sort of duty to notify the editor as to whether or not academic comment or criticism might operate to the detriment of a person’s commercial interests. He further commented that it was not clear why safeguards should only be applicable at the point of formal publication of material or submission to other bodies. Academic papers may, for example, be presented at seminars and conferences during the course of their development, before formal  publication. It seemed that what was called for
was a general exemption for all bona fide academic discourse. The nature of the discourse should be determined on a case by case basis rather than being treated as occurring only in specified locations or outlets. …

5.41 On the other hand, the Law Society of Scotland took a different angle, namely that the coverage of peer-reviewed statements in scientific or academic journals was practical enough to meet the aim of promoting freedom of expression within the academic and scientific community. On that basis, they did not support any expansion of section 6.

The Commission concludes:

5.42 Having weighed up these competing arguments, we recommend that the scope of section 6 should be left as it stands. It appears that more would be needed to make it fully effective than a simple extension of its application in terms of the types of publication that it covers. Fundamental questions have been asked about whether the focus on peer-reviewed material is sufficient in offering protection against defamation. There may be a need for a wider protection covering academic discourse in general. It seems preferable that any such changes be made at UK level, rather than the same provision applying in a different manner as between Scotland and England and Wales.

I’m not sure whether this amounts to a rejection of the case I made, because it seems to accept the main argument, but regardless the law is not going to protect routine academic discourse in the foreseeable future.  Mark it up as another failure.

A session in Haifa

I’ve been in Israel for the last couple of weeks, and yesterday I gave a presentation on the relational elements of poverty to a delightful group of academics, students and practitioners at the University of Haifa.    I’m shamefully incompetent when it comes to managing Hebrew at even the most basic level, but fortunately most of the academics I’ve met in my field don’t share my limitations.  They are being driven to publish academic journal articles in English in order to get tenure (15 articles in 5 years is apparently the norm, and book chapters and Hebrew articles don’t count).  The problem with that sort of direction in academic writing is that it tends to shape the character of the work that academics can engage in, and it’s not always to the benefit of the subject.  Good theoretical work needs time and variation; critical development that might influence policy in practice might tend to be repetitive.  Empirical research, by contrast, can often be divided up into meaty chunks and written up quickly, so that’s what people on the treadmill will be forced to do.

I’m a firm believer in a cooperative approach to academic discussion; I have been asked to think about making my work more accessible in Hebrew.  My work has previously appeared in Farsi and Arabic, and it’s intriguing that the same elements and approach seem to appeal across such different (and apparently divided) cultures.  We can only gain from dialogue and exchange, and it’s regrettable that some of my contemporaries have closed the door on that.

Should “The case for colonialism” have been published?

Yesterday I received a circular request to sign a petition to have an academic article taken down.  The article in question is  “The case for colonialism“, written by Bruce Gilley, and published by Third World Quarterly. For Gilley, anti-colonialism has justified practices that are worse than the colonial systems they replaced; he tries to justify colonialism on the balance of costs and benefits. There’s a forceful rebuttal of the arguments by Nathan Robinson in Current Affairs:

“Truly unspeakable harms can simply be “outweighed” and thereby trivialized.  … Building power lines and opening a school doesn’t provide one with a license to rob and murder people.”

Being concerned about contemporary policy, I’m less concerned about the historical revisionism than about the mis-characterisation of current issues in development.  There have been massive improvements in much of Africa in recent years, and they have not happened by magic.  Gilley suggests that

The ‘good governance’ agenda, which contains too many assumptions about the self-governing capacity of poor countries, should be replaced with the ‘colonial governance’ agenda.

The agenda he’s criticising makes no such assumption; on the contrary, it’s about creating capacity.  The process has encouraged governments to recognise their limitations and to work collaboratively with a range of stakeholders and partners.  Just the sort of thing that colonial governments didn’t do and that international organisations have had to learn.

Gilley’s critics have described the argument as “racist” and “white supremacist”; neither of those is justified by its content.  The article is provocatively written, somewhat cavalier about evidence and possibly slightly bonkers. Does it follow, though, that it should be withdrawn from circulation?    The proper response to anything of this nature is to make the case against it, not to have it expunged from the record. When I’ve taught students about ethics and policy in the past, I’ve sometimes given them extreme positions to consider – arguments for torture and infanticide amongst them. I’ve wanted them to be able to respond cogently and fluently to offensive views, because in real life speechless rage doesn’t win the day. I’d have had no hesitation in getting students to write a critique of this paper.  Students tend to be far to deferential to the things they read; a healthy disrespect for the printed word is something to be encouraged.

 

“No use without payment”

Today I’ve just received a note from a publisher, who plans to reprint one of the papers I have written and which is available on my open-access page.  They write that “The Publisher  … as rights holder, has granted us permission for the reproduction”; they also explain how much they’re going to sell it for and why it’s too expensive for them even to send me a copy.  I have written back to say:  “You are under a misapprehension.  The publisher is not the rights holder; I am.”

I was at a reception last week for members of ALCS, the Authors’ Licensing and Copyright Society.  ALCS collects royalties for copying and internet distribution, and  distributes proceeeds to authors. I offer lots of my stuff for free because I want it to be read.  I benefit from copyright to some extent, because I’m not a saint and it’s very gratifying to pay for the writing I’d be doing anyway,  but that doesn’t mean that I’m wholeheartedly committed to the principle of getting money every which way, and when the Chair of ALCS called for “no use without payment”, I winced.  As a writer of non-fiction, most of the time at least, nearly everything I do is built on foundations laid by other people.  Academic work in general, and science in particular, depends on knowing what’s been done, taking it, shaping it and taking it further. Copyright restrictions often get in the way of that.  They stop free distribution or detailed quotation; academic papers are often put behind paywalls; some texts are restricted so that they can only be read in certain places.

I’m sceptical, too, that this kind of thinking really helps the creative artists who are supposed  to benefit from it.  The way that work gets known is that people share it with each other.  How many of us can name a favourite song, poem or piece of music that we didn’t first read or hear for free? Which of us hasn’t eventually paid for our favourites in some way, whether it’s by buying a copy, going to a performance, giving it as a present, getting someone to buy it for us, or the like?  The contents industry is fond of saying that replication is killing creative work. The opposite is true. Replication is the life-blood of science, art, performance, education and creativity. It’s the suppression of copying that is stifling intellectual and creative development.  And that’s why, when the publisher gets round to asking me nicely, I’ll agree to the piece being republished anyway.

The nature of a hate crime: Google thinks that incitement to racial hatred passes its tests

In the Home Affairs Committee last week, a baffled Yvette Cooper politely and repeatedly asked Peter Barron, a spokesman for Google in Europe, ‘In  what  circumstances  is “Jews  admit  organising  white  genocide” not  a statement of hate speech? ‘  The response from Google was as follows:

Peter  Barron:  There  is no  clear  definition  of  hate speech  in  British  law. We  have  our  own  guidelines  around  hate  speech.  The  guideline  that  we follow, which is very close to the law, is that a general expression against a  country,  for  example,  wouldn’t  qualify  as  hate  speech,  but  if  you  are promoting or advocating violence against a particular group based on their race or ethnicity, that would constitute hate speech. … I am not going to defend the content of the video; I found it abhorrent and offensive. However, the important question, which relates to wider issues of freedom of expression, is whether that content is illegal and whether it breaks our guidelines. Our policy and legal experts arrived at the conclusion that it didn’t. I think everyone in this room would agree that it was deeply distasteful.
Chair:  But  your  own  guidelines  say  that  it  is  “not  acceptable  to  post malicious,  hateful  comments  about  a group  of  people  solely  based  on their race” or religion or so on. How on earth is the phrase, “Jews admit organising white genocide”, as well as being clearly false, not a statement that  is  a  malicious  or  hateful  comment  about  a  group  of  people  solely based  on  race,  religion  or  the  other  protected  characteristics  that  your own guidelines and community standards say are unacceptable?
Peter Barron: The test that our legal and policy experts are looking at is whether  there  is  an  incitement  to  violence  against  a  particular  identified group.  I  accept  that  these  are  borderline  cases;  we  often  see  debate among our teams. The conclusion in this case was that it didn’t break our policy guidelines.

The response from Google seems to have divided commentators. One one hand, there are those who defend the principles of free speech – among them Spiked Online, which calls Yvette Cooper the ‘Witchfinder General’, and the editor of the Jewish Chronicle.  On the other, there are many, most obviously the members of the Home Affairs Committee, who find this difficult to take.

Barron’s assertions that there is no definition of hate speech, and the argument that the content is not illegal, are mistakes.  The expression “hate speech” may not be used in UK law, but ”incitement to racial hatred” is, and incitement to hatred  is criminal.  There are many things that people are not allowed to say in the  UK – among them laws of public and private libel, incitement, conspiracy and sedition.  Even in the USA,  ‘The most stringent protection of free speech would not protect a man in falsely shouting fire in a theatre and causing a panic.’   (That comes from Schenck v. United States, 1919.)  There is a common confusion about the nature of free speech; it is not the freedom to say whatever one pleases, any more than freedom of movement means an unlimited freedom to swing your fist.

Google’s misreading of the law comes about because it has referred to the laws relating to racial hatred in the USA rather than laws in Europe.  Hate speech in the USA is protected by the First Amendment; to be criminal it has to be coupled with the threat of violence, and in general it will be charged only when it occurs in tandem with another offence.  As the threat of violence is already an offence, that reduces the status of hate crime to an aggravating factor, rather than a cause of action in its own right.  That’s why the Internet hosts other material, much worse than the example discussed in the Home Affairs Committee,  which more or less says, get these people before they get you (and no, I’m not going to post the links to the examples I’m thinking of, or even to identify the three words in Google that will bring them up).   It seems that Google is able to take down links and caches of sites questionably accused of infringing copyright, but not of sites that openly breach European laws on racial hatred.

The Big Questions

I was part yesterday of a studio discussion for “The Big Questions”, a Sunday morning TV programme. I’d been asked along to say something about Universal Basic Income, which was being put forward by Guy Standing and Glasgow councillor Matt Kerr. Other questions considered in the programme (each question gets twenty minutes) were about Scotland’s voice in Brexit, where I did get my oar in, and reparations for slavery, where I didn’t.  (There’s a hilarious take on the programme’s format here – I went in the full knowledge that it was going to be tough.)  The programme is on Iplayer for a little while.

I’ve said plenty about both Basic Income and Brexit on this blog, so let me fill a gap by saying where I stand on reparations for slavery.  While there’s no doubt about the depth of the historical injustice, I don’t think we can rewrite thousands of years of world history to rectify it.  I come from a long line of refugees.  I can’t accept the principle that I should be compensated for the injustice they suffered; I’ve done nothing to justify that.  (That also means, by the way, that I think the UN’s current position on hereditary refugee status is nonsense; if they’re right, I should be thought of as a refugee from three other countries.)  When my great grand father, grandfather and father came to Britain, the first in the 1880s and the others in the 1940s, they didn’t come to join a slave-traders’ club; they came to one of the few countries that had stood against slavery and oppression.  Britain has things to be ashamed of, sure enough, but it’s also got something to be proud of.

A request for a review

I’ve been sent a free copy of a book to review on this blog.  This is the first time I’ve had such a request, so I thought I ought in the interests of transparency to clarify what it means, and what my role  is.  In the course of my career, I’ve reviewed more than forty books for academic journals. Book reviews don’t generally get much credit as academic publications.  While there’s a certain amount of academic thinking that goes into a review, a reference should always be about the book being reviewed, not the reviewer – I hate reviews which don’t tell me what’s in the book.  It’s not about putting forward my own ideas, and that’s why I’ve not reproduced any of the reviews I’ve done on my open access page.

A reviewer for an academic journal is never paid, but gets to keep the book.  The arrangement relating to this blog is much the same at root as it would be with an academic journal.  I don’t then have any ethical reservations about accepting this book to review; it puts the blog on the same footing as an academic journal.  The main difference will be a matter of length:  academic journals usually ask for 600 words, and on this blog I hardly ever go beyond 300.

Some of my colleagues may be surprised that any publisher would want to take the risk of having a book reviewed by me, but that’s a different issue.

Why is sport treated as news? I don’t get it.

Summer is always a lean time for news, but it’s been made worse by the media’s obsession with sport in general, and the Olympics in particular.  The coverage in newspapers and TV in particular has been packed with drivel – celebrity interviews, speculation and journalists saying how they feel watching people play games. As someone who generally throws away the sports pages of the newspapers unread, I  have never really understood why sports results are treated as ‘news’ at all.   It’s not that there is never any news about sport – in the last week there’s been the story of the man who cheated at pigeon racing, and the reinstatement of a jockey who pulled back his horses to lose has all the makings of a film script – but these are out of the ordinary: man bites dog, rather than dog bites man.  The existence of a sporting contest, and the inevitable outcome that someone will win a competition, is a regular part of some people’s leisure activity.  I just can’t see why the results of competitions between elite sports stars in fields like archery or dressage are assumed to have any more interest than competitions between leek growers, video games players, sheepdog trials or the rankings of artists in the Country and Western Charts. And no, I don’t want the news media to tell me more about  those things either.