Tuesday, June 20, 2006

An answer to Mikey's questions...

Mikey asked such good questions in the comments to my Euston Manifesto post - and because I don't know how to hyperlink in blogger comments yet - I thought I'd answer him in a post.

I have to admit I had to look Structuralism up, because I didn't know what it was. I then recognised that I've encountered the ideas before, and tend to regard them as a useful tool rather than a philosophy as such.

This is probably a reflection of my legal training, which tends to ask about the birds and the bees, rather than the 'birds' and the 'bees'. Legal reasoning assumes there is such a thing as a reasonable man and that his reasonableness can be defined as such. By the same token, it also accepts that 'proving a fact' can be very difficult.

In that sense then, I am not a structuralist, but if those ideas were or are useful to a field of knowledge, then I say use them. I know I would.

With respect to sociology, I don't think it's a science. It does, however, make use of scientific tools (statistics, regression analysis etc). I suspect its findings would be less useful if subordinated to a political ideology.

What makes Levitt and Dubner's Freakonomics so interesting is their willingness to see where the data leads. I don't think they wanted to find such a strong correlation between legalized abortion and lower crime rates, but they reported those findings because that's where the data led them. They are economists, a field of knowledge also at the 'edge' of science (the 'dismal science'). Sociology could learn from them.

I suppose, then - like most lawyers - I believe it is possible to be objective within one's knowledge boundaries ('the facts in issue'). It is therefore possible to practice sociology objectively, divorced from ideology.

As with Structuralism, I had to start googling to get information on the World Social Forum. From a preliminary view, it seems they have interesting ideas on software and copyright, woolly ideas on globalisation and absurdly unscientific ideas on GM foods. So a bit of a mixed bag really. They could do better than featuring Noam Chomsky and Harold Pinter on their website. Both are unreconstructed anti-Americans.

I realise that doesn't quite answer Mikey's questions, but those are just a few thoughts to be going on with.


At June 20, 2006 8:43 pm, Anonymous mikey said...

Thanks muchly Sceptic. I'll try and keep my reply brief, because i've already spent to much tonight, poking around this place. 'Stomach rumbles'

Following your link I discovered that actually i am a post-structuralist or a decontructionist, which comes a lot close to your stated position (paraphrased)

'the underlying facts exist, but are not always provable.'

Re: sociology being sub-ordinated to a political ideology, that's just what I was getting at. I tend to think that economics also does this, but gets away with it more often. More fundamentally, I wonder whether privileging the economy over society or vice versa is itself a political choice. That is, the respect you accord each science (and to what extent you understand them) determines to a fair extent, your political beliefs.

The World Social Forum - at the moment I think you're right, it's pretty much a mixed bag (to be honest i can't get my head around the GM stuff) In fact that was the whole point of its formation. But I think it will evolve. FWIW, it was developed as a counterpart to the World Economic Forum held annually at Davos Switzerland and aims (among other things) to recognise the concerns of the disenfranchised 'south.'

Now, Noam Chomsky. He cuts to the heart of our dilemma. You see him as unreconstructed Anti-american. I see him as one of the most nuanced, balanced and incisive analysts around. I think this is because of his structuralist base not in spite of it. I don't know much about Pinter, but i'm interested to hear the source of your views. It's true that a lot of first year international relations students latch on to Chomsky at the same time they are hero-worshipping Che, but it's also true that Chomsky is one of the most cited academics alive.

That said, I prefer Immanuel Wallerstein who basically created the discipline of World Systems Theory and who takes a longer term structuralist view. (Oh and his wiki entry links him to Chomsky and also to (perhaps my favourite philosopher) Pierre Bourdieau - but then they go on to say they are all 'grey eminents of the anti-globalisation movement') Boo-hiss.

You see, this is how it happens. A minority within wilfully misrepresents, the majority inevitably misunderstands...or something. What i mean to say, is that I'm not anti-globalisation. really.

Whoops.Way Over-time. Again. I think I'd be better to reactivate my own(orginally still born and long dormant) blog. Also my longwindedness is a credit to your provocative post/s.

At June 20, 2006 8:48 pm, Anonymous mikey said...

Aha, the term is misleading but the definition is at least halfway decent:

"Anti-globalization is a term most commonly ascribed to the political stance of people and groups who oppose certain aspects of globalization in its current form, often including the domination of current global trade agreements and trade-governing bodies such as the World Trade Organization by powerful corporations."

Also, these guys are curious. They provide an (extreme) version of some of the arguments i'm making.

"Sociologists Without Borders, or SociĆ³logos Sin Fronteras (SSF), is a public sociology organization. The group's manifesto states that it: "embraces the principle that all humans have inalienable rights to their dignity, their wellbeing, and their agency. As it is, imperialists, commodifiers, warmongers, capitalists, financiers, and global racists have usurped these rights"

It's all about the tension between dignity, wellbeoing and agency...

At June 20, 2006 10:14 pm, Blogger skepticlawyer said...

Ahhh Mikey... You're not interested in joining a provocative and hardworking group blog are you? (hint, hint). If so, let Sukrit know (he's the boss) and we may be able to come up with something. And Rafe.... Rafe.... WHERE ARE YOU? A few more posts would be nice :)

At June 20, 2006 10:35 pm, Anonymous mikey said...

Tak, sl. Don't know about that (currently having a blog identity crisis - i'll let you know the outcome), but having run across this post


i'm taking a cautious step back from Chomsky. Not gonna run away screaming like the author would seem to desire., but still. Just to spice things up, this demotes Prof Chomsky to only a couple of steps up Senor H. Chavez.

At June 21, 2006 12:58 am, Anonymous John said...

Mikey - if you need to read Steve Edwards to find out what a charlatan Noam Chomsky is then you need to widen your reading a little...

At June 21, 2006 10:22 am, Anonymous Rob said...

Mikey, Chomsky is superficially plausible until you sit and think about his stuff for a while and reflect on his political record, e.g., his support for Pol Pot and denial of the killing fields.

One of the most depressing things I've ever read was an article by Arundhati Roy lionising Chomsky. At last her eyes were opened, she siad, she could at last see the machinations of power and oppression that lay behind the deceptive words 'freedom' and 'democracy' and the remorseless yet hidden hand of the military machine that powered it.

Good grief, I thought, has she never heard of paranoia? Chomsky is a paranoid, and he has the superficial persuasiveness of any such. But when you examine his arguments and probe his sources his arguments disappear into a haze of argumentative superstition.

This is a site dedicated to anti-Chomshyite musings. And the dreaded Keith Windschuttle analyses Chomsky quite effectively here.

At June 22, 2006 2:48 pm, Blogger patrick said...

One quick point on Chomsky:

Whether you agree with his subsequent writing on politics and America's role in the world, in terms of the Structuralist though Lawyer references, this was done long before Chomsky became the political academic he is now.

His work on structuralism is politically neutral and hugely hugely influential (he is/was a highly qualified linguist). Tying it in to his subsequent political writings is drawing an unessary bow I think. I like structuralism, but that's the sociologist in me...

At June 22, 2006 9:18 pm, Blogger skepticlawyer said...

I wonder to what extent Chomsky's ruminations on politics are completely outside his field of expertise. It may be possible to filter out the guff and keep the intellectually important material.

Thoughts, anyone?

At June 23, 2006 8:50 am, Anonymous Rob said...

That's pretty much the point.

His discipline is linguistics, a field in which he is regarded as pre-eminent. I've read some of his linguistics work and I find it very impressive (though it's not my own field). Beyond that discipline he is not qualified. Critics have long complained that his work on political is anything but scholarly. He does not cite the established scholars or reference their texts (except to decry those he doesn't agree with -- usually with throwaway lines like, 'His misuse of evidence makes him completely unreliable', without demonstrating why this is so). He's not a politicial scientist or historian, nor a scholar of Asian or African or any other society.

Essentially, he's no more than a polemicist with an idee fixe about the ubiquity and inevitability of American evil.

At June 23, 2006 9:35 am, Blogger skepticlawyer said...

What I expected - thanks, Rob. I'm starting to wonder just how common this sounding off on things one knows nothing about is among intellectuals. There are a few notorious examples in Australia, too (Robert Manne comes to mind), so Chomsky is by no means on his own in that regard.

On one level it's interesting to have people from all sorts of backgrounds wading into public debate. It becomes a problem when they don't take the time to develop some expertise in the field being commented on. It's like me (a lawyer) deciding to make some pronoucement on, say, evolutionary biology or political science. I may have some general knowledge, and I like to think I learn fast, but even so...

I'm much happier admitting I don't know stuff. In the law, if you don't know, you look it up. Happens all the time. And half the skill is knowing where to look.

At June 24, 2006 8:20 pm, Anonymous mikey said...

Interesting; i'll visit the site, but i am highly suspicious of anyone who starts a site specifically to bring down someone else, even if they are as influential as Chomsky. In the past I've found such sites to punch well below their weight

But Windshuttle on Chomsky, this i gotta see. I'll be back after to give a verdict.

Chomsky is, on one level, a polemicist and like the most effective of them, he tends to overstate his case. This is quite a different thing to saying he is a mere charlatan. To have a lot of enemies can mean a number of things.

Skeptic, Manne is an interesting example, as he's one of those who you might expect me to be naturally suited to, but who I generally don't bother reading. Pilger's a bit the same, though i've come round on him some.

Interesting that everyone latched on to that particular point. Now what about Pinter?

At June 24, 2006 8:48 pm, Blogger skepticlawyer said...

I may have been a bit hard on Pinter; it's just I found his Nobel Prize speech horribly anti-American, and at least some parts of the World Social Forum link to it. It strikes me as being almost directly opposite in tone from what The Euston Manifesto signatories are trying to achieve.

At June 24, 2006 10:26 pm, Anonymous mikey said...

Pinter's account is one-sided, that's true. But do you disagree with anything in particular?

Or is it to do with the language, to do with the tone, which you mentioned above?
I guess that depends on your priorities; we can't always be writing manifestos! I think Pinters words and his forum, we're enough to justify such stridentness (is that a word?) It's definitely Anti America-as-a-global-power but, well, is that all America is to you? Do you see Anti-Americanism as anti-freedom? Or anti certain types of freedom? What does America represent to you?

I also see the EM as different; I think it mollycoddles the US establishment. Pinter points out that one of the greatest nations on Earth has also commited some truly horrific crimes, in the name of freedom. He points out that whether we acknowledge this or not, has a great bearing on the 21st century.

I think Pinter's point about the recent & checquered history of US administrations (as opposed to US people) would make a fine counterpart to the anti anti-americanism stuff found in the EM.

At June 24, 2006 11:09 pm, Blogger skepticlawyer said...


I'll have to respond tomorrow on this one - I've got a 7:30 am flight to catch in the morning, which involves me getting out of bed VERY early...

As the Americans say, need to catch some zzeeez.

At June 28, 2006 2:26 pm, Blogger skepticlawyer said...

Well, the work is slowly being reduced to reasonable levels, which means I can actually start thinking about this a little more.

With regard to anti-Americanism, I do believe it very often spills over into what Mikey calls 'anti-freedom' attitudes, although I believe that isn't the intent. At least, I hope it's not the intent.

I'm not sure that the 'illiberal regimes' various US administrations have supported are as 'illiberal' as we've been led to believe. The example that comes to mind is Pinochet's Chile.

I notice that the number of people he is alleged to have killed keeps getting revised downwards - now even activists talk in terms of three thousand or so. I can remember when that figure was much, much higher, and that high figure regularly pronounced with cathedral certitude. Pinochet's report card is clearly far more mixed that he is given credit for.

So I am not accused of immoral equivalency, I am happy to concede that Fidel Castro's report card is also mixed, much as I despise the political system he instituted in Cuba. The crucial point is that Chile is now a thriving democracy. Cuba, by contrast, is still an economically backward dictatorship, regardless of the quality of Cuban doctors (an educational field in which the country is acknowledged to have particular expertise).

In terms of personal symbology, the United States for me is representative of the possibility of linking a community or nation through means other than blood or nationality. Sure, ideas have joined other peoples historically, but usually in frightening and bloody ways. Collectively, the "New World" provides what I consider to be an inspiring alternative.

At June 29, 2006 1:15 pm, Anonymous mikey said...

Pinochet & Castro; Chile and Cuba, make an interesting pair.

I think it's a fair point you make, though I reckon Pinochet still remains on another level. Next year I will be an Estudiante at Vina del Mar, Chile, so maybe I'll be able to get a better insight.

Where I disagree is on how we evaluate the two countries now. Chile is a thriving democracy largely in spite of Pinochet, or as a result of a reaction to his rule. Cuba is, as you say a dictatorship and its economy anatheama to economic libertarians. However, I think you're dismissing the Cuban doctors a bit too lightly. In this context i think they can be said to represent all the things which can't be measured via GDP or rates of economic growth. Moreover, Cuba's current position is partly a function of effective American sanctions (however justified they are/were.) I think that Cuba's report card needs a re-evaulation. Whatever the outcome though, I will be dragged over hot coals before supporting a dictator like Castro.

I might be persuaded that America's reputation for supporting illiberal states is exaggerated. But I would counter that this type of action is not just a thing of a distant cold war past. American exceptionalism continues; witness Iraq, witness Central Asia. The question is, what is driving these actions? Which America is represented through US foreign policy?

Like you I believe in the "New World." Sadly, the only "New World" I see in US foreign policy cerca 2006 is a horribly distorted version. Same goes for most of the other elements of US or western culture I admire (and there's quite a few.) When I look at the American brand which is being pushed around the world, I see very few of these elements reflected.

The new world may at one time have been an inspiring alternative but for me it is fast becoming an uninspiring status quo. One that excludes as much as it includes. In fact it relies on exclusion to be able to include so succesfully. If you take a structuralist view the whole thing begins to appear both frightening and bloody; not so much for its citizens but for the rest of the world.

At June 30, 2006 9:58 am, Blogger skepticlawyer said...

There is considerable evidence that the liberalizing economic policies instituted by the Pinochet regime have a much to do with the 'thriving' part of Chile's current equation.

The democratic element is largely to do with Chile's long democratic history prior to the Pinochet regime. Likewise, Cuba's history of medical excellence goes back to the 19th century, and operates largely independently of Castro's health policies.

In my experience, economic freedoms can lead to the development of other freedoms, or at least facilitate the process. Democracy is the 'least worst' system; a population with real opportunities will be able to rise above this. I suspect the Chinese gerontocracy is currently discovering this process in spades.


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