The market-place for ideas

An American right-wing think-tank is reported to pay students to spy on their left-wing professors. For the American right, the freedom of intellectuals to think and teach in whatever way they see fit has always been a problem. Far too many academics have left-wing leanings. Now, however, students have an economic incentive to expose their pinko professors. No doubt lists of the culprits will be compiled and pressure will be exerted on the universities to fire the names found on them.

I think this is an excellent idea. If right-wing think-tanks are so eager to buy our left-wing ideas, I think we should be prepared to sell them. Let’s embrace the market-place for ideas! Besides, the American right is clearly in desperate need of some new intellectual inspiration.

If this system spreads to England what I am going to do is to dramatically radicalise all my lectures and stuff them full of quotes from Marx and Engels and vague exhortations to students to prepare themselves for the coming revolution. Students can then come and listen, denounce me for a fee, and — and this is the business idea involved — I would split their profits with them.

The outcome of this system is that students have a nifty way of financing their studies — of far more radical ideas than previously! — and that I can go off on vacation and read up on my Gramsci. The beauty of the market!

Police on vacation

It seems the thought police has gone on vacation. The hits on the site come from new directions lately. Even the very busy person in the general Guildford area seems to have taken time off. I like it — it adds a human touch: thought cops on vacation, skiing with their kids. How sweet! Well, they deserve a break.

To simplify surveillance in the future I have added a ’subscribe to updates’ link in the sidebar. As a subscriber you will automatically get notified via email whenever something new happens on the site. This way you don’t have to check back all the time. Nifty and nice.

Killing Tony Blair

I’m interested in references to ordinary people who dream about assassinating political leaders. I thought I would write something about it and I started collecting references. This is what I’ve come up with so far:

  • Nicholson Baker’s Checkpoint in which two characters meet for a long discussion regarding the merits and demerits of kiling George Bush. I read the book but I wasn’t that impressed. It’s slight and too chatty.
  • The Assassination of Richard Nixon with Sean Penn. I acquired the film but I haven’t seen it yet.
  • Bob Dylan at an event for members of the liberal establishment a few months after the assassination of John F Kennedy rambling on, drunk no doubt, about how he saw something of himself in the killer. Or for that matter, Dylan’s conclusion to “Masters of War” where he is being very graphic about what he imagines for the kind of politicians who kill by proxy.
  • Dagens Nyheter reporting, Feb 22, that an American-Jordanian man was arrested in Ohio for plotting to kill Bush. Strangely, an admittedly quick Google search reveal no other obvious references to this story.

To fantasise about killing a president or a prime minister is surely empowering; it is a chance for someone totally powerless to imagine himself as powerful; you can do bad things to someone who has done bad things to you or to others you care about. At the same time it is a fantasy of someone deranged and marginal on the fringes of society, of loners and outsiders and freaks.

It always surprised me why the suicide bombers of last summer didn’t try to kill Blair. Blair, after all, was responsible for the Iraq War. The commuters who died were most likely out demonstrating against the war in the spring of 2003. Millions of Londoners were after all. The commuters were innocent, Blair was guilty.

As far as I’m concerned, I would have been very distraught if Blair had been killed. There can be only public justice, never private. Why should a few maniacs take the law into their own hands when Blair deserves to be convicted by a properly constituted court in the name of the whole world community? Aggressive wars on false pretenses are, I believe, against international law. After the death of Slobodan Milosevic, it seems there is free room at the Hague, but I’d much prefer to see him locked away on some remote island somewhere or perhaps thrown into a deep mineshaft (I haven’t quite made up my mind yet).

See, dreams of legal retribution can be empowering too!

Rights vs. appropriateness

The reason why people in my department, and the LSE director himself, are upset by this blog is the same reason why some Muslims were upset by those Danish cartoons earlier in the year. They claim to be hurt and offended and feel slandered and abused. ‘Free speech,’ they argue, ‘does not give you the right to say these kinds of things.’

The intellectual error in both cases is an inability to distinguish between matters of rights and matters of appropriateness. Questions of appropriateness concern the limits that we impose on ourselves as members of a certain group. After all, we all have to find a way of getting along. Social interaction becomes so much easier if we listen to each other, talk politely to each other, say nothing inflamatory.

When the Danish cartoon controversy broke, I didn’t reprint the pictures here. After all, I live in a largely Muslim area of North London and when Eid comes around my childrens’ school virtually shuts down. Why should I antagonise these friendly people? They are my neighbours!

However, everything changed the moment those irate fundamentalists outside of the Danish embassy started calling for blood. When death threats are issued against us our right to free speech is taken away. A society where people are afraid to speak their minds cannot be considered free. Suddenly we had an obligation to stand up for our rights and an obligation to publish the 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.

Compare those who want to take away my right to speak freely about the LSE. Of course I want to get along with them — they are my colleagues! — and during more than ten years in the School I have always tried to be polite and cooperative. But take away my right to free speech and everything changes. If you try to take away my rights, I will fight for my rights. Suddenly I have an obligation to say critical things. If I shut up, their threats and intimidations will have succeeded.

Dear Muslim neighbours, colleagues and LSE director, you may object to what I say on the grounds of appropriateness — sometimes I say stupid things. and when I do, please point it out! — but you cannot object to what I say on the grounds of rights. The right to free speech is protected both in Britain and at the LSE.

Ronard Dworking explains all this very nicely in ‘The Right to Ridicule,’ New York Review of Books, 2006.

Thought police?

There are three computers at work that check this blog several times a day. In addition there is a computer based in the general Guildford area that checks it every couple of hours (late last night, early this morning, a few hours ago). Together these four computers account for 40 percent of the traffic on the blog. Who are these people? Why are they constantly checking me out?

Perhaps they are fans — eager for the latest news from the frontiers of science? Perhaps they are the thought police — excitedly waiting for me to say something forbidden so that they can pounce. Am I becoming paranoid?

Anyway. Thanks for the attention. You are making me feel very important.

Talking to prospective PhD students

Two undergrads just asked me what it’s like to do a PhD. You are trying to get me in to trouble again, aren’t you? Well, how much worse can it get? This is what I’ve been telling prospective PhD students for years — and I might as well tell you.

  • don’t do it! Life is too short, a PhD is too long. There are a million other ways to spend your life which are more rewarding both personally and financially. Check out the drop-out rates from PhD programmes: why do you think the students are leaving? Consider the opportunity cost: by doing a PhD what is it that you are not doing? When you turn 32, your friends will start to make mega-bucks while you still will struggle to get money for a bus pass.
  • a PhD is for life. Doing a PhD is not just getting a bit more education, it is a long arduous journey that will profoundly change you in a number of ways. You might not like what the PhD turns you into, or your girl/boyfriend might not like it. In fact half-way through he/she is likely to leave you. Take another look at people who already have PhDs. Do you really want to become like them?
  • funding. It costs some 10,000 pounds per year to do a PhD in the UK, plus living costs. Nothing a university does is worth this money. I certainly don’t want you to work part-time stocking shelves in the Bodyshop in order to pay my salary. Make sure you have full funding before you begin — or better yet, make sure you are born independently wealthy.
  • don’t expect any worldly rewards. There won’t be any, at least not any worldly rewards that justify all the hard labour. Over the door to each PhD seminar room there is a sign which says ‘Abandon all hope ye who enter.’ Few people will read what you write, or if they do they read only in order to tear you apart. If you are unlucky this will include your supervisor. Once you have the doctorate you are unlikely to get a good job, or a job in a place where you want to live, or in the place where your spouse already works.
  • all the rewards are intrinsic. They are the rewards associated with the reading, thinking and writing itself. Do you get a happy, glowing, feeling when the computer starts up in the morning? Does your pulse quicken when you walk through the gates of the library? Will your heart momentarily swell with pride when you’ve conceived of a particularly pregnant sentence? If these simple, everyday, pleasures aren’t good enough, don’t bother.
  • go West young man/woman! The best American universities are far better than the best European. This is particularly true for PhD programmes. In the US PhD programmes have two years of course work during which you interact closely with the professors and discuss real intellectual questions with your peers. And above all, American universities usually pay you rather than you paying the them. Difficult to beat!
  • as a PhD student you will for the first time produce knowledge rather than just consume it. To produce knowledge is hard, lonely, exasperating. It is also the most noble activity any one can engage in. Thought, refection, critique is what makes us human. As a PhD student you will belong to the select few who have an opportunity to take a step away from the world and to study it with the tools of science and philosophy. For a little while you will find yourself responsible for the perpetuation of human civilisation. If that sounds fun to you — if you cannot think of anything more exciting — welcome, you are one of us.

The annual Kire Ramgnir award

The London School of Ergonomics and Patriarchal Science just announced that a new prize — the Kire Ramgnir Award — has been instituted to reward courageous actions in defence of the right to free speech. The first recipient is Wu Hao, a film-maker and blogger jailed by the Chinese authorities.

‘We are very glad to have this opportunity to do our bit for free speech and the spread of democracy in this part of the world,’ said the School in an official statement. ‘Considering the courageous way in which Kire Ramgnir defied his own department’s ban on his blog, it was obvious that the award should be named after him.’

To regular readers, the fact that Kire Ramgnir is remembered in this fashion is particularly gratifying. Kire was of course the original founder of this blog.

we are back again!

Forget the Footnotes is up and running again after some editorial revamping. What follows below are my rants on politics and society, musings on life in general, and plenty of the latest news from the frontiers of science.

The critics were no doubt correct — the previous version of the blog contained far too many literal truths. As a result this version will contain only half-truths, ironic overstatements and tongue-in-cheek seriousness. If you find tongue-in-cheekery difficult to swallow, I suggest you stop reading immediately.

10 things I know nothing about

1. … undergraduate teaching.
2. … how to shut my big fat blog.
3. … which side my bread is buttered on.
4. … where babies come from.
5. … what’s good for me.
6. … how to chew gum and rub my shoulder at the same time.
7. … how to tell my ass from my elbow.
8. … which way the wind blows.
9. … how to take seriously what’s poked at me in fun.
10. … how to get a promotion.

Which ten things do you know nothing about?

Footnotes to the Open Day

OK, I know I promised to ‘forget the footnotes,’ but let me make an exception for this post. My Open Day speech comes with a few references:

  • The direct inspiration for a speech of this kind comes from my old polisci professor in Uppsala, Leif Lewin. He had a great routine. First he would walk back and forth in front of the students in the big university auditorium for an embarrasingly long time, pensively looking down into the floor. Then, with a sudden dashing turn of his heels he would look directly at us and begin — ‘Students! You are all assembled here today ….’ I loved the theatricality of it. He was rhetorical and ironic and talked about things that mattered.
  • There seems to be a Germanic tradition of these kinds of speeches. I read Schleiermacher’s address to students in 1808 — ‘Thoughts on the University in the German Sense.’ That’s a great statement of academic freedom and the need to think in order for civilisation and culture to survive.
  • There is also Max Weber of course, another German source. His ‘Wissenschaft als Beruf’ — ‘Science as a Vocation‘ — is a broad statement of how a university education best should prepare students for life.
  • A more recent, and Anglo-Saxon, reference is Robert Reich. The arguments about elite universities as nodes in power networks and as places for future leaders to get to know each other, I got from his 2002 book. The corresponding argument about the relative irrelevance of what the teachers actually say comes from Reich too. This is of course the part of the speech that really got the nickers of my colleagues into a collective twist.
  • I heard a rumour that Robert Reich was a runner-up for the job as director of the LSE. If that’s true, too bad he didn’t get the job! He would surely have silenced my critics. Lot’s of people around here are more impressed with the power of an office than with the power of an argument.