The tragedy of political science

I’ve really had it with political science. Little of what political scientists do has any relevance whatosever. The general public knows this only too well. No one reads political science books or political science journals and not even politicians ask for their advice. If politics is show business for ugly people then political science is academia for irrevant people. The discipline is completely self-referential and self-propelling.

Like some nasty computer virus the number of academic papers just keeps on multiplying. You become professor since you have 70 articles on ministerial resignations or on the European parliament or some equally useless topic. What a waste of the time and effort of allegedely intelligent people! Surely they will have to answer for their actions on Judgement Day. But perhaps writing 70 papers on such topics already is considered punishment enough?

Could it be that I’m actually a sociologist? Are these people my new best friends? Can you be a sociologist without even knowing it? Should I come out of the closet? But what will my mother think, and my students? I feel a strong urge to apologise to someone, but I don’t know to whom. Maybe to my employer for misleading them for more than 10 years. But maybe they’ll ask for my salary back?

Old palaces, new conflicts

I wrote an article on the destruction of the Yuanmingyuan — the so called “summer palace” of the Chinese emperor — by Anglo-French troops in 1860. Song Nianshen, a student of mine here in London, very kindly and competently translated the article and we sent it off to Tian Ya, a Chinese cultural journal. We didn’t hear anything for a long while and, strangely, they neither rejected nor accepted it.

Today it suddenly dawned on us that they might be reluctant to publish anything on this topic right now. Some three weeks ago, the Publicity Department — the old Propaganda Department — of the People’s Republic closed down the liberal journal Bing Dian for publishing an article on 19th century European imperialism and the Yuanmingyuan. In China history is never dead and this 150 year old event can still make the authorities take fright and make heads roll. The complete story is here. Too bad I couldn’t place the article earlier, I could have contributed to the discussion (or rather the lack there of).

Now I hope Cultural Studies Quarterly in Taiwan will publish it. It’s an ejournal and Google permitting maybe it will reach some scholars on the mainland. Nianshen is excited to see it published in traditional Chinese so at least something good is coming out of this.

Interactive blasphemy

A lot of excitement has been generated in the Muslim world by the publication in a Danish newspaper of cartoons showing the Prophet as a terrorist. As a compulsive blogger I naturally feel compelled to have a view on this topic. Republishing the cartoons here in the name of free speech is one obvious option. However, everyone’s going after Muslims these days and that’s surely not right.

A lot of excitement has been generated in the Muslim world by the publication in a Danish newspaper of cartoons showing the Prophet as a terrorist. As a compulsive blogger I naturally feel compelled to have a view on this topic. Republishing the cartoons here in the name of free speech is one obvious option. However, everyone’s going after Muslims these days and that’s surely not right.

‘This is Europe and if we have a thought, we express it.’ Ayaan Hirsi Ali

Historically speaking there is a close connection between civil rights and civility. That is, you have the right to say whatever you want but you also have an obligation not to offend people around you. If you offend them they aren’t going to talk to you and maintaining the conversation is the first imperative of social interaction. On the other hand, you also have an obligation not to take offence too easily. Claiming offence provides people with a veto on what can and cannot be said. This is exactly why it is so difficult to include a certain brand of fundamentalist Muslims in our public conversations.

Pragmatically speaking there is surely no point in offending Muslims just because you have the right to! I mean, these are my neighbours; every second person is a Muslim where I live and my kids’ school is virtually shut down over Eid. Why antagonise all these friendly people?

Yet this conclusion is based on a consideration of appropriateness, not rights. Everything changes the moment our right to publish an offensive cartoon is denied us — by irate fundamentalists outside of the Danish embassy in London, for example. When death threats are issued our right to free speech is taken away from us. Suddenly we have an obligation to stand up for this right and an obligation to publish the offensive cartoons. How else but through a publication is it possible to distinguish those who are trying to be polite from those who merely are scared? Being polite is fine, being scared is not. A society where people are afraid to speak their minds can never be considered free.

This is the only kind of fundamentalism I believe in — the fundamental right to free speech. Of course you have to be civil about it, but this is a pragmatic consideration guided by social norms not rights. Infringe on my rights and I too will turn into a fundamentalist!

As an interactive exercise, use this web page to draw your own picture of the prophet! Blasphemous? Of course not, you are using The Muslims Internet Directory.


Valentine’s Day is just around the corner. What should one make of this? Am I basically in favour or basically against? Differently put: should you rather celebrate International Quirky Alone Day or do you prefer the traditional format [if that doesn’t work, try this]?

What Zefrank says — did you click on the link above??? — about Swedish toilets is actually perfectly true. Hearts on toilet doors is something that Swedes take for granted — although it tends to be restricted to non-flush facillities in the countryside. It’s a strange thing really. Why are there hearts on toilets? There should be more research in this area.

10 things I love about life in London

“The man who is tired of London,” said Samuel Johnson, ” is tired of life.” I am, I have to admit, tired of London. What does that mean? Well, of course Johnson was writing at a time when London symbolised all there was of excitement and cosmopolitanism. The alternative was to live in a hovel somewhere in the English countryside. The alternatives are a bit different today. The person who is tired of London just might get a real kick out of New York, or Shanghai.

Anyway, there are some things I’ll dearly miss about our life in London. These are the top ten:

  1. our house, although it never got finished and always was too small and full of toys everywhere.
  2. shopping on Green Lanes, Harringay. Especially Baldwin’s, the world’s best butcher, and Yasar Halim, with its amazingly juicy carrots.
  3. South Harringay Infant School — which provided a warm, welcoming and endlessly encouraging educational environment for our four Swedish-American children and the children of 53 other ethnic groups.
  4. my students at the LSE.
  5. CBBC — the last bastion of intelligent television.
  6. stodgy puddings with custard.
  7. Ed, our electrician. The only practicing Menonite electrician in London who also is a drop-out from Peterhouse College, Cambridge.
  8. Jeremy Hardy on the News Quiz. Linda Smith too.
  9. sitting on the top of dubble-decker buses. It’s still fun, ten years later.
  10. listening to Radio 4 while making coffee in the morning.

Conquering Asia

The article I wrote about the Yuanmingyuan continues to conquer Asia — if that’s the right metaphor. A friend of mine took the independent initiative to send it on to a journal in Hong Kong, Century China, which published it last week (without footnotes and with their own subtitle). The article has had over 1500 hits in a few days and is already linked to by tens of blogs. A google search of this version of the article gives 377 hits!

Meanwhile, an authorised version, with footnotes and all — and in traditional Chinese ideographs — has appeared in Cultural Studies Monthly in Taiwan. This is the only version officially endorsed.

This success is a good reason to try to get a book out early rather than late, and in Chinese too as a matter of some urgency. I wouldn’t really need to publish anything in a relatively small language like English. Still, it seems Millennium, the IR journal, is interested in another version of the article. Great! This means I can incorporate the most recent research and some more stuff on transgression.

Apostates R Us

There has been a lot of stuff on religion so far in this blog. Perhaps my genetic predisposition is showing — both of my grand-fathers were pastors in the Swedish church after all. In a funny way I continue the family business — standing orating at the pulpet once a week is pretty much what I do too!

Yet since the death of my father a few years back, I’ve become an increasingly militant atheist. Religion seems like such a terrible fraud perpetrated on mankind. We are told that things will be ok, that we don’t have to worry, that there is life after death and that god will reward us. By believing in such fictions we never come face to face with the reality of our lives. Facing this reality is in the end the only way in which we can affirm our humanity.

Recognising the essential meaninglessness of life, we are forced to give life meaning. Such meaning-making is the essence of humanity. Religion can indeed be explained from this perspective — religion is yet another way of making sense of senselessness. Yet what matters is not the answer we arrive at — the tepid, porridge-like, substance that the churches dish out — but instead the struggle for meaning; the terror incompletely concealed. This is the point of human existence: always looking and never finding anything.

In the last analysis, religion requires fear — fear of death, fear of life. Fear always breeds submission; a frightened person will easily give in to authority. A free society must be without fear. We must be resolute in the face of death.

As I tell my students whenever I have a chance: there really is no god, you know, there really isn’t. Neither a Muslim, a Christian nor a Jewish. It would be nice if there were, and nothing would make me feel better than if I were able — like my two grandfathers — to believe. But the fact that we would be comforted by the thought doesn’t make it true. It just doesn’t work that way.

The Fury of the Europeans

I just set up a number of web pages for my new book project, The Fury of the Europeans, on the destruction of the Yuanmingyuan in 1860. The pages are here. The idea is to gather all my notes on-line, together with pictures, eyewitness accounts, maps and other primary sources. Eventually my own book chapters will appear here as well. The book will be published by Paradigm Publishers in the U.S. in 2008 (who also publish Charles Tilly, Noam Chomsky and other luminaries).

Strange, I have never seen anyone put live research notes on the web in this way. But it’s very convenient when moving from one library to the other and it’s fun to set up. Perhaps others are afraid of having their stuff ripped off. Well, but as scholars we are also supposed to contribute to the knowledge of society. Besides, publishing the sources give me a great feeling of actually communicating with someone. Communication is what it’s all about in the end.

Yesterday I spent in the special collection reading room at SOAS. It’s great to be back with dusty primary sources again. It’s been years. Yesterday I read an eyewitness account by this Frenchman, Jean-Louis Negroni, who was one of the first to break into the palace. He claims to have saved the emperor’s favourite courtesan, he even claims she kissed him! Anyway he stole a lot of objects which he took with him back to Europe — well, more about him some other time.

My Davos blacklist

The Davos extravaganza is underway. In Davos every year the most powerful men (and the occasional woman) gather informally, to get to know each other, exchange points of view and broker deals. Some academics participate too. Clearly the powerful believe an academic presence gives them intellectual legitimacy. The atmosphere of the place is transformed from smoke-filled back-room to academic seminar.

I hate this kind of intellectual prostitution. Selling out and sucking up to power. I also hate academics who brag about going there. How pretentious! As though they mattered, as though anyone powerful actually listened to them! The power of an academic requires independence and a critical attitude, not this arsenine licking of red carpets.

I have a short blacklist of academics who participate in this Davos thing. The LSE portion of the list reads as follows:

  • Richard Sennett. He even writes about going to Davos in his books. A sure sign of an academic in decline.
  • David Held. Used to stop me in the staircase of the Government Department and tell me how important he is since he is invited to Davos every year. Yes, David, you are very, very important. Try writing a good book next, OK?
  • Tony Giddens. An academic with a history of sucking up to power. He too used to write good books once upon a time. Too bad his intellectual reputation got soiled when it was run over by the Clinton/Blair bandwagon.

I’m sure there are more names. And a non-LSE list too of course.

Revealed: blame the pope

Why is it that some societies are very corrupt whereas others are more or less uncorrupt? According to a research paper presented today by Jonathan Hopkin, the well-known LSE academic, it is all down to religion. In Protestant countries people are, on the whole, incorruptible whereas people in Catholic countries can’t get anything done without giving or accepting bribes. As Hopkin told a captivated capacity crowd in the LSE auditorium: It’s all the pope’s fault! Look, I ran an SPS regression and the pope is the most significant variable.

Late on Wednesday evening, the Vatican was not available for comments but in an official statement the director of the London School of Ergonomics said he feared ex-communication. Research is not only about facts, the director pointed out, values enter into it as well. Academics need to take more responsibility for their conclusions.