Archive for May, 2002

Happy birthday!

May 27th, 2002

One year ago today I wrote the following words to kick off this weblog:

Welcome to the weblog! After a bit of fiddling with the code I think I’ve just about managed to make it work the way I want it to. Let’s see what happens now. (To see someone do this properly — and far better than I ever will — visit the excellent and thought-provoking bobblog.)

And here it still is, one year on.I worked out the other day that almost 60,000 words have been posted to this blog over the last twelve months, all available through the archives. That’s not a great deal by the standards of many weblogs out there, and many of them aren’t my words at all, but the words of people I’m reproducing in large chunks or the words of people who have usefully written in to contest or to supplement the opinions I’ve been offering in these columns. But it is still a pleasingly large number of words, and it’d be nice to think that the coming twelve months will produce a similar number. So — thanks to everyone who has clicked on the “comments” buttons below to send me their Objections and Replies, and apologies to all the hundreds of people who have visited this page over the previous year, and found that I’ve been scandalously slow to post anything new. More material will appear, I promise, eventually…

Historic

May 24th, 2002

Today’s news:

BERLIN (Reuters) – An irreverent left-leaning German newspaper published a blank front page on Friday under the headline “Bush’s historic speech” to mock the U.S. President’s address in the Reichstag on Thursday.The Tageszeitung, a leading voice for left-wing critics of George W. Bush’s policies throughout Germany, said in a page three editorial the advance billing that the speech to parliament in Berlin would be “historic” was far off the mark.

You can read the historic speech here.

Null and Void

May 20th, 2002

Richard writes again to the weblog to recommend to social scientists everywhere “an idea whose time has come“.

Ocelot

May 20th, 2002

Josephine has just broken the shocking news (to me, at least) that the Italian word gattopardo, famous from di Lampedusa’s novel of the same name, does not, in fact, mean “leopard”. Hmm. And she’s quite right. Gattopardo means “serval” or”ocelot”, and the Italian word for “leopard” is, perhaps unsurprisingly, leopardo. Knowing this makes it easier to understand why the novel and the film were wilfully mistranslated as The Leopard: it’s a wonderful book (and a wonderful Visconti film, with Burt Lancaster, Alain Delon and Claudia Cardinale in the lead roles, with ravishing shots of the Sicilian landscape), but it’s hard to imagine crowds flocking to buy / read / see The Ocelot in quite the same way.

Attempting to come to terms with servals and ocelots is to learn that, splendidly, Buffon has much to answer for. (“Is it Aristotle? Is it Pliny? Is it Buffon? No, it is Robinson Crusoe“, wrote Rousseau, in �mile). The OED tells us that an ocelot is “a leopard-like feline quadruped (Felis pardalis) of Central and South America, about three feet in length; the prevailing colour is grey, beautifully marked with numerous elongated fawn spots edged with black; the under parts are white or whitish with black markings; also called tiger-cat, leopard-cat”, and the first citation offered is even better than the definition, “1774 GOLDSM. Nat. Hist. II. 148 The catamountain which is the Ocelot of Mr. Buffon”, encouraging us to turn straight to the splendid word “catamountain” on an earlier page. And the serval, relatedly, is “A name applied (after Buffon) to some Asiatic wild cat or lynx; also to an American animal resembling this. Obs.“, or, alternatively, “A carnivorous quadruped, Felis serval, native of S. Africa, having a tawny coat spotted with black, a short tail and large ears; the bush-cat.”

What excellent words. “Lozenge” is a good word, too, and I spent a happy few minutes in a class the other week looking up its etymology — but on this occasion, at least, I will keep you in suspense.

SJG, RIP

May 20th, 2002

So farewell then, Stephen Jay Gould.

Chris adds [22.5.2002]: Read SJG’s excellent essay on the cancer that killed him (in the end) here.

Cheloniana

May 19th, 2002

Week-end update of new material this week at The Voice of the Turtle: Marc Mulholland’s review of Roy Foster’s The Irish Story, and Ted Vallance’s thoughts on the new Star Wars film. (Both very positive, oddly enough).

Richard writes [20.5.2002] to recommend this article from The Weekly Standard, making the case for the Empire. (This is the Star Wars Empire, not the Hardt and Negri Empire, though people sometimes make the case for that one, too). Then he writes again, mere moments later, to “recommend a (politically better) version of much the same thing”, this time in Salon magazine. And then again he writes, to point me towards this one, which is really rather good, and which I hadn’t seen before.

Eye-Catching Initiatives

May 19th, 2002

The drip, drip of poisonous US social policy from the US to the UK has been one of the more depressing features of British politics over the better part of the last decade. Ever since the idiots in New Labour decided that Being Like Clinton was the key to getting elected and governing the country, we’ve been exposed to a string of what Tony Blair once carelessly referred to in a confidential memo as “eye-catching initiatives“, which grab the headlines for a day or two and then drift out of sight to do their destructive work on the lives of British citizens and British society. Not everything that the ministers have recommended, of course, has been enacted. Local authorities have been reluctant, for example, to implement the youth curfews of which Jack Straw was so enamoured once upon a time, and the traditional right to a jury trial seems to be intact, for the time being.

In general, however, it remains a safe assumption that the Straw – Blunkett – Blair axis will be inclined to smile favourably on any policy which was dreamt up by neoconservative sociologists (Banfield, Herrnstein, Wilson, Murray) in America in years past and then embraced by the US ruling class in the 1990s. A fondness for prison-based “solutions”, ideas of “zero tolerance”, mention of “broken windows”, flirting with “three strikes” rhetoric, and championing a general get-tough attitude against anti-social undesirables (“yob culture”, “street crime”, “mobile phone theft”, “leopard skin accessories”, and so on) — the transatlantic origins of the British Government’s attitude is palpable. And one of the many vital contributions of Nick Cohen to understanding the present, of course, has been his refusal to stop writing articles about the social authoritarianism and punitive instincts of our supposedly progressive lords and masters: his essay on “The Punishment Boom” in his collection, Cruel Britannia [pp.114-122] may be the highlight, but the lowlights are pretty good, too, and he remains far and away the best reason – perhaps even the only reason – for continuing to read the Sunday Observer.

Understanding the uses and disadvantages of US social policy, therefore, is an important task for those of us interested in the government of the UK. To this end we are now extremely fortunate to be able to benefit from the wisdom of Bernard E. Harcourt of the University of Arizona Law School, in his new essay “Policing Disorder” in the current issue of Joshua Cohen’s excellent publication, the Boston Review. “Zero tolerance” police tactics have become overwhelmingly popular on both sides of the American political “spectrum”, the falling violent crime rates in New York City providing all the justification an office-seeking politician could want for vindicating the tactics of the Giuliani NYPD. This excellent article combines a careful, critical survey of the empirical evidence which has been used to justify the so-called “Broken Windows” approach to policing, with a useful discussion of the shared philosophical assumptions which underpin both this approach to fighting crime and the mass incarceration policy the US has followed over the better part of the last 30 years, with the result that a phenomenal two million people are now in federal and local jails. It is a fine article, thorough and learned without being technical or unpleasantly social-scientific, and it is on the side of the angels.

Switching gears from the political to the personal, I should say that Bernard is an old colleague from my days in the graduate school at Harvard, where we both studied political philosophy in the Government Department there, and that this is, among other things, a plug for the work of a friend. The first time I came across his unique talent for combining theory and practice was the day in 1996 when he wasn’t able to turn up to make a presentation at a Harvard social theory seminar on Antonio Gramsci’s Prison Notebooks. He had been appearing in a death penalty appeal case before the Tennessee Supreme Court earlier that day, and his flight back to Boston was delayed. Although he couldn’t be there in person, he faxed his notes for his presentation through to us for the course professor, Tom Ertman, to read aloud in his absence. It is still the best excuse I’ve ever heard for not turning up to a class, and I doubt it will ever be beaten.

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