Tuesday, August 19, 2008

I did not very get far reading this polemic by Marshall Sahlins against the proposed Milton Friedman Institute at the University of Chicago. I do want to dissect the first couple of paragraph as an example of really crappy writing.

Suppose you want to argue that the proposed Milton Friedman Institute is going to give rise to ideological research. This sounds like it could be a plausible argument, its a rather hard one to make. The institute is not up and operational yet, and so it has not really sponsored much research so far. One has to read its mission statements and news releases accompaning the founding of the institute for evidence of ideological bias, and those - as far I saw - do not include much besides a commitment to the study of markets.

What to do? How about this: instead of claiming that the institute will support ideological research, why not just claim that some people think the institute will support ideological research? Such a claim does not really need much defending. And viola,
...to many observers at home and abroad, the establishment of a monumental institute named after Friedman and directly subsidized by private funds, will brand the University of Chicago as an academic instrument of a certain ideology.
Of course, the reaction of any normal person reading this is to wonder why we are concerned about the reaction of "many observers" at all - shouldn't we be basing our decisions on whether these claims are, you know, true or not, rather than whether "many observers" think they are true?

By the way, the writers of the faculty petition against the institute pulled a similar trick:
Many colleagues are distressed by the notoriety of the Chicago School of Economics, especially throughout much of the global south.... The effects of the neoliberal global order that has been put in place in recent decades, strongly buttressed by the Chicago School of Economics, have by no means been unequivocally positive. Many would argue that they have been negative for much of the world's population....
Clearly, we should cancel the institute - we don't want to create distress for "many colleagues!"

Moving on, Sahlins gives us a dirty smear-by-association,
Does the university expect us to "disappear" the memory of the Friedman-trained Chicago Boys, who supplied the economic programs for the draconian regimes of Augusto Pinochet in Chile and the generals in Argentina? The sacrificial reduction of social values to monetary calculations is the essence of Friedman economics, and helps explain its historic taint as the complement of state terror. Not long before he was assassinated in Washington by Pinochet's agents, Orlando Letelier, ambassador of the deposed Salvador Allende government, wrote that the Chicago Boys "convinced the generals that they were prepared to supplement the brutality which the military possessed, with the intellectual assets it lacked."
Of course, helping a government with economic policy does not implicate you in any political crimes the government has made. I'd also note that helping to make Chile richer is nothing to be ashamed of.

Anyway, this is where I stopped reading. Final thought: being a distinguished anthropologist does not prevent you from making really shitty arguments. If you thought that success in anthropology implies some degree of mental rigor, you thought wrong.

Monday, August 11, 2008

Some random thoughts on the Russia/Georgia war:

1. It seems that most reporting on this subject in the western media has a fairly uniform anti-Russian tone. I can see how it might be tempting to adopt such a tone. Its easy to cast Georgia as the good guy - after all, it is a democracy with free elections. By contrast, the same cannot be said of Russia, which seems to be getting more and more authoritarian every day. Putin now effectively controls what goes onto the major television stations as well as most the print media. Critics of the government are arrested based on flimsy pretexts. And so on.

Nevertheless, it seems to me that its wrong to cast Russia as the villain in this conflict. Majorities in South Ossetia and Abkhazia do not want to join Georgia. Georgia is trying to subjugate two distinct ethnic groups, with distinct cultures and languages, against their will.

Of course, there are thorny questions here (how exactly do we decide which groups are entitled to self-determination?) to which I don't have any systematic answers. Still, its hard to feel any sympathy for the Georgian attempt to restore its "territorial integrity" at the expense of two peoples which have given up thousands of lives in the past two decades fighting for independence.

2. John McCain's reaction to this conflict is pretty crazy:

McCain seized on the conflict again today during a campaign stop in Pennsylvania, remarking that Nato's decision to delay Georgian membership in the alliance this year "might have been viewed as a green light by Russia for its attacks".

"I urge Nato allies to revisit the decision," McCain said.
If there is one thing we should learn from this conflict, its that admitting Georgia into Nato makes it quite likely that the US will be drawn into military conflict with a nuclear superpower over a country most Americans haven't even heard of until last week.