American Government (8th edition) by Gitelson, Dudley and Dubnick
    Purchase at: Amazon;

  • Randi Art
    This is a Flickr badge showing public photos from randubnick. Make your own badge here.
  • Draw Breath (Friends Ciarán and Isabel)
  • Sociable Geek (Friend Stephen)
  • Meditations71 (Friend Stefan)
  • Slugger O'Toole
  • Ideal Government Project
  • Thur's Templates

Wednesday, December 29, 2004

Evil...more or less

Over the past few days I have been working with Jonathan Justice of the University of Delaware on the final "fixes" for our co-authored article on "Accountability and the Evil of Administrative Ethics". The paper was accepted for publication in Administration and Society, but we have taken seriously the task of addressing one reviewer's criticism of our conclusion as well as the need to shorten the manuscript (a daunting task from my point of view; while some may see it as unwieldy, I regard it as 'tightly' argued). But in the process of checking on citation and sources, I have come across Michael Ignatieff's excellent little book, The Lesser Evil : Political Ethics in an Age of Terror. So, instead of being focused on shortening the manuscript, I am trying to "make room" for some of the points Ignatieff raises.

My own view of "evil' is quite different from Ignatieff, and so in one important (conceptual) sense our analyses are quite different. For me, the concept of evil is a social construct that has to be taken seriously for what it is: that is, the label we apply to behavior and actions so horrific that they fall outside out moral comprehension, i.e., they are unfathomable. Ignatieff's "lesser evil" is set at a lower threshhold, and he is explicit in admitting that this is the case. He holds that lesser evils are those acts of coercion involving "necessary harm" that must be undertaken -- that is, are "justifiable" for the greater good (I am paraphrasing here, so some of the nuances are going to be lost; see his discussion on pp. 17-19). For Ignatieff, applying the word "evil" to such harms is necessary in order to emphasize that the acts are committed with the knowledge that they are morally problematic. This is key to his prescriptive stand in the book, for once designated and acknowledged as such "lesser evils," these acts are legitimated as temporarily acceptable within the bounds of active vigilance and opposition allowed by a liberal democracy.

In contrast to Ignatieff's focus on such 'lesser evils', we focus on those acts that start out as unfathomable (because they are gratuitously harmful or unacknowledged as horrific by their perpetrators) but are eventually encompassed by various political, legal, social, etc. mechanisms designed to bring them within the realm of moral comprehension and the range of collective counter action. We then establish that this very process sometimes leads to actions that are themselves unfathomable from the perspective of different moral communities. (Our modal case is the witch hunts and trials of the 14th-17th centuries that were undertaken as highly moral responses to a perceived source of evil in their day, but which we regard today as evil acts unto themselves.)

Where our analyses join is in the conclusion that the most effective solution to both problems -- that of Ignatieff's lesser evils and our own paradox of ethical evils -- is found in the effective operations of the modern liberal state....

As usual, more to come....

Read more!

Monday, December 27, 2004

By the light of the networked lamppost....

Can't avoid discussions about 'networks' these days. It's the flavor of the decade as far as political science is concerned -- unavoidable in the new 'governance' literature, especially among UK scholars who take their cues from R.A.W. Rhodes and others who seem to think that networks are the defining characteristic of the recent move from governing-through-government to governing-through-governance. I am now in the midst of reading the latest application of the 'network' narrative: Anne-Marie Slaughter's A New World Order, and I am beginning to wonder whether the hype and attention given to networks is really all that it is made out to be….

Well, the answer is yes if you ignore most of history as well as the development of modern graph theory (I am also reading Barabasi’s Linked, so suddenly I am into things like ‘graph theory’). What is most problematic about the work on networks-as-governance is the strong assumption that what is being described (or in Slaughter's case, also prescribed) are new and very recent developments (i.e., post-Cold War) in governing. What is being ignored or overlooked is the presence of network-like phenomena in everyday life as well as its relevance to understanding governing throughout history.

Then what is all the fuss about? I was reminded of the Abraham Kaplan's parable of the "drunkard's search" in his classic The Conduct of Inquiry. If I recall the story correctly, seeing a rather disoriented individual on hands and knees searching for something under a streetlamp, a passer-by inquires and finds that the drunk is looking for his keys. Was he sure that he dropped them at that spot? Not really, but this is where the light is....

What is new in all this discussion about networks is that we have finally been drawn to the illumination under the newly discovered network 'lamppost,' and we are feeling a bit giddy about what we are finding there. Slaughter seems to understand this, for she makes the point that the network "lens" is proving to be more enlightening that the old unitary "billiard ball" perspective that had long dominated international studies. But she also seems to be arguing that the reason we had not seen these illuminated phenomena before is that they are just now emerging as important factors on the global stage. I may be misreading her intent at this point (I have only read the introductory overview chapter to date), but if not then readers of this blog will find many additional reactions to Slaughter's book as I read further on....

Read more!

Sunday, December 26, 2004

Geuss what he said?

Geuss's book on Public Goods, Private Goods
turned out to be worth the time and effort, if for no other reason than as an example of a useful example of the "critical genealogy" methodology he applies in these short lectures.

The basic point of the work is to challenge the use of the public/private distinction as a foundation for political theory. As a categorical assumption, the distinction just does not stand up to the scrutiny of Geuss's critical approach, although he is quick to note the pragmatic value of public/private within specific contexts. He is especially (although not exclusively) critical of the reliance of liberalism on the distinction. If nothing else, Geuss at least starts the discussions that necessarily follow his critique: once we know and understand the constructed nature of the public and private spheres, how do we deal with the need to define the boundaries and relationships regarding specific policy questions?

Read more!

Shovel it! (Updated twice....)

(Click image to go to pic at RandiArt blog)

I have been lucky in most of my previous trips back to the US to miss the big storms -- snow and otherwise. I thought my luck was holding this trip. Arrived on the 21st, just after a small snow storm left 2-4 inches in parts of Boston. Then the news for the rest of the week featured a major snow storm that hit the midwest -- including parts of Texas and the southwest that had not seen snow for the past 80 years. New England missed that one....

We have been watching the weather for the past 24 hours because our daughter is driving down to Philadelphia for the MLA today, and it actually looked okay on the forecast. Flurries early today, they said, and maybe 4-7 in the Boston area tonight (Sunday night), but that seemed okay.

Then we awoke to something else altogether. We looked out at 730am and saw a couple of inches already on the ground, and by 8am it was really starting to come down hard. Heading to the gym to work out, it was obvious this was no flurry. Yet the Boston radio station was still saying only flurries, and 4-7 inches tonight.

By the time we were heading home at 930, there were already 5 or 6 inches on the ground, and I sit here procrastinating while it gets even deeper. I know I have to get out there and shovel -- if for no other reason than to keep ahead of this storm.

Looking at the radar weather maps on the net, I can see what the problem is -- the storm clouds seems to be located along a band running north from just around where we are up through Maine. In short, we are about to get hit with about twice the snow that they are predicting for Boston. Living next to the Atlantic and just on the jet stream line does funny things for us...

Well, not so funny. Just came in from shoveling the snow; Randi has been at it for at least half an hour before I get to it, and much of what she's done is already covered with fresh snowfall.... I tackle the area around the driveway, not because it snows any more there, but because the city snow ploughs (notice, using my UK spelling!) tend to bury us in unless we move the snow at the end of the driveway out into the street. So it is a matter of shoveling out in order to avoid being shoveled in... Get that!

It is now noon, and it looks like we are at flurry level snowfall, so maybe there will be a break in the action -- long enough to go for coffee and a movie.

Yesterday we saw “Closer,” a Mike Nichols film set in London with Julia Roberts, Jude Law, et al. Good cast, some good acting. Nice to see scenes of London, and especially got a kick out of the scenes at the Heathrow Renaissance Hotel, which was one of the bigger disappointments of our own trip there last year (Marriott folks should be embarrassed to be associated with that particular hotel). As for the movie, I thought the film itself was plotless and pointless -- or at least I was clueless as to where the story was going. Reminded me of some of the films of the 1960s and 1970s with Elizabeth Taylor and Sandy Dennis and Richard Burton and everyone having dinner parties and screaming at each other....

Don't know what we will see today. Not much interesting out there. My son, who seems to have eclectic but lower end tastes in films, liked “Spanglish” and “Meet the Fockers” -- but neither has much attraction for me. Might go see “Phantom”, but only because Ciarán Hinds is in it -- he is brother of a colleague.... Otherwise, will be a lazy Sunday like all the others, only this time I get to read the NY Times rather than yesterday's Guardian book review....

UPDATE: Never did get to that movie, and plans for going anywhere tomorrow (Monday) seem a bit far fetched. The snow keeps coming down, and they predict that by the time it ends we will have as much as 18 inches. Looks like all my exercise will be with a shovel....

Read more!

Saturday, December 25, 2004

OK, let's be Frank about this....

I've devoted a few blogs to Frank's "What's the Matter with Kansas?" book, and I suspect it is "getting old" as a topic. But now that I finally finished the book, one more 'go at it' is in order.

If you've been following the saga of my reactions to the book, you know that I have been a bit frustrated at what I called the "Michael Moore-ish" harangues that Frank would use in certain chapters. But this was more than a matter of style, for Kansas is to Frank what Flint is to Moore, and the ranting is understandable. Having lived in Kansas for ten years (two in Emporia in the 1970s and eight in Lawrence in the 1980s), I found his description of the state and its people compellingly familiar and his reporting on what's taking place there politically quite disturbing. Disturbing, that is, but not surprising.

Whether by coincidence or subconscious choice, the fact that I began this book just as I completed Roth's "The Plot Against America" turned out to be propitious in that both fed on my growing cynicism about American politics. There is also the fact that I’ve been living in Northern Ireland for the past fifteen months or so, but I am not quite sure whether that has made me more or less skeptical about the qualities of American democracy. What it has done is made me think more positively about the idea of “American exceptionalism”, mainly with the implied hope that current culture/class war that afflicts the US is not the standard for some emergent global trend.

Looked at from this perspective, what we are witnessing is another in those intermittent periods of “moral awakenings” that some historians claim have characterized American political and social cultures since at least the early 1800s, if not before. I am planning to pursue this thought by getting back to Robert Fogel’s "The Fourth Great Awakening and the Future of Egalitarianism", a book published in 2000 that I looked at quickly and put back on the shelf when it first came out. I am typically pretty skeptical about historicist perspectives, but in there seems to be something to the “awakenings” model (and Fogel's informed approach to it) that makes it different. Approached as a cultural phenomena based on some interesting and credible sociological mechanisms (e.g., social movements, moral panics), the awakenings view of patterns in American politics has some value. (With a colleague, Domonic Bearfield, I hope to put this view to the test using the history of administrative reform.)

Alternatively, developments in the US might be a precursor of things to come in Europe, Asia and elsewhere as the global force of American cultural trends take hold over time. I am less convinced that this is the case, especially in light of the nearly universal negative reaction to current US behavior on the world scene which (I believe) is spilling over into a growing abhorrence of all things American. Still another way of understanding what is going on is (in Rothian style) to see the current tumult of American politics as just a much delayed and idiosyncratic version of the kind of illiberal politics that much of Europe went through in the 1930s.

What all these perspectives have in common is an idea central to Frank’s analysis: that “it’s the culture, stupid” that has become the driving force of politics. In that sense, cultural issues have replaced economics as the focus for those who want to successfully mobilize political power in the US. But as Frank points out, there is an ironic twist to all this, since it is the economic power and success of corporate America that shapes and energizes the very images and events that generates and feeds the reactions of “middle America” that has come to dominate US politics.

Read more!

Wednesday, December 22, 2004

Things not to do in 'public'....

It has become a ritual of sorts. I land at Logan airport where my spouse awaits and we immediately head off to Cambridge for an inexpensive dinner at Pho Pasteur (best deal in the area) and then directly to Harvard Book Store where I spend at least an hour looking for new and interesting things to read (as if I don't have enough to do).

Last night I immediately stumbled upon the paperback edition of Raymond Geuss' Public Goods, Private Goods, a small volume I have been eyeing since it was published in 2001, but put off buying until it came out in a more affordable paperback edition. (I picked up two other books as well, but more on those another time). This morning I reached for this book as my coffee-time 'read' and I was hooked immediately.

What Geuss is engaged in is a critical genealogy of the public/private sphere distinction that is central to modern liberal thought. His three "cases" for conducting this study involve Diogenes of Sinope, Julius Caeser and Augustine. In the case of Diogenes, the issue is how the public/private distinction emerges in the instance of someone who undertakes offensive conduct in the marketplace -- in this instance, Diogenes' habit of masturbating in 'public'. In just slightly over twenty pages, Geuss provides more insight into the "shamelessness" and the roots of cynicism than I've gotten from a good many other sources.

This should be a quick, entertaining and intriguing read -- and there are few other books I've read on philosophy that can claim that. As usual, more to follow....

Read more!

Thoughts in transit...

Sitting around Birmingham airport waiting for my flight back to the US, I settled into one of those cushy chairs at Starbucks and continued my on-again, off-again reading of Thomas Frank's What's the Matter with Kansas?. His annoying diatribe style has not subsided, but rather has merged with an analytic perspective and some interesting self-reflection. I am increasingly convinced that this might be the kind of book I should assign next term when I teach US government to the 2 level students Queen's.

Last evening, another of my wonderful colleagues at Queen's decided at the last moment to invite a group of us over to her home for a seasonal gathering. An American colleague and I engaged in an interesting conversation with the hosting spouse, Patrick, who was curious about our views on American politics -- and more specifically how we would explain (or justify) our claim (as a country) to being a democracy when in fact we are a nation of uninformed and irrational people who obviously lack the wisdom to select even halfway intelligent leaders (not quite his words, but close enough). Patrick's question did not shock us or make either of us defensive, for both of us are curious as he as to what has happened to US politics over the past decade. In response, we both found ourselves citing Frank's book, which is an interesting response from two political scientists who claim expertise on US government and politics. For all our cumulative knowledge, we are as baffled and as stunned by the new logic of American politics as Patrick and other Europeans. Frank, for all his annoying harangues, seems to have hit on an explanation by focusing on the 'culture war' that emerged out of the excesses and extremes of the 60s.

Of all Frank's observations, what I have found most interesting was his point that the right wing backlash, antiliberal 'literature' (if we can call it that) of today -- the stuff of Coulter and Limbaugh and Liddy -- is strikingly similar to the leftist writings and critiques of the US elite of the 30s, and he offers an example from the Daily Worker as an example. He contends that the major difference is that today's right wing harangues have been stripped of economic factors, thus masking (in true postmodern form) the true nature of the problems that afflict them from the gullible public. Interesting twist that seems to make some sense.

(The flight from Birmingham to Newark is now underway, and as if to reinforce the point, the 1997 movie 'Conspiracy Theory' just came up as the feature presentation for this flight. If Frank is correct, the craziness of conspiracy theories is now central to understanding the narratives drivng US politics.)

But there is something more to Frank's argument than just the culture/class wars -- something more basic and traditional. The war is being won by the right not merely through the media and Fox News. It is also being won the old-fashioned way -- at the precinct level where the "bias" hits the road. So if politics involves the mobilization of bias (a phrase familiar to political science types of the old school who read E.E. Schattchneider's Semisovereign People: A Realist's View of Democracy in America), then what the right has accomplished is truly brilliant, for they mobilized the culturally reactionary bias of the American electorate through both the media and through the old stale party apparatus that had been all but abandoned by the professional campaign establishment of both the Democratic Party and the GOP moderates.

Given this elaboration on Frank's theme (I haven't finished the book yet, so I am only speculating where he is taking his argument), it seems clear that the liberals need to develop a strategy that matches the bias mobilizing approach in both the media AND the grassroots party organization. Like I said, interesting stuff….

Read more!

Monday, December 20, 2004

To the other side of the pond....

Catching up on Boston area news and weather as I prepare for a three week visit home for the winter break. It looks like a small snow storm (2-4 inches they say) for today, but nicer when I arrive tomorrow, and if the extended forecast is correct, I should be returning to a fairly normal Boston winter with all its variations.

Here in Belfast the weather is varied within a very narrow range of dull and dismal. The daylight hours are down to their minimum for the year (sunrise at 0845, sunset at 1600 hrs). When the sun came out for an extended period yesterday (at least two hours, actually) I got a call from a colleague who wanted me to join him for a coffee while sitting outside Roast, the local coffee shop on Lisburn Road. And although the temperature was 6 Celsius, the chilling wind made it feel much colder despite the sunshine in our faces. But we get to see the sun so little that we are willing to risk pneumonia for a short 'fix' of the bright stuff....

The news in the Boston media seemed to be the usual end-of-the-year stuff, but with the obvious twist that there was complete consensus on the 'story of the year': the Red Sox World Series victory. I suspect I am returning to a region that is still not quite 'over it', although it seems that the New England Patriots are doing well enough to draw some attention to other 'accomplishments'.

What I am looking forward to is the shopping. Even when I first came here in September 2003, the place seemed very expensive -- and that was when the exchange rate was still in the 1£=$US1.57 range. Even when I factored in the VAT, it was still pretty tough going when you came here paid in US dollars (I received my Fulbright funding in US currency). With the exchange rate up to $1.94 per £ this morning, it is even tougher to consider buying things here knowing that a trip to the US is in the offing. On the positive side, this has certainly led to a reduction in the number of books and software I buy throughout the year, and for that my family will be appreciative (all those books does make for a crowded home). That said, I suspect I will be spending a good many of my first days home making visits to the bookstores in Cambridge....

So unless something else comes along to compel me to write another blog entry before departing for the other side of the pond, the next entry is likely to be some reaction to the home side.... More later.

Read more!

Thursday, December 16, 2004

'State Work' is Hard Work....

I have been making my way through Harney's State Work: Public Administration and Mass Intellectuality
book (page 41 at this point), and it is quite a chore. There is something to be said for spending some time on developing a coherent argument. It isn’t that Harney is not making some interesting points – but the lack of a logical presentation, and his reluctance to just get on with the task at hand is getting extremely annoying.

(At page 41 I am passed the Intro and well into chapter 1, and the presentation keeps folding back on itself. He finally got into his case study around page 22, and then interrupted it with a discussion on the literature of public administration and method at page 31 which essentially reargues points made earlier in the intro; and as far as I can tell he is just now getting back to his case study at page 41. He had me convinced of the approach way back in the early pages, and just when he seems to get into his study he goes back to rationalizing what he is doing. It’s like watching my neighbour try to start that old mower over and over again – and after awhile it gets pretty annoying….)

Among the ‘interesting’ points raised thus far (who knows – he may change his mind and mine on the next page) is that the public administration literature reflects an ideological commitment to the state, and that even those who are critical tend to take the state as given (or at least that is what I think he is saying). What he is determined to do is approach public administration as ‘state work’ through ethnographic studies of his own and others’ experiences. His is clearly a ‘liberationist’ postmodern perspective, and he promises to go beyond the mere instrumental or ‘critical’ approaches of others (e.g., my Rutgers colleagues Marc Holzer, Kathe Callahan and Frank Fischer get specific mention). But for now there ain’t much of a coherent argument to write home about.

That said, he has me thinking of the dilemma facing those who assume the critical-emancipatory-liberationist perspective. While I am always impressed at the depth and energy of their analyses (not only of public administration, but of social life in general), I wonder at times if they realize how much their insights into the ideological embeddedness of others are themselves embedded in an ideological perspective. Habermas termed this the ‘performative contradiction,’ and it is inevitable since critiques that assume the ideological foundations of all thought must necessarily come to terms with the ideological basis of their own critiques. The choice they face is to make a career of critique for critique’s sake (hey, someone has to do it!) or to engage in a serious justification of their own critical perspective. Harney gives the impression that he will confront that dilemma head on – so I plod ahead….

Read more!


The fate of two public figures over the past few days raises all sorts of questions about accountability and the public service. While involving quite different personalities in quite different circumstances, what they have in common is the contemporary 'benchmark' for integrity: how do you handle your nanny problems?

For those in the UK who do not follow US news (very difficult, since US news seems to be a local matter of considerable interest in the British media), Bush's nominee for head of the Department of Homeland Security, former NYC police commissioner Bernard Kerik, withdrew his candidacy last Friday because, upon review of his personal records, he had 'discovered' that the nanny he had employed was an illegal immigrant and that he might not have paid the appropriate taxes associated with her employment. For Americans, this was a replay of the Zoe Baird-Kimba Wood episode of 1993, when Clinton's first nominees for Attorney General both had to withdraw for failure to report earnings and pay Social Security taxes on the wages of their respective nannies (let alone to check on the status as legal aliens). The stress on this issue was always placed on the fact that the agency in charge of immigration was part of the Department of Justice (it has since been moved to Homeland Security, and so the relevance to Kerik's appointment). But the nanny question has never been far from the surface of American politics in recent years, even for those for whom it did not involve a potential 'conflict of interest'. Diane Feinstein and Arnold Schwarzenegger have been stung by the nanny problem, as was Christine Whitman (former NJ governor and EPA administrator) -- and as recently as September, John Kerry and Teresa Heinz.

For the US crowd (since most of you much less likely to be aware of what goes on in the UK), the key story on this side was yesterday's resignation of Home Secretary David Blunkett over a 'nannygate' issue that was linked to a very public legal battle between Blunkett (often regarded – inappropriately, most feel -- as the UK's John Ashcroft) and his former lover and mother of his child (so he claims in the court case). (By the way, she's an American -- wouldn't you know we'd be involved somehow...). It seems that Blunkett's office had shown favor to this particular nanny's application for extending her stay in the UK (after all, she was taking care of his child!) -- or at least a few ambiguous comments in an email indicated that this might have been the case, although Blunkett claims that it was not intended as such; but he admits that it is the appearance that counts, not the reality. Got all that so far?

These two cases have all sorts of interesting parallel dimensions to them, not the least being that the two people involved (Kerik and Blunkett) come from quite interesting backgrounds, overcoming (in their different ways) some considerable social and physical handicaps. Kerik's biography reads like a made-for-TV drama of a hard-edged cop who came up the hard way; Blunkett, blind from birth, provides an amazing story as well (childhood marred by tragedy and loneliness; political life as a leftist radical; emergence as ‘authoritarian’ anti-terrorism minister). Had Kerik been approved and assumed the office, and had Blunkett not run into the nanny problem, it would have been interesting to see how these two got along in meetings (their agency remits overlapped).

But alas, this will not happen. Kerik will probably go obscurely into the private security business again with his former boss, Rudolph Guiliani. There seems to be 'other' issues lurking in his past that will make any future public role impossible, and might result in some legal actions. In contrast, Blunkett will stay in the political background for awhile (he retains his seat in Parliament as far as I know), but is surely set to reemerged into the limelight in time (as have others in Labour -- some with much greater stigmas).

The accountability-relevant point emerging from both cases is that issues of 'integrity' still play a critical role in the political arena in both countries. I agree with those who regard the specifics of both cases to be trivial in a material sense. In Kerik's case, there is the sense that he has lived a life and had a career involving much more questionable events, and so this minor problem was merely the tip of an iceberg that was heading straight for him.
In Blunkett's case, however, there is the sense that this relatively minor faux pas in judgment is one of the very few blemishes in a career that is marked by considerable integrity. (In fact, Blunkett held off the inevitable resignation for three weeks by stressing and relying on his record for personal integrity -- a claim honored by even the most vocal critics in the opposition). But it turns out that it was the issue of 'integrity -- or at least the appearance of it -- that was pivotal in both cases.

Read more!

Wednesday, December 15, 2004

Pitching in Nottingham

I have just returned from a trip to the University of Nottingham where I made some remarks about the study of accountability before a meeting of accountancy professors who specialize in corporate governance and public service accountancy.

I have been spending a good deal of my time over here attempting to build disciplinary bridges among those who study accountability, and I have just launched my "big effort" which is to convene an international colloquium on accountability research at the Institute of Governance at Queen's University of Belfast. That meeting will be held from 20-22 October, and it was obvious to everyone in the room this morning that I was determined to make a "pitch" for participants.

But there was more to my presentation than the "pitch." The point of my Nottingham talk was to highlight the problem we face as accountability scholars. Taking liberties with the well known observation that the US and UK are two countries separated by a common language, I argue that we are scholars "separated by a common subject." In my ongoing search for anything and everything written on the subject, I've found that there is some terrific work on accountability being done in fields like accounting, law, sociology, psychology, ethics, public administration and political science. There is even some really fascinating work being done in computer science where there are projects focused building accountability into software programs for verifying transactions and emulating decision making. The problem is getting those involved in these distinct research streams at least familiar with each other, and (if possible) actually establishing venues where they can share and exchange ideas.

I am not after the all-encompassing definition or grand theory of accountability -- but I am all for creating real and virtual opportunities for folks from different perspectives to have a serious chat about their work. That, in a nutshell, is the major reason for the October meetings, and the programme will be designed accordingly.....

Any ideas from readers of this blog are most welcome. Just leave a comment....

Read more!

Friday, December 10, 2004

Frustration and humiliation: The "feel" of peaceful times

I think my feelings about Belfast and Northern Ireland are obvious to all my friends and acquaintances -- I love the place and the people, and the entire Ireland scene, both north and south, is fascinating.

Emotions, in short, play a critical role in how I feel about this place. And that is probably because emotions and 'feelings' -- including a widespread and pervasive social and political passion -- seems to provide the dynamics for daily life around here.

That is nowhere more evident than in how the locals react to the ongoing attempts to formalize the de facto 'peace' that already exists. The issue that holds things up at the moment is rooted in one emotion, "humiliation": one side wants to impose it, the other wants to avoid it. The reaction from just about everyone else is another emotion: frustration. I think the Guardian article in Thursday's edition captured it best....

Read more!

Thursday, December 09, 2004

Pardon my Bollix-ing, ta....

I have been thinking about a presentation I have to give next week in Nottingham to a group of British accounting professors. The issue at hand is why there is so little communication and cross disciplinary work among those engaged in the study of accountability. My approach is to build on the often quoted comment that the US and UK are 'two countries separated by the same language' -- and of course my attention was immediately diverted to that very topic (I am a terrific procrastinator!)

Indeed, everyone knows that it was Winston Churchill who provided that insight, right? Well, not quite. According to one site, the quote is more likely attributable to Oscar Wilde (‘We have really everything in common with America nowadays except, of course, language’- 1887), G.B. Shaw (‘England and America are two countries separated by the same language’ -- no origin date provided), or Bertrand Russell (‘It is a misfortune for Anglo-American friendship that the two countries are supposed to have a common language’ - 1944).

Whatever its source, there is considerable anecdotal support for it. Just ask any of us US-types who work on the other side of the pond. There is, of course, the spelling issue. My computer language and speller programs are now set at 'English (UK)', so if you are looking over my shoulder while I write this and note all the 'red line' highlights, you would judge me a chronic misspeller. And then there are the problems with determining one's weight (how many Americans know how much a 'stone' weighs), the time of day ('meet me at the office at half two') or even when you should come by to pick up some document ('it will be ready this day week'). And don't get me started on words like 'remit' or 'subsidiarity'.....

Some webloggers have had fun with the problem. Chris Linfoot relates the story of one poor soul who ran into a wee-bit of difficulty when he asked someone in a Chicago bar 'Can I bum a fag?' And Richard Schwartz posts photos of road signs warning of 'humps' ahead.

The situation gets even more complicated when you are located in Northern Ireland and have the added pleasure of dealing with tidbits of Irish-English slang as well as words carried over from Irish. While I have yet to pick up the brogue, I do find myself blurting out 'brilliant!' and 'in a wee bit' without much thought, and I am on the verge of automatically screaming 'bollix' when faced with the absurdities of academic life....

Finally, to all those colleagues and acquaintances who have been so patient when I respond to their words with blank stare, many ta(!) for your tolerance.....

Read more!

Tuesday, December 07, 2004

Giving it a rest....

I tend to make a great fuss over the conceptual history of the term "accountability," and this fascination is reflected in some of my writings and presentations when I speak to the "anglican" roots of the word and its use in modern governance. When I do so I often get polite smiles or blank stares from listeners (I can imagine folks dropping off to a midday nap as they read my articles on this).

The most puzzling response to me is when a colleague asks the question that I am sure is really on everyone's mind: So what?

But I find some incentive and support in Gadamer's Truth and Method as he tackles the concept of Bildung (culture) and its 18th century roots:

Key concepts and words which we still use acquired their special stamp then, and if we are not to be swept along by language, but to strive for reasoned historical self-understanding, we must face a whole host of questions about verbal and conceptual history.... Concepts...which we take to be self-evident contain a welath of history. (p. 9)

I am inspired! Keep those pillows handy folks....

Read more!

Sunday, December 05, 2004

The death of accountability & the accountability of death

One of the more curious forms of accountability in American government is found in the US judiciary. Although often treated in political rhetoric as a single system of justice, the US judicial system is quite the opposite, involving at least 51 distinct court systems (a figure that can only be described as grossly simplistic) engaged in reaching judgments in cases and controversies emerging from a wide range of legal justice systems (e.g., criminal, civil).

Lacking the unitary, codified and highly bureaucratized structure of other judicial systems, the US judiciary engages in an elaborate accountability dance that seems to keep everyone "in sync" most of the time -- or at least that is the impression we casual observers have of the system.

But every so often stories such as the one in today's New York Times undermine our somewhat sanguine outlook. The infamous (and well deserved) reputation of the State of Texas as the "capital punishment" capital of the US seems based, in part, on the obstinate behavior of "its" judges -- not merely those popularly elected justices of the state judiciary, but of the federal appeals court judges on the US Fifth Circuit who have jurisdiction over cases coming from Texas' death row. There is definitely something terribly -- in this instance, deadly -- wrong with the US judiciary's accountability mechanisms.

Read more!

Saturday, December 04, 2004

All's well that ends well....

Today's Guardian Book section leads with the "favorite books of the year" recommendations of a long list of UK (and some US) literary "notables" and political pundits. Not surprisingly, Roth's The Plot Against America (TPAA) was the one work that received positive comments from several of the contributors. Despite some disappointment expressed about the book's ending, the work is regarded as this year's best read.

I agree on both counts -- wonderful to read and somewhat disappointing in the way it concludes. But more important is the way the Roth makes it seem so “realistic”; there is nothing in his scenario about a Lindbergh nomination and victory in 1940 that seems too fantastic to believe; nor were the politics and policies of the imagined Lindbergh administration so outrageous as to seem beyond belief.

What struck me early on in my reading of TPAA was how much it reminded me of Victor Klemperer's diaries of the first years under Hitler in the first volume of I Will Bear Witness, and I suspect those of us who express disappointment in Roth's "happy ending" in TPAA (if it can be consider such) were more likely to accept that the darker forces of political cultures are not so easily countered once unleashed.

And who can blame us; we have the historical record of the 20th century to support our dismal outlook on the human capacity to treat others with distain.

But perhaps Roth's seemingly "all's well that end's well" resolution in TPAA is more than just a writer's coming to terms with the need for a satisfactory ending to his novel. In Hope and Memory : Lessons from the Twentieth Century, Tzvetan Todorov offers the insight that modern "critical" humanism -- the kind of humanism emergent in Roth's young protagonist -- is defined by its comprehension of and reaction against the "horrific evil that people can do" to each other. From the awareness and experience of the many collective atrocities of the 20th century, he argues, comes a belief in the possibility of good. Todorov uses the lives and writings of six individuals he labels as "critical humanists" to make his general point, and I suspect Roth's effort in TPAA to highlight the human-ness of his main characters -- from his parents and brother to a martyred Walter Winchell -- would warrant a place in some future revision of Todorov's list.

Read more!